Thursday, October 30, 2014

Teaching about slavery BEFORE the Missouri Compromise

I do not have any specific data on this, but I would bet a lot of money that if you went into middle and high school classrooms and asked students about slavery in the North, you would get a lot of blank stares. I would also bet that many history teachers (based on what I know about most history textbooks) teach very little about slavery until they get to the pre-Civil War period. Maybe a mention or two about the 3/5 compromise or the decision to end the slave trade in 1808. Hopefully a bit more about the beginning of slavery during the colonial period.

But for the most part, when Americans think about slavery, they think about big plantations, cotton, the South and the Civil War.

Middle school level textbooks do an especially poor job on this.  High school level books probably are a bit better, but I don't have any handy to check.

Consider the few mentions in my daughter's 7th grade U.S. history textbook (Pearson's Prentice Hall America: History of Our Nation):
During the Revolution, a number of northern states took steps to end slavery.  For example, a Pennsylvania law of 1780 provided for a gradual end to slavery.  It allowed slaveholders to keep their existing slaves but barred them from getting more. (p. 187)
There is another sentence about the North on page 395:
 Slavery had largely ended in the North by the early 1800s.
And 27 pages later, a brief section with a bolded beginning:
Slavery Ends in the North In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to pass a law that gradually eliminated slavery.  By 1804, every northern state had ended or pledged to end slavery.  Congress also outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory.  As a result, when Ohio entered the Union in 1803, it became the first state to ban slavery in its state constitution.
And on page 400, there are 4 sentences on the Nat Turner rebellion that simply state what happened, without any explanation of the significance.

Slavery is one of The Issues of the first half of U.S. history, and I believe we must teach it more comprehensively, throughout our units on Colonial America, the Constitution, the New Nation and the period leading up to the Civil War (not to mention the after effects during Reconstruction through the present, but that gets us into next semester). Students need to understand that big cotton plantations did not magically appear in the South. Historian Ira Berlin explains, "viewing Southern slavery from the point of maturity...[has] produced an essentially static vision of slave culture." (From "Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America," American Historical Review, 85, Feb. 1980.)  Students walk away with a myopic look at slavery if we only teach about it right before the Civil War.

So, what should students learn about slavery before you get to the Missouri Compromise? An incomplete list follows. I was trying to make this more complete, then remembered this is a blog, not a book. If I put everything here, I'd never finish this post!
  • When we teach about the Constitution, we need students to read the excerpts on the 3/5 compromise and the end of the slave trade. But more importantly, we need them to understand how this almost derailed the Constitutional Convention. See here for a brief history. See about midway through the page for more info here. And a few other links: click here or here. Students should understand that from the beginning, the United States was struggling over slavery.

And now, moving on to the post-revolutionary era:

  • Students should be reminded that slavery did exist in the North. Use maps to illustrate this: (I couldn't get this to open, but hopefully you can.) But also check out this really cool map and this one that I found on what looks to be a really interesting Civil War blog--called Civil War Memory by Kevin M. Levin that I will have to check out later. (Now you know why it takes me forever to get these blog posts done...I find all kinds of other fun stuff and before I know it hours go by....) He does a nice job of explaining what he does with students to help them understand slavery as a national, not just southern, phenomenon.

  • Cotton, of course, did become king. So teach students about how that happened.  As my dear friend and former colleague would say, Tell them a story! Click here for background info about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. It's a good story.

Want to use Common Core standards?

  • Using the standards below, have students read a brief account of the significance of the cotton gin, either in their textbook, something you write up, or use this account (scroll down to "Effects") from the National Archives website.  (Note: you can also find links to teaching activities and documents about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.)

Then, to implement the above standard, students can examine maps like these interactive ones from the University of Oregon which shows the spread of slavery from 1790-1860. There are 3 of them that show the growth of cotton, slavery and then combining them. Plus there's a graph displaying the economics of cotton.

  • Nat Turner!! I am currently reading Stephen B. Oates's book, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. The final chapter (I read ahead) is about the legacy of Turner's Rebellion and it is excellent. I am reading the book because I read a fantastic lesson plan by Bruce Lesh in his book, Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answers about Nat Turner. It appears that you can see this lesson online but buy his book! There are lots of other great lesson ideas in it! I think it is important to teach Nat Turner and the debates over slavery in Virginia that followed because of this paragraph I once read by the historian Gerda Lerner.

Some other interesting resources:

  • Check out the fourth paragraph of George Washington's will in which he requests that all his slaves be freed following his death and that of his wife. Lots more information about Washington and slavery at the Mount Vernon website: click here. Also check out this PBS lesson plan about Washington and slavery. 2015 update about this link: I can't seem to find this anymore. Sorry!

  • One of my favorite podcasts, BackStory with the American History Guys did an episode on the War of 1812 (worth checking out in its entirety). In one segment, historian Peter Onuf discusses a little known verse of our national anthem that touches on fears about slavery developing at this time. You can hear that segment here or read the brief transcript (scroll to the segment, "Facetime").

  • There are a whole bunch of resources available from PBS in connection with their broadcast, Slavery and the Making of America. There are links to primary sources and other readings, lesson plans for middle and high school levels, and virtual exhibits created by students.  Unfortunately, the link for Lesson 5 (Slavery by the Numbers) to the required census data seems to be broken, but I think I found it here (there's a category for slave population).  Or here.

  • When you get to the Missouri Compromise, don't forget to use one of my favorite quotations from Thomas Jefferson. It explains volumes about the predicament of the South and the nation regarding slavery. His image of grabbing a wolf by the ear will help middle schoolers wrestle with the complexity of the situation. Check out this lesson plan from PBS on the topic.

  • Slavery is intimately connected to America's continual struggle with race. For ideas about connecting contemporary racial issues to slavery, look into the The Race Card Project by Michelle Norris (from National Public Radio).  National Public Radio has turned some of these into longer stories. The most recent one delves into slavery as the fundamental cause of the Civil War. Find it here.

And while I'm on the touchy subject of race (and to finally finish this post before I head out to see a documentary about race showing at the local high school!), I thought I might conclude with a discomfiting observation from a former student of mine who was one of many African-American students in the class. She approached me after class one day and asked me why we had to spend so much time on slavery. It depressed her, and she was tired of hearing about it. I do not recall how I answered, but I will never forget her or her question. I'm not sure there is any satisfactory answer that I could have given as a (does it matter that I am white?) teacher.

But her question reminds me that history's reach is very long; that the ripple effect of slavery still has the power to make a student in my class uncomfortable nearly two hundred years later. Of course we can't ignore what is depressing. Sadly, so much of history is. But it is critical that we remember who we are teaching. We are not just our ethnic/racial identities. But our ethnic and racial identities do inform our perceptions. And when we teach about tragic things--slavery, war, oppression & discrimination, U.S. treatment of minorities, etc.--it behooves us to consider the perspectives of those we teach.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Looking through the Trick-or-Treat bag for History:

Ideas for Teaching about Halloween

I never realized that there was history, close at hand beside my very own home. I did not realize that the old grave that stood among the brambles at the foot of our farm was history.

— Stephen Leacock

In my work with student teachers, there are two days that I will never observe them teach: the Friday before spring break and Halloween. No teacher wants to be evaluated on those days.

And this year, Halloween falls on a Friday. Of course, there is no reason why you cannot go about your business and teach whatever topic you are on. As I mentioned in my last post, I meant my next post to be about slavery. But then I got thinking about Halloween and the quotation above, and I thought, why not teach something about the history of Halloween next Friday? I like the idea of getting students to see that history is all around them. Even at the bottom of the trick-or-treat bag.

I live just outside Chicago within biking distance of one of the Mars Candy Co. headquarters and Ferrara Pan Co. factory (maker of Lemonheads, Redhots and Jugyfruits among others). The Chicago area is also home to Blommer's Chocolate Factory, which (according to their website) is the largest cocoa processor and chocolate supplier in North America. You can smell the chocolate up to a mile away depending on the direction of the wind. Very Willy Wonka-esque.

When I drive on I-294, I go past the rotating Baby Ruth/Butterfinger sign. And I love to see the Wrigley building on the Chicago River when it’s lit up at night. Yes, that Wrigley. Chicago used to be the candy capital of America. At one time it produced up to a third of all the candy in the country, as I learned two years ago at a wonderful little exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum (if you’re in the Chicago area, check out their website. It says you can contact the curator for a traveling version of the exhibition).  

But even if you live nowhere near a candy factory, you can still teach a lesson about candy and Halloween.  Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the country, and I read somewhere that we spend an estimated six billion dollars on it. Of course, Halloween was not always such a big deal. Neither was Christmas, for that matter. I remember being surprised when I first learned that Puritans in colonial New England had banned the celebration of Christmas.
Teaching students about how the holiday of Halloween has evolved offers opportunities to see that history is everywhere; that our celebrations of holidays changes over time and is impacted by other changes in society.

For example, both Christmas and Halloween have been profoundly affected by immigration. The tradition of Christmas trees came from German immigrants and carving pumpkins may have evolved from an Irish tradition of carving turnips into lanterns during an Irish festival marking the end of the harvest. (See here.) Candy-making, too, was influenced by immigration. (See below for more info).

So below are some additional websites I have found that are useful for pulling together a lesson on either Halloween or candy or both. What would you do with them? Well, I have also recently been looking into the concept of Genius Hour. While the whole point of genius hour is to let students explore what interests them, not to predetermine the topic, I think you could still adapt the idea by giving them the predetermined topic.
Here is a link to a post that describes doing something like that in a Civil War unit in a middle school setting. (This is Project Based Learning or PBL. Find out more about that here.) Perhaps you could adapt this to Halloween for a day and ask students one big question and then let them go to town trying to find answers and information. So maybe--it's Halloween Friday, so why not?--just have students look through some of the websites I have listed below and see what they come up with about one of the questions below:

How has the holiday of Halloween changed over time and why?
What can we learn about history from the history of candy?

Or perhaps you can eliminate the question and have the students come up with a good, historical question. (Admittedly, teaching students how to ask historical questions is something that you really have to train students how to do in advance. Maybe this could be your first lesson in a series of lessons teaching about how to ask good questions.) So maybe you could try something really basic: Find one fun or cool fact to share with the class and one "interesting" question (as opposed to historical--just see what they come up with. Just make sure it's not a factual-type question. Find some way for students to post this online or share. 

Just one suggestion: do NOT make any of this a homework assignment over the Halloween weekend!

  • Edsitement's website has a page about Halloween and other similar festivals around the world. It includes information about the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, along with other festivals (If you have a significant Hispanic population at your school, it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two. I was in Mexico City last October, just before Day of the Dead and was surprised at the markets to find so many more decorations for American-style Halloween than traditional sugar skulls and Mexican decorations!) The website also contains lesson ideas and links to the American Memory Project's documents about Halloween. (If you've never been to the American Memory Project, it is an essential website. Check it out!)
  • The History Channel has a brief history.
  • I missed this exhibit at the University of Chicago, but it's online now. There are quite a few images and a page on the history of chocolate and candymaking in Chicago.
  • See "Halloween by the Numbers," where you can find statistics from the U.S. census.
  • See this "flashback" article from the Chicago Tribune about the role of immigrants and Chicago in the history of candy. This book is for those of you who live in Chicago and want to learn more.
  • An article from the Huffington Post about Chicago and candymaking.
  • This article from Forbes discusses current economics/business news related to the holiday.
  • This article from the Smithsonian's website discusses the history of candy, Halloween and the surprising relationship between candy and medicine.
  • is an online store, but has surprisingly good (and fun!) historic resources, including a timeline, a list of discontinued candy, a history overview, and lots of nostalgic candy ads and old TV commercials. Check out their candy timeline.
  • And last, but certainly not least, check out this blog I just found called History Spaces. I found it when googling the history of the Baby Ruth candy bar. (Shorter article on the Baby Ruth candy bar here.) Great stories at this blog about all kind of really random things and useful for teaching the idea that history is everywhere.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ben Bradlee, Freedom of the Press and the Digital Age

Last night's passing of Ben Bradlee, the former editor of the Washington Post got me thinking about my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press.  Bradlee's leadership of the Post resulted in Watergate and the downfall of a president. But as the Post points out in their obituary of Bradlee, he was also responsible for deciding to print the Pentagon Papers--the Pentagon's history of the Vietnam War. (Click here for National Archives links to the papers, here for link to History Channel info about them.) It was that decision, Bradlee claimed, that paved the way for his decision to pursue the Watergate story. (see quote in abc's obituary).

Of course, we all know that newspapers have been "dying" for years now. But separating out "journalism" from "newspapers" and considering the role of the press in a digital age could be a really cool subject to study with kids. This morning, over my morning coffee, I found some materials that may be useful for this. They are very "rough draft" sort of materials, but this is, after all, a blog not a book, so I'm putting it out there. Hope you can find something interesting to do with this. I think it would work well in a lesson on the first amendment, on Thomas Jefferson, on Vietnam and the role of the press, or almost anywhere in the U.S. history curriculum, as the importance of freedom of the press to a vibrant democracy is a theme woven throughout our history.  Or try it in your government/civics class if you teach that.  And, as I discussed in yesterday's post, this could be a way to make the 1789-1830s period more engaging for students.

Potential sources to use with students:

  • documents to use with students - this is a link to a document I created that includes the Thomas Jefferson quotes about the importance of a free press and education as well as Justice Black's opinion in the Supreme Court case about the Pentagon Papers. I think you could use them as a DBQ type of exercise: perhaps create some overall question about the importance of a free press that uses the documents as support? Or just discuss with students in light of some of the resources below? Please use the comments to share any ideas you have! I also included in there a quotation from an article by in the The New Republic by Paul Starr, Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton. The last line of the article is a great continuation of Jefferson's view. He writes, "Our new technologies do not retire our old responsibilities." What a fun thing to discuss with students-- middle school or high school students! The link to the complete article (which is good background for teachers is here. And an interesting critique to the article by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Library and Information Studies Greg Downey can be found here.)
  • Check out this story, Why the press matters: 6 recent stories of civic impact from, a website produced by the Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (I just found this website this morning, but it looks like a great resource for other topics, too. Read more about it here.) 
  • Consider a discussion or study of materials about how blogs, twitter and other online media have changed politics in the United States. Here is a link to Ben Smith from BuzzFeed discussing Twitter and other news models.
  • A Google search I did using the terms "importance of journalism" led me to this website I have never seen: online journalism website for teens that also has some curriculum materials for teachers (click here for those; no idea if it's any good, but a quick look seemed promising).
  • This article, reminded me that the Newseum is a good resource. Obviously if you live in the D.C. area, you could go there with or without students, but they have some interesting resources online. Check them out at:
  • Think about the election of 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon and the famous television debate in which Nixon sounded better (to those listening to the debate on radio) but Kennedy looked better on television. Discuss with students the role of changing media on the electoral process. Compare this to the recent elections of 2008 and 2012 and the role of the internet. I found this online course which gives a very good overview of the media and its impact on democracy. Discusses everything from Hamilton and Jefferson, to the yellow journalism that led to the Spanish-American war to F.D.R.'s use of the radio in his fireside chats to the new role of television and the internet in a few pages that would either work for high school students or as background info for teachers. It's really worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The New Nation: the Problems & Pitfalls of a Challenging Period in American History

and Using George Washington's Farewell Address to Help Frame the Unit
(scroll down to the bottom of this post if you're in a hurry and just want the teaching stuff!)

Students, by their own testimony, find so much of what happens devoid of any meaning or relevance in their lives. . . .

This quotation from the Urban Teacher Education Consortium’s recent position paper (read the whole thing here) just leapt out at me from the second to last paragraph as I began this blog post about how to teach the period 1789-1830s.

The problem we face as history teachers is how to connect things to students’ lives in hopes of making it relevant. But we can't always do this. Nor should we. Imagine, for a moment, trying to make your students appreciate what it was like for Jewish refugees in the late 1930s and early 40s trying to escape Nazi Germany. Or what it would be like to leave your home in Seattle during World War II because you were of Japanese ancestry? Or what it was like to live in the American South during years before the Civil Rights movement?

Consider these ill-advised ideas:

  1. Ask students to think about a time they moved or went on a trip somewhere as a way to get students to think about having to decide what they should take and what they should not take if they had to leave their homes.
  2. Think about a time when you felt discriminated against or left out.   

Students will not be able to appreciate what it was like for Jews in Germany or Blacks in the post-Reconstruction South or Japanese-Americans during World War II by remembering a time when they felt left out in middle school.

There are quite a few pedagogical flaws with such an approach. Any student intuitively understands the key flaw--deciding what to take with you to your new house is not anything like having to pick what to take with you when you are fleeing with your life or being evicted from your home in the middle of the night at gunpoint, or in the daytime because of an Executive Order. And kids know this. But let’s say for a moment that I’m wrong and they don’t know this. A teacher who asks for this sort of analogy from his or her students risks suggesting that it is an appropriate analogy. The teacher risks minimizing the realities of the historic situation. The teacher risks oversimplifying the history.  

But more importantly, we don't always need to "relate" to something in order to understand or appreciate something. We are trying to teach kids history so they learn about about something bigger than themselves. There are all-too-many kids out there who have experienced real tragedy or deprivation. But there are also many who haven't. If we think we can only teach something by connecting it to students' experiences, and all that they have experienced is a typical middle-class American life, then what do we do? And for those students who are decidedly not middle class and have experienced poverty, crime and lack of opportunity, then isn’t perhaps even more important to expose those students to the larger world?

All of the above is a lengthy introduction to the problem I have always had in starting the unit following that of the Constitution: The New Nation.  Extraordinary changes and precedents come up in the early years of our nation under the presidency of George Washington through Andrew Jackson. When I go back and re-read accounts of this history, I am overwhelmed by what has occurred.

These historic events, however, have never seemed to grab the interest of my students. Partly it is because our study of the Constitution is so lively and so full of debate on contemporary problems and issues that the trials and tribulations of men with white whigs is dry by comparison. Partly it is because it is a period that, despite its richness, does not grab my interest as much as other periods.

But it’s important to teach and so I struggle to make it “come alive” for students.


For starteres, try teaching about contemporary political parties!! Get on the internet or open up a newspaper and find an example of partisanship in action. This should not be hard to find. Use this as a way to engage kids with the positive and (unfortunately mostly) negative aspects of partisan politics today.

I’m also going to go out on a limb here and suggest that one carefully edit the unit to include only those topics critical towards an understanding of major themes and those which lead to a better understanding of the units that follow. (Most significantly, the events leading to the Civil War). This is going to leave out a lot. But again, part of what we have to avoid as U.S. history teachers is becoming so bogged down with the breadth that we lose the depth. Think about this: the textbooks we use today have chapters on this period that likely include everything that was included in textbooks sixty years ago. And yet those textbooks from 1954 would likely have ended with World War II!  If we add on units on the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam and beyond, doesn’t it make sense that we will have to cut topics from earlier units?

Below is an imperfect and, admittedly incomplete, outline for a unit. One could extend this unit through Andrew Jackson or put Jacksonian America into the next unit. As I said above, I personally find this a challenging unit and welcome comments/feedback as to how others frame this unit.

# of Class periods spent on topic*
Themes/Essential Questions Addressed
George Washington’s Farewell Address
What problems does Washington outline in this address? 

for the whole unit: To what extent do those warnings reflect actual problems of his presidency and predict future problems afterwards? This sets up all the topics that follow.
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson: the Rise of the Party System and Conflict over Hamilton’s Financial Program

Why/how did political parties develop in the U.S. despite the fact that they were believed to be a bad thing? What are the positive and negative functions of party today? What is “partisanship”?
The Theme of Nationalism & Foreign Diplomacy: France, Britain and the U.S.
e.g. XYZ affair, French Revolution, Alien & Sedition Acts
How did the European conflicts between France and Britain affect the young U.S.? How did the U.S. avoid becoming engulfed by these problems?
Jefferson’s Presidency: The Theme of Nationalism and the Louisiana Purchase
Why did Jefferson adjust his views on the Constitution in order to justify the purchase of Louisiana? What problems with sectionalism would develop as a result of the Louisiana Purchase?
Political Nationalism: The War of 1812 and Post-War Foreign Policy
(e.g. focus not on the details of the war but the overall problem and the long term consequences; lots of good info out there since the bicentennial. Check out's podcast about the War of 1812. This is a great website/podcast series--check out their other stuff too!) This topic could include Monroe Doctrine, too, and I have done it that way, but you could also postpone it and use as an introduction to the Mexican War.)
What is historically significant about the “forgotten” war of 1812? How and why do we characterize the war of 1812 as a “second war for independence?”
Nationalism and the Marshall Court
(John Marshall and landmark court cases, including Marbury v. Madison, McCullough v. Maryland, Gibbons v. Ogden, Dartmouth v. Woodward)
What impact did Marshall Court have on the role of the Supreme Court, the power of the federal government, commerce and national supremacy? (4 themes of Marshall Court)
Economic Nationalism: The Early Industrial Development of the U.S.
(e.g. Clay’s American System, canals, territorial & population growth)
How did the U.S. expand in the first quarter of the 19th century and what how did the economy grow along with it? In what ways will these lead to problems of sectionalism?
Sectionalism: the Rise and Fall of Slavery after the Revolution
(e.g. decline of slavery in the North, rise of abolitionism, the end of the slave trade, rise of slavery in the South due to cotton gin, Missouri Compromise, Nat Turner Rebellion and Virginia Convention)
What was the impact of the American Revolution (specifically the ideology of freedom as stated in the Declaration of Independence) on the institution of slavery?
How and why did slavery decline in the North? How and why did slavery grow in the South? What was the future significance of the Missouri Compromise and the Virginia Convention on the future of slavery? How was the “problem of slavery” defined and reframed in this period?
*It is so difficult to put a number on this. The lower number is what I would recommend in high school; the higher number is what I would recommend for middle or high schools that teach U.S. history over a 2 year period.
And below are a few specific suggestions for using George Washington's Farewell Address as an introduction to the unit. Written as an address to the American people and published in a Philadelphia newspaper in September of 1796, it was shaped by key events & problems of Washington’s presidency, and in many ways  predicted some of the problems the new nation would face in the years after. So it works really well to sort of "set up" the unit, and you can keep referring to those themes--especially political parties and sectionalism--as you get closer to the Civil War. And you can refer to his warnings about what Jefferson later called "entangling alliances" when you get to later foreign policy issues.

So here’s a link to the whole address, all 6087 words of it. I’d never use all of this with students, but it wouldn’t hurt teachers to read the whole thing. It's from a great website, that has lots of information about the Address and other documents in American history.

Here’s a link to a version to use with students. I have edited the Address to the highlights and included questions that will guide students through the document, either on their own, in small groups or as a class. I have used this successfully with 11th graders.

Here’s a link to a briefer version I created, more suited to middle school, high schoolers with lower reading levels, or circumstances where you have less time.

And, just because I think it's so cool, an excerpt from Washington's Last Will and Testament (full link here):
To each of my Nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington, & Samuel Washington, I give one of the Swords or Cutteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to chuse in the order they are named. These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country & its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.

Next post: planning to give you materials on talking about the slavery issue above.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Illinois Council for the Social Studies

This is just a very short blog post to alert those who attended my sessions today on Methods for Using Primary & Secondary Sources and Teaching the Constitution where to find all the resources I mentioned. And thanks for coming!! If you are just a reader of this blog, you should check this stuff out, too.

See the tabs at the top of this page? The one marked "Teacher Presentations"? Click on that and you'll find links to all sorts of things that I hope will be useful to you whether you were at the conference today or not.

For those of you who may have been waiting for me get around to the rest of the Constitution, you'll find most of my completed unit on the Constitution. So rather than do more posts on that, I hope you will just look at the links under Teacher Presentations. There are more sample projects and problems for students.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Thoughts on Homework in the History Classroom

I "attended" a twitter #iledchat last night on homework. It was a bit difficult to concentrate as my daughter was practicing trumpet in the background (a four day weekend and she waits until 9 pm to complete her band "homework"?), but the chat did give me a few ideas, insights and questions which I will share below:

1. The parent perspective: Being a parent (of a 9th grader and 7th grader) gives me a new perspective from the one I had as a young teacher starting out. It is much easier to understand homework as a genuine obstacle to many aspects of family life. A plea from the me that is a parent: don't assign homework unless it really is necessary and meaningful. Check out this essay from last October's The Atlantic Monthly: My Daughter's Homework is Killing Me. Rather sobering. Of course, determining what is "necessary and meaningful" is subject to interpretation. (Not unlike as what is a "necessary and proper" law for Congress. Sorry, forgive the pun. Still have the Constitution on my brain....)

2. Balancing homework load: Last spring, while teaching 8th grade US history, I was quite aware of #1 above, and was very careful about homework.  I knew my students had language arts and math homework nearly every day, so I decided to keep my homework minimal. Do other middle school teachers minimize social studies homework in light of the emphasis on math and LA homework? Of course that didn't prevent some of my students from staying up past midnight to complete a DBQ essay I had assigned. I know, because we used which displays the time that students submitted their assignments. Even when I gave them time in class and plenty of days' notice, some students still finish at the last minute.

3. Reading assignments: Even if your class is not textbook-based, there are times when assigning reading in a textbook is helpful. Or an article. Or a chapter from a non-textbook.  But how can you assure students will actually do the reading while avoiding the pitfalls of "pop" quizzes, or having students answer a bunch of questions (see #6 below) or fill out a chart (e.g. list all the laws passed by the British which led to the American Revolution, the Civil War battles, New Deal legislation). How many students actually complete the chart as opposed to copying information without thinking about it, either directly from the textbook, Wikipedia or their best friend? If you want to have a meaningful class discussion about the reading how to we ensure students have done the reading? I've been experimenting with socratic seminars and literature circles (with both fiction and non-fiction). Check out these links:

Socratic Seminars:

Lit Circles
middle school lit circles
literature circles resource center
Students Becoming Real Readers - this one is about using lit circles in a high school English classroom, but still useful.
Literature Circles for Social Studies and Science
Of course, socratic seminars and lit circles don't really work with textbook reading, so I'll have to give more thought to that. I think the secret is to create classroom activities that require students to use the information in a reading. But how to do that....?

4. Flipping - does it really help? I also participated in a #sschat last night about the use of video in the social studies classroom. A few folks pointed out that flipping the class and having students watch movies (or clips) at home can optimize class time. But again, how do teachers ensure that students have actually watched the assigned video? (Assuming students have the access, which is another issue.) And is having students watch a 2 hour movie--even a good one--too much a demand on their time?

5. More on flipping - I have also been considering "flipping" the classroom in order to have more class time for writing. Writing a good history paper is HARD and while my initial thought is that students have to do this outside of class, the more I think about it, what if you were able to "flip" some of what you do in class to homework, and give students opportunity to write during class time so you could help them? Still a challenge, but this could give teachers the opportunity to really address problems students have with historical writing.  The Common Core Standards have an entire section devoted to writing (see links below) so, assuming your state has adopted the Common Core, it really is incumbent upon us to do this. (Even if your state hasn't adopted it, I still think history teachers need to teach writing!)
6th-8th grade writing standards 
9th-10th grade writing standards 
11th-12th grade writing standards

6. The Time-consuming Problem of Grading and Creating Meaninful Homework:
I once used a worksheet with a long(ish) reading about Social Darwinism in the late 19th century with my 11th grade U.S. history students. There were 10 separate questions that required answers of 3-5 sentences each. It was undoubtedly dull for students to complete and time consuming to grade. As my dear friend and former colleague once pointed out, I had created an assignment that required 10 decisions from me in order to grade. Why not instead have students write ONE summary of the assigned reading that answered ONE overall question? It would be far less laborious to grade, create a better opportunity for students to synthesize information, as opposed to spitting back (or copying from a friend) information directly from the text. Perhaps this is a corollary to my point #3 above: what if you assign the reading for homework, perhaps giving them a few questions to consider (but not write out answers to) as they read, and let them know in advance that the next day in class they will be writing a summary of the reading? Does this motivate them to do the reading? Or is this just a fancy way to describe a quiz?

I am eager to hear the ideas of other teachers about homework, and hope to revisit the issue more specifically as related to specific content in future blog posts.
Update: I have revisited this issue in this post.