Teaching “practical” history
Teaching his students to distinguish between what is trustworthy and what is not – whether it’s printed information or something they see online – is as important as learning facts, Columbus high school teacher Mike Moodry says. He also wants his students to be able to present what they’ve learned in a well-thought and meaningful way.
“One reason we teach social studies in public schools is because we need an informed citizenry – to quote Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “They need to be able to decide the truth.”
Moodry, who teaches U.S. history to juniors and government to seniors, as required by Montana standards, said he stopped using the high school’s textbooks in 2006.
“History is always changing,” he said. “They were from 1994 and out of date.”
Instead, Moodry has students utilize several designated online websites to find the content required by state standards – such as specific people, dates, events and issues for U.S. history – and additional information from other websites they discover as they’re conducting research.
He then combines the state standards with the newer Common Core standards, which emphasize teaching students to express themselves in a well thought out way.
“People tend to bash Common Core because they see too much rigor and think it makes it harder for students to learn,” he said. “I try to put learning into a practical sense – it’s not so important that George Washington was the first president as how he fits into the context of the rest of U.S. history.”
The Common Core standards are more specific when it comes to math, science and reading and writing skills, where the goal is to make U.S. students ready for college and careers and also more competitive with students from other countries, Moodry said. But it’s less specific for social studies – history and government is likely to be taught differently in Britain, France or Japan than it is here in the U.S., he said.
“The Common Core standards are moving toward a new way to teach social studies,” he said.
Students in Moodry’s classes are assigned 10 projects through the semester that utilize the state’s content standards as a guide. They include an information essay, an argumentative essay, a narrative essay, several presentations in front of the class and a digital project.
“The bulk of their grade is based on these projects,” he said. “It’s a ton of writing.”
He’ll often present an overview on a subject and then have the students broaden it further. To hone their ability to determine the trustworthiness of information they’re reading, Moodry will sometimes present two versions of the same story and have the students evaluate them.
“This could be done with class discussion or by individual essay,” he said.
Moodry, who got his bachelor’s in broad-field social studies secondary education at Carroll College in Helena, taught for several years at Butte Central Catholic High School – his alma mater – before coming to Columbus High School in 2000. He also teaches elective classes in economics, psychology, sociology and criminal law and is the head coach for the Absarokee-Columbus co-op wrestling team.
Columbus School Superintendent Jeff Bermes supports the evolving social studies program that combines Montana standards with the Common Core standards.
“The Common Core standards have been adopted by 42 states and were created to ensure that high school graduates have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life – regardless of where they live,” he said.