For the first time in three years, I’m teaching a history class this semester! While I enjoy the Civics, Government, Econ, and English I teach the rest of the time, history will always feel most like home. I’m trying something that might be a little crazy: a 100% open inquiry course, where what we learn is entirely based on students’ questions stemming from current events and issues.
This is very much tied into my thinking of the C3 Social Studies Framework, so I’m trying to blog pretty regularly about the course at C3teachers.org. The first piece on the class is up now:
After a year of lauding hosanna’s towards the C3, during the past month my relationship with the framework fundamentally changed; I started to actually put it into an action. And while my first thought at all times was still, “wow, this is brilliant,” as I spent more time thinking and planning about my teaching for the second semester, the more present thought was more often, “wow, this is going to be hard.”
For the rest of the school year, I’m hoping to use this space to share thoughts on my continued relationship with the C3 as I try to implement it in one global classroom. In this first post in the series, I want to give some context for my work. While every school is unique, mine is especially so in many ways and it is important for readers to realize early on that I have rare freedom and flexibility. In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss the challenges I encounter, how I try to deal with them, and share my inevitable failures and hopeful triumphs.
New York is currently accepting feedback on proposed revisions to its Global History curriculum. More information is here. Below is my submission:
How does your school or district currently organize the two-year Global History and Geography course?
If your school uses a chronological framework, where do you end the first unit of study?
Which of the three options presented to the Board of Regents do you prefer? (Please understand that the new courses will be based on the new frameworks and the Common Core, and the specific content may differ from what is currently taught regardless of how the courses are organized and where the two year course is divided.)
I have taught Global for a number of years at all grade levels in New York City. I taught the conventional 9th-10th grade Global sequence. The past four years, I taught one semester Global review courses for seniors still needing the exam. One year, for a variety of complicated reasons, I taught the entire two-year sequence to 11th graders. Regardless of those situation, one thing remained common: to satisfy the state curriculum and prepare my students for the Regents exam (where my students’ pass rates have, on average, exceeded the city average by 20 points, culminating with a 100% pass rate last year amongst my seniors who already failed the exam 4-6 times), my students learned a huge amount of shallow and superficial knowledge about way too many topics. My challenge, then, was to arrange the curriculum in some way that allowed for my students to gain greater understandings about the world and how it works despite the massive pressure for coverage. To do this, I arranged my curriculum thematically, as it was the only way to work in the higher level thinking skills necessary for college, career, and most importantly, citizenship.
For example, I typically started with a unit on Geography centered around the question, “Is Geography Destiny?” This unit took us from the Neolithic Revolution to River Valley Civilizations to the Green Revolution, with stops to look at Terrace Farming in China and South America, the West African Gold-Salt Trade, the Irish Potato Famine, and the Columbian Exchange. Students learned the content they needed, but more importantly, they practiced making connections and judgements which allowed them to apply the lessons learned to the increasing geographic challenges our world faces, and deeply engage with questions of geographic determinism. As we learned the surface level information, students also read excerpts from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to better understand how geographical advantages thousands of years ago still affect lives today. This unit anticipated the shifts demanded by the Common Core for students to engage with complex texts and rich academic vocabulary at rigorous levels of thought.
Many argue that a certain continuity is lost without a linear progression through history. While this argument carries significant weight in an American History course, which is a number of concurrent stories, the vast majority of Global History denies any such ordering. The world was simply not particularly connected for most of Global History, with regional developments rarely extending to different parts of the world. I see an argument for a chronological approach for the past two hundred years, but before that it only serves to confuse students trying to sort insanely large amounts of information.
To satisfy the demands of the Common Core, the Global Regents curriculum would best be arranged thematically. With that said, it is exponentially more important that the curriculum be streamlined to emphasize more depth of knowledge, even at the expense of some content. If students are to be reading complex informational texts at the 9-10 level, they will need time to learn how to do so, and this is truly impossible if one teaches everything currently in the state curriculum. Rather than the state making what, in the end, would have to be largely arbitrary decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate, I would like to propose the curriculum be based on a menu of options within each theme. Much as English teachers can choose from a range of outstanding, engaging, and enriching literature, schools should have the same freedom to do so with history. This would allow for teachers to privilege higher level thinking, reading rich informational texts, and to teach students the reading and research skills demanded by the Common Core. The Regents Exam in Global History could easily allow for this by eliminating the multiple choice section, and adding a second Thematic Essay.
Do you currently or have you taught the Global History and Geography?
How many years have you taught Global History and Geography?
The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog. I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done. There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far. Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this. Previous entries are here.
Other than two angry reactionary pieces that got picked up by the press (why is that the case?), the most read piece I’ve written was Implementing Standards-Based Grading (SBG) in My Social Studies, Finally a year ago. I’m updating that post here.
Last year, I went 100% SBG in my senior Social Studies course, which combines government and economics. All my courses at my new school will also using SBG.
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 two years ago, and updated my plan last year. Before this year, I had three major problems, two of which I knew going in, one which I realized very quickly:
- 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.
- As I wrote two years ago, 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.
- 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 post on that issue)
Changes Made for Last Year
I went in better prepared. I had a clear list of historical skills standards from the brilliant Daisy Martin, who does the Reading Like a Historian work out of Stanford, which gave me a ton of clarity on what historical skill standards should look like so they can be used to assess student performance. Two other teachers at Young Writers were also doing SBG, allowing me to plan using SBG from day 1.
For everyone in the pilot, there were three categories of standards: Unit Goals, Essential Skills, and Citizenship. Somewhat arbitrarily, the units will made up 45% of the grade, Essential Skills were 45%, and Citizenship the remaining 10%. Here is one example of a standard for the year:
LG A: Argument – I can create effective written or oral arguments
SWBAT construct arguments that integrate and evaluate multiple perspectives, explanations, or causations, including counterclaims
SWBAT develop controlling ideas that clearly address prompts or fulfill assignments
SWBAT support their ideas using explanation of evidence
At the start of the year, I had 4-7 Unit Goals for each unit, 12 Essential Skills for the year, and 3 Citizenship Goals.
Unit Goals included skills or content, depending on the unit. For the most part, they were content heavy goals. For example, the learning goals for my final unit on Financial Planning & Investing were: “Financial Planning: I can make a successful long term financial plan for myself” and “Economic Decision Making: I can analyze economic decisions in terms of risk/reward over short/long terms.” However, my Project Citizen unit focused on research, with students working on a wide variety of content. The goals for that unit were: “Governmental Decision Making: I can explain the short and long term effects of governmental decisions,” “Research: I can find reliable and useful information” and “Citing: I can cite information properly.”
The Citizenship Goals remained the same the entire year (Timeliness, Growth, Supportiveness). I wrote the following last year, and stand by it even stronger now:
I know there are a lot of people using SBG who do not feel these aspects should be part of students’ grades, but I feel like most of these people teach in more privileged communities where most students know how to and are able to do these things. It is very important for my students to get explicit feedback on these aspects of their performance so they can improve them. With that said, no one will fail the course because they turn things in late.
I taught seniors last year, and 10% was an appropriate amount for this part of their grade. In teaching 9th graders next year, I plan to increase it.
Certain large assignments were designated “Must Complete” assignments. It didn’t matter what students have demonstrated from other assignments, they will not be eligible for credit without completing the large projects for the course.
It’s NYC policy that every student receives a number grade at the end of each semester. Students received these grades using some form of a Bump & Space grading system.
Changes Made During the Year
I did not make any significant changes to the structure as the year went on, but I learned a very important lesson: you can only really teach to a small handful of skill based performance standards. Yes, you can assess students for twelve different key skills during the year. However, the main power of SBG is that it gives both teachers AND students clarity on how they are doing, which informs instruction and opportunities for practice within the class. Here is the most important lesson I learned this year:
IF YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE WILLING TO EXPLICITLY TEACH, ASSESS, RETEACH, AND REASSESS A SKILL MULTIPLE TIMES THROUGHOUT THE UNIT OR YEAR, IT SHOULDN’T BE A LEARNING GOAL FOR SBG.
For example, nearly every assignment students did involved creating an argument of some form. Creating an argument was a foundation of my class, and therefore, it was a good standard. On the other hand, “Oral Communication” while important and something students were doing regularly, was not something I was frequently teaching students how to do, nor assessing, and therefore was not a good standard to have. This does not mean I should not have had students work to improve their oral communication, it just meant it did not need to be part of the formal feedback I gave students through grades.
I started the year with twelve key skills I planned on assessing throughout the year. I finished the year using only six (Argument, Using Evidence, Sourcing, Content, Written Organization & Clarity, Complexity, and Audience).
Similarly, my first unit had five learning goals. All subsequent units had 2-3.
For Next Year
I am in the unique position of creating a school, and the school has certain structures that will enable SBG (we have yet to decide if SBG will be mandatory for all teachers, or just strongly encouraged).
To this end, the school has four Habits of Mind that will be explicitly assessed in every course in the school: Evidence, Connections, Perspective, & Voice.
Each department crafted a list of transfer goals. For each semester, teachers will focus on 1-3 of these goals. For the Social Studies department, are goals are:
- (a) Students will be able to develop questions that help them understand problems in the world, and (b) be able to find and evaluate sources of information that allow them to answer the question
- Students can critically evaluate events, claims, decisions, and issues in their moment based on their knowledge of the past and present
- Students will have the tools to participate actively and effectively as informed citizens of a representative democracy.
Therefor, there will be 5-7 Essential Skills for each semester (4 Habits + 1-3 Transfer Goals), which will be relatively uniform within each department. Each course will then have 2-4 additional goals for each major unit, where appropriate.
Why This Can Work for Me, but Might Not for You
I wrote the following last year:
The most important reason this can work is because there is very limited specific content I worry about my students learning this year. I am focusing on depth over breath. While I think SBG could work in a survey history course, I’m not sure there’s reason for it, given the need for 200-400 learning goals. The same would be true for a traditional government or economics course. I am probably doing half of the content that one normally would in these courses, but doing so in much more depth so that my students can really develop the skills they will need as citizens and in order to be successful in college. I am willing to have my students not be able to explain the entire process for how a bill becomes a law in exchange for them knowing how to research a policy, and to take action based on that research.
I stand by that, and am lucky to create a school where we will not need to worry about it. With that said, I think the value of SBG for students outweighs the challenges a survey course presents. The next time I teach a survey course, I will add “Content Knowledge” to the categories of Essential Skills, Unit Goals, and Citizenship. This category will use more traditional grading, and will count for 20-40% of a students’ grade.
I caught wind of a math blog meme giving advice to new teachers after reading a wonderful post from Jason Buell called “Life in the Gray,” which nicely goes a long way toward summing up how complicated teaching really is. It reminded me of something I just wrote, which I though I would post here as well.
The following is a response to an email that was forwarded to me without a name or background. Because of who sent it to me, I’m assuming it’s from a novice teacher, but I’m not sure. The email came after this teacher got into a heated and upsetting argument with coworkers where she or he advocated for adding one piece of non-western, non-canonical world literature that might validate alternative experiences to the school’s curriculum of “Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Homer, and all of the other BS that we make the students read.” She or he was looking for articles to prove her viewpoint was correct, and possibly to leave in the mailboxes of co-workers. Below is my response, slightly edited. I offer it here as advice to new English teachers, particularly those coming from a left perspective, but I hope there’s something in it for all new teachers.
I was humbled and honored when Larry Ferlazzo sent me an email a couple of months ago to answer one of the questions for the wonderful teacher advice column he does at Education Week. I’m even more humbled to be featured in a column with Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-director of the Zinn Education Project, whose work I have long admired. The question for this week is, “What’s the best advice you can give to Social Studies teachers who want to be more effective?” An excerpt from my response:
The best advice I can give Social Studies teachers who want to be more effective is to remember that we teach students, not content.
While standards may dictate that students be able to explain the Green Revolution, the human beings in our classes demand that the information we help them learn also help them develop as people. Students may enter our rooms asking, “when am I ever going to need use this information?” We need to help them leave wondering, “what lessons can I learn from the past to help myself and our society make better decisions in the future?” A study of the Green Revolution, then, becomes a lesson in how a seemingly wonderful solution to problem (hunger) can have unintended consequences that are potentially far more catastrophic (overpopulation, increased reliance on polluting fossil fuels). By focusing on transferable goals, students will not only be more engaged, but will better remember and understand the content.
The rest is here. Part two and three to come, and they’re still looking for answers, so please contribute your suggestions!
This evening, everyone in my critical friends group is sharing an “existential” dilema we’re struggling with about our practice. Here’s mine:
This is the question I’ve struggled with since I began planning my Government/Economics course last summer: How do I choose/balance between the following modes of praxis in a course where I’m not concerned with a massive amount of content for a state exam?
- Teaching through inquiry, which best develops students’ ability to think critically and to learn how to learn. In true open inquiry, learning a specific body of knowledge is limited or sacrificed.
- Teaching through extensive reading, watching, and research to gain the necessary cultural literacy to enter adult society and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Given the tremendous amount of information students need, this limits the emphasis on skill development.
- Teaching students to do authentic intellectual work (which often, but not always, is through Project Based Assessments), which emphasizes the practical skills of communication and production, as well as have students engage with specific content.
Some notes towards an answer:
I recently re-read Horace’s Compromise, where Ted Sizer writes that schools should only really focus on four things:
- Helping students develop understanding, which is done by questioning.
- Helping students to gain knowledge, which is done by telling.
- Helping students develop skills, which is done through coaching.
- Helping students obtain decency
There seems to be a strong correlation between Sizer’s first three duties of an “essential” school and the three modes of praxis I struggle to balance. At the school level, I think there is a clear need to balance all three, along with ensuring all students are decent people (and given that most of my thinking right now is about macro-curriculum planning for the school I’m helping to open next fall, having that clarity is a huge help). My feeling is that a thoughtfully and intentionally structured school would be filled with classes that allow students and teachers to primarily focus on one of the three areas, to make sure that the course’s transfer goals are clear, and to decrease the cognitive load on students, allowing for maximum development.
In the overwhelming majority of schools though, there is little attention to how the entire curriculum works together. At best, there is some alignment vertically within subject areas, or horizontally across grades. It then falls to the thoughtful teacher to make an independent decision on how to address these three goals…
I’m very curious to hear how teachers, parents, and students would respond to this question.
Frank McCaughey and I will be presenting tomorrow morning at 8am sharp at NCSS. Hope you can join us physically or virtually. For those who can’t, our presentation and a link to our materials are below. Continue reading Make History Matter at 8am Tomorrow at NCSS
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”, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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: email@example.com
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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