fence posts

My colleague Paul LeMahieu is the former superintendent of schools in Hawaii.

During a recent conversation, he recalled that in Hawaii his schools often dealt with huge influxes of students moving in from out of state. In order to be proficient in the Hawaii high-stakes tests, these recent transplants had to learn Hawaiian history which was a mandated part of the curriculum. This despite the fact that they may have learned a different state’s history in an earlier grade when they lived elsewhere. (I believe it’s often the fourth grade curriculum that focuses on state history.)

Parents and guardians, he said, would complain. Why must my child learn yet another state’s history? they would ask. He didn’t have a good answer.

During our conversation, Paul came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. Why not ditch the current learn-about-your-own-state navel-gazing curricula nationwide and in its place have each state decide that its students will learn about another, different state?

Better yet, why not give each kid the opportunity to learn about whatever state he or she wants to and then test them, if we must, with some kind of analytical essay question or questions, perhaps even a hands-on demonstration of knowledge?

I like this option best. For pedagogical reasons. But, to be honest, for self-absorbed reasons, too. When I was a kid I had a minor obsession with South Dakota. The reason? It’s capital, Pierre. I knew the name of South Dakota’s capital because of a little red rectangular pencil box I owned. Two gear wheels that sat just under the lid of the pencil box. One wheel had the names of the states, the other had the names of the states’ capitals. They were aligned so that when you turned one wheel, the other spun appropriately; the corresponding names then appeared in little windows on the lid.

Low-tech, but effective.

I loved my pencil box. I also loved the Maurice Sendak book Pierre and was amazed to find out that a state had a capital with the same name. Who names their capitals after stupid kids who annoyingly say “I don’t care” over and over again? I wondered. Of course, I never as a young kid found out much about South Dakota, it’s rich history of Native resistance, the Badlands. I learned about Mount Rushmore and dimly recalled being told it was in South Dakota. But that was it.

As a professor I once worked with described it, I learned history in grade school and junior high horizontally – survey courses strung together, like a long fence, with each fact a rail and the connections between the rails only vaguely understood.

I was exposed to lots of rails.

What this teacher of teachers of history encouraged, instead, was giving kids the chance to dig fence posts. Spread far apart, perhaps, but drilled down deeply, with authentic purpose and primary source material as the foundation. With fence posts, kids bring their inquiry to one particular moment or episode and then try to interpret and analyze and ultimately make sense of a time period.

Fence-post history might have been hard to manage back when I was a kid, when we had World Book encyclopedias for our reports (use the encyclopedia but don’t copy word-for-word, our teachers told us – so, does that mean we can copy every other word, we fifth graders asked each other? every third word?), when we relied on mechanical-wheeled pencil boxes. Now, though, I have the ability to do a google search of Laura Ingalls Wilder and find primary source documents about her life in the Dakota Territory and examine those while I read the Little House on the Prairie series.

I say we give kids a chance to learn about South Dakota … and Alaska and any other state they want to know more about. Knock over the fences. Sink down the fence posts.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “fence posts

  1. Agreed. I had to learn about New York State, the Empire State. I don’t know that I would have been interested in any state given the way we read about New York, but I did have to do a project- I picked Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem for the Statue of Liberty. She does remain with me,
    but I love the fence posts Paul-
    What this teacher of teachers of history encouraged, instead, was giving kids the chance to dig fence posts. Spread far apart, perhaps, but drilled down deeply, with authentic purpose and primary source material as the foundation. With fence posts, kids bring their inquiry to one particular moment or episode and then try to interpret and analyze and ultimately make sense of a time period.
    And I was a history major/teacher first- that’s what I really loved…fence posts…nice
    Bonnie

    • ohnopauloh

      Thanks, Bonnie, for the kind words. FYI, full credit for the fence-post idea goes to Robert Maloy, at the UMass School of Education. I should’ve mentioned him by name earlier.

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