Follow the Leaders

iStock_000001921470Small-croppedSome people are amazing. I mean, I’m not sure I know how they find the time to write, reflect, research, inspire and lead.  For me, a steady diet of their energy, through their blogs, is just the things I need to keep myself on the edge of something new, while still reminding myself of the reasons I do what I do. Here’s a few incredible educators who get me thinking (in no particular order):


  1. Granted, and… Thoughts on Education by Grant Wiggins One of the most prolific names in education because of the UbD model, Wiggins writes often and deeply about different REAL ways teaching impacts students. I really find his posts always get me thinking.
  2. The History 2.0 Classroom by Greg Kulowiec Greg is the first teacher I found on Twitter and I have been a big fan of his teaching and leading ever since. I really find Greg’s writing practical and authentic. He lives on the edge of teaching students (and now other teachers) and is always engaged in keeping theory ‘on the ground’ with the best interests of students in mind.
  3. Michael Milton’s blog and Tumblr page Having followed Michael’s tweets on #sschat for a few years, I have to say that I really, really want to be in his class (one of the best compliments I think you can give a teacher). His ideas are so creative and fun that it might be easy for students to overlook all of the solid pedagogy until they realize, “Hey, this stuff has really helped me.”
  4. Angela Hamblen’s blog One of the most organized and thoughtful history teachers I have found online has to be Angela Hamblen. Whether its Pinterest, Livebinder, or Edmodo, whether its APUSH or APGOV, her resources, lesson ideas, and calendars are so useful that I just have to bow to the master. She’s really inspiring.

What do I learn from these blogs about me?

  • I get energized, like seeing someone running just a little bit ahead of me in a race, or seeing Rocky lifting weights and getting ready for the big fight (80’s childhood). I feel like I can be a better teacher from their modeling. It just might work!
  • I feel like I belong. My early career of teaching was a little lonely, and I don’t really mean that in the ‘feel sorry for me’ way. Reflecting on my practice just wasn’t something that I shared all that much. I could try new things, but without support or feedback, it wasn’t all that research-based. My practice didn’t have the push-pull of collaborative design either. Blogs help that, especially when I connect with my teacher heroes on Twitter.
  • I love ideas. I mean I really love brainstorming. When given a problem to solve, I am a happy camper. I like the idea of improving my practice, and given some shortcomings, there’s a lot to practice on. Maybe this is the confession of a constant tinkerer, but refining how I teach to learn (and learn to teach) is just something that I’m comfortable with. Being surrounded by the ideas of others, the patterns in pedagogy, and the purpose of practice, is good for me, and these blogs supply me with a full breakfast, lunch and dinner of ideas.

From Pandora to Spotify

Got lots of ‘thumbs up’ songs on Pandora that you just wish were on Spotify? The Google extension called Pandora to Spotify Playlist Converter is your friend. Got to say that its great. I’ve been a user of Pandora since the early days of the Music Genome Project, and Spotify is a really cool upgrade to the random mix side of Pandora. Taking my 2,000 plus Pandora ‘likes’ and importing them to Spotify was easy, and it allows me to click on an artist that used to come up randomly and listen to their whole album. Love it.

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Thinking Historically

Teaching history is very different from learning it.

…or so I thought. When I think back to some of my favorite history teachers, or when I read a book about Cold War nuclear weapon policy, for instance,  or a biography of Arthur Koestler, or an interpretation of King Phillip’s War, I immersed myself in the story. I listened to the teacher in class as a powerful story-teller. I wander in and out of the chapters and pages of books, following the arc. In between all of that learning, my mind is forming questions. Back when I was in school, mostly because I was a shy student, I didn’t ask these questions out loud. I would write them in the margins of my notebook, like a secret diary of the past, with no one to look at them. But I was beginning to think historically.

As I grew older, and discovered my love for teaching, I began a journey of trying to figure out how to teach the past so that questions would be more important than answers. I wanted my students to have a place and a voice for asking the same questions I tucked away into margins and kept to myself when reading a book. I wanted them to challenge the past to a fight, rather than eat their daily nutritional helpings of ‘textbook’ for breakfast and ‘handout’ for lunch. (Tests were always what’s for dinner.)

Within the last decade or so, more an more teachers have refined the research and practice surrounding the ‘historical thinking skills’ movement. The College Board began to redesign the AP US History exam (their bread and butter money-maker). They published a framework for identifying historical thinking skills. Stanford University freely published their Reading Like a Historian lesson plans online as well as assessments that measure historical thinking, Beyond the Bubble. Professor Sam Wineburg has written extensively on why historical thinking matters. Teachers like Bruce Lesh published books based on his experiences teaching historical thinking skills in US History. Others have blogged about the different between teaching facts and teaching historical thinking. Universities began to create historical thinking projects, standardize historical thinking skills, as well as develop and share lessons on teaching historical investigations. The American Historical Association published articles on what it means to think historically. So to did, a site of resources and strategies from actual teachers and historians. The Wisconsin Historical Society wrote a book, created posters, and developed strategies for thinking historically. The National Council for Social Studies also published a report on how thinking historically can be supported in an inquiry model for college, career and civic success. Dozens of teachers have had discussions about thinking like a historian on Twitter.

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There has also been some opposition. Florida in 2006 passed a bill that included a passage, according to an article by the American Historical Association, that states, “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Textbooks still have a huge hold on schools across  the country, making billions. Others, like education researcher Diane Ravitch, has called some of the Common Core lessons with historical content a travesty. Concern for compliance with the CCSS has also been a concern for many history teachers, as there are no nationally required history standards. On the other hand, some have woven historical thinking skills with Common Core standards. The debate continues, but with more support for the vertical articulation and measurement of historical thinking skills. Stephen Lazar points out that there is no more false dichotomy with the adoption of the C3 Framework. Grant Wiggins writes that standards are not incompatible with creativity. Overall, I believe the tide is turning to support teaching historical thinking, but the work continues.

For me, thinking historically is the way in which teaching history is different from the way I learned it. This is the direction I’d like to continue to move. It’s something that energizes me and gives purpose to my practice. Give me a deep question over a quick answer any day. I’ll dig out my historical thinking tools and get to work!


Ayla is a Bergamasco sheepdog and our companion. She’s almost 7 years old and a beautiful being.

Ayla as a puppy, smiling at the beach (pre-dreads).
Ayla as a puppy, smiling at the beach (pre-dreads).
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Ayla, in her truest element, the snowy yard.
Ayla, in the yard, never really still.
Ayla, in the yard, never really still.

Jess and I have had many companions over the years, and as I was reading some morning posts, I caught two reviews from one of my favorite blogs to follow: Brain Pickings. One was a review of the book, Lost Cat: An Illustrated Meditation on Love, Loss and What It Means To Be Human. The other was a review of The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. Both offer an imaginative window into the lives of our companions, and the relationships we mutually form with each other, fully defining neither.

As I think about on my life with Ayla, Orso, Misty, and Anna, I can only be thankful that there is a mirror to reality in shared existence.  That’s more than enough.

Setting the Agenda

Since I’ve been a department chair, I’ve wondered about, struggled with, and often admired the well-run meeting. Each month at my school, history/social studies teachers gather for our department meeting at the end of the day. I’m sure its the same in many other schools. Push and pull exists between administrative initiatives and department goals. Teachers sit down either at student desks or a large table, looking around at the new notes on the board, or connecting casually (and often jovially) with their colleagues. Then at some unspoken time, the attention moves to the paper in front of them… the agenda.

When I began drafting them about a year and a half ago, I had only a little experience. I had taken some leadership courses at my previous school and had graduate courses in organizational management. Like a lot of PD and college classes, learning was definitely different from doing. I had a bunch of different thoughts about agendas. They had to be task-specific, didn’t they? Weren’t agendas a clever mix of words and ideas that took the ‘big picture’ and ‘made it actionable’ for people to actually do? If agendas were each different from one another in scope and task, I thought they would be like dominoes that fell just a millimeter away from the next one, making them meaningless in the scheme of things over time. The last thing I wanted to do was ‘spin the wheels’ of the history department.

So I thought for a while and then gave myself some reminders. What would be the center questions around which everything that happened, big and small, revolved? After the friendly intervention of a couple cups of vanilla chai, I screenshot the school letterhead logo and then added five questions:

  • What are key historical concepts students must know?
  • What historical thinking skills must students demonstrate?
  • What teaching strategies best reinforce these concepts and skills?
  • How do we effectively assess concepts and skills?
  • What resources do we have/need to be more successful?

Fourteen meetings on they are still there, hopefully doing their best to match my intentions with my actions as a teacher and department chair.

Now that many of our own department goals are in full swing (more on these in another post), those five questions alone don’t seem like enough. We’re busy people with lots of things on our professional minds, especially as the school year steadily moves on.

So, I’m going to do my best to set, keep, and (hopefully) achieve these four goals:

  • Sustain momentum. Our school just completed its 10 year accreditation. We are now using a new database system for everything and soon, for the first time, going to make our grades public. We are in our first year of implementing the MA educator evaluation system. Next year our 9-12 school is adding grades 7-8 as a STEM academy. Curriculum is constantly being revised according to mandated standards and student-centered goals. The list goes on. I want to make sure that each task, each initiative, and each collaborative project builds on the last. There has to be a link that connects our work, building and moving forward. In order to do this, we have to have a common, shared vision of our goal. We have to see small wins as important steps in that direction, because as all teachers know, edu-change doesn’t happen immediately.
  • Focus our purpose. Momentum without clarity is like stumbling in the dark, even if you know where the furniture is. For us, we have to see the reasons for our actions and believe that they will improve our practice and student outcomes. Compliance isn’t enough. We have to help each other see the connections when we falter, and yes, sometimes that happens to me too. Purpose gives me energy, and questioning that purpose doesn’t detract from its end. If anything it helps me refine my thoughts. As a team, having the flexibility to make adjustments towards a shared vision is a strength. Being single-minded, even in education, can be fanatical and counter-productive to helping students learn those same collaborative networking skills. Reminding ourselves of our purpose, and finding different ways to test its boundaries, makes us stronger, and more productive, as a team.
  • Build capacity. For me, I want the next year to be different from the last. I try to keep myself in an adaptive mindset, seeing growth as necessary as food. This is one of the reasons I love edcamps. Filled with free, fully democratic workshops, teachers share openly with one another ideas, questions and skills. They are the perfect tool for building individual and group capacity. Although department meetings aren’t the only time for us as a team to grow, the goal of adding to our toolbox,  or expanding our repertoire, is a very important one. The means to do this are varied, but simple ‘smackdowns‘ are easy ways to begin.
  • And most importantly, listen. I don’t have the answers, but I’d like to think I am really good at asking questions. Maybe this comes from believing that true change didn’t come in American history from institutions or acknowledged leaders, but from radicals, free-thinkers, and dreamers. Why wouldn’t that be true for schools (and even history departments) as well? If I want to grow as a professional, I have to do it with the help of others. I benefit most when in a group, listening – not speaking. Empathy comes to those who pause, reflect, and hear other perspectives – especially those who push back. No idea is so strong that it can’t sustain debate.

Of course, each meeting is different. Each day, week, and month of growth and change brings unintended consequences. Navigating those, to benefit student learning, is ‘the agenda’.



Brainstorming Geography

geography_-_mapIn preparing a framework for a 7th grade Geography curriculum in a STEM Academy, I’ve found bits and pieces from different districts that touch on key concepts and content. Out goal is to combine physical geography with human geography in an inquiry based, problem solving model. There’s a lot of work to be done, but much has been laid out for us by other outstanding educators and institutions. First, I found some great essential questions in an outstanding curriculum from Neshaminy School District in Langhorne, Pennsylvania:
  • Is ethnocentrism and patriotism the same thing?
  • Does every culture think in terms of national “winners” and “losers” and do all cultures define them in the same way?
  • Why do geographic commonalities of a region create a unique world-view?
  • What is it that unites a group of people?
  • How do human actions modify the physical environment and what impact does that change have on human culture?
  • How does cooperation and conflict among people affect the earth’s surface?
I also liked these enduring understandings:
  • As the land shapes the people, the people shape the land.
  • Different is just different not necessarily wrong.
  • The people in each region develop a world view based on sets of common characteristics.
  • Ethnocentrism appears in all cultures.
  • The Interaction between people and nations creates “winners” and “losers” measured in the comparative levels of change and progress experienced by those societies.
For critical thinking and problem solving, I like this teacher’s approach: These essential questions are also good prompts to shape discussion (from Shelby County School District, in Tennessee):
  • How does culture affect a person’s view of themselves, others, and the world?
  • What impact does economics have on people, governments, and global relations?
  • How do the physical systems of the world affect the human systems?
  • How does government affect people, economics, and global issues?
  • What can history teach people about themselves, their country, and the global community?
  • What is my role as a member of the global world? (This question I think is vital.)
Finally, the AP Human Geography course has outstanding guidelines: as well as the National Geographic Standards Index: 

Crossroads of Freedom & Equality

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to my History/Social Studies department teachers concerning resources they might use in their courses connecting lessons, activities, discussions and more to African American History Month. I wanted to begin a discussion with my colleagues about:

  1. key topics we’d like to integrate into core and elective courses
  2. reasons why its important to do so
  3. what the most effective ways are to do so

DEOMI 2013 African American Black History Month Poster (1)Over the last few years, these questions have also been important ones asked by the #sschat team of educators as well. Some of the best are Current Events (1), Current Events (2), Teaching the World Today, Teaching Controversial Topics, Life Changing Lessons, Teaching the Middle East, and Covering Live Events. While its true that we all understand how important it is to develop thinking skills necessary for active citizenship, finding the most effective way to do that is not always easy or apparent. Continued collaboration is so vital for me, as an educator, to find my way through social and moral questions created by my lessons. As a department head, I also want to create a climate where that collaboration is welcomed and sustained.

This year’s official theme for African American History Month is “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on WashingtonSo here’s some resources and ideas:

Outstanding documentaries and their accompanying website:
Full lesson plans from Edsitement (National Endowment for the Humanities) regarding Black History Month:
  • Many of these lesson plans have interactive online components as well as a direct primary source reading. They also contain already made student handouts.
  • @Edsitement on Twitter is fully supportive. They respond to tweets almost instantly and are very interested in connecting with history teachers around the world. 
African American History Month (for teachers) website
  • Links are provided here from the National Archives, Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, and National Endowment for the Humanities
An interesting article from Edutopia concerning 6 Teaching Tools for African American History Month Included are…
  • Discussion concerning shifting the lens by the University of NC
  • Interactive resources from
  • Interactive resources from Scholastic
  • Lesson plans and articles from the NYT Learning Network
  • Lessons and resources from the NEA
  • Resources and collections from the Smithsonian
Teaching African American History Month with Primary Sources
  • This is a 16 page PDF (for those teaching US2) with some great primary sources of images, documents, paintings, political cartoons, maps and more. 
Day by day facts, stories and lessons for each day in February focused on African American History from primarysource.orgat 

December 7th 1951

This is a previous blog post I originally published on September 11, 2011. In light of the Pearl Harbor anniversary, I thought I would republish it today.

While I am sitting here typing and reflecting on the events on September 11th 2001 from a decade’s hindsight, my thoughts wandered to the 10 year anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1951.  So I asked…

Almost immediately, I received a response. Someone suggested using Google News Archive to look for information from newspapers on that date. I had no idea Google had been scanning newspapers, but it made sense to me, considering all of the other scanning they are doing. I went to the site and found a whole paper from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from December 7th 1951. You can view the paper by clicking below. [Note: Use the toolbar at the top to zoom out or request a full page view.] This is an image of page 38 of 42. The story was not a focus of the media. If you go to the link and read the left and right columns, you will find some odd human interest stories, but not central news. From a cultural perspective, notice also the number of advertisements and their focus (heavily influencing women to buy).

Within this page, there are three small columns concerning the Pearl Harbor attack that brought the US to declare war on Japan and formally enter World War 2. Notice the titles.(You can click on the images for a larger viewing, in order to read the text.)

The article that makes me think the most as a historian is this one. “Gone is the sublime and wonderful confidence that American boys plus American arms plus American production, can make short work of any and all enemies.” “Today they know that a killer-nation is not likely to observe the amenities and conform to etiquette.” Is the journalist referring to the nuclear age that cast a shadow over the world, especially in the midst of the Korean War (as December 7th 1951 was), or do they recall the surprise attack on the “day that will live in infamy”?

The article below also reflects a new reality concerning war: dissent and public opinion. I found it fascinating that a rally was held in which President Roosevelt was denounced as “Chief American warmonger” at an America First rally. What would have been the reaction to rallies against the invasion of Iraq that occurred in January and February of 2003 if the 9/11 attacks had happened in their midst? As the editors stated, “Nothing could have united the American people so immediately and completely.”

While my TV shows every network focusing on the memorial events of the World Trade Center, as well as at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, I wonder if some consider the “penalties of leadership” written above to reflect our future, not just that of 1951. Did we ever have that “sublime and wonderful confidence”? Will we? Should we? These are questions I hope to introduce in my US History classes this week.

Bridging Wor(l)ds

When I was a teenager, I would write prolifically on my computer. Sometimes I would try to model my favorite poetry depending on whether I was reading Emerson or Blake. Often, I would write very short stories then seemed like scenes from someone looking out the window of a fast moving car to a busy sidewalk. Other times, I would reflect on my own life and try to place events in some kind of order, hopefully leading to meaning, and possibly purpose. My computer was my muse, and when I felt bold, I would go to my dot matrix printer and set myself to ‘publishing’ my thoughts for an illusory audience of some critics and many admirers. What I collected over this years eventually filled many binders and reams of paper, but its collective worth was only valued by my own imagined currency.

Now, I find myself living in the world, not trying to create one. I have found a path to walk. Through teaching, I satisfy my desire to learn and my need to contribute to a better world. Much of my time is spent thinking about small actions within big plans, about helping students find their way into a forest of questions, and then back out again. Small successes and looming challenges become part of each day, and its good enough.

Today, for some reason, I felt I needed to build some kind of bridge between the past and the present. I’ve wanted to write reflectively for some time, while finding many convenient reason (excuses?) for not doing so. Would the world suffer if I wrote a bad poem? Probably not, but one can never be too sure. Every reflection is growth. Every dream is as real as each breath.