Applebee’s discussion Curriculum as Conversation rang true to me on several levels. I do agree that memorizing a string of unrelated facts, as my course on modern American history can easily become, is boring, un-engaging, and useless for the students as they move into adulthood. It is often structured chronologically or using Applebee’s terminology, sequentially, and lacks a cohesive organizing principle (73). This stringing effect has students whirling through the course, trying to memorize as much as they can as quickly and painlessly as possible. Some see it as something they must stomach and get past, sadly. I think for many adults reflecting on their history classes they remember this overall picture. Teacher lectures, test, essay, and repeat. Not only is this boring, but the students cannot see how it will impact their adult life, and who can blame them?
I have thought a lot about the transfer of this knowledge and creating purpose for their learning, but I can’t say that I have achieved much. Applebee used the illustration of the career teacher who gradually restructured his class to meet his goals. In some ways I see myself doing the same thing. Initially, it was survival. Staying one step ahead of my students in the textbook, and making sure I had enough activities to get me through the week. Then, I worked on my organization, the quality of my materials, and the choices that I made when picking resources. The next step for me was integration of vocabulary, a focus on reading nonfiction material at a higher level, and writing in a more meaningful way. Most recently it has been adding technology to meet these same goals in a way that engages the students. I have struggled for years with the lack of cohesiveness in my class, and I have considered the integration of social studies concepts as a way to bridge this gap. I can see the subtle difference Applebee makes when comparing an episodic and integrated curriculum (76). I am currently entrenched in an episodic model, hitting the big events in modern history, dealing with each topic as if it were on an island. The assessments measure students’ knowledge of facts, but I never quite get to how they all relate to one another. My idea of introducing the concepts (particularly citizenship, economy, and crimes against humanity) was to allow students to explore topics that fell under these umbrellas-past and present-and relate them back to the concepts. The relating has not really happened. Each did the study in small groups or independently, and those who struggle overall totally missed the boat. We are going to work on a portfolio of our learning at the end of the year, and this text has me thinking that this may play an important part. If I follow Applebee’s description of an integrated curriculum then each new topic they study should add to the conversation on each concept. Their new experiences (ie. looking at each others’ studies, discussions of historical events in class, etc.) would build these conversations. Their portfolio pieces would be a summary of their learning throughout the year and create evidence of their learning.
What I was missing in Applebee’s book was a clear description of the how. As I reflected when away from the book I kept thinking to myself, OK, I agree, but how do you do it?? I try to get my classes to “discuss” but it turns into me summarizing the various points of view. I appreciated Applebee’s comment, “the pressure for coverage is usually a villain…” creating a monologue where a dialogue should exist (56). With the state testing requirements, we are asked to cover too much too quickly. Teachers become gluttonous with our time, acting like taking any is the ultimate sin. My colleagues balk at the idea of guest speakers or changes in schedule for nearly any reason because it will take their instructional time. We want to waste it when we want to, not let others make this choice for us, because waste we certainly do. The seventh and eighth grade social studies curriculum in New York is a mile wide and an inch deep. The students must memorize a ridiculous number of facts and names with little connection built in. I can totally agree with Applebee that this is villainous to conversation and dialogue, but in some ways it is a cop-out. The teacher can make choices to limit and edit, emphasize and de-emphasize creating time. I don’t want to use this heady pace as an excuse for me doing the Melissa Show in the front of the classroom. I think I need to take a step back and give them time to think, process and share without me jumping in and giving the possible answers. Still, the how bothers me.
I think the point where I bought into what Applebee was saying was when he acknowledged that the motivation behind students contributions can be complex (102). Their interpersonal relationships in middle school are the stuff of legends, and we cannot downplay their importance. Further, what we as the instructors choose to elaborate on and ignore is also full of meaning. I think instantly to a child who offers personal and out of context information during class-constantly. I know that I shut her down, and I’m sure it’s hurtful, but it’s also extremely irritating! Her peers ostracize her. I struggle with my reaction to her, and how to guide her towards becoming more socially appropriate. I also really appreciated Applebee’s comments that teachers must be lifelong learners in the domain that they teach. So much of our professional development is focused on pedagogy with the assumption that our undergraduate degrees gave us all the content knowledge that we will ever need. It is extremely difficult to find night courses that satisfy these needs. Most are offered during the day to undergraduates. Professional courses are much easier to come by. Personally, I had a minor in history and never studied American history at all in college. Now I teach it. That’s frightening, and I’m sure not all that unusual. I have learned most of what I know about my content through videos and reading since I began my job. Applebee makes a good point, that without this continuous learning the current discourse on a subject will be unknown to us in the field.
I believe that Applebee means the doing of the domain is the conversation, not simply that a dialogue should happen on every topic every day. “Doing” history can mean so many different things. I can appreciate that a guiding authentic question can lead the way and structure the class for both a high standard of achievement but also an appropriate level of challenge (107). As I discussed, I have altered my teaching so that I include a vocabulary “word of the day” and I think along the same path, adding an authentic and probing question could move my class more towards an integrated curriculum from the episodic one it currently is. This question could be repeated, one we come back to for example, or it could be one that guides a mini unit or lesson. I can see these questions tying into our concepts, somehow helping us to elaborate on their study and connect them to our daily topics. Overall, I much appreciated Applebee’s suggestion and can see it impacting the curriculum of my classroom.
Applebee, Arthur N. Curriculum as conversation: transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.