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History of History: NCHS Social Studies 1980-2012

A retrospective look at curricular and pedagogical reform at New Canaan High School. A three part series- the 1980’s and 1990’s; the 2000’s; and today.

The past fifteen years have seen a revolution in the way that Social Studies have been taught at NCHS. This change was possible due to the efforts of teachers to improve instruction and attendant hard work. The efforts have been nationally recognized and the New Canaan History Department is perhaps the best in the
country.


Dr. Lynn Erickson - author of three best-selling books, Stirring
the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction, Concept-based
Curriculum and Instruction: Teaching Beyond the Facts and Concept-based
Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom
- has commented as to
the recent work of the department succinctly: ‘NICE JOB!’ Lynn is one of the
national and international gurus in curriculum work and is a recognized
presenter at national conferences in the areas of concept-based curriculum
design, teaching for deep understanding, and standards alignment.

Part I: The 1980’s, 1990’s and the PERSIA+GT Model
at NCHS

Classes from the 1980’s into the early 1990’s in Social
Studies featured teacher-centered lecture, filmstrip viewing and teacher led
discussion. There were some student presentations and few role play
simulations. There was very little or no technology available at the time. The
entire department shared a single television and VCR for all the classes.


The curriculum was teaching within a proscribed chronology.
Teachers tried to teach within a specified time period, for example from the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ to the ‘French Revolution’ in ‘Global One’, the freshmen offering. Teachers struggled to get to the French Revolution in terms of coverage and all teachers teaching the same subject could end at multiple different points in time.  A similar challenge was with ‘Global Two’, the sophomore offering, theoretically ending with present day, current events. Yet it was a challenge to get past World War Two and get to the Cold War.

In the 1980’s there was one AP offered in Social Studies at NCHS- AP United States History- all other advanced classes in Social Studies were then classified as ‘Honors’. For a time earlier in the decade there was resistance even to the concept of ‘Honors’ classes at NCHS, the idea being that heterogeneous grouping was the ideal. Only with the intervention and insistence of two Board of Education members in the mid 90’s , Caroline Felton and Dette Reifsnyder, were ‘Honors’ level classes introduced in the Social Studies at NCHS (as well as in other
disciplines).

In 1988 Social Studies teacher Jean Bannerman did a targeted and lengthy unit in AP US History as to the use of the atomic bomb in 1945. That year, as it turned out, this was the topic of the Document Based Question (‘DBQ’) on the APUSH exam. This was methodical and planned ‘teaching to the test’, and was one of the first examples of such an approach in NCHS Social Studies. 

Advanced Placement

In 1988 thirty-eight kids total at NCHS took an Advanced Placement class in Social Studies. There were two sections of students in the only AP offered, AP US History. In the 1980’s there were two teachers that taught AP in NCHS Social Studies. The student average score on the AP exam during this decade was a ‘3’ (on a scale to 1-5; below a ‘3’ is not passing, ‘5’ is considered mastery).

Textbooks that students used during the 80’s tended to be more in the pamphlet, soft cover, and short form. Hard cover comprehensive textbooks were not really in use until Dr. Lenore Schneider upon her arrival in 1986 lobbied successfully that students should have a comprehensive textbook. Dr. Schneider created a rubric chart to compare textbooks, sorted through the multiple different versions
available at the time from different publishers and settled on the World History, Perspectives on the Past, by Krieger, that became the workhorse of the 9th and 10th grade Global One and Two classes for over a decade at NCHS.

The 1990’s

In 1990 Dr. Schneider lobbied successfully to introduce a new AP, AP European History, in the  senior year. AP European History has been featured ever since as a perennial senior offering. For the most part this was the first class to methodically feature multiple choice questions, timed essays and extensive Document Based Question Essays (‘DBQ’s’). Towards the latter half of the 1990’s student participation in AP in Social Studies had effectively doubled from the previous decade. The studentaverage score on the AP exam during the 90’s was a ‘4’. Thirty two percent of students also achieved a ‘5’ during this decade, an increase of twenty-four  percent from the previous decade, when nine percent of NCHS students achieved that highest of scores on the AP exam.

The ‘PERSIA+ GT’ Model

In the late 90’s as a result of taking a summer class in how to teach AP European History, the ‘PERSIA+GT’ Model was imported to NCHS into several regular section (i.e., non-AP) classes at NCHS by the Department Head. Long
used in the AP European curriculum at NCHS by Lenore Schneider, introducing
this as an organizational model into mainstream sections was a first. Students
rapidly became fans of this handy model which helped them organize vast amounts of information and to organize prewriting for History based essays and became over time a mainstay for many a Social Studies class at NCHS. In Part III the expansion of the use of this model in the NCPS K-12 system will be discussed.

P  Political

E  Economic

R  Religious

S  Social

I  Intellectual

A  Aesthetic

+

G  Geographic

T  Technology


Students today at NCHS are very familiar with this classification system and NCHS graduates frequently comment as to how they use this in college.


Next: Part II: the 2000’s. New staff, new AP’s and the impact of 9 / 11 on the teaching Social Studies.



 

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Norm beal June 27, 2012 at 07:39 PM
Wow! Best in the country! Please let us know the basis for this claim. Could it be hyperbole or perhaps self-aggrandizement on the part of the author (department chair)?
Richard Webb June 27, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Well fair enough. Probably guilty.I think the three articles though do help explain it. Part three Friday.
Lisa June 28, 2012 at 06:00 PM
If "best in country" why all the rumored major changes that are suppose to take place in the NCHS Social Studies dept for the upcoming school year?
Richard Webb June 29, 2012 at 10:56 AM
We are planning to introduce AP Economics and AP Comparative Government in the 2013- 2014 year to provide more options for the NCHS student.

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