AHA 2018 Dispatch: The K-16 Teaching Charrette

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Middle school history teacher Zach Cote checks in with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington D.C.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2018 posts here.  -JF

In my previous post, I noted that this year’s AHA sessions lean more heavily toward teaching.  In this post, I want to expand a bit more on this.

Teachers often live in bubbles–the classroom, the department, and even the school district’s social studies program.  On Friday morning, I attended the K-16 assignment charrette. My bubble was burst. In the charrette, about eight educators analyzed, critiqued, and questioned each other’s lesson plans. The participants came from diverse classroom contexts, ranging from the middle school level to the university.

I brought a DBQ (Document-Based Question) essay on the Civil War that I give to my students.  I was hoping to receive some minor feedback on how I could tweak it to make it stronger. Instead, I listened as a circle of people much smarter than I am asked dozens of questions related to my desired outcomes, my students’ prior knowledge of the subject, the assignment’s format, my reasoning for using certain sources and for focusing on certain standards, and many more. My pen, unfortunately, was moving slower than my brain, but I did the best that I could to write everything down for later reflection.

In the process, I realized that good historians ask good questions.  Each person listened to one another’s contextualization and explanation of their lessons.  They then built questions to help shape a conversation. The whole process showcased the art of historical thinking. They were trying to not simply understand what the assignment did, but what each teacher was trying to reveal to his or her students through it. Strong feedback did not start with a suggestion or an answer, but with a question.

I thus began to ask new questions about what I wanted my students to accomplish and achieve.  I thought more deeply about  how to situate the lesson as part of my broader course goals. I now expect to tweak the wording of the DBQ question to prompt my students to see more contention between the sources. I am going to rewrite the questions that accompany the documents so that they focus on what the documents reveal, rather than simply what they say.  I also hope to draft a new rubric that marries my district’s common core standards to the historical thinking skills that should be at the heart of our pedagogy.  These changes will give this assignment new life, something that I honestly was not expecting from the workshop.

With that in mind, treat this post as a call to action. I strongly encourage anyone who teaches history, regardless of grade or age, to participate in this workshop next year. You will be a better teacher for it, and most importantly, your students will be better learners.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Positive Changes in the Historical Profession

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This dispatch from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association comes from Zachary Cote, a middle school history teacher in Los Angeles, California.  Some of you may remember his great posts from the 2017 AHA in Denver.  Enjoy!  –JF

In perusing the various sessions here at the AHA, I have noticed two things:

1. Sessions lean more heavily toward teaching the subject over purely new research, and

2. Historians are vocalizing something resembling an identity crisis.

I will address the second point in this post rather succinctly and save my thoughts on the first one for another, more in-depth response. If one scans the AHA 2018 program, one finds sessions dealing with “reflections,” “Why history matters,” enrollment issues, “The State and Future of the Humanities,” among others with similar themes. When I see words and phrases like this I sense urgency and perhaps a bit of fear. Sessions with such topics imply a sort of redefinition of what the profession entails. In fact, when I attended the “Why History Matters” session this morning, I could hear the urgency expressed by professors and graduate students eager to equip their students with the skills that will help them find jobs outside of the academy.

As a middle school teacher, I cannot offer too much commentary on this perceived shift in the historian’s focus, but I can express my excitement. In teaching 8th grade, I can already see in some of my students a disregard for history and historical thinking. This worries me, but it also encourages me to be a teacher that can change their attitude toward historical study.  In attending some of these sessions, it appears that my micro-observations are fairly widespread.

I am excited to see the academic side of the historical profession shifting its focus to further bridge the gap between the public and the past. The profession is changing, and I am comforted that at least some in the academy are not only recognizing it, but taking steps to respond.