History Heresy

Primary sources are essential to studying history. Or are they? My professional circles tend to see them as the Holy Grail of history. Going back to the actual words people used gets us the real story. Or does it?

Historians go to the archives and make use of primary sources to write their books. I went to the archives to find documents for my Masters thesis and my unfinished dissertation. So, clearly if we want students to do the work of historians they should work with primary sources. Or should they?

My concerns are many. Historians (and graduate students) never go to the sources first. They begin by learning as much of the context as they can. They immerse themselves in the era and the people. Then, they go to the documents.

The danger of holding up documents as “what people thought” is that any one document is woefully incomplete. I cannot imagine anyone piecing together my life, or even my day, from one piece of writing. It is always more complex. Students bring their own assumptions to the study of history, which is to be expected, but they also bring their own understanding of language. Words do not mean the same thing to people across time and space. Translated documents are even more problematic.

I realize that they provide an authentic feel for the past. Or do they? Can my students really get more from reading Tom Paine’s words in Common Sense or would they be better served reading the work of an historian who has placed those words in the context. At the very least, they should read the historian first. And then maybe another historian. Mostly the reaction when students try to read Common Sense is that they have trouble decoding the language and assume that regular people in the 1700s were either smarter than they are or had way too much time on their hands. I’m not sure that’s how I want to spend the limited time and struggle students are willing to give me.

While I think students need to read non-fiction regularly, I think they are better served by reading well-written engaging history. Then, if they are digging deeper with a research project, primary sources might be helpful. The skill of decoding documents becomes less onerous when you actually know enough of the background information. Are we spending too much time on a skill that is too difficult because of the way we design the learning?

To really support historical analysis, a whole series of documents is necessary. It’s not enough to read one newspaper and determine what was important to people in the past. To determine the impact of an event through the media, one would need a more sustained analysis. Historians do this. They also build on the work of one another.

We have held up some as more important than others. When we do that, we skew the history. We acknowledge seminal documents retrospectively. Doing so without the complexity of the context can create a narrow narrative. We like neat, clean, logical narratives. The problem with that is that people’s lives are neither neat, clean, nor logical.

To many of my fellow history teachers, this is heresy. Full disclosure – I am currently thinking of how I will teach the Reformation and Scientific Revolution in my PBL/Inquiry class. That may have something to do with my angst-ridden, iconoclastic, rebellious mindset at the moment.


The Smartest Person in the Room is… the Room.

It’s about five minutes before my Modern World class starts. I feel like I’m taking a risk with today’s plan. I am having groups present their models of how to measure power in the world in the early modern era and today. None of the groups have really finished, and I think there are some problems with each of their models. I decided not to intervene, but to allow students to work through the problems and discover them. They will present drafts today, gather feedback, and then have another week to improve/complete the project.

Now – class has started. I gave them my schpiel about how they will all learn more if they help each other. They will have fifteen minutes to prepare to present their draft to the class. Each member of the class will be responsible for filling out a feedback sheet for each group. There are specific prompts about visual appeal, information, complexity, and then overall commendations and recommendations. They will sign their names to those sheets. I’ll make a copy for me and then distribute the feedback to the groups. I really want them to come together on this. I’ll finish the post later, after the presentations.

Later – class is over. The groups worked very hard to prep for the presentations. Then, each group presented. It took me a few extra minutes to round them up to get started, so we ended up running a little short on time. Still, they were each able to articulate their models well, and they shared their content. At the end, they could ask for help with what they recognized as challenges. There was definitely positive response from the audience. They made some great suggestions. I just read the feedback sheets and clear patterns emerge for each group.They took me seriously – noting the positive features of each, the aspects that didn’t work so well, and ways that the groups could move forward.

From my perspective, it worked well – except that we did not really have enough time. I should have expected them to be prepared when they got to class, instead of telling them they would have fifteen minutes at the beginning of class. We could have used all of the time constructively for presentations and comments. There is a lot of quality feedback on the sheets, although some students were a little too brief. We will work on that.

Next steps – they have next week to make adjustments and finish the projects before we display them. I will work with the groups to help facilitate the revisions. I was going to provide feedback sheets from me, but after reading through what the students wrote, I don’t have much to add. I will provide my thoughts as they are making changes.

All in all – I’m really happy with how it went. We are on our way to becoming a learning community.

The Acknowledgment Page: Nobody Writes Alone

At the start of my US history classes today, I handed each student a different history book. They guessed a variety of reasons I was doing it – to help them with citations, to look at authors and publishing dates, to help them with their research papers, to read as a break from their research papers, to practice writing annotations. They were locked in on the fact that the Annotated Bibliography is the next phase of their research paper, with preliminary research questions due today.

They were wrong. I asked them to find the Acknowledgment section and read it. We talked about how the author still had claim to the work but enlisted the support and expertise of others along the way. I asked them to talk about the type of help that is appropriate and what goes too far. They talked about sharing sources, giving moral support, and helping with grammar and spelling as okay. We also decided it was fine to share information.

The research paper is an important part of the US history curriculum, but it is too easy for students to isolate themselves. I want them to practice the real world skills of consulting with others and getting feedback, testing their ideas out as they are forming them, and asking for help when they need it. One student pointed out that it would be too much to have someone edit your sentences; we decided that leaving comments on a Google Doc is okay, but editing is not. In the end, the decisions and responsibility fall with the author.

I plan to give them class time to work in small groups talking about their research and providing some guidance to one another. My goal today was to open their minds to this sort of collaboration. I have done the small group sharing in the past, but often kids see it as something to get through so they can get back to work. I want them to value the conversations as part of their work.

This is a gray area for students, but it seems really important. Their work will be stronger if they share it out. Being the person with the knowledge to share is a valuable experience as well. My hope is that by taking them into the gray area of consulting with others, they will feel better about the final product they can produce. On one level, it takes them closer to the line of academic integrity, but at the same time, giving them the permission to seek help from a variety of places gives them an incentive to operate honestly.

They asked if they would have to include an Acknowledgment page with their paper. I do think that I want to have them include on as part of their final reflection if not as part of the paper.

Looking for the Sweet Spot: Modern World PBL/Inquiry

I am about a month into my PBL/Inquiry version of our Modern World class. I embarked on the class with the understanding that the content and skills would be the same as the regular Modern World class, although the approach would be different.

The students selected the class, for the most part, but they are coming from a pretty traditional ninth grade history course. In my transition to more Inquiry and PBL, I have included a fair amount of structure in the first unit. We started the project, creating a model to show who has power in the world at any given time by looking at who has power today. Then, we took a break from the project to study the Ottoman and Mughal empires in a little depth – empires of the early modern era is the content of the first unit of the regular Modern World class. The end goal of the unit is to have the model reflect the major powers in the world today as compared with the early modern era (1450-1750). I gave them material for the Ottomans and Mughals, and started to look at the Ming and Qing dynasties in China with them. We have been reading, taking notes, discussing, and comparing empires.

I am starting to feel a little restless, though. I am defaulting back into my old routine. I want to create a course where students take on the ownership, with my support and guidance, of course. So, instead of spending another day going through the Chinese dynasties together as a class, we are moving ahead to the next phase of the project. They will be researching the other powers in the early modern world, figuring out how to measure their relative power and illustrating that on their model. We have done some work on research, including reflecting on the process.

I want to push them gently on the way to greater ownership over their learning, but I know that I need to provide enough structure and even some of the content, so that they can actually get beyond a superficial understanding of the history. My instinct tells me I should move on now, but I know that I may have to backtrack if it doesn’t work. I think that we need to treat the entire unit as a learning experience about the content but also about how to do inquiry-based learning and PBL well. At the same time, I don’t want to lose the kids in the first quarter and have to try to get them back.  In the end, I think it will work, but I am a little afraid of how messy it might get along the way.

The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not a linear process – learning really never is.

The WSJ, the shower, and global trade

I am more convinced than ever that I need to make time to step away from work. I used to get up at 5:00 am to be able to get work done – planning, grading, etc. This year, I have been using the hour between 5:00 and 6:00 (when I need to start getting myself and my family ready for school) to have a cup of coffee and read the Wall Street Journal.

With my PBL/Inquiry-based Modern World class, I have completed my planning for the first unit, and have begun to think about the second unit, which will begin in about two weeks. The subject matter is the development of global trade, beginning in the 16th century. I knew that I wanted to start with the Indian Ocean trade interactive map (http://www.indianoceanhistory.org/LessonPlan/FirstGlobalEra.aspx) but beyond that I have not been able to think of the project that would come from this. The first unit, which has focused on empires and power, ends with a model for tracking power throughout the year, as empires and states rise and fall.

This morning while reading the paper, I came across a review of a book called A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. I made a note to ask Renee to order it for the library and moved on with my morning. While I was in the shower, I had the eureka moment. The project for the second unit should be an updated version of a project we used to do (but found it took too much time in the regular curriculum) – the commodity project. Students would trace a commodity and its impact through the global economy.

Now I am excited to plan the unit, beginning with an NPR piece that shows the many steps that go into the making of a t-shirt. Then, students will identify commodities to research from the interactive map. After researching, they will put together a presentation (still thinking through the details and will probably consult with the class about what the final product should be) about their commodity. I am also thinking I will have them write something about global trade based on their own research and what they learn from the research of others.

I am so grateful for the time I have given myself to step away from work and the space that my curriculum allows.

Walking the Walk: Taking Back the Weekend

Yesterday, on Labor Day, I experienced a powerful convergence when my passion for the Great British Baking Show combined with an impulse selection at the library, and one of the key insights I gained from the CTTL Academy on Teaching and Learning I attended this summer.

I have committed to implementing many of the most effective strategies for teaching and learning that I have been thinking about since the Academy this summer. I am going to do more low to no stakes quizzes, interleave and space the material, help students make meaning out of what might seem to them random information, and talk to students about how they study. Some of it will make perfect sense to them and some of it will seem counter-intuitive. I will ask them to trust me, even as they leave the comfort of their business as usual rereading and highlighting of texts and notes. I recognize that even when presented with robust research, they may resist when interleaving seems to lead to confusion while massed learning is clear, even though the long term effects of interleaving are definitely superior.

With these ideas buzzing around my head, and not much work piled up after three days of classes, I went to the public library on Saturday to get a book that a friend recommended. I brought home a pile of books, as I usually do (several will go unread or partially unread) and started one called The Weekend Effect. It is the story of how workers fought hard over the years to earn two days a week off from work, but we have been giving those back in our always on, ever connected world. I have seen this work culture up close where vacations are not completely honored as laptops and phones can connect anywhere. There is a lot of evidence that working too much decreases productivity. It is easily a vicious cycle where it takes longer to accomplish tasks, which eats into one’s time, which increases fatigue and decreases productivity, which leads to longer hours to accomplish the same amount of work. It is true for students and it is true for teachers. Many of us are conscious about the impact on students and try to moderate our homework expectations. Yet, we treat teaching as some sort of nine-ten month gauntlet we have to run, until we get to rest over the summer. Every year I am exhausted in June, and every year I wonder if this will be the year I can no longer turn it back on in August. In other words, when will temporary burnout become permanent? Not this year, thank goodness.

What if we took the weekend back? What is we were truly rested on Monday and ready to tackle the week? What if we had more to talk about than housework and schoolwork and family schedules? We would be better teachers and we would be better role models. On Labor Day, I finished the book, jogged a few miles, ran a few errands with the kids, and baked bread for the first time (thanks to the Great British Baking Show for awakening a new passion for baking). In other words, I took care of myself and my family.

I woke up today refreshed and excited for the week. I was able to work enthusiastically and productively today. I am not sure how long I will be able to maintain my claim on my weekends, but it seems worth fighting for. I want to make this the year I give the counter-intuitive but well-supported conclusion that taking true breaks from work leads to more accomplishment in less time.

My Teaching Watershed: Five Days in July

A conference in Potomac the five days before we were heading to the beach for vacation seemed like a fine idea in March,  a terrible idea in July, and a blessing in retrospect. The Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School lived up to its name. It rocked my teaching world. My blogging journey this school year will follow my implementation of the learning from those workshop sessions as well as the reading I have done both before and since.

As I begin to dip my toes back in the planning water (after a week of dipping them in ocean water), I need to make some adjustments to my practices. Some of my instincts have sound research supporting them; others do not. Some of the practices that my students identify as helpful in their learning, are indeed helpful. In other cases, they are simply convenient and comfortable. So – in my opening blog post for the 2017-18 school year, here are some things I need to work on.

Feedback – I piloted Individual Feedback Sessions last year, which were popular with students, but perhaps not as effective in promoting learning as I had hoped. I need to do a better job in scaffolding the feedback so that as the year goes on students are doing more of the adjustments on their own based on more general feedback. Otherwise, they become good at following my directions and specific suggestions, but not necessarily better at writing. At the beginning, I need to give specific, quick feedback, but if I continue that all year I risk creating a culture of dependency that actually stunts growth. I am still thinking through how to maximize the benefits of the feedback sessions, which did promote clarity and relationships, with increasing student independence.

Reflection and metacognition – I do better with promoting reflection on the content than I do with reflection on learning. I am hoping to focus more on metacognition, helping students think more about how they approach learning. I plan to continue blogging with my students, but I might include more metacognitive prompts along with open reflections on content.

Content – While I have known that formative assessment, self-testing, spacing and interleaving are effective, I need to employ them more deliberately in my planning. In a session by Mark McDaniel, co-author of make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, an activity we did drove home how important it is for content to have meaning for learners, rather than seeming to be random. He read a series of sentences that seemed random and then quizzed us on them. Then, he read another similar series of questions but asked us to create meaning for each one as he read them. We all did markedly better on the second set. In fact, I can still remember some of them. Similarly, having students complete “why” worksheets can significantly improve learning outcomes. That made sense. Then, what he said about spacing and interleaving being more effective block learning was less intuitive, as students appear to learn less in the short run, but actually retain more in the long run. That will take some unpacking.

I think it will be really important this year for me to be transparent with students about what I am doing and why. I may even do the activity that Mark McDaniel did with us. It is important for students to know that there is solid research informing my choices, and that what feels most comfortable and most effective may not be. They will need to trust me. Which means…

the first order of business for the year remains unchanged from any other year – getting to know my students. Relationships have one of the most significant impacts on learning – an intuitive idea that is supported by robust research.