How One Middle-School History Teacher is Staying Connected With His Students

Matt Lakemacher is a longtime reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and a “graduate” of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute Princeton Seminar. He teaches history at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL. Some of you may recall his dispatches from the 2019 meeting of the American Historical Association.  Read them here.

I have enjoyed watching Matt’s efforts to stay connected with his 7th-grade students during the quarantine.  Here is his latest video:

Check out Matt’s YouTube page.

Any College Professor Can Relate to What Happened in Iowa Last Night


You spent hours preparing.   You get to class early so you can project your PowerPoint and queue your videos.  You are going to utilize that digital pedagogical tool you learned about in the required professional development workshop you took last May.

But when the time comes to execute, the technology doesn’t work.

Here is The New York Times:

The app that the Iowa Democratic Party commissioned to tabulate and report results from the caucuses on Monday was not properly tested at a statewide scale, said people who were briefed on the app by the state party.

It was quickly put together in just the past two months, said the people, some of whom asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

And the party decided to use the app only after another proposal for reporting votes — which entailed having caucus participants call in their votes over the phone — was abandoned, on the advice of Democratic National Committee officials, according to David Jefferson, a board member of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election integrity organization.

Late Monday night, that chain of events came to a head when results from the Iowa caucuses were significantly delayed. While vote counts in the past have typically been reported earlier in the evening, the Iowa Democratic Party held a conference call with representatives from each campaign at around 10:30 p.m. Eastern time to tell them that roughly 35 percent of precincts had reported, but that it would provide no other details about the results.

Read the rest here.

Episode 47: Reacting to the Past

PodcastHere on the podcast, we love pedagogy. We’ve dedicated a number of episodes to the ways different historians and instructors are innovating in the classroom. Today we’re turning our attention to one such approach: Reacting to the Past. These large-scale role-playing games allow students to fully appreciate the context and contingency of history by simulating historical events. We are joined by Nicolas Proctor, one of the architects of the Reacting to the Past (@ReactingTTPast) methodology,

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group ( and Jennings College Consulting (

Rethinking the History Survey Course


Steven Mintz of the University of Texas has some good ideas to get more students engaged in the study of the history through the required survey course.  Here are some of them:

  • Thematically Organized Surveys: One striking example at the University of Kentucky focuses on citizenship: historical controversies over the rights of immigrants, voting rights, marriage rights, and other rights.
  • Interdisciplinary Clusters: Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with paired and team-taught courses that combine the insights of a variety of disciplines on a topic (the 1960s, for example) or problem (climate change).
  • Career-Aligned Pathways: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley redesigned the pathway through the biomedical sciences to emphasize professional identity formation, with students taking a history course in the history of disease and public health, a literature class on the literature of pain and illness, a philosophy course on medical ethics, and an art history class on representations of the body. The University of Texas at Austin has an introductory-level course on the history of engineering.
  • Inquiry-Driven Approaches: The University of Michigan’s History 101, which focuses on the question “What is history?,” offers an overview of the approaches historians have taken to studying the past and how they analyze and interpret historical sources and uncover the meaning of history for life today. My own inquiry-driven US history survey course focuses on solving historical mysteries, wrestling with troubling moral dilemmas rooted in history, interpreting a wide range of historical sources (artifacts, architecture, fashion, film, hairstyles, maps, naming patterns, paintings, photographs, and political cartoons, among others), and responding to such questions as “What if?” and “How do we know?”

Read the entire piece at AHA Today .  Of course no discussion of innovative approaches to the history survey course is complete without considering the work of Lendol Calder.  Lendol has been talking and writing about these matters for years.

“The Mechanics of Class Participation”


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.


Episode 26: The Way of Improvement Returns to the Classroom

podcast-icon1Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling have returned to their classrooms for another semester of college teaching. What better time to once again explore the importance of pedagogy? John discusses issues surrounding secondary history standards and the way we train our teachers. They are joined by “The Tattooed Prof” Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) who unpacks his own “Teaching Manifesto.”


What the Founding Fathers Read


I just learned about Greg Specter‘s Duquesne University course titled What the Founders Read at the Pedagogy & American Literature Studies blog.  It looks great.  Here is a taste of his post on the course:

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course…

In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Read the entire post here.

The First Five Minutes of Class

College classroom 3

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, James Lang offers four things you can do in the first five minutes of class to get your students engaged.

They are:

  1. Open with a question or two
  2. Ask students what they learned in the last class.  (Don’t tell them).
  3. Ask students to revisit “not just what they learned from the previous session, but what they already knew about the subject matter.”
  4. Have students write down their answers to points 1-3.

See how Lang unpacks these suggestions here.

Another Defense of Molly Worthen’s Article on Lecturing

This comes from Daniel P. Franke, a visiting history instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Franke supports Worthen’s defense of the lecture and add his own insights.

Here is a taste of his post at The Winds of War blog:

That lectures have, and will continue to have, a role in college education is taken almost for granted by publications such as the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learningthe link should take you to the many articles that in some way or other deal with lecture. Many, such as Smith and Cardaciotto 2011, stress the need to find ways to work active learning methods into lecture classes, citing G. S. Gremmel’s wry 1995 statement that we are under such pressure to cram everything into an hour that we unload our “dumptruck” of pedagogy on our unfortunate students. Others, such as Sagayadevan and Jeyaraj 2012 examine the role that students’ emotional engagement plays in lecture classes.  Brost and Bradley 2006, in a fascinating study, examine the reciprocal responsibility of teachers (lecturers) and students in assigning and reading assigned material, respectively (I’ve actually had a lot of success with some of the exact techniques that they recommend). Incidentally, it is quite clear that the lectures they describe embrace a wide variety of techniques, some more effective than others. Finally, Lawler, Chen, and Venso 2007 provide interesting data on what students themselves value in lecture: “showing enthusiasm for the subject, having good communication skills and explaining complex concepts clearly” being the top three.   I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there has been a lot of work done studying lectures, and whether or not they will ever equal that 10-student seminar (no, they won’t). They are here, and we’ve been working on making them darned effective.
But there were other reasons that Molly Worthen’s column on the lecture spoke to me. Above all, it is because, now that I’m back in regular civilian classrooms and teaching mostly freshmen for the first time in three years, lectures seem to be crucially important to my students’ success. The reasons for that are two-fold: a) a generally great lack of experience in historical analysis, and b) ditto for analytical thinking and questioning. This has nothing to do with aptitude–I’ve never had a student that wasn’t tip top, and my current bunch isn’t letting me down. But it does mean that college courses are often drastically different from high school courses, requiring a different kind of thinking, a different kind of engagement, and above all (because this is history), some basic familiarity with historical data (which at the same time is not mere regurgitation).
We actually just discussed this after my latest midterm. A few students stayed behind to ask about what the exam evaluated, and why I structured it the way I did (these weren’t complaints, just honest questions). One of my students questioned whether giving them terms requiring a short answer was the best teaching method, which was completely fair, and I said it wasn’t. But,  it did accomplish several things. We wound up chatting for a while as I cleaned up the classroom and here’s the gist of what we came up with:
  1. History is hard, because it deals in both concepts and data, not one or the other, and the relationship between them.
  2. Shifting back and forth between the two is the essence of good college history writing and speaking. My favorite piece of advice to students: big concepts, small examples.
  3. College history is also a lot like the game show Jeopardy–you have the data, the issue is what kind of question are you going to ask?
  4. Unless you’ve had the blessing of a great HS history class, you’ve probably never been exposed to these kinds of methods.
  5. You’re probably good with broad concepts, because in my experience most students are.
  6. So, here’s the rub: if I have you write an essay, it will probably be vague concepts with no examples, because data is boring and hard, and I’ll grade you down for that. If I give you nothing but terms and word banks, what does that accomplish, except for you to regurgitate stuff?
  7. So, I opted for the intermediate goal: short examples that help you develop your skills reasoning from specific terms, working on moving from data to its significance. This works with the skills you’re working on in your first paper, and will ultimately building blocks for the second paper and the final exam.
Read the entire post here.

Miriam Burstein Responds (Indirectly) to Molly Worthen’s Essay on Lecturing

Get up to speed here.

Burstein‘s post is titled “How to write an essay about teaching that will not be published in the NYT, Chronicle, IHE, or anywhere else.”

From “The Little Professor” blog:

1) There are many pedagogical techniques.

2) These techniques vary in usefulness, depending on the discipline, class size, role in the major/GE program, level of instruction, content, classroom layout, time of day, available technology, instructor’s skill set, the university/college environment, and student demographics.  

3) Depending on changes to any or all of these variables, these techniques may or may not work from one course to the next.  They may or may not even work across two sections of the identical course taught during the same semester/quarter.

4) Not all techniques are suited to all instructors.  

Read the rest here.

Historians: How Does Research In Pedagogy Inform Your Teaching?

Ben Wright, a historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, challenges his fellow history professors to start reading scholarship related to pedagogy.  He even uses the label “anti-intellectual” to describe those professors who are unwilling to engage with such literature or who look upon this literature with condescension.

Here is a taste of his post at Teaching United States History:

I should confess that I came to the profession of “professing” after receiving an undergraduate training in “teaching.” In fact, this article takes me back to my undergraduate education and the whiplash I often felt when walking out of an educational psychology class and into a history course. I recall how impressed I was by the scholarly rigor of education researchers and the evidence they produced to indicate the difference between effective and ineffective instruction. And then I remember the bemusement I felt an hour later by realizing that my history professor clearly never read a word of this scholarship.
Ignorance is one thing, but outright hostility is quite another, and the tone of this article, and of some of the enthusiasm I’ve noticed around it, evinces a dismissal and even condescension to the academic fields of education research. I would even go so far as to call this attitude an anti-intellectualism. Is this outlook toward the academic study of education any less disrespectful and misguided than what we sometimes get from members of the public who feel that Bill O’Reilly’s study of Abraham Lincoln has the same measure of legitimacy as Eric Foner’s?
We all have a standard answer to the question, “how does your research inform your teaching?” but what would happen if if interviewees began asking, “how does research in pedagogy inform your teaching?” Our guild appears to hold the belief that learning how to teach is mostly a matter of general intelligence, experience, and hard work. Most of us receive little-to-no training in how to teach. We are thrust into teaching assistantships and expected to figure it out on the fly. And we do, but this trial by fire approach teaches us more how to survive and less how to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students. Discussions of learning outcomes, best practices, or education psychology too often get dismissed as administrator meddling or an academia adrift in lowering standards. The “tough love” approach epitomized in the article stands in for rigorous engagement with research.
Wright is right.  If we want more students to get excited about history we need to be more committed to teaching. And yes, this will require reading scholarship related to pedagogy.
Wright lists several places where historians might begin to explore this scholarship.  They include The Review of Higher Education, Review of Education Research, and Contemporary Educational Psychology.  These are probably all great journals that include articles that will make us become better teachers, but not every historian is going to have the time or inclination to read them.
But maybe historians will read literature on scholarship related specifically to teaching history–literature published in history journals, magazines, or history blogs and websites. Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, Caleb McDaniel, the folks responsible for The History Teacher, and others are doing great work on this front.  I know that Wright is familiar with this work.  
Rather than encouraging historians to tackle specialized pedagogy and education journals, I think the best we can expect is that more historians like Wright will emerge  to serve as brokers who are willing to bring the best of this literature to those of use who work in the history classroom.

Lectures, Group Work. and the Teaching of History

Is the lecture dead?  Should history professors employ more group work in their classes?  A small discussion on these related topics has been raging through the history blogosphere.  If you want to get up to speed, check our Chris Gehrz’s piece at The Pietist Schoolman, “The Value of the ‘Sage on the Stage’.”  I love his introductory paragraph:

If you want to sound like you’re a serious, forward-thinking educator these days, you’d best master a couple of facile cliches: (1) speak derisively of the “sage on the stage” in order (2) to exhort colleagues to embrace “student-centered, active learning.” To help yourself convey the proper degree of disdain for the lecture, think back to the very worst versions of that device that you can remember being inflicted on you in your own education, then generalize from that particular experience into universally valid propositions.
We have discussed this topic several times at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:
The Benefits of a Classroom Lecture”  (One of our most popular posts)
In Defense of the Lecture” (December 19, 2009)
In Defense of the Lecture” (December 10, 2010)

Another Defense of the Lecture

I am currently working with the tech people and my academic dean at Messiah College to put together a mini- iTunes class tentatively titled “An Introduction to Everyday Life in Early America.”  The course will mostly focus on eighteenth-century evangelicalism, the social world of the Enlightenment, social mobility, and consumerism.  It will draw from the lectures and discussions that will take place in the British Colonial America course I am teaching this semester.

During a production meeting yesterday we realized the the Messiah College Registrar had the class scheduled for a seminar room rather than a traditional classroom.  While I have taught this class as a seminar before (there are about 15 students enrolled), I thought that a more traditional classroom with desks, chairs, a lectern, and a screen might work better for the iTunes project.  We got the class switched.

One of the reasons I wanted to move the class to a traditional classroom was because I still believe in the lecture mode of teaching.  When I say “lecture mode” I am not suggesting that I will spend the entire semester talking at the fifteen students who are enrolled.  I rarely lecture this way.  Most of my lectures tend to be presentations of material interspersed with questions and student participation.  But I still believe that there is a place for a professor to stand before a class, filled with passion and enthusiasm for the subject, and tell short stories about the past.  I also think that this makes for a better iTunes presentation.

I am writing about this today because I just read Chris Gehrz’s defense of the lecture at The Pietist Schoolman.  Chris calls our attention to an essay on lecturing by Richard Gunderman, a medical school professor at Indiana University.  Here is the crux of Gehrz’s post–a combination of his analysis and Gunderman’s article:

(Gehrz): Read his whole post, but let me pull out one point that seems especially important: that there is something unique about “the physical presence of the lecturer and the unfolding of the lecture in real time” that makes a difference in how students learn. Once we understand that the “core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information” (since there are other ways to do that — e.g., reading), then we can see that:

(Gunderman): The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners. Is the lecturer enthusiastic about the topic? Why? Could I get enthused about this, too? How could I use this to take better care of my patients? Is this the kind of doctor or nurse I aspire to be some day?

A great lecturer’s benefit to learners extends far beyond preparing for an exam, earning a good grade, or attaining some form of professional certification. The great lecture opens learners’ eyes to new questions, connections, and perspectives that they have not considered before, illuminating new possibilities for how to work and live. Without question, it also helps learners who pay attention earn a better grade, but it manages to make the topic take on a life of its own and seem worth knowing for its own sake, beyond such narrow, utilitarian advantage.

And Gehrz continues:

Most of all, I’d have resonated with the stress Gunderman placed on “delight” — not simply that of the lecturer (though that’s essential), but also of the learners, who are “not merely sitting and passively listening. Far from it, they are challenged and engaged, actively thinking and imagining right along with the lecturer as both struggle toward new insights…. A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other.”

Great post.  I am glad to see that Chris has returned from Europe and is back into the swing of things at The Pietist Schoolman.