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

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

The Editor’s Shelf: Teaching history

My teenage children hate history. It was always my favorite subject, and that was mostly with teachers who believed in names and dates, and little else. During homework hour at night (or hours these days), I try and explain Faulkner’s famous quote to my kids: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And I’m greeted with blank stares or a roll of the eyes and always another complaint about history being boring and irrelevant. I don’t expect it to be their favorite subject, but irrelevant? I could go on and on…

One of the ways a book gets published is that an editor has a zeal and passion for the manuscript. This is especially true in the trade world where countless examples exist of a famous book turned down sixty times before some editor read it, loved it, and made sure everyone in the office knew just how wonderful it was. We are not a trade house, but passion still plays a significant role.

I love the three books we currently publish on ways to teach history that are meaningful and engaging. Making History Mine by Sarah Cooper, Eyewitness to the Past by Joan Brodsky Schur, and Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer? by Bruce Lesh. What they give history teachers are the tools to prove to kids that while names and dates are important, history is much more than that. Kids research and interpret history. They learn firsthand what historians actually do. It’s nonfiction that requires full engagement of the imagination. What a wonderful blend!

1 comment September 16th, 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

Feeding the Social Animal: How Much Discussion is Too Much?

Sarah Cooper teaches U.S. history at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. In her latest blog post she talks about how she guides classrooms discussions in her eighth-grade classroom to make sure that students have a chance to hear all perspectives, but also to build a sense of community and give students a long-lasting takeaway from their time in the classroom. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9.

Feeding the Social Animal: How Much Discussion Is Too Much?

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionBy Sarah Cooper                

I don’t know what it’s like in your classroom, but the eighth graders in my U.S. history class often can’t stop talking.

They digress about pajama day and chicken fingers and video games. And, on good days, they also want to talk about history—not necessarily how a bill becomes a law, but how controversial topics such as affirmative action, press censorship, and privacy rights affect their lives.

Of course, I love their enthusiasm. But I also wonder: Where does the balance lie between full-class discussion and other activities that build content or skills? Can we have too much conversation that crowds out other meaningful pursuits?

Here’s an example:

We’ve hopscotched away from the text for a day to read an essay about Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves in Alan L. Lockwood and David E. Harris’s Reasoning with Democratic Values: Ethical Problems in United States History. Students often ask for more of these kinds of “stories”—anything that gives detail about people’s lives and avoids the fact-heavy textbook.

Over two nights they have read the piece for homework and responded in one-hundred-plus words to the question: “Can an action be morally right at one time in history and wrong in another?”

Students pair and share their homework responses for two minutes, and I ask them to give specific, positive feedback so their partners know they were actually listening. When we come together to talk about their views, I write a chart on the board showing both sides: morals are morals, regardless of time period or morals change with time.

The discussion wends its way through the room for fifteen minutes. Some students speak just to speak, whereas others respond to each other’s points. Five minutes in, ten hands are still waiting for airtime. Ten minutes in, five hands remain, and then three more pop up after a controversial comment.

Do I let everyone talk? Is it better to hear fifteen opinions—and for so many to voice their ideas—than for everyone to hear five opinions and then interact with those perspectives in some way? In the zero-sum game of classroom time management, in the confines of a school year, I think about this question a lot.

Interaction with the discussion, in pairs or individually, could mean picking a favorite argument from the chart, using it as a topic sentence for a theoretical paragraph, and listing three facts to support it. Or it could mean browsing a newspaper, hard copy or online, to find an article that discusses morality, then deciding how the article’s theme is similar to or different from Jefferson’s problem. This kind of follow-up assignment feels real to me, in some ways more valuable than watching discussion play itself out.

Yet the days I’ve let discussion go longer, sometimes twenty minutes or more, are often the moments students remember best. They refer to the intensity of the conversation months later and clearly understand the points raised.

So, what is the ideal way to teach?

One answer may lie in asking what students hold onto in the long term. I remembered this recently when I came face-to-face with my eighth-grade self over winter vacation (braces and all).

Visiting my dad, I started digging through boxes of old schoolwork. The first box contained papers from U.S. history when I was in middle school: a neatly handwritten chart of American explorers, a packet of worksheets on the Revolution, a stack of color-coded note cards from research projects.

All of this I had no memory of. None.

What did I remember from eighth-grade history, before I ever opened that box?

  1.  A passion for current events that led to loud arguments on the way out the door to lunch. It was 1988, and we all dug trenches for or against George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
  2. A Model United Nations conference in which we took China’s perspective.
  3. The friends I made in that class, many of whom I still talk with today.

All of these memories clearly involved people and discussion. Research and reading and writing also were important, but we used these tools to engage with other people’s views and ideas, often vociferously. We felt that we were talking about adult issues like adults, that we were serious contenders in the intellectual life of the country. And, in the process, we did learn “invisible” skills that I used through high school and beyond to continue to contribute to the discussions around me.

1 comment February 3rd, 2014

Now Online: Caring Hearts & Critical Minds

“We want our students to read widely, read texts that will open their hearts and challenge their minds, and read critically and wisely. We want students to own these habits of mind so they will use them outside of our classrooms, over the summer, and throughout their lives.”

Working with author and educator Steven Wolk, six Chicago middle school teachers designed and field-tested eight literature-based inquiry units, with the goal of encouraging deeper reading, thinking, and talking. In the new book Caring Hearts & Critical Minds, Wolk shares their successes and challenges.

Featuring a remarkable range of recommended resources and hundreds of novels from across the literary genres, Caring Hearts & Critical Minds takes you step-by-step through the process of creating rigorous lessons about topics kids care about–from media and the environment to personal happiness and global poverty. Wolk shows you how to find stimulating, real-world “complex texts” called for in the Common Core State Standards and integrate them into literature units. As students make personal connections to characters and events, they also develop deeper curiosity about the world and tolerance for others.

Caring Hearts & Critical Minds will be released in the first week of February, and you can pre-order and preview the entire book online now.

Add comment January 29th, 2013

Now Online: Many Texts, Many Voices

We call ourselves a “community that cares.” When we answer the phone, we always say, “Room 17, a community that cares.”
—Larry (first-grader)

In Mary Shorey’s classroom, literacy learning goes hand-in-hand with amazing thinking about social issues, inquiry, and working together as a community toward common goals. In Many Texts, Many Voices, Penny Silvers teams with Mary to share innovative practices from Mary’s primary classrooms over a period of several years.

Whether responding to Hurricane Katrina, protecting bald eagles, or participating in biography book clubs, Mary’s students are always incorporating multidisciplinary themes and multiliteracies—digital, visual, and critical—into traditional literacy tasks. You’ll see students who:

  • meet in small inquiry groups to pursue topics that interest them;
  • think and talk together about important social issues;
  • examine perspectives, consider alternate points of view, ask critical questions, and take social action;
  • use technology such as wikis, blogs, and podcasts to achieve their goals.

Numerous appendixes provide checklists, graphic organizers, and rubrics.

Many Texts, Many Voices will be ready to ship in mid-June. You can pre-order and preview the entire book online now!

Add comment May 31st, 2012

Ten years later: teaching 9/11

As the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches, many of you may wonder how and what to say to the students in your classroom. How do you teach something that is so recent and fresh? Joan Brodsky Schur, author of Eyewitness to the Past, was recently a panelist for the Smithsonian’s September 11: Teaching Contemporary History forum. She shares some of her suggestions for marking this anniversary with your students in a meaningful way and placing the events of 9/11 in the context of modern history.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History’s “O Say Can You See?” blog and is republished here with permission.

In these beautiful summer days of August 2011 the last thing I want is to revisit the day of September 11, 2001 in New York City where I still live.  As the school year opens many teachers, wherever they live across the United States, may feel the way I do. But we need to go down the hole of one of history’s darkest days in order to come up with some light to shed on it for our students this September.

Here are a few suggestions I can make after considerable thought about teaching in the 10th year of our post 9-11 world.  First, be clear about your goals. Memorializing is a way to express shared grief, to honor lost lives and those who tried to rescue them.  By creating works of art, singing appropriate songs, and participating in public service activities, students of all ages can forge a renewed sense of community within their school and beyond. But after memorializing we must also teach history, especially to  secondary students who can begin to contextualize it. The task then becomes analytical: what were the causes of 9-11, and what are the consequences for the United States and the world?

Teachers justifiably wonder about finding the time to teach about September 11. One way is look for those essential questions that can help us to compare aspects of 9-11 to other events in U.S. history as we teach them throughout the year. I have identified five essential questions that will hopefully prove useful in this ongoing endeavor.

  1. What accounts for the resiliency and spirit of volunteerism in the United States? The American Revolution, Great Depression, and World War II come to mind.  In New York City on 9-11 governmental agencies at all levels responded to an unprecedented emergency.  So did ordinary citizens. At Battery Park over half a million people were ferried to safety by fireboats, yacht cruises, sightseeing boats, and tugs.  A similar event occurred on the night of August 29th, 1776 during the Battle of Long Island. American forces, pinned down by the British in Brooklyn were ferried to safety in Manhattan by what David McCullough calls “a makeshift emergency armada assembled in a matter of hours.”
  2. The U.S. government needs to protect the safety of its citizens while also protecting our civil liberties. What is the proper balance between the two? The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, the Espionage and Sabotage Acts passed by Congress during World War I can be compared to the USA PATRIOT Act, and the “detention centers” like Guantanamo Bay.  Each of these efforts to protect citizens may have seemed justified in a moment of fear, but how is their Constitutionality judged over time?
  3. Under what circumstances is U.S. military intervention justified?  President Roosevelt’s War Message to Congress of December 8, 1941 can be compared to President Bush’s Address to Congress of September 20, 2001 and declaration of war against Iraq on March 20, 2003 in terms of how each one meets or does not meet the criteria used in “Just War Theory.” These criteria include just cause, right intention, proper authority, last resort, probability of success, and proportionality.  (For a lesson plan I wrote on Franklin Roosevelt and Just War Theory go to PBS http://www.pbs.org/thewar/downloads/just_war.pdf.)
  4. Once at war, how should the United States protect citizens who are at risk for reprisal?  These groups include the French during the French Revolution, Germans during World War I and II, and the Japanese — who were placed in internment camps during World War II. In the wake of 9-11 Japanese Americans advocated for the need to protect the rights of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.
  5. What should be the relationship of the United States to the international world order?  Over time Americans have both rejected and accepted membership in/adherence to the League of Nations following World War I, the Geneva Conventions, which in 1949 delineated the humane treatment of prisoners during wartime, the establishment of the United Nations after World War II.  How does the Bush doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” following 9-11 fit into this on-going debate about the role of the United States in the world order?

Originally published in the National Museum of American History’s blog, O Say Can You See.

3 comments August 23rd, 2011

History teaching that makes a lasting impact

Traditional fact-based lectures and textbooks often leave students disengaged and uninspired, devoid of lasting learning that can shape their future citizenship and critical thinking. In his new book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” veteran history teacher Bruce Lesh invites us to move toward a more investigatory approach in which students learn, utilize, and retain the thinking processes of historians as they gain important knowledge of the past.

Lesh presents a series of lessons in American history that serve as exemplars of how to generate historical thinking with students in key areas such as causality, multiple perspectives, empathy, contrasting interpretations, and intent/motivation. Manageable steps and in-the-trenches advice will be welcomed by teachers who want to escape the “confines of coverage” and move from history as memory to a question-centered approach that engages students and teachers alike.

“Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” will be available in print next month, and you can now preview the entire book online! You can also read an article by Bruce published in the OAH Magazine of History by Oxford Journals.

Add comment April 21st, 2011

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