Portfolio Entry #3: Best Unit

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.

In hindsight, there’s only one unit I taught I would be willing to hand to another teacher.  It’s not that the others weren’t good, but all my government units ended up responding to events at the time, and my economics units were okay units I took from established curriculum, since my background in economics is not strong.

That is not to undersell my Project Citizenship Unit, as it is one of the best I have taught in my career. It had all the hallmarks of my greatest units: students learned and applied a new skill set (researching), were able to choose from a range of topics that interested in them (any public policy that affects them), had a structured project to guide their inquiry (a persuasive speech and Project Citizen), all ending in a public showcase of their work (Citizenship Night).  While this was not dissimilar to the History Day units I have done over the years, I think adding a deliverable halfway through the process, the persuasive speech, really took the development of students’ skills within the unit to a new level than in earlier years, since they got formal feedback doing research once, and then immediately had to use that skill set again.

The one area where this unit could have been greatly improved was in preparing students for the last part of Project Citizenship: writing an action plan to carry out their proposed policy change.  I didn’t do anything to really prepare students for this, other than teaching them in earlier units how government works.  Looking at some case studies and theories of action, even if for a day or two, would have paid great dividends (thanks, Critical Friend Andy, for pointing that out).

Project Citizen Unit Plan

Project Citizen Curricular Materials

Next Entry: Reflection on Goals

Student Engagement Strategy: Make Learning Public

I’ve written a few times about the various social studies fairs I have held over the years (“National History Day: The Best Thing I Do” and “My Students Solve the World’s Problems”).  Over at Education Week, I write about the formula that makes these events successful:

I’ve led an annual social studies fair for six years now. These events bring out my students’ best efforts and showcase their authentic intellectual work. Here are my suggestions for ensuring that students get the most out of these public displays of learning.

• Give students maximum choice of topics.

Whenever possible, I let my students choose their own research topics—within limits. When I taught government this year, for example, students chose a public policy issue they wanted to learn about. And when I’ve coordinated with National History Day, students chose any topic connected to its annual theme, as long as we had previously studied the topic in class.

I always tell my students that selecting a topic is the most important decision they make for a major project. Students who find topics they are genuinely interested in have transformative experiences; others wind up doing just another class project. We spend a full day in class brainstorming subjects and exploring possibilities. Once students decide on a topic, they must prove to me in writing that they care about it….

Click here to read the whole piece. 

My Students Solve the World's Problems

For the past five years, I held a school “History Day” fair, which I always called “the best thing I do.” As I’m teaching a senior government/economics course this year, I decided to hold “Citizenship Night” yesterday.  Students completed Project Citizen portfolios, and we opened up the doors of our school to the public to hear students discuss their work.  Project Citizen asks students to identify a public policy problem in their community. They then researched the problem, evaluated alternative solutions, developed their own solution in the form of a public policy, and created a political action plan to enlist local or state authorities to adopt their proposed policy.

The work my students presented last night was impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the passion in their voices as they shared their thoughts with members of the public.  It was a testament to the amazing things young women and men will do when they are given some freedom to choose a topic, instruction and practice in research skills, and an authentic public audience for their work.  Yesterday was the first time in seven years of teaching in NYC that I had 100% of projects completed on time, and for most of my students, it was the best work they’ve done.  In the coming weeks, I’ll post photos of the work as well as some more information about what into the event.

There was a professional photographer on hand who took incredible photos (a little tricky to find: Go to http://jaydorfmanphotography.com/, click on the little arrow button, scroll down on the list in the top-right corner, and click ISA Citizenship Night). Gotham Schools has also an absolutely tremendous write-up of the event that, I have to admit, included some information from my students I didn’t even know yet.  From Jessica Campbell at Gotham:

“Don’t be nervous,” Young Writers’ history teacher Stephen Lazar told his 72 seniors last night. The seniors were buzzing around the warm cafeteria, prepping their final citizenship projects for the imminent arrival of evaluators, who would be assessing their work and knowledge. “They’re nervous to hear what you’re going to do with the world.” Continue reading My Students Solve the World's Problems

Struggles in Teaching Practice: How to be More Student Centered and Driven

Cross posted from my Critical Friends Group blog, where our monthly writing prompt was, “What is something you are currently struggling with in your practice?”

As the call for progress reports went out, I found it hard to believe that a quarter of the year was done.  I’ve pretty much felt like I’ve been in warm up mode thus far, which among other things, has meant I have yet to begin a project with my students, or any other form of assessment beyond essays and written check-ins.  Whereas there has been some inquiry, it has all been bounded, with me doing the research work.  I’ve yet to set my students free to come to their own conclusions from their own information.  I’m grappling with how to make my Government & Economics course more student-centered and driven.

This has never been a problem for me before.  In all previous history courses, I’ve maintained a good balance of a few weeks of content, followed by a few weeks with students doing inquiry-based project work related to the previous weeks’ content (at least until the end of the year, when my class became a test prep factory).  I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why this is an issue this year.

Part of me just feels overwhelmed my the sheer amount of information students should know to be active and reasonable democratic citizens in our quasi-capitalist economy.  My nature as a history teacher was to reduce what I was supposed to teach (do they really need to understand the Proclamation Line of 1763? I think not), whereas I now find myself thinking expansively about what students should understand (I mean, how could I not help students understand Judith Butler’s theory of gender peformativity when talking about identity).  I also find myself embracing the ability to drop everything and discuss current events.  Thus far we’ve spent a couple days on Troy Davis, a day on Steve Jobs, and a week on Occupy Wall Street and direct democracy.  I feared that this would be something I would not be able to bring myself to do.  Perhaps I’ve gone too far, though.

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 marablevideocontest@gmail.com. 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: askmarableconference@gmail.com

Want to Students to Remember? Make it Challenging

“For a teacher trying to design an assignment, the ideal thing is to put your students in a situation where they are challenged. The more someone struggles with something, the more they are going to learn.  You want them to eventually feel something is easy to process, but only because they’ve worked through it and made it their own, not because you made it easy for them.”

~Nate Kornell, Assistant Psychology Professor at Williams College in “Studies Find ‘Easy’ Material May Not Be Easy to Learn” (Education Week)

Make sure you read this whole article.  This is something all the great teachers I know seem to know, and it flies in face of the “drill and kill” model of education being propagated by too many schools across the country right now.  As I tell everyone I coach, the best form of “test prep” is a good, challenging, project.  It’s nice to see research confirm that.  The whole study can be found here (PDF file).

Reflection on Global History Unit 4: History Day

Previous Post on History Day (with photos)

This is the only unit I have taught all five years in the Bronx, and it is continually the one that produces the best student work.  After stagnating a bit with the unit in the third and fourth years I taught it, I think our team made some good improvements to the scaffolds we used in the Research Packet, which better emphasized higher level thinking.  Bronx Lab History Day was a success for the fifth straight year, and I think we have a few projects that will be competitive at the city contest, which we haven’t had in a couple of years.

Things We Got Right

  • For the fifth year in a row, my students were motivated to do the best work they’ve done.  For some lower preforming students, this was the first project they successfully completed.  For many of my top students, this was the best work I got from them.  I was very satisfied with the end products.
  • By redoing the Research Packet to focus the scaffolding worksheets on analysis and synthesis, the level of thought in students’ writing was much improved from previous years.

Things We Got Wrong That Are Easy to Fix

  • For a slew of reasons, we did not do much work with primary documents in the first half of the course, as I had in US History in earlier years.  I think this hurt the quality of the primary document research in this unit.  The previous units need some inquiry-based primary document lessons to help scaffold the reading and thinking skills necessary for History Day research.
  • This year, we moved the bibliography to later in the process.  I would move it back to the midpoint as it was in years past.  Students were too focused on the end goal to put effort into their bibliographies, and a lot  were not completed.
  • We need a global history library.  Having only textbooks and the internet in class limited the quality of the research.

Things We Got Wrong That Need to Be Redone

  • I’m still not sure how to make students take deadlines seriously before the final presentation.  If everyone could be done even one day earlier to have some time for peer edits and revisions, the projects would be tremendously improved.
  • Likewise, I’m still not sure how to make time for teaching students how to do layout well and neatly.  This requires having the materials and writing done earlier, just like the previous issue.

Unit Materials

Previous Unit Reflections

Bronx Lab History Day: Still the Best Thing I Do

Before all the Education Writers Association fun last week, I oversaw the 5th Annual Bronx Lab History Day Fair. Our nearly 200 10th and 11th grade students presented projects related to this year’s National History Day theme, “Debate & Diplomacy in History: Success, Consequences, Failures.”  As in years past, students worked their hearts out, a group of students and myself got kicked out of the building by security the night before, and students made me quite proud.  Below are some pictures from the event, followed by an updated post I originally published this summer. Continue reading Bronx Lab History Day: Still the Best Thing I Do