Scott Alexander teaches Grades 10 and 11 social studies and Grade 12 geography and history at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, B.C. Beyond the classroom, he guides students through work experience, career preparation, and scholarship and post-secondary applications. Alexander has worked as a collaborator with the Royal British Columbia Museum to help present the Historical Thinking Winter Institute and has spent four years as the B.C. representative for the Teachers Institute on Canadian Parliamentary Democracy. He has also received a Certificate of Achievement for the Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence.
On the guiding principles in his teaching
I've always gone back to the idea of rigor, relationship, and relevance — the three Rs. We need to provide rigor in our classrooms that makes it challenging but not insurmountable. And then you're not going to really reach kids unless you actually develop that relationship with them. How do we have these meaningful connections with kids? There's so much chatter in their brains, their phones and their busy lives that I believe we have to win the right to be heard by kids, we shouldn't force it. I want kids to want to be in the classroom. I want my classroom to be a place where they come in and ask questions. And then relevance — are we teaching them relevant skill sets and knowledge for 2021 as a teenager with a smartphone in their hand? Do we teach them how to use that smartphone better? Do we teach them facts that go on to become building blocks for university? I feel like we have a deep obligation to launch our kids well into university. Kids know what's authentic, when they're being challenged and supported versus just snowed over with too much work.
On the role of technology in the classroom
You kind of get stuck in those textbooks at times, but then you realize that there's so much good stuff out there to get kids involved with, especially technology-wise. I'm always trying to use tech tools to broaden the kids’ horizons, in terms of getting them out of the classroom virtually as best we can. The challenge is how to keep good teaching practices with digital tools. Just because we have technology does that make it better teaching? My mantra has always been: If it replaces a piece of paper, for the sake of that it is probably not the best tool, but if it broadens our teaching abilities and experience for kids then we should be all about incorporating those digital tools. How do we have kids not just repeat basic information but actually use digital tools better? How do we bring more depth to our learning and understanding? That's my big drive.
On mapping history online and making it real
All teachers in Canada have to teach war and conflict for social studies. What I do is take Google Maps and Google Earth and then bring those conflicts to real life in terms of what it looks like today. A classic example is the Normandy beaches. When you look at a textbook, that's not as dynamic as something you can get online. You take these conflicts from the Second World War and the kids have to talk about the important events and map it out. You just take it to a whole other level on Google Earth — we do the Google walkabout, get out some Google Cardboard glasses and kids can actually look at those landing areas and digitally walk the area. And you can ask — why do you think they came to this area of Normandy? The idea of it is really looking to marry together the physical locations, Google tools and creating the story of the conflict rather than just relaying of facts. I don't do traditional presentations anymore, but we do groups. Kids will sit and tell a story to each other— the story of Operation Torch, the story of D Day — and then they’re using their map and pictures to explain the timeline.
On teaching students to have a sense of place
I've done a lot of work with the Historical Thinking Institute, and it's been really interesting to talk about how we tell historical stories and how do we teach a sense of place, the idea of physical and human features that characterize and give meaning to our places. For example, we know the facts of weather, but how does weather infuse us with a sense of belonging on the West Coast versus the East Coast. Teaching weather on Vancouver Island, you look out your window and there you go —there's the westerlies, we live in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, this is the Pacific Ocean effect, and this is why the ski hills got more snow this year with the La Nina effect. It's just fun to bring in the Canadian changing geographical landscape — how do people inform and change the physical spaces. We're trying to get kids to understand the world better, trying to get kids to feel that they can describe their physical locations and their experiences in those locations.
On engaging students in the world around them
I've used Google Maps in geography and we call it the “ask anything” current events process. I get kids to identify the geographical principles at play in something that's happened in recent months or news cycles, like for example a volcano in the Philippines. What is the physical aspect that's happening? What's the human aspect? Where is it in the world and why is this a geographical principle that we're looking at? I really work hard in the first week to teach them how to actually have conversations in the classroom. So I would call that structured inquiry — how to listen to each other. We have talking protocols, so when we sit in groups of four, someone's got a timer when they're presenting and then we all ask one question each and we don't interrupt. There’s literally an awesome buzz in the room where the kids are actually talking about the stuff they're prepared. If you don't have that relationship and connection with students, they never come prepared, they just go: what do I have to do today? It should be: what do I get to do today? That's a different mindset.