Making space


My major New Year’s resolution is to teach less.

And no, not because grading is interfering with my precious sleep.

It’s like this. When I first started as a young teacher, I led long, unstructured discussions of readings. We had a lot of fun. We had some great arguments. We explored some fascinating by-ways. It was good. But after a while, I began to realize that some of my students were learning more about debating tactics than about history. I found that we could spend a lot of time on whether Hammurabi was evil and mean and never really quite get around to nailing down much about the ways in which his code reflected broader Babylonian society, let alone the ways in which it may have been an improvement on previous conditions.


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My Standards-Based Grading Experiment

1182px-rubricI try to pick one central thing to think about every year, outside the day-to-day questions of what the reading is going to be or what we’re doing in class next Thursday. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, feedback, and grades–three things that are almost but not quite the same and whose interaction continually tangles my thinking and my students’.

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Working with facts in a history class

Well, after a long hiatus, I’m back to thinking about how to manage the content side of the perpetual tug of war between “coverage” and skills in history classes.

Representation of high precision and low accuracy.

“High precision and low accuracy”

I said in an earlier post that, while I am not a big fan of memorization, I am all in favor of throwing lots of facts at students. The key, I think, is that the facts be a point from which to start work, the medium, rather than the desired output. I wanted to think out loud a little more about that.

You can’t “do” history without facts; they are our evidence. Events and sources are to historians as clay is to a sculptor. They are fundamental to what we do, but one never hears a sculptor say, “Here, let me show you how much clay I have.” Far too often, when I talk about history with students and adults alike, their first inclination is to rattle off a list of facts without doing anything with them. To me as a historian, the date of George Washington’s inauguration, without context, is as uninteresting as a lump of clay. It isn’t history until you do something with it: tell a story, make an argument, explain its significance or compare it to something else. So how do we get from history as a thing you know to history as a thing you do?

Here are my ideas. So far. Continue reading

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The perils of generalizing

My favorite writers about teaching share a holy zeal for change. I’ve been noticing lately that they tend to share something else, as well–a tendency to make sweepingly negative statements about the current state of teaching in the U.S.

Whether it’s James Leowen’s cogent arguments about what gets left out of history textbooks (Most famously in Lies My Teacher Told Me) or Grant Wiggins’s recent post “Dereliction of Duty by HS Teachers” or the impassioned, if problematic, documentary “Waiting for Superman,” reforming teachers tend to give the impression that they alone have understood the problem they are pointing out and, further, that the reason for this is that the teaching establishment is otherwise populated with burnt out idiots.

Wiggins’s Understanding By Design is on my bookshelf of all-time great teaching books. I have given Leowen’s Teaching What Really Happened to more than one new teacher. These guys are my heroes. Nonetheless, I think we need a change in tone.

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Everything in the Book

I just took the written test to convert my long-held Maine driver’s license into a California one. It was not a terribly hard test in the grand scheme of tests I have taken over time, but it was a hard test for which to study, and that got me thinking about my students.image of roundabout from CA driver's handbook

As a new teacher, I was strongly opposed to study guides on the grounds that they encouraged a top-down, spoon-feeding approach rather than pushing students to figure out for themselves what was important. I distinctly remember telling worried freshmen that figuring out what to study was part of the task.

It was an easy thing to say, because, after 23-odd years of school, I know how to study for academic tests, generically, and have known for so long that it seems to me intuitive. Although an individual teacher might put an unexpected question on a test, I would be unlikely to be so far wrong in my estimation of what was important in a body of material as to do really badly on a test. If I were, I would be inclined to blame the teacher–I have, at this point, that much faith in the unspoken norms which I have absorbed over the years. Continue reading

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Taking risks: an experiment in letting go of the reins

I barely spoke in my new senior elective last week. When I came into class, I didn’t know what the students had read. I wasn’t sure what we’d be emphasizing in class.

'Revolution Rules' Sprayed on Police Truck

‘Revolution Rules’ Sprayed on Police Truck (Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad)

No, I’m not confessing to a mid-life crisis. I’m teaching an experiment. This is the hardest, scariest class I have ever taught and, I think, the best. My kids are running my class and, so far, they’re doing a wonderful job.

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Principles for teaching facts

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role–multiple roles really–that The Facts play in my history class, and I’ve evolved some principles for myself that I hope will make the myriad ad hoc decisions I make in the course of a year easier.


Memorization (Photo credit: Jesse Gardner)

1) It’s important to distinguish–for myself and for my students–between facts that need to be learned by heart, facts that need to be understood, and facts that need to be synthesized, organized and made accessible for the completion of other tasks.

2) For every piece of information I ask students to spend time memorizing, I should have some specific reason in mind.  The most common justification for memorization, I think, is utility: quick access to certain facts and ideas may be important to facilitate further inquiry, for example–we won’t get far in exploring Jefferson’s legacy if students have to stop and say, “Wait, who is Jefferson again?”

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Why Do We Need to Know?

The vast majority of clashes between history teachers seem to me to go back to the

No substitute for memorization

question of “What do students need to know?”  There is broad general agreement on the skills students should acquire–critical reading, analysis of primary sources, argumentation, writing, speaking–and on habits of mind such as consideration of change over time, contextualization, and cause and effect.  We argue sometimes about the emphasis to put on one sort of narrative vs. another–should our junior U.S. History class be organized around patterns of social change or shifts in political power, economic determinism or cultural analysis?–but I rarely find myself arguing that a colleague in flat out wrong in his interpretation of a historical event. Where the daggers are drawn, however, is when we get down to our handling of that content. Ask any three teachers what students should know about U.S. History and you are likely to get answers that differ radically in scope. Should students memorize dates?  How many key terms are too many?  Should assessments emphasize narrative or argument? What can we leave out?

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Teaching and Learning

I’m just back from a technology conference, and I feel as though I should have something significant to say about technology. I did learn a lot at the conference, but most of what I learned has very little to do with computers.

I had a great conversation with an ethics teacher from a Catholic school about how to talk to students about cheating on tests (his advice was, essentially, to worry less about preventing cheating outright than about making it clear to kids that, if they cheated, that was conscious choice). I got some exciting new ideas about tinkering and putting kids to work with found objects. I heard a lot of anecdotes about how people review and how they generate energy in their classrooms. But I’m not quite sure how any of this fits into the picture of technology.

I did learn some new tricks for my computer–who knew that PhotoBooth could serve as a green screen? I played with various programs meant to facilitate group brainstorming, one of which I will probably put to use in my classroom. I didn’t, however, hear anything that fundamentally changes the way I’m going to use computers  or iPads or the Internet in my class this year.

I’m still really glad I went. The thing I’m going to take away from this conference is not anything about the tools I use, so much as it is the joy of spending two days with a group of teachers for whom it is axiomatic that we can all make our teaching better. That time just talking about teaching is what I really crave.

To often, when teachers talk at lunch or around the coffee machine, it’s about the logistical issues of our lives: the time taken up by assemblies, the work of grading, some student getting on everybody’s nerves. Too often, when we do talk about making teaching better, teachers jump to the conclusion that that means there’s something wrong.

I’ve been thinking about why that is. Continue reading

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Thinking about knowing

I find myself in a teaching situation this year that requires me to emphasize factual recall more than I have done for the past few years. This is forcing me to engage in some serious introspection about what I do, how I’m doing it, and whether it’s possible to have it all.

The balancing act between “facts” and “skills” is a particularly slippery one for historians, more so at this moment in time than for any other discipline except biology, I think.  In physics and math, the things students are asked to know by heart tend to be (a) fairly finite and (b) demonstrably necessary for the ability to do things–I need to know the formula for acceleration before I can calculate the meeting place of two trains. English teachers, on the other hand, have long been comfortable subordinating their “content” to skills: when an English teacher says it is important for students to “know” Shakespeare, she tends to mean something quite different in terms of experience, outcomes, and assessments than when a history teacher says a student should “know” American history.

As a matter of fact, I’m not sure we really know what we mean by “knowing” history, or, if we do, many of us in fact mean different things at different times.  That’s a huge problem for history teachers. Every history department I have ever been in has been split by debates between advocates of “content” or “narrative” and advocates of “skills” or “habits of mind.”

I find myself torn internally by this same debate, by the competing pressures to expose students to the sweeping story of centuries and to help them see history as I do, as a shifting debate in which they can participate rather than a static account of which they are the recipients. Continue reading

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