Thematic US History – Part I – Decisions, decisions…

Our US history team has set aside two days this summer to revamp our curriculum to move from a chronological approach to a thematic one. We had already chosen two books, American History: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Boyer and American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction by David Gerber. When we chose those books we had in mind beginning the course with a chronological overview for the first unit and Immigration for the second unit.

After a discussion of what we thought worked best last year, including student centered activities and more recent historical content, we set out to try to identify themes. It was a lengthy and important discussion. We considered Foreign Policy as a theme, broader than the topic of War, but then quickly realized that the Civil War would not fit with the other wars in that framework and that westward expansion was something we wanted to include. Using War as a theme also has its limitations. We settled on Manifest Destiny as our theme – first continental expansion, then abroad. Another challenge was whether to separate out something like slavery and segregation as a unit or integrate those pieces into all of other themes. There is a different message that comes from either choice. In the end, we decided that the story of African-Americans is so integral to all of the themes that we would weave it through, so that our students do not see it as a separate entity. We made the same decision about reform movements.

The conversation we had led us to the following conclusions, which I will state as tentative, since they are subject to further review and modification as we attempt to work through them in planning. After our introductory overview and Immigration unit, we will pause to have the students spend the second quarter doing their major research project for the year. They will submit the project at exam time, instead of a mid-term exam. Then, after winter break, we have three units left – Manifest Destiny (including expansion and foreign policy), Economics and Social Classes, and Balance of Power – State/Federal and Executive/Legislative/Judicial. I am not sure about the order of those units; we will tackle that when we meet again in August. The decision to place the research project early in the year had a lot to do with the lives of our juniors and the responsibilities of our faculty in the second semester. We also like the idea of creating expertise in our students early that they can share throughout the year.

Once we set the general terms for the course, we set about planning the first unit. While we are committed to thematic approach for the depth we can achieve, we also wanted to ground kids in the basic chronology, which we can then use all year. One goal of the first unit is to create a timeline in the classroom, which we can refer to and add to all year. We came up with a template approach to this first unit. The students will read a chapter from the Boyer book each night for homework. Then, in class, they will take turns in small groups leading discussion about what events to include on the timeline from that chapter. Other students will write their own understanding of the reading while the small group prepares to propose the events to include on the timeline. After discussion of the events and posting them onto the timeline, we may watch one of the ever-popular Crash Course videos on one of the topics of the day. We will encourage students to record questions they have from the reading and attempt to research the answers or learn from one another, along with asking us. We hope to develop good work habits and a sense of class community and student ownership in this first unit. We have made the conscious decision for the first few weeks to focus on a few things and try to do them well. Once we get into the thematic units, we will unleash our creative forces.

Even before we embark on this plan, we will begin to turn ownership of the learning over to the students. On the very first day of class, we will do an EdCafe style class about the summer reading, A Nation Rising by Kenneth C. Davis. We also plan to have students read and discuss an article on their brains and learning in the first few days of class.

While we have begun talking about the immigration unit, it is still in rough form. In that unit, we will be varying the lesson structure and working on some skills they will need for their research project. More on that unit and others later in the summer.

I am looking forward to teaching US history where I do not have to tell kids to trust me that eventually we will get to the history they are interested in. At the same time, I feel like this approach will really enable them to see historical roots of current issues as well as change and continuity over time. This is the first time I have been excited about teaching US history in years.

Teaching Students about their Brains

We spend a lot of time teaching kids to use the tools in their backpacks – textbooks, calculators, computers, tablets – and the tools available to them like databases, the Internet. But we spend very little time teaching students about the most important tool they have – their brain. I would bet if you asked most kids about how their brain operates, they will answer something about learning styles or left brain/right brain, and most likely they will claim to be visual learners. Since it seems the right brain/left brain dichotomy is oversimplified and learning styles may not even exist according to recent research, we need to do better.

I have spent time reading about the brain and how it works, new findings and theories. I have informally shared this information with students – intelligence is not fixed; sleep is important in the learning process, etc. It is time to formalize this in the classroom for my students. They should be reading some of the articles I am reading. We should spend time talking about learning.

This year, my first two goals in my classroom have nothing to do with my curriculum, but they have everything to do with the success of my course. On the first day, I am going to share an article with the students about learning. I was inspired by an article by Annie Murphy Paul, Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence so I will likely use that one. I want to start the year with a conversation about the how of learning before we get to the what of my course. Second, I am going to spend a lot of energy creating a learning community in my classroom in the beginning – more on that in another post.

We all recognize that we need to teach kids to learn to use the tools available to them, yet we neglect the most important one,the brain. If you have any other suggestions for readings or videos for students,I would love to hear them. While I plan to start with this on the first day, I am certain I will revisit it throughout the year.

Life is Group Work

I was having lunch with a colleague the other day. She told me how she wanted to create a class log to keep track of what happens in each class next year, and she wanted the students to take turns writing the entries. This seemed like a great idea. I have tried the log before only to get too busy to keep them going. Incorporating the work into the class is a great solution to that perennial problem. We had both gotten the idea of the log from another colleague. In talking over lunch, it occurred to me that it would make sense to include the log entries on the syllabus, where students go to look for their homework assignments. We could also include links to readings, websites and class notes for each class. It would be one stop shopping for the students. This idea was really the work of three people – a group.

I have been teaching in teams for the past three years, and inevitably the work of the group is stronger than the work of any of us individually. Even for the courses I teach on my own, I seek counsel from my colleagues on a regular basis. We need to shift our students from traditional group work to a true model of collaboration, where they run ideas by each other, building as they go, testing and modifying with input from me and their peers, as well as experts in the field. Group work has a bad rap because we associate it with a dysfunctional project where work is uneven and conflict is present. I think that even more traditional group work would be much stronger if we worked on collaboration skills on every assignment.

In looking back this year, the best work my classes did were inquiry based units where they collected information together and generated the key questions as well as the answers together. Edcafes were successful, in large part due to the give and take among students. For the junior research paper, I encouraged learning groups to meet and required them at times. Students helped each other with ideas, sources, and sometimes just listening to a peer articulate a dilemma. It was a start. Even exam review was a group effort as we encouraged kids to work together to prepare answers to the questions we gave them ahead of time. In the end, each student needs to come to the exam and articulate his or her ideas and understandings, but the conversations that take places preparation are great examples of collaboration. Exam scores reflect the value of this approach.

I know that I will have a lot of new ideas and things I want to try next year. My “to incorporate” list is already in process. That is always the case. What will be different next year will be my consistent effort from day one to create a community of learners, willing to seek advice or information from a variety of sources. I am coming to think that the centrality of “group work” to everything they do is the most important thing I can teach kids. I think there are few aspects of my day that do not involve consulting others – both at work and at home.