Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Method for How to Plan a Unit Using Essential Questions: Colonial America

One of my pet peeves as a teacher is when I see a syllabus for U.S. history that only lists the title of the unit as "Chapter 4." And then under each day, you see things like "section 4.3." To me, this suggests a unit planned according to a textbook. Even very good textbooks are flawed and they should never be used as the guiding force in planning. And really, what kid is going to be excited about the fact that tomorrow's lesson will be on Chapter 4, section 4.3?? Give your unit and each lesson a title. Not only does this make things sound more interesting, but they probably will be more interesting because you have now put thought into what the unit and lesson are really all about. It will also help students see the structure of the course more clearly and therefore better understand the context for each day's lesson. 

A unit in a U.S. history course ought to focus on a few essential questions. And what one teaches Monday should logically lead to what is taught on Tuesday, and so on. What is taught in the unit as a whole should carry through themes or questions raised in earlier units and/or introduce problems or issues that will be developed in later units. It is okay to skip part of the textbook. (Indeed, it is okay not to use one at all, but that is subject unto itself.)
For me, it has always been easier to figure out what needs to be included in units on the wars because there is a clear sequence of events. And I have found it harder for periods that are broad like Colonial America (200 years of history in 2 weeks!) Industrial America (too much going on: railroads, big business, labor, immigration, urbanization, the last of the Indian wars, the rise of Jim Crow, oh my!), or the Progressive Era (so much legislation revolving around so many issues: women, prohibition, trust-busting, federal regulation—how to avoid the unit becoming a slog of filling in charts of all these laws?!).

So here’s my suggestion:
Take a cue from a literature: foreshadowing and themes. DON’T cover everything in your textbook about the colonial era. Instead, choose themes which “foreshadow” what will happen in the next unit and/or later on in the year. The reason for teaching a particular topic should never be because that is what comes next in the book. It should be because that what logically follows in this grand story you are teaching. Does this mean you will leave out important information about what life was like in Colonial times? Yes, of course. Does this mean you will probably skip having students copy information out of the textbook about the differences between proprietary, royal and charter colonies and put the info into a chart? Yes, thankfully! But remember, you can't EVER hope to "cover" everything, nor should you even if you could. (If you did, you'd be lucky to make it to World War I by May!) And remember the most imporant question all students ask: why do we have to know this? Planning a unit like I am suggesting will help you help them answer that question.

Click here to see my example of this kind of planning for a unit on Colonial America.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Ferguson, MO & Emmett Till: How Our Understanding of History Informs Our Present

In this morning’s Chicago Tribune, John Kass writes about the murder of Emmett Till in 1959 and the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He writes, “If you’re white and you suggest the killing may have been justified, you could be denounced as a racist. If you’re black and you think the cop should be thrown in jail, you could be seen as seeking revenge for the sins of the past.” Perhaps oversimplified, perhaps not. But as he goes on to discuss his meeting with Emmett Till’s cousins, Wheeler Parker and Simeon Wright about the events of August 28, 1955, I was reminded that what happens in the past does not stay in the past. Times change, but what has been going on recently in Ferguson, the murder of Till, the OJ Simpson trial, and the summer race riots in Chicago in 1919 are all part of the same story.

So while I am intending this blog to go chronologically through American history, I hope you are bookmarking articles about Ferguson now so you can use them when you get to Black Migration and Civil Rights later in the year. And--if you are still interested in how to start off your school year, why not try a lesson right now that demonstrates to students how our understanding of the world has been shaped by history? Throughout the year, challenge students to make connections between events of the past and events that follow. It’s not nearly as simplistic as my little diagram below suggests, but emphasizing links such as these will help your students better understand history instead of just memorizing facts about history.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Practical Problem of Coverage, or How to get past WWII by May

A constant problem facing teachers of U.S. history is how to “cover” everything before the end of the year (or for some, the A.P. History test, which comes even earlier). It is, of course, an impossible and dubious task. However, it is something that a conscientious teacher must address from the start of the school year. If you hope to make it to the Second Gulf War, or September 11th, or Reagan, or even Vietnam by May, you have to cut things earlier in the year and make yourself a schedule. There are three questions you must ask yourself, and your answers to all three are intimately interconnected:

1. when does U.S. history start? 1492? 1607? 1763? the Revolution?
2. when does 1st semester end? after the Civil War? after Reconstruction? at the end of the 19th century?
3. How far are you going to get? Vietnam? the 70s? the 80s? 9/11?

Everyone has different answers, and each are potential loaded. For example, if you rush to the Revolution, what does that suggest about the place of Native Americans in the story? (Kevin Schultz, history professor at University of Illinois at Chicago has an interesting post on this question.)

Most U.S. history courses divide themselves in half after the Civil War and Reconstruction. I began teaching U.S. history this way, but after a few years, along with my colleagues, we decided that 1900 (give or take a few years) made a better halfway point to allow more time for the 20th century. Let me stress that it was VERY DIFFICULT for us to cut things from the first half of the course to fit in a last unit during first semester on industrialization and urbanization. But it does our students a disservice to neglect to teach Vietnam, the Reagan Revolution, changing immigration patterns and race relations or the increasing significance of the Middle East to U.S. foreign policy. It is hard to understand today's world without some background on these topics. To make appropriate time for them, you simply have to cut topics from earlier in the year. If you spend roughly 2 weeks (10 days) on the standard units, that gives you some room to add here and there and account for final exams, testing, shortened periods, field trips and the gazillion other things that make planning difficult for teachers.

We all have our favorite units—often based on what we loved when we were in college, or on what we studied in grad school—and it is easy to get bogged down in them because we feel we cannot possibly do justice to _____________ (fill in the blank with any unit) without spending some time on ____________(fill in the blank of a particular topic.) But you can’t teach it all. So pick and choose. Carefully. For help with this, I urge you to read chapter one, ”The Tyranny of Coverage” in James Loewens’s book, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History, which provides a thoughtful analysis of this problem. (Though I disagree with Loewen's decision to leave out the Progressive Era. This is difficult period to teach, but key things are raised during this time period that inform later issues and it seems historically irresponsible to leave it out altogether).

Another interesting discussion about the problem of how to divide the course along with some interesting ideas about how to teach the second "half" of U.S. history can be found here, though it is geared more towards college level (but easily adaptable, I think).

Curious about how other folks plot out the year...?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Teaching Columbus

First off, let me say that I don’t think you need to start a U.S. history course with Columbus or discovery. If you teach middle school, chances are students have discussed this more than once in elementary school. And if you teach high school, there are all sorts of reasons why the topic fits better into world history courses. More importantly, if you want to make it at least to Vietnam, you don’t have time.
However, there are some interesting ways to use the topic as a way to think about larger issues. So if you want to start your U.S. history course with Columbus, try some of the ideas below:
1. Many (dare I say most?) students will know that the Vikings “discovered” America before Columbus and many will chime in that it wasn’t a discovery at all because the Indians were here first. But the very important point remains that until Columbus’s voyage, few people in Europe or Asia knew about America. So you can use the quotation below as a springboard for discussion about the significance of Columbus’s voyage:

“Columbus discovered America, not literally, but significantly.”
(quoted in Roderick Nash & Gregory Graves, “Christopher Columbus,” in From These Beginnings: A Biographic Approach to American History. New York: HarperCollins College, 1995.)

2. Building on the idea above, what is “significant” about Columbus’s voyage? Answer: the Columbian exchange. Think of the revolutionary impact on world trade this “exchange” had. From things as mundane as the introduction of tomatoes to the Old World (hard to imagine Italian cuisine without tomato sauce, but before 1492, there would have been none) to the more significant: the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade and the impact of diseases like smallpox on the indigenous American population. For more info, check out these two links:
3. Tie to today. U.S. Census uses 5 main categories by which Americans identify themselves: Caucasian (white), African American (black), Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic (can be white or black—many students don’t realize this even if they are themselves Hispanic), and American Indian. These 5 categories are—of course—problematic and filled with complications, but consider the extent to which they were established in the early 16th century, following Columbus. Compare to earlier perceptions of “race” and ethnicity: click here for a list of peoples that may be a good starting point for this.

4. Another way to tie to today: discuss the evolution of Columbus Day as a national holiday. How did it start? Why? What do different groups say about it now? Here is a link to an article in American Scholar that provides interesting background about how the day became a holiday. It’s probably too long to use with students, but provides good background for the teacher to use. You could follow up with a writing activity/debate/discussion about the use of a controversial figure (Columbus) to foster civic pride.

5. And if you’re looking for other ideas, check out these lessons on Columbus from the Howard Zinn website.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The first day: Why study history?

I am constantly amazed by the stories my own children tell me about the first day of school: time spent going over the rules, the teacher's grading system, labeling notebooks, filling out forms. When I ask them if such-and-such a teacher seems good, they tell me it is too early to tell.

And maybe that's true. Surely it isn't fair to "judge" a teacher after just one day.

But as a teacher, I would hate to think of my students going home and answering the question, "How was history class? How is Ms. Brown?" with an answer like "I dunno. Okay, I guess. Too early to tell." Or to the question, what did you do on the first day? an answer like, "I dunno. Nothing really. It's only the first day."

I want my class to stand out, and I want to inspire students from the beginning. Tweak their curiosity a bit. Why wait 'til the second day to do that?

So I eschew going over rules or my grading system. Consider the fact that if a student is a junior in high school when they take U.S. history, or a 7th or 8th grader, they have had many first days of schools. There is no 7th grader, let alone 11th grader that doesn't know how they are supposed to behave in school. That doesn't mean they will, of course. But going over the rules won't ensure compliance either. Now imagine that it is 8th period. Or the period right after lunch. Think about how many times they have heard a teacher explain the rules or a grading system already that day. How dull is that?

There are a gazillion ideas out there for what to do on the first day of class. The important thing, I think, is to do something that is inspiring and also gives students a sense of what YOU are like as a teacher, what you expect and what your class will be like. And I like to do that not by telling them (These are my classroom expectations, blah, blah, blah) but by showing them--by designing a lesson that lets them know I take my class seriously and have high standards, and that I love what I do and what I study.

How do I do that? Like many history teachers, I like to discuss with students why I think it is important to study history. And because I know many successful, creative and interesting adults who do not know anything about the Homestead Strike or why we fought World War I, I cannot tell students it is because it will be important to them as adults. And I know they will be still be able to get into college--even a good college--without getting an A in my class. So I think it is important to be candid about that.

Below are some links which can inspire you to create a first-day lesson about why one should study history. The topic has merit, I think, because if you don't have your own sense of why what you are teaching should matter, there is no way that your students will. And the number one question that all students have about every class...? The most essential of all essential questions? You know what is:

Why do we have to know this???

It really is a good question and warrants an answer. But it has to be your answer, not mine. So here are links to help you:

Click here for some quotations I compiled about history. These can be used as fodder for discussion and/or writing activities on the first day. Use all of them, use some of them, have students pick the ones they like best to discuss or vote. You could hand out a different one to each student in a group. Re-visit them on the last day of school. I'd love to hear other ideas....

For a bunch of other interesting quotes, (Quote or quotation?) check out this site: History is. . . or if you need more, click here.  Or if you’d prefer some quotations about the United States, try here or here.

If you’d like a longer reading, suitable for AP/honors students in high school or to give you ideas you can adapt for middle schoolers, try this reading I compiled for use with preservice history teachers. Also check out the responses given by historians William McNeill and Peter Stearns on the American Historical Association website. And, for a thoughtful answer to the broader issue of a liberal education, see historian William Cronon's essay, Only Connect.

For more ideas check out

Hope your year gets off to an inspiring start!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Teaching US History and the Common Core: Content or Skills?

I had considered writing a blog focusing on U.S. History and the Common Core State Standards. But that was before Indiana decided to drop the Common Core. While the CCSS is still a big deal in Illinois where I live and teach, I have been reminded that standards and trends come and go, but teaching history well never goes out of style. So I am focusing this blog on teaching U.S. history with HIGH standards that should meet ANY standards.

Too often, the adoption of standards becomes politicized. Being "for" or "against" the CCSS is too charged for me at the moment. I have looked over the Common Core standards with a fine tooth comb, trying to see what the fuss is for history teachers. And I have concluded the following:

1. The Good News: There is NOTHING in the Common Core State Standards that good history teachers shouldn’t already be doing (critical thinking, reading primary and secondary sources, writing, discussing, etc.). If you are already doing those things, congratulations.  I hope this blog will give you some new  ideas. If you are not already doing those things, or are under pressure from your school district to be more explicit about addressing CCSS, then I hope this blog will be a useful place for you to start.  

2.  The Bad News: Because the CCSS says little about specific content (a few references to James Madison and The Federalist, presidential addresses and Supreme Court case decisions), I am concerned that Common Core could displace content in the study of history.  There is a note on p. 60 of the downloaded version of the CCSS which states, “Reading standards are meant to complement the specific content demands of the disciplines, not replace them” (my emphasis).  But I fear that this message has gotten lost as more and more districts rush to implement Common Core curriculum in their schools without also paying attention to what is important about studying history. I have been told by many history teachers across the Chicago area that they are being asked to do more shared reading, “close readings,” text analysis and other CCSS-influenced activities.  If they were to do this in the context of a good history lesson rich in content I would have no concern.  But are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater?  And as states begin to implement standardized testing on CCSS, well, I shudder just thinking about what it will do to good history teaching.

Skills vs. Content: Does it have to be an either/or?
A critical question for history teachers to consider is what should be the proper balance between skills and content.  My answer is that they are inseparable.  One cannot be taught well without the other.  Teaching content without skills usually looks like the kind of history teaching rightfully mocked and disparaged in which teachers lecture endlessly and students memorize names, dates and battles with little thought given to their historic significance or interpretation.  To the extent that the Common Core focuses on skills that help students think more critically, using the Common Core standards can be a good thing.

But--and this is a big “but”--no student ever got excited about a lesson that focused just on skills.  No student ever said, “wow, finding evidence from the text to support my conclusion is really thrilling stuff.”  Students get excited about things like revolution, justice, war, civil rights, rebels and how all those things impact everyday ordinary Americans.  Doing a close reading of the Declaration of Independence in which the focus is only on the text can be as dull as a lesson which emphasizes only rudimentary facts about Jefferson and what the Declaration says without reading it.

So this blog will proceed chronologically through the standard U.S. history curriculum--from Columbus to 9/11 and offer high quality content-driven materials that ask students to use critical thinking skills as elaborated in the CCSS to learn about U.S. history.