Friday, January 20, 2012

What is Hispaniola?

Jennifer and I don't spend a lot of time discussing "surprising things high school students don't know these days," which is sort of a whole genre unto itself. But she did bring up something this week -- her freshman seemed completely unfamiliar with "Hispaniola," that is, that it is the name of an island. Not in the "OK class, on what island did Columbus set foot establish a settlement in 1492? Bueller? Bueller?" sense. Just that when it came up in whatever context they were discussing, it was like they'd never heard the term.

This seemed particularly telling since it is a curriculum issue that cuts across the usual ideological divide. If you're content-oriented and/or a traditionalist/conservative, of course you'd expect kids to know the name of the island that Columbus landed on, be able to label the major islands in the Caribbean, etc. This would be core knowledge for any middle schooler if not elementary student.

On the other hand, any coherent progressive (politically and/or pedagogically) curriculum would be very concerned with connecting immigrant students -- many of whom are the children or grandchildren of immigrants from Hispaniola, if not immigrants themselves -- to their own family history and heritage. And while it is not a major point, you'd think the name of the island containing the Dominican Republic and Haiti would at least come up enough that the kids would recognize it.

The progressive/traditionalist dichotomy is out of date in American urban education -- not because we've learned how to get along -- but because things have gone in a third direction.


Andrew said...

This is core knowledge? No, it is not. This is only core knowledge for history teachers, not for real people. Who cares about the name of some obscure island on which Columbus landed? What should you care, other than as a way to get some points in a trivia competition.

I bet most kids can't identify all the US states on a map or tell you if Iowa was to the west of Idaho -- something that at least might be relevant to them.

Tom Hoffman said...

If you're not in Providence the significance of this might not be so clear. I'd guess that between a fifth and a third of the students in the district are of Caribbean descent, from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc. So the history of the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti is a very real and relevant issue to them.

Down the street is a high school with a large Dominican student body and a Haitian principal. This stuff is all around them.

I'm not saying literally knowing the name of the island is of immediate importance -- but it is a sign that they haven't had any real exposure to the history most relevant to them personally.