The White House Decision Center

It's been a busy couple of weeks here in Kansas City. I'm not particularly ashamed to say that my writing on this blog has taken somewhat of a backseat to these recent events.

Ever since that win on September 30th, my life has been a wonderful whirlwind of teaching and playoff baseball. Through a lot of luck and wonderful wife, we were able to get our hands on tickets to the clinching Game 4 of the ALCS. Then through more luck, a still-awesome wife and dedicated dad, we were able to buy tickets to all 4 World Series games. We sold Game 1 and Game 6 and my dad and I got to go to Game 2 and Game 7. While Game 7 did not go the way that we would have liked, it was an incredible run.

The emotions I felt and the excitement in this city were so cool as a person my age. Way too many words have been spent on the internet about how a whole generation has never seen the Royals be any good, but it really is true! The Royals have been terrible. Like worse than Phoebe's singing on Friends terrible. Like more of a joke than the Cleveland Browns terrible. Like, "Does a team still play in Kansas City?" terrible.

Anyways, I'm a teacher and that's what I do well. As sad as I am for the run to have ended without a championship, I am excited to get to bed before 10 PM every night this coming week! I'll save the baseball articles for writers much more gifted than I and leave you with this:

Go Royals.

I am a big believer in authentic assessment. If you are unfamiliar with authentic assessment, it is more of a mind-set than any particular test or exam. As a teacher, my job is to teach both content knowledge (historical and social facts and theories) and skills (reading, writing, speaking, researching, etc...) To look at my job in a segmented way is to do injustice to one of these two schools of learning. I cannot, for example, teach a student to critically think about how to end the war with Japan unless the student understands the role of the President, his cabinet and the military.

Assessment is authentic in my mind when it is important to the student. If the student believes that they are on stage, if they are proving their learning or their skills, then they are being authentically assessed. That is why any tool can be authentic if it is used in the correct way. 

I recently had the opportunity thanks to a grant from the Center Education Foundation and from The Truman Library Institute to take my US Government students to the White House Decision Center. The set up in simple - students take on the role of President Truman and his advisers. They use primary source documents, collaboration, and short speeches followed by questions from classmates to come to a solution to one of several problems faced by the real President Truman.

My class got to take part in the scenario on ending the War with Japan in 1945. For 5 class days, the students worked through practice scenarios ranging from a school bullying scenario to another scenario from the World War II era. Students were given their roles and practiced meeting in their advisory teams to find solutions to these scenarios. The two students playing the role of President Truman were able to learn how to lead a meeting and consider advice from different sources. Possibly most important of all, the students learned what it is like to work under pressure.

A Environment of Pressure
Throughout the entire process of preparation and the actual White House Decision Center experience, students were not given adequate time to finish their work. This is part of what made the assessment so authentic. As you read this, you're probably having a Well that's how it is in the real world... kind of reaction. And it's true! The lessons and activities I could plan if I could work for three hours each day and teach for four! But that isn't the case - I get 50 minutes to plan and teach six 50-minute classes. 

The hardest part of assessing the skills and knowledge of students in an authentic way is to get the students to buy in even though they may not have all the time in the world. If they think that the activity is important, needs to be taken seriously and given serious thought, then you'll get the kind of effort that every teacher dreams about. If their only and greatest motivation is for their own grade, as important as that may be, it probably you and the students will always feel like something is missing.

The last 40 minutes of the experience were most incredible. At the end of the day, the two students playing the role of President Truman had to meet, take into account all of the advice they had been given throughout the day, and make a decision of how to end the War with Japan. Once they had made their speech explaining their choice, the rest of the class took on the role of the Senate Intelligence Committee and peppered the two with questions. For a full 40 minutes, the questions came and were answered with poise, composure and intelligence. The questions were all high-quality and well-thought-out. I was able to assess the kids on these skills throughout the 5 days of prep work and the decision center itself. That information has been invaluable as I've held follow up conversations with students in the past week. I'm now able to point to something specific when I tell them that they have a particular strength or weakness. 

If you teach within driving distance of Kansas City, you need to schedule a trip to the White House Decision Center. The organization of the museum; the expertise of the staff led by Mary McMurray; the authentic feel of the materials the students get to work with in the decision center - all of it combined creates an atmosphere that is serious, professional, quick, rigorous and most importantly, contagious.

Many thanks to the Truman Library for creating such a wonderful experience for our students. President Truman said that he wanted his Presidential Library to be more than a library and an archive - he wanted it to be a school of democracy. 

Mr. Truman, your vision has come to fruition. I'm confident that you would have been proud of my students and proud of your staff. This feeling I get as I type this - that is the giveaway that our class has done something authentic and worthwhile. This is why authentic assessment is so hard to define and even more difficult to create, but why it is worth the effort every single time. 


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