When Students Create the Curriculum

In my third year of teaching Research Seminar, students continue to surprise and delight me with their work in the course. The course has a generic title so that each class may shape it as it wishes. This year’s class began the way that the other two have, with students choosing topics to research and then present to the class. The topics are always different, though. This year I have learned about the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tuvan throat singing, serial killers, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, German artists affected by WWII, the Ryder Cup, Zionism, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the elixir of life, among other things. While most students did power point presentations, one student who studied witch trials set up a class simulation to illustrate the dynamics of the witch hunts. The class enjoyed it so much that they asked to do it again. Although I tell them they can do whatever they want – if they wanted to read a common book and write essays about it they could, I think they take the course because they like the freedom to learn what they want individually. It is after this first project that things get more interesting. They start to get creative. They have to hash out the curriculum in class discussion in order to set up the guidelines for the learning.

For the second project, the students decided that they want to do something short. After much discussion of various ideas, they came to consensus that they would each put three potential topics into a hat. Then, each person would select three topics from the hat randomly and choose one to research. The product is to be a three minute presentation with a maximum of five slides, due in less than a week. Some were pretty nervous about getting topics they were not interested in doing. The majority convinced them that it was only a short project and it would be a good opportunity to grow. The argument was that they might realize they were interested in something they would not have thought about or chosen. I have been urging the students to take risks and move out of their comfort zones. Some have embraced that challenge more than others. With this activity, they all had to take a leap. I am looking forward to see how they do. For me, what will matter most in this second project will be the reflection they write about the experience afterwards.

IFS – Individual Feedback Sessions

I am currently reading the book Creating Cultures of Thinking. It really resonates with me in a lot of ways, and I read about a potential game changer today in the chapter about time. An English teacher in Australia employs what he calls the Individual Feedback System for grading essays. I am trying to think about a way to test it out.

The way it works is that he sets up a weekly (or bi-weekly) meeting time with each student which is the time that the writing is due for that student. With the student present, he reads, provides written feedback and grades the papers. Students can take notes or record the session. He takes no grading home, which is a really attractive feature of the model. But he also gets to explain the feedback and talk about the writing with the student present. Too often, I feel like students don’t read my comments. Sometimes they don’t know what I mean, and they meet with me so I can go over the feedback. I can imagine how much more effective it would be if my students were there when I wrote my comments. It would be a step towards personalized learning. It would be an ongoing conversation.

So, how might this work in our setting? Meetings might need to take place once a cycle rather than weekly. It would mean changing the way I think about assigning writing. Not everyone would be doing the same thing at the same time. It would require more of my in-school time to be scheduled. Due to where the cycle days fall around holidays, there might be a really long time for some kids to do an essay and a shorter time for others.There would probably still need to be some assignments that all students would do together, but maybe not. I have to think about that. I don’t think I could manage doing this with all of my classes all at once, and it would definitely require a little explanation and set up time.

I would love to hear others’ thoughts about this and the potential problems that may come with it. I definitely see the upside, and sometimes when I get excited about something, I don’t consider the issues associated with it. I am thinking that I will start this with my juniors after the Research Paper. I may even offer for them to set up their appointment time and begin meeting during the paper, so that students who want more feedback along the way can get it. I will explain it to them soon so that anyone who want to set up a cycle meeting now can do so. I have the chance for a fresh start in a new unit, the first thematic unit of the year, after the Research Paper. I could see having one essay or a few short pieces due, like blog posts, each meeting. I know this won’t play well with Assignment Center, which does not allow for customized due dates, but I will try to figure something out.

Grading papers generally drains energy and meeting with students often replenishes it. Students will know when they will get their feedback, and it will be much closer to when they finish writing, I assume. For me, the grading will be spaced out, so I will not face the mountain of essays at once. This seems too good to be true, but also too promising to not try.

My SAT Experience (hint SAT=Student Assistant Teacher)

For the third year in a row I came back from EduCon with an idea that I wanted my school to implement. This time, it was their Student Assistant Teacher (SAT) program where upperclassmen serve as assistant teachers in introductory classes. A colleague and I saw this in action at Science Leadership Academy. The students who spoke about their experiences were so passionate and the benefits to the community so great that it seemed worth introducing to our school. After discussion among Department Chairs and Faculty, we decided to test it out with a pilot program. We provided an information session and invited applications for three courses – Spanish I, English 9, and History of the Modern World.

We are now a month into the program; I am piloting the program in my Modern World history class with a senior who was in that class with me two years ago. We are building the program as we go. We have to craft a course description and devise a guideline for grading since students get an elective credit for the program. The three teachers and four students involved this year are meeting on a regular basis. We are talking about what is appropriate to expect from an SAT, and what they might produce by way of documentation of their experience. Those pieces are still in process, so I will hold off dicussing that until a later post.

I talk with my SAT on a regular basis, in weekly meetings to plan, but also before and after classes and as needed when we have to alter the plans. She has attended the team meetings for teachers of the course. She is another set of eyes in the classroom to see who might be lost or off task. When we have small group discussions, she is able to circulate and engage with the students. In a writing workshop day, she was able to split the class with me so that we could provide a 7 minute conference with every student about their paragraphs. After that some students have chosen to share their work with her and she has continued to provide them with feedback.

While there is so much benefit to having an older student with me in a class of sophomores, I am also able to reflect on my teaching as I explain the rationale for plans and changes in plans. As the year goes on, I expect she will be more involved in planning and executing those plans. I get the perspective of a student who has done what I am asking and has experienced the challenges and the payoffs. She gets the opportunity to learn about life on the other side of the desk. Together we get to build the curriculum of this program from the ground up.

Thematic US History: The Final Exam

August seems like the perfect time to think about finals! For anyone thinking about shifting the curriculum, it is important to think about where that new path might lead. My version of thematic history allows for student choice within the units. There is some common work that we do, but within each unit there is a project that allows students to choose a specific topic and dive in more deeply. For the research paper, the topics are truly varied as students can choose any topic that is part of US history or 20th century world history (a gap in our core curriculum). With the immigration unit, students selected sub-topics and worked in groups to research the topics and present their findings to the class. Our foreign policy unit allowed for some choice in scholarly articles about different lenses through which to view foreign policy. Then, each student researched a topic of choice and prepared an ignite presentation for the class. Finally, in our socioeconomic unit, students chose a city in the United States, researched its development over time and shared their findings with the class as part of a class Google Tour.

Rumblings started around April – Are we having an exam? What type of exam can we have since we have all learned different things? The students were wondering how much of what their classmates studied, they would be expected to know. Some worried that their choices for individual topics may not have been central enough and that they would have to go learn other things. The concerns are legitimate, as they are accustomed to traveling through a class together. I realize that teachers embarking on this may also be wondering how to pull everything together at the end of a year of thematic teaching, if there is significant room for student choice in the curriculum.

One possibility is to not have a final exam. I do think that it is valuable for students to pull their knowledge together. Take home exams can accomplish the same things, and there are arguments for those but that is not the focus here.

Here is the review sheet (and as you will see the exam itself) that we used last year. By and large it worked for students, and empowered them to show what they had learned and reflect on their learning.


US and the World

Final Exam Review 2016

Three of the following prompts will be on the exam and you will write on two of them.  You must address the prompts fully with relevant and specific historical information and analysis.  A couple of the options are more creative which means you don’t need to write a traditional essay, but there should still be strong details and analysis.   The other three prompts should be in full analytical essay format with an introduction, clearly worded and specific thesis statement, and two to three supportive analytical body paragraphs.  You should have at least a sentence or two for the conclusion if you don’t have time for a full one.  


Please refer to the research and independent work that you have done through the course of the year as well as class resources and materials.  You will not be allowed to bring anything (outline, notes, etc) into the exam.


If you were to advise the next president of the United States on his or her foreign policy, which historical events would you choose to base your advice and which lessons would you take from them? Write a memo to the president where you present your advice to him or her.  There should be an overarching argument clearly woven throughout your memo.

Create a new citizenship test- What do new citizens need to know?  U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services website  Create a list of 10 questions that you think should be on the test and give the answers to them.  Below the answer write an explanation as to why this question is important for new citizens to know.

Connections between foreign policy, immigration, socio-economic history – Choose two of the three and illustrate how they have been connected throughout the history of the US by referencing three specific times when they have been connected.

Government role in regulating economy and society – Evaluate the role government has played in the 20th and 21st century in regulating the economy and society. How has that role evolved over time?

US history can be studied on the macro level, looking at major trends and national issues, or it can be studied on a micro level, by diving more deeply into one place, one time, one event, one topic. Drawing on your experience from this year, compare the advantages of each approach. Be specific in referring to your own research and choices of assignments when given a choice.

Burnout and Rekindling: Summer Sabbatical

For several years, I have been adding to my responsibilities and saying yes to pretty much every opportunity that comes my way. I offered to teach an extra class this year, caught up in the foolish notion that I could do anything and everything. I juggled reasonably well until the end of March. Third quarter grades and comments nearly incapacitated me. It took me several weeks to recover my energy and focus, and in that stretch I had to back out of commitments and focus on what was essential. This blog was one of the casualties. I made it to the end of the school year, and I learned a lot about my limits. I feel like I was over-committed to the point that nobody was getting my best self – not my students and certainly not my family.

Summer began with a crazy four days to get ready for a trip out West. My school supports teachers with a summer sabbatical learning grant every seven years, and this was my summer. I was taking the family and heading to Montana and Wyoming. I teach US history, but I have not been west of Chicago, except for a conference I attended in San Francisco. I felt like there was a whole part of the country that I did not understand. We took ten days and visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, but we also spent time in the surrounding towns of Cody, Wyoming and Red Lodge and Livingston, Montana.

The trip was amazing, everything people told me it would be. I have become obsessed with geysers and bison, for example. Oh, and huckleberries – I really love huckleberry flavored anything. We have the pictures and the stories that will fuel memories for years to come.

What I did not anticipate was how incredible the journey would be. The journey started with the trip but continues. So much of what we saw sparked interest in learning more. I have read books on Montana mining, the history of Yellowstone, ways people have died in Yellowstone, and Coyotes in America. My Goodreads lists are pretty telling, as is the collection of samples I have on my Kindle. I have become interested understanding the moral issues underpinning the scientific and economic debates about the region. Each book I read leads me to another layer of thinking about and understanding the region currently and historically. I am so grateful to have the time to follow the threads.

There is something about walking the ground that enables us to feel deeply the history that we read. Maybe it was the timing of the trip or maybe something magical about the land. For whatever reason, the trip that sparked the journey has reinforced my love for history in a deeply satisfying way. I am hopeful I can convey that love and passion to my students next year.

Thematic US History: Notes to Self

With just about five weeks left of classes, a sense of panic started setting in. How would I be able to provide the students time to complete the Urbanization project they started, and still finish the chronological overview of the economic development of the US taking into account social class along the way. I am in the Gilded Age, where I hoped to stay for a few days, but then I realized that might mean condensing the Great Depression and the New Deal more than I would like. And forget talking about the Reagan Revolution. Yikes!

While five weeks may seem like a long time, with our block schedule, the class meetings are limited. There is not enough time. I know it. So – what to do about it.

One of the main reasons we switched to a thematic approach was to avoid the pressures of coverage that inevitably occur in a chronological approach. We make no promises about covering everything; in fact, it is clear to our students that we are selective in our approach. The point is not to have students hear or read as much as possible about US history. It is to help them understand important events and underlying issues in US society that have historical roots. We live in an extraordinarily complex era, and helping students to make sense of it matters deeply.

When I was in school, it was not important to see events from multiple perspectives. There was one narrative. This has never been the reality, except in a classroom. I never really learned the local perspective on events; I certainly never considered that people in other parts of the country lived a very different experience, except in broad brush terms. There is so much I never thought about.

So – the helpful reminders –

  • I can’t cover everything, and that’s actually by design.
  • I should focus on the aspects of history that students know less about, rather than only walking the same old ground.
  • Events and episodes that illustrate larger trends with a compelling story are worth making time for.
  • Students can take more history courses and read more history books. My job is not to teach them everything but to equip them with the tools they need to analyze, evaluate, think about history.
  • Equipping students with the knowledge they need to make sense of their world today needs to be a priority.
  • There are limits to rational human activity – nothing is gained by pushing the students too far. We all need time to think and process.
  • The end of the year may be more fruitful if I slow down, rather than give in to the urge to speed up. We are all tired.

The reality is that I can’t know for sure how effective my teaching is. I take student feedback, read about teaching and learning, talk with my colleagues, and give it my best. Education is really a work in progress, which makes sense since all of us, students and teachers, are works in progress.

Research Seminar: Year 2 Ends

Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Saints; Serial Killers & Assassins; Jim Jones; Misogyny in Hip Hop Lyrics; Housing Discrimination in Baltimore; Renaissance & 19th Century America; Stanford Prison Experiment; North Korean Defectors; Sleep; Street Smarts v. Book Smarts; The Middle Class; Organized Crime-Bratva, Yakuza, Mafia; Gun Control; Alcatraz; Concussions in Football; Syrian Refugee Crisis; #BlackLivesMatter v. #AllLivesMatter; The Ryder Cup; Donald Trump & the Republican Party; ADHD; Ghost Guns; History of Mental Health Treatment; Importance of Sports in Baltimore; Boston Sports & Boston Strong; Sleep Paralysis; The Philippines (1898-1946).

Those are the topics that my students researched and presented to their peers in Seminar. I came to realize the obvious – students are learning a pretty diverse curriculum, even when they can choose their own topics. The fact that one person chose to do all sports related topics does not mean that their curriculum consisted only of sports. The passion and personal investment behind the research projects was visible in the products. Students became interested in topics because their peers were so passionate about them and learned about things they never would have chosen themselves.

Mid-way through the semester, I was frustrated – students missed their own deadlines, and we had some trouble getting our collective act together. I don’t know if some of them wanted me to step in and lay down the law, but I tried to avoid that approach. I needed for them to figure out how to make it work. As we moved forward with the last project, it was a little risky since we were going to have only two weeks after we returned from Winter Break and then the course would end. Given our block schedule, we would only meet six or seven times. The students set a schedule for presentations that allowed for enough time for everyone, but there was no room for delays since the course was ending.

They did it. Each student was ready to present a substantive interesting project to the class. It all came together in the end. I was so proud of them because by each taking personal responsibility, they reached success as a class. We ended the course on a high note. When I asked them in a course evaluation/reflection what they would tell someone who was interested in the class, the answer was “Take it.” There were some who still wrestled with the fact that I didn’t impose the structure and said that even though it is counter to the phiolosophy of the course, they would have liked a bit more structure. I appreciate their thoughts, but I respectfully decline. I didn’t grade the students’ final products because what I think is most important is learning their process, improving their process, and managing freedom that comes with accountability. In the end, their reflections and our conversations told me more than their learning than their presentations.

This is only the second year of the class. This year’s group made it their own. Some members of last year’s class who were back from college came to visit this year’s class one day during presentations. I can’t wait to see what next year’s group will do. I have one more semester with several of the Seminar students who are in my Introduction to Design Thinking course, but that is another post.