Monday, October 5, 2009

We the People

There is always so much to teach. How do we decide what to teach, and how much of it to teach, and how to present the material?

I'm not talking about the content requirements of the state curriculum, although those standards certainly give us a checklist of topics to "cover." What I'm talking about is deciding what's truly important for our students to know and be able to do.

I always come back to Jerome Bruner, who said that you can teach anything, in an age-appropriate way, to students of any age. The emphasis, of course, is on the "age-appropriateness" of the lesson.

Finding the entry point is always my favorite part of a lesson--what story will hook the kids? What question will prompt their curiosity enough to dive into a new area of content? What do they already know that will create a knowledge bridge for their shared interest in the topic?

The most recent example of this challenge is a school-wide exploration of social contracts. Although every grade had been working on their classroom rules, it was the 8th grade lesson that provided the focus:

We all know the story: in 1620, a small group of individuals set sail from England and landed on the rocky coast of North America. Before they stepped off their ship, the colonists signed a pact, agreeing to “combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.” The Mayflower Compact, as the document came to be known, established a foundation for laws and a government, to which all the signatories pledged their submission.

Why would these people, who had left behind everything familiar and staked their futures on the hope of beginning a new life in a new land, find it necessary to bind themselves together in this way? What value did they see in obeying laws that would be established “for the general Good of the Colony?” How did those early colonists, and the thinkers who came before and after them, shape the way we think of government and citizenship today?

Mr. Sigward’s 8th grade humanities class has been discussing the nature of government and the role of citizens in a governed society. The questions at the core of the lessons this week aim at the essence of human nature: How do people get their natural rights? Where does government get the right to govern? The writings of philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau prompted students to consider the concepts of natural rights, the ‘state of nature,’ and the underlying ideas of the social contract. Some students argued that without laws, people would only look out for themselves. Others believed that people need each other to survive, and therefore would give up some of their own liberties for the common good. As the year progresses, our 8th graders will reflect on these complex issues from many perspectives and points in history.

Although the younger students in our school might not be familiar with the term ‘social contract,’ they all have recent experience participating in such agreements. Every classroom in our school features a set of agreed-upon rules or “ways we want our class to be.” Each of these documents is the result of a group conversation in which the children and teachers identified important behaviors and personal responsibilities for themselves. They are written in crayon and marker, but the classroom contracts bear a striking similarity to the Mayflower Compact: they acknowledge the need for shared responsibility to help the whole class function well, and they feature the signatures of all the citizens of the community.

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