What Does It Mean to Master Content in a History Classroom?

A few years back I made an attempt to shift my history classroom to a standards based one. So as to not confuse the students and stress out the families, I still gave letter grades on individual assignments. I just kept a spreadsheet that tracked students in terms of their skills. I eventually abandoned it when it became clear that it was quite a bit more work for me and I wasn’t able to get the kids to focus on the spreadsheet as opposed to the graded assignment. I just didn’t have it in me to sustain it through to a successful conclusion.

This summer, I planned to revisit the idea of introducing spreadsheets and standards based grading into my class because ultimately I believe it provides better information than my comments and letter grades (which I eventually have to translate into a number which adds another layer of complexity). I am inspired by a colleague who started the standards based journey when I did but stayed the course and has been using standards spreadsheets for a few years now. In June and July, I could never quite get myself to sit down and think about this while the school year seemed far in the future but now that classes are a week away and I am thinking about the logistics of my gradebook, it seems like now or never.

I know¬†I could write standards for research, writing, presenting, and even reading both primary and secondary sources – the skills part of the curriculum. The challenge I feel is in the content. Clearly the history matters in a history class, but what would mastery of content look like for a high school student? If I go by how well students use history to make arguments and answer questions, it might work. But I have this gut feeling that they use content, yet they don’t really master it. My students come closest with their research papers where they spend a lot of time working with a fairly narrow body of material. Even then, mastery seems like a tall order. If a student does well on an in-class writing assignment using appropriate detail to answer a question but then cannot respond to the same prompt a month later without preparation, how do I evaluate that on a standard? If students will forget the majority of the content over the summer, after they take the course, have they mastered content? How do I know what they have learned deeply as opposed to what they have retained for the short term? Does memory mean mastery? I’ve been teaching and studying history for decades now and I have to revisit my content on a regular basis – does that mean I have not mastered it?

All of this takes me back to my title question – one that I have to answer before I can really embrace standards based grading in my classroom, I think. What does mastery of content look like in the history classroom? Initially, I thought it meant learning the content but now I’m not even sure exactly what that means. Maybe mastery is about understanding and using the content appropriately. Thoughts?


Brown Bag to Brown Box: Modern World History Final Exam

I wanted to create a capstone experience for my Inquiry-Based/PBL section of Modern World History. I had great success with doing the mid year exam as an escape room type activity, but I wanted something that was more of a summation of the year for the final. I was also a little afraid of having the final be a lesser version of the mid term; I was not confident that I could top it with the same type of experience.

My first idea was to have the class create a time capsule – put their important learning in a box to be sealed and opened on the first day of classes by next year’s section. My working title was “Thinking Inside the Box.” I wanted this year’s class (the first Inquiry/PBL version of this required survey) to pass on a legacy to next year’s classes (there will be two sections next year). Still I felt like something was missing.

I did some exploring online and came across the idea of a a brown bag exam (http://www.adlit.org/unlocking_the_past/brown_bag_exams/). I liked the idea of having students think about the meaning of individual objects in the context of the course.

I ended up combining the two ideas. I created brown bags for each student to select randomly. Each one contained 3 images: one historical object, a historical person, and a map. There was also a random household item included. As a few people pointed out, they looked like the goody bags kids get at birthday parties. Each row in the chart below represents the contents of one bag.

Ming Banknote James Watt Ivory Trafficking spoon
Benin plaque John Locke Industrialization in Europe cotton ball
Miniature of Mughal Emperor Louis XVI Industrialization 1850 rubber band
Great Wave of Kanagawa Napoleon World in 1500 glasses
Mexico codex Vasco da Gama 1500-1800s light rail ticket
Jade Bi Toussaint L’Ouverture imperialism 1900 battery
Early Victorian Tea Set Galileo World Sugar Trade sillver earring
mechanical galleon George Washington WWI western front paintbursh
Refomation Centenary Broadsheet Karl Marx Africa – 1186 and 1914 pencil
Tughra of Suleiman Isaac Newton Columbian Exchange tea strainer
Durer’s Rhinoceros Hitler Rise & Fall Mughal Empire bouncy ball
Akan Drum Columbus WWI – military alliances post-it notes
Kakiemon Elephant Martin Luther Atlantic Revolutions/Possessions playing cards
Russian Revolution plate Gutenberg Ming Dynasty Trade routes elephant
Sudanese Slit Drum Copernicus Expansion Ottoman Empire ziploc bag
Pieces of Eight Machiavelli WWII – Axis & Allies gold earring

The task for students was to identify and describe each item and explain its significance to modern world history. They knew some directly from the course; others were things they had not encountered, although they were in good position to understand their significance. The two hour exam was structured as follows: 15 minutes for individual research and thinking; 15 minutes to collaborate and talk about their items in groups of three; 30 minutes to finish research and write note cards to accompany the images/items. This actually ended up taking a little over an hour – about 70 minutes with transitions. Then, students arranged the items and cards on desks and walked around to look at what everyone else had done. This took about 15 minutes, including the arrangement of the items. What I liked about this is that the students were talking about the significance of the different things as they were moving around, in fact getting a jump start on the conversation. After the gallery walk, we had a discussion of which items were important enough to include in the box for next year’s class. This was lively and thoughtful; my only regret was that I had to cut it short due to timing. I left about fifteen minutes at the end for students to finish or polish their note cards, since that is what they will be evaluated on individually.

If I do this again, I will take the advice of a colleague who observed it and have students do some of the prep work ahead of the exam so that we can allow for full discussion. She also suggested that students should not be allowed to advocate for their own items, as a twist. Both are great suggestions.

It’s possible that some students could feel like they might have learned more by having a traditional cram and dump exam, but I am betting that in the long run the experience of the research and discussion, requiring them to think back on what the course was really about, will last longer. I guess I’ll have to check with them next year.

Complexity and Time: Letting Go of the Grand Narrative

I just finished listening to a recorded talk by a former grad school professor who is close to publishing his magnum opus about the Soviet Union in WWII. In listening to it, I learned how his research deep into Soviet archives debunks commonly held and taught theories about the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. It turns out that Stalin feared the British more, thought the Germans were the weaker power (at least until the fall of France), at one point sought to join the Axis, and had excellent intelligence about the impending invasion in 1941, but was unsure which intelligence to believe when they conflicted. Also, he did prepare for the invasion but tried to do so in a way that would not provoke one, if indeed the Germans were focusing on defeating Britain first, as both Stalin and the British believed. Much of the negative press about Stalin’s preparation came from his generals, after he had died, which itself is a reason to pause. Blaming a dead dictator for such a devastating war is awfully convenient.

I am rethinking how I will handle discussion of the Nazi-Soviet pact in class today. It will take longer to explain the complex reality than it would to stick to the old narrative, which I bought into until I saw this video. In speaking to a colleague about WWI, we were talking about how the conventional story of the harshness of the Versailles Treaty after WWI leading to the rise of Hitler and ultimately WWII is really too simplistic. The treaty was not really that harsh in context, and the road to Hitler and WWII cannot be explained without taking into account the Great Depression.

The simpler conventional narrative is easier and quicker. By diving into the more subtle complexity, we can help students see a more nuanced version of history. Ideally, they will question things that seems too simple. The cost here is in coverage. In order to teach complexity, we need to leave some things out. Whenever there is a gap in someone’s knowledge of world or US history who has been in my class, I feel a pang of guilt that I left something vitally important out. Of course, there is a lot that is important, and different things are important to different people.

At this point in the year, I feel the dilemma of breadth v. depth most acutely. There is not much time and so each choice I make seems that much more significant. I was taught a pretty straightforward narrative when I took history in school. I left thinking that knowing the narrative was understanding history. At some point early in my college career, I realized (after getting dinged on papers) that I had to learn to interpret and make sense of the history. Narrative was not enough because there wasn’t really a single narrative anyway, and the real purpose of history is to make sense of it. So I learned how to analyze.

In my classroom, I err on the side of complexity and analysis, rather than grand narrative. I hope I am making the right choice for my students. I always question myself in May.

Wikipedia isn’t the devil, is it?

Grandiose plans run up against real world time constraints. In planning the Cities project for US history, I envisioned this glorious accumulation and deepening of research skills, which would lead students to complex, subtle and extensive knowledge about the city they chose to research. They would do research into the whole of the history, learning about economic and demographic changes, able to trace the rise and fall of businesses and industries, the impact of different groups moving in or out, and how their city measures up to the national trends at any given point in time. After learning so much, they would distill something interesting and significant to share with the class in the form of a podcast or a TED talk.

Reality – with just a few weeks to go, most kids have only been able to commit a little bit of time outside of class and many only have used one source – Wikipedia. If the project were the only thing they were doing for my class, it would still probably be too much. But in addition to the city research, they are learning the economic history of the US as a whole. They have readings to do, blog posts and summaries to write.

Adjustment – I had to ask myself what I really care about the most with this project, and what I would do if I had their constraints. I mostly care about them uncovering the fascinating story, the important dynamic, the local history that captures the essence of their city and allows them to create an engaging presentation – either TED style or podcast. So – I am letting go of the multi-source, Digital Library driven background piece. I am actively encouraging them to use the Wikipedia page for the basic narrative, from which they can find some aspect of the city’s history into which they can dive deeper. I want them to spend the time investigating a particular episode or turning point through historical newspapers or primary source documents in the Digital Public Library of America.

In the interest of time, I want them to get the basic story and then zero in to focus on the podcast or TED talk. So – I am making my peace with Wikipedia, although feeling like I might get struck by lightning whenever I actually direct a student there, which is one step beyond simply looking the other way.

“Slow down, you move too fast…”

I have that Simon and Garfunkel tune stuck in my head. I’m feeling countercultural in my classroom these days. Not because I’m feelin’ groovy (Google the song.) Actually, the rest of lyrics don’t really work, but I digress.

My sophomores are pursuing answers to research questions they have crafted relating to the Industrial Revolution. My juniors are working their way through online Exhibitions from the Digital Public Library of America. In both cases, I find myself trying to prevent them from taking short cuts. I want them to start wide and then narrow. I expect them to think their way through the process of learning. Many students are impatient.

The sophomores are in an inquiry-based unit, where the goal and the end product are not identical. The end product will be a lesson plan of some sort that teaches others the answer to the research question. The goal is to learn what makes a good research question, how to find a variety of sources (including scholarly ones), when to modify or pivot the research in relation to the evidence or even a found passion, and then how to teach what you have learned to others. This takes time and a willingness to engage with the messiness of research. Not everything that you learn goes into the final product, but that does not mean the time was wasted.

The assignment my juniors are doing is different, but I find a similar dynamic. The final product will be to present a primary source from the exhibition and teach it to their peers. In order to do that well, they need to understand the context, not just the immediate but also the larger context. In other words, they need to read their way through the entire exhibition, not just the few paragraphs relating to the document. I told them that, and still found that their inclination was just to scroll through the documents so that they could pick one.

It has never been more apparent to me that I need to find ways to highlight and honor the process. If I can do more to hold my ground and insist on more thorough process, then the end products cannot help but be better. For the first time (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) I’m deliberately working with students on the process of creating a strong presentation. So far, we have watched TED talks and listened to a podcast and then discussed what made them more or less effective. Then, students created one slide presentations. The next class, I had them write what they remembered from the presentations and think about why they remembered what they did. We discussed what stuck with people and the reasons. Students thought about themselves as both teachers and learners. It slows us down, but deepens the learning.

I guess I should be grateful that students want to get the work for my class done. The problem is that I don’t want them to sacrifice the best learning along the way.

Authenticity = Key 2 Presenting

After having my juniors do perfectly acceptable Ignite or Pecha Kucha presentations last quarter, my goal this quarter is for excellence. My experience is that students spend a lot of time researching, some time putting the presentation together and almost no time rehearsing. Then, in order to improve their grades on the next presentation, they spend more time researching and putting the slideshow together and maybe even less time rehearsing. It’s all well and good to know your topic, but if you cannot convey it to someone else effectively, then you have not done a great presentation.

The assignment for today was to take an assigned topic from the first half of the 19th century in the US, create a single slide, and prepare a 1-2 minute presentation. The focus was on the presentation. We had previously looked at TED talks and discussed what made them more or less effective, so when I asked them to provide feedback for each other, the experience was fresh. Overall, I was impressed with the kindness and insight they demonstrated with their comments. Students saw and praised what went well in their peers’ presentations, and also provided some constructive feedback about areas that could be improved. This is always touchy because giving and receiving feedback is challenging. It also became clear that there were differences of opinions. Some students preferred some styles and others thought different ones effective.

In the end, I realized that there is no single formula beyond some of the basics on which we could agree – monotone is bad, organization matters, etc. I left them with the advice that they needed to be their best selves. They should be authentic in their presentation styles rather than imitate someone else. While everyone should seek to connect with an audience in a presentation, not everyone will do that in the same way. I shared the example of teachers – we may teach the same course, but our styles are very different. It took me a long time to learn that. If I can impart that in any way on my students, I think they are ahead of the game.


Escape Room Exam

I told my PBL/Inquiry-based Modern World History class they they would have a two hour learning experience during the scheduled mid-year exam slot, but it did not have to be a traditional exam. I asked for ideas. After a short discussion, students easily agreed that they wanted an escape room experience. They were really excited by the idea, so I said I would create that for them.

First decision – synthesis of what we have done or new material. I decided on new material. It would be a test of their skills and endurance, since there would not really be a way to study. Also, it would move the curriculum forward. I had hoped to have gotten a little further by exam time.

Second decision – what new material? I chose the Renaissance. It is what we would be studying next, and with so many different people to learn about, it would be easy to craft something with enough different components so that each student would have some individual responsibility.

My first iteration was really more of a video game model with tasks set by increasing difficulty. I was planning to give each student a person to research. Then, the next task would involve each person getting a date that they would have to match with an important event for one of the people researched. The final layer of research would have them each matching an image to the date and person it represented. Then, I was going to break them into small groups and have them write as many true statements about the Renaissance as they could. The final task would be to write a sixteen word history of the Renaissance (in the spirit of the six word novel).

Then, I set out to make my list of names, dates and then images to find. As I was assembling all of this, I thought about how it would play out in the classroom. I had two main concerns. First, I was worried that having everyone doing the same tasks at the same time would lead quicker students to become impatient with slower students, who would then become stressed. I wanted to foster a spirit of cooperation, and I thought I might be setting the students up for confrontation. Second, I was afraid that it would not be fun. Without enough elements of a game, it would be just another class activity.

So I decided to change the plan. I hid all of the clues – people, dates, and images – around the room. They spent the first several minutes gathering the clues. Then they had to figure out what they were supposed to do with them. It didn’t take long for them to realize that sixteen was the magic number – sixteen students in the class, sixteen of each type of clue. Each clue had a paper florin glued to it. I told them they needed to earn 100 florins to unlock the prize (cookies and an A). The final puzzle would be worth 50, and the clues added up to 48. They could earn additional florins for positive collaboration and lose them for negative behavior.

They set to work – each student researched one of the people. Then, they tried to find one of the dates that matched something significant for their person. Finally they looked for an image they could connect. Some got it right on the first try. Others needed to swap dates and/or images. When they thought they had enough information to explain and connect the person, date and image, they came to me to get checked. They earned a florin for each element they got correct. It was magical listening to them putting it all together. Some clues were harder to decode than others, so when students finished their own, they helped others try to decode and complete. Everyone had to complete this process before the class could move on to the final clue.

The final clue said:

Gather a sweet number of components

Combine them together Hemingway style.

Racconta la storia del Rinascimento.

They were to write a sixteen word history of the Renaissance. I had to help them a bit because they were not all familiar with the idea of the six word novel, but once I told them that they figured out what to do. At my suggestion, some students worked on their own and others collaborated on it. With five minutes to spare before the end of the two hour exam, they came up with the following two statements:

Rebirth, old ideas, reformation,

wealth disparity, new information,

literacy, arts and innovation,

betrayal, lies and rejuvenation.


Individuals flourished, innovated, created ties,

then broke them in an infinite loop of betrayal and lies.


It was a great experience, capped off with chocolate chip and Italian lemon cookies. Every kid was engaged. The room was alive with thinking and learning. They worked together and they worked independently. I can’t say for sure that every student loved it, but the room was filled with positive energy. I am looking forward to hearing their feedback on how it could have been even better.