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Posts from the ‘differentiation’ Category

History Nerdfest 2017 Day Three: Google Maps + Newsela = glorious mashup

This morning, I feel old.

As in, that old guy who gets up at 5:30 am, eats a hard boiled egg with black coffee, and wanders around the neighborhood mumbling something about early to bed, early to rise.

Saturday morning at #ncss17 is always a bit slow. And I probably actually am that old grumpy guy but this morning seems especially sparse. It’s ten minutes before the first session and there are four of us here. And no presenter. I need more coffee.

And of course, a couple of Newsela folks show up and it’s an awesome session. Cause . . . it’s maps and Newela.

I love Google My Maps and Newsela. Combining them together just makes sense.

JJ, the Newsela guy in charge this morning, kicked off our conversation by talking about what he called the “edtech ecosystem” that exists in our classrooms. I like that. There are healthy ecosystems and ones that aren’t as healthy. I love this idea.

So . . . Read more

Is it ever okay to tamper with the past? Modifying primary sources to make them accessible

Maybe this is not as big a topic as I think it is. Maybe it’s just me. But it seems as if the idea of modifying primary sources in order to make them more “user friendly” for our students, especially younger kids, is kind of a big deal.

Maybe I’m wrong. As I travel around the country, I get the chance to work with lots of social studies teachers – who by the very nature of their position have a tendency to voice strong opinions about, well . . . just about everything.

Including among other things: K-State football, KU basketball, Democrat, Republican, Texas BBQ, Kansas City BBQ, and iPads vs. Chromebooks.

But no matter where I’m at the question of modifying or altering primary sources for student use in the classroom is a topic that gets everybody’s juices going. The concept is a pretty simple one. Use a primary document as an instructional tool but before handing it over to students, you edit the document – changing length or vocabulary or sentence structure or deleting unnecessary elements or whatever might hold kids back from being able to make sense of the document.

This, of course, is where the debate begins. What is unnecessary? Read more

Need to teach historical thinking and literacy? To both high and low levels? You need this book

One of the obvious reasons for attending professional conferences and workshops is the opportunity for checking out new BBQ restaurants. Of course, there is that whole learning new stuff, meeting new people, attending sessions idea too.

And last week’s KCHE / MOCHE Best Practices conference in downtown Kansas City gave me the chance to check off both. Got to eat some great BBQ and do all of that other stuff. I really did walk away smarter (and thanks to Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ, also just a little bit rounder.)

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from my two days? Read more

Rewordify levels text, demystifies primary docs, and makes your life easier

I’m not saying Rewordify is the silver bullet that will solve all of your problems with difficult text and primary documents. But it comes pretty dang close.

As we’re asking our kids to do more reading, especially of primary sources, it is also becoming more difficult to find leveled text and grade appropriate documents. The people at the Stanford History Education Group and others are suggesting that we need to modify the stuff we give our kids, making the information more accessible. That’s not always easy to do – it takes time and can be difficult finding replacements for struggling readers.

Rewordify can help. Read more

History at the varsity level

It’s ironic, and just a little bit sad, but I thought twice about posting the following article.

It’s too long. No one will read it all the way through.

But I have faith. And you’ll thank me when you’re done. Jim does a great job of articulating the problem and consequence of history without reading but also suggests solutions. Including several that may surprise you.

History without Reading
By Jim Cullen

Imagine, if you will, the study of history without reading. No primary source documents to ground a discussion. No monographic studies to situate a discourse. Not even a textbook for background information. How much a sense of the past could you possibly have?

This is not a rhetorical question. Nor is it solely an invitation to consider the ongoing deprivations and inequities that riddle our educational system. Actually, the situation I’m describing is probably the de facto reality for the majority of students enrolled in history courses in secondary and higher education. Every day, of course, teachers are assigning reading, historians are writing books, and sales reps are writing promotional copy or buttonholing faculty members. Parents and taxpayers are writing checks to pay for miles of aisles in libraries. Instructors walk to the front of rooms, large and small, assuming that their charges have come to class “prepared,” i.e. having done the reading that’s been assigned to them — occasionally online, but usually in hard copy of some kind. Some may actually have done that reading. And some may actually do it, after a fashion, before the next paper or exam (even though, as often as not, they will attempt to get by without having done so fully or at all). But the majority? On any given day?

No. Science and math students might cling to a textbook for dear life in trying to make sense of a new topic during or after class. But few of us who have been in the history business for any length of time deceive ourselves that reading is seen as an indispensable prerequisite for bluffing one’s way through a class or even a course, insofar as we think about it. Usually we don’t, because, well, it wouldn’t make much such sense. We have jobs to do.

And what is that job? For many of us, it’s to teach students to think like historians. We want them to see the relevance of history in their own lives, even as we want them to understand and respect the pastness of the past. We want them to evaluate sources in terms of the information they reveal, the credibility they have or lack, or the questions they prompt. We want them to become independent-minded people capable of striking out on their own. In essence, we want for them what all teachers want: citizens who know how to read, write, and think.

But we don’t think hard enough about what it actually means to read for a young person in the 21st century. We act as if simply assigning a chapter will result in a student reading it. Assuming that student does, we have little sense of how long that might take. Nor do we typically consider how increasingly apart the experience of reading cold type in any form is from the rivers of hot type a student may consume online in formats that include instant messaging, websites, blogs, or social networks. Or the kinds of visual literacy that are in many ways replacing the literacy of traditional reading.

Again: we know this is going on. But we go about our work as if we don’t — or we define our work in terms of resisting or overcoming the world in which our students live. We think it’s our job to ask students to think like historians (historians, who, for the moment, were all born and trained in the twentieth century). We don’t really consider it our job to think like students as a means of showing them why someone would want to think like a historian. We take that for granted because it’s the choice we made. Big mistake.

What would it actually mean to teach a course that presumed ignorance or indifference rather than one of preparation and engagement? Insofar as this question ever gets seriously addressed — actually it’s a subject of obsessive interest to educational publishers, who are often much better informed and thoughtful about the students who (don’t) read their wares than the faculty who adopt them — the answer is typically cast in terms of technology. Websites, video, audio. Individualized test simulations. Ever improving graphical user interfaces, real and virtual. Ironically, this is an approach as likely to scare off technophobic traditionalists glad for any excuse for sticking with what works and what’s easy (not necessarily in that order). But as the publishers, administrators, and at least some teachers know, ducking heads in the sand is becoming too expensive an option. In an age of shrinking budgets and production cost-cutting, the imperative for cheap, fast information delivery becomes ever more pressing. Again, the publishers understand this in ways that their customers don’t. Or, perhaps more to the point, the way their non-customers don’t, whether because their business is distorted by used book sales that push the brunt of costs onto the first buyers of a text, or students who simply decline to acquire a text at all.

But technology is a partial answer at best. A Power Point presentation can be every bit as vacuous and boring as a teacher standing in front of a room and talking at people for 50 minutes. The problem is not one of information or a means of delivery. It’s one that’s been missing from too much history for too long: imagination.

In part, that means a history not of telling, but of showing, in the broadest sense of that term. It might involve visual media (what is Martin Scorsese actually doing with that camera that pivots from immigrants disembarking to coffins being hoisted onto ships in Gangs of New York?) It might also mean embodying voices from the past the way the brilliant interlocutors at Colonial Williamsburg bring Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry to life. Or, better yet, it might mean a process of improvised simulation in which a teacher tells someone that she’s a nineteenth century broker who insures slaves and then asking her about how good an idea a new fugitive slave law might be. Or a Tammany Hall pol confronted with the possibility of Civil Service exams. Or a Negro deciding whether to testify in favor of Emmett Till.

Let’s be clear: none of these are terribly remarkable teaching techniques. Gambits like them are deployed every day. But insofar as they are, they’re not typically seen as what the core of what a history course could be about on an everyday basis. For one thing, there’s too much “material” to “cover” (as if history must — can — be taught sequentially, or as if what’s covered in a lecture or a night’s reading is likely to be remembered beyond those eight magic words a student always longs to to be told: “what we need to know for the test”). For another, few teachers are trained and/or given time to develop curriculum beyond a specific departmental, school, or government mandate. The idea that educators would break with a core model of information delivery that dates back beyond the time of Horace Mann, and that the stuff of history would consist of improvisation, group work, and telling stories with sounds or pictures: we’ve entered a realm of fantasy (or, as far as some traditionalists may be concerned, a nightmare). College teachers in particular may well think of such an approach as beneath them: they’re scholars, not performers.

And, of course, we are in the realm of fantasy. But — and this is one of two key points to be made here — what may be the greater fantasy is believing that we can simply march further into the 21st century and believe that we can go on doing what we’ve always done. Whether or not that’s possible from an economic standpoint — does it make sense to pay someone to talk, live, in front of a room, if that’s all he’s doing? — it’s not from an intellectual one. Already, so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions. (On the whole, elementary school educators have a better grasp of the emotional, interdisciplinary, and collaborative dimensions of teaching. Instead of constantly looking “up” to what the next step in the chain will be, we should be looking “down” to how learning is done at the grass roots.)

But the other point here is that a new model of history teaching could also make possible a new rationale, and new possibilities, for student reading. To suddenly have to decide whether to stick out your neck for Emmett Till, it would sure help to know what’s really involved in doing so. There would be reason to be informed. There would be a point in gathering information other than regurgitation for a standardized assessment. The odds are, however, that the way you’d go about this is not necessarily the way your mother or grandfather did. You’d do it online — and if you had good resources, like a high-quality subscription database provided by an educational publisher — you’d know where to look and be inclined to go there. Rather than expecting students to come to class prepared, the goal of a history class would be to prepare students for the challenge and joy of reading.

Can you be a student of history without reading? Yes, because it happens every day. Can you be a serious student of history, can you do history at the varsity level, without it? Probably not. But you can’t get from one to the other without recognizing, and acting, on the reality of student life as it is currently lived. That means imagining a world without books — broadly construed — as a means toward preventing their disappearance.


Mr. Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book is Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History. He blogs at American History Now.

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Gamification in the Social Studies

What are the characteristics of a highly effective learning environment?

Yeah, I know. It sounds like the sort of question you’d find on your last college ed final. But it’s still something that’s good to think about, no matter how long we’ve been teaching.

And here’s the answer:

The characteristics of a highly effective learning environment are very much like the characteristics of a highly successful video game.

I started messing around with video games as teaching tools way back when. During my very first month teaching 8th graders in Derby Middle School in Fall 1986, I used a turn by turn game called Archeology.

Catchy title.

We played it on an Apple IIE desktop, with groups of 4-5 taking turns to “dig up” artifacts that eventually revealed a 18th century New England farmhouse.  The game ran on a 5 1/4 floppy disc that I protected with my life because we couldn’t find a way to create a useable backup. But it worked.

Kids were engaged. Conversation was happening. Stuff was being learned. Of course, I didn’t know why. I just knew something good was taking place. It wasn’t till much later that I started connecting brain research to what happened back at Derby.

What exactly was going on? Today I can think back and describe what happened as a result of playing Archeology:

  • increased literacy skills
  • improved problem solving skills
  • simulated authentic situations
  • encouraged collaboration
  • engaged students in content
  • lead to sophisticated research

There was a merging of brain research and effective learning environments.

I didn’t call it “Gamification” back in 1986. (If you would have asked me then, I would have called it “They’re so busy learning that they’re not setting stuff on fire and that’s a good thing-ification.”)

But we’re calling it Gamification now. It’s the idea that we can take video game concepts and apply them to our classroom instruction. This could mean we actually use games and simulations or it could mean we begin to re-structure our lesson and unit designs using gaming concepts.

What exactly are those gaming concepts?

  • Players get to modify the game environment and make individual choices.
  • Players become the experts.
  • Creativity and problem solving skills are encouraged.
  • Players receive immediate feedback.
  • There’s always an answer / always a way to “win.”
  • “Cheating” is supported.
  • Trial and error works best.
  • Game play is almost always better in groups.

Okay . . . now start thinking about these concepts in a social studies unit design. Let’s say we’re designing a unit on the causes of the Civil War.

  • Students get to modify the learning environment and make individual choices.
    Differentiated Instruction allow for students to research using a variety of tools and develop a variety of final products.
  • Students become the experts.
    We provide an engaging problem or over-arching question and allow students to find the answer on their own. This is instead of  just giving kids the answers and asking them to memorize them.
  • Creativity and problem solving skills are encouraged.
    The unit problem or question is the key. It has to be hard enough but not too hard. Challenging but doable. For example – ” Using primary documents as your main source of information, prove the following statement true or false: States Rights was not the cause of the Civil War.”
  • Students receive immediate feedback.
    You will need to constantly monitor progress. This doesn’t mean grading. This means providing information in a way so that leads to the desired end result.
  • There’s always an answer / always a way to “win.”
    This relates back to the idea of differentiating the learning. Game designers call it “flow” and most current games will automatically adjust the difficulty level based on how the player is doing. If a player is struggling, the game will make the current task easier. If a player is having lots of success, the game will make the task more difficult. We need to do the same thing with students.
  • “Cheating” is supported.
    Almost all games provide cheat codes, walkthroughs and in-game help. This is not seen as cheating by players in the same way that we define academic cheating. So during learning, you need to provide scaffolding – this might be giving more time to finish things, suggesting different tools or web sites and even designing activities that encourage student / groups to share information.
  • Trial and error works best.
    We know how powerful mistakes can be in the learning process. So we need to provide opportunities for failure. Never grade first attempts, require 1st and 2nd drafts of work and design problems and questions that can’t be Googled.
  • Learning is almost always better in groups.
    We need to connect kids with other kids and adults. This could be permanent groups throughout the life of the unit, temporary teams to solve problems, hooking kids up with adult experts, using technology to join your kids with someone else’s kids or simply asking kids to reflect with a partner after an interactive lecture.

Games and simulations can and should be part of our instructional tool kit. But the brain-based research that is the basis for their design should be part of our kit as well.


Get on it. I’ll be here when you’re done. Let me know how it goes.

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