24 Hours With Kansas History Educators

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This weekend (Sunday and Monday) I made my first visit to Wichita, Kansas.  The Kansas Council of History Education (KCHE) invited me to deliver the keynote address at their annual meeting.  It was held this year on the campus of Newman University.

My address was titled “History for a Democracy.”  I began the talk with three introductory premises:

  1. The current state of American democracy has once again proven that the nation’s founding fathers were right when they connected the strength of the American Republic with an education citizenry
  2. All K-12 teachers are public historians
  3. Our democracy needs public historians

I then spent some time discussing the debate over whether history educators should be teaching “knowledge” or “skills.” This is a debate that culture warriors, radio talk show hosts, politicians, and elected officials lose sleep over, but teachers know that the pundits and bureaucrats often understand very little about what happens in their history classrooms.  Good history teachers integrate facts and skills seamlessly in the history classroom through what we call “historical thinking.”

I concluded the talk with Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrew’s famous 5 “Cs” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causation, contingency, complexity.  I explored the ways these “Cs” are present, and not present, in our public discourse. We talked about:

  • A CNN discussion between Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones on the history of race and Democratic Party.
  • The way the SAT examines reading comprehension
  • Providential history
  • Whether there is really a right and wrong “side” of history
  • The story of the “Umbrella Man” as a way to think about causation
  • The 1619 Project

Thanks to Emily Williams and Nate McAlister of the KCHE for the invitation.  It was also good to see Dave McIntire and Diana Moss, alums of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Princeton Seminar” on colonial America.  And thanks to George Washington’s Mount Vernon for sponsoring the lecture.

Here are some pics:

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It was great to see Nathan McAlister, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year

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Great to catch-up with Diana Moss, a Princeton seminar alum who teaches history in Galena, Kansas

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Emily Williams (KCHE President) and Don Gifford of the Kansas State Department of Education

Out of the Zoo: “We’re a union just by saying so!”

Newsies

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about one of her favorite movies. –JF

Newsies might just be one of my all-time favorite movies. Starring a young Christian Bale as the fictional main character Jack Kelly, the nearly three-decade old film offers a musical retelling of the Newsboys’ strike of 1899. The said strike, which took place on the streets of New York City in protest of high newspaper prices, ended after two weeks when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsies at the end of each day. 

The movie, interwoven with a beautiful Alan Menken score and lively dance breaks, throws around a lot of terms like “union,” “demands,” and “scabs,” each of which could easily be heard inside a U.S. history classroom. However, as much as I love Newsies, I must admit that the film fails to explain these terms with any complexity; it does not place them in their broader historical context either. As a musical theatre geek in high school I found it easy to cheer when Jack Kelly and his chorus of newsboys triumphantly sang, “We’re a union just by saying so!” But as a student I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about what a union was, much less how or why it was formed.

Although Newsies might be entertaining, it remains a shadowy fictional representation of the issues that shaped the reality of the Gilded Age. There are far better ways for students to comprehend the complexities of labor disputes than watching Christian Bale dance across a television screen (sorry Disney). Mr. Anderson, one of the United States history teachers at Northern High School, showed me one such way last week when I got to sit in on his class for my Sophomore field observation. Anderson led his class through an exercise that not only helped his students gain a better understanding of unions, but also allowed them to relate the past to their lives in the present. 

Instead of lecturing for days about organized labor, Mr. Anderson provided the necessary historical context–fleshing out the themes and complexities that defined the Gilded Age–and let his students do the rest of the work. He briefly taught about the two prominent Gilded Age unions, but then let students form a union of their own, dubbed “The United Students of NHS.” First, students broke into small groups and listed all their grievances–issues ranged from passing time between classes to club funding. After narrowing down their complaints, the entire class circled up to decide which eight requests they would draw up and deliver to the school’s administration. 

While he raised his voice occasionally to direct attention to the task at hand, Mr. Anderson let his students take the lead in the entire process. When the whole class collaborated on the final eight grievances, students spoke up from around the circle suggesting a procedure or speaking out in defense of one of their demands. While his students engaged in discussion, Mr. Anderson told me that he thinks that students shouldn’t have everything planned out for them. Instead, educators should leave room for learners to experiment, take charge, and figure things out on their own–always taking time to reflect afterwards about what went well and what could have gone better.

I couldn’t have agreed with Mr. Anderson more. His students were passionate and eager to apply what they learned about unions and the Gilded Age to their everyday lives. They learned to cooperate with each other, compromise when necessary, and innovated if their process became inefficient. And all the while they gained an increasingly thorough and nuanced understanding of the past. It is this kind of history classroom, one where students are invested, engaged, and challenged, that I want to emulate someday.

More Teacher Bulletin Boards!

Back in August I asked K-12 history teachers to send me pictures of their Why Study History?-themed bulletin boards.  We got a few takers and I worked-up this post.

I recently received another set of pics.  Julie teaches middle school in California.  Here are her boards and shelves:

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Love the Niebuhr quote!

Watts 2

 I need to tell the students  in my “Age of Hamilton” class about this poster

Watts 3

A lot of good stuff here.

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I recognize a few books on the top shelf! Glad to see Yoda  is guarding them. 🙂

Thanks, Julie!

*Why Study History*-Inspired Bulletin Boards

Why Study History

I love it!  High school and middle school history teachers are reading Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and finding bulletin board material.

Matt, a seventh-grade history teaching in Illinois, posts this (with additional inspiration from Stanford history education guru Sam Wineburg):

Historical Thinking

Here are some pics from Tom, a high school history teacher in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area:

Grayam

Grayam 2

Of course I am not the author of the “5cs of historical thinking.”  That honor belongs to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke.  But I do write about them extensively in Why Study History?

If you are using Why Study History? in your class this year, or have some bulletin board material you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!

Are You Using the Mueller Report in the Classroom?


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Over at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss writes about how scholars and teachers are using the Mueller Report in classrooms across the country and across disciplines.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Daniel Lynch is a history and social sciences instructor at the private Marlborough School in California, for grades seven through 12. In an Advanced Placement U.S. History course he was teaching, Lynch said he created a lesson on the Mueller report on the day it was released publicly in April.

“Since there was very little time between the release and our class (about an hour),” he wrote in an email, “I decided to make the lesson a review of impeachment and historic impeachment controversies and then transition to the current controversy.”

First, he said, they reviewed the impeachment process and looked at impeachment controversies involving presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached; the other two were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate). Then students began to look for sources on the Internet about the release of the Mueller report and later drew Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the three presidents’ experiences with impeachment.

“We talked about bias and point-of-view of various news outlets and decided as a class to focus on the BBC’s live blogging about the report as the best source for our purposes,” he said. “For homework, students had already found and read an article from what they thought was a reputable source on obstruction of justice allegations against Trump based on information already in the public record. As a class, we listed the allegations already out there and added details coming out from the Mueller report.”

The students “loved” the lesson, he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Have you used the Mueller Report in your classroom?  Do you plan to use it this Fall?

 

On the Road in Late July

Fea at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon Museum

I am in the at the midpoint of two weeks of work with the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  As some of you know, this last week I was in Mount Vernon, Virginia and Boston filming a 12-week lecture course on colonial America for elementary school history and social studies teachers.  We filmed the lectures in a hotel in Framingham, Massachusetts and filmed five-minute lecture introductions in the tobacco fields and at the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, the Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon, the Boston Long Wharf, Old South Meetinghouse, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, the Massachusetts State House, Harvard University, the Boston Public Library, and Boston College.  It was hot and the work was rigorous (one day I gave five 50-minutes lectures to a camera!), but this kind of work is rewarding and hopefully useful to teachers–the men and women on the front lines of preserving, sustaining, and strengthening our democracy.

Fea at Mansion

Thanks to the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for the opportunity to work on this course.  And special thanks to Sarah Jannarone and Peter Shea of Gilder-Lehrman and Garrett Kafchinski of Diagonal Media for all their hard work this week.

I understand that this course will be published at the Gilder-Lehrman website as part of its forthcoming “History Essentials” series sometime next year. Stay tuned

Fea Boston Public

With a 1656 map of New Spain at the Boston Public Library map room

Tomorrow I will be back in Princeton for what is becoming an annual event:  the Gilder Lehrman Institute summer seminar on Colonial America.  Stay tuned.  I will be blogging every day from Princeton.  (Click here to see some of my posts from 2018).  As always, I will be working with Nate McAlister. Nate is my partner-in-crime, a high school history teacher in Kansas, and the 2010 National History Teacher of the Year!

Here are some pics from 2018. I am hoping for another great week:

Princeton--Philly Trip

Philadelphia bound!

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Nate with a Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

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In Philadelphia I introduced the teachers to the legendary George Boudreau

 

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We ran into esteemed early American religious historian Thomas Kidd and some of his students in the Princeton graveyard

Princeton--Why

Teaching the Civil War in the South

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Check out Kristina Rizga‘s fascinating piece at The Atlantic: How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South.”  Here is a taste:

The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelminglyagree that slavery was the central issue.

Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”

Of course, students aren’t students forever, and the views of American adults are influenced by what they learn as children. When one 2015 poll asked American adults whether slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, 52 percent said that it was, while 41 percent said that it was not. In the same survey, 38 percent of adults insisted that slavery should not be taught as the main cause of the Civil War. That the country is divided on how to deal with Confederate statues and the Confederate flag follows in lockstep.

Read the entire piece here.

The Gilder-Lehrman “Princeton Seminar” on the Colonial Era is Back! Apply Now!

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We are entering Year 6 of the seminar. Join us in Princeton this summer!  Read posts from the last six years here.

Here are details from the Gilder-Lehrman website:

DIRECTORS
John Fea, Professor of History, Messiah College

OVERVIEW
Rather than thinking about colonial America as a necessary forerunner to the American Revolution or the birth of the United States, we will make an effort to understand British colonial life on its own terms, examining how the colonies developed from remote seventeenth-century English outposts to well-connected eighteenth-century provinces of the British Empire. In the process we will critique the so-called “Whig” interpretation of the colonies and think together about how this particular period in the American past provides a laboratory for teaching historical thinking skills in the classroom.

TRAVEL & ACCOMMODATIONS
Participants are responsible for making their own travel arrangements; the Institute will reimburse up to $400 in travel expenses. Read the policy here. Participants will be staying at Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. Princeton is equidistant from New York City and Philadelphia and is easily accessible by train. The nearest airport is Newark Liberty International Airport. For more information on travel to Princeton, please click here.

Workshop participants will stay in on-campus residence halls in their own room, but share bathrooms and common space on each floor. The university provides basic bedding and towels only. Please note that participants should plan to bring alarm clocks, shower shoes, hangers, irons, and hair dryers. Participants should plan to bring laptops as computer access on campus will be limited.

MEALS
Meals will be served in a university cafeteria in space shared by other programs. All on-campus meals will be paid for by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

POLICIES
Please be sure to review the Institute’s policies on independent school teacher participation and travel reimbursement before applying.

COURSE REVIEWS FROM PAST PARTICIPANTS
“Dr. John Fea did a remarkable job sharing his knowledge in the area of the 13 colonies. His passion for history is evident in his lectures and I am more motivated today to teach tomorrow. I have always been intimidated by the 13 colonies because each colony’s background is so diverse. I have a better grasp on the colonies and I will be able to share primary documents to support the classroom learning. I am looking forward to teaching this in the coming weeks.”

“Thoroughly enjoyed the week in NJ. Strengthened my content background & walked away with tons of resources (primary specifically) to take back to my classroom.”

“This seminar was the best thing I have experienced in 25 years of teaching. Dr. Fea was outstanding and his lectures were riveting. I appreciated the content, the setting, and the master teacher’s assistance. It was amazing and memorable. I will certainly be applying this content and these principles to my teaching this year.”

QUESTIONS?
Email the Teacher Seminars department or call 646-366-9666.

Seminar Year: 2018-2019

Rebecca Onion Interviews Sam Wineburg on Teaching History

WineburgI love this interview at Slate.  It is not only a subject–historical thinking in schools–that I interests me, but both participants in the interview are former guests on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Sam Wineburg was a guest on Episode 3.  Rebecca Onion was our guest on Episode 12.  (We hope to have Wineburg back this season–stay tuned).

Onion talks to Wineburg about his new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).  Here is a taste:

I loved the note you made about the difference between “sounding critical” and thinking critically. President Trump recently said that Google is biased against conservatives. There have been a number of instances of this, where Trump or someone Trump-ish will say something that sounds critical or wise but isn’t. It’s hard because it almost feels like there is an appropriation of the language of critical thinking on the right that makes it hard to explain what the difference might be between that and what we are talking about.

It’s not “almost an appropriation,” it is an appropriation. And in this respect, the work that has influenced me the most is the work by Kate Starbird, an absolutely brilliant internet researcher who studies crisis communication at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering.* And she has a paper that shows that the alt-right has, right there with Alex Jones, has appropriated the language of “Do you have an open mind? Are you an independent thinker? Are you willing to trust your own intelligence to make up your own mind when you review the evidence?”

And so absolutely, this is the language that has been appropriated by the alt-right in particular, these neo-Nazi sites and conspiracy sites that basically say, “The wool is being pulled over your eyes! But you have the power to [pose] thoughtful questions through your own powers of discernment if you have an open mind.” This is the stock-in-trade of propagandists—you can go back and see the same kind of thing in work by Lenin and Goebbels: “You should trust yourself. We’re not going to tell you what to believe, you evaluate the evidence—here is the evidence.”

Read the entire interview here.

An 8th Grade History Teacher to His Students on the Last Day of Class: “Never Stop Learning”

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Moses Brown School, Providence, Rhode Island

Jonathan Gold teaches 8th grade history at Moses Brown School, a Quaker school in Providence, Rhode Island. (See his September 2016 piece on teaching history in the age of Trump and his October 2015 piece on teaching historical thinking).

Gold ends every academic year by delivering a formal speech to his students.  Here is a taste of this year’s version:

I’m not ever sure what students actually learn in here. But my hope is that you have come to embody the insight of my favorite educational philosopher, John Dewey, who articulated the goal of education as the ability to acquire more education. In other words, education should teach you how to learn — what questions to ask, how to find answers, and how to make connections — but also give you an insatiable desire to keep learning.

So how do we do that? We start, perhaps ironically, by embracing the limits of our own knowledge. Remember when we studied Israel and Palestine? We didn’t rush to solve the conflict or develop a thesis; we asked ourselves what else we needed to know and sought more information. What we found were irreconcilable narratives that helped us understand why the problem is so difficult to resolve. What we focused on was embracing complexity and tolerating uncertainty. We used this same mindset in our student-led discussions. The goal was to connect to others’ ideas, to bolster each other’s thinking, and to keep probing. It was about the process, not the result.

The human brain craves simplicity and clarity, but the world — with its infinite strangeness — offers only ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity. We can’t change the nature of the world — it will always be complex — so we need to train ourselves to be comfortable with that complexity, to lean into what we don’t know and acknowledge our own small place in the universe.

Part of that means an aspiration towards humility. What I mean by that is starting with the assumption that we don’t know very much and that what we do think we know is incomplete and unrefined and helplessly biased, so much so that we are better off constantly seeking more knowledge and information than declaring something fully known. That doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions, or we can’t develop a worldview, but it does mean we need to see our viewpoints as subject to improvement and refinement. Those who disagree with us having something to teach us, and we can’t possibly know everything. Mostly it means developing an insatiable thirst for new knowledge and information.

It may feel odd to get to the end of the year and hear me arguing that we can’t fully know anything. It can be scary to think that there’s always more to know, more detail, more nuance, more subtlety, more perspective, more work to do to scrub bias from our thinking. But I find that to be perhaps the single greatest thing about being human: there’s always more to learn.

Read the entire text here.

The Secondary Teacher Initiative at the 2018 Conference on Faith and History

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As you may know, I am chairing the program for the 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  We will be meeting October 4-6 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  You can see the Call for Papers here and here.

Under the leadership of CFH president Jay Green and Woodberry Forest School (VA) history teacher and department chair Fred Jordan, we are hoping to attract secondary teachers to the 2018 meeting.  There will be a special session devoted to teachers tentatively titled “How Can the CFH Better Serve Secondary School Teachers?”  If you are a teacher with an interest in the CFH I hope you might consider coming to Grand Rapids and participate in the conversation.

Another way that teachers can get involved in the conference is through the presentation of papers.  If you are a CFH member, would like to be a CFH member, or are a fellow-traveler with the CFH, I would love to entertain a proposal from you.  We have already had a few teachers submit proposals, and are expecting a few more.  If you have any questions or concerns on this front, don’t hesitate to contact me.

We want the Conference on Faith and History to be a place where secondary teachers of Christian faith might find a home.

jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu

Episode 31 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is Almost Here!

BTA students

I am really excited about Episode 31!  We talked with Boston Trinity Academy (BTA) history teacher Mike Milway and three of his senior students about studying history at the secondary-school level.  Some of you may recall my recent visit to BTA.  The episode drops on Sunday.  In the meantime, get caught up on previous episodes here.

As always, we could use your patronage.  Head over to our Patreon campaign and learn about the different ways you can support our work. Help us reach our goal!  You may even qualify for a free mug or signed book!

“The Mechanics of Class Participation”

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Yesterday we did a post on Lendol Calder’s use of “Point Paragraphs” in the history classroom.  Calder’s piece was a part of larger Perspectives on History forum titled “How to Get Students to Think, Talk, Share, Collaborate, Learn and Come Back for More.” Here is a taste of Elizabeth Lehfeldt‘s Introduction to the forum:

We’ve all been there. Our syllabus specifies that a percentage of the course grade will be based on participation. We’ve presented riveting material or assigned a provocative reading. We show up for class, stand at the front of the room, and begin lobbing questions at the students. And the silence is deafening.

Our intentions are good, but something is missing in the execution. The four pieces offered here offer strategies and ideas for lifting our class discussions out of the doldrums and making them meaningful and efficacious for students.

Check out the forum here.

 

Teaching Teachers at Emma Willard School

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Last Friday I helped lead a workshop on historical thinking for twenty-five history teachers at Emma Willard School, an independent girls school in Troy, New York.  The New York State Association of Independent Schools sponsored the workshop.

The school was founded in 1814 as Troy Female Seminary by women’s rights activist Emma Willard. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Fonda and current NY Senator Kirsten Gillbrand are all Emma Willard graduates.  I also learned (after I left) that a 2003 Messiah College graduate currently works in student life at the school.  I also learned that my first cousin lives two blocks down the road!).

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It was a great experience.  I reconnected with my old friend Dr. Bob Naeher, the chair of the Emma Willard History Department.  I first met Bob sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s when both of us (along with 100s of other teachers and history professors) were grading United States History Advanced Placement exams on the campus of Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas.  Bob is a fine American historian.  He wrote a great dissertation on Puritans and prayer at the University of Connecticut under the direction of Karen Kupperman. (Check out his 1989 New England Quarterly essay, “Dialogue in the Wilderness: John Eliot and the Indian Exploration of Puritanism as a Source of Meaning, Comfort, and Ethnic Survival“).

I was privileged to work with Magdalena Gross of the University of Maryland’s Education Department.  Gross is an engaging scholar and teacher who works at the intersection of historical thinking, pedagogy, and memory.  She is an expert on pedagogy issues surrounding the Holocaust in Poland.  And did I mention that she did her doctoral work at Stanford under the direction of Sam Wineburg?  After teaching two Wineburg books in Fall 2017, I was thrilled to chat with Magda about teaching future teachers how to teach historical thinking skills.  I hope we get to work together again one day.

Magda took the morning session and modeled two lessons.  One challenged students to read critically and the other helped students to tackle difficult issues (like the Holocaust) that they encountered in their study of the past.  (Both lessons were inspired by her work with the Stanford History Education Group).

I was assigned the afternoon session.  I offered some thoughts on the relationship between history and the cultivation of a democratic society.  We discussed the
5 Cs of historical thinking: change over time, contingency, context, complexity, and causation.  Then, drawing from my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I suggested that the study of history cultivates virtues necessary for a thriving democracy–empathy, humility, intellectual hospitality, and discipline.

The conversation with the teachers was excellent.  As always, I learned a lot!  One teacher even tweeted:

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.

More Teaching Panels at the 2018 AHA

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Mike Davis, one of our correspondents at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Historical Associationchecks in with some reflections on three panels on teaching history.  Read all of Mike’s AHA 2018 posts here. –JF

I attended three panels at the AHA conference on Friday (Day 2), each one engaging with issues relating to historians and their relationship with the broader community.

The first was a sales meeting for Pearson’s new Revel “interactive learning environment,” billed as an alternative to traditional online and physical textbooks designed to meet 21st century students where they live by letting them engage with ADA compliant audio, video, primary sources, and other learning techniques. While I found Revel engaging, I felt particularly empowered by the number and diversity of faculty present for the talk. Junior and senior faculty from high schools, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and comprehensive state universities all turned out for the opportunity to learn better ways to engage with their students.

The second panel: “The Culture Wars of the Texas K-12 Schoolbooks” dealt with Texas K- 12 schools and the efforts by both AHA members and their community allies to both build Mexican-American history studies programs and defend those programs from a hostile state legislature eager to heavily regulate – or outright abolish, any programs that encouraged “nationalism.” The panelists emphasized how the anti-Mexican historiography the state had considered was not simply immoral; it was also bad history, omitting decades of recent Mexican-American historiography. Having used this scholarship myself in the classroom, I was particularly looking forward to this panel and I was not disappointed.

I was particularly pleased at how the panelists – Emilio Zamora (taking the opportunity to present as two of the attendees had been unable to attend thanks to the inclement weather) and Carlos Blanton – emphasized that the focus of their work was on promoting critical thinking and student engagement rather than simply promoting ethnic pride. As they pointed out, this work benefited not just students from a particular ‘minority’ – but all students who get the opportunity to learn the contested nature of history and the way various disempowered groups have fought for power inside historical narratives.

The last panel I attended today was “Teaching the Master Narrative: American History Textbooks in the 20th Century”, a panel inspired by the scholarship of Kyle Ward (Minnesota-Mankato) that looked at the changing (or unchanging) ways various key moments in the “master narrative” of American history have appeared in secondary schools. The University of Miami’s Michael Horton looked at Columbus, offering his audience an interesting antidote to usual Whiggish notions of “historical writing improving over time” by looking at the historians of the 1920s and 1930s who were actually quite critical of Columbus and his career. In the same vein of anti-Whiggishness, Michael Kniesel at Kent State looked at the Boston Tea Party in high school textbooks – finding no particular improvement in accuracy in the way textbooks have discussed the Tea Party from the early 20th century. American teachers are reluctant to paint figures from the American Revolution as economic terrorists – despite the historiography in recent decades leading that way.

Finally, Lindsey Bauman looked at the way textbooks in the 1950s dealt with slavery – finding that textbooks generally relied on Ulrich Phillips’s master-centered economic history when telling the story of slavery. Bauman’s research showed that even as historiography in the academy moved beyond Phillips’s white-centric and white supremacist take on the history of slavery, school textbooks continued to directly use arguments and evidence from a work published some thirty-five years earlier even by the 1950s.

This was a good day – and it left me with good thoughts for my own panel presentation tomorrow. I look forward to seeing readers at the Early Career Lightning Round at 10:30AM on Friday.

Teaching American History after Charlottesville

Charlottesville

Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, is running a round table on teaching in the wake of Charlottesville.  Participants include Jarred Amato, Beverly Bunch-Lyons, Michael Dickinson, Emily Farris, Kevin Gannon (don’t miss him on Episode 26 of the TWOILH Podcast), Nyasha Junior, and Heather Cox Richardson.

Here is a taste:

Did the events in Charlottesville change the topics and questions you were planning to address this semester or quarter? If so, how?

Beverly Bunch-Lyons: No. The events in Charlottesville did not change the topics and questions I planned to address this semester. I am teaching the first half of African American History this semester, which covers 1450-1865, so while these issues are certainly important, timely, and relevant, I believe they are better suited to the second half of the course. I have an obligation to my students to cover historical topics that fall within the time period we are covering. I will discuss Charlottesville this semester, but only if students initiate the conversation. I realize that events like Charlottesville can be important teaching moments, but as educators I believe it is important to make sure that we provide deep and thorough historical context for students if we choose to broach these recent issues in classes where the topic may be outside of the historical scope we are covering.

Michael Dickinson: The recent events in Charlottesville did not directly change the topics I planned to address. The events did, however, demand that I alter the timeline of my syllabus. I am currently teaching an undergraduate seminar in early African American history. While concepts of race and racism are critical to the entire course, discussions of the Civil War necessarily fall toward the end of the semester. That said, recent events posed an opportunity more than a challenge. Events such as those in Charlottesville remind historians that our work is about more than the past; our work is vital to the present. Tragic moments of national mourning and conflict, while certainly unfortunate, are opportunities to help students better understand—and develop the skills of critical analysis to combat—ignorance and hate. These are objectives neatly built into syllabi but the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere pushed me to consider concepts of historical memory, race, and slavery in ways temporally out of place in the syllabus but pragmatically necessary for the contemporary moment.

Emily Farris: The events in Charlottesville occurred right after I put the finishing touches on my syllabus this fall for Urban Politics. While Charlottesville and the monument movement aren’t officially on my syllabus, I do plan on talking about these issues (and others) with my students as examples for the concepts we are going to study. For example, one section of the class looks at power and representation in the city. During those days, we will analyze what power looks like in cities and assess which groups have power and are represented in city decisions. I plan on bringing two recent events in our city, Fort Worth, into the discussion: the racially divided decision by the Fort Worth city council to not join the #SB4 immigration lawsuit and the movement I helped lead to rename Jefferson Davis city park. I find current events like these and Charlottesville help ground students in larger ideas, particularly more theoretical ones.

Kevin Gannon: As director of my university’s teaching center, I’ve certainly observed a “Charlottesville effect.” Issues of diversity, inclusion, and justice have been at the forefront of many of our conversations since last fall. There seems to be more urgency for some of us, as well as many students, in the wake of Charlottesville. An urban campus, our university is diverse compared to our state as a whole, but that’s not saying much. The student body is 90% white, and getting at issues of structural racism and historical memory, as well as privilege and power, can be fraught. Much of my work with faculty centers on handling difficult discussions, teaching inclusively, and classroom climate, and my center’s programming on these topics is well attended (faculty have requested even more, which I am glad to facilitate). It’s one thing for an institution to say it values diversity and inclusion and stands against racism. It’s another to actually commit the time and resources to doing the work behind those proclamations. Charlottesville isn’t that long ago, but my initial impression this year is that more faculty (adjunct and full-time) are thinking intentionally about these issues than is usually the case. Our students certainly are.

Read the entire round table here.

 

The “Teachers Lounge” at History News Network

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I just came across this great collection of resources for history teachers.  Thanks to the good folks at History News Service for creating what they are calling “The Teacher’s Lounge.”

Here are just a few of the article you can find there: