What happens when you change curriculum?

This morning I was watching an episode of NCIS. It was the last 4 minutes. A soldier was talking about coming back from the Vietnam War, wearing a uniform and a little girl throwing a stone at it. It made me think about the time we are living in. How authority figures seem to be letting us down — from the presidential candidates to the police officers. It’s a different authority under fire now and yet still as core to American society as the military.

The  protests of not just NFL athletes but also student athletes makes me think of anti-war protest rallies and  student protests like John Tinker and his fellow students planning to wear armbands to school. These are moments that represent the span of our society – both the collective rallying and the individual taking a stand. These are just students, kids, pushed enough from the ennui and narcissism of adolescence to take action. And not taking digital action but live action in the moment.

And I wondered, whether in movements to alter school, make it purposeful for the 21st century, did we stop teaching something like  the Vietnam Conflict and somehow lose a vital take away about the tension point of questioning authority? How does questioning authority relate to social change? Have we learned the lesson enough that we can move through this part of American History — not hurting the good people in authority, not further eroding our trust in our government, not avoiding questioning the people and policies in authority that need to be questioned? Have we overlooked this part of history — that perhaps no longer seems very important in the age of digital media, war without sacrifice, privatized war — and lost the opportunity to learn from our past?

When I teach this unit, I want the take away for students to be an understanding of the many perspectives of history. In the American narrative, this was a powerful time of mainstream Americans questioning a core part of American society. There are many perspectives at play in this historical era. Liberal, conservative, global awareness, ethnic, socio-economic, those who have power, those who don’t have power, those who want a different kind of power. I usually ask students to explore this period of history through a project. Students are divided into teams, each team has a curated list of resources to write their history  book chapter on the Vietnam War. One team may have secondary readings from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History plus many primary sources to reflect marginalized or minority voices; another team may have an wikipedia source, a Rolling Stone article from the time and several song lyrics; another team may have a standard textbook source and official US government documents; another may have a textbook source from another country (French, Russian) and primary sources from non-US perspectives. Once their chapters are written, students must share them and critique others. And then the class must write one chapter to represent as many perspectives as possible with design constraints such as words, pages, and requirements for images.

There is a lot of intellectual growth that comes from studying this period as well as a lot of awareness of the complicated nature of the American narrative. What if, though, we are skipping over this period to get to more about the Gulf War or the War on Terror or the Financial Crisis in 2008 — equally important and yet what have we lost along the way?

And as someone committed to making educational experiences relevant and useful for students, my question is how do we move forward? For we cannot move backwards. We know students need skills over rote knowledge; we know so much more about how learning and the brain work? This is my point of exploration. Thinking about adjustments to curriculum and the  intended and unintended consequences. I’ll keep you updated.

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