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.