Monday, December 30, 2013

Controversial Issues in Government Class: Abortion

For obvious reasons, abortion is a topic that many people struggle to discuss dispassionately. When teachers express reservations about discussing abortion in the classroom, I am not surprised. I suspect it is because they imagine a heated debate occurring, one that devolves quickly into finger pointing and accusations of immorality. If approached in the wrong way, this could happen. In fact, there are probably a half  dozen other topics that can similarly backfire. To avoid this nightmare scenario, planning and timing are essential.
In 10 years teaching government, I have learned that facilitating a discussion requires a considerable amount of planning. Just because students are sharing opinions does not mean they are discussing. For a topic such as abortion, a teacher should avoid having students just share their opinions.  
To productively incorporate this topic into your lessons, a solid foundation needs to be established. In my opinion, the topic of abortion should be introduced at a point in the course when students have some background knowledge about the Constitution. Once they do, however, this topic is an excellent one to use as a case study, giving you the opportunity to highlight many of the core themes of an American Government course, such as federalism, judicial interpretation, implied powers, a right to privacy, the supremacy clause, and checks and balances.
Are there less controversial topics that have similar connections? Yes, but there is no reason to avoid this topic if you approach it carefully. More importantly, as government teachers, we ought to model and cultivate in our students the knowledge and skills necessary to discuss controversial topics without having the exchange erupt in a free for fall.
In the beginning of my course, I talk to students about words that are mentioned and words that are not mentioned in the US Constitution. Students are not surprised to learn that abortion is not included in the document, but, at the same time, they are puzzled by the fact that there is an important court case on this topic, Roe vs. Wade. How can the Supreme Court rule on a topic that is not even mentioned in the Constitution?
From day 1, I begin to create an interest in current events, the Constitution, and the federal courts by probing students’ current knowledge and curiosity. I also ask students if they think the word privacy is mentioned in the Constitution. Students are surprised to learn that it is not. From this point forward, I make sure that my students have ready access to pocket Constitutions, and they enjoy checking to see which words are included and excluded from the text. As the course progresses, students will begin to approach the Constitution with more sophistication, moving beyond just checking to see if words are mentioned or not.     
When you teach the federal courts, Roe vs. Wade is an opinion that students can read. The opinion, as opposed to a summary of it, illustrates many of the nuances associated with judicial interpretation. It also shows how judges place a case into a broader historical context as they craft legal arguments.
I have used Edmodo, an excellent online discussion platform, to provide students with a place to ask questions to me or their classmates about the parts of the text that they are struggling with. I typically assign much of the majority opinion, and I also assign the dissent. By reading these texts, students begin to appreciate how an opinion is crafted and how justices rely on previous cases to buttress their arguments.   
Once students have explored this topic in more depth, they will have a context for understanding the dynamic nature of checks and balances and federalism. Undoubtedly, as the semester progresses, you and your students will find current events illustrating how states have pushed back against Roe vs. Wade.

My contribution to this longer post.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

History Ed Blog Circle: A monthly feature

January’s Topic: Teaching students a list of facts about the past vs. teaching them to think historically

Interested in contributing a 750-1200 word blog post that discusses this theme?

What I imagine is a group of history teachers who will, on a monthly basis, tackle a question or theme. After this month, we can create a method for submitting and choosing topics to write about. As we read each other’s posts, we can further discuss and elaborate so that we can support and learn from each other. I will post your response, or a link to your response, on my blog. Please share this with anyone you think may be interested in contributing.   

This month's post is due by  Friday, January 31.

Please let me know if you are interested by leaving a comment below or by messaging me on Twitter: @joetabhistory.

Friday, December 27, 2013

We do not teach 'the past'

Building on the ideas discussed in my last two blog posts….

An historical account or interpretation is an attempt to answer certain questions about the past. Questioning is at the heart of historical studies, yet in so many classes students do not ask questions, or the questions they do ask are discarded quickly. If you make no other change to your teaching, start framing your units and lessons around big questions. Stanford historical education group provides an excellent example of this approach.

Students do not walk into our classes thinking about historical evidence and accounts of the past. Instead, they think that history class is about the past. And your job, as their history teacher, is to teach them about the past. Questions probing the nature of the construction of historical knowledge are often non existent. It is our job, as thoughtful instructors, to shine a light on this process in developmentally appropriate ways. 

Students need to be taught that the past and historical accounts of the past, while connected, are different.

An account of the past may be based on one or more sources. Though just having more sources doesn’t guarantee a quality historical account. The fewer sources an account is based on, the more skepticism we ought to bring to the conclusions embedded in that account.  

Since all sources contain certain biases, all historical accounts are colored with multiple biases as well. The biases of individual sources, it must be noted, interact with each other. Like a cook creating a meal, individual ingredients, in this case sources, are combined to create something new, an account of the past. The account itself assumes characteristics that may or may not be contained in any one of its parts.    

The work of an historian, as opposed to a propagandist or a writer of fiction, is to create historical accounts that answer questions about the past using credible (Note: credible does not mean unbiased) sources and methods.

Imagine two historians making claims about James Madison. Some questions, such as those about his birth, schools attended, and employment history, are not likely to differ much from historian to historian. When historians provide competing answers to these kinds of questions, the sources used may be at the root of any discrepancies.  

Other questions, however, such as the impact certain people or events had on Madison or vice versa, are much more debatable. Two historians working with the same sources may differ considerably in the judgments they make about the significance and meaning of the sources. This is where historians’ critical and creative faculties are entangled in ways that students rarely appreciate.   

It is necessary to teach students that though all historical sources are biased, all historical accounts are not equal.

Some historical accounts are better than others based not only on the quantity and quality of the sources used but also on how the sources are used. It is essential to scrutinize the inferences and conclusions that historians make. Are the sources underpinning an account credible, and do they truly support the historical arguments made?      

If our students only look at sources in isolation, even if they are rigorously examining them for bias, we are only skimming the surface of the discipline and of the thinking performed by historians.

We must teach our students to deconstruct historical accounts. And we must also put students in positions to construct historical accounts of their own.

A teacher who views his role as ‘simply teaching students the truth about the past’ is ignoring a tremendous opportunity to push students to hone a number of valuable critical and creative thinking skills.

Where to begin?

Starting with examples and discussions that focus on the nature of remembering seem like a good place to begin. Students need to be shown that the ‘truth about the past’ is anything but simple. Even for events that they participated in, the act of remembering what happened is inherently fragmented and incomplete. Don’t just tell students this, prove it to them. Help students to see that historians rarely have witnessed the events or met the people they are writing about, complicating matters exponentially.      


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

More on Bias

Student: “This source is biased. It’s really not a useful source. We need to find a better one.”  

Students and, likely, some teachers, as well, often misunderstand the concept of bias. As history teachers, it is important that we recognize that all accounts of the past are colored with bias.

The student quoted above, if taken literally, seems to be suggesting that some sources contain bias and others do not. If we can find some unbiased sources, this line of reasoning goes, then surely we can learn what really happened in the past.

Studying the past, however, is much more complicated. (By the way, I think we signal a simplistic epistemology when we use multiple choice questions, even ‘good’ (?) ones, to assess students’ understanding of the past.)

Lang makes the point that teachers perpetuate this view by asking students IF a source is biased. More appropriately, teachers ought to be asking students to find the biases in a source. Once biases are detected, the real work begins. Students need to be challenged to consider the significance of the biases, to account for them when making judgments about the author, the source, and, ultimately, the historical question that is being studied.    

In my previous post, I said that I enjoyed listening to the home announcers broadcast Phillies games because of their biases. The national broadcasters, whom I avoided, weren’t unbiased. They had different biases.

If, over time, it became apparent to me that the home announcers were allowing their biases to cause them to distort how they were describing the events on the baseball diamond, then, as a baseball fan who cared about accuracy, I would likely find new announcers.

Bias may lead to distortions, but this is not automatically the case. The claims contained in a source need to be judged against the evidence they rely on in order for the impact of bias to be evaluated.

When our students detect bias, which is not always easy to do, we must encourage them to see bias detection as part of a larger set of intellectual moves performed by an historian. Yes, historians do search for bias. But they do more than that. They consider the meaning of the bias, thinking about how it not only reveals the author but also the author’s surroundings in space and time.        

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Source Work and Bias

This week I read two essays that I highly recommend to all history teachers. The first was by Keith Barton. He discusses common misconceptions among teachers about the use of primary sources in the classroom. The other piece by Sean Lang asks the following question: What is bias?
Rather than try in a single blog post to tackle many of the important ideas contained in these two pieces, I’ll discuss each piece in a series of blog posts.

Before exploring Lang's text, let's think a little bit about the concept of bias.

I grew up in Philadelphia and was an avid Phillies and Eagles fan. Like many local fans, I always enjoyed listening to Phillies and Eagles games broadcast by our home announcers, Harry Kalas and Merrill Reese. In fact, when games were nationally televised, I would turn down the tv audio and turn on the radio, so that I could hear the home announcers while watching the television broadcast. Unfortunately, the radio feed was always slightly ahead of the video. 

Why did who called the game matter?

It mattered to me because I wanted to experience the bias of these announcers. That's not to say that they didn't accurately describe the game. But variables such as inflection, word choice, and emotions were all clearly aligned with my personal sympathies. There could be no doubt that these announcers were performing their jobs while simultaneously rooting for the home team. And I liked that.

One of Lang's core ideas is that bias is ubiquitous. It's not something that some sources contain and others lack.

When we talk about bias, we are talking about how an individual’s account contains evidence of that person’s views, values, and assumptions. In other words, his or her perspective or worldview.

Bias doesn't ruin a source. It is the marrow within a source, containing meaning about the time period, as well as the creator of the source.  

What is bias? Bias is a person’s preference or tendency in one direction over another. Our biases come from a variety of sources and, in many instances, we are not wholly aware of them.

A simple rule applies to bias: If a source is man made, it contains bias, evidence of the creator's perspective. His unique imprint is left on the source.

A history teacher who tries to teach an unbiased view of the past is trying to do the impossible.

More to come....

 Link---> etymology of the word bias


Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is reflective teaching? And how does blogging contribute to reflective teaching?

Each time I click on one of your blog posts, I am reminded that blogging while teaching provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to learn from each other.

I tend to blog when I have a lot of free time, such as during the summer or over spring break. This past summer I blogged regularly. Once the school year began, my blogging time diminished.

I want to start writing each day for the rest of the school year. Like everyone, I am sure I am not alone in finding little time to do much more than grade, lesson plan, and spend some time with the family. Squeezing in blogging can be done. Numerous people I follow on Twitter have regularly remarked that though blogging while teaching does require a decent amount of effort and commitment, the benefits of doing so are immense.

What’s so significant about school year blogging?

School year blogging, as opposed to summer blogging, is powerful because the time spent blogging can be used to discuss classroom decisions that are being made almost in real time. This experience can’t be replicated in the summer. You can also discuss and share various snippets of student work. And, maybe most importantly, you can also subject your ideas to the scrutiny of others, giving you a chance to think more deeply about your day to day choices.

Teachers who blog are invaluable because they make visible the often invisible act of reflection. Obviously, many teachers who do not blog are just as reflective, but those who do manage to blog are modeling reflective teaching.

What’s the core difference between a reflective teacher and an unreflective teacher?

An unreflective teacher acts, but his actions aren’t necessarily rooted in careful thinking. And, just as importantly, after they act, they do not go back and reflect on what happened and what didn’t happen.

Reflective teachers spend a considerable amount of energy and time thinking about what they are going to do in the classroom, as well as a considerable amount of time thinking about what happened after they taught.

This weekend I stumbled on Chris Crouch’s excellent blog, where he models what a reflective teacher does on a regular basis. Be sure to check out his blog!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Industrial Revolution Sources w/ Questions

Link to GDoc Folder
Please let me know if you have any issues accessing these files. Also, do you have sources you use when teaching about the Industrial Revolution? Please share :)  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Source Work and Essential Questions

This summer I participated in a couple of Twitter chats with Grant Wiggins (@grantwiggins). These chats focused on the idea of structuring lessons around Essential Questions. While I have structured my Western Civ ‘mini essays’ around big questions, I want to work on starting a unit with an Essential Question. Up to this point, I have only introduced the mini essay big question AFTER students have worked with sources.

Introducing the big question AFTER students have worked with sources, rather than before, goes against the best practices discussed by Wiggins and SHEG_Stanford.

Why have I introduced the question after the source work?

Part of the reason, I think, is that I am trying to incorporate source work into ALL, or most, of my lessons, often multiple sources. As a result, I am always finding, editing, and writing questions for sources that I want to use, often the night before a lesson. It is difficult to write an Essential Question (EQ) if you do not know the big picture of what sources you will be using.  And I find that it is much easier for me to write an EQ after I have looked at the sources. Curious to hear how others approach this process.

Now, for our next unit, I am thinking an EQ that emphasizes the varied experiences, both positive and negative, of different groups during the English Industrial Revolution.
What will be my question? One possibility: Who benefitted and who struggled as a result of the technological changes that occurred during the English Industrial Revolution?

What am I going to do to make this experience with an Essential Question more meaningful?

I definitely want to begin the unit with students thinking about the EQ, having them express their initial reactions to it and generating sub questions that will help them grapple with the larger question.
I will elaborate on this post when I finish grading...!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Napoleon Primary/Secondary Source w/ Questions

Corsica/Italy Campaign
Continental System
Peninsular War (will upload on Monday)
Napoleon's Invasion of Russia
Some Maps w/ Questions
New Constitution/Coup
Napoleon's Coronation

Curriculum: A major source of the problem.....?

One of the recurring themes in my posts has been my attempts to reconcile source work and inquiry with common tests that are focused primarily on student recall of facts about a topic, person, or era. In this environment, what are the first steps I should be taking when planning, knowing that there is a common test to administer where my students are expected to know X Y Z?

Up to this point, I have always examined the test and made a list of content that must be emphasized in my lessons.

When I first started teaching, I would typically examine the curriculum, making a similar, but longer, list of must cover content. In those early years, I would often teach without knowing exactly how I would assess all of the content that was coming up in class.
Back then, as I was still becoming comfortable with the content I was teaching, I would often ‘grade’ students in a variety of ways. Though I had absolute control over how students were assessed, I still taught history in ways that today I do not feel comfortable with. Why?
I have always taught in environments where really detailed curriculum documents prescribe tons of content to teach in a relatively short amount of time.
Sitting here now, having been teaching for 13 years, I feel that much of what happens in history classrooms that promotes coverage over depth, rote learning over meaningful learning, stems from how teachers view, and often shape, curriculum.

As soon as a curriculum document becomes a list of content that must be covered, much of what is meaningful about history education evaporates.

I have not spent much time examining history curriculums. What does yours look like?

I know many teachers may respond that curriculums look the way they do because of their state’s standards. This may be an accurate assessment, but I am not sure if that is true in my state.

I have actually never participated in the writing of a curriculum for a course. I have always been on the receiving end of thirty pages of well formatted “stuff” to teach.

When these documents are created, I wonder how much time is spent thinking about the following questions:

What does it mean to know a topic? For example, when we say students will study the French Revolution, how are we conceptualizing and defining student success?

What skills are students going to practice, refine, and master in this class? What do we mean when we say ‘cause and effect’ or ‘analyzing documents’? Are we focusing on too many or too few skills? How do we know?
Are we undermining meaningful learning if we list 40 sub topics that must be addressed in this unit on the French Revolution? And what is a unit any way? Are we sure we ought to be teaching a unit on the French Revolution? Might the French Revolution be better taught in a different context? Juxtaposed against other revolutions? Should we be looking to the textbook to tell us how to arrange our course?

I suspect the process of curriculum writing often looks and sounds quite different. Why?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

That moment when your 7 old seems to be cramming for a test...

This week my seven year old son brought home a list of definitions of geographic landforms that had to be learned for a quiz that he was having two days later. On the handout, the quality of the pictures of the landforms varied a bit. Overall, the images were what you would expect to see on a photocopied black and white sheet of paper. My wife repeatedly quizzed my son, trying to ensure that he was prepared for this Friday’s assessment. And I kept telling my wife to show him the pictures on the worksheet, so that he could see the landforms as he was trying to learn them. My wife was quite confident that the quiz he would receive would be definitions only, and she was concerned the pictures would only end up confusing him, especially since some of the pictures copied poorly. If the test was going to be definitions only, why should we clutter his mind with barely visible pictures, especially since the test was only two days away?

Turned out my wife was correct, at least about what the test looked like. The quiz my son received consisted of terms and definitions, no visuals. I kept thinking about all of the different ways a teacher could teach these concepts and all of the creative ways that student learning could be gauged. As a social studies teacher and a parent, I care deeply about how this discipline is taught and how my son learns to learn. I am sure most parents feel the same way. As a teacher, watching my son enter the school system has allowed me to appreciate better the experiences many of my high school students likely had when they were in the early grades. By the time they reach high school, a tremendous amount of conditioning has occurred regarding learning and tests.  

At the same time this was going on in my house, I was also prepping my ninth grade students for their French Revolution test, a test which similarly required students to learn large amounts of information so that they could answer multiple choice and short answer questions. My department gives common tests, and, as you might expect, it is quite a challenge to get history teachers to find common ground about what and how students should be assessed. As compromise breeds concessions, we all give a little (and some a lot) in order to create a product. And this product is supposed to capture a large amount of student learning. Does it?

As a parent, I feel like I have a responsibility to make sure that my son is not conditioned to think that knowledge is only about taking tests. As a teacher, I feel the same way. In both respects, it is a challenge to fulfill this desire. In fact, I am quite sure my son and my students often receive  exactly the opposite message.    
What is the most meaningful way that we can teach social studies to our students? What does effective social studies instruction look like? Ineffective instruction? When planning, more of our interactions ought to begin with these big questions before we start constructing assessments .

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Crowd Sourced Doc Listing a Ton of Products

A Crowd Sourced Doc Listing a Ton of Products...

that students can create to express an historical interpretation.

End of Sept. Reflection

As I wrap up Sept., I’d like to spend some time reflecting on some classroom experiences with my ninth graders, as I try to create a history class that focuses on multiple perspectives and rich historical source work, while at the same time prepping them for any common assessments that come their way. As I’ve previously mentioned, these common assessments are weighted heavily and tend to focus on lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

When you teach students that history is complicated and can be looked at from a variety of perspectives, you then need to work really hard to expose them to complexity and multiple perspectives. In the past, I would talk about complexity and perspectives, but I didn’t expose my students to it. Now I am.  In fact, a big part of my planning time now involves me looking for sources and adapting them for classroom use (There is a lot to say about adapting sources. I will blog about that in future posts).

Finding sources that you can ‘package’ into a ‘document set’ is essential.

In the past, I used to expose students to a primary source every once and a while. It was often after we had worked with powerpoint slides, the text, and various worksheets. Whether stated or not, the message to students was that this type of work was on the periphery, somewhat disconnected from real classroom work that occurred on most days at most times.

One of the goals that I set for myself at the start of this school year was to put source work in the forefront of my classroom. I started the year wanting my students to learn the language of historical thinking. So some of the first terms I taught them were the following: perspective, source, sourcing, interpretation, inference, evidence.

At this point, I think my students know that to say anything about the past, you must have some basis for your assertions. This basis, or evidence, is found in the sources.

Here are some handouts I have used with my students to help them to learn how to think more like an historian and less like a sponge. Sponges try to remember and absorb all content. Historians ask questions, analyze, make inferences, construct and defend interpretations.  

Doc 1    Doc 2    Doc 3

Saturday, September 14, 2013

My Students' first Experiences with Source Work (in my class, at least)

Two options, among others I am sure, when working with sources are as follows:
Option 1: Give all students in the room the same sources to examine.
Option 2: Give groups of students different sources to examine.

Regarding option 2, each group works on the sources they were given, eventually sharing the results of their observations and questions with the rest of the class. As each source is discussed, students place big ideas and questions on a graphic organizer, which they will refer to later when they are crafting their response to the lesson's topical question. 

It is important here, I think, for everyone in the room to get a chance to look at any visuals connected to the sources being discussed. I use an overhead projector to do this. It is also important for every student, at some point, to have an opportunity to read the sources individually or with a partner.  

This week I also reminded my students about the differences between primary and secondary sources.
I taught my students that some sources are from the period we are studying, while other sources are about the period we are studying, having been created at a later, more recent period of time.
I need to start training my students to evaluate all sources as soon as they put their hands or eyes on them.
So far, most of the sources I have used have been secondary sources. There is nothing wrong with secondary sources, but a balance of sources is important. 
What are the types of questions I want students to ask themselves when they encounter a source?
I think I need to do a better job structuring this for my students, especially early on as they are first developing the skill of sourcing. 
Stepping back for a second, when students are handed a piece of paper in my class, it is either blank, with text, with a visual or visuals, or a combination of text and visual(s).

Students will often assume, by default, that the next thing they are supposed to do is read/view the source, trying to pull as much content from it as possible.  

The first intervention that needs to be taught to students is to resist the urge to jump right in. They need to take some preliminary steps, so that they can ascertain some basic facts about the source. What is it? Where does it come from? What is the best way to approach it?

Are they reading a source that is designed primarily to provide them with some background knowledge?

Are they reading a source that will help them derive evidence as they work to answer a question we have posed or that they have constructed?

This week my students were definitely focused on reading the sources primarily for content. We did have students work on synthesizing content from three sources about the Catholic Church into a response to a topical question we provided them with:

What role did the Catholic Church play in people's lives during the Middle Ages?

My experiences this week reminded me that even if I were to only focus on teaching students content, I can do so by having students reading and analyzing sources, as opposed to me talking at them via a powerpoint presentation or worksheets. I plan on doing so much more than I did this week, but I could definitely notice a shift in my teaching.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Questions Drive Learning

First Week

For many of us, blogging in the summer is much easier than during the school year. Though summer blogging is great, I suspect it is nowhere near as powerful as blogging during the school year. 

After all, blogging during the school year offers the best chance for us to reflect on our teaching. Each day presents tons of opportunities to see the impact, both positive and negative, of the choices we make.  It is one thing for me to write a lesson plan in July, that I may or may not ever use, quite another to come up with an idea that I get to try the next day or the next week.

How did my first week go?

We (my co teacher and I) had students for 3 days. Two 60 minute blocks and one 90 min block, for a total of 210 minutes. Our block three, due to lunches, was with us for an additional hour.  
I have yet to try any of the specific lesson ideas that I blogged about this summer, but I can see the influence of my summer reflections in all that I do. 

I am mildly disappointed that I did not manage to work in this lesson; at this point, it may have to wait until next year since I think I may fall behind if I try to work it in this week.

I am adjusting to our new seating arrangement, quads rather than rows.  So far so good.

When students are sitting in clusters/quads, there may be slightly more of a chance that they distract each other if a lesson becomes too teacher centric. But that is ok, since I am purposely trying to avoid spending too much time teaching via direct instruction. 

The positives of this seating arrangement, I am quite sure, outweigh the negatives.

In my AP Government class, I am on the verge of having my students assume more responsibility for their learning. I have yet to ‘lecture’ with powerpoint slides, which is something I am really trying to avoid with this group.
My wiki is setup. For content, students will view short videos that I have found online, often editing them into short 5-10 minute clips.
After viewing a few videos, following Ramsey Musallam's  model, students will fill out a google form that is sent to me, providing me with various information, including a summary of what they think they learned and what they struggled with, as well as answers to a multiple choice question and a free response question that I pose to them. Once I receive this data, I will be able to make informed decisions about my next moves.
I have yet to try this out with students, but I am all set up and ready to go. Will try it this week.    

In Western Civ, we spent some time with students, at least in one of our blocks, talking about how historians might approach a visual, or any source for that matter. We showed students this image of a person being tortured on a rack, talking to them about the concept of sourcing.
Sourcing, we told them, has to do with the types of questions an historian would ask to figure out where something  comes from. In this case, they would ask: Who created this visual? When did they create it? Why did they create it? And, most importantly, what do the answers to these questions tell us about the source we are viewing?
For the visual we showed students,  at this point at least, we do not have many answers to these questions. I am going to see if anyone on Twitter has information about the origins/original context of this particular image, and I will keep looking.
Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you have an excellent school year!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Planning for Inquiry: Classroom Arrangement

Haven't lost the desire to blog. Was away much of August. Started back to work last week. Spent some time setting up my classroom. Here are some pics.

I know many of you have setups like this. For me, though, this is a big change. I have always worked in rooms with rows. For many years, I have 'floated' into other teachers' classrooms, where there were rows. And, for the past five years or so, I have been in this room, yet I have continued to keep the desks in rows.

Obviously, this is just a structural change, but a better arrangement of my space is a necessary prerequisite to more collaboration in my classroom. There is so much more that I want to change. I will keep sharing, as I implement various modifications.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Concentric Circles of Thought

How I conceptualize #TextonTrial

The SHEG Model of Lesson Plan, Part I

I'd like to spend some time thinking about an SHEG lesson, considering what it includes and excludes, as well as how its structure compares to the way I was taught to lesson plan (pdf).

No Stated Learning Objectives
As I've pointed out in some of my tweets, I think it is significant that the authors do not include a list of learning objectives. This stands out to me because it is contrary to the model of lesson planning that I was taught, and I am sure many of you were also, when taking education classes (pdf). I accept that there is more than one way to lesson plan, though I have rarely observed models that do not include learning objectives.

In fact, a style of lesson planning that purposely excludes defining learning objectives is, in my opinion, quite provocative and sending a clear and powerful message about one of its prime assumptions about teaching and learning.

The assumption that I detect is that it is not necessary for a teacher to state in precise language measurable statements about what a student will, and by implication, will not learn in a lesson. It is enough to base your lesson on a quality process and some meaningful content.

The SHEG model's quality process is, at its core, a genuine commitment to having students close read primary and secondary source excerpts and construct written responses to open ended questions about these sources. The responses are often brief, a paragraph or two, and must contain evidence extracted from the sources. This is a process that is elegantly simple and focused on historical thinking skills.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Alternatives to Talking At Students

Compare the above structure to a traditional lecture (talking at Ss).

How does your model of history teaching deviate from the regurgitation/memory model?

Sample Text on Trial Assignment: Writing a Brief- Thomas Hobbes (+ some personal reflection at end)

Thomas Hobbes receives all of 2 paragraphs in our textbook, which is in step with one of the text's most common biases, lack of substance. As we've discussed, for source work to be productive and thoughtful, you must approach the sources with questions. Accordingly, your job is to prepare questions in advance of your analysis of some of Hobbes' writings. Your 'interview' with Hobbes will begin the process of adding to and supporting the textbook's thin account of him.

Start by reading what is in the text about Hobbes. With another history detective, create a brief discussing your reading of the text and the questions you have generated.

Sample 'Brief'

In one of the text's introductory paragraphs, the author states that the Enlightenment "started from some key ideas put forth by two English political thinkers of the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke." The implication, it appears to me, is that these two individuals were solely responsible for birthing the intellectual movement that historians refer to as the Enlightenment. Such a narrow view of causation, I think, warrants tremendous scrutiny.

I was unable to find a visual of Hobbes in our text. I checked the textbook's index, discovering that he is also mentioned in a single paragraph on page 22, as is John Locke. The text discusses one of Hobbes' writings called Leviathan (1651). The language in the text almost makes it sound as if Hobbes has no other writings. I doubt that this is the case. Hobbes is partially quoted twice in the two paragraphs. The book also states some of his assertions about government, human nature, and life in a so called 'state of nature'. Here are the questions that I am going to begin  my source work with:

1. How many other works, besides Leviathan, did Hobbes write?
2. The text mentions no biographical details about Hobbes other than that he lived in England during the English Civil War. What are some other details about Hobbes life? The textbook is little help here, presenting him one dimensionally.
3. Did Hobbes really believe, as our text states, that all people were naturally selfish and wicked? Why did he believe this?
4. What thinkers influenced Hobbes? The text fails to place Hobbes into an immediate context. Who were his contemporaries? Who influenced him?
5. Was Hobbes the first to use the term state of nature?
6. Our text says that Hobbes believed that the best government was an absolute monarchy since it possessed the tremendous power that was required to keep people in order. Wouldn't an absolute monarchy, given its significant power, treat people poorly? Did Hobbes try to reconcile these two ideas? If so, how?

My Reflection
In the past, I have definitely looked at two paragraphs on Hobbes as content that students needed to be fed in preparation for a test. With a little effort, I am sure, I can find numerous powerpoint slides that I have created expressing ideas similar, if not identical, to the text about Hobbes. I am also sure that I can find a variety of worksheets containing questions that ask students to pull and copy these ideas from the text. About a half hour with me and the textbook, and this caricature of Hobbes, and we would move on, only to do the same with the next figure in the text, Locke, and the one that follows him, Voltaire.

The change in my teaching that I am looking to initiate involves deliberately doing more than this.
In addition to exposing my students to more than just two paragraph accounts of important thinkers, I want them to grapple with some of the same issues and questions these thinkers wrote about.

This type of teaching doesn't have much room for powerpoints and worksheets. Indeed, it requires teachers who are comfortable planning learning experiences that rarely involve powerpoint and worksheets, teachers who possess patience, creativity, and curiosity, along with a willingness to model and support students as they learn complex and meaningful skills. Above all, this model of teaching requires a willingness to say textbook history is not enough. I refuse to treat the text as an end rather than a beginning.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Planning, Standards, and Teaching for Understanding

When you sit down to 'plan a lesson', what goes through your head? In some of my posts this week, I want to unpack the idea of 'planning a lesson'. The idea that one person, a teacher, can deliberately direct another person, a student, to learn something is complicated enough. Multiply this complexity by the number of students we teach and all of a sudden planning a lesson seems next to impossible, yet we do it every day. How?

I often see a disconnect between the complex nature of teaching and learning and the casual way we talk about the two. To a degree, this makes sense. If we let this complexity silence us, what good would that do? After all, we are teachers. It is important that we talk, a lot, about teaching and learning. The label itself, teacher, suggests that we, more than most, have a firm grasp of the complexities associated with teaching and learning.

Given the inherent complexities associated with directing the learning of a classroom of twenty five or thirty students, how should we, as social studies teachers, think about the teaching and learning process?

To begin, we must consider what we are trying to teach. Obviously, the easy answer is that we are trying to teach our students the school's curriculum, which, hopefully, overlaps with state standards. Easy answers, though, are usually not the best answers. After all, one look at curriculum documents and state standards reveals that the language of these texts is often tremendously ambiguous. Here are some standards pulled from the state of Virginia:

Era VI: Age of Revolutions, 1650 to 1914 a.d. (c.e.)

WHII.6   The student will demonstrate knowledge of scientific, political, economic, and religious changes during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries by

a)   describing the Scientific Revolution and its effects;

b)   describing the Age of Absolutism, including the monarchies of Louis XIV and Peter the Great;

c)   assessing the impacts of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution on democracy;

d)   explaining the political, religious, and social ideas of the Enlightenment and the ways in which they influenced the founders of the United States;

e)   describing the French Revolution;

f)   describing the expansion of the arts, philosophy, literature, and new technology.

What does it mean to describe the French Revolution? A narrow view of this standard suggests that students can simply state a few facts about the French Revolution and they have described it. A much broader view of this standard might include students spitting back tons of textbook and teacher presented facts about the French Revolution. Is this better than just a few facts? If so, why?

It appears, by the way that this standard is constructed/written, that if students are able to do (do?) a-f, whether narrowly or broadly, then they have demonstrated knowledge of scientific, political, economic, and religious changes during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Should we be satisfied with this? And is it even reasonable to say that being able to do (what are students being asked to do?) items a-f = a knowledge of the aforementioned changes?

Virginia does include some language about historical thinking:

WHII.1 The student will improve skills in historical research and geographical analysis by
a) identifying, analyzing, and interpreting primary and secondary sources to make               generalizations about events and life in world history since 1500 A.D. (C.E.);

In practice, I suspect, many teachers will toss in a few primary sources and feel satisfied with the results. And it appears, according to the state standards, they have done their job.

I want to take a closer look at the released assessment questions to see how the state of Virginia tries to measure these standards. Do they measure the standards using a narrow or a broad interpretation? Regardless of the answer, how are teachers to know how the state will interpret these standards when writing assessment questions?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Text on Trial: The Charge- A 1 Dimensional Presentation of an Individual

Textbooks are notorious for briefly mentioning individuals from the past, providing a few basic facts, and moving on. In this discovery, we are going to examine how our textbook treats Nicholas Copernicus.

Here are some questions that can be used to structure student inquiry. I have provided some answers to better illustrate this approach/model.

Is the person mentioned in the index? Copernicus is mentioned. He is on one page.

Does the text provide a visual of this person ? Also, are there visuals associated with this person's actions/ideas?
Yes, there is a painting of Copernicus on page 168.

If there is/are visual(s), discuss them? What stands out?
There is painting showing Copernicus standing in front of a globe like structure.  The source of the work is not given, something we have previously noted this text does. I did, however, find a section in the back of the text that provides brief info about all of the art in the book. The image is apparently from the Granger Collection. A quick search of the collection revealed the picture in the text, stating "After the painting by Otto Brausewetter." (1835-1904). I was unable to discover biographical info about the artist.

After reading how the textbook treats this individual, what stands out?
The text discusses Copernicus in three paragraphs. None of Copernicus' own words are used in the text, no excerpts from his writings. There is no attempt to connect Copernicus to his contemporaries, suggesting little context for him becoming "interested in an old Greek idea that the sun stood at the center of the universe."

The text mentions that Copernicus feared "ridicule or persecution", but how this is known is not explored. It is mentioned that he did not publish his work until 1543, receiving a copy of it on his deathbed (true?).

Does the text connect this individual to a larger historical context?
No. (My interjection: The omission of a reference to the Protestant Reformation is glaring.)

What are your next moves? What topics associated with this person are you interested in researching further? Explain what and why.

I would like to learn more about Copernicus' fears of "ridicule and persecution". How did he express these fears? I would also like to explore further other scientists who lived during Copernicus' time that may have been exploring topics and making discoveries that threatened the Church.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Meaningful Question + Inquiry (Tools/Opportunities to Learn) = Meaningful Learning

Quoting Nebraska's History Teacher of the Year, Sarah Winans: "Critical thinking is cultivated when a meaningful question is posed, and students are given the tools and opportunities to engage in inquiry through texts of varying perspective." Read more here.

Text on Trial: An Example of an Assignment

Historical Detectives: Please read the text passage below, paying close attention not only to its message about the past but also to how this message is conveyed to readers: What is said? How is it said? Also, what is not said?

Quoting from page 165 of  our textbook- Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction: "A combination of discoveries and circumstances led to the Scientific Revolution and helped spread its impact. By the late Middle Ages, European scholars had translated many works by Muslim scholars. These scholars had compiled a storehouse of ancient and current scientific knowledge. Based on this knowledge, medieval universities added scientific courses in astronomy, physics, and mathematics."

1. What is said? Are there words or references used that strike you as imprecise, vague?

Possible responses include the following:
-"late Middle Ages"- When is this?
-"European scholars"- Names?
-"Muslim scholars"- Names?
-"medieval universities"- Which ones?

2. What other questions does this selection prompt you to ask?

Possible responses include:

How, and under what circumstances, did Muslim scholars "compile a storehouse of ancient and current scientific knowledge"?

Who attended medieval universities? What were some of the prominent ones?

3. What kinds of textbook biases did you detect in this passage? Are there any new kinds of biases detected?

Possible response

I definitely noticed the bias of the general over the specific, as well as a bias against giving specific examples: an example, or an excerpt, of a text that was preserved by Muslim scholars could be provided.  Also, the textbook has a habit of just dropping huge events on us with little or no context. Where did these Muslim scholars come from? I wonder if they were mentioned previously in the book.

4. What are your next moves? If you were going to improve this passage, bringing it up to our standards, what topic(s) do you need to research further? Once you conduct your research, I'd like you to submit a revised (and sourced) draft of this passage to our editors. As always, you may conduct your research with another detective, but remember to keep me in the loop.

Text on Trial: Voices Not Heard

I read an article yesterday by Joyce Delaney called Voices Not Heard: Women in a History Textbook. As I think about my text on trial assignment, I, obviously, need to make sure that my students are noticing how women are treated by the authors. How frequently are women mentioned? When women are mentioned, what kind of language is used? In addition to what words are used, what words are not used?

The author states the following powerful and revealing question posed to a group of high school seniors: In five minutes or less, can you name "twenty famous American women, past or present, excluding sports or entertainment figures?" The average student names four or five women. Why is this the case? The author and the teachers who posed the question point to textbooks. Students know so few women, they argue, "because their books tell them little".


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Text on Trial: "Launched a change in European thought"?

Passage from Text: "Beginning in the mid-1500s, a few scholars published works challenging the ideas of the ancient thinkers and the church. As these scholars replaced old assumptions with new theories, they launched a change in European thought that historians call the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution was a new way of thinking about the natural world. That way was based upon careful observation and a willingness to question accepted beliefs."

Discussion: Here is some language that immediately jumps out as problematic:
"Beginning in the mid-1500s"- Were no scholars challenging the ideas of ancient thinkers and the church before the mid 1500s?
"a few scholars"- Which ones? None are named.
"challenging the ideas of the ancient thinkers and the church"- Which ideas were challenged?
"these scholars...launched a change in European thought"- How does one launch a change in thought? What is "European thought"?

More work needs to be done here...

Text on Trial: Picture in Text without Reference to Source

Caption in Text= "Galileo tries to defend himself before the Inquisition. The Court, however, demands that he recant."

Discussion: This source states that the above painting is from the 19th century. And this source attributes the painting as follows: "Galileo before the Holy Office, a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury."

Why is this a problem? The painting appears under a section titled Interact with History. The authors are attempting to show the reader what the trial may have looked liked. It is not stated that this work of art was created centuries after the trial, nor is any attempt made to discuss how art reveals information about the artist, the society and times he lived in, and his view of the past.

Text on Trial: Origins of Geocentric Theory

Our Textboook: "This earth centered view of the universe, called the geocentric theory, was supported by more than just common sense. The idea came from Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of the fourth century B.C."

"Ancient societies were obsessed with the idea that God must have placed humans at the center of the cosmos (a way of referring to the universe). An astronomer named Eudoxus created the first model of a geocentric universe around 380 B.C." Source:

"Aristotle developed a more intricate geocentric model (which was later refined by Ptolemy), general cosmology clung to these misconstrued ideas for the next 2,000 years." Source:

Discussion: Our class text states that the geocentric theory "came from Aristotle", ignoring anyone who may have influenced Galileo. This an offense of context as well as, potentially, of discovery.
An offense of context occurs when the text presents a topic with little of no background information. I suspect we will find these context offenses frequently.

Another source discusses Eudoxus: "Perhaps Eudoxus’s greatest fame stems from his being the first to attempt, in On Speeds, a geometric model of the motions of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets known in antiquity. His model consisted of a complex system of 27 interconnected, geo-concentric spheres, one for the fixed stars, four for each planet, and three each for the Sun and Moon. Callippus and later Aristotle modified the model. Aristotle’s endorsement of its basic principles guaranteed an enduring interest through the Renaissance."

Note: More research needs to be done. I am suggesting, however, that stating "the idea came from Aristotle" demands further investigation.

Here is a link to a version of Aristotle's On the Heavens, as well as a Wikipedia overview of the text.
Aristotle begins to discuss the earth in Book II, Part13. (Book II, Part 13 in a google doc )