Monday, February 9, 2015

More Thoughts on Homework in the History Classroom

Back in October, I wrote a post about homework and the specific problems faced by history teachers. In it, I think I asked more questions than I posed answers. So in today's post, I'm going to revisit the topic. But I'm warning you, I still have more questions than answers.

Part of the problem, for me, anyway, is that much of the education literature about homework focuses on questions of how it helps or hinders students' acquisition of specific skills. Does the homework allow students to practice skills learned in class? 

While we certainly do teach skills in history class, they are not the kinds of skills like practicing math problems or conjugating the past tense of a verb in a foreign language class that lend themselves to homework. Analyzing documents, evaluating evidence, considering multiple perspectives, etc. are the kinds of skills better done in class with a teacher's guidance.

Or are they? Certainly, we could give students a document to read or examine the night before. We could ask a question about it.  For example, look at this assignment which is a speech by Roosevelt about conservation I discussed in an earlier post. Could students do this for homework? Probably.

But that always raises the question of whether we need to give homework. Would we be assigning this so students could "practice" the skill? Or is it just because we don't have time in class to do the full lesson? And is the latter a justifiable reason? If so, now we would have the opportunity to jump straight to a discussion of Roosevelt's policy without having to spend so much class time going over the text.

Another problem is that a lot of the homework I have given in the past involved reading. While sometimes I like students to read in class, I have found that reading aloud can be painful and time consuming. (I hated doing this as a kid. I did not like volunteering to be the reader, and I found it slow-going to have to listen to others.) But it is hard to base a lesson on reading if you can't count on your students to have completed it. I discussed this point before (see #3 in my earlier post on homework).  For some help, see the comments under this post from TeachingUSHistory"The Problem of Class Discussion". There are a few good suggestions from college professors that would work for high school or middle school as well.

Or, an idea I had: How about having our students come up with the questions for the reading? What if they didn't even have to answer them, just ask them? I LOVE coming up with questions for reading assignments and get a kick out of thinking up especially good ones. So what if students did the same? I think you would have to model this, because when I did a lit circle last spring, I had students bringing in very rote types of questions, despite my instructions for coming up with a variety of types of questions.

One technique I like is to explain the difference between "thick" and "thin" questions. This is not my idea. A quick google search of thick vs. thin questions will result in a lot of resources, such as this one about close reading. To model this, you could provide students with one example of a "thick" question for a reading you give them, and then challenge them to come up with two more. You can do an activity like this in class, and have students analyze each others' questions. Determining what makes one question "better" than another requires a lot of critical thinking from students, and guiding them through it will help students see the difference. Providing sentence stems will help, e.g. "What larger issue does ____ raise about _____?" or "What is the historic significance of _____?" (Note that you have to have taught what is meant by the term, "historical significance" too.) "How does the author compare ________ ?" or "What does ____ suggest about _____?" "How would you compare the central problem as explained by ___ to ______ which we discussed in the last unit? Teaching students how to ask and write good questions could be one of the most useful things you can teach them.

A few days ago, I came across some helpful ideas in a book, Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us about Motivation and Mastery, by Kathleen Cushman. She wrote the book with the help of students, and it is enlightening to consider what our students think about their own education (something that, sadly, we don't do often enough).  I have recreated part of the chart below (and changed the order to fit my discussion below):

Is Our Homework Really Practice?

Deliberate practice
looks like this...
but homework often looks like this:
It has an express purpose.
We don’t know the point of doing it.
It involves attention and focus.
We can do it without thinking.
It's geared to the individual.
Everyone gets the same homework tasks, no matter what each person needs to work on.
It leads to new skills.
We don’t use it for anything after it’s done.
(see p. 118 in the book)

So if we wanted out homework to look more like the column on the left, what could we do?

With regard to the first point in the chart, it should go without saying that we understand the purpose, and that we are able to explain it to students.

Second, my idea above about having students come up with questions--if they are good ones--would certainly involve attention and focus. What other kinds of assignments would do this?

What about gearing to the individual? Most of us don't do this, because unlike, say in math class, where some kids get it and others don't get it yet, in history, it is unlikely that some will know the content and others won't. And since our content is tied so closely to the skills, it is hard to separate this out in an homework assignment.

But one way we could do this is offer up different questions--either assign them to different kids (some need the more "factual/recall" type, others may be capable of more analytic questions) or offer a "menu" so that kids can choose for themselves which questions they would prefer to answer. I will try to come up with an example of this for another post.

The last column above points out--rightly, I think--that students rarely see a use for their assignments for anything in the future. Of course, you could have students fill out a chart or take notes on a bunch of stuff and then "use" it for a quiz, project, debate, paper, etc. But I think the criticism strikes at something deeper than that. What could we create in order to make a few smaller assignments (not just homework, but also in-class activities) lead to one larger project or, to use the lingo, "summative assessment"? If our final, summative assessment is one big essay question, or a few essays, or a DBQ, could all the little pieces help them with that? Could they use the smaller, formative assignments as they take the summative one (i.e. an open note sort of test?)

So that brings me back to the concept of flipping the class: might we record some of our lectures, or use some of the many pre-existing ones online for students to watch at home, so that during class we can spend more time analyzing documents?

Here are some "ready made" video resources for flipping your class:

  • Ken Halla's U.S. History Teachers blog today offers up a good one: click here.
  • John Green's crash courses are available here from youtube.
  • Keith "Hip" Hughes videos here on youtube.

This still leaves the problem of access to videos. It is also true, for all the raving about "don't just lecture, lecture, lecture and talk, talk, talk," I have been in classrooms where students groan, "ugh, another document." Sometimes, we can err on the opposite side.

For more ideas, do check out some of the links I gave on my last post about homework. And PLEASE, do comment on this post. Do you have any thoughts on the topic? Any great ideas for thoughtful homework assignments? Or have you eliminated homework? Why? Why not? What do you use it for? I hope to revisit this topic and would love to include ideas from readers. (And more answers, too.)

One last thought: 

There is also the problem not enough people seem to want to discuss, cheating can be rampant, perhaps in some schools more than others. Check out this article from the Huffington Post. And this one in ScienceDaily is really worth reading (very brief). It was referenced in the appendix of the Kathleen Cushman book I mentioned above. It points out that high-achieving students are the ones most likely to cheat, and claims that the best way to reduce cheating is to change the climate of the classroom. A feat easier said that done, but definitely worth contemplating.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and Black Americans during the Progressive Era

I hesitated about the title of this post. I fear it sends the message,"time to talk about two important Black men before we get to Martin Luther King" and minimizes the importance of so many other people and issues. So please understand I don't mean that before reading on.

In my last post about the Progressive Era, I pointed out that the Progressive Era was noteworthy as the beginning of conservationism in America, and yet the environmentalists of the Progressive Era had fundamental disagreements about what conservation means.

Similarly, it was clear that Black Americans faced many difficulties during the period from 1890 through the 1910s and action needed to be taken. But while Blacks agreed that changes needed to be made to improve Black lives, they did not always agree about how that should be done. Progressives like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington are the two most well-known black leaders of their time and their views differed dramatically, not unlike the opposing views of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, who both considered themselves conservationists. And of course, there were Progressives who were white who supported one or the other of them, and white Progressives who supported neither. So both this post and last support the reality that the term "Progressive" is a very loose one.

Teachers often focus on W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. And for good reason. But before I get to them, I note that the spotlight on these two tends to obscure other important Black leaders and events. George Washington Carver is one of them. While looking for something else pertaining to Black History Month, I came across this interesting article about Carver from NPR's codeswitch blog.

Langston Hughes

Also, for the record, I am writing this on the birthday of Langston Hughes, not only the best poet for teaching about civil rights, but also a fascinating character (put his autobiography, The Big Sea, on your summer reading list!). And I urge you not just to rely on his famous poem "A Dream Deferred," but on many others. The problem with this poem, like the last part of King's "I Have a Dream" speech is that they are so overused by teachers (my son has read "A Dream Deferred" 3 years in a row in English class! So unless you are teaching second grade, they have likely already read it. And check out today's Google Doodle:


While he really becomes famous in the 1920s, and thus, you might be better off delaying a discussion of him until you get to the 1920s, I bring him up in this post because one, today is his birthday. Two, he once worked for Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month and that is just an interesting coincidence for today. Three, he is a child of the 1910s and this must have colored his poetry. And lastly, this is a great opportunity for an interdisciplinary connection you can make with some of your fellow English teachers, and creating any sort of interdisciplinary connection takes time. Here are few links to interesting info about Hughes and his poetry are below.

Ida B. Wells and Lynching

Another important individual to focus on during this period is Ida B. Wells Barnett, a muckraker and crusader against lynching. Read here for some background information about her. You can use her to focus a lesson about lynching. I mention lynching not without a good deal of trepidation. It occurs to me that teaching about it could possibly be the most controversial lesson you teach all year. Ironic, isn't it, that you could go on and on about all sorts of horrors during the Civil War, the Indian Wars or even the Holocaust, but there's something particularly disturbing--to me, anyway--about lynching because it is a subject that is rarely touched on in U.S. history textbooks or classes (see the chapter by Loewen I refer to below). It is an ugly part of American history that is widely ignored or hushed up. I discussed the difficulties of teaching about it in an earlier post (scroll down to: 4. How much detail to go into about the horrors of lynching and racial discrimination?) which you may want to check out if you didn't see it originally.

Resources for thinking about and teaching about lynching:

NAACP and their campaign against lynching:

Although not recorded until 1939, Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" is a historically significant performance. Based on a poem of the same name (also not published until well after the Progressive Era), it describes lynching like nothing else can. Might be worth showing to students.

(Or you could try this contemporary version by Jose James, which I saw live a few weeks ago at his concert in Hyde Park, Chicago. Indescribably moving.) 

And now, one more digression before I get to Washington and DuBois.

I am currently teaching the social studies methods course this semester, and one of the key messages I am trying to send to these teachers-to-be is that there is no substitution for a solid background in your subject area. I can give them all the strategies, methods and cool ideas in the world, but unless they know some history, those things will do little for them or their students. Hopefully, they have gotten a good start in the 3+ years of college education they have already had. But 30+ credits in history (only some of which is likely in American history) is not enough to give them everything they need to do a good job of teaching.

I am learning new things all the time and am constantly amazed by all that I don't know. (For example, just last semester, when teaching 8th grade U.S. history I learned about new information we have about the Cuban Missile Crisis. As I had not taught about that in quite some time, this was new. And it significantly changes how we can understand this crisis. But more on that when we get to the Cold War).

Why this digression? I think one of the reasons we have a tough time with the period 1890-1920 (or even later) of African American history is, that unless you have taken an African American history course in college or grad school, or have read a lot on the period, it is unlikely that you know a whole lot about it. For me,  99% of my worst lessons were lessons on topics that I did not know very well.

So one suggestion I have for you, if this is one of your weak areas, are a few short articles/chapters listed below. Together, they make a good "crash course" that will help you understand and develop a few good lessons on the period.
  • Eric Arnesen, "Reconsidering the 'Long Civil Rights Movement,'" 2009. Historically Speaking 10 (2): 31-34. Happily, this article is available online here.
  • chapter 10 of James Loewen's Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History. This chapter is about what historians refer to as "The Nadir" or low point, for African Americans. Other chapters in this book are also very useful, so if you can, you may want to buy it. But you may also be able to get your school to buy it for you or get it through your public library.
  • You obviously don't have time to read all of Leon Litwack's 640 page book, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow by the time you have to teach about this topic, but happily, you can read an brief excerpt here and a longer essay (but still only 19 pages) that is either from the book or published before the book, I'm not sure. The last two pages have an interesting insight about the Washington vs. DuBois "debate."

Washington and DuBois

There are so many resources on the web about these two, that I am declining to list them. Instead, I'd suggest you just google "washington and dubois" and you will find more than you need. If you don't have time for that--one of the problems for teachers, right? It's finding the time to actually read all those resources!--then you can simply check out the stuff below.

Update 6/1/15: just found this article from NPR on better understanding the legacy of Booker T. Washington.

I adopted this from a colleague who adopted it from this DBQ used on an old AP U.S. History exam. I begin a lesson with some brief biographical info on the two men. Then I had students draw a chart in their notes so we could compare the biographies and views of the two men after reading some of their writings, noting similarities and differences.

You can find the documents here.

And here are some key questions (big questions, discussion questions, essential questions, whatever you'd like to call them) that I like to use in class along with these documents:

  1. Which strategy (Washington's or DuBois's) do you think is most appropriate given the historic circumstances? Do you find one more appealing for today's circumstances? Are they the same? Different?
  2. What do you have to know or consider in order to answer the above question?
  3. In what ways does this difference of opinion compare to the different approaches of the Antislavery movement and the American Colonization Society? How is the question each group/person dealt with similar/different? How have the historic circumstances changed? (You can do this again when you get to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X).
  4. Washington's approach seems to suggest it is better to work with the situation you are in in order to get to where you would like to be, while DuBois seems to suggest it is better to work towards the situation you would like from the start. This is probably a bit simplistic, but what do you think? And which approach do you prefer? Why? Which might be more successful? Is there a difference between the one you prefer and the one you think might be more successful? Why or why not?
  5. When you think about the importance of education, which do you think is more important, a practical education which will specifically prepare you for a job? Or a liberal education (history, arts, sciences, literature, math, humanities) which prepares you in a more general way? How did you make your decision? Is one of the choices more appropriate for some people over others? Why or why not? What does this say about equality, equality of opportunity and socio-economic class in America?

Yes, that last one is a killer, isn't it? But I have had THE most interesting discussions with students about it. Give it a whirl....

Parting thoughts--

Don't forget about the Great Migration and the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. I will do a separate post on this when we get there.

And a reminder, if you're looking for more resources on African American history, check out the website from the New Jersey State Library that I mentioned above.