Seventh and eighth graders in Deirdra Grodes social studies classes study the existence of slavery in colonial America and its role in the Civil War. But they also analyze strategies of change used by abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to learn how they, too, can become agents of change. In addition, students research examples of contemporary slavery -- such as child soldiers in Burma and unpaid agricultural workers in the U.S. -- and create brochures to educate the community about slavery's existence today and how it can be eradicated.
These types of innovative lessons are among the reasons Grode, a middle-school social studies and language arts teacher at Hoboken Charter School in Hoboken, New Jersey, is the winner of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's (ASCD) 2008 Outstanding Young Educator Award (OYEA). Grode accepted her award in March at the 2008 ASCD conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.
OYEA recognizes creative and committed teachers and administrators under the age of 40 who are making a difference in the lives of children," according to ASCD. The winner is selected by a panel of educational professionals. OYEAs receive a $10,000 cash award and an ASCD Institutional membership for his or her school.
Grode talked with Education World about the experience that brought her to teaching and how she prepares her students to meet the high standards she has set for them.
Education World: Who or what inspired you to be a teacher?
Deirdra Grode: Throughout my freshman year of college, I volunteered at a prison in Roxbury, Massachussetts. I hadn't realized at the time that this choice would affect my perspective on the world and goals profoundly and permanently, but it did. I worked among men and women whose eyes lit up with new knowledge, asked for more homework saying, I've got all the time to do it," and all repeated the same statement: If only I had worked harder in school."
Simultaneously I was being exposed to Jonathan Kozol in coursework. His stories touched on so many of the issues that had affected the lives of these inmates prior to their incarceration and would surely be awaiting them upon their release. These included difficulty finding work that paid a living wage and affordable housing in a safe neighborhood.
The Kozol text that struck me the most was Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools that had been published in 1967 and was a narrative about Kozols first year teaching in that same very section of Boston- Roxbury. In the book he detailed the deplorable conditions of the school and the utter lack of support for student learning, and I realized that some of the inmates with whom I was working likely would have been in that school at that very same time. I also realized that the horrors I read about weren't confined to Roxbury. They were all over the country. I often wondered if the schools these inmates attended had understood their students more and served them better, would they be in prison today?
I changed my major from political science to history and secondary education because I realized that I could have my greatest impact on society by assisting young adults to master essential skills, learn about exciting opportunities in the world to which they hadn't been exposed before, and develop a passion for learning and service.
Grode: It's hard to pinpoint a few priorities as an educator, because there are endless goals every teacher has for every class and even every student. If I had to name a few main priorities I have, I would say: inspiring a strong work ethic and independence in students; ensuring that students master essential skills and become very knowledgeable about the content of study; helping students to recognize their talents and power to make positive change; and encouraging a passion for learning and social justice.
EW: Can you tell me about some of the social studies projects youve done with your students? The way you tied slavery in the past to the present is great -- could you talk about that and similar projects?
Grode: I always try to connect history with the present because the primary purpose of studying history is to understand our past in order to make responsible and thoughtful decisions today. With our study of slavery, we look at the methods used by and character traits of antebellum abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass and compare their work with that of non-governmental organizations such as Free the Slaves and Anti-Slavery International.
In doing so, we build an awareness of how to identify problems and effect positive change. We also learn how to handle obstacles and challenges courageously that we might face along the way. Simultaneously students conduct independent studies on contemporary slavery including the experiences of cocoa farmers in Cote dIvoire, brick makers in Pakistan, and domestic workers in the United States who are working for no pay. Students create educational pamphlets including tips on how to be a contemporary abolitionist that are displayed on a bulletin board in the hallway from which others can learn.
Another example of how we tie the past to the present is in our study of Native American displacement in the 19th century, in which students read a childrens book entitled The Long March: The Choctaws Gift to Irish Famine Relief. This book details the decision made by a Choctaw tribe during their tragic displacement to gather what money they could to help people suffering from a great famine" across an ocean. It sparked great discussion about hunger, leadership, and humanitarianism. We also looked at hunger and homelessness in our local community and then shared lunch with the guests at a local soup kitchen and participated in a school-wide fundraiser for the local food pantry, shelter, and soup kitchen.
EW: How did these interactive projects affect your students?
Grode: Interactive projects of this nature get students not only out of their seats but out of a status-quo-way of thinking. These service learning and character education opportunities appeal to multiple intelligences and allow students to see the relevance of their coursework. I have found that students are more engaged with such activities, and the lessons also have an impact on the way students view academics and the world.
After a unit on human rights and the United Nations, a group of students came to school on a Monday exclaiming that they had raised enough money from a bake sale they held on the sidewalk that weekend to purchase a few animals for families in need through Heifer International. I imagine the sense of accomplishment from helping others will inspire them to continue with benevolent work in the future. I also think that as students learn about heroes, whether in history, the news, their local community, or literature, they are reminded of what they can be and do. A tighter, more compassionate classroom community emerges as well.
Grode: I cant think of anything hard about teaching history in particular aside from the devaluing of it as an academic area in many schools. This is a result of fewer history and social studies tests being mandated in comparison with math, language arts/English, and science.
What I do find hard about teaching in general today is that I see less accountability among students and parents than my colleagues and I remember from our generations. There doesnt seem to be the same sense of shame from arriving to class unprepared or missing a parent-teacher conference. Children are suffering as a result.
I was watching a video clip on the Americas Promise Alliance Web site of [Meet the Press host] Tim Russert explaining the factors that made him accountable as a child and young adult and have influenced who he is today and his success. I realized that so many of the actions that were so effective in his rearing would be deemed cruel and unusual" today. To so many educators and myself, the current societal diminution of accountability and the reluctance of educators to demand it of our students and parents is our greatest challenge.
EW: Many people are concerned that social studies is being pushed out of the curriculum because of the focus on math and reading. How can teachers help push social studies back in?
Grode: As a language arts and social studies teacher, I can understand both sides of the controversy about social studies courses often having less scheduled time and bigger class sizes. The teachers of the subjects with high-stakes tests want as much time as possible to work with students on those skills while social studies teachers want the same respect for their content and the time to teach it well. Also, most people would agree, I think, that if they had to decide in which skills they wanted their children to be most competent, most would rate math, reading, and writing in the top three. But it saddens me when I hear about schools abandoning the arts and social studies for more test preparation.
I have never seen a child develop a love for learning, deep curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a desire to help their neighbor as a result of taking practice tests. These goals we have for children result from thoughtful discussion on history and literature and service learning and character education opportunities. I am sure that schools feel pressure to reach their adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals and administering constant practice tests may seem like the most assured way of raising scores, but so many of the most important needs of students are compromised as a result. So many of the language arts skills and some math skills that are assessed on the state tests are quite easy to address and practice in social studies, though. Test preparation can be done in ways that dont only involve practice tests. What I try to do is teach the skills in the context of what I teach.
For example, students in New Jersey take the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) and must write persuasive essays. When my seventh grade class explored South African history, they studied the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and wrote persuasive essays on whether or not they believed the TRC was the most effective way to deal with post-apartheid challenges. Similarly, when we looked at the anti-apartheid movement and the character traits of its leaders, students completed assignments I modeled after the state language arts test. I think the more opportunities teachers have to collaborate and share expectations and goals, the more schools can move away from teaching to the test.
EW: With what would you like students to leave your class?
Grode: When my students leave my classroom, I hope that they leave as confident, tolerant, compassionate individuals who view themselves as readers, writers, and analysts and think critically about the world. I want them to see through a lens that notices injustice, and I hope that I have helped them develop the tools to address these injustices effectively in order to make positive change. I hope they leave ready to make ethical decisions that will bring them success and satisfaction. And of course, I hope that I have prepared them well for high school and that they enter with long-term goals to keep them motivated throughout the challenges of high school.
This e-interview with Deidra Grode is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.