A Roundtable of Reformers

How would historical figures solve today’s conflicts and problems around the world? Sarah Cooper is back with a blog post about how her students researched reformers and wrote about how their chosen figures would change the world today. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and she teaches English and history at Flintridge Preparatory School in California.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionA Roundtable of Reformers
By Sarah Cooper

How would labor agitator Florence Kelley, author Barbara Ehrenreich and reformer Helen Keller solve the Syrian refugee crisis?

How would Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court plaintiff Fred Korematsu and environmentalist David Brower address gun laws?

My eighth graders asked themselves these questions in groups after each of them researched an American reformer.

In previous years, students had simply presented a few facts about their reformers to the class and also played part of a song that echoed the reformer’s ideals (Katy Perry’s “Roar” for Carry Nation or “We Shall Overcome” for Pete Seeger, for example).

The songs were fun to hear, but even these short presentations seemed to drag out over several days of class time.

This year I wanted students to spend these days being more hands-on: learning about other students’ reformers and then applying this knowledge to modern-day problems, many of them similar to ones their reformers had tackled.

So I created student groups, roughly categorized by the kind of reform their person did.

For instance, Bob Dylan, Sojourner Truth, Marian Wright Edelman and Rachel Carson came together as people who used their words for change.

Here are the directions I gave one Tuesday in class, after students had read through each others’ short research papers.

  1. Now, make a list (as long as you want!) of 3+ current issues you think your reformers would like to explore together. Feel free to flip through your current events notes and articles to help you brainstorm. Write down everyone’s ideas without judging or commenting.
  2. Once everyone has shared ideas, go back through the list you’ve generated and talk about which issue might be the most interesting for your reformers (you!) to research tonight and talk about solving tomorrow. By the end of class, decide on one issue on which everyone will find a different article tonight.

That night, students texted or created a Google Doc to make sure they found different articles on their group’s topic.

In class on Wednesday, they first wrote individually for 5-7 minutes on why they chose this particular article and what their reformer would think about it, and then they shared the articles with their group.

After that, students brainstormed at least six solutions or approaches that their reformers might use to tackle the issue. They honed in on one approach they liked best and developed a plan with at least several steps.

The plans ran the gamut on the spectrum of intricacy, radicalism and violence.

One example came from students who thought that, if alive today, their reformers – Eleanor Roosevelt, Carry Nation and Jane Jacobs – would have fought for “women’s right to an abortion.” Their steps read:

  • Have strong debates all over America – in the government and in cities, through town hall meetings.
  • Use intimidation tactics – psych out your opponents.
  • Be the voice of larger grass-roots organizations.
  • Hold protests in front of opponents to gain awareness.
  • Have fundraising events.
  • Build upon Roosevelt’s government connections and Jacobs’ grassroots movement connections.

A group of radical reformers – John Brown, Margaret Sanger, Dolores Huerta and Carry Nation – attempted to solve the Syrian refugee crisis with persuasion and intimidation:

  1. Start by hosting rallies and sending letters to non-conforming countries (countries that aren’t letting in refugees).
  2. Gather a small army of protesters.
  3. Go on a boat with an army to Syrian refugees and take the refugees to countries like Britain. Also use other forms of transportation.
  4. Smuggle in refugees while fighting security.

Obviously these solutions are only skim the surface of how one would tackle an issue. What I liked about them was that the students really had to ponder different methods of change and figure out which historical tactics would work equally well now.

The Greensboro Four’s nonviolent sit-ins? Still a promising tactic. John Brown’s violent attempt to seize a federal arsenal? Maybe not as effective.

Next time I hope to ask students to create a longer action plan and then have their classmates vote on which one they thought would be most realistic and effective.

Such a a mini-negotiation session would imitate the process their reformers went through, creating a grass-roots feel in our own classroom.

Add comment October 10th, 2016

Finding teaching wisdom in architecture

Teaching is an art and this month guest blogger Sarah Cooper looks to architecture for lessons that can be brought into her classroom. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine

Architecture as Experience

Walt_Disney_Concert_Hall,_LA,_CA,_jjron_22.03.2012A few weeks ago I visited a massive exhibit on architect Frank Gehry’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I’ve always found Gehry’s buildings startling in their originality but not necessarily appealing.

Yet, in the weeks since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the exhibit – for what it says about the power of ideas and what it implies about how we could be teaching.

Here are eight takeaways I aspire to implement in my classroom:

  1. Trust in students’ ideas, even the rough and inchoate ones.
    The exhibit frequently places drawings, scale models and photographs of the same building next to each other. The drawings are mere sketches, with simple lines, and yet they seem to move on the page. If we saw only the drawings, we might wonder how they could possibly turn into steel and glass – and yet they did, through revision and consultation with clients and colleagues.
  1. At the same time, realize that not every creative idea will come to fruition. Many of Gehry’s most innovative designs were never built. For our students, the process of writing a research paper or a short story may not always lead to a polished product for a portfolio or year-end show.
  1. Take into account the long view.
    Gehry’s style evolved over time. At first his philosophy involved “placing objects together so that you make the space work. As he explains, “you design the objects and then you design the spaces between them.” Later Gehry began envisioning buildings in which swooping steel exteriors integrated the spaces. What students write or say now in our classes may simply be building blocks for their eventual careers and philosophies.
  1. Help students find different ways in.
    The exhibit was a prime example of differentiation. I found myself drawn to the drawings, which felt like music in their fluidity. But I took photos of the models for my younger son, who likes building structures from cardboard. Other elements of the exhibit included quotations from Gehry and photos of completed projects. Everyone could find something to pull them in. Similarly, in history class, we could show students primary sources, works of art, photos, biographies and artifacts from the same era or event and ask them to describe which speaks to them most.
  1. Work with the power of the familiar to introduce the unfamiliar.
    My two sons already know Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall, in downtown Los Angeles, from parking in its garage for events. Before I take them to the exhibit, I’m planning to show them photos of the concert hall, to remind them of what they know, and then drawings and photos of the somewhat similar but unfamiliar Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
  1. Find technology that transforms student work.
    Gehry is famous for pioneering the aerospace software CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application) for use in architecture, making formerly impossible designs possible. As he says, “The technology provides a way for me to get closer to the craft…. It feels like I’ve been speaking a foreign language, and now, all of a sudden, the craftsman understands me. The computer is not dehumanizing; it’s an interpreter.” I would like to find more programs to use in the history classroom, beyond Animoto and Prezi, that make history pop.
  1. Turn your world upside down.
    Gehry’s design for the new Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California, features a garden on the roof that has evoked comparison to New York City’s High Line. The model was mesmerizing because the hangar-like building was hardly visible through the carpet of trees surrounding it. Especially compared with Gehry’s former work, in which the building materials took center stage, this represented something new and inspiring.
  1. Make a hands-on space for learning.
    At the end of the exhibit, a huge photo of Gehry’s studio anchors a cluster of models of current and future projects. The exhibit itself seems to feel a little like his studio does, with objects everywhere to give inspiration. To see Gehry on the page would be insufficient, but to walk through his work feels real and appropriate. I would like to be more tactile with history so that students feel they are walking through the past, whether they are making objects, videos or computer simulations.

Ultimately, the biggest spur the exhibit gave me as a teacher was to get out of my books and into the world, not just on vacation but all year round.

Add comment February 4th, 2016

Moving from Lightning-Speed to Glacial

Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, is back this week with this thoughtful post about how to slow down and engage with texts and ideas in a world that’s racing past us and our students.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionMoving From Lightning-Speed to Glacial

By Sarah Cooper

It is so hard for me to slow down as a teacher.

I want to expose students to everything possible over the course of a year.

I want to communicate the excitement of in-the-moment links between then and now – to see these connections flicker like lightning in the air.

And I really don’t want students to be bored. Once they lose the glint in their eyes, the straightness in their spines, I’m mentally out of there, thinking about how to move to the next thing.

We’re working in a world primed for speed, a world in which the pace of the classroom can sometimes seem painfully slow.

At the same time, I’m fighting for that glacial pace, especially when it comes to reading and writing.

Taking slow time to think deeply about a topic. Returning to the same concepts and skills in different ways over several days. Revisiting concepts over many weeks, giving “spaced practice” and “interleaving” concepts, as the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning suggest.

As a student myself over the past year, taking history classes for a master’s program, I’ve been reminded of the power of sustained engagement with texts.

Here is what I do for each 1,000-word response paper:

  1. Read, with pen in hand, slowly, stopping frequently to cement information in longer-term memory. Without such annotations and pauses, a great book might as well be a sieve for me.
  1. Go through the annotations and type out key quotations.
  1. Print out the quotations and drop them into possible paragraphs. Then write a thesis statement for a weekly response paper. This always takes longer than I think because there are so many possibilities.
  1. Write a draft of the paper, starting sometimes with the introduction and sometimes in the middle.
  1. Go to NoodleTools to compile a Works Cited list. This is a relief because I don’t have to think. It’s also satisfying because there’s a right answer.
  1. Let the draft sit for several days, and then return to it in hard copy to see problems and edits.
  1. Revise, read over one more time and submit online.

After engaging with the text this deeply, what do I remember? Not every annotation I wrote in the margins. Not anything I didn’t annotate.

Instead, I remember what I wrote about and took notes on. The material I worked over in my brain.

This is what’s in long-term memory, what can be applied and used. This is the information I can play with, stare at, pull out to make an odd or unexpected connection with a poem or a current event.

How often do we ask our students to do this kind of sustained engagement with a text or a film or an image? At least for my students, the answer is not nearly enough.

What are we afraid of? Standards. Tests. Boredom. Not “covering” everything. I wish we could coin a new word for “covering.” How about “papering over” or “dashing through”?

We can easily forget the power of time. Of sitting down with a book on your lap, a gripping novel or powerful history narrative. Of wrestling a one-page primary source to the ground. Of knowing and understanding.

Last week, I tried more of this. We spent an entire day on the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. With partners, the eighth graders paraphrased line by line, and then we discussed their “translations.”

Beforehand I worried about boredom, and I worried about saturating students with text.

They may have been saturated. But they also really understood, for instance, why humans are “disposed to suffer when evils are sufferable,” and they related this idea to moments in their lives, such as trying to break bad habits or ignore family conflict.

There’s such a satisfaction in this personal connection to difficult words, and I’d like to give students more of it. More repeated interactions with a text, through notes and discussion and writing. More re-exposures to a text or an idea long after we first introduce it. A layering of knowledge that builds and revisits and rethinks, throughout the year.

Like ice accumulating on a glacier.

Add comment October 14th, 2015

In History Class, Writing Means Thinking

Sarah Cooper is back this week with a post that examines how writing can help students clarify their thinking and bring them closer to the historical event they are writing about. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and has been a regular contributor to the Stenhouse Blog.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionIn History Class, Writing Means Thinking

By Sarah Cooper

This summer I’ve written ten response papers for two history graduate classes, a process that has sometimes felt like walking through molasses.

Here are some questions that ran through my head:

  • Do I care about the topic?
  • Is my thesis clear?
  • Am I supporting the thesis with evidence?
  • Am I paraphrasing enough not to plagiarize?
  • Do the topic sentences support the thesis?
  • Is this paragraph too long?
  • Is my writing any good?

Needless to say, I’ve become newly empathetic toward my students as writers.

I’ve remembered how difficult it can be to synthesize information, especially in anticipation of someone else reading and evaluating my writing. Is this argument original enough? Am I incorporating the information accurately, giving enough weight to each source?

I’ve realized that assignment length can dictate depth of thought. A paper with a maximum of 1,200 words required more sustained analysis than one of 800 words. The longer length also meant I could take byways that seemed less plausible in the shorter papers.

Writing these essays has also helped clarify my thinking. Reading through margin annotations to refresh my memory of a text is one thing, but pulling together these annotations into a cohesive argument is another.

What surprised me most, though, was something I knew long ago but had somehow forgotten:

The act of writing made the readings more interesting.

Here’s an example: In reading about John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy, I initially found the suspense of the Cuban Missile Crisis much more interesting than the disastrous missteps of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

But then I started creating a thesis about what the Bay of Pigs showed about the Kennedy presidency – and realized that the debacle could be considered a case study for how presidents learn on the job. For the importance of surrounding oneself with advisors who offer conflicting opinions. And for what strength can look like: admitting we are wrong and fixing our mistakes the next time.

Writing about the readings forced me to connect personally with them, to find a place where my interest in psychology and leadership coincided with historical events. And suddenly the history became more memorable.

Implications for Teaching

Especially for middle schoolers, engaging with history can mean an acrostic, pair-and-share presentation or diagram just as easily as it can mean a serious written piece.

In my desire to make history exciting for students, sometimes I think I’ve given short shrift to the power of writing to ignite such excitement. I certainly ask students to write – but I had forgotten that writing can be an example of Seymour Papert’s “hard fun.”

There’s an alchemy to putting words on the page, as UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt says in an excellent piece about writing and radishes: “Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.”

This is the magic I’ve felt this summer, much as it made my brain hurt. And this is the magic I’d like my students to feel when writing about history.

How do you encourage your students to find the personal connection in their own analytical writing?

Add comment August 13th, 2015

The Power of the Memorized Line

Sarah Cooper is back this week with this thoughtful post about the importance and power of memorizing lines — from history, from poetry, from speeches. She argues that having a thorough knowledge of a subject helps students dive further into analysis and understanding and that these memorized lines can become companions for life.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionThe Power of the Memorized Line
By Sarah Cooper

My mother, an English teacher, was master of the literary one-liner.

“There’s a certain Slant of light,/Winter Afternoons,” she’d muse while visiting Boston in December, the sun setting just after 4:00 p.m. Emily Dickinson’s poetry became a way for my mom, a longtime Californian, to manage the gloom.

Well into my adulthood, whenever I said anything remotely snide, my mom would whip out King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child.” Sometimes she meant it more than others.

And, faced with any situation in which despair threatened to overwhelm hope, she would quote William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” I’ve pulled out that one myself when discussing historical catastrophes with students.

At their worst, such displays of erudition can remind us of Monica in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, who “knows one line from every poet.” At any remotely apropos conversational moment, Monica inserts an allusion to make herself look smart.

At their best, however, the right quotations, plucked from long ago—in the middle of a classroom or the middle of the night—can ignite memory and make us feel we’re not alone.

Memorization might seem old-fashioned, a straggler behind the excitement of inquiry learning and design thinking. Yet mastering a substantial body of knowledge can lead to playful analysis.

“The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem,” assert the authors of the recent book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which applies cognitive science research to memory techniques.

When I taught English, my students often memorized a poem as part of a larger poetry project. Now that I teach U.S. history, each year I choose a couple of quotations that students must memorize verbatim, keeping in mind poet Robert Pinsky’s observation that “a people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory.”

Last semester, the eighth graders memorized the opening to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ideally these tenets will echo in their ears any time they see rights being taken away.

Next year, I hope to ask students to internalize a more subversive section of the same paragraph, which declares that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” We live in inertia until something propels us otherwise, an idea I would like them to seize upon as they become adult citizens.

This semester, students are memorizing the final sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Why this particular sentence, laden with prepositional phrases?

The students told me a bit of “why” themselves after they circled resonant language in class: charity, strive, bind, cherish, just and lasting peace. These words aspire to create community in the face of deep conflict.

Lincoln’s grand ending also invites us into a national discussion of peace and war that has persisted for 150 years.

President Gerald Ford held Lincoln’s speech in mind when he said in April 1975 that “the time has come to look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the Nation’s wounds, and to restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence.” Ford hoped that an appeal to Lincoln’s graciousness would help heal the rancor of Vietnam.

So too did Barack Obama hail toward Lincoln in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009, when he spoke of “three ways that we can build a just and lasting peace.” Echoing the words of others does not simply show a familiarity with history but also gives strength to persevere through difficult work.

As with Lincoln’s speeches, the best documents of American history contain a great deal of poetry. Memorizing such rich language gives us what poet Billy Collins calls “the pleasure of companionship” from something we have set to heart. “When you internalize a poem,” Collins says, “it becomes something inside of you. You’re able to walk around with it. It becomes a companion.”

My mother’s quotations—Faulkner, Shakespeare, Dickinson, all—have walked around with me for a lifetime.

Similarly, I think all of us hope that the documents, speeches, and novels we teach might in some way become “companions” for our students in future years—when they feel beleaguered, when they feel emboldened, or when they simply need to remember that someone else has faced their struggles before.

Add comment May 18th, 2015

How Expert is Expert When You are In Eighth Grade?

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series of blog posts about teaching social studies by author and teacher Sarah Cooper with this thoughtful piece where Sarah wonders about teaching depth and breadth, helping students become experts on a topic, and helping them make arguments that will stand up outside of the classroom.

How Expert is Expert When You are in Eighth Grade?
By Sarah Cooper

What obligation do we have to make our students experts on a topic before they give opinions about it?

Or, said a different way: are we being irresponsible if we encourage our students to tackle big questions before they have enough information to address them? What constitutes “enough information,” anyway?

Recently I’ve been wondering about the balance between exposure and depth, between familiarity and expertise. The questions above filled my head at the end of our recent unit on the American Revolution in eighth-grade history. In addition to the 1760s and 1770s, we also discussed current events: a United Nations summit, the fight against Islamic State, the spread of Ebola, the California drought, and other articles students brought in.

The unit’s culminating assignment was a debate on Wednesday, which students knew would also be their essay prompt for a test on Thursday. The question for both the debate and the essay was this:

Given what you have learned in the Revolution unit (about freedoms, rebellions, etc.), how much do you think the United States should be involved in world problems, and why?

I hoped students would see connections between the freedoms the colonists fought for and the opportunities that people in countries around the world are fighting for today.

Students were assigned to groups of interventionists, isolationists, and moderates. Every idea they brought into the debate had to be supported by a fact, either a historical one or a current event. The goal was for the debate—and the two days of preparation for it—to serve as brainstorming and prewriting for the test essay.

Debating did allow them to practice their thoughts before writing them down, as well as borrow ideas from their classmates to help their case. In their essays, students cited evidence they had heard in the debate, from France’s becoming an ally after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 to the need for the United States to address its nearly $18 billion national debt before helping out other countries.

Yet I realized as I read the essays that the excitement and intensity of the debate may have oversimplified things. Here’s an example of a strong argument from one of the essays:

If you don’t have the steady base it will be imbalanced and fall. The United States is that base that starts a new creation. . . . Like in 1775 we met again for the Second Continental Congress for discussing war against Britain. We also continued to fight, and created a Declaration of Independence for what we wanted: freedom. Taking these actions and fighting for what we wanted led to a victory. From then on we have had the obligation to intervene and help solve world conflicts. I believe this is right, because it is the moral choice.

I liked the building logic of this essay’s argument, and the vocabulary is excellent. The student is thinking. This excerpt contains a specific and accurate fact from 1775, and it gives commentary on the Revolution that links history to today.

On the other hand, there’s a big part of me that feels negligent because this writer has leaped over 200-plus years of history—with almost zero knowledge of 1783 to 2014—and ended with a grand, sweeping statement about the United States’ “obligation to intervene.”

Many other essays took a similar leap, with some attempting to land on World War II in the process. We had studied that time period only through FDR’s “Freedom from Fear” speech from January 1941, in an attempt to relate his freedoms to the Revolution’s ideals, but many know about World War II from their parents or popular culture.

One writer put it this way in another essay:

Even though we did not want to get involved we soon learned our lesson, and learned that we have to [get involved] after the Pearl Harbor attack. This attack shows the idea of us just being an open target for attack if we are trying to stay out of conflict and not defending ourselves. . . . The example with World War II is similar with our involvement in Ebola. This is because Ebola is a deadly disease that Africa does not have enough money or supplies to cure and if the US does not help stop it the disease will eventually spread to the US and kill several American people just like World War II would have if we did not jump in and help.

Again, the cause-and-effect is good. The analogy, as far as it goes, is a decent one. Yet there’s a part of me that thinks I’m encouraging students to oversimplify, to believe they have something to say even when their analysis would not stand up in the world beyond our classroom.

Maybe the key lies in welcoming the imperfect. As I often tell my students, the answers to the questions we’re asking could fill books. Maybe I need to accept that they’re going to take a reasonably informed stab at the idea and, ideally, get excited while doing so.

David N. Perkins, founding member and senior codirector of Harvard’s innovative Project Zero, suggests that “ways of knowing can come in junior versions,” as meaningful entry points to historical or mathematical thinking.

In Perkins’s book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014), he describes a teacher in Australia who tackled number theory with her third graders: “The conjectures were not very sophisticated and the ideas about proof and evidence not very fancy, but the point is that these students were making a start, and doing so with some enthusiasm” (160).

Despite my reservations, the middle schoolers last week were definitely “making a start” at solving the world’s problems. Now I think I’ll make a start, during the rest of the year, at filling in some highlights between the end of the Revolutionary War and the second term of the Obama administration!

Add comment November 25th, 2014

Striving for Slow

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionSummer is winding down and many of you are back in your classrooms and back to the hectic days of fall. In her new post Sarah Cooper invites you to linger in summer for a bit longer and consider what the slow pace of summer can teach you about, well, teaching. “The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn,” she writes. Sarah teaches U.S. History at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California and she is the author of Making History Mine.

Striving for Slow

Summer is the land of slow for teachers.

Slow mornings when we have time to sit and read the paper. Slow afternoons when we drink coffee with a colleague and talk in terms of what-ifs, not what must be done, in the classroom next year.

Even those of us who teach summer school, take care of family or attend professional growth seminars find that the days dance to a different rhythm. Calmer. Not dictated by bells or meetings. Subject to more of our control, our curiosity.

The “slow teaching movement” has gained momentum in the past several years, often encouraging us to let go of technology’s grip a bit.

Right now, I’m not talking as much about technology as about time.

As a friend and I commiserate every August, “Why can’t we bring more of the summer pace into the school year?”

We can’t always fight against a schedule cramped for minutes. But we can give our students time within that schedule to think, reflect, and discover themselves as learners.

From the lazy, mellow perspective of summer’s end, I’ll share a few slow stories, two about our students and one about us as teachers.

Story 1: More Research Time in Class = More Fun

Last year, for an extended research project, my eighth-grade U.S. history students did easily 80 percent of the work in class. I kept reserving more and more days in our library computer lab and ended up with ten 43-minute periods, about seven hours total.

With all of this time to work in class, students could:

  • Land on a topic they really cared about, not one they picked because they had to make a quick choice. (“This guy’s last name is the same as my favorite soccer player…”)
  • Find rich sources, not just the first ones they stumbled across late at night while they were also texting their friends.
  • Ask questions about how to do a works cited list and parenthetical citation.
  • Paraphrase quotations thoroughly to ensure they weren’t plagiarizing.
  • Find additional sources once they started writing if they realized their argument needed more support.

This ended up being the most library time I had ever spent on an assignment. I expected that the projects would be better as a result, and they were. The students found scholarly sources, discovered insightful quotations within them, and linked the facts more adroitly because of the extra time.

What I didn’t expect were the comments from students that the project was fun only because they had enough time to work on it, inside and outside of class. This statement, repeated again and again in their written feedback, has convinced me of the power of slow projects to increase engagement.

(Not incidentally, giving time to work in class also meant that students were not distracted by electronic devices, making their focus sharper.)

Story 2: More Writing Time in Class = More Creativity

At the end of a unit on civil rights during the Civil War with “Glory” as centerpiece, I wanted students to follow their curiosity. They could explore any question they had about the topic through a mini-research project.

However, we didn’t have much time: two days in class doing research, and Monday class plus Monday night’s homework to do a 250-word creative or interpretive response.

As students wrote their reflections that Monday morning, many of them were just starting to hit their stride when we had ten minutes left.

I envisioned the homework saga that night: Some students would want to spend an hour finishing but would become distracted or pulled away by other homework or extracurriculars. The final products, hurriedly stapled on Tuesday morning, would seem rushed and unfinished. Oh, and all the eighth graders were going on a class trip on Wednesday.

So I nixed the preview of nuclear warfare I had planned and instead gave everyone the day to work, with the absolute stipulation that they needed to finish by the end of class.

The eighth graders were grateful, and I really enjoyed reading their projects, including one by Wylie that combined visual and linguistic literacy, comparing Navy recruiting posters from the Civil War and World War I.

The World War I poster, featuring a man tinkering with a sub’s diesel engine, “seems more like an inspirational drawing,” Wylie said, “while the emblem and big title on the Civil War poster give it a very straightforward look.”

Story 3: Less is More, Period

Every year I try to do less and make that less count more – by addressing multiple standards and skills through a close reading of one primary source document rather than three, for instance.

Every time I forget to do less – which happens regularly when I hope to cram in one last skill or idea – I end up driving myself and my students a little crazy.

Last month I taught a weeklong summer school English class for ninth graders. We worked with five elements of voice, as described by Nancy Dean in her excellent Voice Lessons.

The class lasted two hours each day, with a ten-minute break in the middle. For each 55-minute session, I imagined we would read aloud a piece of literature, annotate it, discuss it as a class, pair up to identify elements of voice, come back together to talk about them, and write individual thesis statements on the passage. And then I thought I’d “fill in” the rest of the time with a ten-minute sponge activity on diction or imagery.

It’s funny, even writing out that entire list makes me tired. And I realized on the first day that, even though a number of kids in the back were restless here and there, we would gain more from staying with a document five extra minutes than we would from a sharp transition to something else.

So we stayed with it.

During pairs work, I took the time to look at passages each group had annotated, asked students to go deeper in many instances, and circled back to check that they had.

During full-class discussion, we looked at several more lines of poetry than I usually would. When arms and legs started twitching, I asked the kids if they wanted a stretch break. No, they said, being polite.

So a minute later, when one student volunteered the word “nonchalant” to describe a poem’s tone, we defined it and then I asked them all to stand “nonchalantly.” After they sat down, full of attitude, we looked at one more fabulous metaphor with new eyes.

Going Slowly Isn’t Easy

It can be easier to assign a rat-a-tat series of activities, as I did for my first years teaching, than it can be to listen to, critique and circle back to students’ ideas. It’s less messy to assign research to be done at home than to supervise it in class, with the inevitable off-task moments and dead ends.

But it’s not less fulfilling. The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn.

Now, can someone please remind me about all of this slow summer thinking when the frenzy of October comes along?

2 comments August 21st, 2014

Time for Current Events: It’s Worth It

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series with Sarah Cooper, who teaches U.S. History at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and this week she talks about the importance of weekly current events discussions and shares her strategies for getting her eighth graders interested and excited about the news.

Talking about current events with eighth graders is rarely boring. They gravitate to the weird and quirky. They generate a million questions about subjects I thought I knew. They rarely hesitate to give an opinion, reasoned or not.

To them, everything is new, and everything is news.

This year I changed several things about weekly current events discussions. Friday presentations had always provided a relaxing end to the week, but I was hoping to create a true current events culture.

Through a process that is still imperfect and evolving, my students became not only more curious but also more literate and informed. Here’s what I recommend.

1.      Devote the entire period, not just fifteen or twenty minutes, to the news.

This year I realized that, if I want current events to be front and center, they need to have more time on stage. So we discuss the news for the entire period rather than half a period. What does this look like?

  • Rearrange the furniture. When my first class comes in on Fridays, they move desks into two semicircles, one in front of the other. Rather than our usual rows or pairs, this structure leads to back-and-forth discussion and gives the sense of front-row seats to an event. The back row can get chatty, but the freer atmosphere feels appropriately adult to discuss world affairs.
  • Present articles to the class. Two or three students give summaries of an article of their choice, answering questions and often facilitating a brief discussion on topics such as teacher tenure or water rights.
  • Share stories in pairs. The students who aren’t presenting each bring in an article. They tell a partner enough of the story that their partner can tell it to someone else.
  • Improvise. Depending on how much time we have left, I ask students to do any of a variety of activities to cement the day’s news in their brains, such as the following:
  • Write a few sentences about why they chose their current event.
  • Talk with a partner about their opinion on a controversial story.

2.      Give students the lexicon to understand the headlines.

I wanted the eighth graders to have enough of a vocabulary to tackle intimidating headlines. So they memorized forty common terms at the beginning of the year, such as atrocities, chemical weapons, and U.N. Security Council, many of which were suggested by my Facebook friends.

At the end of first semester, Sophia brought in a story called “Bipartisan Agreement to Hold Off New Iran Sanctions” and didn’t bat an eyelash at the language. We had leapfrogged one of the most difficult parts of following the news: understanding the jargon of world politics.

3.      Assess current events; don’t just talk about them.

Simply knowing the vocabulary wasn’t sufficient. I also wanted students to demonstrate that they could analyze most articles that came their way. The Common Core social studies standards emphasize literacy, such as finding a text’s thesis or describing how it presents information, and current events promote such engagement with language.

To solidify the connection between history and the news, I made current events the centerpiece of the major essay on our two-hour midterm and final exams.

For the final, students could choose to write about one of two newspaper stories: “Women Make New Gains in the Senate” or “Young Ukrainians Brush Aside the Crisis and Voice Optimism About the Future.” They annotated the piece and then wrote an essay linking the kinds of change shown in the current event (such as fast and slow, violent and nonviolent) to the kinds of change we had learned about in U.S. history this semester in units on women’s history, American reformers, civil rights, and total war.

The results were not all pretty. Some students focused too much on the articles and didn’t refer enough to history, some wrote overly general essays because making connections proved difficult, and many referred to historical trends but gave hardly any facts. (See “What Does a Good Fact Look Like, Anyway?”)

But the essay assignment succeeded in one wild way: Students had to think on the spot. All of them. No canned essays, no excuses. It was like a contemporary document-based question, to take a page from the AP exam.

And so I saw responses such as this one from Kiefer, who insisted, “Ukraine is not America. The people of Ukraine are being ordered around from countries in different parts of the world. Russia is being extremely militant about their uprising. People are outspoken. This is one of the reasons Ukraine may be inclined to react violently about its revolution. Nonviolence did work for the Civil Rights Act, but for a people facing a government much more inclined to fight, violence may be the only answer.”

Or Alexia, who pointed out that “fighting for your rights doesn’t always mean radical action.”

Or James, who asked, “Who will be Ukraine’s Eugene Debs? Its Alice Paul, its Frederick Douglass?”

We still have a long way to go. I won’t claim victory until every student reads the top headlines every day and talks about the news with an adult several times a week.

But there have been small markers of success. A number of parents have commented that it is fun to talk with their children about world issues, that their kids show “a high level of engagement” because of our Fridays. And students will often come in asking if I’ve seen a certain story—enough that I start class late some days.

By the end of the year, these eighth graders inspired a higher level of news literacy for me. The morning is not complete without reading the headlines on my phone.

And I’ve been reminded why I’ve always loved newspapers. They give a frontline take on history. They create a community of readers. And they are full of possibility.

Add comment June 11th, 2014

Making Notecards Exciting (Really!)

Teacher and author Sarah Cooper returned to teaching U.S. history this year after teaching English for four years and she will be joining us here on the Stenhouse blog regularly to share some stories and strategies from her classroom. Her first post is about notecards and how she and her students made the transition from the low-tech pieces of paper to high-tech electronic versions. (Technophobes need not be afraid!) Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and teaches at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California.

MakiCooper author photo bigger resolutionng Notecards Exciting (Really!)

I loved doing research notecards as a child.

A family legend from third grade has me standing in the living room, cards in hand, smocked dress ironed, hair pixie-cut, ready to rehearse a three-minute talk.

“Bats,” I enunciated in my sharpest, most Hermione Granger voice.

I could organize my world, and the World Book Encyclopedia entry, in the space of three-by-five inches.

Needless to say, research notecards have never been quite as popular for most of the eighth graders I teach.

They understand why our history department requires the cards in grades 7 through 9 as a foundation, before students choose their own organizational method in grades 10 through 12. The cards help them avoid plagiarism, weave together facts, and create arguments based on other people’s research.

But that doesn’t mean they like doing them. The process is seriously detail-oriented.

So this year, when I returned to teaching history after four years of English, I wanted to find a way to make notecards fun, or at least a little snazzy.

At first I was reluctant to try electronic notecards because I didn’t want to lose the tangible moment of spreading and stacking cards to create an outline. But after realizing that students could still sort cards printed on half-sheets of paper—and after learning that our ninth-grade history team was switching over to electronic cards this year–I was convinced.

Our library has introduced the history department to NoodleTools, and I love the program for its power and one-stop shopping for research skills. (It does require an annual fee for your school or district. Some teachers also like free programs, such as Evernote or NoteStar, or set up a template in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.)

The brilliance of the notecard structure is just how much it includes—and that it forces students to think.

This spring, for each of fifteen notecards for a project on an American reformer’s successful tactics or strategies, I asked students to fill in the following fields on the program’s template:

1)     Title (Main Idea). Giving each card a heading helps with organization.

2)     Source. Students select a source from a dropdown menu based on their Works Cited list, and the information instantly links to the card.

3)     Direct Quotation. Students copy and paste—or type in, from a book—a sentence or two.

4)     Paraphrase. The direct quotation is paraphrased.

Steps 3 and 4 are what I like to call the “anti-plagiarism cocktail.” In the past, I’ve flipped through copies of sources at the back of a research paper to find the sentences that students had paraphrased. This time, as I was grading, I could instantly check quotations and paraphrases together.

5)     My Ideas. For each card, students wrote a sentence about how the fact showed the reformer’s tactics, methods, strategies, or personality.

By the time students completed the cards, especially the “My Ideas” sections, they had little trouble brainstorming a topic sentence for a 300-word paragraph on their reformer. In contrast, with handwritten cards in the past, students rarely understood they were heading toward an argument.

As with any new project, there were stumbling blocks from my lack of direction:

  • Students copied too much into the direct quotation box, making it difficult to paraphrase effectively.
  • Students sometimes paraphrased so generally as to make the information meaningless. For example, a few said that their reformer attended a lot of schools, instead of noting which schools were important to the person’s education and why.
  • Some of the “My Ideas” comments were too similar from notecard to notecard. Next time I will suggest commenting on that specific fact on that particular notecard.
  • The notecards consumed a lot of class and homework time. To complete them, students had one forty-three-minute period and one seventy-seven-minute period, plus three nights of homework, and some still had to push to finish.
  • Some students were annoyed that they didn’t use all the notecards for their analytical paragraph. This was by design, and I told them beforehand that they should use about half. Next time, however, I will require ten or twelve cards instead of fifteen, as many suggested, and also talk with students more about why they shouldn’t use everything they find.

James M. McPherson’s “iceberg principle,” from the preface to his excellent For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997), is a good rule of thumb: “Only one-seventh of an iceberg is visible above the water’s surface. Likewise the evidence for soldiers’ motivations and opinions and actions . . . represents only the iceberg tip of the evidence accumulated in my research. For every statement by a soldier quoted herein, at least six more lie below the surface in my notecards.”

At the end of the project, anonymous student feedback tilted toward the cards’ being worthwhile. Although about ten percent said that “the notecards didn’t help very much,” “took a long time,” and “seemed too formal,” about twice that many said, “I liked having the notecards to write the essay” and “Although the notecards seemed hard at first, they made writing the paper a lot easier.”

For me, the depth of students’ thinking means that doing notecards this way in the future will be a no-brainer. Research will still be painstaking work, but the appeal of the electronic means that more of my students may find their own Zen-like three-by-five-inch-card moments, just as I did in third grade the old-fashioned way.

1 comment April 16th, 2014


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