June 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Belize: Secondary Education: Phi Delta Kappan: Bill Plitt's first teaching experience in the U.S. was some 38 years ago, after a tour with the Peace Corps in Belize

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Belize: Peace Corps Belize : The Peace Corps in Belize: June 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Belize: Secondary Education: Phi Delta Kappan: Bill Plitt's first teaching experience in the U.S. was some 38 years ago, after a tour with the Peace Corps in Belize

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-141-157-22-73.balt.east.verizon.net - on Sunday, July 04, 2004 - 3:07 pm: Edit Post

Bill Plitt's first teaching experience in the U.S. was some 38 years ago, after a tour with the Peace Corps in Belize

Bill Plitt's first teaching experience in the U.S. was some 38 years ago, after a tour with the Peace Corps in Belize

Bill Plitt's first teaching experience in the U.S. was some 38 years ago, after a tour with the Peace Corps in Belize

Teacher Dilemmas in a Time Of Standards and Testing

My first teaching experience in the U.S. was some 38 years ago, after a tour with the Peace Corps in Belize. I was an intern in an inner-city school with the Urban Teacher Corps, a federally funded project designed to address the needs of at-risk students. All I really know about teaching, I learned that year at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. Ever since, I have applied the lessons from that experience to teaching my students, including those in the STAR Academy.

Who are my students and what are their needs and strengths? At the beginning of the year, it is important to establish some sort of baseline on students, much as a speaker would seek information on the audience when preparing for a speech. Identifying students' strengths and needs helps teachers to plan appropriately challenging activities for their class. I have used a variety of diagnostic tools that provide immediate feedback useful for planning purposes. At the STAR Academy, we interview every student and review his or her files, narratives from former teachers, and other such sources before the student enters the program.

What is it that I believe my students need to know and be able to do? In addition to meeting the state standards, I seek other outcomes for my students. I want them not only to write well and apply the skills of the global historian, such as doing comparative analyses, but also to be able to formally present and openly discuss their knowledge with others. Seeing the "habits of the mind" posted on the wall and repeating the mantra "I am a historian" reminds my students of the intellectual analyses they are always to apply in their study of history. I also want them to be able to work effectively in small-group activities.

And I want them to understand the cultural legacies of the different societies we study.

Most important, STAR Academy students need reassurance that it is appropriate for them to analyze history and that they have the ability to do so. On our classroom walls, I post quotes from Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech, in which he declares that "our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us." Preaching that they as students are capable, catching them being successful, and stretching them to the next level of inquiry are my jobs as a teacher. For students who have a history of failure, this is new territory.

The climate of the learning environment and the altitude of the teacher's expectations go a long way to reassure reluctant learners th\at the sky is the limit. To illustrate how teachers can create opportunities for their students to engage in critical thinking, I will return to my first teaching experience.

Some 38 years ago, I used curriculum materials that had been developed by a team of interns and master teachers from the Urban Teacher Corps program. The focus was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. During the two-week period of the unit, students were asked to use the skills of a historian. They reviewed conflicting sources, investigated the reliability of eyewitness accounts, and assessed the relevance of certain information. They judged whether Lee Harvey Oswald was present at the scene of the assassination, had the ability to fire the shots, and had reason to do so. The students participated in debates, took part in Socratic seminars, and wrote several essays in which they discussed and defended their positions.

These activities required the students to use not only the skills of a historian but also those of a writer.

The first time that I taught this unit in an urban high school, many of my students had the same characteristics of reluctant learners as my current students. This past summer, as I sat in the back of a seminar for new teachers in four other STAR Academy pilot schools, I heard in the voices of those new teachers the same energy, creativity, and commitment to kids that I had heard from my peers 38 years ago. At that moment, I wondered if the curriculum materials that once worked miracles at Cardozo High School would have the same magic and mystery for students in the STAR Academy program.

So, after all these years, and being the historian I am, I located "ditto" masters of both the teacher and student manuals for the JFK assassination unit. I also unearthed the results of an evaluation that my former students had completed at the conclusion of the unit. I decided that I would begin the unit on the very first day of classes because the skills that the students would develop were those that I wanted them to apply throughout the year, regardless of the content we were studying. My plan for the year was to frame a question for each unit we undertook that would allow my students to take a position, seek relevant information and evidence, and arrive at a conclusion.

I thought that the JFK assassination unit would be perfect for establishing such "habits of the mind." The question I posed to the students was: How do we know that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated J.F.K.?

Initially, I wondered whether my current students would know anything about the assassination or whether they would care. What I found was surprising. Unlike my first class of students, my current students were not alive when J.F.K. was assassinated, but their parents were. Furthermore, students have access through the media and the Internet to a vast array of information on the assassination, including some related to various conspiracy theories.

For youngsters who did not have a history of participating in discussions, attending classes regularly, completing homework, feeling confident in writing complex essays, or performing well on traditional tests, my students performed exceptionally well on this unit. They completed more assignments than usual and joined in class discussions without pressure from me. They were engaged intellectually. Indeed, my students proved that they were able to perform at a higher level of thinking. They brought in additional resources, gathered first-hand accounts, and watched commentaries and documentaries on their own.

They created persuasive essays justifying their positions. There seemed to be a connection between their success and the relevance and academic strength of the materials. And, thanks to information that has surfaced since the materials for the unit were first developed, I was an active learner along with my students.

While it is difficult to determine for certain why my students' performance improved, I observed that what worked 38 years ago worked again today. When I asked one of my current students how he felt about the unit, he responded that he enjoyed it. Upon further probing, he declared, "It was a mystery!" What if every unit were a mystery? And what if students were provided with the skills needed to explore the mysteries? Such authentic experiences develop intellectual habits and skills that students need for success in college, in their careers, and in their lives as responsible citizens in the world - even if they are not measured by most standardized tests.

This is the heart of the teacher's dilemma in the current world of test-based accountability.

How will I know that my students are different as a result of the learning experience? Effective assessments of student achievement are best established before instruction begins. I knew that I wanted my students to be able to apply the skills of the historian to the JFK assassination unit. To measure their performance, I designed an assessment that included three different evaluation instruments. The first was a five-paragraph essay in which students were expected to defend their conclusions based on their research and analysis. All of my students completed this task satisfactorily - an unprecedented success rate.

The second evaluation instrument was an objective test that assessed the students' reading comprehension and measured their ability to develop a chronology, to evaluate sources, to verify facts, to distinguish between fact and opinion, and to draw conclusions. Again, my class scored higher on this test than they had on previous exams.

Finally, I required my students to complete an evaluation that asked open-ended questions about their level of interest in the unit and their assessment of whether they had acquired new skills as a result of their research and writing. One student reported, "I can look through the evidence, decide what's relevant and reliable, and come to a conclusion."

In all of the units that I teach, I use various types of assessment in order to capture students' mastery of important skills that are not measured by the state tests. For example, I want my students to be effective working in small groups, both as contributors and leaders. To encourage this outcome, I establish a set of criteria for effective group performance, which I share with my students. I then divide the class into groups and ask the students to solve a problem collaboratively. As the students work through the problem, I circulate among them and record a check next to each of the criteria I see them meet.

I would also like my students to be able to demonstrate the skills of a global historian/geographer by writing an end-of-the- year essay that summarizes their experiences and indicates to me that they understand the interconnected nature of world in which they live.2 I have attempted, with some success, to reduce the tensions I feel between preparing my students for high-stakes tests and helping them to develop and use the critical thinking skills and "habits of mind" that I strongly believe they need. Yet the conflict remains.

Because the dilemmas I have discussed here are seldom raised publicly by classroom teachers, I often feel alone in my response to them. My struggle is not with the standards - they are an improvement over the lack of standards in previous times. But too often, merely meeting the standards becomes the endpoint for much of our instruction. Instead, we should regard standards as a vehicle for reaching a higher plane where more is expected intellectually of at-risk students on their journey to becoming engaged citizens.

1. Robert J. Marzano and John S. Kendall, with Barbara B. Gaddy, Essential Knowledge: The Debate over What American Students Should Know (Aurora, Colo.: McREL Institute, 1999).

2. See, for example, Heidi Roupp, ed., Teaching World History: A Resource Book (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997).

BILL PLITT teaches world history and geography at Falls Church High School in Fairfax County, Va.

Copyright Phi Delta Kappa Jun 2004

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Story Source: Phi Delta Kappan

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Belize; Secondary Education



By Anonymous (pool-138-88-175-101.res.east.verizon.net - on Tuesday, February 14, 2006 - 12:54 am: Edit Post

Mr. Plitt,
You were and are always the greatest teacher!!
I was writing a speech about you for college. I thought it would be interesting to search your name. It brought back so much memories reading this, you are just amazing....

Some part of my Intro to Speech

What makes a remarkable teacher for you? For me its one that is committed, shows excitement with satisfaction and tops it off with a great attitude. Mr. Plitt my World History I, II teacher made a worthwhile experience for me in high school. He taught me in unique ways, with an exceptional attitude, and over the time he became an excellent mentor.

It's in every one of us
To be wise
Find your heart
Open up both your eyes
We can all know everything
Without ever knowing why
It's in every one of us
By and by

STAR- Success Through Academic Readiness

It was not Oswald…not enough evidence

Lot of Love
FaizA Saleheen (Your Favorite Student:o)

(FSaleheen@yahoo.com e-mail)

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