Good morning, fellow Civics lovers! It gives me great pleasure today to bring you a post from an excellent Civics teacher here in Florida, Katie Williams. Ms. Williams works at Walton Middle School in Defuniak Springs, up in the Panhandle of the state. She has been teaching since 2010, and has taught Civics for the past 3 years. She shares with us today her experience in addressing the question of what sort of perspective to use in approaching civics education. And this IS a significant debate. A historical approach is often easier, but in some cases it does not always work well in moving us beyond ‘telling stories’ and getting to real civics. A conceptual approach gets us beyond the stories, but can be extremely tricky to implement effectively, especially if content knowledge is an issue. So let’s hear from Ms. Williams. How has SHE addressed this issue in HER school?

DeFuniak Springs, FL

DeFuniak Springs, FL

School Background
My name is Katie Williams and I am a 7
th grade Civics Teacher at Walton Middle School in Defuniak Springs, Florida. My district is one of the top performing districts in the state of Florida. Our school last year was a “B” school, but this is the first year in several years that we achieved a “B” status. Previous years, we were a “C” school consistently. We worked hard and had to become creative to find ways to assist our students; they were often getting limited support from home to do well on state standardized testing (through no fault of the parents!) We are a “true” middle school; meaning we have only a 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade students. In 7th grade this year, we had about 240 students and we have only 2 civic teachers. We are the most diverse middle school within our district and the largest. As of a couple months of ago, we qualify as a Title I school and are preparing to transition into this responsibility for next year. Indeed, as of our last grading period 50% of the students on A/AB honor roll were also free/reduced lunch students. My largest class had 25 students in it and my smallest class has about 16 students. As the numbers suggest, despite some obstacles, our kids are doing well!

On Using a Historical Approach

For the 2013-2014 school year, my co-teacher and I decided to teach our civics course using a historical perspective. From a teacher’s standpoint it just made sense to follow a historical timeline. However, for the students it was challenging to follow. They have zero background knowledge and we found ourselves being tempted into going deeper into the history than focusing on the benchmarks. Also, once we completed the majority of our history based standards, we were left with other standards that did not have a good “flow” or transition between them. It was challenging for our students to make connections between the standards as a whole because only so many of them actually connected easily for them to see and the rest of them stood alone.

On Using a Conceptual Approach
For the current 2014-2015 school year, we decided to follow Bay School District’s Pacing guide which is based on a conceptual design of instruction. Having taught through both perspectives, I have much enjoyed the conceptual design far better than the historical perspective.

-It provided for easy scaffolding of ideas and also aided in keeping us on pace with the benchmarks.
-Because we were moving from concept to concept, we were able to avoid the trap to teach more into the history of each idea.
-Since each concept built on the previous concept, students grasped the “big picture” much easier as well.

What Does the Data Show?
As far as “data” goes, I do not have any concrete data or results that can actually prove which concept produces the best results or highest scores. For the year in which we taught via the historically based way (which was the baseline year for the EOC) our students did surprisingly well considering our diversity and economic background. By surprisingly well, I mean that the majority of our students were in the middle third to highest third on the scale.
Currently, we have just taken the EOC for this year and we do not have any results back. I felt like my students were better prepared entering the EOC this year than they were the baseline year. That is entirely my opinion and I can say that honestly for a few reasons.
-By sticking to our pacing guide (based on concepts) we were able to have taught all of the standards and benchmarks prior to students taking the EOC. In fact, we finished early and had about a 10 day period of review available for us.
-Secondly, by teaching according to concepts, I knew exactly which concepts students struggled with the most and I targeted those weaknesses during our review.
I hope you can find some of this information valuable. If you have any further questions, please feel free to email me at williamsk@walton.k12.fl.us
Thank you, Ms. Williams, for what I believe is a very helpful ‘in the field’ look at some of the issues we must consider in using a historical versus a conceptual approach to civics. I believe that the point about student lack of knowledge coming in IS significant; you can get bogged down in the minutiae of history as you try to catch them up, and you might never really get to the CIVICS! Of course, as we know, this lack of knowledge is not really the fault of elementary teachers, but it IS something that we must deal with. A conceptual approach offers a path. I encourage you to take a look at the Bay District pacing guide and resources, which use a conceptual framework and starts with citizenship rather than foundations (which is often where people begin if they are using a historical approach). Let kids first see WHY it matters before you get into the nuts and bolts, where you could end up losing them if they don’t see it.
Thank you again, Ms. Williams, for sharing this with us, and thank you to FJCC’s own Peggy Renihan, who suggested that this be shared!