Category Archives: History Ed

History Day Judges Needed!

Followers of this blog know that I love National History Day.  National History Day challenges teens to investigate historical questions and present their findings in papers, websites, exhibits, performances, and documentaries.  Students discuss their work with interested adults as they strive to rise above the competition first at the school, then at the district, state, and national levels.  All this depends on interested individuals offering to talk to these young historians. Will you show them you care about their learning?

The Southwest Washington History Day Competition will be held Saturday, February 25 at Wy’East Middle School in Vancouver.  Judge orientation will begin at 8:00.  Preliminary round judging will conclude by 1:00; if you’re available to stay for the finals round, you’ll be done by 4:30.  Clock hours will be provided.

If you’re able to join us to judge, please email me.  Whether or not you can join us, please spread the word!


The end is nigh

While we may have thought that we made it through May 21 unscathed, I received two messages yesterday that our friends in the colonies might have considered providential signs.

The first was an email from Peggi Zelinko at the Department of Education.  She wrote to say that no new Teaching American History proposals would be awarded FY 2011, ending any hope that “Competing Visions: Debates that Shape America”, the excellent proposal we submitted in March, would be funded.   This confirmed my suspicions – but was disappointing nevertheless.

The second was a posting on the National Coalition for History site:


The House Education and Workforce Committee this week approved, by a strict party line vote of 23-16H.R. 1891 the “Setting New Priorities in Education Act.” This bill would eliminate 43 programs at the Department of Education including Teaching American History (TAH) grants.

An amendment was offered by Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), and cosponsored by Representatives Davis (D-CA), Woolsey (D-CA) and Wu (D-OR) that would have potentially preserved TAH. The amendment would have required the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence to determine if the United States was experiencing a shortage of linguists. If it was found that was the case, Department of Education funds could have been used to improve foreign language education, economic and financial education, arts education and the Teaching of Traditional American History. The Holt amendment was defeated by the same party line vote of 16-23.

House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MI) has decided to adopt a piecemeal approach to reauthorizing the ESEA, considering a series of targeted bills instead of one large one. H.R. 1891 is the first of those bills to be introduced and passed by the panel.

H.R. 1891 will now be considered by the House where it is expected to pass. While this is disheartening, the bill would still have to pass the Senate and be signed by the President which is unlikely. Traditionally, there has been strong bi-partisan support in the Senate for the TAH program.

In the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) will soon introduce a single all encompassing ESEA reauthorization bill. It was expected he would introduce the bill right after Easter, but that has not occurred. There is no indication at this time what Chairman Harkin’s position is with regard to TAH in particular or history education in general.

It’s a shame.  Based on our experience, I believe that TAH projects have catalyzed important change, critically supporting teachers in ways that renew and expand their vision and capacity to improve students’ learning experience.  I hope that teachers find creative ways to continue the work on their own.

I look forward to next week’s demonstration lesson in Castle Rock and our final “Causes of Conflict” program June 29 & 30.  Enjoy the long weekend!

Another round of Lesson Study!

It’s been a provocative season of demonstration lessons with 4th and 5th grade teachers!  Using the lesson study process, teacher groups planned a lesson, then gathered to watch the lesson be taught and studied how students interacted with the material.  In the past week plus, I’ve been at five schools where young learners took on a variety of historical challenges, including:

  • analyzing correspondence between John and Abigail Adams to consider what the American Revolution meant for women;
  • interpreting images to hear multiple perspectives on British efforts to manage the American colonies;
  • using primary images and texts related to different events to evaluate their role in leading to the American Revolution;
  • evaluating competing narratives to determine who was at fault for the Boston Massacre; and
  • identifying who lived at Fort Vancouver and how each cultural group contributed to its success.
The impact of the lessons on student learning varied from session to session, but the impact on teacher learning seemed consistently strong.  Here are a few representative snippets of participating teachers’ conversation and writing:
Observing other 5th grade students grapple with challenging text/images impacts my universal understanding of how students learn. To be given highly engaging historical documents and to work collaboratively with their peers stretches their thinking and informs me about my own expectations for student learning. It’s easy to feel isolated at times in regards to teaching history. Being a member of the lesson study team broadens my own perspective and fosters a need and a desire to dig deeper personally into historical thinking, teaching, and learning.

I saw a way to involve my Intensive Reading students in a more active way rather than just being passive learners.
I saw that I did not have to teach history the way I was taught as a student… Planning lessons with a group & revise them has heightened my teaching abilities and my students will benefit greatly.
 As we begin to revise the lesson, we are generating more thoughtfully developed ideas and questions.
I was surprised by how each of the teammates helped support one another.
We can’t work in a vacuum. Self-reflection is important, but our teaching will improve much more drastically by peer review and debriefing.
It takes me from direct instruction to guided, researched, and discovery learning. It makes me feel that history is really alive!
I’ve used different strategies before to make history more exciting – but never to make it more real!
At first, we were concerned about who would be the demonstration teacher. Then, there came a point in our planning where we realized that any of us would do it – because the only thing we’d be worried about would be to stay accountable to each other.
I’ve learned that students will rise to the occasion if you ask them to.
I’ve learned that there is so much about the past that I don’t know, but that I can tell the students ‘as you’re learning, I’m learning too.’
 It’s led me to see that history is more than recall.
This has reminded me that I need to be open to my students as people.  It’s made me a better kidwatcher.
One historical question should lead to another. That’s really happening for me now – and it didn’t before this year.
I’m looking forward to meeting with teachers June 29 & 30 to study what students did with the revised lessons.  I should note that this work was made possible by a Teaching American History grant from the US Department of Education.  That program, along with many others (including the National Writing Project), is described as wasteful and inefficient by House Bill 1891 and targeted for closure. You can read more about HB 1891 here.
Teachers:  Please add your input to the comments section!

Why do you love studying history?

Why is studying the past valuable?  Not why should we teach it, or why should the students in your classes learn it, but why do you love it?  That’s the question that we asked the elementary teachers we’ve been working with this year at the start of last week’s workshop.  The question arose, in part, as a result of Rich and I noticing that many of the teachers seemed to always be looking for ways specific experiences on our trip might be transformed into specific lessons – rather than developing a foundational appreciation for the discipline that, in turn, would deepen an approach to history.  If our yearlong study only left folks feeling more prepared to teach young people, it might not lead to inspiration for young people (and their teachers) to learn about the past.

After participants had some time to collect their thoughts individually, they assembled lists in their lesson study groups.  So, what did they say?

Sense of patriotism
Sense of belonging
Connection to our past/present
National pride
Connecting to the people of the past
Feeling-learning about our history thru their voices
Sense of where we come from
Learning from past why? where? how?
Facts not fiction about our history as a nation

Makes things you have read about “real” by going on location
Origin of common phrases
Better appreciation of the contrast between now and then
Past lays foundation for the present and future
Less biased
Amazed by the ingenuity of the historical figures
Inspiration of life long learning
Helps make the past more concrete
Historical fiction or biographies give a story/context to attach new information

Stories (esp. w/ personal application)
Know the past to connect to a better future
Cyclical nature of it
Escape to a different time
Brings events and people to life
Back stories of secondary personalities
Length of certain civilizations

Emotional!  It’s real connection to past
Important to preserve our freedoms
Learning about motivations of people-character.  Human nature.
It’s a great true story.  We can visualize it.
It goes beyond timelines!  Historical questioning.
Building loyalty to our country.

Putting faces to the facts
Sense of story
Past is things- History is the story.
Putting the puzzle pieces together
History is on-going
Multi-perspectives, different points of view
Concrete at first- then as you learn more it becomes fluid(different levels of complexity)
In road to teaching citizenship(builds loyalty to country)
Sense of self - roots?
Knowing the outcome – then going back and learning what led to that outcome.
Voices echoing forward
Power of an individual

Touching artifacts
Connecting w/real people/events
Knowing the outcome & going back  to see how they got there
Connecting the dots of the present with the past
Questioning intent/outcomes
Stories of people overcoming adversity
Stories of the common people

I think that it’s a pretty interesting list, both for what it features and what doesn’t appear.  Many of their entries were on my list, many weren’t, and some of my entries didn’t make it to their lists.  I’m struck by the extent to which these teachers see the study of history as playing a role in developing heritage/patriotism/citizenship – clearly an intended consequence of the Teaching American History program (funding struggles for which you can read about here), but one which I hadn’t expected.

What’s on your list?  Why do you love studying history? What value does the study of history offer?

Teacher Professional Development: The Gift that Keeps Giving

from Tempered Radical - Bill Ferriter

It’s always a pleasure to run into former students and find out that the work you did together continues in delightful and surprising ways.  When I taught middle school, for example, I was never sold on the school’s approach to teaching a foreign language.  How were students supposed to learn Spanish in 50 minute doses three times a week?  As it turns out, something important was going on:  One of the most common characteristics when I run into those kids today is that they’ve continued their language studies – the other common characteristics being that they’re brilliant, wildly idealistic, and unusually good looking 🙂

While I’m sold on the professional development I’ve been doing through Teaching American History grants over the last five years, I do wonder about their continued impact.  Plans for sustainability are always called for in the proposals – but they’re awfully difficult to commit to convincingly.  What a thrill it was, then, to be invited to Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, where three former TAH participants teach.  There, I was treated to a Lesson Study Demonstration Lesson, work they were inspired to continue following their experience int the TAH project.  Lesson Study brings them together to discuss alignment between meaningful student learning targets and powerful teaching strategies, important work that investigates teaching, learning, and assessment through collegial interaction.

When they invited me to observe their Lesson Study, I was impressed to hear that it was happening.  But once we got talking, I was thrilled to learn of a range of tools they’ve brought to Bay from our TAH work together that has enhanced a professional learning culture amongst their staff and students.  In addition to Lesson Study, teachers there are:

  • Working together as teams to plan
  • Maintaining student work portfolios
  • Doing repeated, aligned assessments to see growth over time
  • Examining student work collaboratively and discussing whether it’s sufficient to assess learning

While they say this came from TAH program inspiration, I know that it’s taken tremendous courage and conviction on their part to push this kind of cultural change.  It makes you wonder:  What else is going on?  While the work we’ve done has always benefited from excellent evaluation processes during its duration, it sure would be nice to be able to do some longer term studies…

Enduring Questions Across American History

Image: Euracert

Peter Pappas has a great post on his Copy/Paste blog identifying 12 essential questions/debates for teaching different periods/episodes in American history.  His list includes:


  • How Should Society Balance the Need for Tolerance with the Need to Protect Itself?
  • How Powerful Should the National Government Be?
  • Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?
  • Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law?
  • How Should Americans Treat the Land?
  • Has Industrialization Produced More Benefits or More Problems for the Nation?
  • Should the United States Pursue a Foreign Policy of Isolationism or Interventionism?
  • What Should the Nation’s Immigration Policy Be?
  • To What Extent Is the Federal Government Responsible for the Welfare and Security of the Individual?
  • Is Civil Disobedience Ever Justified as a Method of Political Change?
  • What Are the Limits of a Free Press?
  • How Much Should the Nation Invest in Defense?

Clearly, powerful, enduring questions help students learn.  What I’ve been wondering about is key questions that might be asked about episodes that occur across American history – that address episodes typically taught in the elementary (Contact through the Revolution), middle (New Nation through Reconstruction, and high school (Reconstruction to the Recent Past.)  It seems to me, for example, that:

  • A question like How should society balance the need for tolerance with the need to protect itself? could guide a study of the Salem Witch Trials, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Red Scare.
  • How should Americans treat the land? could draw attention to early contact, Westward Expansion, and 20th Century conservation issues (the Muir/Pinchot debate, for example, or the Endangered Species Act, or dams.)
  • How powerful should national government be? could look at Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates, Dred Scott and the Fugitive Slave Acts, and the New Deal and the modern Conservative movement.

What questions can you see being asked across the survey?  I think this would be a promising approach for a future Teaching American History grant – if the competition is offered again.

Engaging historical empathy through Storyline

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I love walking with my kids to and from school.  The rhythm of walking, breathing in fresh air and the changing environment, leads to all sorts of conversations.  We’ve talked about the size of galaxies and the plot twists of tv shows, the nature of pathogens and the character of different professions.  Often, it’s a time for Olive and Theo to bring up things that are frustrating them.

“I’m mad at the king,” Theo told me on the way home Monday.  “When I was a messenger during the war, he didn’t care about us colonists.  Then, he made it so we can’t move west.  Now, I have to pay every time I turn in papers to Jan.”  In quick step, my ten year old son had reflected on the colonial experience of the French and Indian War, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and the Stamp Act.  He had done so with a motivating sense of historical empathy and imagination, gifts endowed with deft elegance by his teacher, Jan Zuckerman, using the Storyline approach.

Jan has long been using Storyline to lead students to this kind of depth of understanding across disciplinary lines.  Her use of the approach results in students caring about the past.  In her hands, Storyline is immersive, engaging students wholly, drawing them in using multiple access points: emotional, intelletual, visual, auditory, artistic… 

Students develop characters, based on primary and secondary sources.  They build a world in which those characters interact. Things happen in that world:  Royal dictates, crises, and conflicts that keep students thinking about multiple perspectives, options and consequences.  The landscape of their learning is guided by the world they’ve created, represented on one of the classroom walls (pictured above.)  Their imaginary land is guided by historical sources that give them room to respond independently and analytically while developing insights into the past. 

I strongly encourage teachers to think about using Storyline – I’ve seen it effectively employed with students as young as kindergarten through high school, and across disciplinary lines.  If you’d like to discuss my experiences with Storyline, drop me a line!

Links to learn more: