Rambo Teaches Social Studies (Part II)

Part II: The HOW

(Today’s entry is part two in a three part series of posts. Click here to read the first part of the story, and tune back in tomorrow for the conclusion).

In yesterday’s post we looked at developing a curriculum by starting with an overarching WHY. For the “too long, didn’t read” version of that entry — it goes like this:

“There’s no point teaching content if your students don’t know why the content is worth studying in the first place.”

As teachers, our enthusiasm is infectious. The “WHY” behind a unit helps students see intrinsic value in WHAT they are studying. This, in turn, gives rise to natural curiosity through essential questions to help guide their inquiry throughout whatever twists and turns the unit might throw our way. Likewise, starting with that same WHY can help students get a clearer sense of just what, exactly, is at stake throughout this unit of study — and they can use it to gain a better perspective of just how all of these facts, figures, and history stuffs actually fit together in the grander scheme of life.

Suddenly, we’re not reading The Merchant of Venice to learn the story of a fictional money lender named Shylock. Instead, we’re studying the fictional story of a money lender named Shylock to learn what it means to be a person of virtue, compassion, and mercy. And through this (fake) character’s examples — be they good or bad — we’re learning a little bit about ourselves and what it means to be a better (real) human along the way.

(There’s those Catholic school teacher tendencies sneaking back in to my unit planning again).

But regardless of what you’re teaching or where —

Humans are social creatures by nature. We buy what others are selling. Will loving the content and having a vested, rooting interest in what we teach make us more inclined to bring a natural energy to our teaching of it? No question. And if we’re phoning it in on the content because we’re just going through the motions or if we’re not entirely sure what the heck it’s doing in our curriculum in the first place?

Kids ain’t buying it.

So what could happen if we channel that same sort of rooting interest and passion into each unit of our classroom in such a way that the teachers weren’t the ones doing the selling at all?

Today, we’ll move through some of the pedagogical and structural decisions behind HOW a student-centered instructional design can play out, using the case study of our Developing World class.

The course:
The Developing World
An 18 week high school elective for on-level sophomores through seniors, broken into six different chunks of about 3 weeks apiece (give or take).

The goal:
Help students use case studies from developing nations around the globe not only to recognize the unique contributions of these individual cultures, but also to empower them to discover authentic and meaningful ways to advocate for their protection, preservation, and restoration. Moreover, we wanted to break away entirely from the traditional approach to teacher-directed lectures, and cook up a radically different approach to the course that would be:

  1. Mission Aligned
  2. Cross curricular
  3. Student centered
  4. Project and Portfolio Based (with no “who is the President of [country x]?” tests)
  5. Lending itself seamlessly to authentic Christian service experiences

As we outlined in yesterday’s post:

If “there are no peaceful people” amongst those whose freedom has been taken away by force — and if we, as education professionals, seek to restore the very same freedoms of the learners in our classrooms as we design culturally responsive and student-centered classrooms for the 21st century — then how can we best approach a full semester’s study of the culture, politics, geography, and systems of government of The Developing World?

In the end, what we came up with actually worked out much like the reality television series Ink Master…

Image result for ink master logo

If you’ve never had the pleasure of catching this show, allow me to explain. Each week, a motley crew of talented tattoo artists are assigned a particular skill or technique deemed essential to earning the coveted title of “Ink Master.” Techniques might include fine details in single needle black and gray line work, creating depth through the use of shading, or demonstrating particular mastery of design flow and symmetry when working with traditional Japanese style designs. By week’s end, the artists will test out their skills by tattooing original designs on a real, live, human beings. That means the stakes for all parties involved are pretty high. For the tattooers? Lose and you’re sent home. For the human canvas? A bad tattoo will last a lifetime.

Ok. So minus the whole “give people free tattoos” and “loser goes home” details — the aim of a student-centered approach to this course on the developing world is pretty much the same: focus on one particular concept for each unit, and let students apply that concept on a developing world nation of their choice (our classroom equivalent of a “human canvas”) to showcase what they’ve learned.

Here’s what we’re working with:

Unit 1: Defining “The Developing World”

Unit 2: Government Structures

Unit 3: Geographical Issues

Unit 4: Economics

Unit 5: Culture

Like Ink Master, each unit after the first will present a brand new concept or area for concentration. Just like different human canvases will want different tattoo designs (in different places on their body), different countries will inevitably present different “challenges” in regards to this ongoing course of study. So for each unit, students (and in some cases, student teams) will select one of (x) number of countries from a choice board of options that has been pre-curated by the teacher. Different units will naturally lend themselves to different case studies. The goal? Working independently or in pairs / small groups, the student(s) — our academic equivalent of the aspiring “Ink Masters” — will have the chance to dig as deeply into their particular country of choice as they can (using works of cultural fiction, relevant news articles, library research holdings, 21st century multimedia and video, and findings from across the web), to discover all that there is to find worth sharing with classmates about their case study nation and how it relates to the themed unit at hand.

So for a one to one comparison…

On Ink Master: Tattoo artists might have 3 hours to give their human canvas a tattoo in the American Traditional style, with a design of the canvas’ choice (featuring something like an iconic heart and dagger, or a skull like you might find on a poster outside of any tattoo parlor in the world). While individual human canvases will inevitably ask for different tattoos in different locations (one person might want an anchor on their bicep, while another might prefer a swallow on their shoulder), all artists would be scored for the week on techniques essential to the American Traditional style: specifically, their use of dark, bold outlines, clean details, and rich, bold colors. Because if you truly have what it takes to earn the title of “Ink MASTER,” it shouldn’t matter which American Traditional (or New School, or Japanese, or portrait style, etc.) design you’re drawing on any given day. The transfer skills for each particular style of tattoo are exactly the same across the board.

In The Developing World: The challenge might be to research how different forms of government enable or disempower the people that they rule. To wit: which country has it easiest? Which country has the toughest odds of success? After a brief bit of intro from the teacher, students might then have 3 weeks to put together a bang up presentation on why their particular selected country has had it better or worse off than any other country as a result of their unique governmental structure. Is it harder to live in a dictatorship? Or easier to live under communist rule? More challenging to be positioned in the dead center of a war-torn region? Or worse still to make your home in a nation where only men are granted the right to own property?

Once again, the individual case studies are less important than the skill it takes to understand why certain nations succeed while others struggle. We’re not studying “best anchor tattoo” or “trivia of (country x)” — we’re looking for the ability to use those deeper skills consistent with becoming a “research and presentation MASTER” who knows how to put together a top-quality work of excellence and creativity regardless of which particular case study comes your way.

This approach lends itself naturally to a lot of hands-on working time and research in small groups and presentation teams. Throughout the first two weeks of working time for each unit, students will be fleshing out their findings by creating online portfolios, assembling links to relevant articles and current events, writing summaries, and documenting the research findings for the case study country that they have selected. At the conclusion of the research phase of each unit, The student teams will take center stage and deliver the results of their findings to both the judge (teacher) and to their classmates. And after all teams have delivered their presentations, students will debate, reflect, and vote on which case studies have demonstrated the strongest overall arguments.

Like we said earlier: enthusiasm is infectious. People naturally care more deeply when they feel a rooting interest from the person who’s delivering the stuff we’re supposed to be buying. What better way to generate authentic empathy, concern, and understanding of these case studies then by allowing students the opportunity to become advocates and allies on behalf of their selected countries throughout the developing world?

After the unit ends, the table is reset with a team shake up. Students will meet with new partners and select new case study countries for the next assigned unit’s area of focus, and the “competition” will continue into the next phase of the game. And as the year goes on, we will even have the opportunity to compare “winners” from subsequent rounds with case studies from the rounds that preceded them: each time pushing for more clarity, depth, nuance, and detail as we grow in our understanding of what it means to become a citizen advocate for the countries, cultures, and peoples throughout the rich and multifaceted face of the developing world.

And that, my friends, is a game changer.

Check back here again tomorrow for the conclusion to this series with Part III: The What.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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