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Educators travel half way around the world to observe Franklin High School teacher
09/12/2013

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The day's lesson had quickly settled deep into a dark thicket of American history – the conditions that confronted minorities in the decades following the U.S. Civil War. Even so, the four visitors sitting at the back of Bruce Lesh's classroom at Franklin High School listened intently as Lesh led his students in a discussion of Jim Crow laws, sharecropping and blues music of the era.

The visitors – a four-person delegation from the Japanese Ministry of Education  – were not so much interested in the subject matter as they were studying the way the information is taught.

"We have been building an international framework for teaching history for (several) years, and so we are researching what's happening in the United States for history education," said Noboru Tanaka, who is an associate professor at Osaka Ohtani University. "We chose him (Lesh) to come and observe as a case lesson in how to teach history."

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Educators from across the globe routinely visit BCPS classrooms to learn about innovative teaching and effective instructional strategies. But the four at Franklin – Tomohito Harada, Toshiro Nakao, Masahiro Nii, and Tanaka -- had come specifically to see Lesh in action. They had read his 2011 book, "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer? Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12," and it had impressed them sufficiently enough to see for themselves the teaching styles Lesh uses.

In his book, Lesh advocates student-based learning in which students are required to process and combine information to find the answers from a variety of sources – the way information is gathered and used in the real world, he says.

"We're flipping history instruction sort of on its head," Lesh said.

On this day, Lesh used maps, archival photographs and illustrations, and a series of scratchy recordings made in the early 20th century – blues singers such as Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly – to prompt his class to discuss what life was like for minorities in the early 1900s.  

Tanaka said his team was interested in watching Lesh's lessons because teaching history in Japan relies on teacher-led instruction rather than on collaborative, student-centered learning. The group also planned to visit Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, a Washington, D.C., charter school, and schools in Great Britain and Germany during their tour.

"They'll take back what they learn in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the U.S. and incorporate it into their instruction," said Lesh, who chairs the social studies department at Franklin and has won several national awards for his teaching. "We've been happy to have them visit."

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