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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

What Good History Teachers Do in Georgia...When They Are Allowed To

Visiting elementary schools to give my presentations on the lives of kids in World War Two England and my book is always deeply satisfying. Leaving the kids happy--giddy whenever possible-- and interested in a subject they may never knew existed is a wonderful thing. It's also wonderful to meet committed and creative teachers, who struggle to do their jobs while working within the utterly absurd Georgia state curriculum in 'social studies' (I hate that phrase.)

The added stress of knowing that the children will later be tested on the impossible (i.e. knowledge of that curriculum) doesn't help. What idiocy inspires bureaucrats to decree that fourth graders will "learn" the sweep of American history from colonial times to the Civil War, and that fifth graders will somehow master the rest? Why on earth, as one teacher asked me, do we require third graders to learn about Teddy Roosevelt? And, I would add, why do we save the astonishing history of the rest of the world for middle school, the precise moment when it is least possible to interest children in anything at all?

Making a silk purse out of the sow's ear of Georgia curriculum is not possible, but there are teachers who continue to fight the good fight. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the best teachers in the state when I visited Marietta, Georgia, this week. Among them is Gina Coss at Sedalia Park Elementary School, who told me about the school's wonderful interdiscipinary Harlem Renaissance Day, and shared with me the video you see above. Here's Gina's description of what the children found as they entered each classroom in turn:

"Harlem Art Gallery: We invited an artist to come to describe the art work of period artists such as Jacob Lawrence. Students then did colored drawings on their own replicating the style.

Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food restaurant (actual name of a Harlem restaurant): Served fried chicken, mac n' cheese, green beans - food was donated or made by parents/teachers.

Harlem Community Center: Students learned about the Great Migration and participated in a "brown eye" experiment to experience racial discrimination.

The Apollo Theater: students heard jazz music and performed.

Langston Hughes Poetry Cafe: Students read and responded to Langston Hughes poetry and works by other H.R. writers/poets - talked about collective "black consciousness"

The Savoy Ballroom: Students learned to dance the Charleston and heard music from the period."

I cheerfully admit that I'm fishing for compliments, and hoping that Gina will say she was inspired to create the program by reading newspaper accounts of TimeShop, my own effort to engage kids in history. In a way, though, it will be even more exciting if she tells me that,no, it's a coincidence, because that will tell me that many of us are thinking on the same lines. Elementary schoolkids are NOT inspired or motivated by the textbooks that make disgusting profits for Big Bad Book Corp. They are NOT inspired or motivated by trying to "cover" every subject (and they don't remember what they "cover" anyway, judging from my 12 years experience teaching college freshmen.) They are inspired by programs like this one. Kudos to Gina Coss, Sharon Drake, and all the awesome teachers I met at Sedalia Park, East Side, and Mount Bethel Elementary Schools in Marietta, Georgia. Now: Imagine what all of you could do if *nobody* at the state level was telling you what you what you had to teach.

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