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Teaching, but not by the book 

SPINNING HISTORY: PHMS teacher Janet Buford has no textbook for her class this year.
  • SPINNING HISTORY: PHMS teacher Janet Buford has no textbook for her class this year.

Under the new social studies frameworks adopted by the state Department of Education, American history, once taught in eighth grade, will now be taught in sixth grade. It won't be offered again until 11th grade.

Janet Buford, who has taught U.S. history at Pulaski Heights Middle School for eight years and geography and civics for more than 20 years, is this year assigned to teach world history, as the new frameworks require.

She doesn't have an eighth-grade world history textbook to teach from. The subject was taught previously in sixth grade, and those texts are too simplistic for eighth-graders.

“I don't have a book and I'll be perfectly honest with you, I'm not going to go find it,” Buford said. “I am an expert in American history, and I can put a spin on it.” She'll teach European history, but in the context of American history — like Europe before colonization — which is what she knows and has the resources for.

“I think it's a travesty,” Buford said of the new frameworks. Especially, she said, since teachers in the Little Rock School District have benefited from nearly $2 million in federal Teaching American History grants, money that sent Buford to Brown University in the summer to study with Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon Wood. The grants helped teachers at the fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade levels do “vertical teaming” to get consistency in coursework.

Under the state Department of Education's new curriculum structure, sixth-graders, who last year studied world history, are now to learn U.S. history. Seventh-graders, who last year took geography, are being taught ancient world history. Eighth-graders, who last year studied U.S. history, are continuing with world history. Geography, civics and economics are “stranded” throughout the K-8 curriculum — integrated into other courses a little at a time over the grades.

The U.S. history textbook that Buford has taught from is too advanced for the sixth grade — where U.S. history is now taught. Nor is there a seventh-grade world history textbook — so some teachers are using the same book the kids used in sixth grade last year.

“If I were a parent and I had a child in sixth or seventh grade this year, I would be screaming bloody murder,” Buford said. “They have no resources ... so they're not really teaching [American history] in sixth.”

So why did the state Department of Education put a new curriculum in place before there were books to teach it? Gayle Potter, associate director of curriculum for the department, explained that the board's policy has always been to implement new curriculum frameworks in the year before new textbooks were adopted.

Did she anticipate the problems that would cause, for example, teachers seeking a U.S. history textbook appropriate for sixth grade? “I would find it kind of difficult to think there's no American history available,” she said.

But Dora Bradley, who teaches history at McClellan High School and who previously taught geography in the North Little Rock School District, said that's not necessarily so. Textbooks are written to be sold, and the huge demand that Texas, for example, has determines content level. Both Texas and California teach social studies in the order that's been thrown out by the Arkansas department.

(Texas seventh-graders devote the year to the study of their state. Arkansas historians are also sore about the new curriculum arrangement, complaining that the new frameworks squeeze out Arkansas history at the middle school level, the only level for which a textbook has been developed.)

Buford said the gap between sixth and 11th grade — when some students will take Advanced Placement U.S. history — will be detrimental to students. Students learn research skills in eighth grade that they'll need in 11th — skills too advanced for sixth graders.

Like other history and geography teachers, Buford said the fact that Arkansas does not test social studies on its Benchmark exams (as it does English, math and science) — coupled with the new frameworks — undermines Arkansas students' understanding of American government and their relationship to the world.

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