Category Archives: Learning

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.

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!

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’.



Umm… A Year in Review

My first year in a new school! Let’s see if I can remember all of the mistakes made, lessons learned, tasks attacked, projects fled, flags planted, and strategic retreats. Above all, let’s see if I can reflect on my teaching and its impact on students.

I came in to a new school and a new position with three goals: 1) be healthy, 2) grow professionally, and 3) empower others.

So, it’s September. I sit in the auditorium and listen to speeches and welcomes as the school year begins. I meet my team of department chairs and got to know my history colleagues, cautiously at first, but more and more as the weeks and months went by. Riding a wave of change in the school, I learn about a district reorganization of grades 7 and 8 to the high school in a STEM school-within-a-school initiative. I get my iPad and look at all of my freshmen students looking back at me with their iPads in their hands. I participate in many meetings and professional development, learning to (hopefully) weave the skills of observation and evaluation into a broader repertoire of instructional leadership. At the same time, I think about my own teaching and how I can adjust it effectively to a new school community. I drive almost an hour (and an hour back) to school each day. I listen to many, many podcasts from the BBC, CSPAN, This American Life, the Moth, Radiolab, NPR and more. I think a lot, work hard, and do my best to keep all decisions guided by good intentions.

The year goes by, and day by day I get to know my students a little bit better. I try to develop a groove. A caring and engaged personality, depth, good questions, historical thinking skills and lots of patience become the ingredients I try to mix into each class.

It doesn’t always work. I find that I don’t need to focus as much on inappropriate behavior as much as I do on checking for understanding. I try to model good work habits but that doesn’t always pan out either. I create an online community using Schoology, but find that I need to do a better job to create an intrinsically engaging place for students to write, share, wonder and question history. As is the case in previous years, I rediscover how challenging good teaching can be. But I love it.

There are laughs, and there are times when I see a student struggling inside with anxiety, depression, stress and the normal difficulties of adolescence. I reach out. I try to console and guide, as best I can. Snow comes and it’s a deeply white winter. I see students grow, both physically and developmentally. I grow too. My department colleagues have become a support network for me. Sometimes we share common gripes. Other times we laugh at ourselves, or with others. We bond.

I develop a growing respect for my history colleagues. I notice patterns in practice and I try to place advice and guidance strategically. Everyone has different strengths, but one thing becomes apparent. History teachers like to talk history. They appreciate time spent focusing on teaching and instruction, specific to their discipline – and I do too. Meanwhile, the district strategic plan continues to develop. We develop an inquiry and problem/project based model for the STEM Academy. We plan for these changes by revising the schedule and remapping the building for a shared facilities plan.

Simultaneously, all teachers in the building complete the laborious task of planning and preparing for our accreditation (scheduled for October 2013). All teachers also work studiously to update curriculum into a web based mapping program called Atlas. This is a year filled with change, and the hard work to make it successful for students. I’m learning, and growing, just like a student.

Spring comes. Some project deadlines approach. The APUSH exam creeps closer every day, and I find myself fighting an old battle. In my corner, understanding. In my opponent’s corner, coverage. The students, often, become collateral damage in the process. I tell myself that I’ve learned more each year about my practice, but at times, all I have to do is look at old scars to see where I’ve been.

This year, however, I have a team with me. As a department, we decide early in the school year to focus our practice on historical thinking skills. In monthly meetings, we carve out time from school-wide agendas to have further discussions concerning the 9-12 (and quickly approaching 7-12) pathway for history courses, vertical alignment of historical thinking skills, best practices and more. We design a common mid-term exam and final for Humanities. We discuss ways in which technology (and iPads) have enhanced instruction and presented new challenges. We problem-solve.

The new evaluation system is introduced to the faculty, though I have been receiving training for months. Much still needs to be negotiated, but state law requires that we comply, even though our school is a year behind schedule. The administration also purchases a new data management and analysis system for the district. In comes PowerSchool. Out goes the DOS-built AS400. I try to stay ahead as much as possible of the wave of change. I ask questions. I attend workshops.

After the APUSH exam, I shift my course from a teacher-driven one to a student-centered model. Independent projects abound, and a lighter atmosphere of questions and research begins. We watch some movies, and talk about the plot, its context, and its sub-text for society and historians. My Humanities students are almost done with their freshmen year of high school, although there’s still work to be done. I focus more on skill-based projects while my ELA co-teacher moves from literature unit to unit. It’s a full year inclusion class, with lots of differentiation and support. I am beginning to miss the students, even before the last month of school.

Graduation comes. I learn that having a perfect 4.0 grade point average still ranks you at 74th in the graduating class. Then, in the sun, my imagination wanders. Like every adult on the field, I feel like I am part in a very important coming-of-age ritual for children. Somewhere I dream there should be village elders carving the finest bull for a feast. There should be dancing around a fire and songs chanted in a deafening symphony of voices – the whole of the community. And then, I attend an individual ceremony for each child becoming a man or woman, being received with respect, and naming themselves something unique and eternal. Suddenly, I am back in my folding chair, on the graduation field. The future is before me, and its good.

The final weeks and days are here. I begin to reflect. I haven’t blogged regularly throughout the year. Check minus. I’ve gained new colleagues and friends. Check plus. I think back on missed opportunities and second guesses, but also look at my own growth, and its ok. “Next year”, I tell myself. Ideas bloom like my backyard rosebush, all at once. Inquiry based instruction. 20% creative time for students. E-portfolios. A shared, engaging, online classroom community. Authentic assessments. Challenging ethical values in history. Field trips. Creative iPad projects. More. More. More.

I look back at the year as a whole as I sit on the 4th of July writing this. The finer details aren’t part of this reflection, which is a telescopic view of one school year. From afar, I see NEASC. iPads. STEM. A new evaluation system. APUSH. Observations. PowerSchool. Co-teaching. Writing curriculum. Humanities. Being a department chair. The commute. Late nights. New school. New colleagues. New friends. New students.

It’s been a good year.

4 Corners Support/Oppose

support-oppose-logoFor years now, I have been using Support/Oppose statements in my APUSH, US History and Multicultural Studies courses to encourage debate and deepen discussion. I’ve also written about past lessons using a 4 corners dialogue/debate model in my classes. These statements are meant to encourage debate, and so some of them are highly controversial. I’ve  used them in my classroom to facilitate a 4 corners discussion with students. Each corner has strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose and strongly oppose written on a piece of paper. Students who are undecided go to the middle of the room without judgment. As a facilitator, I prompt students to share their beliefs and have them move from one corner to another depending on the prompt. This dialogue and debate encourages students to explore deeply many sides to one particular issue. The goal is to gain and analyze perspective, in order to evaluate and problem solve, not just to soapbox. Sometimes individual debates rise between students, and depending on how it enriches the discussion, and stays on the issues, it is not prohibited. I am the official who has the ability to move the discussion, but the truth is that conversation grows organically. Even students who do not speak are engaged critically, as their exit cards show.

We follow the rules of deliberative dialogue from the Choices Program at Brown University: and

  • I demonstrated knowledge of the topic. This was made evident by reference to a variety of resources from multiple perspectives.
  • I demonstrated an appreciation of the contributions that multiple perspectives bring to the topic. This was made evident by reference to competing perspectives and the merits and trade-offs of each.
  • I listened to and respected the knowledge, views and values of others. This was made evident by listening carefully, asking clarifying questions, and building on the ideas of others, while not dominating conversation.

As with all things in the classroom, this is still a work-in-progress. Below is a list of support/oppose statements I’ve used in the past. Please make suggestions, additions or modifications. I’ve been working on different means to assess student participation and measure depth of analysis, as well. There are many different methods that I’m in the process of adapting from Socratic Seminar models. In class, we use a very useful classroom discussion guideline developed by Angela Cunningham in KY.




  • The good of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
  • The Axis Powers had to be stopped, no matter what.
  • Killing civilians is a war crime.
  • All citizens must sacrifice when their country goes to war.
  • Hitler’s racism was worse than America’s racism.
  • Women won the war.
  • Stalin killed more people than Hitler. Allying with him was wrong.
  • Appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive.
  • If the US has the power to stop a genocide, it must.
  • America could have remained neutral.
  • When the war was over, women should give up their jobs to men.
  • The US must continue to use atom bombs until the Japanese surrender.
  • A draft is undemocratic.
  • Dissent is treason during a war.
  • The Jews could have fought back.
  • Winning the war means destroying the enemy completely.
  • Every NAZI soldier is guilty of war crimes.
  • Creating peace is harder than fighting a war.
  • Another World War is impossible today.


  • The strength of the U.S. lies in its diversity, particularly in the fresh ideas and cultures provided by new immigrants.
  • High levels of immigration threaten America’s unique culture.
  • Promoting America’s economic strength should be the guiding principle underlying our country’s immigration policy.
  • The U.S. cannot isolate itself from problems beyond our borders.
  • The U.S. must remain a symbol of hope and opportunity for the people of the world.
  • Loose border control makes us vulnerable to drug trafficking and terrorism.
  • Developing well-crafted foreign aid and trade programs can help people in poor countries and discourage immigration to the U.S.
  • The U.S. needs immigrants to contribute to our economic growth.


  • Only American citizens deserve political representation.
  • Law enforcement should have the right to randomly check an individual’s citizenship.
  • Rights should apply to all individuals, not just citizens.
  • Anti-immigrant sentiment is racist.
  • All individuals have a right to work.
  • Employers who hire illegal immigrants should be jailed.
  • The government should actively fight racism, discrimination and hate crimes.
  • The good of the community should outweigh the need of the individual.
  • Accepting cultural diversity makes America stronger.


  • There are too many immigrants coming to the United States.
  • The U.S. government should put more Immigration and Naturalization Service border patrol agents on the border with Mexico.
  • U.S. immigration policy has been fair to all groups entering the U.S.
  • If a country is having economic problems, the U.S. should allow its residents to come here for a better life.
  • Having a variety of cultures and languages in America benefits everyone.
  • Illegal immigrants take away jobs from U.S. citizens.
  • Most immigrants come to the U.S. just to get on welfare.
  • If a country is having political problems, the U.S. should allow persecuted citizens from this country to seek asylum here.
  • Everyone who comes to the U.S. should be required to learn English.
  • Immigration has helped the United States.


  • Adults are not born, but made.
  • Rituals exist to influence values & beliefs.
  • Rituals shape group, not individual, identity.
  • Diversity weakens rituals in American society.
  • American rituals lack meaning.
  • Cultural rituals have enriched my life.
  • Religious rituals are more meaningful than secular ones.


  • All cultures are equal.
  • Race is an illusion.
  • People can be both united and diverse.
  • Multiculturalism dilutes cultural uniqueness.
  • Culture is a choice; culture is taught.
  • Biracial individuals can choose their race.
  • America is a ‘melting pot’.


  • Women should serve equally in all areas in the military.
  • Women make strong world leaders.
  • Laws should enforce equal pay for equal work.
  • Sexual violence should receive maximum prison sentences.
  • Positions in government should be divided equally by gender.
  • The rights of women should be equally enforced in all countries.


  • The United States is a fundamentally classless society.
  • We are a middle class nation.
  • We are all getting richer.
  • It is possible to create economic equality.
  • Everyone has an equal chance to gain wealth in America.
  • Class division affects all ethnic groups equally.


  • Some rights must be given up to guarantee security.
  • Preemptive military action prevents terrorism.
  • Racial profiling based on suspicion is never justified.
  • Civil Liberties can never be abrogated.


  • There are conditions which make non-violent direct action impossible.
  • Power cannot be given. It must be gained.
  • “Peace begins when the hungry are fed.” – Anonymous
  • “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”- Jimi Hendrix
  • “There is no such thing as a defeat in non-violence.” – Cesar Chaves
  • “Character is power.” Booker T. Washington
  • All power can be lost.
  • People have the power to change anything in the society.


  • The Constitution should be interpreted literally.
  • The government can use the military to enforce laws.
  • Unrestrained democracy is no danger to the United States.
  • “A national debt, if not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.”
  • “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”


  • Racism heavily influenced class division.
  • It is the role of a democratic government to protect its citizens from economic exploitation.
  • Assimilation is a necessity. Diversity is a choice.
  • Capitalism was the cause of industrialization’s inequalities.
  • Immigration is a not a right in a democracy.


  • The Civil War was worth its cost.
  • Racial equality depends on government action
  • Economic power determines political power (south, north)
  • Political freedom cannot exist without an economic foundation.


  • Religious beliefs shape cultural identity.
  • Religious tolerance requires democratic values.
  • Freedom of religion is a democratic right.
  • Cultural diversity necessitates religious tolerance.
  • Religious values are separate from civil rights issues.
  • Religion is society’s greatest organizing principal.
  • Multiculturalism reduces religious conflict.
  • Modern religions do not form culturally distinct groups.
  • American culture is religiously tolerant

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: 

Sunday Morning Scan

Browsing Twitter on Sunday mornings is a pleasure. Although the week’s Tweets are always useful, I enjoy taking the time to scan, check out websites, collect primary sources, catalogue different classroom strategies, read teacher’s blogs, and comment back to a great pool of educators, on Sunday morning. Here are a few ‘finds’ from recent tweets as well as old resources. Let me know if you find them useful!
  • EdCafes: I saw this demonstrated at last year’s EdcampBoston and thought it had potential for a history class. The creator is Katrina Kennett (Plymouth South) and the basic idea is that students become facilitaor/presenters on topics of their choice related to a theme covered in class. In their words, “An EdCafe is a way to structure class that promotes student choice and ownership over learning. The model was inspired by EdCamp conferences, where participants build the schedule and choose what sessions to attend. This bottom-up approach shifts energy, engagement, and opportunity for exploration to the students, and transforms the teacher into expert facilitator instead of gatekeeper/manager.” Usually, there are four presentations going on in one class, and presentations are scheduled up to a month ahead. There’s a heavy amount of preparation for each student presenter and responsibilities for the participants as well. Katrina teaches this model with an ELA class, but it can be applied to history easily enough. Her site offers an explanation of what an Edcafe is, ideas for scaffolding skills, standards and assessments, advice for students, and examples of Edcafes in action.
  • American History Madness: I’ve actually done this project on paper for a couple of years and many of you have probably heard of it. I originally got the idea from this article on applying the NCAA Final Four brackets to a history class. Other teachers have built many variations on this idea. Mine was usually a poster-board with groups of students defending different outcomes. The teacher sponsoring this American History Madness blog has incorporated Google Forms and student presentations and blogs into his version. Its much more interactive, and allows/encourages the public to vote as well. With the iPads in many classes, its easy for us to facilitate and publish student presentations online. Students are also expected to be able to debate their positions. 
  • PPT Palooza: If you’re like me, and have created 100’s of PPTs over the years, this site makes me sigh, but in a good way. Susan Pojer has created hundreds of PPTs for US and World History that are absolutely amazing. She’s also linked some from other teachers and students. Check them out. I use them all the time now, and they also make for great backgrounds to screencasts, which are teacher-made YouTube video lectures. Using sites like Screencastomatic and others, its really easy to record yourself on audio while walking your students through a PPT or website on your computer. If you have any questions about how to make these, I can show you. It’s really easy and allows you to give lectures for students to do at home, so you can focus more time in class on inquiry, debates, projects, and basically homework (applied learning). The new buzzword is ‘flipped class’, but it has its merits, especially when students have their own iPads and mobile devices. 
  • Zinn Education Project: Even though Howard Zinn’s speeches and politics were controversial, his application of critical thinking in studying history was not. I’ve used the People’s History of the US (annotated teachers edition) as well as Voices of a People’s History in my APUSH classes for years, asking students to support or oppose his non-neutral stance on US History with evidence. I didn’t really care which position students took, as long as they learned the tools of historiography in the process. This website has a huge amount of teaching material that is free. All of the lessons involve different levels of critical thinking and student engagement (many have role plays), which I have always found useful. The Facebook page for the Zinn Education Project has a new primary source document highlighted almost every day as well. There’s also a free downloadable full teacher guide to Voices of a People’s History available on their site as well. so is a useful feature. There are also videos of actors reading primary sources from Voices of a People’s History that you can play in class. 

First Meeting

August 28th was the first professional development day for Sandwich Public Schools for the 2012-2013 school year. As a new teacher in the district, I quickly saw a tone set by the administration. After the pledge,  national anthem, and speeches, each of the four principals in the district took turns honoring their employee of the year. Heartfelt stories of true passion for teaching, compassion for others, and dedication to work, were told by each principal while standing ovations were given by colleagues to honor outstanding educators. It was a wonderful experience to begin the year, and said to me something great about a district where teachers are heroes.

We then went to our department meetings. In the history department, we focused our discussion around five central questions:

  • What are key historical concepts students must know?

  •  What historical thinking skills must students be able to demonstrate?

  • What teaching strategies reinforce these concepts and skills?

  •  How do we effectively assess these concepts and skills?

  • What resources do we have/need to be more successful?

The discussion that followed focused on many topics, such as making differentiation more authentic, setting clear expectations for historical thinking skills vertically from grades 9-12, making the integration of technology more collaborative, reinforcing basic geography skills, and more. The caliber of experience in the room, along with a clear desire to strengthen and support the teaching of History and Social Studies, was obvious. It’s going to be a great year.


Teacher Blog Recommends

Blogs are really interesting windows into how others create, share and reflect on their lives. I highly recommend using Google Reader, or some other RSS feed to follow the posts of some great educators: Vicki Davis (Cool Cat Teacher), Stephen Lazar (Outside the Cave), Terie Engelbrecht (Crazy Teaching) and Michael K. Milton (@42thinkdeep). Their posts give me the chance to learn more about pedagogy, sharpen my lesson design and implementation, share resources and overall, help me grow as a professional. Check them out!

Reflecting on APUSH Strategies

[notice]A colleague of mine recently asked me about teaching strategies for APUSH, specifically in regard to having students learn from their textbook and lectures. As I was responding, I thought it would be a good idea to share and reflect a bit more in depth on what worked and what didn’t. Here are some of the ups and downs I had last year.[/notice]

I began the year using a couple of different strategies. First, I made a pacing guide with each day mapped out for what students had to read. This meant that the topics we covered in class that day would come from the reading the night before. Quizzes could follow on that pace too. Kids actually loved the quizzes. It compartmentalized their studying. That has strengths and weaknesses, but overall it kept people on their toes.

I also used Schoology discussion boards in the beginning of the year to have students identify three strengths concerning the content and three weaknesses. I asked them to share them on the discussion board each week/chapter.

It was a graded assignment. Here’s how I framed it to students:

Knowing what we don’t know if the first step to understanding. Very simply, write three statements of topics in your reading so far that you understand well and then list three topics (events, issues or individuals) that you would like to know more about. We’re going to help each other study. Respond to students that you have a common strength with from the text, and help another student with an area that they do not fully understand.

Evaluation: You will receive 20 points for sharing a strength and 80 points for helping another student with a weakness. Thanks!

So, for instance, one student wrote: ‘Strengths- Early War, Anaconda Plan, War in the West
Weaknesses- Changes wrought by war, Homefront’ and another student responded:

‘For the Homefront, a big issue was keeping the civilian morale high during the Civil War. Both the Union and the Confederacy desperately needed the loyalty of the people living within their territories in order to win the Civil War. There were religious revivals during this time to help keep civilians enthusiastic about the war and loyal to their side, these revivals also helped people deal with the death of families members who were fighting and gave them hope to a wars end. Also during this time, newspapers and letters were being written and read more often by ordinary citizens who were trying to keep tabs on the war. For some lucky Americans, the war brought riches to them, and in the South those who broke through the Union’s blockade were able to make hefty profits from selling goods. Although some Americans made money during the war, most were deprived of resources that were given to the armies. In the North, the war opened up job opportunities for women and blacks, but the working wages were low and the inflation of money was high. In the South, there were a lot of supply shortages and many hardships for civilians to endure. Families had lost their slaves and homes, and food was becoming scarce.’

This worked fairly well for the students in the beginning of the year. They were helping each other understand the content, and because 80 points was the big ‘grade’, they needed to do so. 20 points for touting what you know well is only the icing on the cake. I called this whole thing ‘collaborative study’, and because it was online, it managed itself. I just had to moderate it and add follow ups and comments to facilitate a deeper discussion and answer some weaknesses that didn’t get responses.

Textbook discussion: Please post comments and questions here concerning the textbook, or any one particular part in it. This week’s topic is progressivism and there’s a lot that’s new here. Let’s break down and build up our understanding. :)

Monday Essential Questions: Scan the chapter. Everyone is responsible for creating one essential question. The EQ should focus on broad topics that provoke deeper thinking. For examples, look here: You don’t need to answer them. This isn’t an essay assignment. I’ll facilitate a discussion based on your questions. If I ask a follow up, please respond and jump in.

Tuesday ID/Vocabulary: First come, first served. Everyone will add 2 ID terms, with a definition that explains the content and context of the term. They do not have to be proper nouns, but they should be central to the chapter’s topics and themes. If you really need help, go to the flashcards section of MyHistoryLab.

Wednesday Primary Sources: Each student will add 1 image and 1 quoted document from the time period and content covered in the chapter. For each image, you must describe it fully and draw 2 inferences, fully explained. For each document, you must provide the link, quote a selection, and then draw 2 inferences from it, fully explained. First come, first served. No duplications. Use MyHistoryLab if you need help.

Thursday Q & A: Each student will ask 5 questions concerning the content in the chapter. Questions can be ones that you would like to know or about something you don’t understand. Each student will answer at least 1 question. I will answer some as well. Each question must be a separate post.

Friday Smackdown (Debate): OK. Here’s where we debate different topics, depending on the content of the chapter. Each student will take one position. They will have to defend it, using reason and evidence. They also have to respond to three others. Choose from strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose. The goal is to win the most supporters, and create consensus for your position. Try to win over others. This is first come, first served as well. Debate it over the weekend.

Towards the end of the semester, I asked students to do more weekly assignments (essays, projects, debates, etc.) and this broke them out of the mold of the daily assignments. To be honest, some of those after 10 weeks or so were becoming stale. The EQ were not as sharp, and the Q/A were formalities rather than authentic questions. I needed to shake it up.

I began to structure debates/discussions in the class around specific topics for greater depth. Here’s an example of the four corners approach on the 1960’s. It’s a pretty straight forward assignment, and its easy to do in class too (and often more authentic):

In this graded discussion assignment, you will take the positions of strongly support, strongly oppose, somewhat support and somewhat oppose. Each position that you take must have a primary source that supports your point, and/or provides context for the point you are making.

The Civil Rights Movement increased equality in America.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was exaggerated.

The Vietnam War was not winnable.

The Great Society was a success.

Choose two of the four above and take a stand. Please include your primary source documents as viewable attachments to your posts. Remember to respond to another student’s post to build a discussion on these issues, events and people. Greater participation in the discussion increases your grade.

This is a lot more work, and requires more preparation and content knowledge up front, but it produced some interesting results. Obviously, the statements have to be structured so that they are more open ended, able to be answered with different perspectives. Lots of kids strongly disagreed with the Cuban Missile Crisis statement. That one was too much of a softball from me.

I got a little more controversial (or engaging, depending on how you look at it) with the WW2 Support/Oppose statements:

  • The good of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
  • The Axis Powers had to be stopped, no matter what.
  • Killing civilians is a war crime.
  • All citizens must sacrifice when their country goes to war.
  • Hitler’s racism was worse than America’s racism.
  • Women won the war.
  • Stalin killed more people than Hitler. Allying with him was wrong.
  • Appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive.
  • If the US has the power to stop a genocide, it must.
  • America could have remained neutral.
  • When the war was over, women should give up their jobs to men.
  • The US must continue to use atom bombs until the Japanese surrender.
  • A draft is undemocratic.
  • Dissent is treason during a war.
  • The Jews could have fought back.
  • Winning the war means destroying the enemy completely.
  • Every NAZI soldier is guilty of war crimes.
  • Creating peace is harder than fighting a war.
  • Another World War is impossible today.

Howard Zinn’s Teaching Guide to Voices from a People’s History of the US (available on the Zinn History Project website for free) was also a great repository of ‘debatable’ conclusions on recent history. I used some of them the closer I got to the present. This set is from the 1970’s:

Please take a position on four of the following statements and provide primary source evidence to support your position. Remember to choose from strongly support, somewhat support, strongly oppose or somewhat oppose.

  1. Throughout history, those in power used a long-standing practice of “divide and conquer” to keep marginalized groups of ordinary people from demanding their rights.
  2. The voices of resistance from the 1960s are the direct consequence of historical social, political, economic, and ideological oppression.
  3. A counterculture comprised of persons and groups who are ignored and marginalized by society profoundly influenced United States politics in the 1960s and 1970s.
  4. Many of the counterculture social movements saw issues of oppression as being interlinked.
  5. An ideology of social control and punishment has dominated United States incarceration practices, rather than a philosophy of rehabilitation.
  6. The political, economic, and social ferment of the 1960s created a positive environment for the growth of the counterculture movement.
  7. Women of the 1960s united in many ways to give voice to their desire for liberation: demanding equality; legally challenging the right to make decisions about their own bodies; joining consciousness-raising women’s groups; and frankly discussing sex and sexual roles.
  8. Within the myriad liberation efforts of the 1960s, many people expressed a desire to unite against the “common oppression . . . of control and indoctrination.”
  9. Because the United States prison system was “an extreme reflection of the American system itself,” it was in need of the same dramatic reforms that the counterculture demanded for United States society as a whole.
  10. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a “loss of faith in big powers” and a corresponding “stronger belief in self.”

Evaluation: Students receive 80 points for their positions and 20 points for a detailed response to another student’s post. Thanks.

Finally, as we were in April and the exam was approaching, I showed some of the PBS Presidents series on the American Experience. Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton… and we ‘crowd-sourced’ the videos. Students got out their mobile devices and texted into a specific discussion board. They were texting while watching and reporting out on anything that they thought was important. Quotes especially. We then analyzed them more at night for homework. I asked questions also during the documentary and students were able to respond.

Those are some of the strategies I used last year with APUSH. Thanks for asking. It got me to reflect a bit on what worked and what didn’t. Again, I relied on Schoology for the online platform for all of this, and it worked great. Kids groaned about the work at times (they formed a private FB group to organize the groaning!) but overall they valued it. I think the approach in general was much more interactive than reporting out the content. I’m thinking of repeating some of these strategies this year, with modifications. Again, this is just one way I explored learning. Its not the only (or even the best way). I’m also extremely open to other ideas. :)