A Valiant Effort to Teach History to the Middle School Crowd

A. Graham Down – Welcome to the world of the journalist turned newly minted middle school history teacher! Welcome to the world of the journalist turned newly minted middle school history teacher! David Awbrey’s transition from one professional field of endeavor to another is a leap of faith few would even contemplate, let alone undertake. This account of his journey is as riveting as it is sobering.

The vivid descriptions of his encounters with alienated students of the Pipkin Middle School in Springfield, Missouri are powerful because they are so realistic. David Awbrey’s’ descriptions of his first few months on the job could make a grown man cry.  But he soldiers on, buoyed by his vision of a vastly improved public school system informed by noble convictions and rational incentives.

What were the challenges?  Students disaffected in the sense that any kind of learning, especially history, was thought to be totally irrelevant to their lives, mired in a counter-culture based on an entirely different set of moral assumptions.  Their world was hormone-driven, mainstream cultural values saturated, and devoid of any kind of parental reinforcement. The school was just a place to spend time in, a kind of super-janitorial parking lot. Teachers were thrown back on their own resources; administrators seemingly were only interested in their own convenience.  Against this kind of institutional backdrop, David Awbrey never gives up, a kind of David in a world of Goliaths.

As such, this extraordinarily well-written book serves as a searing reminder of the challenges implicit in a teacher’s life, especially at the middle school level.  Indeed, in this litany of frustration, there are only a few insights which provide any grounds for even cautious optimism.  Most of the proposed remedies are thoughtful, as far as they go, but they amount to little more than the accumulated conventional wisdom of traditional school reformers. Needless to say, they include a vastly more rigorous curriculum, higher expectations for all students, a knowledge-based rather than a methods-based emphasis in teacher education, and a more thoughtful system of assessment rather than the relatively mindless fill-in-the-blank approach of so many conventional standardized tests.


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February 10th, 2011

Staff Reporter EducationNews.org

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