Essay : History, as it is taught at the Regional High School
Maybe it's because I love history that I think it's the most important subject in any school's curriculum. Students of history learn about decisions taken and choices made and are able to measure their impacts. Reading about a country born in rebellion, they understand that ideas and visions of possibility can be formed and reformed through discussion, and that consensus can be reached. They learn that America, as we know it, was born of such a dream of possibility, and that abstract ideas became a reality. Through that example, it is understood that people have the ability to make choices, advance their ideas, and fight for justice as they perceive it to be.
I have been the chairman of the history department at the high school for four years, and I take the responsibility of lighting the fire of thought in our students' minds very seriously indeed. It seems to me that it is a sacred trust to ensure that each and every student who comes into our classes to learn about the history and values of our community should have the opportunity to do that in the least restrictive and most exciting way.
Every student should be exposed to amazing ideas, realities however terrible, and be given the tools to become an effective and empowered citizen learner. It's not just about being able to hold up your end of the conversation in the coffee shop, though that is important too. It's about making informed choices and exercising the rights and responsibilities of every citizen. There are no citizens who do not need to be empowered, and there is no community that can afford to deprive itself of a skilled citizenry.
Fourteen years ago, teacher Greg Joannidi introduced the idea of heterogeneous grouping to our department, and the success that was experienced in educating all students became a model for the department, which is now heterogeneously grouped with the exception of advanced placement classes, which are elective. Teaching heterogeneous classes has encouraged our teachers to develop an understanding of theories of multiple intelligences and helped them in the vitally important area of differentiating instruction. We have built and continued to develop a strong advanced placement program which covers two sections of U.S. history, one of modern European history and, this year's latest addition, world history.
These classes are genuinely challenging, and all students who enroll in them have to work extremely hard and then take the same test, whether they are in Alaska, Arkansas, or Martha's Vineyard. In offering advanced placement classes, we give students an opportunity to study history at the level of an undergraduate college course and to pursue an interest in the social sciences. We have a strong elective program, including Irish history and culture, a class that has taken more than 200 Vineyard students to Ireland on academic tours, plus psychology, sociology, law, and Leadership. This year we have made adjustments to our program of study, increasing the history and social studies requirement from three and a half years to four.
An MCAS United States history test, which students must pass to graduate, has been introduced, and the test must be taken in the 10th grade. We, in common with most of the state, including Boston, decided to teach US history in the 9th and 10th grade and so prepare our students for success with this exam, which is a prerequisite for graduation. The 8th grade year will be spent in a study of civics and U.S. history. Prior to this year, we taught only one year of U.S. history at the high school. For many years, students have taken U.S. history in the 8th grade, and then have spent two years on world history, returning to U.S. history in the 11th. Because we taught only one year of U.S. history, it was a survey course, and consequently students in the 12th grade took a semester of U.S. government.
Modern educational theory and practice shows that students learn best when their studies are cross-curricular. Higher level learning is when students put into practice what they are learning. We have begun some work with this cross-curricular approach in the 10th grade, where students study the Holocaust in their history classes, read "Night" in their English classes, and study the theory of eugenics in their biology classes, and we have seen an enormously improved learning curve.
This is not really new information to educators, but high schools were traditionally based on the notion that learning is done in discrete, isolated, and unconnected classrooms. U.S. history will no longer be a survey course, but will actively engage the learner in assessments where, for example, they will study the Constitution and examine the crucial and evolving role it has played in our history, synthesizing what they have learned into meaningful and substantial activities. During the three years of exposure to these concepts, students will understand the roles of the citizen and of the government. This program of civics and integrated U.S. history will mean that students will not need to take a semester of government, though we are researching the idea of an advanced placement government course.
There is a very active student government program in our school and a leadership class where students are actively engaged. Two groups of students travel to Washington, D.C., to the Close Up program, where they observe government in action. Two sophomore classes write a bi-weekly page "Sophomores Speak Out" where they address the issues of the day very effectively. This group of students has appeared on MVTV discussing their political visions and ideas. We have a new senior project program for which students select an area of interest, research it extensively and present an active research project to a jury. Many of the topics chosen have political ramifications. Our students are active citizens who understand their power and responsibilities. They are being prepared to negotiate a complex world effectively and with an ability to appreciate diverse opinions. We have great hopes for them.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.