Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How You Might Explore Students' Ideas about Texts and Truths on Day 1

Present students with a fictional account of an event. Maybe a page or two.  I think if it is the first day or two of a course it is probably better to avoid using a work of historical fiction. Though, at some point in the course, maybe even after this activity, introducing some historical fiction may be exactly what is needed to push students to make more connections, delve deeper into the themes introduced here.

After students read the excerpt of fiction, talk to them about what this is.  Show them the book that it is from, give them some details about the author. What questions does this text trigger in their minds? Is this text true?  I assume most students will quickly respond that the text is not true. After all, you just told them it was a work of fiction.

At this point, your goal is to push students to consider the following question: are there ever truths within a fictional account? That is, while the details of an account may be made up, might there still be certain truths within the text? If so, what do we mean when we talk about a text containing truths?

Now give students another account of an event, this time from a personal account of  something that students are aware happened in the past.  After students read the text, ask the following: Is this account more true than the previous story, which we all agreed was a work of fiction? Again, I assume that most students will be quick to say yes. Push students to articulate why. Help students to think about how one might test whether or not details in the account are accurate. Also, help students to see how an historian might use this source to learn about more than just the details contained in the account.  It is important to think about who created the account. What does this tell us about the time period? Make the point that historians use personal accounts in many ways, often ways that the creator of the source likely never could have imagined.

Next, push students to consider what the first two texts have in common?  It’s important, I think, to linger here. Keep digging. What will  students likely say here? I suspect   students will initially struggle with this question. That’s ok. You will come back to this question in a bit.

Finally, take a look at an account from a textbook. What is going on here?  Ask students: Is this the least fictional account?  Or, stated  more directly, the text that is most true?  If students say yes, push them to articulate why.

What do ALL 3 texts have in  common? Are they more similar than we initially thought? If so, in what ways?

As you move away from this lesson, some  of the key points that you will have helped students consider: All texts were created by authors. All authors are people with certain perspectives. When a text is constructed, a number of choices have to be made, including what words to use, what to emphasize, what to ignore. These choices tell us much about the creator of the source and the time period he or she is from. 

In addition, we are thinking about truth in simple, even elementary, terms if we are going to place texts into buckets labeled true or false. Throughout this course we are going to unpack and challenge our preconceived notions about truth.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A first model


As I mentioned in my previous post, I am thinking about how modeling might be used in a social studies class. I am using the visual above as a potential starting point for some of the modeling that might be done during the first few days of a social studies class.

Most of our students walk in on day one assuming that in a  social studies class they will study the past. And studying the past means learning facts about the past. And doing well in a social studies class is about little more than remembering the facts that the teacher, textbook, and videos say are important. This is what many social studies classes have and continue to look like.

This first model, then, has to get students to unpack and examine these assumptions. If these assumptions are left unchallenged, or, worse, perpetuated, then we are missing an opportunity to teach our students how to think critically about the past and present.

Notice that the arrow flows from the classroom to the past. We need to get students thinking about the idea of the past. What is the past? An easy place to begin a reflection about the nature of the past is to think about our own memories. Human beings do not and cannot remember everything about the past. The memories we store and the artifacts we keep help us to hold on to aspects of the past. Other people who experienced the events we recall also connect us to the past. 

Memories, we know, are not recorded the same way photos or videos of past events are recorded. This has huge implications for accounts of the past based on people's memories. Students need to explore this idea and revisit it every time they encounter first hand accounts of past events. These accounts cannot be treated as inherently accurate. So many factors influence what and how we remember the events we experience. 

The course I teach is Western Civilization. So, for this class, the arrow in the diagram is headed towards Europe's past. Students, who by default are used to be being passive recipients of facts about the past, are more than willing to let their teacher jump right in and start teaching the facts. Resist this urge! I think that the time spent working with models, especially early in the opening days of the course, will pay off as the course progresses. 

There is much more than can be explored and connected to the above model.  


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Modeling in the Social Studies

I just finished reading this excellent text discussing an FLC (Faculty Learning Community, I assume) from the University of Indiana. This approach seems to be connected with an idea called Decoding the Disciplines.

Throughout the text, the concept of modeling is mentioned. I was first exposed to the idea of modeling via tweets among science educators, including Frank Noschese.

In fact, I even recall last summer seeing some articles and asking Frank about humanities teachers who may be employing concepts of modeling into their teaching.

I plan on reading and watching the videos on Frank’s site to learn more about Modeling Instruction and to consider how these concepts may apply in a social studies classroom.

So, for a few moments, at least, I am going to brainstorm a bit about what modeling might look like in a social studies classroom.

My students are expected to know a little bit about two events: the Russo Japanese War and Bloody Sunday.

Like so much of the content that my students are assessed on, what they need to know for the assessment can be taught rather quickly.

But, as most of us state repeatedly, just mentioning a topic is rarely the same as teaching it. And this is where Modeling Instruction might be a major change for the better.

Though, like most good teaching, Modeling Instruction will likely take a decent amount of class time, at least at first. I am ok with that, though the quantity of our department tests is always a legitimate concern. 

Once students have a handle on modeling an event, I think it will take less time. And, over time, modeling might be an ideal task for students to start outside of the classroom.

We know that just telling students what happened on Bloody Sunday is not adequate. When we treat history as events simply to be told to students, we are ignoring all of the nuance associated with the discipline.

Regarding modeling, start by talking to students about models in general: What is a model? Show students examples of a model airplane, automobile, or a skeleton. How are models used? What is the relationship between an object and a model of that object? How can we model a process? What are some examples of processes that have been modeled? How are models helpful? What are some of the potential flaws associated with models?  

Next, start to discuss how we might create a model for an event. What are some of the basics of any event? Events have actors/agents (primary/secondary characters), causes (immediate/long term), effects (immediate long term). Our event models must be based on evidence. And, depending on the evidence used, the model will look different. Also, depending on the evidence used, the model will have more or less credibility. These are important discussions to have with students. I will continue discussing this idea over the next few days. I may even try to create a model for an event that I will be teaching next week. At the moment, I anticipate that my model will be expressed on paper as a graphic organizer.

The medium, I think, is less important than the elements contained in the model.

And the model itself can be judged in a few different ways, including how helpful it is as a framework for understanding how historians think about the past and how the model helps us think about other events. 

More to come...     

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alternative to Powerpoint

We followed up by photocopying a single graphic organizer from each of our blocks. Our block 3 looked at an organizer from block 4 and vice versa.

I projected the graphic organizer on the smart board and also gave each student a copy of the same web.

We zoomed in and looked at some of the connections on the web.

Students were instructed to look for connections that stood out to them, as either making sense, or not.

When students identified a connection that they questioned or thought that they could explain, they raised their hand.

I wanted to emphasize the link between concepts. We had students articulate the word that could be placed on the line, linking the concepts.

Next time students complete a web we may have them write the linking words on the line connecting the concepts.

However, I also think there is something to be said for initially NOT having students placing the linking words on their webs, particularly if they are going to share with a partner.

If the linking words are initially omitted, the partner can then try to make sense of the connections, talking to the creator about them. These discussions are valuable. And, I think, are different, less meaningful, if the linking words are already written on the graphic organizer when it is shared for the first time.

Before turning the graphic organizers in to me, I would have students write the linking words on their webs. This makes assessing them easier. 

As an alternative to powerpoint notes, I highly recommend this approach. I also want to emphasize that there are a lot of permutations to this approach that I will explore in future posts.       

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An alternative to a linear powerpoint presentation

I have just a few moments to blog, but I did something today that I think has some potential to encourage some of the behaviors we are looking for in our classrooms, especially active listening and making connections. As anyone who reads my posts knows, my students are responsible for knowing a lot of content. In my department, we work with each other creating common tests.  

In an attempt to avoid delivering content to students via powerpoint, which is so linear and, often, boring. I made a list of some topics that students will see on an upcoming assessment. 

As I discussed in yesterday's post, when teaching about the Russian Revolution, I try to activate students' prior knowledge about the French Revolution, to help them consider how that knowledge might help us, or in some cases hinder us, in our attempts to make sense of the Russian Revolution.

After giving students a brief overview of our next topic and making some references and connections to the French Revolution, I had them read the textbook intro of the Russian Rev for about 10 mins (This might  have been an ideal HW assignment, but assigning HW like this has certain issues as well). 

Some students struggled to complete even a few paragraphs in the assigned time. Most, however, managed to read enough to ask a few questions and to repeat some statements about what the text had to say about Russia before World War I. This was all we needed to get going.


As a group, we looked at the list of the terms that I had typed. I still had to direct students and discuss with them how different concepts were connected. We were all much more active and engaged! 

And, and this is what I was hoping for, many students knew enough or could use context clues to make connections. For example, spotting Nicholas' wife was easy (only female on the list!), but students could also tell me why she was likely from Germany, connecting to what they had previously learned about political marriages.

While working our way through the list (not in a linear way!), most students were engaged, recording brief notes on their list of terms and paying particular attention to how various items were linked. 

When finished, they had learned enough and had some notes, where they could quickly partner up and work on their graphic organizers.

It's important to emphasize that students made their graphic organizers AFTER we had a chance to talk about all of the items on the list. This, I think, forced them to step back and check how much they had learned. Though just a first step, they were beginning to process the content on a more meaningful level.  

There is a part II to this assignment that I will discuss tomorrow.

Note: It would have been nice if I had some images to pull up as we discussed some of the people and topics. I will do that next time. The pace was fairly fast and active: two features which are often missing from powerpoint slideshows.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Starting a Unit when Dept Tests are a Reality

As I am about to start a new unit, on the Russian Revolution, I’d like to spend time thinking about some of the decisions I make BEFORE I start teaching a topic, such as this one.
If I am going to improve as a teacher, especially in an environment where I must give dept tests that tend to focus on students knowing a little about a lot, it is important for me to think about all of the decision points in my teaching.
The decisions I make before I start a unit are key, I think, because they determine the direction that the unit will move.
Like many, I suspect, who have a test to give students at the end of a unit, it is natural to look at the test so that you are sure to teach the content and skills that students need to know to do well on the test.
Many beginning teachers often start units with no idea how students will be assessed. Starting with the end in mind is helpful, but, at the same time, it is no guarantee of a successful unit. (And what, it is worth asking, is a successful unit? What are the indicators of a successful unit, as opposed to an unsuccessful unit?)
Knowing what topics to teach because you have reviewed the end of unit test is not enough. Grant Wiggins emphasizes this in his book Understanding by Design. Wiggins stresses the importance of articulating the big ideas and essential/interesting questions that students are going to encounter and, ultimately, be expected to demonstrate competence in by the end of the unit.
From reading his book and reflecting on my own teaching, I can say that I never really engage in this step, in any deliberate or systematic way, at least.
That is going to be what I work on over the next few days, as I am about to begin teaching the Russian Revolution unit. (By the way, I have about 5/90 minute blocks to teach this topic, or 450 minutes, the equivalent of 10/45 minute classes or 7.5/60 minute classes.) I feel strongly that there are significant diminishing returns in a 90 minute block, especially if you are trying to help students learn a little about a lot of topics: topics that they are expected to know from memory on test day, a big feature of our common tests.
What are some of the essential/interesting questions and big ideas that I think are important in this unit?
I will come back and polish this list. But to get it started...
I want students to think about our studies of the French Revolution as we encounter the events surrounding the Russian Rev. This provides us with a chance to review and consolidate what we know about revolutions, as it also gives us an opportunity to see if knowing about one revolution helps us to think about another. What are some parallels to what happened in France and what are some of the essential differences? 
I also want students to think about the decisions and actions of Nicholas II. How responsible was Nicholas for what happened in Russia during and after World War I? Does our textbook seem to express judgments about the causes of the Russian Revolution? How much responsibility does the text place on Nicholas? What about other sources?
Were Nicholas and his family victims of historical forces beyond their control? How are we to know? And if so, why might our text avoid this kind of explanation?
What are some of the essential or topical questions I might use for individual lessons?
Why did Russia fight Japan? Or, why did Russia lose in its war against Japan? What were the consequences of the Russo Japanese war?
Did World War I lead to the Russian Revolution? Or, what caused the Russian Revolution?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Creating An Historical Thinking Concepts Inventory Assessment

Since signing up to Twitter and becoming active, I have encountered and interacted with many teachers who seem, almost single-mindedly, obsessed with aligning their instructional decisions with what is best for students.

As many of us know, it is easy, or it becomes easy, to walk into a classroom and talk. It is also easy to tell ourselves, and, in fact, many administrators tell us, that a well managed classroom with a knowledgeable teacher is about as good as it gets in education. This is what is best for students.

But is it? And how do we know?

Frank Noschese (@fnoschese) and many other physics teachers have probed how effective their teaching is, and reflected and refined their teaching, by administering the Force Concept Inventory, an instrument of assessment that, according to its creators, “ can be used to assess the effectiveness of physics instruction at [various] levels.”

I have discovered through many interactions with colleagues that it is quite typical for teachers to assert that they are teaching history in ways that are best for students. Are we? How do we know?

These two questions, and my exposure to the physics assessment and its impact, have caused me to wonder if we might create something similar to the physics assessment I mentioned above.   Your thoughts?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Creating Quality Source Sets and DBQs

I was just looking at a source set that I put together for my World War I unit. Though I’ve made a lot of progress this year finding and copying various primary and secondary sources, I still need to refine my source sets. They often do not connect very well. Superficially, the sources appear to be connected. On a deeper level, though, this is often not the case. Or, if there are connections, in many instances, I have not explicitly made them yet.  

The same kind of thinking that goes into constructing a thoughtful document based question (DBQ) needs to go into putting together a source set.

I need to think more deeply about what big questions and themes I want students to think about when I am constructing a source set. Just looking for sources and photocopying them together does not make a real source set.

What tips do you have about constructing source sets and document based questions? Are there any readings you can suggest that discuss the design of source sets and document based questions?

I know that looking at examples is always a great way to learn, and I have spent a decent amount of time looking at SHEG Stanford’s materials. Do you have links to source sets or DBQs that, in your judgment, illustrate excellent design?

Having looked at numerous SHEG Stanford lessons, what are some of the design principles that stand out?

-These lessons revolve around an open ended question that requires an answer that is supported with evidence derived from sources that are introduced in the lesson.

-The sources included in the lesson present various points of view.

-The sources are often fairly concise and have been adapted to facilitate student reading and comprehension.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Finishing Wiggins' UbD book

For much of this school year, I have been working my way through Grant Wiggins’ book Understanding by Design (UbD), revised 2nd edition.

The book is a little more than 300 pages, and I am currently in the 280s. A few minutes ago I read a section that discussed the necessity of placing units into a larger framework. Though UbD tends to focus mostly on the design of individual units, near the end of the book, Wiggins acknowledges the importance of starting the process of unit design AFTER one has thought deeply about the goals of the course.

And, if there is truly going to be alignment at the department and district level, it is essential to think about the connections between and among courses. How does everything connect? To what ends?

In some of my blog posts this week, I’d like to spend some time thinking about the 4 or 5 course level Essential Questions that I can use to frame the classes that I am currently teaching, Western Civ and Economics.

This is something that I am sure I have blogged about before. But, when I think about what happens on a day to day basis in my classroom, there is little evidence of course long questions that inform all that we do.

Some possible course long questions for Western Civ
-What is Western Civilization?
-How civilized is the West?
-How have technological advancements impacted the story of Western Civilization?
-How does the history of Europe that we are studying in this course show itself in the American press on a daily basis?
-How are we to evaluate and, ultimately, what is our evaluation of the assertions made in our textbook?
-How can we use the skills and concepts of this course AFTER this class has ended?

Some possible course long questions for Economics
-How does this course, Economics, connect to the other social sciences?
-How does the invisible hand metaphor explain economic interactions? Where does this metaphor lose its explanatory power?
-What are some of the measurement issues economists confront? How do they deal with them?  
-What is economic progress?
-What is the point of economic progress?
-How can we use the skills and concepts of this course AFTER this class has ended?
I will continue to add to, refine, reflect on these questions. I also need to generate some for my American Government course.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Social Studies Ed is not just History Ed

Being a social studies educator is not the same as being a history teacher. What are the implications of this?

I think they are quite profound.

Many who choose to teach social studies are initially attracted to the field because they want to teach history. In fact, a social studies ed major will often take a large number of history courses, though usually not enough to receive an MA in History. Add to this some education courses, a single social studies methods course, a field experience (observations), and student teaching, and a prospective teacher enters the job market hoping to get a full time teaching gig. In most cases, I think, this future teacher considers himself/herself a history teacher, not a social studies teacher. In fact, it would be revealing to ask teachers, those in training and those in service, to articulate the difference between being a history teacher and being social studies teacher.      

In our social studies classes, information literacy and historical thinking concepts and skills overlap, but they are not identical. I am not sure this distinction ever came up when I  was training to become a teacher.

Social studies teachers have a much broader focus than history teachers. We need to embrace our role as social studies teachers and ask ourselves some big questions, including:

What is social studies? What isn’t social studies?
How does a classroom teacher that embraces social studies act differently than a teacher who focuses only on history?
What are the goals of the social studies? What are the goals of history ed?
How do we incorporate more of the social sciences into our classes?   

I, obviously, need to explore this theme more. One big implication of embracing social studies, as opposed to just history, is to take seriously that we need to incorporate current events into our classes

More to come…

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Jigsaw with some Improvements

A recurring theme in my posts has to do with the constraints I face in my History class due to dept tests that, in their current form, tend to focus on students knowing a little about a lot. What I have blogged about less is my Econ class, an elective.

In Econ, I have considerably more flexibility.

Though far from innovative, something I have been doing with my Econ students that works really well is that when I want to expose them to concepts and details, rather than create and deliver a slideshow or play a video clip, I have them read a section of the text and create and present a slideshow on that section.

Having regular access to Chromebooks, and finding a decent textbook online,  has made this process much easier.

I only have 15 students in the class, so giving students a chance to present each time is really easy.

Some tips if you choose to do this...

I am sure to preview each slideshow before students present, so that I can identify gaps or, more commonly, mistakes or misunderstandings that worked there way into the slideshow.  

I will often edit the slideshows, cutting out sections or details that I know may be unnecessary for where we are headed in the course. (One thing I need to do more of is to talk to students about some of their design, layout choices. So, over time, they will not make the same mistakes: too wordy, color combinations that distract, awkwardly placed images, to name a few.)

I am careful to keep groups to 3 or 4 students and am thoughtful about who is working together.

I will interject a lot during students’ presentations. I warned them going in that this was the best way for us to learn from each other. Since they are almost always learning about these concepts for the first time, left on their own, students will often just repeat what the text has said. It is important for me to go beyond the text and help students make connections as they are learning about the concepts mentioned in the text and on their slides.

I have students write comprehension questions that they think someone who understands the big ideas and concepts in their presentation ought to be able to answer. They share the questions and a key with me.

I also will write a lot of comprehension questions based on the chapter’s content.

My questions plus the student generated questions will be one way that I can help students evaluate their learning.