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History 420
Teaching History: How can we use tried and true methods to teach and assess our content?

Photograph of students doing history

Introduction: This is a further discussion of the practical side of our craft - how do we get students excited about history? How do we get them to really think about historical events and topics? How do we get them to do history? During our next days of discussion we will begin to think about the ways we can get our students to actually think about history and even to do the work of historians. But our very first task for this unit is to think about WHO we teach.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To understand how teaching methods have evolved over the past three decades
  2. To explore teaching methods in which students do history.
  3. To talk about other ways to raise the bar in our classrooms:
  4. To understand how to use simulations, debates, and mock trials.
  5. To explore how to teach good note taking skills.
  6. To discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates' book and Growing Up Trans and what these resources can tell us about the students we teach.

Goal #1: To understand how teaching methods have evolved over the past three decades

Confucious quote about knowledge and thinkingEver since the late 19th and early 20th centuries when history became a part of historical curriculum in most universities and many secondary classrooms, research, designing, and teaching history lessons primarily have relied upon the "sage on the stage" methodology:

Beginning in the mid-1980s, however, some educators began to talk about replacing the "sage on the stage" teaching method with the "guide on the side" methodology:Map showing all states adopting Common Core standards

In reality, BOTH methods for teaching history are necessary. Good teachers blend - they still retain control over the content that students learn while helping them to learn it by using innovative methods. This blended method is the heart of the new Common Core. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were introduced in July 2010 after being developed by the nation's governors and education commissioners, through their representative organizations, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Teachers, parents, school administrators, and experts from across the country, together with state leaders, provided input into the development of the standards. The actual implementation of the Common Core - including how the standards are taught, the curriculum developed, and the materials used to support teachers as they help students reach the standards - is led entirely at the state and local levels. This map shows the states that by February 2017 had fully adopted, partially adopted, not adopted, or adopted but later rescinded the Common Core standards.

In essence, the CCSS were designed to get all states to use the same set of academic standards in the K-12 public schools. Currently, the CCSS cover Math and English Language Arts (ELA). History/Social Studies is incorporated into the ELA standards in the section titled "Literacy in History/Social Studies". These standards are written in three grade level groupings: 6-8, 9-10, and 11-12. Each of these three groupings contain four distinct types of standards: Key Ideas and Details; Craft and Structure; Integration of Knowledge and Ideas; and Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity. In these standards, the content is not defined - only the methods for teaching and student understanding of the content are included. You will learn more detailed information about Common Core expectations and requirements once you enter a credential program.

Goal #2: To explore teaching methods in which students do history.

Following are just a few of the many exciting methods to use so that our students actually do history: History Day, SIGHT, DBQs, historical detectives, and History through Literacy.

1. History Day. You may teach at a school that does not get involved in History Day and you may be interested in changing that. You can read about the background of National History Day - how and why it began, what it is, what it seeks to achieve - at the National History Day website at http://www.nhd.org/about. How the annual History Day Contest works is discussed at http://www.nhd.org/Contest.htm. An explanation of how the California National History Day operates can be found at http://www.nhdca.org/

2. Document Based Questions (DBQs) The DBQ has become the "meat and potatoes" of many history classes and is deeply embedded in the Common Core Stardards. DBQs are designed to teach students to work like historians by analyzing and synthesizing evidence from a variety of primary and secondary sources. Further, DBQs are designed to test the skills a student historian uses in interpreting historical material. As such, it does not require that a student be familiar with the event or topic that is being presented; a student will be able to respond adequately using only the data provided.

The following resources will provide further information about DBQs:

In order to make DBQs accessible to our students we will usually need to abridge these documents. To do that, we must learn the fine art of abridging, thereby helping our students to not be intimidated by lengthy primary documents. In many cases, we can abridge -or condense - them so that we can help them better understand Abridging a primary documentthe bottom line ideas in the reading. So just what does it mean to abridge or or make an abridgement?

Condensing primary documents down to a workable size is an essential tool for every history teacher. Known as abridging, this task requires several steps:

3. Historical Detectives. All too often it is easy for the teacher to simply give a lecture and have the students take notes - for us to be the"sage on the stage." One way to change this is to encouage our students to become historical detectives. Being a historical detective generally means students are doing their own research and making their own interpretations of historical events based upon the findings of their research. To do this, each of us must become a historical detective and then teach our students to become historical detectives.

4. Historical Literacy. This is a great method to use when you are about to introduce a new topical unit of study. It is designed to help students to begin thinking about a historical topic through the use of vocabulary words embedded in a question. We are going to use the example of World War I and how freedom of speech was tested in the United States. You begin with a vocabulary word embedded in a question. The question is How should people respond when their rights are abridged?

Goal #4: To talk about other ways to raise the intellectual bar in our classrooms

SIGHT. This is an exciting way to encourage students to individually and collectively interpret the meaning of historical art. To make this happen for our students, we must create a power point to use in the classroom that fosters the historical detective mentality.


Examples of successful SIGHT powerpoints used in various classrooms include:

Teaching our students to critically watch all forms of visual media. It is certainly no secret that young people access a great deal of visual media - especially via the Internet - on a regular basis. This graph shows that this is perhaps the most common ways that students receive most of their information, share their lives, and retreive data.

Graph of teen internet use

Further, as the facts indicate below, young people consistently are tuned in to social media.

And this is just social media. Our students are still watching a great deal of television, whether it be in front of the TV or on their computers. In 2009, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted research on the media habits of children ages 8 to 18 and found that on average, this age group spends 4-1/2 hours each day watching TV in various forms, including on their mobile phones and the Internet. According to the Nielson Ratings, in 2012,

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, young people see an estimated 10,000 acts of violence per year on television. By the time a child graduates from high school she or he will have witnessed 18,000 violent deaths on TV. Violence can be portrayed as glamorous on TV, in video games and movies. Television often teaches that violence is as a way to resolve conflict. It is well documented that kids who watch violent TV are more likely to act in an aggressive manner. (See http://pbskids.org/dontbuyit/parentsguide.html)

As teachers, Watching TV comparison cartoon 1990 v. we need to help our students understand their habits - reading, social media, television, movies, etc. So, to get an idea of how much television or other visual media your students watch daily as well as how they watch such programs, ask them to engage in a Habits of the Mind exercise.

You can go even further with this discussion, as suggested by the organization Humane Connection. They have great suggestions for helping teachers "help their students flip their switch for thinking about media consumption."

Using film in our classrooms. We have all seen the overuse of movies in our classrooms - especially teachers who throw on a movie as either a babysitting device, or as a way to take a day or two off from teaching. This is the worse abuse of an otherwise excellent teaching medium. We do need to use film judicially in our classrooms - but only as a rare event during which students watch an important film and critically analyze its relevance to the topic under study. Indeed, some topics require the use of film. For instance,

Methods Discussion: Regardless of whether or not we show documentaries or Hollywood films, it is essential that we teach our students to think about them . An excellent method for doing this is to complete a Critical Film Analysis.

Using political cartoons in our classrooms. Use them daily - use them often! The best place to start for contemporary political cartoons is http://www.cagle.com/latest-political-cartoons/page/3/. The Library of Congress has a great website called "It's no laughing matter: analyzing political cartoons". The introduction to their teaching activity explains how useful political cartoons can be in the classroom:

"A political cartoon is a cartoon that makes a point about a political issue or event. You can find them in any daily newspaper, but they won't be in the comics section. Instead, look on the editorial pages - they're right next to the editorial columns, and across from the opinion essays. You can also find them in newsmagazines and on political Web sites. Political cartoons can be very funny, especially if you understand the issue that they're commenting on. Their main purpose, though, is not to amuse you but to persuade you. A good political cartoon makes you think about current events, but it also tries to sway your opinion toward the cartoonist's point of view. The best political cartoonist can change your mind on an issue without you even realizing how he or she did it.

Cartoonists use several methods, or techniques, to get their point across. Not every cartoon includes all of these techniques, but most political cartoons include at least a few. Some of the techniques cartoonists use the most are symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony. Once you learn to spot these techniques, you'll be able to see the cartoonist's point more clearly. You should also be aware of any political slant, or bias, that he or she might have. When you know where the cartoonist is coming from, it's easier to make up your own mind. You might also start watching out for the persuasive techniques used in other media, such as political ads and TV news programs. There are a lot of people out there trying to change your mind - it's a good idea to be aware of how they're doing it."

Methods Discussion: Students do the work of historians when Analyzing Political Cartoons. Try your hand at this with this Political Cartoon exercise (each of you will receive a handout.) 2017 Join or Die poster for white supremacists

Now, let's see how your historical understanding of this political cartoon can help us better understand a very recent reiteration - used for a much different purpose - of its original meaning. To the right, you will see a graphic poster that promoted the August 12, 2017 Charlottesville rally of white supremacists.

Now, let's see how the elements of the snake have changed. Rather than the various colonies - states in the making - each of the eight sections represent a right-wing, white supremacist organization: t (K) “Kekistani,” (AC) “Anti-Communist,” (L) “Libertarian,” (N) “Nationalist,” (I) “Identitarian/Identity Evropa,” (SN) “Southern Nationalist,” (NS) “National Socialist,” and (AR) “Alt Right.”

With the exception of Kekistani, or Kek, each of these are racist organizations. Kek, according to the so-called "alt-right" is the “deity” the white nationalist movement has created for itself online – partly for amusement and to make a kind of political point. Kek is a god of chaos and darkness, with the head of a frog, the source of their memetic “magic,” to whom the alt-right and Donald Trump owe their success.

So, with the "Join or Die" political cartoon, you can have your students learn a great deal about the symbols and ideals of the Revolutionary War AND how such historical symbols can be used over 250 years later to speak to what another group of divided Americans see as a symbol of another revolution - this one being a racial war.

For more help with political cartoons, be sure to check out these resources:

Using more diverse primary resources in our classrooms. We have talked about primary documents - written, historical paintings, and a few things about photographs - but there are many other types of primary documents that we an use in our classes. And when we do use these documents, the National Archives has created an excellent set of primary document analysis worksheets- most of which are used by historians when they examine documents. These are great tools for your students to use as they do history.  

Below are some great resources to help you think about using letters, speeches, oral history, and photographs in your classes as primary documents.

Photo of Hurrican Katrina

Photo of Hurricane Katrina

Using music in our classrooms. There are hundreds of ways we can incorporate both historical and contemporary music into our classrooms. They range from playing music related to the time period or the topic as students enter class and while they are working on assignments, to actually having them analyze historical and contemporary music to see how it helps them better understand history. In every case, using music in our classrooms helps students learn to do history. Following are some useful resources:

Using good powerpoint presentations. Powerpoint presentations have become the mainstay of many history teacher's classroom content. While some power point is really useful, too much power point can lead to monotonous and boring classes. All too often, teachers do not clearly think about the story their power point must make, nor do they put them together in an artistically pleasing manner that attracts and keeps student interest. While I use only a few power points in my courses, I developed one last year that I showed to an auditorium of over 300 middle and high school students in Grants Pass, Oregon. It was so successful, that I am going to share it with you - American Indians Mascots: Stereotyping and Historical Trauma.

Goal #5: To understand how to use Simulations, Debates, and Mock Trials

Very few things get students into doing history better than having them act out the results of their research through mock trials, simulations, and debates.guideline to debate in the classroom

Mock Trials are great ways to get students really excited about controversial topics and events in history. Other available resources include:

Simulations: A classroom simulation imitated a real-world process or event. They usually model a real world environment in a simplistic way to help a learner develop an understanding of the key concepts. One of the most creative type of simulations has been put together by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's project "iCivics."

Debates: A debate is a structured argument.  Two sides speak alternately for and against a particular viewpoint that is based on a topical issue.  Unlike the arguments people might have with family or friends, in a debate, each person is allocated a time they are allowed to speak for their side of the debate and any interjections are carefully controlled.  Debates can be an informal discussion of a controversial issue such as "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," or a formal set up similarly to the one posed in the chart on the right and explained in the Education World website.

Goal #6: To explore how to teach good note taking skills.

Even though we need to depend less on the "sage on the stage" method of teaching and rely more on the "guide on the side" method, there will ALWAYS be times when our students will need to take notes in their history classes. Over the past decades, note taking has become more like note regurgitation - with the teacher writing something on the board or showing a powerpoint and then asking the students to copy what they read. THIS IS NOT NOTE TAKING! Taking notes occurs when students listen to what is being said or carefully read an assignment and they write down what THEY THINK IS IMPORTANT about what they are hearing or reading. It requires careful listening and reading skills and clear interpretivel skills as students quickly think about what is most important and what is not. This is a skill you will have to teach, because few students have it.

Note taking is what most students dislike about history classes - largely because they don't really want to just copy what they are told is important because that is simply boring. But also, teachers seldom tell their students that learning to take good notes is a life skill that they will use throughout their lifetime. In fact, they already do a kind of note taking every day - they write dozens of text messages and/or tweets.

So let's be clear - while we want to make our classrooms into learning laboratories where students do history, there are also times that we must teach our students historical content. Through lecture and discussion, it is imperative that students take notes in a way that truly indicates that they are interpreting content through their own historical lens. This cannot be done by copying down what the teacher has written on the board or on a power point, by filling in the blanks for missing words as the teacher is talking, or by simply writing down a phrase that the teacher tells them word-for-word is important. Instead, we want them to interpret what they are hearing and reading and then take notes in their own words. Below are some ideas to help you with this strategy.

Example #1: Cornell Note Taking Template

Below is the Cornell note taking template that divides an 8.5" x 11" page into two sections: In the second column to the left, students write down the main ideas from the lecture - main ideas given them by the teacher. In the first column to the right, students summarize in their own words no more than 3-4 sentences what they learned from the notes.

Cornell note template

An evaluation strategy for Cornell Note taking: Create a check list such as the following:

Note-Taking Evaluation.

Name ________________________________________________________

Example #2: Mind Maps - a 'whole brain' note taking method.

There is a creative (right) side and a logical (left) side to the brain. Mind Map Notes cater to both sides. Traditional linear notes cater mainly for the logical side. A Mind Map consists of a Central Topic with a Central Picture. This is very important, as it forms a 'hook' to which all the information it contains will be attached.

Map Map example

Attached to the Central Topic are thick Main branches. These branches are often the headings in a text book. Attached to the Main Branches are thinner Sub Branches followed by Detail Branches.

Why do Mind Map Notes work?


Example #3: The Squeeze Approach

The Squeeze concept of note taking is catching on in schools across the nation.  So, what is it?  The idea is that students will learn to squeeze the information that they verbally learn in class into a small amount of information written in their own words.  This is a learning tool that will take a least a couple of weeks to master, will require you to be patient as students learn,  and must be carefully taught at the beginning of the school year through several steps:

First step -  Teaching the concept.  Students work in groups of three and will read a primary document selected by the teacher.  Each group gets the same document.  Then, they do the following:

  1. Each student in the group reads the primary document (can be done individually or aloud).
  2. After reading the document, each student writes, in their own words, a one paragraph summary of the main points in the document. 
  3. Then, each student shares their summary with the other group members while the group verifies each summary – explaining where they agree or disagree with each summary. 
  4. Each student squeezes their summary into 1-2 sentences, then shares their 1-2 sentences squeeze with the group members, and discuss how they compare and contrast.
  5. Each group picks one of the squeeze summaries to share with the entire class.
  6. The teacher leads a discussion about the squeeze summaries - with a focus on how they compare and contrast and how each person has a different interpretation of content.

Second step:  Refining the concept.  Students work individually and will read a primary document selected by the teacher.  Then, each student does the following:

  1. Writes a one paragraph summary of the document in their own words.
  2. Squeezes the content of their summary into 1-2 sentences.
  3. Shares their 1-2 sentences squeeze with their classmates and discuss how they compare and contrast.

Third step:  Broadening the squeeze concept.  The teacher will give a 5-10-minute lecture and students will not take notes. After the short lecture, each student writes a one paragraph summary in their own words of what they learned in the lecture.  Then, the students move into groups of three and do the following:

  1. As a group, students verify each of the summaries by asking if they agree or disagree with the summaries.
  2. Each student squeezes the summary into 1-2 sentences.
  3. Students then share the squeeze with their classmates and discuss how they compare and contrast.

Fourth step:  Applying the concept.  Students work individually.  Using the Cornell note taking format, have them draw a line down their note taking paper.  Then, each student does the following as the teacher delivers a 10-15 minute lecture/discussion:

  1. On the right-hand side of the line, write no more than 1-2 paragraphs of notes
  2. At the end of the lecture/discussion, give the students 5-10 minutes to squeeze the information they learned into 1-2 sentences that they write on the left-hand side of the line.
  3. Have the students add to the left-hand side of the line any questions they had after writing their summaries and squeeze.
  4. Have the students share their squeeze and any remaining questions aloud.

Fifth step:  Finalizing the concept.  Students work individually, using the same Cornell note taking format is described above in Step 4. Then, each student does the following as the teacher delivers a lecture/discussion of the teacher’s desired length:

  1. On the right-hand side of the line, write no more than whatever number of paragraphs (determined by the teacher and based on the length of the class lecture/discussion) in their own words while the teacher is talking.
  2. At the end of the lecture/discussion, give the students 5-10 minutes to squeeze the information they learned into 1-2 sentences which they write on the left-hand side of the line.
  3. Have the students add any questions they had after writing their summaries and squeeze to the left-hand side of the line.
  4. Have the students turn in their squeeze and any questions they had after writing their summaries and squeeze. 
  5. Read each squeeze and questions, make appropriate comments, and return to students as soon as possible. 

Methods Discussion: We are going to have an example of how to teach the Squeeze Note Taking method, going through Steps 1, 3, and 4. above. Taking notes on this topic will pave the way to our transition into the next unit of the course on teaching the Constitution.

Be sure to keep your "Squeeze Note Taking" method activity. It will go into your Portfolio.

Goal #7: To discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates' book and Growing Up Trans and what these resources can tell us about the students we teach

It is not enough to know WHAT to teach; in order to create great lessons with fascinating methods, we need to understand WHO we teach. Just who are the students in our classrooms? To help us think about this question, we are going to discuss what we learned from our two assignments: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the PBS Frontline video - Growing Up Trans at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/growing-up-trans/.

Today we are going to enter into a discussion about whose voices are and are not heard in the classroom - largely through three lenses - that of our guest, Vicki Cody; Ta-Nehisi Coates; and the trans kids and their families. To this end, please do the following:

  1. Rearrange our chairs into a circle. We are going to have a discussion beginning with Vicki's experiences through school. Please think about the questions you would like to ask her after she is finished introducing herself and her experiences.
  2. To introduce our discussion about the book, Vicki will make several remarks related to the discussion of "black bodies" and her fear that she would encounter mysogeny in the book.
  3. Next, Vicki and I will ask you questions that we feel are relevant to the book and Coates' experiences. Some of those questions are as follows:
    • Do you think most parents are as candid with their 15 years olds as is Coates in this book? Should they be?
    • What is the black diaspora?
    • Do you understand the significance of Howard University to African American students and their families?
    • Explain what Coates means on page 11 that "...the dream rests on our backs" and on page 70 when he write, slaves "were people tgurned to fuel for the American machine." Why is this so important to teach - particularly in the 21st Century.
    • Can our nation ever "get over" the wounds inflicted upon us by slavery?
  4. Finally, you will be involved in group work about your reactions to Growing Up Trans.

Group work:

  1. Get into four groups of 4-5 students each.
  2. Spend 10 minutes discussing the following in regard to Growing Up Trans - no need to write anything down:
    • Several of the young people in the film said "I don't like feeling different." As teachers, how do we help kids who are different?
    • Describe the families of he young people in the video - how and why might this information be useful to you as teachers?
    • Why is "middle school a scary time" as one student remarked? Why is this an especially difficult time for transitioning trans kids?
  3. Spend 10 minutes discussing the following:
    • Of the three sources for this assignment - Between the World and Me, Growing Up Trans, and the Democracy Now! excerpt with Ta-Nehisi Coates - which was the most useful for you as teachers in training? Least? How and why?