Thursday, January 26, 2012

Using Your Life to Teach Primary Sources

Talk to any history teacher, whether they teach elementary, middle, or high school and they'll tell you the importance of using primary source documents in their classroom...and I'm certainly not one to argue!  The biggest challenge for me is finding the right time and place to work the sources into my lessons. It's admittedly a weaker point in my teaching, and one that I'm always working to improve...however, I created what I think is a great way to introduce the concept of primary sources to students - specifically, how to work with them and what you can (and can't!) learn from primary source documents.

The Plan
This might not be the most original idea, and some of you may have done it yourself...essentially, you bring in a collection of various primary sources from your life, and turn the students loose to investigate your history.  You can have the students do a formal investigation using document analysis guides - The National Archives has a really great collection of guides that you can check out here. Or, if you'd like you can have them do a more informal analysis...Then, based on the primary sources the students write a 2-3 paragraph biography of your life.  The next day you share the biographies (unbelievably entertaining!) and discuss how well the biography was written. Did they analyze the sources well? Did they use the sources in their biography? Students discuss what they did well, and then take volunteers who think they did an even better job...continue like this until you hear "the best" example of a student using primary sources.

I have a set of posters that I created a while back hanging in my room to help students analyze primary sources too - you can view the set here - and for the MS Publisher files you can download the zipped up set here.

Sources I Provided
I tried to provide a broad range of sources - pictures, official documents, letters, audio recordings, etc...
  • Personal Recording - When I was younger, about 9, I got grounded one night in the Summer for leaving the kitchen a mess.  Bored out of my skull I resorted to popping in a blank cassette tape into my tape player, and started recording my thoughts, interspersed with music (what's up, Hootie & The Blowfish?!)...the resulting recording is a true gem, and the students found it quite hilarious.
  • College Transcript - I wasn't a straight A lowest grade was, believe it or not, in a US history class...the students really enjoyed seeing that.
  • High School Diploma
  • Assorted Pictures - Some formal, some candid, from a variety of different stages of my life
  • Copy of my Birth Certificate - No raised seal, but I don't have any plans of running for President in the near future
  • Passport
  • High School Letter Jacket
  • Various Ticket Stubs to Concerts and Sporting Events
  • 3 Notes from my High School Ex - These were the most enjoyed, and most talked about piece of the collection...we titled this 3 note series "The JoJo Chronicles" after my high school ex. Note one explained why she turned me down but provided hope that we'd be together...Note two (sappy beyond belief) was when we were dating (success!) and about how great I was and how much time she wanted to spend with me, and Note three was a not so nice note post-breakup...I bared a bit of my 10th grade soul here, but the kids loved it! Sparked a lot of great discussions about what written sources could, and could not, tell you...
Tales of Love and Heartbreak

This was a great way to introduce the students to the concept of primary sources, and how to use them. Part of why it was successful was that they were interested in the subject matter, and the sources themselves were engaging.  We then went on to use a set of primary source documents about Andrew Jackson as they prepared their Superman or Scumbag essays. The level of analysis and comfort with the sources this year, compared to past years, was higher.

I did this after a couple of months of class, so they also had some familiarity with the subject (me).  However, I plan on starting the year with this activity next year as a way to introduce the class, primary sources, and their history teacher. You could take it further and have students bring in 3-5 sources from their lives, and share a little about the sources and themselves as an icebreaker too.

The Standford History Education Group has an AWESOME site for "Reading Like a Historian" that I plan to draw on more and more, I'd encourage you to check it out. also has some tremendous resources to look at too.

The Future
What do you do to introduce primary sources and how to work with them to your students? Any great DBQ or primary source lessons? Ever bring in sources from your life?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When Fair Must Always Mean Equal

You and I live in a world that is constantly changing and growing; our world is becoming more and more complex by the day.  The rise of the internet and other forms of communication, coupled with the inter-connectedness of our world’s nations has created many complex dilemmas. Solving these challenges will require critical thinkers with creativity and a deep understanding of their world. Our job, which is to prepare the problem solvers of the future, is equally as important to the problems they will be solving.  The preparation of the world’s future leaders – our students – is a task not to be taken lightly or approached softly. It is our duty to rid the inequalities that plague our schools so we can ensure a first-class education for each and every student, regardless of where they are born or where they live.  The students of today need to be equipped with the tools to think critically, to collaborate efficiently, and to understand the world that surrounds them.  None of this will be possible without these students receiving an equitable, thorough, and engaging global education that prepares them for a world that we, nor they, can possibly envision.

The state of American education and the teaching profession has received much attention from local and national media. Many issues swirl around our profession today – standardized testing, NCLB waivers, Race to the Top, the erosion of collective bargaining rights, whether or not to institute merit pay, tenure reform…I could go on. However, the single most pressing issue that confronts our profession today is a total lack of equality among our schools. The root of this inequality is a lack of equitable funding, which invariably leads to a lack of equality in schools, resources, and education for our students. If we are to prepare our students and our nation for an uncertain future, we must remove all uncertainty and inequality from our schools.

Numerous politicians, business leaders, pundits, and so-called “reformers” would have you believe that the panacea to the ills of our current educational system would be to look to the business world for answers. They advocate for changes that would bring about choice and vouchers, with the claim that choice in the market is a good thing. We’re told that competition between privately funded, often for profit, charter schools and public schools will force public schools to get their act together. Competition in the market is a wonderful thing. Except for when that market is our schools. Competition among schools does not, and will not, increase the quality of our schools. Competition creates winners and losers, successes and failures. We cannot afford to have losers when it comes to our children and our schools. We need collaboration and balance among our schools, not competition.

To combat this inequality, we must make sure that every public school is robustly and equitably funded. Your zip code should not determine the resources available to your school or the education your student receives. We must not turn a blind eye and act like poverty, home life, and the environment in which a student is raised has no impact on their education. Students from the poorest districts often find neighborhood schools with the fewest resources. Yet, these are the students and schools that need the resources the most. Make no mistake, I am not saying that we can throw a pile of money at our schools and expect magic to happen.  What I am saying is that we can no longer tolerate schools in one area having less than those in another, simply because of their tax base.

Once we solve the core problem of misguided per-pupil funding formulas and a lack of proper and equitable funding, our work will not be done.  Simply having money will not solve the problems; rather it will be in how the money will be used. We need schools equipped to prepare our students for the ambiguity of the future. Students must have access to the 21st century tools that they will be asked to use. It is of paramount importance that we teach our students how to think critically and solve problems. We need to have broadband internet access in every school, we need working modern computer labs for our students to connect to and collaborate with the outside world, we need to make sure that all our students have access to portable devices that will engage them and allow them to collaborate, capture, collect, and share their learning with others. If our students leave us without receiving the education they need and deserve, then we have failed.

Lastly, when it comes to teachers, we need to ensure that we have the best of the best in every classroom. Teachers are the single most important factor within a school on determining a student’s learning. We need to improve teacher quality by improving how we train and select our teachers, providing stronger mentor support, adopting higher salaries, and creating collaborative environments that are fully supportive of the teachers and students they advocate for. We must prepare our teachers for the difficult task of preparing our students. Teaching, and learning, in the 21st century will look different, but we must make certain that our teachers are practitioners of sound pedagogy and have the tools they will need to be successful.

We must remind ourselves, no matter our role in public education, it is all about our students. Every single decision we make must always be made, first and foremost, with the students in mind.  Most educators will rightly tell you that sometimes in an individual classroom, what’s fair for students is not always equal. However, when it comes to our schools, fair should, and must always be, equal. As it stands right now some schools can advance, while others are forced to stay behind. We cannot expect to prepare all our children, and our nation, for the future while only educating a segment of our children. We must ensure that we have schools buoyed with equality, rather than riddled with inequality. Education is a public good, and all of our children have a right to first-class education.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Writing Process & Video Feedback

This is a bit of a followup to my last post about our cross-curricular writing project about Andrew Jackson with language arts.

As I was going through the process of grading all 100+ essays (20 hours of winter break...well spent...) I recalled a foggy memory of reading about someone who used screencasting tools to provide audio-visual feedback to their students in lieu of the standard written feedback...which for me consists of a lot of chopped off thoughts scrawled on a page, penmanship declining as I slog through the papers. So after grading about 60 essays, off to Twitter I went and was reminded that Greg Kulowiec was the one who wrote the original post, which included a link this blog entry . Anita Swigart also had experience with it as well. Bolstered by their insights I decided to give it a go...if you're curious to know how it went, read on. Otherwise, I'm sure there are better things you could do...

For starters, you need to make sure that your student has completed their writing in Google Docs and shared it with you, and granted you editing privileges. Otherwise, there's no way to screencast the feedback...

For the longest time I have used Screencast-O-Matic for all my screencasting needs. It has been my standby and I have nothing but love for it.  However, I decided to switch it up to Jing this time around (that's what the others had used) to give Jing a try, and because I could quickly and easily upload my feedback to, and then easily paste the link to it right in to the Google Doc (student essay) that I was reading . So, with that all in mind here are the steps that Greg provided:

The Process:
1. Run Jing - a little yellow sun will appear on the top of the screen
2. Choose your workspace to record
3. Begin recording and commenting on the student blog entry.
4. When the recording is done, click "share with screencast"
5. Login to your Screencast account and retrieve the URL for the video.  I also suggest renaming the file with the student name and project.
6. Paste the URL into the comment section below the student blog entry and you are done.  Now the student has authentic communication about their writing.

I slightly modified the process...
1A. I read the student's essay first and made a couple of minor written notations. One, to help them follow along with the audio, and two, to help guide me as I gave the feedback. Less awkward pauses and "uhms...."
1. Run Jing - a little yellow sun will appear on the top of the screen
2. Choose your workspace to record
3. Begin recording and commenting on the student blog entry.
4. When the recording is done, click "share with screencast"
5. Login to your Screencast account and retrieve the URL for the video.  I also suggest renaming the file with the student name and project.
5A. Once the file is uploaded to it automatically "copies" the link to your "clipboard" - no need to retrieve the link.6. Paste the URL on the top (or bottom) of the student's essay...and boom, you're done.

I think I liked it...  My one hesitation is that in the long-run I think it took an extra minute or three per essay, which can really add up with a 100+ essays. That won't always be feasible for me, or for many others out there.  I'm sure if I do it again, which I think I will, I can become more efficient at the process, specifically with my feedback. Most recordings were 4-5 minutes (Jing has a 5 minute limit). I know I can be verbose, so if I could trim the recordings to 1-3 minutes, I'd be golden.  Some students didn't share their essays with me for one reason or another, so I had to switch back to the old school written feedback and I found myself thinking "I wish I could just record what I'm trying to say, rather than write it out by hand..."  I loved that I could provide a bit of a visual for them to look at, but more importantly that I could really explain what I was looking for and where they could improve their work.

When I asked the students about it today, the student response was almost unanimously positive.  In fact, I had two 8th graders email me last night: "Thank you so much for all your help in the making of my paper. I really like how you did the screen cast, that really helped me and got me interested in fixing my paper to try and get a 100%." and   "The new way you corrected my paper I think was very helpful for me and I think you should use it again if we type a paper on docs." I think that sums it up...8th graders aren't known for emailing their teachers to thank them for critiquing their work. Also, those that did not receive the feedback were bummed and as we were in the lab today (and yesterday) those were the students that required more one-on-one work with me. 

Though this example screencast isn't free of "uhms" and pauses, it gives you an idea of the finished product.

Monday, January 2, 2012

History & Language Arts - Andrew Jackson: Superman or Scumbag

One of the big units that we focus on, as do many US history classes (I imagine) is Andrew Jackson and the role he played in the early Republic.  Since my first year teaching we have had the students write persuasive essays about Jackson to answer the (albeit, cheeky) essential question "Was Andrew Jackson a Superman or a Scumbag?"  Over the years this project has really grown in to a beast. As a history department we've really beefed up the historical component by adding in a lot of primary sources for the students to use. We've also put in a lot of work with the Language Arts department to make it a really strong cross-curricular assignment that even aligns with the Common Core standards (huuuuuzah!!!).  I have all the resources, handouts, primary sources, rubrics, outlines, etc...available on my class website if you're interested. Also, you can see the schedule of the writing process that we used by clicking here.

This definitely took a good chunk of class time. We had to front load the Jackson information, while Language Arts took on the task of teaching persuasive writing. Then we both dove into it, head-first.  We are fortunate to have a media center with numerous computers and open space available to us. The open space was important for the outlining and peer-editing portion, and the computers were vital to allowing the students access to complete their essays without having to do a lot at home.

Lastly, one of the perks of team-teaching this assignment is the grading. I am free to focus on solely historical content and thinking. Many would argue that in a history class that's all I should focus on, ignoring writing conventions, technique, etc...I would tend to disagree (save that for another day), but I don't have to worry about that debate with this assignment as Language Arts is all over it!

Overall we're all pleased with the outcome.  Because we teach 8th graders we had to be highly structured, which is why the outline we provide for them is so key. Students are now allowed to write until the outline is approved. This sets them up for success and saves many headaches in the long run. Another key to success is having the students type their essays in Google Docs and share them with me. Greg Kulowiec wrote a nice post on how to use Google Docs to promote the writing process and staying organized.

The essays aren't quite done yet - they're graded, and feedback has been provided, but students will be making revisions this week.  Once they're done I plan on taking Diana Laufenberg's suggestion and students will share links to their final drafts, with comments enabled, via a Google Form and I will then publish that form so the student's work will get published for all to see.

I'm curious - what tools, methods, techniques do you find helpful when it comes to teaching writing, especially as it pertains to the history classroom?

Have to Start Somewhere

After years of reading numerous blog posts from dozens of educators I have been inspired and motivated to setup a blog of my own. Four educators that I really admire (two I've met in person, one I've skyped with numerous times, and one I have not met) have given me loads of ideas to use in my classroom and really stretched my thinking are a big part of this motivation. Thanks, gentlemen - Greg Kulowiec (The History 2.0 Classroom  and  @gregkulowiec), Eric Langhorst (Speaking of History and @ELanghorst), Stephen Lazar (Outside the Cave and @SLazarOtC)  and Josh Stumpenhorst (Stump the Teacher  and @stumpteacher).

I've thought about blogging before and tried my hand at it (twice) and have given up (twice).  Why? Probably because I'm not so sure that anything I have to say is really all that interesting or worthwhile...I suppose that's because my two previous attempts were blogs about prolonged time overseas.  They were more a way to keep in touch with family than anything else.

With this new blog I hope to accomplish a couple of things. One, it will first and foremost be a place for me to reflect on education and my own teaching.  I have no illusions that what I write here will be profound or transformational...but should I pick up a few readers along the way, a comment here or there, then that's just fine too. Second, I hope to share different teaching strategies and projects that I'm doing in my classroom.  I work with a tremendous team of teachers and have a lot of support, so I hope to share some of our successes (and occasional failures as we try something new that doesn't quite pan out).

So, because I have to start somewhere...I'll consider this the start.