Tuesday, March 4, 2014

7 Questions with Becky Ryckeley, Social Studies Coordinator

(Becky Ryckeley was a high school educator for several years before becoming the Social Studies Coordinator for Henry County (GA) Schools, and she is currently the Social Studies Coordinator for Fayette County (GA) schools.)

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I grew up visiting historic places. My family is from Springfield, Illinois, and we visited Lincoln’s Home and New Salem a lot. My parents also told a lot of stories of their childhoods, and life was so different for them that it was amazing. My dad talked a lot about jumping the train to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play and about the coal delivery truck that put coal in their cellar for heat. My mom grew up on a farm outside of Springfield, without indoor plumbing and attended a “blab” school (A Blab school was a type of school common in United States in the 19th century where books and materials were uncommon, and lessons consisted of a teacher speaking a lesson, and the students reciting it back in unison. – Wikipedia). They are both pretty young (still in their 70s) so they illustrate how much everything changed in the 50s and 60s. I guess my childhood in the 70s and 80s will fascinate my grandchildren. My oldest brother, Mark, loved history and would read history books to me all the time (we were four years apart). He loved the wars and was a huge Paton and Sherman fan. He died when I was nine, but his love and passion deeply impacted me. I found solace reading biographies. Shortly after his death, we moved to Northern Virginia – which is one big, historical marker. It is impossible not to feel the presence of the past in such a region.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History is alive for me. Of course, it was a huge part of my childhood as I mentioned previously. I think about events from the past a lot. They affect me emotionally. I suppose that is because of my brother, as well, but it feels personal. Currently I am writing a dissertation on the history of education. I am stunned by the similarities in education in 1930s Georgia and today. A few weeks ago, State School Superintendent Barge wrote a letter about the lack of funding for rural schools due to the austerity cuts and outdated QBE funding. It could have been written in 1934 – the issues he discussed were present then. It amazes me that although there have been great changes, some things don’t seem to change – like lack of funding for education, but the task of teachers expanding to meet emotional and social needs of their students.

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I taught history and I coordinate the social studies program, so I guess it is fairly all-encompassing. I think it is quite interesting that in many cases I am the “organizational history” person in meetings – I tend to have to give the background of how and why we do things the way we do. I would love to research professionally, but the writing isn’t as much fun, so I am not sure I am destined to be a great historian.

Why is studying/knowing history important?
I think it is important to know where we started, what has changed, and what remains the same. I think a lot about civil rights- my dissertation is about rural education for black children in Georgia in the 1930s. What strikes me is that even if the geography changes (more of an urban population than rural at this point) there are many continuous problems across the decades. I think if we have a deep understanding about how and why people in the past acted and thought, we can build on their efforts. It is funny, ironic really, to think that scientist build on one another’s research and are able to stand on the shoulders of giants, but educators don’t seem to build. We more swing on a pendulum of reform efforts – if we could understand how teachers sought to reach students 80 years ago and honor what worked for them, then we could continue to hone their successes. Instead, we forget what they did. By forget, I mean, disregard – not study or know. Some things that worked need adaptation. We don’t treat history like a lab science that can help us solve present day problems, but that is precisely what I think we should do.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
This is an impossible question. I love most of it. I don’t really enjoy wars – more because war is a failure of diplomacy and is so sad. Since history feels personal to me, war feels personal. I used to enjoy reading about European battles, but more for the romance than anything else. When I think about Agincourt, for example, I feel really sad for the French but love the triumph of the foot soldier over the cavalry. I don’t mean to be coy, but I like almost any history. A recent passion I discovered in a historiography course at Georgia State – the oceans history. It was fascinating to think about the Atlantic as a highway connecting Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean. I also enjoyed reading the history of the Mediterranean – not the people, but the Sea as a conduit and shaper of great civilizations.

How can today’s students benefit from studying history?
 History expands our lives from the here and now to the everywhere at every time. If you can almost grasp quantum theory, history can be that way – it takes us to different times. I live in a quaint, small town that had a cotton gin and a railroad depot. It was almost dead a decade ago, but a new industry moved in and revived it. My town is a tv set for a very popular tv series, and it thrums with the energy of tourists visiting. But what makes it so charming is the old houses and structures.

If you were given the unlimited ability to redesign k-12 social studies education, What would you do?
 I would need to be able to redesign all curriculum – I would throw out distinct subject areas because they are really false. I would devise a problem-based curriculum in which students rely on academic disciplines to solve.

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