New York

On The Meaning Of High School Philosophy Instruction

When I joined the faculty of Columbia Secondary School as a curriculum adviser last year, I had no inkling that I would eventually become the school’s high school philosophy teacher. This is an honor and an intellectual treat. I want to share my thoughts about what it means to teach philosophy at the high school level, what sort of curriculum we have, and what I am doing with it. Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering is a selective 6–12 public school (currently 6–11) located in Harlem. The principal, Miriam Nightengale, has worked to build a strong curriculum and a lively school culture. The teachers are immensely dedicated, not only to the classroom, but to the school community; as a part-time teacher, I am humbled by their relentlessness and cheer. The students, who come from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have thoughtfulness and inquisitiveness in common. All students take philosophy every year. I wrote the high school philosophy curriculum last spring and will be fleshing it out as the year progresses. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. The philosophical texts range from ancient to modern; the 10th-graders, for instance, are currently reading the Book of Job; later in the unit, they will read Martin Buber’s "I and Thou." The 11th-graders began with Sophocles and Plato, will soon read Aristophanes’ "The Clouds," and will end the year with Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and Eugene Ionesco. I work from the conviction that these texts — and the lessons surrounding them — will give students perspective on their own philosophical questions and lives. The first challenge is to make sense of the texts. Often we have to take time with a single sentence, working through it and figuring out what it means. That can bring out surprising insights.
New York

The NYS Teaching Standards: Too Many, Too Broad?

The teacher’s main responsibility is to bring the subject to the students in such a way that they learn it. If they take interest in it, so much the better. Some teachers live for that second part — sparking the students’ interest — but first and foremost, the students need to learn the subject. That’s what a teacher does, period: Teach the subject to the students in as interesting and lasting a way as possible. But the just-released New York State Teaching Standards expect teachers to fulfill a much broader range of responsibilities. Consisting of seven standards, each of which is broken down into numerous elements, the standards outline, for the first time, what all teachers in New York State will be expected to do. According to these standards, teachers at all levels, all subjects, are supposed to understand and respond to each student’s background, psychological needs, and interests; integrate technology into the lessons; stay abreast of developments in their subjects and in pedagogy; cite research in support of their instructional decisions; show understanding of the school’s history and social context; bring multiple perspectives into their lessons; incorporate sound, movement, touch, images, and writing in their instruction; apply the lessons to real-life situations and students’ personal experience; help broaden students’ cultural perspectives; and much more. None of these expectations is really alarming or new; teachers do combinations of these things all the time, and a set of Model Core Teaching Standards proposed by an interstate consortium last year set a precedent for overreach. The problem is that the nature of teaching depends largely on the subjects, grade levels, students, and teachers, and some of the items listed are more important than others.
New York

Is This a Model for Excellent Teaching?

The path toward teacher certification is laden with demands that prospective teachers prove that they're sensitive, socially conscious, and self-critical. If a national group of education agencies has its way, those demands could soon extend throughout teachers' careers. Teachers and others would do well to look at the “Model Core Teaching Standards: A Resource for State Dialogue,” released in July for public comment. Developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers' Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC), the new teaching standards (separate from the Common Core State Standards that have been in the news recently) retain much of the language of the 1992 teaching standards, with some reordering and rewording to match the “new times.” Whereas the 1992 standards were intended for beginning teachers (and adopted by 38 states), the new standards are for all teachers. The ten standards fall into four categories: The Learner and Learning, Content Knowledge, Instructional Practice, and Professional Responsibility. Each standard is broken down into Performances, Essential Knowledge, and Critical Dispositions. Like the 1992 standards, the Model Core Teaching Standards downplay subject matter knowledge while emphasizing the social processes of the classroom and the attitudes that teachers should have. Because these standards come so soon after the Common Core State Standards, they might influence how the Common Core standards are interpreted and implemented. The 1992 document devoted the first standard to content knowledge; the new standards address content in standards 4 and 5. Two standards devoted to content seem like more than one, but neither standard addresses the need for specific knowledge.