Putting Ideas to Action

While Mies van der Rohe made famous the term “less is more,” in the context of architecture and design, I have come to find that it is just as applicable in the context of teaching, as well.

This semester I have had the privilege of student teaching two sections of freshmen Citizenship at a diverse magnet school in Milwaukee. As part of our rights unit in February I thought it would be a great idea to discuss the impact of the Brown V. Board case for the rights of citizens, building off my previous blog post, which discussed some of the unspoken consequences of the Brown decision, and relate it to Black History month and the Black Lives Matter week of action.

Sounds great, right? Enlightening, insightful.

Boy was I WRONG.

My lecture was not insightful, nor was it enlightening. It was BORRRINGGG.

I was still building my lecture skills and my students did not have the prior knowledge that I anticipated. Only some knew what segregation was, which an understanding of is critical in order to grasp the significance of the Brown decision.

It felt too disconnected from what we had been studying and too far removed from their lives.

Every second felt like an eternity as I babbled on the rest of class to a sea of bored, half-asleep faces.

It was almost as bad as the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I couldn’t wait for 4th hour to be over, and I could clearly tell they felt the exact same way.

Class ended and I knew I had to do something quick, because I could not put myself or my students through the pain of that cringy lecture again.

In the five minute passing period and during their 15 minute work period, I quickly scrapped the entire lecture and returned to the sources I cultivated for the inquiry unit I designed in my Social Studies Methods class last semester.

I decided to first have students read the Journal Sentinel article, “60 years since Brown,” which details the boomerang segregation which occurred in Milwaukee’s public schools since the Brown decision, describing how Milwaukee’s schools went from being extremely segregated, to increasingly integrated with busing programs and magnet schools in the 1980s, and now back to intense segregation with the heightened emphasis on neighborhood schools.

I paired this article with the text of the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, having them answer the essential question, “is integration, specifically school integration, a right which the government should protect?”

WOW. It was night and day.

After students read these two texts, I asked them to raise their hands and share their answers to my essential question. It was a sea of hands and students were practically falling out out their seats for me to call on them.

The students brought up such thought-provoking points, discussing the extent to which segregation is a choice. Many of them being from minority backgrounds, they discussed how some of them prefer to be with people of the same background because they feel comfortable with one another and have a shared sense of understanding. Building off the issue of choice, we dug into whether schools should be forced to bus and integrate or whether it would be better keep neighborhood schools, flowing into questions of equity versus equality.

The pairing of the Journal Sentinel article and the Equal Protection clause could not have worked better, as I did not even need to bring up the Equal Protection clause during their discussion; a student beat me to it, highlighting the contradiction between the existence of the equal protection clause and the quality of schools that students have access to, in which extreme inequalities are present depending on a students’ neighborhood.

The students were so engaged, particularly because segregation is something that is a part of their everyday lives. My students are in a exceptionally unique situation to be discussing this topic, because they fall outside of the 1 in 3 MPS students today which attends a school that is intensely segregated (any school with an enrollment that is at least 90% one race). Attending a magnet school, students come from a wide variety of neighborhoods across Milwaukee, differing in ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic makeup. And considering that Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country, many of the communities my students come from are largely made up of people from the same race.

The discussion that resulted from just this one essential question based off the two texts alone lasted the rest of the class period.

But even though the bell rang, some students were not ready to end the conversation.

I had several students stay after class, sharing their thoughts about what, if anything, should be done to integrate Milwaukee schools.

My poor 4th hour got stuck with probably one of my biggest failures of a lesson, while 5th hour had one of the best conversations I’ve witnessed in my time in the classroom.

I decided right then and there to scrap what I had planned for the next day and to revisit and build off this topic for both of my classes.

The next day I came in with more sources to deepen their inquiry, ultimately leading to a Socratic seminar on the topic.

After reading my two original texts, I first had students analyze the racial dot map of Milwaukee and note any trends they saw. Then they looked at the Journal Sentinel resource “50 Year Ache,” specifically the section which featured a collection of stories from students of each Milwaukee zip code writing about what their life is like. I had students click on the interactive map and select one student from the North side, one from the East side, one from the West side, and one from the South side and take notes on what life is like for them. What are some of the positive aspects of their neighborhood, some challenges they face, and what do the people look like around them? Are they surrounded by diversity? Or by people of the same race and socioeconomic levels? Students then placed the zip codes they looked at within the racial dot map to see where they fell.

Building off the discussion the previous day, I had students complete a Poll Everywhere asking them, “to what extent is segregation a choice?” The results were split down the middle, with the average response saying it was about 50% choice and 50% other factors. I then pulled up the racial dot map of Milwaukee and asked them why all the green (signifying African American) and orange (signifying Hispanic) were each in the one spot. Why is there only blue (Caucasian) by the lake? You mean to tell me that not a single Hispanic or African American person wants to live by the lake?

This really got them thinking and caused us to discuss some of the factors besides choice that could account for segregation, such as prejudice, discriminatory housing practices, and laws that are not fairly enforced. The conversation based off the racial dot map continued for so long that we almost ran out of time for the Socratic seminar.

Through these discussions students had to tackle difficult issues, many of which there are no clear cut solutions, such as how to best provide students with an equitable education, and the line between promoting diversity and forcing students away from their communities.

While we didn’t solve these issues, engaging in discourse and recognizing these concerns is an important first step in beginning to tackle them.

It is surely a lesson that I won’t forget and I hope that my students won’t either.

Reflecting with my co-op, he shared a piece of wisdom that I will carry with me throughout my career as a teacher. Students know more than we think. Often students can connect the dots and make these connections between big ideas without us explicitly providing it for them. Often as teachers we feel compelled to lecture because we want to ensure that students are getting every piece of information and big idea. We fear that they might miss out on something important if it is not clearly stated. But as we witnessed in the stark contrast between my lesson for 4th hour and 5th hour, this is not always necessary. While there is a time and place for lecture, sometimes it can be much more meaningful to provide a few engaging texts and let students work through them and come to the conclusions themselves.

In this case, less really was more.

Investigating Inquiry in the Social Sciences

A future teacher currently taking my social studies methods course. Join me as I document my experience creating a Social Studies inquiry unit at the high school level!

Angela Scavone

Written by

Investigating Inquiry in the Social Sciences

A future teacher currently taking my social studies methods course. Join me as I document my experience creating a Social Studies inquiry unit at the high school level!

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