Monday, June 22, 2015

Now that it's summer...What to Read?

Thoughts on Summertime PD for the U.S. History Teacher

It is officially summer now. If you are reading this post, you are likely the kind of teacher who has a big list of Things You Are Going To Do This Summer To Make Next Year Better. And it is probably a long one, isn't it? Probably too long. After all, we are only human, and we also want to spend time this summer with our family and friends, getting some chores done around the house, maybe a little travel. And maybe do some reading that doesn't have anything to do with U.S. history or education. Right?

Right. But summertime, as you know, is a great time to get caught up on stuff, revise old things, get inspired by new things and do some learning for yourself.

I started off thinking this post would be about a variety of summertime PD--focusing on online courses (check out this one that started today!), other great blogs to follow, and getting organized with web bookmarking sites (Livebinders, Evernote and the like). But as I got going on books, I realized this topic merits its own post.

There is so much to read, and so little time (not to mention all those house projects), so how do you decide what to read?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The 7 Things All Good Lessons Have in Common:

A Checklist for History Teachers

Last month I finished a semester of teaching the social studies methods course to would-be secondary social studies teachers. And before summer gets too far along, I figured this might be a good time to review some of the things I did and share them in the hope that they are useful for readers of this blog.

While this post is written from materials designed for new teachers, I have found the checklist I describe a useful reflection tool for any teacher, myself included. As I dig through old lessons when I write this blog, I ask myself whether or not my lessons fit my own checklist for what makes a good lesson. I came up with this list after years of evaluating student teachers. The 7 items on the list reflect things I saw student teachers do or forget to do. These were the things that helped make a lesson succeed, or the things that made the lesson miss the mark.

As you review and revise the lessons you taught this year, try asking yourself whether or not your lesson meets this test. And if you think I have left important things out of this test/rubric/checklist, or whatever you want to call it, do leave a comment.

Also, keep in mind that when I say, "All" good lessons should have these things, we all know that sometimes a lesson is a work day in the library or getting straight into groups to finish a 3 day project, or something like that. So I don't mean that you have to do all 7 of these things on days like that.

Here's my 7 point checklist for what all good lessons should have:

#1: All good lessons, like a good paper, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So right out of the gate, I know I'm cheating a little bit because this is really 3 things. Sort of. Together, they make the point that a lesson cannot consist of doing a bunch of random things until the bell rings. A good lesson must be PLANNED. And it should have an introduction, which sets up the main body of the lesson, and the whole thing should be wrapped up in a conclusion. Does that mean all lessons have to fit into a 40, 45, 50 or 80 minute period? Of course not. But the bell will ring at the beginning and end of each period. So even if you are planning a 2 day (or longer) lesson, you need SOME kind of intro and conclusion for each day.

The beginning, or intro: In the educational literature, some folks call the beginning of a lesson a "hook," others describe it as a "set induction" or an "anticipatory set." While each term has subtle differences, the point is that good lessons have a thoughtfully created introduction. Ideally, it should pique students' curiosity and get them excited about what they are going to do today. It should also remind students about where they've been and where they are going. (More on this in number #3, below.) See this link for a brief, but effective general explanation.

There are practical reasons for a good beginning or introduction, too. Diligent teachers have usually spent a lot of time creating a lesson, so they know what their lesson is about. But they forget, sometimes, that their students have just come in from a rough math test, or an argument with their best friend, or lunch, or a million other things. Do your students remember what you did yesterday? Do they have any clue that today you are reviewing the factors leading to the American Revolution? The answer is that most do not. So a good lesson should have a clear beginning that reminds them about what is going on, makes them forget about that math test for now and gets them to focus on history.

How do you do that? Well, I spent the better part of a 2 hour class on that this semester, so I really should write a separate blog post on this (note to self). But in case you want ideas NOW and I forget to write a post about this later, you can always do something like have students respond to an intriguing quote, or a piece of art or music, or a visual like a map, chart, political cartoon or photograph. They can do this by writing in their notebooks, adding to an online journal or blog (or twitter maybe?), or simply discuss with a partner.

The middle: This whole blog is about stuff that goes in the middle. Points #4, 5 and 6, below, are also more specific about what happens in the middle.

The end or conclusion: This is the number one thing missing from over half the lessons I observe from student teachers. In all fairness to them, most student teachers have a conclusion in their lesson plan, but they often run out of time. That, of course, is the difference between a lesson plan and an actual lesson, as all teachers know. (More on this in point #7, below.) 

But when teaching methods this semester, I found that students didn't always know what should be in a conclusion. There is more to this than I can fit in this post, but the short answer is that the conclusion should "conclude." It should tie up the lesson into a sort of package that addresses #2, below. It could refer back to your introduction, or sum up what you did in the body of the lesson. But don't just end because the bell rings. Ideally, you are sharing the burden of concluding the lesson with your students, eventually handing it off to them entirely. If the teacher is the one always summing up, we know the teacher will have learned the material. The key thing is to get our students to do it.

A few links regarding conclusions:
  • Here is a link to a bunch of ideas for ending a lesson compiled by Ann Sipe of Grandview School District in Washington. I don't necessarily endorse all of these ideas. Some of them just don't work for my personal teaching style. Others are better suited for elementary school. But there a lot of suggestions to get you started if this you're looking for ideas on ending lessons.
  • Also, check out this post, "Teaching Like We Write--Introduction and Conclusion in the Lecture." I came up with the idea for #1 on my checklist long before I read this post. And this post is specifically about coming up with conclusions for college lectures. But there is still useful material there for any teacher and any kind of lesson, not just lectures. I have linked to this blog post before, so you may have already seen this.
Your lesson might have a spectacular introduction and conclusion, but the most important part of a lesson is really #2.

#2 All good lessons should have a point.

This should go without saying, you may think. But think a little harder. Can you give an "elevator speech" for every lesson you teach? More importantly, can your students? Does your lesson clearly address an essential question or an important concept or idea? While it is true that some ideas are far too big for one single lesson (federalism, sectionalism, Civil War, industrialization, immigration, etc.), each lesson within a unit should build to some larger point. (e.g. you might have a few days about immigration but one of those days would focus specifically on the problem of assimilation.)

The point of "the point" is that there should be some reason why you are teaching this lesson. Something which addresses the number one question that all of our students ask,

Why do we have to know this???

The pre-service teachers I work with typically teach at least a few lessons in the semester before their student teaching. They sometimes tell me things like, "My cooperating teacher wants me to do a lesson on ___________ " and then they fill in the blank with a random topic, such as the legislation of the New Deal or comparing the North and the South before the Civil War or the five pillars of Islam (not all my students are in U.S. history). And then they want to know where they should start. 

And realistically, that's what a lot of us do. We know what we did last year, and yesterday, and so what comes next is comparing the North and South. But we should--every year--ask ourselves why do students need to know about the similarities and differences between the North and South? What is the point? How does this understanding help us better comprehend both the onset of the Civil War as well as its outcome? Do any of these differences still exist? In what way(s) does studying this topic improve the quality of our students' lives?

Did I lose you on that last one? Agreed, it's a little "out there." After all, we all know adults who live happy and successful lives who may not realize how many miles of railroad track the North had compared to the South. But thinking about the "bigger" questions behind the main topic of a lesson can help us consider why it may have mattered that the North had more railroads than the South in the first place. And then we can turn the question around and point out that the British had far greater resources than the colonists during the Revolution, and yet in that case, the advantages did not result in a British victory. Nor did the superior weaponry the United States had compared to the Vietnamese. (FYI, the last chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath, has a great chapter on the Vietnam War that touches on this very point. It also good stuff on the Civil Rights movement and things that make you think about education in general. A good summer read.) So your lesson about differences between North and South can lead students to thinking about war and winners and losers in general. And how big guys beat little guys but not always. And that is an idea that students can really sink their teeth into.

Many of us went into teaching to make a difference in our students' lives. And, as I pointed out in an earlier post about my high school chemistry teacher, we can make a difference even if our students don't love history the way we do.

If we ask ourselves the same questions our students are wondering--why do we have to know this--our answers will help us make our lessons more meaningful. Easier said than done, I realize. One of the ways to think about the point of each lesson is to ask ourselves how it connects to the larger unit of which it is a part. Which brings me to #3...

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pass the Popcorn: the Use and Abuse of Film in History Class

Somewhere about at the Civil Rights movement or the first nice day in April, whichever comes first, is when my students first begin to suggest that we watch the film Forrest Gump in class. By the time we get to the escalation of the Vietnam, the requests have escalated as well. "It's historic!" they plead.

No offense to anyone who loves this movie, but Forrest Gump is NOT a good movie to show in U.S. history class.  It tells the story of a man during historic periods, which is not the same thing as informing us about the historic periods.

The amount of time I have devoted to showing film (usually clips of no more than 15-20 minutes, but sometimes longer) does go up as the school year goes on. Not because the days are getting warmer and the students are getting antsy or because I am tired of teaching, but because the films show LIVE footage. I remember once showing a film clip about World War I and students noticed right away, "Hey, it's the actual people."

We don't have films of George Washington. Not till the invention of film do we get.... well, films! So any event occurring before the turn of the 20th century or so are going to be still footage or dramatizations. Ken Burns has demonstrated the power of applying film to still pictures. And films like Glory demonstrate the power of a well-done dramatization. But there is something about seeing actual footage of people and events we are studying that makes history come alive. That's why I like documentaries like Eyes on the Prize (Civil Rights) and Vietnam: A Television History so much.

But the issue of actual footage vs. dramatization is just one of the first in a series of considerations I'd like to raise in this post about how, when and why to show video in class.

Monday, June 1, 2015

How to End the Year...

Making Sense out of the Seventies to the Present

I have at least 3 posts that I have started now and haven't published.  I started them, and then did the digital equivalent of crumpling them up in a ball and tossing them in the wastebasket. Why, you ask? Because, like so many U.S. history teachers, I have trouble figuring out how and when to "end" U.S. history class.

The problem is not the literal "end" or last day of class. I have a lesson for that. (I like to discuss the intersection of history, memory and the power to change. It nicely bookends how I like to start the year. For my ideas on starting the year, see this post).

The problem is what do to about the period 1970ish through, well...through what exactly? The nineties? September 11, 2001? The second Gulf War? Obama's election?

And is this time period going to be covered in one unit? Or two...perhaps one unit focusing on domestic and one on foreign policy? And in either case, what would this unit or units be called?

That last question might seem like a rather silly one. Why should the name of the unit matter?

I would argue that it matters a great deal. Deciding on a name for a unit makes it a unit, with an overriding essential question as opposed to just one isolated lesson after another, emphasizing one historical fact after another. For example, most of us don't teach units called "the 1950s," followed by "the 1960s," right? Instead, we conceptualize events into units: usually, Cold War, Civil Rights and Vietnam.  And whatever important events might have happened in 1854 or 1857 or 1860 other than Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott or Lincoln's election have long since taken a back seat to the impending Civil War. We don't teach "the 1850s." We teach about the events leading up to the Civil War as a unit.

We do this because it helps our students make sense out of what is otherwise just one fact after another. We have to make choices so that history becomes meaningful. We have to teach themes and make connections.

So what choices do we make about the events that took place from the 1970s to the present? I'm going to take a cue from the "The Tyranny of Coverage," chapter one of James Loewen's Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History and think about forests, trees, and twigs. (I have mentioned this chapter before--see here and here--because it is such a good starting place for rethinking how one conceptualizes a unit and a whole course. Put it on your summer reading list!)

So I decided to make a list of topics from the period 1970 to the present that I consider to be pretty important--the kind of things you would hope a relatively educated person might know. These are the things Loewen describes as "trees." The "twigs" are the specific names, dates, places, etc. that make up the content of any particular topic or "tree." Below is my list of "trees" and in parentheses are some of the twigs, in order to clarify what the topic includes. Note that the list is in the order that I came up with things--it is vaguely chronological, and the only reason I am numbering the items is so I can refer to things in the discussion that follows the list. Ready? It's quite a list...