how much do they really understand?


I have been teaching a new unit as of late on the foundations of America (as I called it). It covers the American Revolution and slavery and everything in between, and it’s really tough.


I just had my first formal assessment from my field instructor. While we didn’t have time to finish our conversation, one point that stuck to me was whether I had considered teaching junior high, or high school for that matter. While command of the subject on my terms was fine, the students, in her educated perspective, weren’t grasping the concepts the way I was teaching them. I was teaching them with high expectations, very high. And they are a high achieving classroom, of that there’s no doubt. Where did I go wrong?


Along with teaching the social studies content i’m also doing a read aloud of the book Chains. The reading level, while accessible, is difficult because of one main factor, context. I don’t mean student context in this case, but an historical context. There is so much going on in this time period. The unit I’ll be teaching spans 8 weeks of our time (4 weeks my time) and decades of the most pivotal moments of history.


How do I make slavery accessible? How do I get students to really truly understand the extent and brutality and systematic dehumanizing of generations of different peoples?


One thing that I will say worked in class (and agreed upon by the field instructor) was I had everyone line up in a row, and to go to one side of the room if they strongly agree, and the other side if they strongly disagree. They could stand somewhere in the middle if they felt that way too. I asked a few decent questions, but one really stuck out.


Was slavery good for America?


Every student went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room except one student. I asked her why slavery was good for America, she answered that America wouldn’t have benefited from free labor to build such a strong economy (I’m paraphrasing, what she said was better). Slowly students crept towards her. We were having a real discussion of slavery amid all the confusion.


We have time. I have time. But the confusion is good ways. I told the class this is a difficult topic. It’s difficult for adults. The students are doing great. I need a lot of work though. I need to find ways that send a spark into the discussion, trying new tactics, strategies along the way. I need to understand as I want the students to understand.

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2 thoughts on “how much do they really understand?

  1. lotsirb says:

    I think it is interesting that your field instructor asked if you were considering teaching higher levels. It makes me think of some of the texts we have read that argue that we need to have high expectations for our students, and generally the students will meet them. Knowing your students, do you feel that they were grasping the concepts you were teaching them? It sounds like they were able to understand the topic enough to have serious conversation about slavery, which is intellectually stimulating, which is what we want for them, right? Sounds like an interesting unit. Have fun teaching it!

  2. I have been thinking of this recently as we have been studying historical fiction as well. Many of our teaching points center around being able to understand the context of the time period. To this, do they really understand what it means to be ruled from across the world, what it means to be enslaved, what it means to go to war for your beliefs? Do we as the teacher? It seems a monumental task. I really appreciate the conversations that we’ve been having in class. Right now we’re reading Number the Stars which is written about the Nazi occupation of Denmark during World War II. We’ve been asking them to compare life in Denmark 1943 to Seattle 2013. I’m finding our conversations as the best formative assessment that I’ve been able to do in literacy thus far.

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