Le Sallay's Academy teacher of history Melinda Rice, PhD, has a lot of experience teaching diverse groups of students with different backgrounds. In our interview with Melinda we touched upon many important topics, including the unexpected benefits of online learning, ways to keep students fully engaged and the importance of critical thinking and open discussion when studying historic facts.
What is it that you like about being a history teacher?
I’m fascinated by how people across time have solved the same problems but in different ways. One historian described the study of history as a laboratory of human experience. When I was at university I was struggling over what to major in, Literature, Art History, Political Science, or Philosophy. But I realized that history covered all of these topics. It was the only field that could look at the entirety of the human experience. I loved that. Studying the past gives us new questions to ask that help illuminate, and perhaps offer new solutions, to current issues. I think it's important to realize that history is not a series of facts to be memorized but a series of debates. And of course, there are always the truly unusual, bizarre, and funny stories that illustrate how unique human beings are, not always for the best. These are the stories you keep in your back pocket when you sense students are losing interest and you want to spark their curiosity and sense of wonder.
You have such a huge experience working internationally. Is there a difference between Le Sallay and other places where you've worked?
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface traveling and working internationally. But it’s true that I have worked with students of varying ages and backgrounds including American high school and college, Indian middle schoolers and elementary-age children in Hong Kong. The biggest difference for me working at Le Sallay is the degree to which I know my students. My previous experiences were usually three weeks long. At Le Sallay we spend time on-site and online with them over the course of a full year. Because we combine in-person with online you learn so much about their personalities and their social-emotional needs. I can really structure lessons to meet individual goals. I can also know where the student needs help with academic skills and can build that into the curriculum over the year. For example, students this age are often very reliant on adults to tell them when an assignment is due or need lots of hand-holding before starting an assignment. One of my goals for students is to gradually build their ability to work independently and take responsibility for turning in good quality work on time. These skills require more than three weeks or even a school year to build. Le Sallay provides me the opportunity to help students learn over multiple years.
Many teachers now say that teaching online is a big struggle for them and that online teaching is not as efficient as in-person classes. How does it work in Le Sallay?
I have found, to my surprise, that teaching online has many advantages. For some students, online learning allows them to focus in ways they couldn’t in a regular classroom. For example, a student in a classroom will always be distracted by noises and movements around them. Many people find it difficult to concentrate in an environment where there are lots of little movements, tapping a pencil or a foot for example. Students are the same. A safe, quiet room allows them the space to focus on their work. It is interesting to me how often students will ask other students to mute their mics. It happens every class. They are bothered by sounds like students tapping on the keyboard or humming to themselves. That is a sign of how sensitive they are to noise. Being in their own quiet space where they feel safe is helpful to learning. So I feel that online learning has many advantages. One obstacle to their learning is common to all of us today. We have a phone or a computer in front of us and rather than do the work we should do, we get distracted. My goal is to provide engaging lessons that vary in length and type. And of course to remind students regularly to stay focused and finish their work in class. Then tell them it’s homework if they don’t finish, this tends to motivate them.
History is a rather controversial subject in today’s world. At Le Sallay we have students from all over the world with different cultural, ethnic backgrounds. How do you deal with this?
Diversity in the classroom is always an advantage! That’s one of the things that really motivated me to work at Le Sallay. And I’ve had fascinating conversations with students in the classroom. When a student says their father was in the military in the Soviet Union or their parents moved to Israel when they were young, that’s the opening for a really interesting history lesson. The students don’t realize it but they bring history with them into the classroom. It’s all about asking the right questions and helping them to see how their backgrounds are unique and shaped by history.
In terms of history being politicized today that’s certainly true. But history is always political. Every country teaches its own history so citizens know their past but also to teach values of that culture. History is a tool often used by governments to craft a citizenry that accepts the foundations of that system. Our goal at Le Sallay is to help students become critical thinkers. By which I mean they will understand the ways that knowledge of the past can be used as a political tool. In my modern history class, we do a lesson on historical monuments and who gets a statue and why. They examine a statue of Cortes who was the conqueror of Mexico and his native-born wife. We read about how controversial this monument is and why. Then they are asked what they would do. Do you take down the statue? What would you put in its place? When possible, I also have them look at their own cities and find a monument to analyze. Who does it honor? When was it made? Why was it made? What is the message of this statue? I don’t see history being politicized as a disadvantage but rather an entry point for discussion.
We hope that we will have a chance to speak to Melinda again after the end of this school year.
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