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Posts tagged ‘teaching strategies’

Abe Lincoln, the Civil War and Social Media

One hundred and fifty years ago, America’s citizens were wrapped up in their own election excitement. An Illinois Congressman named Abraham Lincoln was locked in a tight race with three other candidates including Southern Democrat John Breckinridge and Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas.

With the majority of northern counties in his pocket (despite any campaigning or speeches,) Lincoln easily won the electoral vote. “But as we approach the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election and the long conflict that followed,” says author Tony Horwitz

it’s worth recalling other reasons that era endures. The Civil War isn’t just an adjunct to current events. It’s a national reserve of words, images and landscapes, a storehouse we can tap in lean times like these, when many Americans feel diminished, divided and starved for discourse more nourishing than cable rants and Twitter feeds.

In an electronics-saturated age, (we’re forced) to exercise our atrophied imaginations. There’s no Sensurround or 3D technology, just snake-rail fences, marble men and silent cannons aimed at nothing. You have to read, listen, let your mind go.

And the New York Times just started a pretty cool way to read, listen and let your mind go. Using a blog called Disunion, the NYT will tell the story of the Civil War in a series of weekly roundups and analysis, by Jamie Malanowski, of events making news during the corresponding week 150 years ago. Written as if in real time, this dispatch will appear every Monday. Additional essays and observations by other contributors, along with maps, images and diaries, will be published several times a week.

It looks like a great way to engage students with actual content. I like the way that the story of the period

revisits and reconsiders America’s most perilous period — using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded.

Add the RSS feed and you’ll get Disunion delivered straight to your news reader. Use a variety of primary source analysis worksheets to help kids break the information into manageable chunks and develop some essential questions to guide instruction. You might even pick and choose your favorite posts and create your own document reader for next spring when you hit the Civil War in your curriculum.

If nothing else, use Disunion as your own private professional development to increase your content knowledge of a specific period. This week I learned more about Head-Stompers, Wrench-Swingers and Wide Awakes. Pretty sweet stuff!

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(hat tip to honorary historian Jerry Butler!)

Tip of the Week – 6 Word Memoirs

I’m always looking for a good way to help kids organize and review information. Graphic organizers are great for that. But sometimes you just need a quick tool that provides not just a way for kids to cement learning but something that helps you measure learning.

A few months ago, I ran across something called a Six-Word Memoir. Developed by the online SMITH magazine, Six-Word Memoirs are a lifetime compressed into six little words. The project became so successful, the magazine published several books full of the miniature bios. Others, including the AARP site, also began publishing Six-Word Memoirs and the New Yorker has an interesting article on the process.

Some samples from people you might know:

  • Stephen Colbert
    “Well, I thought it was funny”
  • Joyce Carol Oates
    “Revenge is living well without you”
  • Aimee Mann
    “Couldn’t cope so I wrote songs”
  • Terry McMillan
    “I have to constantly reinvent myself”
  • Dave Eggers
    “Fifteen years since last professional haircut”
  • Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli
    “Xenophile escapist tumbleweed globetrots, finds self.”

Some from people you probably don’t:

  • Went to market, found a wife
  • Paris at eighteen: Enchanted for life
  • Omaha Beach: 52 years after Dad
  • North Pole cold, fellow travelers warm

I think you could have kids do the same thing with people that they are studying. And while people would be easier I’m betting your kids would come up with some great Six-Word Memoirs for places and events as well. By forcing kids to summarize a person’s life (or the “life” of a place or event), you help them focus on the big picture.

Possible history examples?

  • Abraham Lincoln
    “Split wood, split country, saved it”
  • Ghandi
    “Lost battle, won war, was hungry”
  • Abigail Adams
    “Six words!? Must have more letters!”

When students are finished, have them share and explain their six words with others. You could use this as a very informal sort of assessment during and at the end of learning. But I might even try this as a more formal type of test by asking kids to write a Six-Word Memoir and then having them write an essay type answer explaining why they selected those six words. I might also ask them to describe those words that they choose to leave out of their memoir.

Have fun!

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The new ThinkFinity and ThinkFinity Community

Even before ThinkFinity was ThinkFinity, way back when it was WorldCom’s Marco Polo, ThinkFinity was pretty cool. You could search a very specific database of teaching resources by grade level, content area, keyword and material type to find incredibly useful lesson plans and instructional materials.

The best part about the database was that the results come from a group of nine great educational web sites rather than the web at large. And ThinkFinity continued that tradition.

But the site design was clunky and difficult to use with the home screen basically a commercial for Verizon, ThinkFinity’s sponsor. But just recently the site got a major redesign with some new features.

For teachers, the site’s major reason for existence remains the search feature for instructional resources. But there are some additional things that are making the site a bit more useful.

What’s New?

  • The Design – quickly access resources, features and education news directly from the home page
  • The Navigation – makes it easy to find what you need from the thousands of resources that are standards-based and developed by the most trusted names in education
  • Games for Learning – access a host of engaging activities and interactives that make learning fun
  • New social networking – employ new widgets, follow ThinkFinity on FaceBook and Twitter, stay connected with blogs and newsletter, get mobile alerts and subscribe to RSS feeds
  • Professional Development – find more ways to access the extensive program that helps you hone your instructional skills
  • The new Community – exchange ideas, join groups, save and share your favorite resources by joining the all-new Thinkfinity Community

I especially like the Community idea. You can create a My Stuff page, where you can save your favorite lessons and materials. The My Stuff page even has a browser bookmarklet that adds materials to your page from outside ThinkFinity. You can also connect with other teachers through forums and a semi-FaceBookish members section. So you’ll come to ThinkFinity for the lesson plans but potentially I see the Community section becoming an important part of your Personal Learning Network.

ThinkFinity has always been a great tool but now has a site design to match.

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Reading Like a Historian curriculum – it’s best for kids

The Stanford History Education Group has put together an amazing collection of history lessons that focus on historical thinking. Members of the group include history studs Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin.

Their Reading Like a Historian Curriculum

features dozens of document-based lessons that teach the skills of historical thinking while improving students’ reading comprehension. Each lesson revolves around a central historical question and features sets of primary documents modified for groups of students with diverse reading skills and abilities.

Kids use reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. And rather than simply recalling basic facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on a variety of topics. They then must create a historical position based on primary sources.

How can these units help kids?

1. Helps establish relevant historical background knowledge and poses a central historical question

2. Provide four basic lesson structures:

Opening up the Textbook (OUT): In these lessons, students examine two documents: the textbook and a historical document that challenges or expands the textbook’s account. For a sample OUT, see the Battle of Little Bighorn Lesson Plan.

Cognitive Apprenticeship: These lessons are based in a theory that cognitive skills must be visible in order for students to learn how to practice them.  Here, a teacher explicitly models historical reading skills (sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, close reading). The full sequence begins with cognitive modeling, followed by teacher-led guided practice, and ultimately independent student practice. For a sample cognitive apprenticeship lesson, see the Stamp Act Lesson Plan.

Inquiry: Most lessons in the curriculum include elements of historical inquiry, where students investigate historical questions, evaluate evidence, and construct historical claims. Some, however, are designed around a process of inquiry, where students develop hypotheses through analyzing sets of documents. Such inquiries are best suited for block or multiple class periods. For a sample inquiry, see the Japanese Internment Lesson Plan.

Structured Academic Controversy (SAC): For these lessons, students work in pairs and then teams as they explore a historical question. After taking opposing positions on a question, they try to arrive at a consensus or at least clarify their differences. These lessons are well suited to block or multiple class periods and work best after students gain experience working with primary documents. For a sample SAC, see the Lincoln Lesson Plan.

The type of stuff that the Reading Like a Historian Curriculum provides is the type of instruction that we know is best for kids. It’s the sort of model that Sam Wineburg and others have been pushing for years.

So . . . head on over and use what fits. And then browse through the rest to begin seeing ways that you might adapt your own curriculum. Your students will leave your class with the ability to use history, not just memorize it.

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Dr. Waleslove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Wikipedia

Last week, I had the opportunity to share some ideas on technology integration with some pre-service college students. I mentioned that I liked the idea of using Wikipedia as the starting point for many of my online searches. They quickly pointed out that many of their professors discourage, and in some cases attempt to prohibit, the use of Wikipedia as a research tool.

It’s the same at the K-12 level:

You can’t trust Wikipedia. Anyone can change anything so you shouldn’t use it.

There are even some who configure their internet filters to block Wikipedia access.


Almost ten years old, Wikipedia has had its ups and downs. Back in 2000, Jimmy Wales began thinking about a way of creating an open, collaborative, online encyclopedia that could be edited quickly. He settled on using a wiki format that would allow members of the public to contribute material and on January 10, 2001, Wikipedia came online. According to, it is now the sixth most accessed web site in the world.

It is, of course, the collaborative nature of Wikipedia that bothers some. But it is this very feature that makes Wikipedia so powerful. Following the Hudson River crash of US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009, the Wikipedia community quickly began posting information about the incident. Much of the earliest data in the article was incorrect and incomplete but it was the ability of Wikipedia to be edited that allowed the crash article to quickly and accurately provide details.

A recent article in Education Week by Matthew Shapiro does an excellent job of addressing teacher concerns about Wikipedia. I especially like his reference to research done several years ago:

Maybe you are thinking that Wikipedia is fine for answering a few pesky questions, but for classroom research it cannot compare to the gold standard of encyclopedic wisdom: the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Actually, it can. A recent study, published in Nature, showed that for every four errors found in Wikipedia, there were three errors found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Yet that study was conducted in 2005, and since then those same Wikipedia entries have been subjected to intense online scrutiny. Each entry is assigned a discussion board to resolve disputes, and particularly contentious battles can be resolved by “admins.” These online arguments can actually improve the quality of the information.

Shapiro cites a University of Washington study that says 82% of college students use Wikipedia as part of the research. So why should we as teachers care? Can’t we just refuse to accept any Wikipedia-based research, make them do it over, hand out zeros?

Shapiro suggests that

Our students are constantly bombarded by spurious information from a 21st-century arsenal composed of 24-hour news networks, blogs, online newspapers, and even YouTube. As teachers, we can vainly attempt to shield our students from an ever-growing information storm, or we can help them acquire the skills to navigate through it.


Part of those skills involve making judgment calls about the quality and reliability of any information source – online or off. One simple method some use asks kids to go through the five W’s to help them form good questions about information sources:

  • who – author
  • what – data format (text, photo, audio, video)
  • where – source of information, citations
  • when – date written / modified
  • why – audience or purpose

You can have students compare Wikipedia articles to Encyclopaedia Britannica (and other sources), looking for differences. Train students by looking for bias in Wikipedia articles on political parties, controversial topics or sports teams. Have students research and create their own Wikipedia article and track changes, both correct and incorrect, that are made to “their” article.

Many Wikipedia articles also have extensive bibliographies and links to other sites, students can often find additional resources for their research. Wikipedia articles can aid in selecting topics for research by providing overviews of different subjects.

Shapiro is right. We can bury our heads in the sand or we can “help them acquire the skills” to manage an ever-growing mountain of data.

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Great NHEC site gets better

The National History Education Clearinghouse has always been amazing.

The site was broken down into several sections such as History Content, Best Practices, Teaching Materials, Issues & Research and Professional Development. And it was wonderful stuff.

But just last week, the NHEC site got an upgrade. It’ll take a bit of getting used to but I already like the change. The creators have worked to make the content easier to find and use by eliminating several sections and focusing just on History Content, Best Practices and Teaching Materials.

New features in those three areas include a Bookmark Backpack (which allows users to save their favorite resources), videos such as What is Historical Thinking and easy to use search categories. You will find plenty of online primary sources and multimedia, videos of teachers in action, helpful guides to teaching with technology or historic sites, Teaching American History project spotlights and lessons learned and much more.

I especially appreciate the videos that demonstrate a specific strategy in actual classroom settings. You also have the opportunity to ask master teachers and historians questions that you might have concerning teaching ideas, materials or online resources.

They’ve also made it easier to stay updated with the latest info with a K-12 history teacher monthly enewsletter and a biannual print newsletter. You can review past issues and subscribe online.

The site really is what I call a “non-negotiable” – a tool so valuable that no history teacher should try teaching without it.

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