Some Amazing Questions: Follow up on Black Friday Lesson

I had great conversations that carried into today after the Black Friday lesson I did with them yesterday. We spent the second half of today using the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique to move further with deeper inquiry into the issues raised by this lesson and to help us answer our essential questions for the unit: How democratic is the US? & Does my vote count?

My students came up with some incredible questions, which means I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed with even beginning to think about how to move forward.  I’m leaning towards letting them make that decision (democratically) tomorrow.  Here are their questions, which I’ve categorized.

Questions about Democracy

  • How democratic does the government consider itself?
  • What makes something democratic?
  • Is democratic being liberal or conservative?
  • If we have democracy do we have to be socialists?
  • What makes the US democratic?
  • If our government is capitalist, how can we expect the government to be democratically successful?
  • Can the US be democratic without a capitalistic system?

Questions about Voting

  • Why would a democracy want an electoral college?
  • How much of the 99% votes?
  • Can my vote get canceled out?
  • Are certain votes rules out?
  • What happens when we can’t decide with votes?
  • What limitations do voters face?
  • Should the US give workers a voice?
  • Do only rich people’s votes count?
  • Who is in charge of making votes count?
  • Whose vote really counts?
  • Does the rich vote count more?
  • Does age matter when talking about voting?
  • How does capitalism play into voting?
  • What are the demographics of voters?
  • How does the voting system work?
  • Does the youth vote actually count?
  • Do you think at the age of 18 you are capable of making decisions that can effect the US?
  • Why would the people that usually don’t vote be motivated to vote?
  • Do you think when our generation votes our type of government will change?

Questions about how the Government Works

  • Where is the government when these events happen?
  • How is the government run through parties?
  • Is the country more liberal or conservative?
  • Who declares if the country is Republican or Democratic?
  • Should a state be labeled Democratic or Republican?
  • How can a president change his political views during his presidency?
  • How does the democratic government work in the US?
  • How much power should one person have in a government?

Questions about History

  • Was it necessary for capitalism or democracy to come first for the second one to happen?
  • Does capitalism cause democracy?
  • What was the first type of government the US had?

Questions about Laws

  • Why is pepper spray legal when police use it?
  • Why didn’t the government get involved with the aggressive shoppers?
  • Why is it okay for shoppers to camp out and not for protesters?
  • Why is it okay for cops to pepper spray people in NY if pepper spray is illegal?
  • What laws are they making?

Questions about the Police

  • If people are allowed to protest, why do police attack protesters for protesting?
  • Should police officers think about the rights of others?
  • How are citizens affected by police decisions?
  • Why do you think cops think they can do whatever they want?
  • Why did cops think it was right to pepper spray innocent protestors?

Questions about Values

  • Why is violence accepted during shopping by non-violent protesters are arrested for being democratic?
  • Why are they worried about safety when it comes to protesting but every year a person gets hurt during Black Friday sales and they don’t stop that?
  • How do the conflicts between capitalism and democracy affect the nation?
  • How can we balance the ideals of democracy and capitalism?
  • What brings more conflict to the US, capitalism or democracy?

General Questions

  • Do the majority fully agree?
  • Is “the younger you are, the less you know” really true?
  • Can we manage to have safer Black Fridays?

Questions about Economics

  • Why is it better for business to be privatized?
  • What would the US economy be with a Communist government?
  • What would you want to pursue other than a capitalist lifestyle?
  • What does how much we pay people show the values of our society?
  • How do we eliminate poverty without becoming communist?

Question Comparing to Other Places

  • Do you think Democracy here is different from anywhere?
  • Do you think capitalism is different anywhere else except New York?
  • Why hasn’t there been another form of government?
  • Which countries are democratic?
  • What are the other practices of other democratic countries?
  • Is there a way to make our country more democratic?

Resources I'm Using to Talk About Black Friday Violence

My lesson on Monday will ask students to think about the values of capitalism and democracy through the lens of looking at Black Friday and UC Davis violence.  I hope some of the resources will be helpful to others.

Do Now: What is the message that the creator of this image is trying to communicate?  What is your reaction to it? (4 minutes)

Ask students to turn to the person next to them and share what they wrote.  Then, ask for three volunteers to share what their partner had to say. (6 minutes) Continue reading Resources I'm Using to Talk About Black Friday Violence

Student Essay Reflection #1

My new school has an school-wide interim assessment process for all classes where students are assessed on the same skills three times a year to track growth and inform instruction.  Unlike most “data-driven” initiatives, teachers at my school collaborate together to design the assessments and determine levels of performance.  The “data” we get from these assessments then is actually valuable in identifying areas where students need support.  The Social Studies assessments focus on creating arguments using evidence from documents.  My first essay in my government & economics course asked to students to agree or disagree with the statement, “Identities are created by marketing.”  The documents I used are here.  My reflection follows, with some of the data below it.

Based on the students’ essays on marketing and identity, there is a range of development on different skills.  The majority of students write in a way that shows they are college ready, and most of those who do not are close.  However, students are showing they are not ready to make valid arguments.  Most students know to make arguments, but their generalized claims need to be supported by concrete and specific evidence.  They also need to recognize that making a good argument involves recognizing shades of gray and opposing opinions.

The largest area of growth for my class is in sourcing information.  Nearly all students presented all or most information carelessly as facts, rather than showing that the information represented perspectives, or worse, came from advertisements.  Additionally, students need to learn to group evidence from multiple sources to support their claims, rather than letting the sources dictate the organization of their arguments.

Both needs are already being addressed in my class.  We are now practicing sourcing together with every single piece of information that is set forth, be it reading or video.  As this concept seems to be entirely new to students, I expect quick improvement.  In order to help students learn to group relevant evidence together, I am having them write individual paragraphs where they need to use multiple sources to answer a question.  These sources offer differing views, so it also helps students get in the habit of recognizing the multiple complexities or sides of issues we discuss.  Just for one example, students this week saw a video showing how direct democracy is being used to make decisions as Occupy Wall Street, but also read an op-ed decrying the state of California’s ballot initiative process.

As we move into looking at politics, students will have even more practice with looking at issues from various sides.  The class will rarely focus on what is the right policy stance, but rather, how a policy should be “sold” to different constituencies.  Students will participate in a couple of simulations from the Buck Institute where they take on the role of politicians trying to appease various groups on both sides of the aisle.

Notes: Standard areas are in all CAPS, followed by the indicators of that standard.  4=Excelling, 3=Succeeding, 2=Developing, 1=Beginning

ARGUMENT Controlling Idea Supporting Evidence Multiplicity USING EVIDENCE Connections Quoting SOURCING CONTENT Outside Info Validity WRITING Organization Intro/Conclusion Thesis
Average 2.01 2.26 2.27 1.60 1.69 1.67 2.03 1.27 1.99 2.21 1.99 2.47 2.50 2.46 2.54
Standard Deviation 0.71 0.72 0.85 0.77 0.67 0.63 0.68 0.51 0.75 0.81 0.73 0.77 0.76 0.81 0.74
Count: 4 1 2 3 1 1 0 1 0 3 3 2 5 5 5 5
Count: 3 15 23 28 9 5 6 14 2 10 23 12 30 31 31 33
Count: 2 38 36 24 21 35 35 41 15 40 30 39 28 28 25 27
Count: 1 16 9 15 39 29 29 14 53 17 14 17 7 6 9 5

Announcing a Great Opportunity for Students: Along the Color Line Video Contest

Please share this with any teachers you know.  Dr. Marable was very important to me, and I can think of no greater tribute to him then to share his work so that it inspires new social critics.  I have written a curriculum to to support the project, which you can find here.

“Along the Color Line” Video Contest: Teens Speak Out About Current Events

“Along The Color Line”, written by the late historian Dr. Manning Marable, was a public educational and information service dedicated to fostering political dialogue and discussion, inspired by the great tradition for political event columns written by W. E. B. Du Bois nearly a century ago. This video contest provides high school students with the opportunity and incentive to use scholarly research to analyze and pose solutions to some of the social issues that Manning Marable addressed in his writings such as sexism, racism, imperialism, and poverty. It continues the spirit of “Along the Color Line” by fostering critical analysis on political issues and public events that had special significance to African Americans and to other people of color internationally; allows students the creative license to translate the rigorous research that Dr. Marable used in his “Along the Color Line“ columns into a creative and accessible video medium; and empowers students to speak out about the material conditions of their lives to an audience of teachers, activists and community members at “A New Vision of Black Freedom: The Manning Marable Tribute Conference” sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies from April 26 – April 28, 2012.

Curriculum Connection: An adaptable weeklong curriculum developed by a NYS certified HS teacher is available free for educators. It provides educational units and background reading for teachers of Civics, Government and US History to connect this contest to their classroom while meeting several Common Core writing (1,4,5,6,9) and reading (1,2,4,6,8,9,10) standards.

Contest Requirements: After becoming familiar with Manning Marable’s column “Along the Color Line” style of blending scholarly data with political analysis to address social issues, students will create a 2-3 minute long video presentation that features their research and analysis of a social issue that is important to them and their community.

Criteria: This contest is limited to students currently enrolled in high school anywhere in the US. Submissions will be judged on depth of knowledge of social problem being discussed, originality, and creative expression. Students can submit individually or through their teacher as part of a class project.

Submissions: The due date is February 17, 2012 before midnight. Submissions should be sent to Only one submission per email and per student. Students must include their name, age, grade, and full contact information as well as the name, address and phone number of their high school. Videos longer than 3 minutes will not be accepted.

Finalists: The top finalists will be special guests of the conference, where their videos will be screened. The first place winner will be announced at conference.

Prize: $250 Prize, one of Dr. Marable’s books and the video featured on the conference website.

For more information or questions contact:

More from Occupy Wall St: Teaching About Direct Democracy

One of the most powerful parts of visiting Occupy Wall Street is experiencing the Human Mic and direct democracy in place there.  This morning, I came across this incredible video that captures both that I will be showing in class on Monday (via Zaheer Ali / @ZaheerAli):

As impressive as the video is, it’s important to remember this is a piece of propaganda put out by the movement.  We’ve been working on sourcing the past week, so this will give students a great opportunity to try out their sourcing skills.

I imagine most students will be pretty taken by the film, so to force students think more rigorously about the implications of direct democracy, I’ll follow up the video by reading this op-ed from the New York Times this week about direct democracy in California:

But as California, the nation’s most populous state, marks this anniversary, the accumulated impact of direct democracy has made it virtually ungovernable. A two-thirds vote was required in each chamber of the Legislature to approve new taxes as a result of Proposition 13, the fabled tax initiative adopted in 1978.  Ballot-box budgeting locks in large portions of the budget; Proposition 98, passed in 1988, dedicates about 40 percent of the state’s general fund to public education.

Previously: Resources I’m Using to Discuss Occupy Wall Street

Resources I'm Using to Discuss Occupy Wall Street

I’ll be discussing Occupy Wall Street with my students on Wednesday (and longer, if they are interested).  I’m also hoping my grade team will be up for delaying our planned field day on Friday for us to take a field trip to visit and have our students do a citizen journalist project.  I’m preparing for a few different types of conversations based on what my students are most curious about, and I’ve divided the resources accordingly.

General Overviews

Life in Liberty Square
Responses of the Media & Politicians

Resources I'm Using to Discuss Steve Jobs

I’m adding a “Current Events” section to this blog.  Hopefully this will be helpful to some teachers out there who are looking for resources for discussing current topics.  I’ll try to post what I find whenever I’m doing current events in my senior government/economics course.

When discussing current events in class, I use the following format:

  1. Students are assigned to read and/or watch about a topic the night in advance
  2. Students are presented with readings (and sometimes video) on the event
  3. The class constructs a list of the facts of the event based on the texts and their knowledge
  4. The class lists questions that the event raises
  5. The class discusses the questions

After spending last week looking at the question, “Does marketing create identities?,” Tuesday seems like an ideal time to discuss the legacy of Steve Jobs.  We’ll use Apple as a case study to further investigate that question.  Here are the resources I’ll be using Tuesday:

My Students' Feedback #1

One of my goals for this year is to gather regular feedback from my students.  This is something I did regularly in the first few years of my career, but moved away from doing for no good reason.

I took my survey from Understanding by Design.  Friday, I asked asked students for thoughts on the following questions:

  1. What was the most interesting thing we’ve done in the past two weeks?  What made it so interesting?
  2. What was the most boring thing we did in class the past two weeks?  What made it so boring?
  3. What worked the best for you the past two weeks in this class?  In other words, what specific activity, lesson, technique, or tool helped you learn the most?  Why?
  4. What didn’t work for you the past two weeks?  What activity, assignment, or lesson was the most confusing or unhelpful?  Why?

I also students whether they agreed with the following statements:

  1. The work was focused on big ideas, not just unconnected little facts and skills.  We are learning important things.
  2. I found the work thought-provoking and interesting.
  3. I was very clear on what the goals of the unit were.  We were shown what was important, what was high quality work, what our job was, and what the purpose of the unit was.
  4. We were given enough choice or freedom in how to go about achieving the goals
  5. The assessments were just right.  What we were asked to do was a “fair test” of our learning.

I’ve summarized some student responses below, as well as including data from the binary questions.

What We Did the Past Two Weeks

My first week included a series of lessons on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. My goal in starting the year with these lessons was to get students thinking about the kinds of knowledge and learning that is typically valued in school, and to contrast it with the knowledge of the real world that would be essential to my government and economics course.  Students read the piece, drew pictures of the allegory, and then we reenacted it, interspersed with relevant scenes fromt The Matrix. Students were formally assessed for their understanding of the Allegory in a Socratic Seminar where students were asked to discuss the connections between it and Rumi’s “There are two kinds of intelligence.” In the second week of school, we began a unit on Identity & Media, discussing the categories that make up our identities, the differences between race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage, and watching excerpts from Race: The Power of an Illusion.

1st Period Feedback

The main takeaway from the feedback the first class gave me is that I have a very diverse class with diverse interests.  About half the class loved the stuff we did on the Allegory of the Cave, the other half hated it.  The same was true for the clips we watched from Race: The Power of an Illusion.  The most positive feedback was for the class discussion we had on the difference between race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage.

2nd Period Feedback

This class was equally split on the Allegory, though with some really strong positive reactions to it.  This section was also more split on the conversation about the difference between race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage.  There were also very strong positive and negative reactions to the Socratic Seminar.  I also got my favorite line, ““To me, learning that race is fake was pretty epic.”

3rd Period Feedback

Again, had really strong positive or negative reactions to the Allegory sequence.  Differently from both other sections, there was specifically positive and negative reactions to both looking at The Matrix and having students draw pictures to help them understand.  There were not any other consistency in responses from this class.


My Thoughts

I had not been very happy with how the Allegory lessons went.  My goal in starting the year was to do something high interest and thought provoking that all students could engage with, and despite the really positive feedback from students, it was clear that my Allegory sequence was the wrong was to accomplish what I hoped to.

I was also surprised to see that the most negative feedback came from my second period class.  I had actually thought things had been going better in that class than my other two, but I was mistaken.

Implementing Standards-Based Grading in my Social Studies Class, Finally

7/12/12- I wrote a new version of this, which contains better ideas.  Please read that instead.

This year, I am going 100% SBG in my senior Social Studies course, which combines government and economics.


I wrote a whole series (scroll down to the bottom) on my plan to do a form of Standards Based Grading in my history class last year.  It sort of happened, sort of didn’t.  I was thinking about SBG, but the experience for my students did not change: they still saw grades for individual assignments, though there were performance standards attached to writing assignments.  There were three major problems, two of which I knew going in, one which I realized very quickly:

  1. In a survey history course that ends in a high-stakes, content-based exam, it is necessary to track how students do with all content, and one is never going to be able to write standards for, let alone reassess, 200 different pieces of content.
  2. As I wrote last year, the history skill standards that I was aware of at the time are not written with performance in mind, and were very difficult to assess.
  3. The problem that emerged immediately was that I hadn’t planned my course with SBG in mind, so the standards I planned on using were not really useful for assessment.  They were also the wrong standards/enduring understandings for what I ended up teaching, because I never went back and made sure the Stage 1 stuff from UbD aligned with the Stage 3 stuff (see this recent post on that issue)

Changes for This Year

This year, there are four factors which are game changers and make me know I can actually do this right this year:

  1. I started working on a project with the brilliant Daisy Martin, who does the Reading Like a Historian work out of Stanford, who gave me a ton of clarity on what historical skill standards should look like so they can be used to assess student performance.
  2. Most importantly, my new school started a SBG pilot, that the 11th and 12th grade math and science teachers, as well as the art teacher, are participating in.  They already had a structure in place which solves some problems for me, and keeps me from having to figure things out myself.  The clarity provided by the design of the pilot makes my life easier.
  3. Because I knew of the pilot and had the structure in mind, I was planning as an SBG assessor from the moment I started conceiving my course, thereby correcting the second issue above.
  4. My unit plans, at least the first one so far, fully align Understandings, Assessment, and Instruction, the three stages of UbD.

What it Will Look Like

Everyone in the pilot was told to write learning goals that start as “I can” statements for students, along with teacher friendly indicators of performance.  Examples follow below. Continue reading Implementing Standards-Based Grading in my Social Studies Class, Finally

Supercharging the DBQ Essay

The Document Based Question Essay is one of the more ubiquitous secondary social studies assignments in New York, and I imagine, in the US. It is a requirement on both New York State Regents Exams in History, each a graduation requirement, as well as on AP History exams. It’s one of the few things on standardized tests I do not have a problem with, and would use even if there was no test associated with it. While not a truly authentic assessment, DBQs accomplish exactly what most timed assessments should: it simulates the real work of professionals in the field through inquiry. Given that authentic inquiry in social studies takes a lot of time, the DBQ essay provides an appropriate bounded inquiry experience which can be used both as a formative assessment to help students learn more information, but also as means to assess students’ abilities to critically read, construct written arguments, back those up with evidence, access and integrate other knowledge, and write in a clear, organized manner. For the couple hours it takes, DBQs give teachers a lot of bang for their buck.

Since becoming a part of the pilot for new assessments to be used as part of NYC teacher evaluation last January, I’ve been thinking even more deeply about the uses of DBQs. Starting from the brilliant Historical Thinking Matters, the DBQs from the pilot forced students not only to construct arguments based on evidence, but they also asked students to learn to think and read like historians, by presenting them with contradictory evidence about the causation of events. This is something the NY DBQs never do; all documents can be read and used merely as a statement of fact. It also pushes students beyond the thinking of most AP DBQs, which focus on obviously subjective evaluations of the effects of historical actions, as opposed to forcing students to take an objective stand on the causes of events in the face of unclarity and uncertainty. Still, with all sources being primary documents, a key component of the work of modern research was missing.

Last year, it dawned on me that I could use the DBQ structure to teach and assess students’ abilities to evaluate all sources. On a DBQ I constructed about the French Revolution, I threw in a “document” from Wikipedia. I did not want students to simply discard the information — there was really good stuff in there — but I hoped students would question the trustworthiness of the source in writing rather than just citing it as fact (some did). The most astute readers even picked up that there was evidence in another primary document included that contradicted part of the Wikipedia source.

This year, as I put together a senior course that deals with major questions and understandings from government and economics, I’m envisioning using DBQ essays in order to simulate two additional authentic tasks from my students’ lives. One of these uses is a little more obvious: students will have to take a stand on policy matters based on contradictory data, newspaper reporting, and opinion pieces. I’m currently accumulating documents for an essay about the effectiveness of the stimulus for later in the year, and additional ideas would be great.

However, in dealing with seniors, I’m also looking for a way to simulate the experience of a college course, and attempted to construct a DBQ experience to give me an idea of where students are in terms of being ready for that. My first unit looks at identity formation, media literacy, and the connection between the two. So I’m asking students to write a DBQ essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, “Individuals‘ identities are created by advertising” using these documents (sorry, it’s a big file). I think this task will simulate the experience of having to take an exam based on course reading. I don’t just want to simulate this experience, though. In order to simulate the lecture hall, I will deliver a formal lecture on models of identity formation, and students will be allowed to use their notes on their essay. The next day, I will attempt to simulate the social aspect of studying in college by splitting up the documents between students, having them read them over, and then share their reading with their classmates. Only then, will students get all the documents, and have a couple of classes to write their essays.

One of the shared practices of my new school is the use of three interim assessments throughout the year using the same rubric in order to track students’ growth and to be able to target instruction to the areas where it’s most needed. This identity essay will be the first of my interim assessments, so I’ll post the data and my reflection on it once I have it in early October, as well as continued reflection throughout the year about addressing these specific skills.