For Juneteenth 2022, the City of Yonkers debuted a permanent art exhibit honoring the legacy of the nation’s first freed slaves. The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden includes five life-size bronze sculptures created by artist Vinnie Bagwell depicting formerly enslaved Africans. The sculpture garden is located along the Yonkers Hudson River esplanade. According to Bagwell, “Public art sends a message about the values and priorities of a community. In the spirit of transformative justice for acts against the humanity of black people, I am grateful for those who supported this collective effort. The strongest aspect of the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden coming to fruition is that it begins to address the righting of so many wrongs by giving voice to the previously unheard via accessible art in a public place while connecting the goals of artistic and cultural opportunities to improving educational opportunities and economic development.”
In Yonkers, Philipse Manor Hall was the seat of the Philipsburg Manor, a colonial estate that covered more than 52,000 acres of Westchester land. The Philipse family was involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and probably as many as two-dozen enslaved African slaves worked and lived at the manor. The enslaved Africans were freed in 1799, one of the first large emancipations in the United States. New York State finally ended slavery in 1827.
School districts, the most active battlefield in the American culture wars today, are facing an unprecedented number of calls to remove books from schools and libraries, false claims about “obscenity” invading classrooms, the elimination of teaching about evolution and climate change, challenges to the need for making sense of and critiquing our world in the mathematics classrooms, and legislation redlining teaching about racism in American history. These actions are putting excessive and undue pressure on teachers, who are caught in the crossfire of larger political conflict, motivated by cultural shifts and stoked for political gain.
Teachers are being maligned as “harming” children and are subjected to constant scrutiny (and even direct surveillance) by many parents, school administrators, and activist groups. Some are afraid to offer their students award-winning books that may violate vaguely stated laws about teaching the history of racism or that may be misleadingly labeled as pornographic. As a result, teachers’ very ability to do their job is under threat.
In their zeal, activists of the current culture wars unfortunately treat teachers as if they are enemies. The truth is that teachers are uniquely important leaders who, in educating current and new generations of students, bear responsibility for this country’s future. They are trained professionals with one of the hardest and most demanding jobs, a job that requires deep commitment, but brings little financial reward.
Teachers need our support; they need our trust; they need to have the freedom to exercise their professional judgment. And that freedom includes the freedom to decide what materials best suit their students in meeting the demands of the curriculum, the freedom to discuss disturbing parts of American history if and when they judge students are ready for it, and the freedom to determine how to help young people navigate the psychological and social challenges of growing up. In short, teachers need the freedom to prepare students to become future members of a democratic society who can engage in making responsible and informed contributions and decisions about our world.
The stakes are too high. We cannot let good teachers leave the field because they no longer have the freedom to do their job. We cannot let the education of our children and young adults become collateral damage in partisan political machination.
How can it be that four short months ago, we were here at my home in Princeton, New Jersey, celebrating the Declaration of Independence? I am so proud of my husband, Richard Stockton, for representing New Jersey and signing his name alongside Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other great Americans in declaring our independence from Great Britain.
My name is Annis Boudinot Stockton, and I am a patriot, a poet, and a mother of six children. The warmth in the air that day in July when we celebrated our independence has turned to a bitter cold this November as news spread that the British have taken New York City, and George Washington is retreating through New Jersey. I frequently correspond with George Washington, and I am sure that our Continental Army is in the very strongest of hands.
However, rumors abound that Washington has been pushed through Newark and New Brunswick and that he is on his way to Trenton, where he will cross the Delaware River to get to Pennsylvania. While I am hopeful he will reach the safety of Pennsylvania, I know that his retreat will bring the might of the British army and the bloodthirsty Hessians right here to Princeton. My beloved home, “Morven,” is a well-known gathering place for the intellectual elites of Princeton, and my husband signed the Declaration of Independence.
We are told that the British are only a couple of days away. My home and my children are in grave danger. I have written to my husband, but he is all the way in Baltimore, meeting with the Continental Congress. It is not our material wealth that I am worried about the British destroying. It is the intellectual wealth contained in the state papers and the collections of writings from the American Whig Society that are here at Morven.
What should Annis Boudinot Stockton do as the British close in on Princeton?
Be sure to provide reasoning for your response.
A. Remain in Princeton and defend her home and her children, even if it means putting her children in grave danger.
B. Stay in Princeton, but deny any involvement with the Revolutionary cause and implore the British for lenient treatment of her husband, Richard.
C. Immediately flee the area with her family for safety, leaving behind all her belongings, the state papers, and the papers of the American Whig Society.
D. Remain in Princeton for a few more hours to bury some of her belongings, the state papers, and the papers of the American Whig Society, but then flee the area as quickly as possible.
Annis Boudinot Stockton was a well-known poet in RevolutionaryAmerica and a prolific letter writer.
After making your decision above, complete one of the following tasks:
1. Write a poem about the retreat of the Continental Army through New Jersey and the difficult decision that was made for her family.
2. Write a letter to her husband, Richard Stockton, informing him of the decision made.
Below is a map detailing Washington’s retreat through New Jersey.
Use this map to answer the following two questions:
1. Do you think General Washington believed the Continental Army was safe once they crossed the Delaware River? Explain your answer.
2. After abandoning Princeton during the retreat through New Jersey, the Stockton family sought refuge in Monmouth County. Do you believe Monmouth County was safer than their hometown of Princeton? Why or Why not?
Social Studies for a Better World: An Anti-Oppressive Approach for Elementary Educators
by Noreen Naseem Rodriguez and Kathy Swalwell
“In the wake of 2020, we need today’s young learners to be prepared to develop solutions to a host of entrenched and complex issues, including systemic racism, massive environmental problems, deep political divisions, and future pandemics that will severely test the effectiveness and equity of our health policies. What better place to start that preparation than with a social studies curriculum that enables elementary students to envision and build a better world? In this engaging guide two experienced social studies educators unpack the oppressions that so often characterize the elementary curriculum—normalization, idealization, heroification, and dramatization—and show how common pitfalls can be replaced with creative solutions. Whether you’re a classroom teacher, methods student, or curriculum coordinator, this is a book that can transform your understanding of the social studies disciplines and their power to disrupt the narratives that maintain current inequities.” Noreen Naseem Rodríguezis an Assistant Professor of Teacher Learning, Research, and Practice at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Katy Swalwellis Lead Equity Specialist for the Equity Literacy Institute and founder of Past Present Future Media & Consulting.
Cemeteries of Delaware County, New York: A Driving Tour
The Historical Society of Middletown, New York
New Kingston Valley Cemetery: Thompson Hollow Rd, ½ Mile North of Kingston
Park along the main road (though it is a busy stretch!) or drive through the iron gate to follow a loop road that exits through this same gate. The monument to Myron Faulkner, storekeeper, postmaster, news correspondent and unofficial “mayor” for many years, is straight ahead and to the left. At least two folks buried here met death by water: Revillow Haynes (on the left, near the stone wall) who in 1910 was strapped in a stream under an overturned wagonload of hay, and James Sanford (center rear), who was just seven years old when he drowned in the Mill Brook in 1867.As the road circles back around to the gate, note the stone to Lincoln Long, State Assemblyman and school superintendent; and, to your left in the front corner, Charles Halleck, who traveled the country as an opera singer and taught music at the general store here.
Sanford Cemetery: Delaware Co. Route 3 (New Kingston Rd) 1 Mile from NYS Route 28
Park in the grassy area take a leisurely stroll through this lovely cemetery where some of the earliest settlers in Middletown are buried. These include the Smiths, Sanfords and Waterburys who founded the Old Stone School in Dunraven. The central cemetery section contains some very old graves relocated from areas inundated by the Pepacton Reservoir. A few were carved by an itinerant stone carver nicknamed the “Coffin Man” for the coffins he would etch in the bottom of the headstones. Look for George Sands’ monument to see an example of his work. To the right of this section, meander towards the back under the trees to find the resting place of Thankful Van Benschoten, who started the commercial cauliflower growing industry in the Catskills in the 1890s.Facing the cemetery from the parking area, in the far left corner is the grave of Karl Amor, an Estonian war refugee who gained fame in the folk art world for his distinctive grapevine and reed baskets.
Halcottsville Cemetery: Back River Road, ½ Mile North of Halcottsville Off NYS Route 30
Watch for the cemetery sign on the left, and proceed through the open iron gate up the one-lane access road. Don’t be surprised if you startle a deer or a flock of wild turkeys when you break into the clearing at this secluded hilltop burial ground. Enter through the impressive stone wall and note the granite-and-iron enclosed plot of Isaac and Maria Weld Hewitt. Like John D. Hubbell, buried in the Kelly Corners Cemetery, Isaac led a congregation of the Old School (Primitive) Baptist Church which was once dominant in the area. Nearby is a marble monument to J. Foster Roberts, whose father established a homestead in Bragg Hollow in 1815.Look for monuments to David, Norman and George Kelly who in 1899 built the Round Barn just south of the hamlet. In the far left front corner of the cemetery is the grave of Virgil Meade, whose family ran the Round Barn farm for many years after the Kellys.
Margaretville Cemetery: Cemetery Rd, Just Off Main St. Margaretville
Park in the lot directly in front of the receiving vault. The driveway loop into this part of the cemetery is open from May 1 to Nov. 1. Foot entry at other times of the year is via the ramp in front of the vault. Note the old section to your right. Look upslope to see ALLABEN in white marble; Dr. Orson Allaben helped develop the village in the mid-1800s.Continue around the loop—in the center are the monuments of later entrepreneurs: Clarke Sanford (Catskill Mountain News), Sheldon Birdsall (Margaretville Telephone Company) and Lafayette Bussy (Bussy’s Store). Exit to the parking lot if driving, or, just before the exit, walk up the drive to your right that sweeps uphill and across the terraced hillside and into the oldest part of the cemetery. Look to the left of the driveway for the distinctive concrete bench where Pakatakan Art Colony artists J. Francis and Adah Murphy are buried. To the left of the driveway’s exit onto Cemetery Road is a section devoted to reinterments from Arena and other communities that were claimed for New York City’s Pepacton Reservoir in the 1950s.
Kelly Corners Cemetery: NYS Route 30, 3 Miles North of Margaretville (a/k/a Eureka Cemetery)
Park in front of the fence and enter on foot through either of two unlocked gates. The prominent monument near the right front memorializes John D. Hubbell, an elder in the Old School Baptist Church who established the cemetery, and members of the family whose homestead is nearby. Two rows behind the Hubbells, look for the monument to Jason Morse, who, with three brothers, marched off to the Civil War. The pink marble stone near the top of the central knoll, belongs to Grant and Lina Kelly who kept a popular boarding house near here for decades. The climb is steep but the view of the East Branch and mountains to the east from the top of this hill was a striking scene in the 2000 film “You can Count on Me” starring Mathew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney.
Bedell Cemetery: Little Redkill Road, 4 Miles from Main Street, Fleischmanns
Park along the road and enter through the gate with the arched sign overhead. You will be struck by the number of Kellys in this cemetery! Blishs, too. Seven monuments on a concrete wall one row from the rear of the cemetery memorialize Civil War veteran Silas Blish and family members. An especially poignant double stone remembers two of Chancy and Catharine Hicks’ daughters who died in 1861 and 1863, both at the age of two. Find them to the right of the entrance, about five rows from the road, in the middle of the old section. By far the longest inscription belongs to Bryan Burgin (1908-86), legendary state game warden (second row from the front, midway between the first and second gates). Find an unusual hand chiseled memorial set in 2002 in the shape of a large wrench in the top right corner of the cemetery.
Clovesville, B’nai Israel & Irish Cemeteries: Old NYS Route 28, 2 Miles West of Fleischmanns
Three distinct cemeteries can be accessed by turning onto dead-end Grocholl Road. Park in pull offs, or drive into the main Clovesville Cemetery entrance and park to the side (the nearby church parking lot is not cemetery property). Look up the bank to the right of the driveway to see a large stone for John and Delia Blish. John Blish sold land to the Fleischmanns distilling family who established a summer compound near the village that was later named for them. Note two unusual stones to the left of the roadway—a “white bronze” (zinc) monument to John and Rachel Munson beneath a square of four pine trees, and, in an enclosure on the knoll beyond, a concrete tree stump and bible inscribed to James and Mary Ostrum Richard. Closer to the church, look for the headstone of Samuel Todd, Revolutionary War veteran. Follow the driveway to the rear of the cemetery to find the entrance to B’nai Israel, the Jewish cemetery established in the 1920s.It is closed to visitors on Shabbat (Saturday). On other days, walk through the center gate and to the rise towards the rear of the cemetery. There you will find a large monument—Edelstein/Berg—the resting place of Gertrude Berg, aka “Molly Goldberg” of radio and TV fame, her parents and husband. Gertrude Berg got her start in show biz at her family’s Fleischmanns boarding house. Across Old Rte. 29 from the Clovesville Cemetery is a small burial ground where several Irish immigrants and their descendants are buried. Due to the poor condition and uneven terrain, it’s advisable to view it from the roadside. Many Irish came to the area in the mid-19th century to work in tanneries and mills. One who is buried here, Michael McCormack, who served in the Civil War along with two of his sons.
The teaching of history has become a political football in recent years, resulting in efforts by those on both ends of the political spectrum to regulate what appears in classrooms across the country. Lost in this legislation, grandstanding, and punditry is how the American public understands the past, a measurement that was last taken systematically by historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in their 1998 landmark study, The Presence of the Past. For that reason, the AHA and Fairleigh Dickinson University, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, sought to take America’s historical pulse anew and assess the impact of the cultural changes over the intervening two decades.
In the fall of 2020, we conducted a national survey of 1,816 people using online probability panels. With approximately 40 questions, sometimes our poll results surprised us, but other times they confirmed what we had suspected. The following represents a sampling of what we learned, with the full data set available on the AHA website.
First, our respondents had consistent views on what history is—and those views often ran counter to those of practicing historians. Whereas the latter group usually sees the field as one offering explanations about the past, two-thirds of our survey takers considered history to be little more than an assemblage of names, dates, and events. Little wonder, then, that disputes in the public sphere tend to focus on the “what” of history — particularly what parts of history are taught or not in schools — as opposed to how materials can be interpreted to offer better explanations of the past and present. And even though 62 percent of respondents agreed that what we know about the past should change over time, the primary driver for those changes was believed to be new facts coming to light. In sum, poll results show that, in the minds of our nation’s population, raw facts cast a very long shadow over the field of history and any dynamism therein.
We also learned that the places the public turned to most often for information about the past were not necessarily the sources it deemed most trustworthy. The top three go-to sources for historical knowledge were all in video format, thus being a microcosm of Americans’ general predilection for consuming information from screens. More traditional sources, such as museums, nonfiction books, and college courses, filled out the middle to lower ranks of this hierarchy. (Note that respondents were asked to report on their experiences reaching back to January 2019, so these results are not simply artifacts of the pandemic.) Perhaps this helps explain why 90 percent of survey takers felt that one can learn history anywhere, not just in school, and why 73 percent reported that it is easier to learn about the past when it is presented as entertainment.
But while the most frequently consulted sources of the past were those within easy reach, views were mixed on their reliability to convey accurate information. Whereas fictional films and television were the second-most-popular sources of history, they ranked near the bottom in terms of trustworthiness. Although museums were of only middling popularity, they took the top spot for historical dependability (similar to the results in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s original study). College history professors garnered a respectable fourth position as reliable informants, even though the nonfiction works they produce, let alone the courses they teach, were infrequently consulted by respondents. Similar inversions occurred for TV news, newspapers and newsmagazines, non-Wikipedia web search results, and DNA tests. Social media, the perennial bête noire of truth aficionados, turned out to be a neither popular nor trusted source of historical information.
Some much-welcome news is that the public sees clear value in the study of history, even relative to other fields. Rather than asking whether respondents thought learning history was important—a costless choice—we asked instead how essential history education is, relative to other fields such as engineering and business. The results were encouraging: 84 percent felt history was just as valuable as the professional programs. Moreover, those results held nearly constant across age groups, genders, education levels, races and ethnicities, political-party affiliations, and regions of the country. Much has been written in Perspectives on History about the dismal history-enrollment picture at colleges and universities. Although we acknowledge that work and even see it manifested in our teaching experiences, our survey results suggest this is not for want of society’s value of understanding the past.
To better understand this apparent appreciation for learning history, despite the decline in college enrollments, we gathered a tremendous amount of data on the public’s experiences with learning history at both the high school and college levels. Society’s predominantly facts-centric understanding of history is perhaps partially explained by our educational findings. At the high school level, over three-fourths of respondents reported that history courses were more about names, dates, and other facts than about asking questions about the past. Despite that, 68 percent said that their high school experiences made them want to learn more history. Even for college courses, 44 percent of respondents indicated a continued emphasis on factual material over inquiry, but this was a turnoff to fewer than one-fifth of them. Not all data were so sanguine. One particularly sobering finding was that 8 percent of respondents had no interest in learning about the past.
Whether respondents’ classroom experiences emphasized history as facts turns out to be an important leading indicator in people’s interest in the past. Some of our more interesting cross-tabulations correlated respondents’ conceptions of history with their interest in learning about foreign peoples and places. Only 17 percent of those who viewed history as facts showed great interest in such matters, while double that number of history-as-explanation respondents did. Those trends held steady, though to somewhat lesser degrees, for curiosity about the histories of people perceived as different and about events from over 500 years ago. If wider interests and greater empathy are desired outcomes of history education, then educators might need to rethink the content-mastery versus inquiry environments they foster.
Yet historical inquiry of any quality cannot proceed without content. We therefore provided a list of topics and asked which ones were perceived as being over- or underserved by historians. Such traditional subjects as men, politics, and government were most likely to be seen as receiving too much attention, but they were joined in that sentiment by LGBTQ history. Interestingly, LGBTQ history also ranked third in needing more attention, and it had the fewest respondents indicating historians’ interest devoted to it was about right. This topic’s perception as both over- and underserved suggests that LGBTQ history remains a polarizing area of inquiry in the public’s collective mind. Respondents also said the histories of women and racial or ethnic minorities were most in need of greater consideration.
Furthermore, over three-fourths of respondents, regardless of age group, education level, gender, geographic location, or political affiliation, said it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others. The clear call for more investigation of racial and ethnic subgroups, as well as the acceptance of teaching uncomfortable histories, undercuts putative justifications for recent legislative efforts to limit instruction on these topics.
We understand that public perceptions might not be supported by other objective measures, but we argue that those in the historical discipline benefit from the knowledge of such public attitudes. Moreover, findings from our survey hint that approaching polarizing topics as a form of inquiry as opposed to a body of facts is more likely to resonate with learners.
Surveys like ours have their limitations. They are snapshots in time, they cannot easily answer logical follow-up questions, and they might sometimes elicit responses that are more aspirational than reflective of reality. This is why we hope AHA members will both explore and build on our data, contextualizing results for topics of special interest, convening focus groups to put flesh on our findings, and starting conversations about better education and engagement with the public. Let the joy of inquiry begin.
What a difference Six Hours Made in My Life as a History Teacher! Reflecting on more than five decades of teaching
During my first twelve years as a teacher in Queens, New York, I remember taking the subway to find information in the New York Public Library, museums, the Bobst Library at NYU, the Butler Library at Columbia, Queens Public Library, United Nations, and discussions with scholarly professors. My toolbox included filmstrips, textbooks, college notes, newspapers, and periodicals. During my next ten years as a teacher at Ridgewood High School, I would drive to the Newark Law Library, Paterson Public Library, Firestone Library at Princeton, Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and walking to the Ridgewood Public Library to photocopy documents relating to the courses I was teaching.
Since 1995, I became more dependent on digital research and helped with digitizing manuscripts, identify maps and print resources, and introducing teachers and students to digital search tools. With the speed of the internet, research became efficient, accurate and productive. When my son and daughter worked on their college thesis papers, I would tell them of my experience with the hunt and peck method of a typewriter, correcting tape, and that when I found a mistake or made a change, my entire paper had to be retyped from the beginning. In many ways, the digital revolution changed the way we do research.
Six Hours on November 5 Changed the Way I Think about History
On Friday, November 5, 2021 I visited the Dey Mansion in Wayne with Jessica Bush and six educators from Passaic, Vineland, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Hillsborough, Immaculate Conception R.C. MS, Southern Regional, and Dr. Lucia McMahon from William Paterson University. This was the first time in a long time that I experienced going back in time to the 18th century. The experience was transformative as my eyes visualized what my brain knew from reading very descriptive accounts by distinguished historians.
Dey Mansion is located on the Passaic County Golf Course making it easy to visualize 300 year old trees, winding roads, water from a stream, farm animals, crops, a visit from George Washington, the living quarters for enslaved persons, pillaging of farms by Hessian mercenaries, and people fearing for their lives. The transformational effect for me as an educator came with ducking my head under the beams, walking on the wide floor planks where George Washington and his advisors walked, thinking about 30 or more people staying at the Dey home in the presence of several young and active children, and what it was like to use the ‘outhouse’ in the middle of the night in January! I started thinking about the different styles of candle holders, how long it took for a candle to burn out, the number of candles that had to be made or purchased, the darkness that appears by 5:00 p.m. in December, the smoke from the many fireplaces, washing laundry, getting dressed and undressed, visits with neighbors, the spread of disease in a home, having enough food supplies, worshiping in a church, several miles away.
It was difficult for me to remove the 21st century images of the Willowbrook Mall, warehouses, corporations, traffic lights, etc. from my brain. However, the detail of old maps, understanding that Passaic County was part of Bergen County at this time, visualizing that the Passaic River and its ‘little falls’ (Little Falls, NJ) was about one-half mile down the road, that from Route 3 and Route 46 I could see Hackensack and Manhattan, were all reminders to me about living in 1770.
360 Minutes on November 6 Changed the Way I Think about Teaching History
On Saturday, November 6, 2021, I met with my team of educators in Freehold researching the lives of ordinary people living in New Jersey during the time of the American Revolution. Their stories were waiting to be discovered and in some cases our eyes may have been the first to read some of the letters in the collections at the Monmouth County Historical Association.
With a warm welcome and friendly greeting by Dana Howell, we went back in time as the Monmouth County Historical Association home is across the street from one of the bloodiest and fiercest battles in the American Revolution. It is the stories of enslaved persons running away to freedom if they could escape to a British ship in the Atlantic at night, the emptiness that comes from a home pillaged or burned by Hessians, and the ever-present fear of skirmishes, the knock on the door by soldiers, and the imprisonment of a husband or son.
James and Steve on December 4 Changed What I Thought my Students Needed to Know
On Saturday, December 4, 2021, our team spent time with James Amenasor and Steve Tettamanti at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark. The collections of records, manuscripts, letters, diaries, and published books includes information in every county (and perhaps every community) in New Jersey. My observation of our team was how engaged they were in reading about the local experience of ordinary people. I was reminded that learning involves personal connections to experiences and that the experiences of people in the 1770s might be different from mine but also quite similar!
In my own research experience about the county jail in Hackensack, I was surprised to learn that the Puritan values were more extensive than Sunday blue laws and involved time in jail for playing games of chance and horse racing. The experience in areas near the Delaware River influenced by Quaker beliefs used fines to deter many crimes.
Although my students are engaged with determining the causes of the American Revolution, the turning points in the conflict, the heroic efforts of generals, the mistakes of others, the human cost of the conflict, they are missing the experience of ordinary local people who lived day-by-day in a state that was devastated by fighting, victimized by raids from the British base in New York, shot and killed in their homes, and making amazing sacrifices that contributed to our independence and personal liberty.
This is what I want my students to know in addition to the content of learning standards and textbooks. I am looking forward to sharing the amazing research for our team in March. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.
“I now understand that schools are designed for someone like me, but schools are not designed well for the majority of the population. This is deeply concerning…and it impacts every facet of our society.
School should work well for everyone, but it doesn’t. Our country’s acute focus on grades pushes students to lose their motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence.”(Preface)
I became a teacher a half century ago to make a difference in the lives of my students by using simulation games to engage students in problem solving and decision making as part of their education in world and United States history. In my tenure as a teacher and administrator, I taught numerous classes on learning styles, differentiated learning, and assessments.
Unlearning the Ropes provides substantial evidence and a new perspective for bringing about change in the culture of the local school district. There are 1.28 million students in public schools in New Jersey and 57,486 in charter schools. Source With a dropout rate of 1%, there are approximately 13,000 students who drop out of school each year. There is an annual income gap of $10,000 between a student with a high school diploma and one without one. With two million high school dropouts in the United States in 2019, the amount of lost revenue is $20 billion and $400 million in lost taxes at 20%. Source Our goal is to educate productive citizens.
Dr. Bressler provides a fresh perspective on the chronic problems of the rigid culture in most schools and local districts, the decision-making process for determining what to teach and how to teach it, and the blind acceptance of the cookie-cutter model of grade-based education. The debates over cognitive and affective learning, cultural literacy and discipline-based literacy, and the authority of the teacher’s grade book over differentiated instruction continue to be the victim of educational gridlock even though the educational research definitively supports choice and activity-based instruction.
The call to action is in Chapter 2: “Instead of focusing on performance, we can help them concentrate on mastery and developing a more positive reaction to failure”. To place this in the context of a meeting of the faculty, department, or Principal’s Cabinet, I will focus my application to the teaching of social studies. The impact of Covid-19 and virtual learning environments is exponentially decreasing student motivation, cognitive abilities, and test scores. While this is an immediate cause the long-range causes of this trajectory are in the rapid cultural and technological developments of the 20th century, which are currently at a heightened level of visibility.
As teachers deemphasized papyrus in favor of video, digital, and oral platforms over the past two decades, the process of transforming information into deep memory was diminished. The steps to thinking involve gathering and organizing information, making notes, and converting text to visual memory to stimulate thinking and deeper memory. Education is not a strategy for memorizing information and performance is not an assessment with letter or number grades. It is about thinking, experiencing, and solving. Educators teach students how to learn and the historical content in the learning standards becomes the catalyst for learning.
Dr. Bressler in Unlearning the Ropes directly addresses the benefits of ‘games’ as part of the learning process. The benefits of collaboration, decision-making, problem solving, engagement, and scaffolding learning at higher levels of cognition are clearly explained. My thesis was in simulation games in 1969 and I have observed the benefits of them with my students, children, and grandchildren over five decades. My grandchildren look forward to Fridays when their teacher engages them in Kahoot! Although I believe their teachers use this as a diversion from the structured curriculum activities, my grandchildren are engaged because the activity is competitive, collaborative, and challenging.
Although games work, students cannot play games in school every day and in the six or seven classes they are taking. If they did, games would have diminishing returns. However, teachers should be mindful of the benefits of physical education, art, music, and electives where they are standing, participating in movement, and processing information. For social studies teachers, it is essential to plan a variety of differentiated instructional activities. Activity-designed instruction includes the familiar strategies of cooperative learning, student presentations, structured debates, independent research, cross-disciplinary activities, partnerships with discipline-based resources (colleges, local museums, virtual field trips, experts, civic leaders, senior citizens, etc.) and simulations, educational games, and virtual reality experiences.
Unlearning the Ropes helped me to realize that teachers know what works effectively and they have access to excellent resources. The missing links are the current limitations of how we assess what students are learning, parental or community understanding and support for active and engaged learning, and leadership from school administrators. Our current culture in most schools prevents teachers and departments from implementing differentiated instruction, academic literacy, and what I am suggesting is activity-designed learning.
How to Begin?
For educators who are serious about implementing the evidence-based changes proposed by Dr. Bressler, let me suggest the following:
An audit of student grades on report cards, state assessments, and national tests. This needs to be done K-12 with an independent analysis of skills, performance-based assessments such as essays, research papers, and presentations. If this cannot be conducted as a school or district, begin the audit in the social studies department.
Gather and organize data on what students are doing with problem solving, decision-making, and thinking. Collect anecdotal evidence from teachers and students, in addition to the evidence of rubrics.
Conduct professional development with experts in the field through professional learning communities, staff development, or a consortium of social studies departments in schools in your area.
Identify schools which have previously implemented (or are in the process of considering) differentiated and active learning lessons and performance-based assessments.
Develop a model curriculum in core courses (K-12 if possible) that includes engaging activities, observations by other teachers or independent consultants (retired teachers and supervisors, instructional coaches, etc.), and alternative and performance-based assessments.
Educate parents and stakeholders in the community on what is being considered, provide support from local college professors and admission counselors from local, state, regional, and ivy league colleges and universities, reveal your plan for quality control and continuing evaluation, and examples of performance-based assessments. If possible, include the voices of your students and teachers.
It is best to move in this direction incrementally. Unlearning the Ropes presents examples of what meaningful learning is and how and why it is effective. In some ways this is ‘old school’ and yet educators, who are convinced that learning needs to be enjoyable and collaborative, need revolutionary steps to overcome the inherent barriers in their school district. The lesson learned in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is that the first 20% of schools embracing the new direction will be the most difficult.
“As a graduate student and an educational researcher, I have seen the standard lecture format prevail in teacher education. If preservice teachers are trained in settings that don’t promote agency, how are they supposed to know how to support agency in their classrooms? In-service teachers realize they lack these skills citing professional development as essential to learning to promote agency.” (page 98)
Pre-service teachers should also read this book and become familiar with strategies that effectively measure learning rather than teaching. Consider the example below asking students to analyze the Battle of Long Island from the perspective of different choices. This was the first and largest battle in the Revolutionary War involving more than 40,000 soldiers. The date is August 27, 1776.
Could General Washington and the Continental Army have won the Battle of Long Island?
How would each of these strategies change history?
Washington should have attacked General Howe immediately after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on Staten Island. Washington had an army equal to or perhaps greater than that of the British in July. (Offense was the preferred option.)
Washington should have negotiated an agreement with General Howe realizing that the 20,000 British and Hessian forces were stronger and better equipped than the Continental Army. (Fighting was not an option.)
Washington’s decision to position some troops on Long Island (Brooklyn Heights), maintain a reserve force along the East River in Manhattan, and station backup forces in New Jersey along the Hudson. (Defense was the preferred option.)
Let the British take New York and control the New England colonies while regrouping and defending Philadelphia and the Middle and Southern colonies. Use the area of New Jersey to gather intelligence and monitor the British forces. Blockade New York Harbor and cut off supplies to the British army. (Creating a new scenario.)
“When students are given control over their learning, the outcomes range from improved achievement to enhanced motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence.” (page 95)
Research the experts! Which interpretation do you think caused the American Revolution?
Democratic Movement (Robert Brown, Michigan State Univ.)
Ideological Influences (Bernard Bailyn, Harvard)
Economic Causes (Andrew Hacker, Queens College)
Class Struggles (Merrill Jensen, Univ. of Wisconsin)
The models above allow students to ask questions, investigate the geography, engage with research, learn from each other, make a claim, and understand the historical account of what actually happened and why it happened. Similar options for learning other issues and events can follow this general model. For example, in Civics, engage students with Project Citizen, in U.S. History, use a Model Congress or press conference, in World History, consider the Model UN or creating a tapestry of social and cultural history.
The advice of Albert Einstein supports problem solving and decision-making lessons, “I never teach my pupils. I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.” (page 85) The conditions for student engagement and thinking include taking risks and learning from mistakes, the independence to be creative, collaboration with peers and adults, and learning by enjoying. Schools and classrooms do not need to provide the magical kingdom of a Disney World but they should provide the differentiated experiences of animal kingdom, Epcot, the wild west, and the Hall of Presidents! The ‘Disney experience’ provides differentiated activities with lots of fun.
In addition to providing explicit insights into differentiated learning experiences, Unlearning the Ropes provides personal reflections about parenting, school culture, and adolescent psychology. The book is easy to read and prompts serious discussion about student productivity, the efficient distribution of academic content, and redesigning the traditional model of cultural literacy into academic literacy.
For commercial products on simulations and engaging activities for students in K-12, visit these resources:
NJCSS Commences Grant on Living in New Jersey Before and During the American Revolution
by David DiCostanzo, Vineland High School (NJ)
Several Social Studies teachers from around the state began a research grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to examine the histories of ordinary people in New Jersey and how the events leading up to and during the Revolutionary War impacted their lives. The grant, “Telling Our Story: Living in New Jersey Before and During the American Revolution”, is an effort by the NJCSS to prepare educators in New Jersey for the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution during the 2025-26 school year. The 250th anniversary celebrations will continue through 2031 and are part of the overall mission of the NJCSS to provide and make available meaningful lessons and activities to students, teachers, and the public. This is important work because it engages students and residents in various counties throughout New Jersey about the birth of representative government in America.
The purpose of this grant is for each research scholar to explore primary sources, such as pamphlets and letters, related to events that affected the lives and livelihoods of people during the American Revolution. The results of this research will be communicated to students in Grades 4-12 (and college) through activity-based lessons requiring role playing, simulation and/or debating decisions relating to the personal experiences of people living in New Jersey in the 1770s. Each research scholar is also responsible for submitting an article on their topic for publication, producing a 3-5-minute documentary, and including an annotated bibliography. The articles will be published on the NJCSS website and the documentaries will be made available via our Vimeo channel. Our team of research scholars include:
Bobby Ciarletta Ramapo College of New Jersey
Kevin Daly Parsippany Troy Hills High School
David DiCostanzo Vineland High School
Bob Fenster Hillsborough High School
Bill Smith Shore Regional High School
Karen Smith Immaculate Conception MS
Susan Soprano Passaic Middle School
Recently, these research scholars in coordination with Dr. Lucia McMahon, Professor and Chair of History at William Paterson University, Dr. Mark Percy, Professor of Social Studies Education at Rider University, and Mr. Hank Bitten, Executive Director of the NJCSS visited two historical sites as a way of beginning their research. On Friday, November 5, 2021, the group worked from the Dey Mansion in Wayne, New Jersey. Dey Mansion was the headquarters of General George Washington and the Continental Army during the fall and summer of 1780. The Dey Mansion promotes the examination of life during the colonial era and the events and people of the American Revolution. This historical site also offers a wide range of inquiry based educational programs for students in all grade levels. Under the direction of Dey Mansion Curator and Research Librarian Jessica Bush, the group spent a productive day touring the grounds, learning about the importance or material culture, and conducting independent and group research. Marc Lorenc from the New Jersey Historical Commission welcomed us.
On Saturday November 6, 2021, the grant participants headed south and spent the day at the Monmouth Historical Society Museum in Freehold, New Jersey. Founded in 1898, the Monmouth County Historical Association manages the museum. Their mission of the association is to collect, preserve, and interpret its extensive museum, research library, and archival collections that relate to Monmouth County’s history and culture and makes these resources available to the widest possible audience. Under the direction of Research Librarian and Archivist Dana Howell, the group read through and scanned over 200 primary source documents related to dozens of individuals that lived in Monmouth County during the American Revolution. Several of the educators were extremely impressed with the museum which included a recent exhibition honoring hometown musician Bruce Springsteen. The NJCSS would like to thank Jessica Bush and Dana Howell for a wonderful two days!
Going forward, the research scholars will be meeting at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark, New Jersey on December 4, 2021. In Newark, they will carry on their research which will continue to be guided by Dr. McMahon, Dr. Pearcy, and Mr. Bitten. The research scholars will have two additional opportunities to meet in January to work on their projects. All of the grant participants will also conduct independent research by visiting 18th century historical sites in their own respective counties and by sharing their findings and presentations with other Social Studies teachers and people in their individual school districts. The finished products are scheduled to be completed in February and March of 2022.