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HITE, CCSS, and Teacher Preparation: Strange But True Bedfellows

You still have time to apply for the 2016 Holocaust Institute for Teacher Educators (HITE), a week-long, all-expenses-paid professional development opportunity in June at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The deadline for applications has been extended until March 4!

AACTE member faculty are invited to apply through our online application. For more information, read this article or contact me at zvanhouten@aacte.org.

Be sure to also stop by the HITE concurrent session at AACTE’s 68th Annual Meeting in Las Vegas! The session (Education Under the Third Reich: A Case Study for the Ethics of Teaching) is scheduled for Thursday, February 25, at 10:30 a.m. in Grand Ballroom E. Add the session to your personal schedule through our Online Event Planner.

Last month, I invited past HITE participant Steven Carr of Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne to explain the benefits HITE has brought to his program and state. Here is another response from past participant Jeraldine Kraver, professor of English and director of English education at the University of Northern Colorado:

Although to say that the study of the Holocaust is a matter for historians might seem intuitively true, I have maintained at various workshops and meetings about Holocaust education (where I am often among the minority as an English professor) that the flexibility of the English/language arts (ELA) classroom well suits this complex topic. My experience at the Holocaust Institute for Teacher Educators (HITE) has not only solidified this belief, but it has provided me with tools to teach what I preach about Holocaust education and education in general. To me, the best professional development—for classroom teachers or teacher educators—must be applicable both to the micro and the macro worlds we inhabit.

Let me start with two matters, one of facts and one of confession. The facts are these: (a) in Colorado, like 45 of the 50 states, Holocaust education is not mandatory; and (b) Colorado is a “Common Core” state. The confession is that I am very happy with this situation. As a teacher educator, I do not endorse content mandates, but I embrace the opportunity and responsibility presented by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to guide my teacher candidates in the process of text selection. The CCSS puts a new burden on teacher educators as much as it does teachers—maybe even more. It requires that our methods instruction expand from discussions about how to teach prescribed content to how to choose the materials we teach in order to prepare secondary students with the skills they need to make and create meaning from the variety of multimodal texts they encounter inside and outside the classroom.

Although I believe that the CCSS is exciting, not all teacher educators agree. Alan Singer, in his Huffington Post article “Common Core and the Holocaust,” opens with this assertion: “The reading list for the New York State Common Core English/Language Arts curriculum looks like someone took a handful of darts and threw them at a wall with boxes labeled with different grade levels. There are no discernible themes and at a first glance no patterns at all.” However, what strikes me when I read the New York State curriculum is how often words such as exemplar and sample appear in the document. In the document, examples trump mandates. Further, I was impressed with New York’s lists of suggested texts.

Where Singer and I do agree is that bad choices and bad teaching are a dangerous combination, especially when the content is at once as complicated and sensitive as the Holocaust. However, we must not confuse bad teaching for bad standards. Well-prepared teachers strive to make appropriate content choices by considering all the information available to them.

Teaching professionals—or, as we call them in my program (citing Henry Giroux), “transformative intellectuals”—are tasked with selecting texts and creating connections for students based on many of the criteria Singer criticizes. Locating themes, knowing the best texts to help students engage and understand these themes, and choosing texts appropriate for the students in their particular classrooms is what ELA teachers are trained to do—or, at least, what they should be trained to do. The CCSS shares this vision of teaching and thus places the responsibility (whether construed as a burden or as an opportunity) for selecting texts on those teaching professionals.

I applaud the authors of the CCSS for acknowledging that there is no right or best way to generalize about the lives of students. In reaching decisions about content and pedagogy, the more information that is available, the better. Teachers must consider the quantitative measures that assess the challenges a text might offer students in terms of vocabulary or syntax. They must also consider “student variables,” from individual interest to the broad context of the community inside and outside the classroom. Finally, they must consider available books and other resources. They pour all of that information into the crucible that is curriculum development. These are decisions made by the teacher—not by the CCSS, and not by the state.

A key principle in the Common Core ELA standards is the decentering of traditional approaches to the study of texts in order to emphasize nonliterary texts. Historical documents are among those offered in this light, and, as teacher educators, we must guide our candidates toward creating units that integrate a diversity of materials. At HITE, discussions and activities focus us on a fundamental objective: to prepare teachers to make curricular choices that best serve their students. The task of the teacher educator is to prepare teachers to integrate content from every possible discipline in order to provide students with an authentic experience with learning.

HITE does not simply introduce participants to Holocaust history or best practices; it expands the nature of the content available for meeting national, state, and local standards as well as each teacher’s particular pedagogical aims. In the Common Core world, HITE and programs like it are of even greater value to teacher educators and, in turn, to the preservice teachers we prepare.

When I attend workshops such as those offered at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I arrive as a student, as a teacher educator, and, only last, as a Holocaust educator. The experience makes me better at all three roles, but it also leads me to an unplanned fourth: it makes me a better human being.

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Zachary VanHouten

Manager of Programs and Advocacy, AACTE