One of my biggest goals for this new school year was to really develop ways to transform my classroom from one where discussions helped students complete their activities, to one where activities helped students engage in discussions. Big discussions. Critical discussions. And, little, low-stakes ones, too.
This year, I’ve rethought almost every aspect of my teaching. Three quotes that I keep close to my teacher’s heart guided me:
“Education is a social process.”–John Dewey
“By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own…The teacher must adopt the role of content facilitator, not content provider.” ―Lev Vygotsky
“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”―Paulo Freire
Perhaps the third quote fits into this little ramble most snugly. This year, and beginning in the summer before, I rethought every. single. move. I make in the classroom. How can I bring more opportunities for dialogue into this activity?
I’ll focus on just one of these opportunities here.
Each week, on Monday I assign a reading. Not a textbook reading. Something much powerful. Something with perspective. Something with some stakes. Something with a bite. But most of all, something that is worthy of discussing together.
I don’t assign any comprehension reading questions with it. I only ask students to read the text closely and annotate in any when that they are comfortable with. I want that first read to be very open.
Each Thursday, a large portion of our class period is dedicated to discussing the text. First, as a Warm-up, we open class by giving students the opportunity to reflect on what they found to be the most interesting or the most confusing about the reading. Next, I show students a few discussion questions I had crafted about the reading–the things I most want to discuss and leave open the opportunity for the students to pose a question of their own to the class. I then give the students six minutes to talk with their table partners about the discussion questions, as a way to prepare for the whole class discussion.
I have this whole process that I’ve developed this year for how to facilitate the whole-class discussion. It’s pretty innovative (according to me). But I know it would be difficult to explain the process in words here. Trust me though, it works. Perhaps it really works because I made participating in the discussions an actual part of the students’ grades. Each week I enter a grade for their participation in our discussions. For the students who don’t get the opportunity to talk (my “small class” has 39 students!), they can receive their discussion points by answering the discussion points in writing. I use the site Edmodo for this. See below:
Essential Question Quickwrites
Part of my core philosophy for teaching is that students need frequent opportunities to engage in all types of writing—low-stakes, medium-stakes, high-stakes. Writing must become a daily part of the classroom routine and of the classroom culture. One way to achieve this is open topics/units of instruction with an Essential Question Quickwrite.
*Help build student interest in the topic
*Give opportunity for quick, on-demand, low-stakes writing
*Connect historical topics with larger, and contemporary, issues
*Provide an opening for an introductory class discussion
- Craft an open-ended and thought-provoking question to serve as a way to get students to understand the importance of a topic.
- Present question to students in the opening of the unit/topic of instruction
- Allow five minutes for quiet drafting time then open the class up for discussion by asking students to share their responses.
- This can also be repeated at the close of the unit/lesson (with the same question) to serve as summative assessment of the topic.
“Is an act of protest ever too small?”
I use this question as an opening to our exploration of the methods employed during the Civil Rights Movements.
I began my teaching career at the middle school level where the first thing I learned (the hard way!) is that students need structure. Students need routines in class—especially for daily class opening. Students misbehave when they do not know what they are expected to do. Class should begin in such a way that clear expectations for behavior and activity are understood by the students and modeled by the teacher.
*Focus students on an engaging task as soon as they enter the classroom
*Establish the classroom culture that we begin work before the bell rings
*Get students thinking about concepts for the day’s lesson before the lesson begins; or, have students reflect on the previous day’s learning and make connections
*Build a system of accountability in students for daily participation
- I project the Warm-up for the question for the day using an LCD projector connected to my laptop so students clearly see it as they enter the room. But in years past I have also just had the daily Warm-up question written on the white board. The Warm-up question can go in different directions:
- A question to review concepts from the previous day as a way to check for understanding or reinforce key ideas
- A question meant to gauge and/or activate prior knowledge concerning the topic of the day’s lesson
- A metacognitive question designed to have students reflect on their own learning and content or historical thinking skill understanding
- Students are given three minutes to answer the Warm-up. I have students answer in their history notebook or binder that they use for my class only. I use a timer I found online and hit Start when the tardy bell rings.
- I stress from the beginning of the year that these three minutes are not meant to be silent time—I want the students talking with each other, sharing their thoughts concerning the Warm-up question. This is how I model from day one, that my class is discussion-based. I not only encourage partner and small-group talk, I expect it!
- When the three-minute timer has sounded, I greet class and devote our attention to the question. I utilize a random student calling method as a way to build student task accountability in my class. Each student desk has a number on it and I made a numbered deck of index cards of my own. I pick a card at random, call out the desk number, and the student at that desk shares with the class their response to the Warm-up. It’s key here, as the teacher, to always validate the student’s response, even if the answer seems off-track. In order to encourage and value student participation, the teacher needs to appreciate all responses students offer. With a degree of careful skill and much practice, the teacher can use any student Warm-up response as the springboard into an opening discussion for the historical topic and learning activities of the day.
This was an idea I posed to my US History classes yesterday:
What story is told?
What story is left unheard?
Here’s some context.
I wanted to put together a lesson to give my students a new window to examine the LA Riots of 1992, an event most of my students (all angelenos) had heard about, but not ever really examined. But I didn’t know where to begin. I had trouble coming up with the angle for this lesson. The objective I wanted to reach. In what way would I frame this lesson?
A quote I love from MLK danced in my mind:
“I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years…”
King was speaking after the Watts riots. That line. The language of the unheard. That stood out.
It gave me the idea for how to frame this lesson.
I opened our class period by asking students to offer aloud what they already knew about the LA Riots. Most students knew the very basics. They had heard of Rodney King. Being angelenos, the topic of police brutality is not something they are unfamiliar with. But I wanted to show that the riots cut deeper than just Rodney King, the beating, and the acquittal of the officers. That was juts the spark that lit the fuse of all of the socio-economic troubles that Reaganomics and systemic racism had wrought on communities in Los Angeles, such as South Central.
I asked students to respond to the MLK quote. What does that mean: The language of the unheard? What did it mean to be “unheard?” How can we connect that to South Central. An area my students are familiar with. Several of my students live adjacent to Normandie and Florence. But they had no idea what had taken place at that intersection on April 29, 1992.
Next, I showed the class a clip of the news coverage, helicopter shots and white anchors talking over it, of that intersection on that volcanic day. The class had never seen this footage before. Footage of their community. Their Los Angeles. Burning. After the eight minute clip I asked students to discuss with their partners these two questions:
What story is told?
What story is left unheard?
What is the story that the media is telling about your city? What is the media leaving unheard? The students shared some very profound responses.
So, I wanted to practice this way of thinking a bit more. Around the classroom I had hanging photographs I had found online and printed out from those six days of rioting. Students were asked to walk around my “gallery” of photographs, while I played the song “April 19, 1992” by the Long Beach band, Sublime. When the music stopped, students were asked to go to the picture that they were most intrigued by, take the photo from the wall, and return to their seat with it. The task was now to revisit those two questions again:
What story is told?
What story is left unheard?
I asked students to write two short creative paragraphs. For the first one they had to take on the role of the media, a photographer on the scene in Los Angeles, but not a member of the community and describe the story that is being told by the photograph. For the second paragraph the students had to imagine a story to go along with the photo–a story the photographer would not understand. The story that was left unheard. The students were given the chance to rewrite a narrative about their community in the midst of an eruption. An eruption as a riot. A riot as a call. A call of the voices unheard.
Their paragraphs are due on Friday. I can’t wait to see what “unheard” stories they come up with.
Disclaimer: This idea was totally borrowed from Wayne Au of Rethinking Schools. And it worked brilliantly.
A few weeks ago we were in the middle of our Civil Rights Movements unit in my US History classes. The third week of the unit focused on guiding students in critiquing different philosophies for action of different civil rights leaders. First we looked the evolution of SNCC, from its nonviolent approach early in the 1960s through to its embrace of the rhetoric of Black Power by 1966. Also, we read the essay the “Power of Nonviolence” by Martin Luther King. Additionally, we read “Message to Grassroots” by Malcolm X and listened to the “Ballot or the Bullet.” Finally, we inspected the 10 Point Platform of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In the end, students had to write an argumentative essay centered on the philosophy they determined to be the most effective.
But I wanted to add an extra layer into this week. An opportunity for students to make an even more personal connection to these philosophies. In particular, we concentrated on the Panthers.
To open the class period which was devoted to the Panthers, students had a few minutes to create a list of some things they would like to see changed about our school. They were excited to share their ideas, obviously. But after each student shared an idea for a change, I pushed them to go further by asking Why? Then I would prompt them to finish the statement, Because I believe that… Quickly student responses evolved quickly from just saying school should start hours later and end hours earlier, to more substantive responses that were critical over graduation requirements they felt were unnecessary, or how the school needs a better counselor to student ratio, etc. It was easy fro them to connect their “want” to their “belief.”
The reason why I wanted students to frame their responses into “wants” followed by “beliefs” is that this is exactly how the Panthers formatted their 10 Point Platform. Eat begins with a “We want” followed by an explanation that begins “We believe that.” After devoting a good chunk of the class period to reading and digesting the socialist philosophy espoused in the platform, students were ready to write their own platforms.
The instructions were simple. Choose a topic. It could be school. It could be your community. Your country. The world! The students then had to brainstorm what changes would constitute their platform. They had fun with this. I allowed them the freedom to think far outside of the box. Some students needed guidance, though, crafting the “I Believe” statements. I needed to show them that without a strong explanation of belief, their list (especially if focused on school) could sound just like a list of complaints. We wanted something much more forceful than that.
The students dreamed beautiful lists that rang of social justice. What I treasured most was then reading their belief statements to get a clearer picture of the issues that mattered most to each of my students. Powerful stuff, indeed.
I devised this activity as a way to incorporate student presentations into my weeklong focus on the New Imperialism of the 19th century in my AP World History classes.
I read this amazing book last year on my iPad, highlighting and making notes of the particular passages that really stood out to me; passages that I knew I wanted to bring into the classroom.
Using iBooks and WORD, I copied and pasted 10 excerpts (pasted below) and divided my students into 10 groups. I gave a quick 5-minute overview of the book and the situation of the Congo, connecting it back to our New Imperialism focus. Also, I handed to students an activity (pasted below) to guide their thing about their excerpt. Students were told that they were to first read their excerpt and then work as a team to complete the reading activity. The next step was to use the reading activity as a guide for building a one-slide presentation that would be shared with the class. Their slides needed to capture, in their own words, the main idea of their excerpt, but also explain why this section is so significant to understanding about the Congo, and about New Imperialism in total. Students emailed me their slides and I built a master Keynote presentation with them in order to be efficient tomorrow when the students make their presentations.
I firmly believe that history content should not be taught in isolation. All content should be used as the vehicle to model a historical thinking skill. Through this modeling and guidance, the history teacher can develop these historical thinking habits of mind in their students. Through looking at history instruction this way, content becomes relevant. But also, teaching content is not the ultimate and only goal of the history teacher.
We must teach students to become literate in social studies. I know that my be controversial, but it is what I believe.
Let’s start with perhaps the most crucial historical thinking skill–Sourcing documents. Who created the source? When? Why? For whom? What biases are evident? What inferences can be drawn?
One of my favorite methods for teaching this is to utilize the acronym SOAPS.
Attached below is a graphic organizer for SOAPS that you can use with your students.
I have recently become really inspired to completely revamp my entire grading and assessment routine. The plan is to move away from percentage grading and, instead, focus on standard mastery.
My plan is that in each week of instruction I will have both content and skill standards that will be assessed. The content standards will be my critical reworking of the California State Content Standards and the College Board Key Concepts. The skill standards will be a synthesis of three things: Stanford History Education Group’s Reading like an Historian, the Common Core State Standards for Literacy in Social Science, and the Historical Thinking Skills of the College Board.
Here is my initial crack at building my Historical Reading and Thinking Standards List:
- Sourcing (RLaH)
- Contextualization (RLaH)
- Corroboration (RLaH)
- Close reading (RLaH)
- Cite evidence to show careful analysis and understanding of text (CCSS)
- Determine central ideas in order to provide an accurate summary (CCSS)
- Evaluate various explanations for actions and use textual evidence to explain which explanation is most valid (CCSS)
- Determine meaning of words and phrases used in text (CCSS)
- Evaluate differing points of view on the same event (CCSS)
- Evaluate an author’s claims by corroborating or challenging them (CCSS)
- Comparison: evaluate historical developments across multiple societies or eras or geographical contexts (AP)
- Synthesis: makes connections between an historical issue and other historical contexts, periods, themes, or disciplines (AP)
- Causation: identify the relationship between causes and effects (AP)
- Continuity and Change ove Time: recognize continuity and change over periods of time (Ap)
- Periodization: evaluate the ways historians divide history into definable periods (AP)
- Argumentation: create an argument and support with relevant evidence (AP)
Bring your passions into your classroom.
This will keep you excited about your practice and breathe life into the promise of each day in the classroom with your students and the content.
Art and music, two of my passions that I try to build into my history curriculum. In World History, I use art to open up classes visually and hook students into the topic at hand. In US, I have been using music more and more as a way to ask students to make high-level connections about the historical topic and theme we are exploring.
Here are two examples.
When my US history class was exploring the cultural changes of the 1920s, I introduced them to the origins of jazz. First I was curious to see what they already knew about jazz (not much) and how much they liked the genre (not much). I created an activity to serve as an introduction (posted below). Students watched the the opening ten minutes of the introduction to Ken Burns’ massive jazz documentary. Next I selected and played four jazz song classics and asked student to only listen and think about their thinking. What was the music doing? How could they tell? What feelings did the music offer or instill? After time to for individual and partner reflection, we opened up the discussion whole-group–What insights into American culture in the 1920s can we gain by listing to jazz?
Another example of using music in the US History class was to use a song to serve as a preview into a topic. When we were exploring the human impact of the Great Depression, I opened the week by playing the Carter Family song, “No Depression in Heaven.” Students had a copy of the lyrics to read along with as they listened to the song. Also, students had a lyric analysis activity to complete as they listened to and after the listened to the song (posted below). The song, totally morbid in tone, is about someone choosing suicide rather than living during the depression. Obviously, students were caught off-guard by this extreme sentiment. And it led to many interesting questions about what life during the depression was like. Students posed the questions. Students tried to offer possible answers. The song and activity led to this. What an effective way to hook students’ attention and direct into the week’s historical exploration.
I’ve set the goal for myself to use music at least once each week in my US History course. I’ll compile a list of the songs and post it here later this year.