Choices Teaching Fellows

Steven Seltz

Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice
Brooklyn, NY

The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice is a small public high school, located in downtown Brooklyn. The student body is composed of 450 students, drawn mainly from Brooklyn. The students are predominantly Black and Hispanic, and many are the first generation in their families to matriculate to college. Approximately 75% of the school is classified as Title I. SLJ has a law theme, partnering with law firms and legal organizations around the city for enrichment and internship opportunities.

What course you currently teach where you use Choices material.

The main course that I teach is the second half of our Global History and Geography sequence. The class is a survey of 20th century world history with a focus on the impact of the Cold War and post-Cold War era on various regions of world. As a senior class, a major goal of the course is to prepare students for college freshman-level research, reading, and writing.

How do you use the Choices unit(s) in the course?

Much of the first semester of the class is structured around class debates and roundtable discussions based on a few Choices units. To begin our study of the origins of the Cold War, we use elements from Ending the War Against Japan: Science, Morality, and the Atomic Bomb and The Origins of the Cold War: U.S. Choices after World War II. These units serve to establish the importance of the new technology of the atomic bomb in the Cold War. For specific case studies of Cold War politics and "hot spots," we use The Cuban Missile Crisis: Considering its Place in Cold War History and Iran Through the Looking Glass: History, Reform, and Revolution. Finally, in order to explore the challenges presented by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the modern era of nuclear proliferation, we use The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons, Russia's Transformation: Challenges for U.S. Policy, Conflict on the Korean Peninsula: North Korea and the Nuclear Threat, and Responding to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy.

Do you use the Scholars Online videos? How do they supplement the unit(s) you use in the course?

In discussing the challenges of nuclear proliferation, I have used the Scholars Online portion of The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons. The short lectures by Joseph Cirincone are particularly helpful in framing debate questions for students when discussing recent developments in Iran and North Korea.

What do your students say about Choices units?

My students usually comment positively on the level of historical depth that they find in the background readings from Choices. Where their previous textbooks might have dealt with an issue such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in a couple paragraphs, the Choices materials do a great job of providing context for the whole story.

Teachers are always pressed for time. How do you fit Choices into the course?

I usually modify my units to streamline some parts of the Choices materials (perhaps taking part of the text and presenting it as a lecture, for example), while allowing more time for areas that I think my students need to concentrate. By saving time in one area, I am able to (for example) block out class time for the study of primary sources one day, or reserve time for the drafting of arguments.

How do you adapt/modify the Unit to fit your needs?

Many of my students read far below grade level and so face great difficulty in navigating both the background readings and primary documents. I usually have to provide some scaffolding in terms of building vocabulary prior to assigning the readings.

What advice would you give to a teacher who has never used Choices before but is considering trying the unit you've discussed here?

I would say that, while the reading materials are at first glance rather daunting, the rewards of guiding students through a Choices unit to the culminating debate are well worth the challenge. The texts are challenging, and the time needed for students to fully articulate a position is great, but the experience of taking on a specific point of view (and a point of view grounded in historical evidence) has been very valuable for my students. I find that their understanding of complex issues is much greater after a Choices unit than after most other learning experiences.