Transforming the Spirit of Teaching Through Wise Practice:

Observations of Two Alabama Social Studies Teachers

 

Karen Lea Riley, Elizabeth K. Wilson, and Terry Fogg

Defining wise practice in teaching can be elusive. One glance through an academic database is enough to convince anyone that wise practice is a concept claimed by any number of individuals and/or institutions. In most case studies of wise practice in the classroom, researchers present their methodologies and summarize their observations without attempting to define explicitly what constitutes wise practice.1 Wise practice in much of the literature is thus self-defining and open to further interpretation. “Who determines what wise practice is?,” “Can wise practice be cultivated or taught?,” and “To what extent does teaching climate affect wise practice?” are essential questions that flow from the research on wise practice.

With these questions in mind, the authors examined the classroom practices of two social studies teachers working in urban schools located some ninety miles apart in the state of Alabama. Carol Yeaman teaches in a new arts magnet high school created in hopes of revitalizing a decaying urban neighborhood and furthering integration in the public schools of Montgomery. Emily Warren has taught students characterized as unmotivated and of low academic ability, as well as those considered advanced, at a middle school and a high school in Tuscaloosa. We will look at the concept of wise practice by examining what each of these teachers views as essential to becoming effective teachers in these challenging settings.

 

The Challenge to Create

When Booker T. Washington (BTW) Arts Magnet School opened its doors in 1996, supporters as well as skeptics may have wondered how long this ambitious plan for an arts magnet high school would last. The plan had already survived several rounds of attack during heated school board meetings. Two factors appear to have favored the schoo#146;s ultimate success: the determination of its first principal, Cheryl Carter, who wrote the federal magnet grant proposal that provided funds for the magnet; and its diverse and dedicated faculty and staff, who came to share in Carter’s vision of teaching as a creative endeavor.

We learned, through interviews with administrators and teachers, how BTW was transformed from a crumbling vocational school set in the heart of a working-class African American neighborhood to a school where creativity is a priority and where a belief in “excellence in all things”—the schoo#146;s motto—is the prevailing spirit. It began when Principal Cheryl Carter, without fanfare, gathered the schoo#146;s staff together and asked them to create a vision for the new school.

Faculty and administration proceeded to create a high school curriculum rich in music, theater, and the visual arts. Adding to these features of the curriculum are courses in creative writing, print journalism, radio production, and television broadcasting proposed by the Academy for Communication Arts. Another set of courses geared to help students function in a high-tech world were proposed by the Center for Advanced Technology. Finally, the school created a unique program entitled “The 21st Century Academy” designed to attract youngsters who want to become teachers or health-care professionals. The milieu created by Carter inspired such faculty comments as, “She [Carter] doesn’t direct, she orchestrates; she acknowledges the teachers’ professionalism,” and “She is so driven that we are driven.” Carter herself believes that her strength as a principal lies less in her personal qualities and more in her ability to surround herself with creative and resourceful individuals in whom she places ultimate trust.

Our focus is on the transformation of one of these teachers, Carol Yeaman. The only child of older parents, Carol grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and recalls her high school as one of the “top ten schools in the United States, and a very nice place to be.” She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Auburn University, later earned a Master of Arts degree, and began teaching at age 37. Her first teaching positions were at junior high schools with student populations that have been predominantly African American since the implementation of school desegregation. With some twelve years of teaching experience behind her, Carol was eager to apply for a position at the newly-created arts magnet, which she describes as “teacher’s heaven.”

According to Carol, from the beginning the spirit at Booker T. Washington was noticeably different from anything she had experienced before. For one thing, she said, “everyone was willing to give up two weeks before school [officially] started in order to get to know one another and work on interdisciplinary lessons.” She describes the school as a “student-centered environment where students’ ideas and talents are sought, respected, and seriously considered,” and points out that the student body is not “elite”—that is, BTW did not draw off the top academic students from other schools, but has its share of average and below-average students. As for the teachers, she readily admits that “we’re all prima donnas, but we all work well together.” She credits the vision of the administration for the smooth operation and general good spirit of the campus.

When Carol first arrived at BTW, she attended an inservice meeting on Discipline Based Arts Education.This led her to begin to put into practice elements of her teaching that had existed all along, but which were reawakened and nourished by her new teaching environment. As a social studies teacher, Carol was assigned two preparations, world history and a magnet course on law. She was encouraged to write a history curriculum that would go beyond the textbooks provided by the school. Writing a curriculum for the law magnet was a downright necessity, as she had no access to textbooks for legal studies. This necessity may have helped to unleash a creative spirit that was suppressed by the more traditional teaching methods she formerly relied on.

When asked to recollect a successful history lesson, she described one she prepared on the concept of war. Because music was something she had always woven into her teaching, she introduced her students to a composition entitled Trains. Its composer, a child during the late 1930s, remembered being shuttled back and forth from New York to Los Angeles with his nanny after his parents divorced. When he grew to adulthood, he began to contemplate his identity as an American Jew. He also thought about his relationship to European Jews and about the fact that, between 1939 and 1942, he and they were often on trains at the same time. For him, the destination was home; for them, a concentration or death camp. Carol used this composer’s music to encourage her students to think about the meaning of war from both a personal and a social historical perspective—a far different approach than offered in textbook accounts that largely consist of “political history sound bites.” One of Caro#146;s students commented to her, “I never knew you could learn history like that.”

In Caro#146;s law magnet program, she has encouraged students to share responsibility for teaching and learning. Students conduct mock trials of such famous historical court cases as the Scopes trial. Another trial conducted by students involved the mythical character Orestes. Students researched the story, prepared arguments for the prosecution and the defense, and served as lawyers or jurors. In viewing this mock trial on videotape, what came across to us was the thoughtfulness students gave to their arguments and the compassion with which they rendered their verdict.

While Carol states clearly that she often teaches content in a traditional style, she also observes that her direct teaching time has decreased in favor of more constructivist teaching. For example, she regularly walks with her students the three or four blocks to the Alabama State Archives where they engage in historical research. Her students also know how to research using Westlaw and case books at the Alabama State Supreme Court building. During one semester, students engaged in Caro#146;s “Great Documents” project, forming groups to research documents that have helped shape the political and social fabric of the United States. The assignment for the group that chose the Constitution of the Iroquois Nation was to produce the following: a copy of the document for classmates; a list of vocabulary terms from the document; an account of the historical context; a series of notes and questions; a research guide to Supreme Court cases related to the document; a piece of music related to the historic period and context; and a formal reflective essay on the document. As different groups presented their findings to the class, Carol filled in any missing content and used thought provoking questions to stimulate higher-order thinking by her students.

What transformed Carol from being a traditional teacher with highly teacher-directed lessons and tight classroom control was not so much a function of embracing a new teaching philosophy as of entering an environment that enouraged her to assume a more professional role. It was the principa#146;s decision to place the responsibility for the curriculum in the hands of teachers that enabled Carol and fellow faculty members to pursue their vision of “excellence in all things.” The concept of wise practice as exemplified in Caro#146;s classroom includes not only the “how to” aspects of her teaching, but also a certain spiritual element whose infectious nature permeates the entire school. Accordingly, Carol made it clear that what makes her teaching so special now is not just what she does alone in her classroom, but what the entire school is doing.

 

The Challenge to Motivate

Emily Warren is a nineteen-year veteran who currently teaches social studies at Central High School-West, an urban high school in Tuscaloosa. She also holds adjunct university status as a Clinical Master Teacher for preservice teachers at the University of Alabama. Emily earned her Bachelor’s degree in history and political science from the University of Alabama, in the same community where she had attended elementary through high school. The daughter of an elementary teacher, her own first teaching experiences were as a teacher’s aide for mathematics classes in Texas and Alabama.

Emily’s first social studies assignment was to teach eighth grade U.S. history. Most of the middle school students in her classes were labeled as “low ability” students. Although she started off with traditional text-centered and teacher-centered instruction, Emily quickly recognized the need to reconsider this approach. As she explained to us:

After about two weeks, I realized that these cute, eager kids were getting a glazed look, and I went to another teacher and asked, “What else are you doing?” She said, “Get used to it. This is how they all are and you’ve got the really low-level students.” I think that got my dander up, and I was determined that these kids would learn ... I began to put together whatever I could to make my classroom more interactive, where they were grouping and enjoying learning, and learning more than just the facts. ... Anything I would try to do that was innovative, I was told, “Your kids can’t do that.” There was no point in reading historical fiction because “they won’t read.”

Emily forged ahead nonetheless. One of her earliest experiences with different teaching practices involved incorporating literature into her class by team teaching an interdisciplinary unit with an English teacher. They used the novel My Brother Sam is Dead to teach the American Revolution. While reading the novel, students wrote diary accounts of the historical events in the story and participated in discussions of family relationships. According to Emily, students enjoyed reading about adolescents and proved able to retain the information presented in the book.

Although she now describes this experience as “not very innovative,” it provided Emily with positive results that encouraged her to continue developing and refining her pedagogical style. To engage her students in the learning process, she developed such activities as simulated archaeological digs and ocean voyages. She also sought grants to expand the learning possibilities in her classroom. One grant, for example, enabled her to purchase a classroom set of the novel The Friendship, which she used to teach about prejudice during the Great Depression.

After confronting many constraints at the middle school, Emily had the chance to move to a new school where she continues to teach today. This move would give Emily the chance to teach International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placement (AP), and gifted students.

Today, Emily remains constructivist in her teaching philosophy and often uses performance-based assessments. Her classroom activities have included assigning students to use their historical knowledge and research skills to write simulated diaries and to script radio accounts of historical events. One of Emily’s most renowned assignments is Out of the Grave, a research project aimed at bringing historical figures to life that culminates in students making tombstones and delivering eulogies on the figures they have studied. Before the project begins, Emily provides a packet of rubrics and conducts a parents’ meeting to let them know what this extensive project will entail.

All along, Emily has held an unwavering belief in the need to provide all students with opportunities to learn social studies through inquiry and other activities that encourage higher levels of thinking. She discussed the importance to her development of “watching kids respond to the methods and ways I developed lessons ... it was wonderful watching the ‘lower-leve#146; kids do what the ‘smart’ kids were doing and watching them blossom.” Her view of wise practice might be summed up as follows:

I think my philosophy ... would be that I need to get the kids ready to live in this world, and it may mean that we don’t need to zero in on every fact that’s ever come about. But we do need skills that will help us obtain information and evaluate information and use it. And so I think that permeates what I do in the classroom ... I want my kids to walk into any situation and have enough information to participate in a conversation, and if they do not have that knowledge, they will know they can get that knowledge ... they can learn it somewhere.”

 

Concluding Thoughts

Both of the teachers described in this article began their careers with traditional teaching styles and then underwent change to a more constructivist form of teaching. Emily discovered after only a few weeks in a classroom with low-achieving middle school students that in order to engage them, she needed to vary her approach; over time, she became involved in more professional development opportunities that fostered her creativity and knowledge. Caro#146;s move to a new school with an exciting professional atmosphere served as a stimulus for her change in teaching style. Becoming part of an adult educational community provided her with the broader responsibilities for determining curriculum and methodology that enabled her teaching to flourish.

The transformation from traditional to constructivist teaching is only one example of wise practice in a social studies classroom. In these cases, the wise practices came about through commitment, creativity, reflection, and openness to challenge. What seems to be implied by these examples is that any number of teachers possess the ability to demonstrate teaching excellence. Emily clearly illustrates the power of a determined teacher who chooses on her own to improve her practices in order to engage her students in the world of social studies content. For administrators or teachers who look to “wise practice” literature for guidance in creating dynamic classrooms, Carol would tell you to create the climate first, and the wise practice that often lies buried within good teachers will emerge.

 

Notes

1. See, for example, H. Daniels, “The Wise Practice Project: Building Parent Partnerships in Chicago,” Educational Leadership 53 (1996): 38-44; T. J. Lovat, “Searching for Wise Practice in Initial Teacher Education: Responding to the Challenges,” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 27 (1999): 199-127; I. A. G. Wilkinson and M. A. R. Townsend, “From Rata to Rimu: Grouping for Instruction in Wise Practice New Zealand Classrooms,” Reading Teacher 53 (2000): 460-472.

 

References

Cheryl Carter, personal interview at Booker T. Washington High School with Karen L. Riley, 1998.

L. Claybrook, personal interview at Booker T. Washington High School with Karen L. Riley, 1998.

M. Dukes, personal interview at Booker T. Washington High School with Karen L. Riley, 1998.

A. Mapp, personal interview at Booker T. Washington High School with Karen L. Riley, 1998.

E. Vickery, questionnaire responses to Karen L. Riley, 1998.

E. Warren, personal interview at Central West High School with Elizabeth K. Wilson, 1998.

C. Yeaman, personal interview with Karen L. Riley and Terry Fogg at Booker T. Washington High School, 1998.

 

Karen Lea Riley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Foundations, Secondary and Physical Education at Auburn University, Montgomery, Alabama;

Elizabeth K. Wilson is Associate Professor in the

College of Education at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; and Terry Fogg is Assistant Professor of Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.