Sacrifices in the name of U.S. History #DogGoneIt

Did you know that the U.S. military trained suicide bombers in World War II? The living instruments of warfare were dogs. That’s right – dogs. In fact, tens of thousands of people enlisted their family pets to serve in WWII in a program called Dogs for Defense – part of the Canine Corps. The dogs were trained for a number of tasks – to carry ammunition, to attack shooters’ trigger hands across battlefields, and to bust bunkers.

I had heard of Victory Gardens and scrap metal donations in the early 1940s, but I had never learned of the animal sacrifices made during WWII. Until this morning. While walking Lucy today, I listened to This American Life – Episode 480: Animal Sacrifice. In Act 1,

Susan Orlean tells us about the moment America asked untrained household canines to make the ultimate sacrifice: to serve in World War II. Susan talks to Gina Snyder, who remembers being a teenager when her dog Tommy joined the service. And Susan digs into the national archives to learn the fate of other dogs that fought on the front lines. A version of this story appears in Susan’s book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. (20 minutes)

After watching Hachi (briefing on Wikipedia) last night with the family, and because I was listening while walking my faithful companion Lucy, I’m sure the Dogs for Defense story resonated more poignantly with me. But despite my emotional priming, I found the WWII story compelling and interesting in its own right.

Of course, I wondered why I had never heard or learned of Dogs for Defense or the Canine Corps before now. I used to teach seventh graders the subject of U.S. History, and I had never even encountered a hint or a glimpse of this fascinating military effort and civilian sacrifice. I thought the story would make an ideal artifact for the typical middle school history course. I’m feeling a bit of regret that Dogs for Defense was never before in my teacher’s toolbox. From another perspective, though, I am thankful that I found the story in my learner’s toolbox.

It’s fascinating to me what we curate into the curriculum, and it’s equally fascinating to me – maybe more so – what we intentionally and unintentionally curate out of the curriculum. In a content area like history, time is our greatest enemy, I guess. In historical survey courses, many are driven to cover as much history as possible (at a particular altitude), so we skim a surface for as many years as possible. Therefore, a certain degree of depth and a luxury of search-and-discover is sacrificed. What if we let the student learners do more of the curating?

It would be interesting to me to see what middle schoolers would find – through search and discovery – if they were guided to more self-discovery in subjects like U.S. History. I may be admonishing only myself, but I regret not being a more creative facilitator of learning when I was a part of a formalized learning space for U.S. History. I now wish I had served fewer completed meals, and I wish I had allowed more for students finding their own ingredients and recipes. I don’t doubt that we would not have covered as many years of history, but I bet we would have all learned – and retained – so much more.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d make my own sacrifice – giving up my traditional march through the chronological years in order to catalyze more searching, discovering, story finding, and connecting. To do so might even be responding to a higher calling of service to my country … and to the future learners’ world.

This American Life – Back to School…great piece on a lot of what matters most

Fabulous story on This American Life – “Back to School.” Economic reasoning meets social psychology meets instructional/parent coaching as Ira Glass unpacks and integrates interviews that merge cognitive development with non-cognitive domains (character, personality traits, social skills, etc.)

Walking Myself and My Dog to School, or Braiding NPR and a Cup of Joe

I’ve gone back to school. Well, at the very least, you might say that I am enrolled in a course. In some places, one might see the class title listed as “Multitasking 101.” In other catalogs, one might discover the course name as “Mornings with Lucy.” Or, it might make the board as “Mix-alot Podcasts and a Cup o’ Joe.” You see, I’m not sure what to call the class – I am designing it myself. Here’s the backbone of the offering:

  • Task #1: In the early morning, I take my pointer-hound mix on a walk. Her name is Lucy, and her whole body wags in anticipation. If I weren’t fearful of pulling some infrequently used muscle, I might wag my whole body, too. I love our walks, and we modulate between a stroll and a mild cantor for 30-90 minutes.
  • Task #2: I enjoy a travel mug of house-brewed coffee. Leash in one hand, mug in the other.
  • Task #3: Listen to a podcast on my iPhone. I have this great set of comfortable ear phones. Beats they are not. I think they cost $9.99 at Target, but they wrap ergonomically around my ear and provide some extraordinary listening pleasure.

All three task-strands weave together to make quite a braid. A bit of cardio in the pre-sunrise hours, a socially-accepted stimulant that thrills the tastebuds, time with my beloved, four-legged companion, and a chance to listen and think. Shear bliss. And not the ignorance is bliss kind, either. Real bliss.

A few weeks ago, at a workshop, a co-participant alluded to some research that claims that multitasking damages our IQs. I think my month long experiment could do some damage to this claim. I believe my IQ has increased during this morning line-braiding. I haven’t even tripped or mis-stepped, but, mind you, I haven’t added chewing gum to the equation. That would be the honors level course, I feel certain.

What am I listening to? What’s on the ear-syllabi? Here’s a smattering:

TED Radio Hour on NPR

Planet Money

This American Life

While enjoying this morning syllabus of self-directed learning for the past month, I am also re-reading Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering, which tackles as its thesis the nature of creativity to be the combining and integrating of seemingly unrelated things. So, as I walk Lucy, drink my coffee, and listen to the chosen podcast(s) of the day, I play some of the games and thought experiments listed in Michalko’s work – I try to find and create connections among what I am listening to and what I have listened to in the past. I try to think of Education and Schooling through the lenses of the morning listening. For instance, I have wondered lately how School is like the health care issue, I have wondered how School is like the economic crises in Europe, and I have re-imagined Education through the lenses of many of the interwoven TED talks on the TED Radio Hour.

I am having a blast, and I am learning a ton. I wonder…What if we built in such self-directed discovery into the typical school week or school day? Minus the coffee of course. I just don’t know how I feel about kids drinking coffee. Do we allow for, support, and create enough space and time for young learners to decide on their own paths of schooling? Do we empower them to weave in these lessons with what they are directed to learn in school? How can self-directed learning methods inform the ways we think about and structure schools of the future? How are we hybridizing what school has been and what school could be? Are we rotating our crops and fields so that we continue producing good (brain)food? [Okay, that metaphor just jumped in from nowhere, but Michalko has encouraged me not to backspace out those thoughts while I am thinking.]

Have a good “walk” today! Where are you going to school? What are you learning? How are you multitasking and thinking creatively? I would love to read or listen to what you have to share!

#PBL example, courtesy of “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” on This American Life

Last Sunday, January 8, NPR broadcast a This American Life episode entitled, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” I was mesmerized as I listened to this expose of an electronics factory as told by a self-described “worshiper in the cult of Mac.” The story caused me to think about a great many things. I certainly thought of a powerful PBL possibility…

What if student learners tracked the production and “story” of a product of their choosing? What if they selected an electronic device, an article of clothing, a favorite object, a drop of water from their home faucet, a unit of electricity from a school light bulb…and what if they worked to discover the back story of this product, object, or unit of energy? What would they discover? What could be learned? Would they learn some history? Some math? Some science? Some anthropology, sociology, and economics? Some English and foreign language? Some critical thinking? Some creativity? Some writing? Some literacy and numeracy? Some ecology? Some justice? Some…

The possibilities are endless.

#PBL example, courtesy of “Kid Politics” on This American Life

Today on This American Life, NPR is rebroadcasting an episode entitled “Kid Politics.” During my walks with my dog Lucy, I have listened to “Kid Politics” twice so that I could contemplate and think about the act-one story detailing the Reagan Library fieldtrip that at least some would see/hear as a “capital P” project-based learning example. While the story is fascinating and thought provoking, I believe that the trip to the Reagan Library is a simulation resting close to the “lowercase p pbl” end of the spectrum (see “Contemplating pbl vs. PBL” blog post that explains this categorization method for curriculum/instruction innovation).

I am hoping that some of you will listen to the NPR episode and let me know what you think about the Reagan Library simulation as a pbl vs. PBL. (I am really curious what @jonathanemartin would say…seems a great continuation of our BIE Common Craft video dialogue.) In the podcast story, what gets to me is the game-show sound effects of a “right-answer bell” and a “wrong-answer buzz.” When students in the simulation here these Pavlovian noises, I wonder what gets imprinted about having thoughts of their own.

Now, is this simulation a potentially powerful way for students to study the Grenada-invasion history? Yes. Is this simulation probably more fun and exciting to the students than merely reading about the event in a textbook? Yes. But the simulation does not cross the threshold of pbl vs. PBL, in my opinion. And it’s mostly because of that darn bell-buzz sound effect – the facilitators clearly are gearing for right and wrong answers. Are they teaching history or creating opportunity for critical thinking and original ideas? If they are trying to do both, I wonder if they are measuring their success at each objective.

Capital P PBL involves students in relevant, real-problem, community projects that don’t possess preconceived solutions. Capital P PBL does not merely place students in simulations so that they can re-enact what adults have already done. Again, I am not saying that I think the Reagan Library experience is worthless. In fact, I would love to participate in the simulation that is described in the “Kid Politics” episode of This American Life. I think the simulation is a powerful way for students to study the history and bring it to life with real drama, real emotion, and real reaction. But I hope that these students and their teacher used such a simulation as a jumping off point for a debrief that seemed a must after those reporters and Presidential staffers mingled in the same room. I hope that this jumping off point provided a springboard for students to engage in their own critical decision making…about a current issue…amongst an authentic audience.

What do you think?