Thematic US History: Power of Relevance

Students learn what matters to them. Sometimes they learn what matters to us, but it really sticks if it matters to them.

In the final unit of our thematic US history course, we look at economics and social class. This year I spent equal time on the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. Despite my many references to the origins of much US government power and regulation in the Progressive era, it made only a passing impression on most of them. They remembered the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression, particularly Social Security and Public Works programs (specifically relating to the individual cities they were researching) to some extent. What really captured the most attention was the segregation created by federal policy. We listened to an NPR interview with the author of The Color of Law, which was just published.  Paired with an excerpt from Not in My Neighborhood, they could see the impact of government policies reinforcing and sanctioning societal attitudes. It explained their neighborhoods to them.

With the Great Society, there was great interest. Students remarked that they had never learned about it before. I don’t necessarily think that novelty explains their investment. It was the relevance. In looking at the battles in Congress and throughout the country, they see the Great Society programs as contested ground. The proposed immigration changes directly address the changes to immigration stemming from the 1965 act. Medicare and Medicaid are front and center in the health care debate in Congress. PBS represents a significant aspect of their education to them.

There are plenty of reasons to teach students a lot of aspects of history, some of which seem urgently relevant, and others which do not. For one, we really don’t know what will be most immediate next year or the year after. At this point, given our foreign policy concerns, it looks like it would be worth spending time on the Korean War. Next year, I don’t know what will be in the headlines.

Relevance leads to stickage (to borrow a term from our meteorologists). But we can’t accurately anticipate next year’s blizzards, much less respond to them. So – we need to help students learn about what matters to them now, find other connections to their lives where possible, and trust our own expertise to sell the rest of it as best we can.

This is where thematic history has an edge – we can start with what’s most immediate, encourage questioning about the backstory and then help students connect the dots.

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Thematic History: Current issues – weaving rather than leaving.

It happened again. My newsfeed has coincided with my curriculum. I opened Facebook this afternoon to see a story from NPR today about a new book detailing how New Deal policies created segregation. In class today, we looked at the question of legacy of the New Deal. Tomorrow I’ll share the NPR podcast to take our discussion deeper. Earlier in our economic and social class unit, we read a review of “Evicted,” which just won the Pulitzer Prize. Students are reading a chapter from a book about housing segregation in Baltimore tonight for homework.

In our foreign policy unit this winter, we framed our learning around the debate about nationalism vs globalism. We were able to use history as a guide to help us understand current policies.

The immigration unit was timed to begin just after Thanksgiving, so we started by looking at immigration today, and the question of the wall. We could look at history for patterns with immigration policy and opinion.

With a chronological approach, jumping around to talk about current events feels like leaving the curriculum. With themes, it is much easier to weave the threads together.

I have joked that my final exam will be a single prompt – “It’s complicated. Discuss.” If I did, I think my students would knock it out of the park.

Horoscopes, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, and EdCamp

I woke up today feeling like I wanted nothing more than to stay in my pajamas, read the paper, and have some time to myself. Then, as I was reading the paper, I read my horoscope. It said, “Make the best of an exciting situation. You can’t just bow out of some activity just because it disturbs the serenity of comfortable daily routines. Embrace the new and unusual and welcome a change of pace.”

So – I got dressed and headed out to EdCamp IS. I had planned to go back in January but then it dropped off my radar. This week, I got an email about it, saying it would be small and very laid back. Honestly, I was on the fence about it, not sure what it would be like if there were only a small number of participants. Still, I knew that some friends from other schools would be there, so that was a draw. My horoscope pushed me over the fence. I read it as telling me that I would be missing out if I didn’t go.

It was the smallest and best EdCamp experience I have had. There ended up being about ten of us. We sat around a large table, drank coffee, and talked. We talked about our takeaways from NAIS yesterday. We talked about the issues and challenges we face. We talked about how we could improve our practices. We talked about what education should be. It was engaging and inspiring! I didn’t want to leave the table to go to the bathroom because I was so afraid I would miss something. I left with ideas to take back to school on Monday. It was professional development in community. It was a structure and conversation created by the people who showed up. It was what we needed to talk about and learn from one another. It was EdCamp.

 

Toward a More Individualized Assessment Program

I am halfway through my first full cycle of Individual Feedback Sessions with my juniors where they come with their assigned written work completed, and I read it with them providing my feedback and evaluation in person. I have really loved it – the conversations about student work are so useful. My students are leaving with a much clearer picture of how they can improve their work, as well as what they should be celebrating in their work. I feel like I am connecting with each student more directly.

In the classroom, we have embarked on Ignite style presentation projects for the foreign policy unit. Students choose a topic in the history of American foreign policy, research it, and create a presentation where there are 20 slides timed to advance automatically after 15 seconds. I always build in class time to work on the project, so a good portion of the next two weeks will be spent with students working independently in class. This year, I decided to spread the presentations out so that there will be no more than three per day, which will allow us to follow up each presentation with a discussion rather than just moving on to the next one. Since the assignment due for the second round of feedback sessions is a rehearsal/rough draft of the presentation, I have the opportunity to spread out the projects.

Another component that I have been weaving into our course is blogging. I have assigned two blog posts so far, and we have been involved in a blogging exchange with a US history class at a school in New Jersey. As I looked through the blogs tonight, I realized that there are a number of students who did not publish a second post. The thing about blogging is that at some level, it really should be driven by the desire to reflect and share. The last thing I want is for the blog posts to be just another thing to do and check off the list. At the same time, I want students to have the experience of reflection, sharing, and engaging with others through comments and responses. In each of my two classes, the day that the students spent reading and commenting on the blogs from the other school, they were spontaneously inspired to look up and take Implicit Association Tests due to the posts that they were reading. They were motivated, curious, and thoughtfully engaged, even in the last class of the day.

In pulling these threads together – individual feedback sessions, individual project work, and blogging, I started to wonder why I need to assign due dates and topics for the blog posts. They should be able to post whenever they are motivated by an idea, the way that I do. Students should be able to pursue a topic they learn about in someone else’s blog. With the feedback sessions, I have already dispensed with the idea that assignments should be due on the same date for everyone. Individual project work allows students some autonomy over their class time. I want to have students write at least six blog posts, so that they really get a good feel for it, but why do I care when they do it? My pie in the sky dream is that blogging will become a habit more than an assignment. I know that will not be the case for all of my students. But – what if loosening my control over the content and dates of the posts does inspire a few students to become avid bloggers and a few more to actually enjoy writing the posts and engaging in conversation about their ideas? I would take it as a win.

 

Individual Feedback Sessions: Pilot

In the short period between Thanksgiving Break and Winter Break, I tested a system where I met with each of my 31 juniors individually, outside of class, to provide feedback on a piece of writing. Each student had a slightly different deadline since the work was due at the specified meeting time. I was unsure about how well this would work. Would I feel exhausted? Would the students remember to show up? Would the conversations be awkward? I told the students that it was fine if they were nervous because I was a little nervous, too, but the potential payoff was well worth the risk of an awkward conversation. I sent email reminders to students the evening before. I hoped for the best.

As best I can tell, it was a great success. All students came to their appointments. One that was absent rescheduled. Almost all of them came to the meeting having written their blog post on immigration, which was the assignment. One student had been confused about the assignment and had not completed it. We used the feedback session to talk about what he would write. He wrote the post that evening and shared it with me.

This pilot was meant to test the system. The blog post seemed like the perfect vehicle. I feel strongly about the power of blogging, and since we had just finished a major research paper, we were just launching blogs. Many students are unsure about what a good blog post looks like. Other than telling them it should be substantive enough to start a conversation and that while it should not be too casual, it should reflect their voice, I hesitate to say too much. I want students to find their own voices. I think that many felt some comfort that I would be providing feedback on their posts before they put them out on blogs for others to see.

I sent a Google form to get feedback from the students on the experience. It was right at exam time, so I only got about half of the students to respond. I think it was enough of a sample for me to continue with the system for the remainder of the year. What was clear: students liked getting immediate feedback that they could act on right away, they understood my comments better in person where I could clarify my thoughts, and they appreciated the conversation about their work. They reported that they knew how to improve their work. Most of their suggestions/concerns had to do with timing. Some students had earlier deadlines than others. That would work itself out as an ongoing system where the deadlines would be more regularly timed for all. One hundred percent reported that they think the sessions will have a positive impact on their learning. Three-fourths said they would continue the system if it was up to them to decide. The remaining one-fourth answered maybe to that question. Even though this was only from half of my students, it is enough of a positive response to move forward with the system for the second semester.

In terms of my own experience, I was not exhausted. In fact, I found the process energizing. I loved reading and talking about their work with students, instead of alone in my classroom or at home. Contrary to what I feared, my free time was not consumed with the meetings. The flexibility of some students to come before or after school helped to spread things out. I did this in six cycle days, so once I expand to the full ten day cycle, it will be even less compressed.

Challenges for me include setting up a new schedule for second semester. I will need to sit down with my calendar to see how many sessions to schedule, what days might be problematic (day after Spring Break), and when to wrap it up. Also, I will need to craft written assignments that can be done by students as much as ten school days apart, since that is our cycle. I think it is essential that the work is fresh in the student’s mind for the meeting.

Overall, I am thrilled with the way the pilot went. I have not cycled back to read the blog posts to see how many students went back and made the edits. Exams and Winter Break interrupted. Still, I don’t think that is what I was looking for in the pilot.I know that some students did make the edits. Others probably did not make changes. All of them wrote their posts and heard my comments. For now, that’s enough.

To group or not to group…

That was the big question. My Research Seminar has been trying to decide what to do next. After their first research project of the year, where everyone did what they wanted, there were mixed thoughts about what to do next. We spent a day talking about a variety of ideas, grouped around three basic premises – everyone should do what they wanted, everyone should agree to do something together – working in groups or around a common theme, or students should all research the same issue for discussion. There were variations – we should research things in Baltimore, we should go to museum for inspiration, and we should take field trips. We were talking about what next, but we were also thinking to the rest of the course, since we had hit the halfway point. I did my best to clerk the discussion, letting all voices be heard and keeping mine out of the mix. By the end of class, students had decided to take the next class to decide on a controversial topic, research it and come in the next day prepared for a roundtable discussion/debate. That led to an interesting discussion about Edward Snowden. It was a lively, informed and spirited conversation. That resolved the “what next” question for two classes.

Today we were faced with the same question. Opening up the discussion it became clear that students were expressing the same opinions as last time we had the conversation; in fact it looked like we were destined to have the same discussion. Some people wanted to work in groups, others wanted to work alone. Some students thought people should do whichever they wanted. Others wanted everyone in groups. Then, one student had an idea that gave us a way forward. Each student would propose a topic, and anyone who was interested could do it. Groups would form based on interest. A student might find an idea proposed by someone else more interesting than their own. There was some energy around this idea. For this to work, everyone had to be open to working with anyone who wanted to do the same topic. I told them that they needed to realize that if they envisioned working alone and someone else wanted to do the same thing, they needed to be open to grouping.

The students took about 15 minutes to think of topics to propose. They wrote them on the board. We went through each one. If someone wanted to hear more, the student who proposed it explained. Then, the students went up to the board to sign up for what they wanted to work on. There are several pairs and some people working alone. They had about 5 minutes at the end of class to strategize and plan what their first steps would be over the weekend. The feeling had shifted from contentious and frustrated to positive and energized.  And – the solution came from a student, not me. I. Love. This. Class.

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.