Sunday, November 20, 2016

We Learn in Stories

This past week, we wrote essays in class. Not very glamorous, I know. The purpose was to take what the kids had learned in their civics classes and shape that knowledge into basic essays. The topic was the Articles of Confederation and how the US Constitution improved on them. It was a challenge. Many kids came with varying degrees of knowledge about the topic. Some knew the difference between the Articles and Constitution and some had no idea. It really is a challenging topic that most adults could not explain. Our amazing civics teachers, who are subject to a hellish pacing guide, set the kids up with enough information for the kids to perform. The materials they use have all of the necessary facts about the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution. But there is no story.

Human beings learn in stories. We need context and narrative in order to learn. Kids came to seventh grade not knowing anything about this topic. They didn't know who James Madison was. They did not know about the system of checks and balances and shared power among the branches of government. They finished this unit not knowing much more than they knew when they started it. There was no story. The kids could not weave the new information into their existing knowledge base. New knowledge is like half of a zipper. As we learn it, it connects with what we already know, like one side of a zipper connects with the other side. If we don't access kids' existing knowledge, there is no connection.

Florida is doing itself no favors by insisting on such a massive amount of information to be "taught" to our seventh graders. No teacher can properly tell the story of our government in such a short period of time. No student is going to fully understand our rich history of revolution and democracy from packets full of facts. They need action. They need color. They need drama and tension. They need the story. We have to give our teachers the time and space to create for kids living, breathing civics classes in Florida classrooms. We have to give teachers the ability to create an environment where kids can see the context in what happened then and what happens now.

All teachers feel pressure to "cover" the material but "covering" is not "teaching". The state almost guarantees that kids will only memorize what they need in order to pass the EOC. They will not learn it. The shallow glance at our rich history that teachers are forced to rush through leaves kids confused and ignorant. Unfortunately, what has happened in Florida has also happened around the country. States keep introducing curriculum standards that require more and more while teachers have less and less time to devote to topics that need more time. Kids are not computers. We can't just enter data into their brains. We have to master the art of connecting new knowledge with their existing knowledge base. Only then will kids really learn the stories we want to teach them.

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