I’m back from two days of meeting with teachers in California via several Teaching American History grants. The teachers ranged from elementary school through AP and it was, as it always is, great. I got to talk about the approach behind my books as well as some of the content, they got to ask questions and work on their own lesson plans. But one teacher asked the question that always comes up. I was telling about the flaws in the Triangle Trade as we teach it — a subject some of them had taught in class that very day. The teacher asked — what is he to do, he has to prepare kids to do well on the California standards tests — indeed he is evaluated on how well they do, whether they make progress year to year, whether they achieve proficiency — all benchmarks we know here in New Jersey. So the test will require kids to identify the arms of the Triangle Trade and good and people exchnaged, while I am telling him none of the that was true. What should he do?
I said that in one way, I cannot help him. I am not responsible for the standards or the school policies. But in another it is this very gap between textbooks and tests that slumber along and the new insights that we can put into trade books that makes what we do important. He can prepare kids for the tests, while also saying there is new thinking in these areas, and show them our books. He can use our books to excite kids about thinking, research, inquiry, while doing his best to help them score well. As it happens his was a trick question — he told me later that he does just what I said, tries to help his students (many of whom barely know English and are far below proficiency) learn to think, read primary sources, and imagine themselves into the past. But some of his colleagues criticize him, saying he should just focus on test prep. He was asking for me to give him the answer I did.
The larger point here is that as we write new kinds of nonfiction that is ahead of the textbooks, ahead of the tests, ahead of what the teachers know, we have both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is this disjunction which will make teacher’s lives more difficult. But the opportunity is that, even without us, kids can easily find new information on their own. At least in our books those new discoveries and insights have been cooked — vetted, explained, shared. So our books give teachers a way to enhance both the content and the approach to thinking mandated by the tests and textbooks. The down side of all this is cynism. It reminds me of the last days of Soviet Communism where no one believed the speeches, the text books, the party slogans — but everyone had to say them, the Party was hollowed out from inside. And at a point if we keep telling kids to memorize stuff for tests even as we admit it is not true students will begin to see the classroom as the same kind of farce — a performance that is not real learning. That is a true danger that should concern all of us.