On Beginning at the End . . . and, musings on the difference between teaching high school freshman vs. college seniors (and those in between).

The best teachers plan their lessons backwards. They say: “where do I want my students to end up?” Then they decide on how they would evaluate mastery, design an assessment that measures mastery, and then they go on to actually plan the unit (its assignments, readings, etc). 

I did not do this for my current unit (which is ending this week). And boy do I feel it. Oh I knew what skills I was teaching and how to assess that. But the content? Not so much. 

This is what happens when you don’t figure out these things in advance: The last week of this unit was spent with me trying to figure out how to make each lesson and assignment meaningful and having to explain to students, after the fact, why we were focussing on certain pieces of information. I’m sure that they TOTALLY understand Ancient Roman and Han Chinese history now (face palm). 


And here is where I’ve discovered some big differences between teaching in a high school and in a college classroom (especially high school freshman). 

[I want to be clear that I am not implying that teaching high school is harder or better than teaching college, merely that it is different. To think about holistic history curriculums that build from the high school to the college, it seems like we should start to think about the ways these classrooms are different and how that might affect how and what we teach.]


1) These kids have never seen most of this information before. EVER. Right down to the vocabulary. All of this is brand new —  in a way that it simply is not in college. Sure, in college a lot of students encounter a lot of new history, but they usually enter with some broad outline or understanding of some history somewhere. The newness with my kids is broader and deeper. Basic historical ideas like change over time, basic historical topics like Hinduism, Greek poets, and trade routes are completely new to them. COMPLETELY. They don’t know what the word “consolidate” means. They are becoming people and experiencing the academic history for the very first time. I explain the difference between BCE and CE, and why BCE numbers go down while CE numbers go up as we move towards the present. 

This can be awesome. And super fun.

But it can also be daunting — and sometimes terrifying. I am building the framework through which they will begin to study history. I describe the Buddha as this dude who wandered around trying to figure out life. Will that ruin how they relate to Indian and Chinese history from now on? (oof). More importantly, it means that I cannot assume any prior knowledge. ANY. AT ALL. Think of all the things we take for granted that people know: what slavery means, what political rights are, how governments work, how an economy works, that money is an invention based on a shared assumption of value, that the past was VERY different than the world today. Most of my students don’t know this when we start. I have no baseline. I build the baseline. That is very different than when I taught college students (freshmen through seniors).


2) I see them everyday. This means that when I make a mistake, I have ample opportunity to correct it (and quickly). Things don’t sit for a couple days and then, after 2-3 days off from a lecture, I have to come in and correct misinformation. I can do it the very next day. I also build a super close relationship with these kids. We spend A LOT of time together. A lot. 

Downside. So, so many opportunities to make a mistake. And sometimes all you can see are the mistakes you are making, rather than see the successes you are having.


3) The grind is just . . . grinding. I see these kids day in and day out. Everyday there needs to be a new lesson plan. And with students at this age, I need to come up with a minimum of 2-3 things to do during every 45 minute period so that I can effectively work with their developing brains. I cannot fall back on lecture or class discussion. If I want to hold a discussion, I have to spend 3-4 months slowly teaching them how to be able to hold one in a meaningful and productive way. Lecturing: out of the question for more than 10-15 minutes at a time. Days when I slack, I see it in my students’ energy. So the daily prep is just heavier. IE: Nightly prep is heavier. Nightly email responses to their formative assessments and projects, prep for tomorrow’s activities — these things eat up the afternoon after a full work day in the classroom.

Summers are amazing. I have those again. But the school year is teaching and prep from early morning until after dinner. And I am in the classroom way more. Everyday. That I did not feel in quite the same way when I taught college. 


So — how does this all relate to my craptacular unit on Rome and China? Welp. Because the daily grind is so grinding, I must have a plan going in if I am going to teach a successful unit. Because I see them everyday, I have no time to stop and breath. When the day is over, I go home, plan for tomorrow, then teach next day. If I don’t take some time, at the start, to begin at the end of a unit and to create a strong plan to pull me through to the finish, my unit is going to fall apart like this one did. 


Beyond that — I (and all history teachers I think) need to set content AND skills goals in each unit. The ways in which we do that will vary tremendously between the college and high school classroom. So what should those goals be?


Right now, I’m thinking that skills are way more important for my freshman. Can you write a clear essay with a strong introduction, thesis statement, paragraphs with clear topic sentences, strong evidence, and a conclusion? Can you tell me why things are important, not just what they were or what happened? Can you analyze a primary source? 

But I do need to balance content with that. I went too skills heavy this unit and the content fell out. And what’s the use of teaching history if we aren’t learning the story of change over time? Where’s the thrill and excitement? Where’s Empress Wu becoming emperor and using Buddhism to justify her reign? (“wait! I thought Buddhism was an Indian religion” says a student. I say “And that brings us to the Silk Road!!” Student: “WAIT! a lady was emperor???”)

For my seniors, I try to balance content and skills — doing each in equal measure. As they become better at the skills, we can add more and more content for them to analyze and wrestle with. My rubrics reflect that I am far more focussed on quantity and quality of evidence — in addition to the skills of strong analytical writing


When I taught college, depending on the level and purpose of the course, I either balanced skills and content equally or sometimes focussed more on content. College-teaching-types: What do you do?? Should there be a progression in your courses (say from the 100 level to the 300/400 level?). Do seminars focus more on content and less on skills? Or do they focus more on skills in that they often include research?


What is our ideal balance. Am I getting my high-school balance right? And how the hell am I supposed to teach World History from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Reformation without pulling my hair out as I ponder; “what information do they REALLY need to know??”


Now, I’m off to put the finishing touches on my next unit on Islam — on which I began at the end, figured out key skills and content, and now feel much better about. Monday cannot come soon enough. Get me out of this unit. 

Student self-assessment

Gordon Hultberg over at Voices and Choices had this to say about involving students in determining their grade for their class:

“My only certainty at the moment is that offering my students a voice in the grading process is a good thing, one that involves them in the reporting process, and begins to make me even more accountable to them for the meaning of a grade. . . .

I think giving students a voice in the reporting process is one way to help them see that class exists to serve their purposes, as Gordon Pradl has said. It does not cost anything to share authority this way. It did involve carving a good-sized niche out of the routine schedule of class activities, but students are grateful for additional free reading or study time. Through these meetings I have been able to watch and hear my students actively evaluating themselves as learners, searching almost painfully for the right words to express their ideas, their eyes casting about the ceiling for a solid hold.”

I happened to stumble on this post and blog as I was perusing WordPress, and Hultberg’s project to include students in the grading process struck a chord with me. This Fall I changed the structure of my final exam dramatically. The primary purpose was to have students show that they could write a strong analytical essay. But rather than use historical evidence, I asked them to assess their strengths and weaknesses over the semester. They used their previous exams from the course as evidence/primary sources to assess their change over time in learning. My goal was to have students not only show that they could write a clear essay, but also to have them think critically about their learning over the course of the semester so far — and how they could improve next semester. I’ve long been opposed to final exams because there is little evidence to show that they are an useful learning tool or that they can accurately assess learning. Because of that, I’ve been deeply conflicted about assigning them. I had hoped to make the exam a useful exercise for both students and me. They would have to think critically about themselves as learners, and I could better understand how they viewed their own progress.

Hultberg’s blog mentioned a collection of essays called De-testing and De-Grading: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization. The amazon summary reads:

“A century of education and education reform along with the last three decades of high-stakes testing and accountability reveals a disturbing paradox: Education has a steadfast commitment to testing and grading despite decades of research, theory, and philosophy that reveal the corrosive consequences of both testing and grading within an education system designed to support human agency and democratic principles.
This edited volume brings together a collection of essays that confronts the failure of testing and grading and then offers practical and detailed examinations of implementing at the macro and micro levels of education teaching and learning free of the weight of testing and grading. The book explores the historical failure of testing and grading; the theoretical and philosophical arguments against testing and grading; the negative influence of testing and grading on social justice, race, class, and gender; and the role of testing and grading in perpetuating a deficit perspective of children, learning, race, and class.”

Friends, the book is already in my cart. And Hultberg’s blog has been added to the links to the right.

Standards-Based Grading, or, Formative Assessments and the Long Slog to Skill-Building.

I like Rick Wormelli’s stuff. In later posts I’ll address how, more and more, I’m trying to incorporate his models of standards-based grading and differentiation into my pedagogy. But right now I’m thinking about formative assessments.  

Wormelli argue that the worst thing to happen to learning is grades. That extrinsic motivators like these actually decrease student desires to learn. Intrinsic motivators are what we as teachers need to cultivate. So instead of focussing on grades, we need to be explaining to students WHY they are learning what we are teaching. What use is it to them? Why should they care? In doing so, students can develop intrinsic motivators to learn. This helps them keep going when they have difficulty with concepts. Rather than feeling like a failure or stupid and giving up because of that (a key feeling associated with anything below a B+. Or, for some students, anything below and A), they remain committed to the task because they actually want to learn the material. So, to get students to learn, he argues, we have to first create intrinsic motivation.* 

Secondly, we need to create clear standards, then give students concrete feedback on where they are in relation to those standards —- and feedback on how to reach them. This feedback needs to come without grades because, as research has shown, grades harm intrinsic motivation. 

This is where formative assessments come in. They are assessments that tell teachers where a student is in relation to the standard (of skill mastery), and go on to provide meaningful feedback that explains how the student can achieve mastery. They are, essentially, ungraded assignments with lots of comments. 

This unit I am using formative assessments a lot in World I. We are learning how to do historical identifications, and I want to see if formative assessments really work. The results? Interesting so far. 

First, we talked in class about what an identification was and why we do them. Then we did an ID together. Then the students went home and read the textbook (BLARGH! I HATE textbooks. Anyway . . . moving forward). Their homework was to do a set of identifications using the text. 

Next step: the formative assessments. 

In class, I used the Socrative app** to create a quiz which asked them, without HW notes, to identify key terms from the HW. 

The next day, I tested them again using the same app and same IDs.  

The verdict? Not so good. On a scale of 1 to 3 (1 equaling no mastery, 2 equalling partway to mastery, and three equalling mastery), twenty-two students earned a 1, eleven earned a 2, and three earned a 3.*** To be honest. The whole thing was really depressing. BUT! I hadn’t given any feedback yet. So, I emailed each student with comments on what their ID needed to do to show mastery. I often included an example of a strong ID. 

After that, I tested again. The verdict? Better, actually. Eleven earned a 1, ten earned a 2, and fourteen earned a 3.**** 

But here’s the thing: that night got busy with a phone call from a parent, a vet visit for a very angry calico (who hates carriers, cars, vet offices, needles, and the world), and Writing Center duty. I didn’t have time to email all of them. My solution? We’re going to do some sort of exercise in class where students have to work in pairs to do an ID. I’ll group the stronger students with the weaker ones, and then have the students put their ID’s up on the board where I can give oral feedback. Not as good, but it will have to do. 

 Then, I’ll test again. Hopefully the numbers will go up. 

 But here’s my question. What to do if they don’t? A question for my next post, I think. Another question for a future post: can this model of education be useful in a college setting? Is it practical?


* I address in a previous post how I try to do this with ID’s.

**Socrative is an app/website that can be used on any internet connected device. You can administer quizzes on it and all results are emailed to you in spreadsheet format. Super useful for formative assessments.

*** Yes, my classes are extremely small. 

**** numbers may not add up due to absences. 

Teaching Philosophies, going from the university to a high school

As I pondered what to write about tonight, I started thinking that it would be a good idea to outline my teaching philosophy. I articulated it very clearly when I was on the academic and secondary school market two years ago, but has it changed since then?

This was the opening paragraph (the rest of the teaching philosophy supported all of this with specific examples of how I teach).

“As an educator, I want to teach my students how to ask questions and develop the critical thinking skills necessary to address them. As a historian, I want my students to understand history not as a chronology of facts to memorize, but as a subject of interpretation and debate. My first step to accomplish these goals is to make sure that students engage with the material, to tackle subjects that spark mutual interest, and to read sources that challenge their assumptions about the past. Thus everything I do in my classroom — from designing syllabi, to choosing readings, to planning assignments, and to formulating class plans —creates an environment in which students analyze documents, formulate arguments, and the articulate their ideas with both creativity and clarity.”

It has been a year and a half since I began teaching at a high school (why do I feel the need to reinforce for you, dear reader, that this career move was by choice? That I was very successful on the job market, but chose to leave to teach at an independent boarding school? I imagine that this will make you take me more seriously. Which, of course, leads to the conclusion that one can leave the academy, but the nagging self-doubt that the academy instills does not always leave one). Surprisingly, as I now read this teaching philosophy, I realize that my teaching philosophy has not changed all that much. In fact, as I teach more and more at this level (which is at the 9th and 12th grades), I am getting better at enacting my philosophy in the classroom.

It is difficult to work with primary sources with my freshman. Not because they are not capable. Oh, they are capable. In spite their boundless energy (or perhaps, because of it), they connect with primary sources. Classes are always better with them. But I have trouble finding good ones for my World History I course. Up until Ancient India, it is tough. That leaves the first 3 months of the year working with a textbook. I have some primary sources in there, but it drives me to distraction knowing that I am introducing them to history without using a lot of primary sources. Once we get past those periods, things really start to flow and I’ve found tons of material. Until then? Crickets. (invitation for suggestions inserted here)

My seniors are a different story. There, I teach those classes much like I taught my courses in grad school (My Uni had a great record of letting grads develop and teach their own courses. By the time I graduated, I’d taught 6 different quarters, for a total of 7 separate classes). We focus on learning how to read primary sources, how to ask questions of them — and likewise for secondary sources (my school has a library subscription to JSTOR, so that is awesome). I use a writing curriculum that I developed for a collegiate, senior capstone to teach these high school seniors how to do historical research and writing. Of course I modify that to meet the daily class meetings. And lengthen the unit to give them more time — especially to account for the fact that many of them are doing this for the very first time. I’ve broken this down further for my freshman and have seen it work really well. Other teachers in my department have adopted the curriculum in their own ways.

I’m hoping that this blog will be a place where I articulate the ways in which I apply my teaching philosophy. What am I doing to fulfill this? What does this look like in a high school classroom? But I also hope that this will be a space where I can workshop ideas and get comments from you, dear reader. Research and writing always happens in conversation; the best teaching should to do that as well.

Tomorrow, I show my Violence class “Crips and Bloods: Made in America.” Today we read experts from “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” after viewing video from the L.A. Riots in 1992. The conversation in class was pretty spectacular for it only being the fifth day of class. They worked with the sources and were pushing their analysis of race relations pretty deep. Tomorrow we learn about the role of Women (using a PBS website) in World I. While the PBS website lesson information is interesting, the class plan is boring. I know that. Hopefully I’ll figure out a way to jazz it up before 8 am tomorrow. More likely, I’ll teach a mediocre lesson and figure out, three weeks later, what I should have done. Hopefully. World I is not my specialty and I can struggle to teach it in a super exciting way.

Historical Identifications. How do you teach them? Are they useful?

I’m beginning to teach my students about ID’s. And I am torn. ID’s can feel a lot like memorizing (which to me, is a skill that is not NEARLY as important as the myriad others I teach — such as critical thinking, analysis, and writing). But my students will go on to take classes from teachers who teach ID’s. Not teaching students how to do them feels like I am setting them up for future failure.

But how can I teach ID’s so that they fit into my larger pedagogical philosophy?

Right now I’m teaching them as follows.

A) I tell my students that ID’s are not just memorizing, but are pieces of a larger puzzle. A good identification should help us answer larger questions about how or why change occurred.  To understand these big changes, we have to understand the significance of smaller pieces. To make an argument about how change occurred, we need to use lots of supporting evidence. ID’s help us do both.

B) I tell my students that an ID should tell us 1) who or what the ID is, 2) when it lived or happened, 3) why it was important.

C) What counts as a good “why is it important?” I tell my students that should cover 1) Did it cause something to happen? 2) Was it the result of something? 3) Does it explain something? 4) Did it cause change?

How do you teach ID’s? Are they just rote memorization? Or are they something more? Does testing ID’s show us that students understand the historical story — or does it just tell us if they’ve memorized something? Is this a good way to teach them how to work with evidence in an essay? If so, how would you transition from a lesson on ID’s to one on evidence in an essay?

Teaching Violence in America: Lectures and their usefulness

So I teach a course called Violence in America. The idea is to get kids to think differently about United States History by examining it through the lens of Violence. It’s broken up into units based not on chronology, but on themes. The first is Urban Violence. 

Today, students listened to N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” and Public Enemies’s “Fight the Power.” The goal of the lesson was to get students to think about how we got from the urban riots of the late 1960s to the rise of ghansta rap (and tomorrow, to explain the L.A. Riots). 

Ideally, I won’t lecture at all in a class. Or if I do lecture, it is for under 15 minutes. Students don’t have the attention span for it (did you know that even adults’ attention span runs out at 22-24 minutes? Freshman have about 15-16 minutes, tops) and I really dislike a pedagogical model in which I am just feeding students information. But today I lectured for around 25-30 minutes. 

How do you deal with a lesson plan when you have 20 years of complicated history to get through? I try to stay away from textbooks because they can really kill history (snooooooooooze. I mean, how many of us look back at our high school history classes and think “GOSH! That textbook was soooo riveting! I wish we had more of THAT!). And in this class I am pulling so many threads of history together to tell a story that the textbooks are inadequate anyway (Foner’s is pretty good, but it is dense and designed for College. Also, his explanation of the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s is outdated in the version that I have — and that outdated-ness is s problem. It makes an argument that has since been challenged by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe).

So this is my problem: In one class period I want to cover the decline of manufacturing between 1967 and 1990 (including the international manufacturing recovery from the Marshall Plan, the trade deficit and stagflation), the Oil Embargo, the Republican Southern Strategy/Law and Order Strategy, the rise of Reagan, the origin of the War on Drugs, the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 and the 100:1 ratio between cocaine and crack for mandatory sentencing, and the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic) — ALL in one class. How do I do this is one class period?

Should I be breaking this up into several periods and use primary sources? We cover a lot in this class. Does this take the focus off of the main interpretive Violence lens and thus bring students too far afield? Do I give them selected textbook readings and have them put the story together? Is lecturing the most expedient way to get the information across, yet ultimately lazy? Should I be having the students piece this story together to understand the causes behind urban violence? If so, do I do this with all primary sources? Should I incorporate some secondary sources? Is Sugrue too complicated? Are there more recent works besides Sugrue that might work better?