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Profiles in Teaching: An Interview with Dixie Grupe

Tom Laichas
Crossroads School


Dixie Grupe

    Recipient of the 1996 Milkin Family Foundation National Educator Award, Dixie Grupe teaches at David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri. In addition to teaching world history to 10th graders at Hickman, she has taught social studies methods to prospective teachers at the University of Missouri. With her teaching partner Jill Taylor Varns, Dixie wrote "Reading Africa: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching World History" for WHC's November 2004 issue.
WHC's Tom Laichas caught up with Dixie during the 2005 AP World History reading, June 6, 2005 at Lincoln, Nebraska.
WHC: Why teach?
Grupe: My undergraduate degree is in journalism. I worked in medical public relations for a couple of years, but then I married a teacher. There seemed to be a lot of benefits that came with teaching: time to be together in the summer and over Christmas break, of course. Once I started teaching, I absolutely fell in love with it. 4
WHC: I imagine you wanted to go into investigative journalism. 5
Grupe: I thought I was going to do that. Then I met my husband. We decided to stay in Columbia, MO, and there aren't many journalists in Columbia.

WHC: Has your training in journalism informed your teaching?
Grupe: I think it's particularly applicable in the classroom. History also involves writing, and my training comes in handy.
WHC: And how long have you been in the classroom?
Grupe: Twenty-one years.
WHC: Have you always taught world history?
Grupe: I started teaching world about 19 years ago. I taught American for a couple of years, but world history was what I always wanted. I can't imagine a path better suited to me. I love to read and I love to travel. One of the things that appealed to me about journalism was that I wanted to meet all kinds of people. World history makes that possible as well. I look for the NEH programs, Fulbrights, Toyota fellowships – anything that will get me to see places that I've never seen before.
WHC: Tell me about the Fulbright.

Grupe: I went to Egypt and Israel on a travel-study grant in, I think, the summer of 2000. It was a six-week summer program. There were probably 20 other teachers from all over the United States –that's another fun part of those experiences.

I've always been interested in sacred places. What is there about certain places that have meaning to people across time and place? I'm interested in world religion, so that was another great fit for me.

As a history teacher, I just love seeing all these places you spend a portion of your life reading and teaching about. You have experiences traveling that you just can't replicate in any other way.

WHC: Such as?
Grupe: We were in Jerusalem, and with us in line there's students – it's a school field trip. It looks like any field trip in the US: a lovely area, all these kids. In the back of the line, facing me, there's a parent volunteer. Then he turns around and I see he has a machine gun strapped to his back.
WHC: That surprised you.
Grupe: To see it in front of me, yeah. It's a pretty serious dose of reality. 17
WHC: Do you share these experiences with students?
Grupe: All the time. I talk about cultural mistakes made while traveling – tourist faux pas.
WHC: How are you teaching world history now? 20
Grupe: I actually team-teach an AP World History course with an English teacher. We have the kids two hours a day. So they get an English credit and they get a History credit. It's a great way to teach this class. 21
WHC: You're double-blocked? 22
Grupe: Right. 23
WHC: Do you enjoy collaborating? 24

Grupe: Very, very much. My partner is terrific.

WHC: What kinds of materials do you have them read? 26
Grupe: We go sequentially. By the end of the year, students have read Gilgamesh, Sundiata, the Odyssey, Othello, Frankenstein, Things Fall Apart, the Ramayana. Forgotten Fire, about the Armenian Holocaust, The God of Small Things, which I love, and The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. They also read All Quiet on the Western Front and The Kite Runner. [See Further Reading, below, for more]. 27
WHC: That's a great list. 28
Grupe: I could never do it in a one-hour class! 29
WHC: What got your students the most excited this past year? And how does the literature aid in teaching the history? 30

Grupe: We read Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan. In the novel, there's an interesting discussion of what happens when philosophical and cultural traditions meet – and what happens when politics gets involved in both.

Students know that politics can happen on a global scale. The novels help student think about the way politics can play out in individual lives. On one level, this book is about Afghanistan, the coming and the end of the Taliban.

But it's also the story of a boy and his family, whose lives get flipped upside down by forces beyond them. It's also about what happens when we try to keep secrets – and how sometimes the keeping of the secret is really much more damaging than the secret itself. For fifteen and sixteen year olds, this is a big deal: what is a secret? how do I keep it? should I tell it? The book works on all those levels.

WHC: How do you go from having them read a book to discussing it and doing so richly? 32
Grupe: Jill and I always write questions to guide discussions. Students respond in a journal. But sometimes, instead of grading them, we just read them to make sure students are doing the work. We also run Socratic seminars. You can't contribute to discussion unless you have done the reading. 33
WHC: If you had to cut your course in half, what would you fight the hardest to keep? What subject? What time period? What skills? 34

Grupe: Well, I'd fight hardest to keep philosophical and intellectual studies. I think that a study of philosophical traditions can help students live more fully.

I'd fight to make sure students were still reading and writing. Students can get access to any piece of information they want. But they have to develop the skills to judge and organize that information. I don't think anyone can do that without a background in both the content itself and in how to think about the content.

WHC: Who was the biggest influence on the way you teach? 36
Grupe: Jill, who's a great teaching partner. Really good teachers always reflect on what they're doing. Partnering is a great way to reflect on your work. That extra pair of eyes is important – someone who sees what you're doing while you're busy doing it. It has been great to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and to talk through all those "what ifs" – what could I do, what should I have done. 37
WHC: What's the toughest thing about teaching world history?

Grupe: Deciding what's essential for students to know. It's very easy in a world history course to get lost in the content. You have to keep looking at the big picture: where you want students to be at the end of the year. And you've got to work towards giving students a sense of how it's all connected. That means developing themes that span our human experience. Then you pick out those particular examples that teach the basic concepts really well. 38
WHC: How do you turn that into a planning process? How do you go about identifying themes and selecting examples? 39
Grupe: We meet some time in August. We plan a unit at a time. She [Jill] was very, very receptive to going somewhat chronologically and somewhat thematically. So that was a very easy match. We use the Acorn book, and figured out from those snapshots what we want to focus on and which ones we want to use literature to help kids better understand. During the year, we're Sunday afternoon buddies, planning the details for the week. 40
WHC: How well prepared are your students when they come to you? 41
Grupe: They're in 10th grade. This is their first AP class, and their first world history class. They've had 6th and 7th grade "world cultures" courses. 42
WHC: Those are area studies courses? 43
Grupe: Right. They're focused on culture, not history. 44
WHC: How do kids qualify for your classes? 45

Grupe: We have open enrollment. I should be clear, though. Columbia, Missouri is a university town. A lot of parents are professors, and a lot of their kids have traveled. I mean, a couple of my students last year were Zoroastrian. What are the chances of that in most schools?

At the same time, we participate in a program sponsored by the Minority Achievement Council. These are minority students who have never taken an honors class before. Part of my job – they're in my study hall – is helping them negotiate an AP / Honors experience. So really, a lot of students end up in this class who haven't always been on an academic track. This makes it interesting for me as a teacher.

WHC: Is there another question I should be asking? 47
Grupe: You haven't asked how this school has come to have such a strong program. One reason we can teach such a diverse population in such academically demanding classes is we have a lot of administrative help. When we need new books, we get new books. When we ask for a bigger room so that kids can move around in groups, we get a bigger room. When I've had to leave the school early to grade AP classes, I've gotten release time. The school is very supportive of what we do. 48

Further Reading

Books Assigned in Dixie Grupe's AP World History Course

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Anchor, 1994).

Ayi Kewi Armah, The Beautiful Ones Are Not yet Born (Heinemann, 1988).

David C. Conrad (trans.) and Djanka Tassey Conde (ed.), Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples (Hackett Publishing, 2004).

Homer and Robert Fagles (trans.), The Odyssey (Penguin, 1999).

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (Riverhead, 2004).

R. K. Narayan (trans.), Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (Penguin, 1998).

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (Ballantine, 1987).

William Shakespeare, Othello (Dover Thrift Editions, 1996).

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Enriched Edition (Pocket, 2004).


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