The Risk of Taking Risks in the Classroom

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, Doug Lederman asks “will trying new teaching techniques tank my evaluations?”  I have asked this question many times during my 20+ years in higher education.  In the following excerpt, Lederman reflects on a study suggesting that teachers who lecture get better student evaluations:

The survey asked instructors to assess their teaching styles on a continuum from “highly alternative” to “highly traditional,” and the vast majority called themselves “mostly traditional with some alternative features.” Respondents said they lectured between 40 and 80 percent of the time, using a range of other techniques for the rest — small-group and whole-class discussions, sometimes involving clickers, in-class online quizzes, etc.

Instructors were then asked whether the use of more interactive teaching techniques had affected their teaching evaluations, and the vast majority said they did — mostly positively. Forty-eight percent believed their student evaluations had improved, about a third (32 percent) said there had been no effect and one in five (20 percent) felt that their evaluations had fallen.

Digging deeper into the data, the researchers found that the instructors most likely to report lower evaluations (and to generate direct student complaints) were those who lectured the least. Those who reported lecturing between 20 percent and 60 percent of the time were likeliest to report an increase in positive student evaluations, while those who lectured less than 20 percent of the time were likelier than others to see their evaluations worsen.

Asked why they thought that was the case, instructors who saw their evaluations worsen were mostly likely to say they believed students “do not feel like they are being ‘taught’ when lecturing decreases,” while others said that they did not think students want to work actively during class time. “They want to be spoon-fed, not think,” one respondent said.

Read the entire piece here.

Consider Placing This Language in Your Syllabus

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Source

Commitment to Viewpoint Diversity, Mutual Understanding, and Constructive Disagreement

In order to create a classroom environment that supports respectful, critical inquiry through the free exchange of ideas, the following principles will guide our work:

  • Treat every member of the class with respect, even if you disagree with their opinion;
  • Bring light, not heat;
  • Reasonable minds can differ on any number of perspectives, opinions, and conclusions;
  • Because constructive disagreement sharpens thinking, deepens understanding, and reveals novel insights, it is not just encouraged, it is expected;
  • All viewpoints are welcome;
  • No ideas are immune from scrutiny and debate;
  • You will not be graded on your opinions.

What do you think?

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.

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

Rethinking the History Survey Course

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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.

Who is Teaching Your Introductory History Courses?

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I have a month or two left as chair of the Messiah College History Department. At the end of the 2017-2018 academic year I will have completed 2 four-year terms.  I am sure I will reflect more fully on this experience as my tenure winds down in May and June.  But right now I have been giving some thought to where my teaching duties will lie over the course of the next decade now that I am giving up administrative responsibilities in the department.

Lately I have been seeing a lot of articles about senior professors teaching introductory courses.  I have always believed this to be a good thing.  In fact, the 100-level U.S. survey class (to 1865) has always been my favorite course to teach.  While I was chair I taught it once a year.  In my post-chair life it looks like I may be teaching it in both semesters.

I thought about all of this when I saw Becky Supiano’s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses.  Here’s Why.”

A taste:

Introductory courses can open doors for students, helping them not only discover a love for a subject area that can blossom into their major but also feel more connected to their campus.

But on many campuses, teaching introductory courses typically falls to less-experienced instructors. Sometimes the task is assigned to instructors whose very connection to the college is tenuous. A growing body of evidence suggests that this tension could have negative consequences for students.

Two papers presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in New York on Sunday support this idea.

The first finds that community-college students who take a remedial or introductory course with an adjunct instructor are less likely to take the next course in the sequence.

The second finds negative associations between the proportion of a four-year college’s faculty members who are part-time or off the tenure track and outcomes for STEM majors.

The community-college paper, “Role of Adjunct Faculty in Realizing the Postsecondary Dreams of Historically Marginalized Student Populations,” is not the first to examine the link between part-time instructors and student outcomes, said Florence Xiaotao Ran, its lead author. Several previous papers have found a negative relationship between contingent faculty members and student outcomes.

 

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching the American Revolution

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Over at The Panorama, historians Andrew Shankman and Eliga Gould write about how they teach the American Revolution.

Here is a taste of Shankman’s piece:

I try to show them that the revolution was part of a conversation that began in the early modern period about how to better the conditions of each of us and strengthen the obligations we owe to one another, the duties and responsibilities we have for each other. By showing how the revolution fits within that conversation it retains its grandeur while, hopefully, not imparting a sense of the exceptional and the particular: I hope my students will see the residents of British North America engaged in a charged often acrimonious and crucial series of conversations that were larger than any one group and more significant than the creation of any single nation.

And here is Gould:

Another area where my teaching and scholarship overlap is the message that I hope students in the course will take away. As every teacher knows, one of the central challenges with any survey is negotiating the gap between how professional historians understand historical events and how those events are perceived in the media and popular press. In courses on the American Revolution, as Serena Zabin writes in last October’s joint issue, that gap has often manifested itself as a tension between “the popular narrative of democracy’s heroic birth and the scholarly account of an imperialist and racist nation’s origins” (WMQ, 755). Of late, though, I worry that even stories of democracy’s heroic birth are not as popular or familiar as we might like to think. Three years ago, in a YouTube video that has scored more than 2 million views, PoliTech, a student-run group at Texas Tech, quizzed fellow students on the basic facts of American history: Who won the Civil War?  Who did we gain our independence from? And when? With one or two exceptions, the answers were variations of “I have no idea” or “I couldn’t tell you.”

Make Texts Relevant to Students, Not the Humanities

BHI# 07-060 St. Mikes

Mark Bauerlein of the English Department at Emory University is absolutely correct when he says:

For most of my professional life, the future of the humanities was a conceptual matter. That’s no longer the case. When enrollments are down, majors are down, funding and jobs are down, adjuncts are up, and departments are being closed, abstract debates over which new theory or interdisciplinary vision is on the rise don’t much count. When a formation as renowned as the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University is proposed for shutdown (it later was saved in modified form), we know that the prosperity of the humanities doesn’t rest with people at the top.

No, it depends on the people at the bottom, undergraduates who vote with their feet. If an English department’s chairman tells the dean, “We’ve got to hire someone in this new area of ____,” the dean replies, “But you can’t even get your existing courses half-filled.” If, however, a parent calls and grumbles, “I’m paying lots of money, and my daughter can’t get into any of the English classes she wants,” well, that calls for action.

It’s a situation that few humanities professors are equipped to overcome. Graduate school and assistant professorships don’t impel you to attract freshmen and sophomores. Instead you learn how to impress senior professors. But right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.

The measure of success for the humanities: Do undergraduates want to come?

And as humanities enrollments have slipped, in some places precipitously, instructors have felt pressure to make their courses more relevant and less rigorous. The typical student searching for a course of study won’t be attracted by syllabi filled with old plays and 400 pages of reading each week. Contemporary and multicultural materials, more media, less reading and fewer writing assignments, and definitely no poetry — that’s the prescription for building enrollments.

Read this entire piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I think this is particularly the case at smaller colleges where the humanities are struggling to survive.

NOTE:  The title of this post comes from a Facebook post on the Bauerlein piece by Western Washington University historian Johann Neem.

Why Face-to Face Instruction is Superior

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Christopher Schaberg teaches English and environment at Loyola University New Orleans.  He is not a fan of online teaching.  He explains why in this piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Once an online class is done, it’s done. But my classes are never complete. My students stay in touch with me, come back and visit me, occasionally even find me at my summer place in the woods and take a walk with me. I read their essay drafts and give them advice and suggestions on résumés and job prospects long after they graduate. I run into them at the grocery store. I see them on the street at night walking their dogs, and they tell me about how life changing that one novel was. We catch up, share stories and bid each other goodbye with warmth and fondness until the next time we meet again — whenever that may be. While this can certainly also result from pedagogical relationships developed online, I would wager that the occurrence and persistence of such connections is much higher when they have originated in the face-to-face classroom.

I should acknowledge here that my tenured position gives me the relative safety from which to take this strong stance toward online education. I teach at a small university where seminar-style courses are still allowed (and even used as a marketing tool). But even in this context, the juggernaut of online education looms. I am leery of my job being outmoded with each new push toward expanded course offerings online.

Sometimes I hear people on my campus say that online learning is “the future” or that it’s “here to stay.” But I doubt it. I’ve asked my students over the years, and none of them would prefer their course work be online. In their hypermediated lives, the classroom and the time therein is a sanctuary. And for children these days being raised with iPads and smartphones in the increasingly permeating, insinuating regime of the internet, being off-line is the real desirable good. (If you’ve ever witnessed a small child begging a parent to put the phone down, you know just what I am talking about.) Finally, it’s not even the future any more. The glow of online excitement is fading, at best.

Read the entire piece here.  I agree with just about all of it.  But take what I have to say with a grain of salt–I also believe that the lecture is still useful.  I am afraid my days in the academy may be numbered!  🙂

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

Help Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass Revise *Leading Lives That Matter*

Leading LivesMark Schwehn writes at NetVue blog:

The anthology Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (LLTM) has been widely used by faculty and students at NetVUE schools as a collection of texts that can be used to guide and stimulate the exploration of vocation. The book, edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2006), includes a wide variety of selections — poems, short stories, essays, speeches, obituaries, screenplays, and excerpts from longer works — drawn from both religious and secular sources.

The editors are now developing a second edition, and they seek your advice.

Read how you can help with the second edition by clicking here.

Bacon’s Rebellion in the Age of Trump

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We covered Bacon’s Rebellion yesterday in my U.S. survey class.  Like last year, the subject seems more relevant than ever.  I wrote this piece a few months ago at The Panorama:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here

A British Teacher Wins a Teaching Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution

OwenHis name is James Owen and he teaches American history at Westlake Academy in Westlake, Texas.  He sees the irony in it all.

The Daughters of the American Revolution have chosen Owen as its 2018 Outstanding American History Teacher for the state of Texas.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has the story.  A taste:

After receiving a doctorate in modern British history from Cambridge University in England, Owen came to the United States several years ago to teach history at a liberal arts college in North Carolina.

His interactions with American students and culture stoked his fascination in American history, he said.

When he compared the slow evolution of British history with the sudden establishment of the United States, he marveled at the founding fathers.

“They were building a country from the ground up,” he said. “The founding fathers were starting from scratch.”

Now he helps his students learn critical thinking strategies about American history, which sparks their interest in the subject.

Read the rest here.

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

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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!

Are American Evangelical Students Really Interested in the History of American Evangelicalism?

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I am not in Dallas this week for the 2018 CCCU International Forum, but I have been following along via Twitter.  (Thanks to all of you who are tweeting from the conference!)

I was struck by a couple of tweets:

I really wish that Molly Worthen was right about this.  I really do.  But I just don’t see it.  With a few exceptions, I rarely encounter evangelical students (or students of any faith for that matter) who “crave a sense of knowing who they are….”  If there are students who are “hungry for a historical renaissance,” I have not met them yet.  I am sure that there are professors at other CCCU institutions who might be able to tell a different story.

I wrote about this at length in a May 2014 post after I learned that only a handful of students signed-up for a class I offered at Messiah College on the history of American evangelicalism.  The course had four regularly enrolled students and two auditors.  Here is how I would describe the students:

  • A female Catholic history major who knew nothing about evangelicalism but was intellectually curious.
  • A female non-traditional student and an employee of Messiah College who was interested in the topic.  (She was an auditor)
  • A male religion major who was basically there to criticize the evangelicalism of his childhood.  (He was also an auditor)
  • A male history major who was raised in evangelicalism but didn’t know it until he started recognizing some of the ideas we discussed.
  • A female history major who knew very little about evangelicalism.
  • A male history major who was a progressive Christian curious about American evangelicalism.

These were great students, and I enjoyed teaching them, but most of them were just there to fulfill a history requirement that fit their schedules.

I am sure there a lot of reasons why this course, which was capped at 25 students, was so under-enrolled, but I am guessing that lack of interest in the subject was at the top of the list.

I doubt many students will ever be interested in this subject at Messiah College.  Yes, we have A LOT of evangelical students, but we have very few professors in the humanities and liberal arts who self-identify as evangelicals or who might be interested in exploring evangelical identity with students.  This is just not how we assimilate our students into the life of the college.  Evangelical identity not a priority.  Sadly, we do a disservice to hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of students from evangelical backgrounds.  They will learn very little about their heritage. For most of the students at the Christian college where I teach, a course on evangelicalism will be viewed as just another elective–a course that students think about in the same way that they think about a course on the American Revolution or world religions.

 

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

“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.

 

“Point Paragraphs”

paragraphHistory teachers at every level should take a look at Lendol Calder‘s short piece at Perspectives on History.  Calder, a master teacher and the creator of the “uncoverage” method of teaching the history survey course, explains how he uses “point paragraphs” in class.

Here is a taste:

A Point Paragraph (PP) is 250–400 words students write after completing a reading assignment. In their PP, students name a worthwhile discussion point inspired by the reading(s) and develop that point with evidence and argumentation. On class days when they will discuss the readings using Think/Pair/Share, the syllabus instructs them to bring a PP as their “ticket” to class. I check tickets at the door; those without a PP are kindly turned away. (I generally have to do this only once per semester.) This policy counteracts the free rider problem, ensuring that every person in the room comes with at least a modicum of readiness to contribute to a meeting whose success or failure depends on students’ willingness to risk their ideas out loud, something they are more likely to do if they have already thought through some ideas on paper. If my “ticket to class” policy seems harsh or a lot to ask, bear in mind that a PP need not be particularly brilliant. A merely acceptable Point Paragraph will admit a student to class.

An acceptable PP has three components. The paragraph begins with a statement called the “They Say,” which briefly summarizes “what everyone knows” or what an authority has said or what the student used to think before encountering a new idea in the reading. (The book to read is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.) Next comes an “I Say,” a point responding to the “They Say,” either to agree, to disagree, or to agree but with a difference. Requiring students to position their “I Say” in conversation with others increases their awareness of the social dimension of thinking, where the significance of a point depends upon how much it surprises others in some way, providing new insight into the material at hand. The rest of the paragraph explains and supports the point, using quotations, data, and reasoning to demonstrate the plausibility of one’s claim.

Thus an acceptable Point Paragraph does three things: it makes a single, significant point focused on the reading for the day, marshals strong evidence in support of the point, and exhibits good writing style. PPs can be graded quickly using a three-point scale: an acceptable PP earns two points, one that is almost there gets one point, and when no grading categories are met, zero points are earned. I let students write as many PPs as they want, up to 30 total points or 30 percent of the final grade; others will have their own grading schemes. I do not accept late Point Paragraphs.

Read the entire piece 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:

Is Teaching a Gift?

teaching teachers

I am reading Richard Wightman Fox’s excellent biography of Reinhold Niebuhr.  During the 1920s, as a young man in his early thirties, Niebuhr was the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit.  Fox describes his pulpit presence:

Niebuhr’s preaching was the chief magnet that drew people to Bethel.  By the early 1920s he was an accomplished pulpit performer, the educated Protestant’s Billy Sunday.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: one watched him lunge, gyrate, jerk, bend, and quake.  He whirled his arms, rubbed his ears and his balding scalp, stretched his hawkish nose forward.  His whole lanky frame in motion.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: to catch the stream-of-consciousness flow of analysis and anecdote–sometime shouted, sometime whispered, but always at the velocity of an undammed flood–demanded a concentration that few could sustain during an entire sermon.  Adelaide Buettner, who joined Bethel in 1924, remembers the dizzying experience of hearing Niebuhr for the first time.  She understood only part of what he said, and ran home to look up in her dictionary some of the words he had used.  Like the rest of the congregation she was firmly hooked by Niebuhr’s charisma; in the pulpit he was fired, inspired with the Word, yet thoroughly rational, “intellectual.”  To here and her young adult friends he was “a hero,” a “father figure,” although he was only in his thirties himself.

Niebuhr’s preaching was by no means just an act.  It was a well-crafted blend of drama and arrangement, a constant dialectic of comfort and challenge….

Niebuhr was a natural.  He had charisma.  His ability to communicate this way was a gift.  But if I read historian Erin Bartram correctly, his gift did not necessarily make him a good teacher.  (I don’t know what his classes were like at Union Theological Seminary.  I am still reading!).

In a very thoughtful piece at the Teaching United States History blog, Bartram reminds us that good teaching takes work–hard work.  It is not a gift.  I read this piece a few weeks ago, but it came back to mind today as I encountered Fox on Niebuhr.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Anyone regularly reading this site already knows how dangerous it is to think of good teaching as a gift. Often those recognized as having a gift for teaching are those who embody charisma in particular ways that our culture recognizes. They hold the attention of an audience, they have a recognizable scholarly pedigree, or they look like a Google Images search for “historian,” and so are afforded some measure of respect, attention, and even deference before they open their mouths.

All those who teach history know that it isn’t a gift, including those who are seen as naturals at it by their colleagues and students. But at this time of year, when evaluations have rolled in and we’re thinking ahead to next semester, it can be tough to remember that.

Student expectations, informed by these broader cultural ideas of what a teacher should be, often conflict with what we try to do in the classroom. We explain what we’re doing, and why, but when that doesn’t work with some students – or worse, with an entire class – we fear that it’s not the methods, it’s us. We just don’t have the gift, and there’s no fixing that.

But teaching isn’t a gift, and good pedagogy – including confronting, absorbing, and managing student expectations – is a set of skills we accumulate, experiment with, and refine. This coming semester, as I teach a historical methods class for the first time, I’m going to try to remember that my struggles don’t mean I’m lacking some gift, they just mean I’m facing a new challenge in my craft.

Just as I try to remember that my teaching is a skill, not a gift, I must also remember that my teaching is labor, not a gift.

Read the entire piece here.  This is definitely something that I tried to get through to my “Teaching History” class last Fall.