Black History Month has its origins in “Negro History Week” which was launched in February of 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, the “father of Black history.” Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, was born in 1875 to former slaves. His life as a historian paved the path for Black history to be an integral part of American history, even if it took generations after him for Black history to be treated with the respect it deserved from the academy. Woodson recognized something before so many others: that Black history is American history and that the more we know about the history of Black Americans, the better we can understand the nation that claims to prize “liberty and justice for all.”
In our very first blog post, we looked at the definition of history—the study of the past. Since then, we have constantly referenced this definition. Understanding it is vital to recognizing its importance in uncovering the past and how that past shapes, and is shaped by, our present. When Woodson debuted “Negro History Week,” America was in the depths of Jim Crow. Black Americans were individually and systematically discriminated against by white Americans who refused to acknowledge their humanity. The history they were taught only confirmed these prejudices. Woodson understood this. He recognized that if an accurate American history was portrayed, one which equalized the voices of Black Americans with white Americans, people would be able to engage with the accomplishments, the contributions, and of course, the humanity of Black Americans.
Once we recognize that history is not merely the past, but the study of the past, we can be open to the truth that there is more history to uncover, more history to learn, and more history to engage with. Narratives can change and despite what political pundits will have us believe, that is a good thing. It means we are wrestling with the past, not just passively receiving it as fact.
So, as Black History Month begins, may we use this time to reflect on both what it means to study history and what it means to be American. We live in a moment where there is still racism, both individual and systemic. We must collectively combat this fact of our present. And we can. When we elevate the stories of Black Americans, we elevate America. The narrative, perhaps of America’s exceptional greatness, may shift, but this is not a bad thing. When our collective understanding of the past represents who we are as a collective, we all grow. When we see that Black history is American history, we can better see citizens who may look differently or believe differently from us as equals rather than others. “We the People” becomes an accurate description of all Americans, not simply the founder’s ideal.
In a month, we get to join hundreds of California Social Studies teachers at the CCSS (California Council for Social Studies) annual conference. As every year, I am excited to engage with those passionate about social studies education in our home state.
On Friday, February 24th, I will be leading a session called: Building Collaboration Without Losing Autonomy: Common Assessments on Historical Thinking. I am excited to talk with teachers about the importance of common assessments, historical thinking, and the collaboration that can be had by combining the two.
So often, history teachers work in silos. The lack of funding, the variety of content eras under the umbrella of “social studies,” and the general lack of time often keep us from collaborating with others both in the department and in other departments. Common assessments, when built in as a routine, can change that! By widening the community of practice, we can gain more support, better ideas, and clearer data on student growth. These are all wins as we pursue the aim of cultivating historical thinkers in our classrooms.
Often, our counterparts in ELA and STEM have clear means to build collaboration with one another (not to mention the funding to go with it… sigh). But by utilizing common assessments that emphasize historical thinking and the skills of the historian, we too, can build this type of collaboration. What’s even better about this approach to common assessments is that they do not interfere with the general content scope and sequence of our classes. By assessing our students’ ability to think historically, we assess how they navigate the information that their class is defined by, rather than their mere retention of that information. This opens up so many doors for both vertical alignment in Social Studies across grade levels, but also interdisciplinary collaboration with our ELA and STEM peers.
I’m excited to dive into the specifics of this approach with a room of impactful educators up in Santa Clara County. If you are attending the California Council for Social Studies conference, be sure to come and say hi at our session or our booth!
This week, we hosted our first Thinking Nation Webinar. We walked attendees through our mission and vision, our resources, and our platform. Knowing that not everyone can attend these time-specific meetings, we’re posting the recording to this week’s blog. If you’ve wanted to to get to know Thinking Nation a little better, we hope this webinar recording helps!
To wrap up the year, I wanted to take some time to reflect on some of my favorite books read in 2022. These books continue to shape my understanding of history, historiography, methods, and pedagogy. Here are the top 5, in order of when they were read.
One of our partner school teachers recommended this book that I had sadly not read yet. More than anything, this book challenged the way I think about how others think. It reminded me that what we think is not just contextualized into our own experiences, but how we think is too. The methods of our thinking vary based on our own lived experiences, and as we develop curriculum we need to consider these varying modes of thinking. Like millions before me, Friere challenged me deeply.
As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
I read this immediately after Friere’s book as I was building a unit on Indigenous Environmental Justice for our Ethnic Studies curriculum. At the end of the unit, students are asked how they can promote justice (free graphic organizer!) based on their engagement with this history. Gilio-Whitaker’s work was incredibly scholarly and incredibly readable, a combination that is pretty hard to come by. She challenged the way I saw certain events in history and enlightened me to just how important environmental justice is to American Indians. She demonstrated why land is so much more than a physical asset for indigenous communities, as land is tied to indigenous culture, religion, economics, food, and more. Her holistic history was incredibly eye opening.
Wow. Keckley’s experience as an enslaved, then free, seamstress was riveting. Put simply, there needs to be a movie about her. A seamstress for Jefferson Davis’s wife before the Civil War, she refused to go with them once the war began. Through her own grit, she became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress during Lincoln’s tenure in the White House. She was a confidant for Mrs. Lincoln and was often “in the room” with President Lincoln at critical personal moments. I could not put her book down.
Back on Juneteenth, I dedicated a whole blog post to this book, so I will link to it rather than restate much of what is there. In sum, Gordon-Reed’s book was equal parts memoir, history, and a treatise on historical methodology. This book should be read in undergraduate methodology courses.
This is somewhat of a canonical book in historiography, and yet I hadn’t read it until this year. Bloch was a part of the Annales school of historical methodology in France in the years before WWII. An activist, he stood against the Nazi regime when they took over the area of France he lived in. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and wrote this entire book while imprisoned. The book ends with a “…” because he was executed before he finished and edited the book. Even in its incomplete state, Bloch’s reminders of what it means to “do history” are foundational to what we do at Thinking Nation.
Each of these books were formative in my own historical thinking and I’m excited for students to experience this type of thinking in our curriculum.
When visiting one of our partner schools this week, I was able to watch students engage in the writing process using Thinking Nation DBQs centered on historical thinking. At this particular Los Angeles middle school, the 6th and 8th grade classrooms sit directly across the hallway from each other, allowing me to bounce between the two classes while on campus.
In the 6th grade classroom, students were beginning the outlining process for writing an essay to answer the question: In what ways was Queen Hatshepsut’s reign as Pharaoh of Egypt historically significant? In the 8th grade classroom, students were about half way through outlining their essays to answer the question: Why did the founders create a government built on the separation of powers?
Both groups of students were thinking critically about primary source materials in order to answer those questions. For the 15-20 minutes that I was able to hang out in each classroom, I saw all types of analysis as students engaged with the material. 6th grade students were looking at pictures of statues of Hatshepsut and noting how she portrayed herself as a deity in order to give herself legitimacy as a female pharaoh in a largely male-dominated society. They drew attention to her building projects like her massive obelisks or her mortuary temple, Deir el-Bahari. Students were constructing a thesis statement that highlighted how accomplishments like this made her historically significant.
In the 8th grade classroom, most students were interrogating James Madison’s meaning for the behind “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” and thinking of clever ways to word their paragraphs in order to explain how the founders wanted to build a government that recognized the inherent selfishness that Madison saw in human nature. Their conversations straddled the line between history and philosophy and it was inspiring to listen in and even engage with some of their thoughts.
In both cases, students were not merely passively receiving a historical narrative and telling their teacher what they remembered about it. Rather, they were actively engaging in historical arguments. Arguments of both significance and purpose. Of course, understanding significance and purpose for many is a lifelong endeavor; but how much more equipped will these students be to ask such questions of their present after dissecting their meaning in the past?
Historical thinking not only builds up students analytical skills, it gives them a necessary tool belt to engage with life’s biggest questions. They can think historically about their own world and rather than simply be bystanders to the events of the day, they can enter into the conversation in order to offer up their own solutions, just as they offer their own interpretations of the past. Historical thinking matters.
This week, I had the opportunity to teach a few classes at one of our partner schools: Rise Kohyang Middle School in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA. For three class periods, I was able to work through the history of Ancient Rome. Specifically, the students were working on answering the essential question: How did the idea of citizenship in Ancient Rome change over time?
As a guest teacher, I never really know what I’m walking into. I find this exciting! It gives me the opportunity to let the students lead a little as I pry and figure out what they know and what they know how to do.
We started reading some historical context of Ancient Rome. Right away, the students were making poignant observations. One student noted that “just because the plebeians became citizens did not mean that they became equal to the patricians” pretty early on. I had some fun and ignored raised hands when it was time to give an answer to a text based question and simply said “say it if you know it!” Dozens of students shouted out the answers. The students were engaged, inquisitive, and prepared to participate. I was impressed.
As we began to talk about the document that cemented the last large expansion of citizenship in Ancient Rome, the Edict of Caracalla, some of the students’ brains really began to turn. Emperor Caracalla signed the Edict of Caracalla in 212 C.E. It essentially gave citizenship to all free people living in the Roman Empire. Many scholars point out that this was probably the largest expansion of citizenship to ever take place from a single event in world history. People across the empire, living on three continents, instantly became citizens. Its significance is profound.
The classroom was set up with four rows of desks on each side of the room, all facing the center. As I looked down the center walkway dividing these sections, I noticed one student sitting in the first row, closest to the center but in the back of the room. She was clearly pondering something. Her hand went up.
“You know how a lot of people say that Rome didn’t fall because of invaders from the outside, but that it crumbled from within?” Without waiting for my response, she continued, “Do you think that Rome expanding citizenship to too many people too fast was a reason that it fell from within? That they couldn’t make everyone happy or keep order which led to it crumbling?”
Of course, this was not where my brain was at that moment. I was thinking about the inclusiveness of the act. She was thinking about its unintended consequences. To be sure, I’m no expert on Ancient Rome. I let her know that that is a really interesting and plausible consequence of the edict. We then opened the conversation up to the class. What is the purpose of a government? What happens when it can’t fulfill that purpose? Students began to express their thoughts, compare Rome to the U.S.A today, and most relevant to this unit, really began to grasp just how large the Roman Empire was.
It’s always a privilege when I get to join students in their academic journey. This week was yet another example why. I came in with a specific purpose around a specific question. That particular student was making different connections, based on her own interests. The intersection of those two goals produced a brilliant exchange with a group of Los Angeles middle schoolers. We often are unsure if young students can analyze deep concepts in history. I hope this example reminds us not just that yes they can, but that they want to. We just have to provide them the opportunities.
Students often have “in the moment” questions about history, historical thinking, and writing during class. Truthfully, we can’t get to them all nor do all of our students feel that they “really” need to ask their question. With Thinking Nation’s chat feature, however, all students can ask their teacher questions during the analysis and writing process. Even if teachers can’t get to the questions immediately, they can sift through student questions on their notifications tab on their own account home page. This way, students can ask their questions when they are top of mind even if the teacher is unavailable to answer them at that moment.
We want the conversation about historical thinking and writing to have the opportunity to continue even after the bell rings. Our chat feature, embedded in all of our DBQs, allows just this. All students need to do is highlight the text or section of the resource that they have a question about. Next, they type their question, click the “send as chat” option and press “save.” Teachers are notified and can then respond when they are able. Students are also notified when a teacher responds so that an intellectual direct message conversation can ensue.
So, teachers! Make sure your students know that they can do this and be sure to utilize this feature as you continue to empower your students to think historically. Lastly, in light of our last blog. THERE ARE ONLY 10 DAYS LEFT IN OCTOBER. You got this!
If you’ve taught more than one semester before, you’ve experienced teaching in October. The honeymoon stage with the students is over. Behavior in the class, if things were not established in incredibly explicit terms, begins to be harder to manage. Students begin feel a little tired and perhaps even a little apathetic toward learning, wishing to be back on summer break. October is hard! Many people know that November 1st of my first year of teaching was my lowest point as an educator. I felt defeated and I quite literally questioned my choice of going into education. I was equally exhausted and perplexed.
These scenarios and reflections are not uncommon in education. Just talk to a teacher. With that being the case, though, what do we do? How do we set ourselves up for success despite the pitfalls that come in this month? How can we continue to set the foundation for a year of academic growth for our students?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a 5 point plan for success when teaching in October. I’m not sure one exists. But there are some important things we should consider and reflect on, especially as history teachers.
First, we must remind ourselves of our purpose as teachers. As this blog has emphasized time and again, our job is to teach students how to study the past. Teaching the past is not enough. History is bigger than a timeline. It’s a discipline of study. Creating routines in our classrooms around reading, analyzing, and writing about the past reminds students that they are in our classroom to become better thinkers, not better at recall. Reminding ourselves of this purpose (DAILY!) is critical for cementing our purpose as history teachers.
We also have to reset structures if they need to be reset. Do you see things that irritate you as a teacher but aren’t quite enough to call out? Call them out anyway. Set your behavioral standards in stone. Resetting is hard, but it is better in October than in January. Good, quality, historical thinking cannot happen in classrooms where management takes all of our energy.
The last thing worth considering, at least in this post, is to set a routine of historical thinking in your room. Make that word have daily resonance with your students. Introduce a new skill each week. Give concrete examples of it and adequate time to practice thinking that way. Have students write something argumentative, even if short, as often as possible. If they aren’t ready to do it on their own, do it with them! Students cannot do what they’ve never seen. Be a model of analysis. Doing heavy lifting for students at this point of the year is ok! Especially if you are giving them the framework to do that lifting on their own later in the year.
Teaching in October is hard. So many things are thrown at teachers. But, reminding ourselves of our purpose daily, resetting structures to create pathways to success, and embedding historical thinking into every lesson are important steps to take to make it a successful year of academic growth.
Hispanic Heritage Month began last week. As we celebrate both Hispanic heritage and Hispanic contributions to United States history, we are going to focus on an area often under explored: Chicana feminism.
The Second Wave of Feminism is largely seen as the feminist movement that began with The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963 and then lasted into the early 1980s. Over a twenty year period, women pushed for equality that went far beyond the right to vote, which is the right that defined the first wave of feminism (1848-1920). Even within the noble aims of this second wave, however, many feminists of color felt a disconnect between the fight of their white counterparts and their lived reality. Thus, Black and Chicana feminists often called out racism within the movement and sometimes banded separately from the “mainstream” movement to fight for rights at the intersection of race and sex.
The disconnect felt by Chicana feminists in particular are illuminated in a provocative poem by Jo Carillo. Carillo was Chicana and Native American and published this poem, entitled “And When You Leave, Take You Pictures With You,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, published in 1981. For today’s blog, we want to publish the poem below, as it gives a good glimpse into a perspective of Chicana Feminism. In our DBQ on the second wave of feminism, students analyze this poem as well.
Our white sisters radical friends love to own pictures of us sitting at a factory machine wielding a machete in our bright bandanas holding brown yellow black red children reading books from literacy campaigns holding machine guns bayonets bombs knives Our white sisters radical friends should think again.
Our white sisters / radical friends love to own pictures of us walking to the fields in the hot sun with straw hat on head if brown bandana if black in bright embroidered shirts holding brown yellow black red children reading books from literacy campaigns smiling. Our white sisters should think again. No one smiles at the beginning of a day spent digging for souvenir chunks of uranium of cleaning up after our white sisters radical friends.
And when our white sisters radical friends see us in the flesh not as a picture they own, they are not quite sure if they like us as much. We’re not as happy as we look on their wall.
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminded us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” In that vein, sometimes it’s good to revisit old blogs. Today’s post originally appeared on December 17, 2020. I hope you find it worth rereading as much as we did.
When evidence guides our thinking, we can draw better conclusions. These conclusions can stand strong among the ebbs and flows of the current moment. Following the evidence means ascribing oneself to a particular intellectual humility that is willing to hold fact above fiction and evidence above ego. Following the evidence makes discourse richer, exploration more enjoyable, and arguments more concrete. History, and specifically thinking historically, is grounded on the importance of evidence. This is why Thinking Nation’shistorical thinking curriculum places such an emphasis on teaching students how to engage with the documents of the past. This way, they too can follow the evidence.
Unlike other academic disciplines, history does not demand that findings fit within a particular theory or ideology. Rather, historians seek to present the most accurate picture of the past. This effort must be rooted in facts and evidence. Sure, as all human beings, historians have biases. Historians make arguments, and depending on their own opinions of the past and present, facts can be used differently to make particular claims. Still, the study of the past is nothing without evidence.
If you’ve ever spent any time in the notes section of a historical book, you know just how dependent historians are on facts and evidence. I’ve seen many times where the notes section of a book is over 1/3 of the entire book’s page length! This tells us more about the importance of evidence than we might initially perceive.
When historians include such a rich database of evidence, they are demonstrating that their arguments are not merely opinions. Rather, they have a robust foundation to support their claims and they make sure that anyone who would like to review that evidence knows where it comes from. Just as they seek to contextualize the past, their citations contextualize their argument.
We know that a house built on sand won’t weather a storm. It needs to be built on rock. The notes of a historical book are that rock. Evidence is the foundation of historical study. To try to build an argument without a sturdy foundation is to arrogantly believe that what you build on your own can stand the test of other arguments and the test of time. However, building arguments on the foundation of evidence is to humbly acknowledge that an argument is only as good as its foundation. When evidence is the foundation, we can be more open to new ideas, arguments, and conclusions. Learning is moved forward. It’s the humility of evidence. Knowledge avoids the stagnation brought on by arrogance. The past is presented accurately and sets the tone for us to accurately seek out the best way to live our present.
Historical thinking is integral to the discipline of history, but the skills it entails transcend the discipline. When our students learn how to root themselves in the evidence, they can be the change makers we so often yearn for them to be.
In the realm of historical thinking skills, I fear that analyzing historical significance is the most forgotten. We love to talk about causation, continuity and change over time, and contextualization, but historical significance (besides not conveniently beginning with a “c”) receives far less attention. What a shame.
Canada’s Historical Thinking Project, on the other hand, lists it first on its page of historical concepts. We could learn a lot from our friends up north in this respect. The project admits that “Significance depends upon one’s perspective and purpose.” History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The project’s description elaborates that, “a historical person or event can acquire significance if we, the historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something important for us today.” Today, though, I want to extend its importance more broadly to Thinking Nation’s mission of cultivating thinking citizens.
On all of our DBQs that focus on historical significance, we include this simple definition for students: “Thinking historically means identifying and exploring the reasons why historical people, places, events, or ideas are worth remembering; that is, their historical significance.” Exploring historical significance challenges students to consider the importance of historical events and people that they may not initially connect with. In essence, it is a tool that leads to historical empathy.
When we try to understand why something is historically significant, we are empathizing. We are trying to better understand past people, places, and events in a way that accurately reflects what happened. This type of understanding–of people not like us– is something our democracy desperately needs.
As we’ve argued before, the past does not need to be familiar to be relevant. Students who try to understand the significance of events can more easily humanize their subjects. This act of empathy is such a beautiful result of historical thinking that we must stress more in our classrooms. We don’t just want to cultivate historical thinkers. We want to cultivate thinking citizens. Citizens who make their neighborhoods, states, and country more understanding, inclusive, and kind. Teaching students to analyze historical significance can do a lot to help us get there.
I remember baseball practice vividly growing up. For a decade of my life, baseball consumed me. I honestly loved every minute of it. Practice began with stretching, playing catch, running the bases, fielding ground and fly balls, and sometimes, batting practice. We practiced skills. What practice didn’t consist of, however, was playing a full game.
Fast forward to my life as a teacher. I regularly watched the soccer, basketball, and football players practice on campus. Just like my own experience, these players rarely played games. They conditioned, practiced specific skills in drills, and learned a little bit of the “why” for certain plays.
In reality, the vast majority of time playing a sport is not game time. It’s practice time. Filled with repetition and focused training, practice is much more time consuming than playing the game itself, but it is absolutely essential if one wants to perform well come game time.
Coaches understand that without constant repetition and concentrated practice in specific skills, players will not be adequately prepared once the referee blows the whistle or the umpire shouts “play ball!” As teachers of historical thinking, we would do well to adopt a similar approach.
As much as we love deep discussions through socratic seminars or long, elaborative essays answering profound historical questions, our students cannot feel successful in these big tasks if they have not internalized the foundational skills of historians. In a sense, we need to bring “the drill” into the classroom. At Thinking Nation, we believe that in order to cultivate thinking citizens, we need to give students constant practice in the skills of historical thinking. A practical way we do this is through our Document Analysis graphic organizers.
For all of our units, we pair primary and secondary sources with our THINKS (free download!) analysis organizer. We also provide various historical thinking skill-specific organizers (Skills like Historical Significance, Causation, Causation, and Continuity and Change over Time). Teachers should try to carve our one day a week for students to do this time of focused analysis on a single document.
We believe that if students have regular practice asking the questions of documents inherent to these organizers, students can internalize those questions as they analyze all texts, whether in or out of our classrooms. The organizers (more free downloads!) act like a drill. Just as the athlete will field 100 ground balls in order to be prepared for the couple that may come during a game, the student will repeatedly ask the same questions of every document in order to be prepared for the rigor of a DBQ or socratic seminar.
Athletes who don’t practice consistently cannot perform well during a game. Likewise, we cannot expect our students to flourish in complex tasks inherent to our domain if we do not give them regular and adequate practice with the skills they need to succeed. As teachers plan out the year ahead, let’s prioritize giving students regular practice with rigorous concepts. This way, our students feel empowered to dive into history deeply, knowing they have the skills to do so.
Summer is quickly coming to an end. Teachers are preparing for the return of a new group of students to enter their classroom. The beginning of the school year is always so exciting because it is filled with so much potential. A full year of new learning, beautiful growth, and deep relationships is about to unfold.
As teachers begin to plan out that first week of school, it’s important to carve out time to simply get to know the students, create a safe atmosphere for learning, and set clear expectations that will make for a successful school year. But it is important to not let those priorities completely replace setting the foundation for the content we teach. Weaving our social emotional goals into our curricular goals is a great way for students to get a clear picture of both the style of our class and the content we teach.
In short, the first week of school is a great time to introduce historical thinking skills! We can do this with fun get-to-know-you activities like having each student bring in their own personal object to guide a discussion about primary sources. We can even have their classmates guess the object’s meaning to the student who brought it in order to facilitate a conversation around the importance of contextualization. Or, if we want students to begin to grapple with the skill of continuity and change over time, maybe we want them to document their own life story, paying close attention to how they have changed over time as well as certain ways that they have remained the same.
In tandem with these types of activities, it will also be helpful for students to have hard copies of these definitions and their thoughts about historical thinking that they can reference throughout the year. Thinking Nation’s “What is…?” worksheets are helpful reference points on what each historical thinking skill is and how it can be used. They are linked to this blog! So, please feel free to download them and use them as you prepare for your school year.
The beginning of every school year is such a great opportunity to set the foundation for the importance of historical thinking in your classroom. We hope these simple graphic organizers can help spur deeper conversation about what each skill means.
Last year, we published the below blog for Independence Day. May it serve as an annual reminder of the 4th of July, what it can mean, and how we might think of it:
According to John Adams, we should all be firing up our grills and lighting off our fireworks today. 246 years ago, he wrote a compelling statement to his wife, Abigail Adams. Taking pen to paper on July 3, 1776, Adams reflected on the previous day’s accomplishment of the Continental Congress approving the Declaration of Independence:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776
While we may laugh at Adams’ certainty that the 2nd of July would be a day of celebration, his words were still prophetic. Every year, on July 4th (the day the Declaration’s final version was adopted) many Americans celebrate Independence Day. It’s a day to remember the eventual success of the American Revolution and the birth of the United States.
But, as we saw in our Juneteenth blog, not everyone took such pride in America’s independence day. Speaking on behalf of enslaved Americans in 1852, Frederick Douglass pointed out America’s hypocrisy in celebrating its own independence while it continued to strengthen human chattel slavery within its borders. Speaking to hundreds in Rochester, NY but knowing full well that his speech would be sold in pamphlet form across the country, he declared:
The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny… This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852.
Douglass made sure his audience recognized America’s double standard. He was able to praise what America’s founders did do while also condemning what they didn’t do. By doing this, he paved a path forward for us. Over a hundred years later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continued in this vein in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
“I Have a Dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963.
With these words, he revealed both the great feat of America’s independence and the principles it set forth as well as America’s inability to live up to those principles. Like Douglass, he held these two facts in tension.
Us modern readers must also be willing to hold these facts in tension. First, we cannot be arrogant enough to assume that the “bad check” is fully resolved in 2022. As any parent of a toddler will admit, making a mess takes far less time than cleaning it up. American slavery lasted 339 years. After that, Jim Crow segregation lasted 89 years until Brown v. Board (1954). It would be another decade before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Therefore, in 2022 we are only 58 years from the Civil Rights Act that MLK and others worked so hard to pass. To say that the work toward liberty and justice for all is finished is nothing other than willful ignorance.
Still, we’ve come a long way in realizing America’s promise as laid out in the Declaration. Based on this, as well as the words of the Declaration itself, we still have cause to celebrate! The Declaration affirms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words are worth celebrating, not because we’ve fully lived up to them, but in order to remind us to continue to do the work in order to “form a more perfect union.”
As we celebrate our nation’s birthday this weekend, may we too hold these truths in tension. On one hand, we live in a country that is built on a glorious principle, that all are created equal. On the other hand, our history is a history of our country that has yet to fully live up to this principle. That, of course, does not make the principle any less worth celebrating. As Douglass declared in his speech, “Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
May Independence Day be both a day to celebrate the 246th birthday of the United States and a call to action to live out the Declaration’s principles “on all occasions,” and “whatever the cost.”
Last year, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law on June 17th, making June 19th our 11th federal holiday. For a summary of the holiday and its incredible significance, read last year’s blog. However, this year, we want to explore historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s 2021 award winning book: On Juneteenth.
Annette Gordon-Reed is perhaps most famous for her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which as Pulitzer.org puts it, is “A painstaking exploration of a sprawling multi-generation slave family that casts provocative new light on the relationship between Sally Hemings and her master, Thomas Jefferson.” In her much smaller series of essays, On Juneteenth, she writes a mix of history, memoir, and even historical methods. Today, we will focus on the importance of historical methods in her book, as she weaves their importance throughout.
Early on, she calls out the hypocrisy of how we often remember the past. In the Texas she grew up in, “Slavery was done. There was no point in dwelling on the past” (p. 27). Of course, she reminds the reader, “Except we did dwell on the past. We were exhorted to ‘Remember the Alamo’ and to ‘Remember Goliad…’ (28). Here, she rightfully calls out the role of “legend and myth” as she calls them, and how they skew the teaching and remembering of history.
In contrast, historical thinking offers something less nostalgic, but it is bound by a more truthful representation of the past. She writes a little later, “The past is dead. But, like other formerly living things, echoes of the past remain, leaving their traces in the people and events of the present and future” (33). Historians uncover those echoes, the actual echoes, not just what we may want those echoes to tell us.
As she unravels much of Texas’s history that conveniently doesn’t make the cut for many textbooks, she reminds her readers what history is. “History is about people and events in a particular setting and context, and how those things have changed over time in ways that make the past different from our own time, with an understanding that those changes were not inevitable” (58). In this succinct definition of the discipline, she illuminates two core historical thinking skills: Continuity and Change over Time and Contingency. These, unlike the “memory and mythology” that often lives in a “nationalistic-oriented history” (62), remind us of “the demands of historical thinking” (58).
In that small paragraph, Gordon-Reed illuminates some of the driving factors of our own mission and curriculum at Thinking Nation. We want to empower students to think historically. Not to be grabbed by a convenient history that we easily see ourselves in or might make us feel important, but to be empathetic in our quest to understand the actors and events of the past.
Later, as she seamlessly contextualizes this holiday for both the nation and her own personal life, she reemphasizes the nature of contingency in history. “Writers, and consumers, of history” she cautions, “must take great care not to import the knowledge we have into the minds of people and of circumstances in the past” (82). Because the past is contingent, we must not be presentists. To treat the past fairly and with respect, we must understand it on its own terms.
When we seek that, we remember that revisionist history is not a swear word. It’s at the core of what it means to do history. Gordon-Reed explains that “history is always being revised, as new information comes to light and when different people see known documents and have their own responses to them, shaped by their individual experiences” (107).
With remarkable clarity and convincing argument, Annette Gordon-Reed successfully captivates the reader with her own personal history growing up in Texas, the meaning of Juneteenth for Texans, and by result the nation, and perhaps most lastingly, a robust framework for studying the past. Her incredibly accessible book doesn’t just illuminate the context of the nation’s 11th federal holiday, it is a helpful refresher on what it exactly means to think historically.
For most of the 12th grade students we served this year, their entire 11th grade year was virtual. That simple fact made this year so special. It was a year to rekindle friendships, play sports again, interact with teachers in person, and so many other benefits to being in person. These students also were able to push their thinking and writing skills in their social studies classes with the Thinking Nation curriculum. To say congratulations class of 2022, we want to recount some fun moments in senior-level classrooms this year.
Early on in the year, seniors in US Government analyzed Enlightenment-era and founding documents in order to determine why America’s founders set up a government based on the separation of powers. Students interrogated the documents in a Socratic Seminar and then wrote essays to argue their point.
Students in an Economics class explored some of the key foundational writings of Adam Smith in order to determine the extent of his influence on modern economics. Reflecting on his ideas in the context of the 21st century gave students the opportunity to identify his most lasting impacts. In one particular class, students intensively dissected a seven sentence excerpt of The Wealth of Nations over the course of an hour long period. Their questions and the level of detail in their analysis illuminated why inquiry-based history education is so valuable.
In another economic class, students debated various solutions for solving economic inequality in the United States. They explored scholarly research, government graphs and charts, and popular level journalism in order to write evidence based arguments justifying their point of view.
One government class spent a week with our DBQ on Social Media’s role in democracy. After combing through the documents, the class was pretty split in their lively debate: does social media strengthen or weaken democracy?
In an Ethnic Studies class, seniors pored over 150 years of evidence to analyze the environmental injustices experienced by American Indians and how they have cultivated solutions for environmental justice (FREE RESOURCE!). The analysis and detail in their essays showed great depth and nuance for such an important topic.
As a whole, the seniors who used Thinking Nation this year thought critically, wrote persuasively, and pushed themselves intellectually. In short, they grew. As they move onto life after high school, many of them moving away from home and going to college, we wish them the best! Congratulations class of 2022!
It is foundational to our goals as an organization to teach students history in order to cultivate thinking citizens. But, we believe that our approach to history goes much deeper. By rooting our curriculum in a definition of history as the study of the past and not merely the past, we equip students to think critically. But this approach to history also cultivates humble citizens rather than arrogant students.
When teaching history only requires students to remember the past, students are not equipped to think for themselves. The necessary ability to evaluate sources and make evidence-based claims is left uncultivated. Instead, students race to prove that they know whatever information is on the test. But, as we’ve noted before, this only creates walking encyclopedias. If students can recall relevant (or seemingly irrelevant) information but do not have the skills to evaluate that information, they only mirror a google search. Like an encyclopedia, they can provide facts but offer no analysis.
A history curriculum rooted in the teaching of historical thinking, however, offers something better. Students can encounter different types of information and employ their skills of historical thinking in order to make meaning of that information. Rather than seeking to memorize, they seek to understand.
This is empathy. Quite simply, the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Students who think historically, by nature, practice historical empathy. They seek to understand what is in front of them, whether it be historical events or people. They try to set aside their own biases in order to put themselves in the shoes of those that they study in order to best understand the actions and events that make up the past.
In contrast, students who only remember cannot cultivate those skills. Instead, they become entrenched in whatever narrative they were first presented with. They do not have the skills to ask questions of that narrative, compare it to other narratives, or contextualize it into a larger picture. Within this, pride can seep in as they seek to prove that they know more than someone else. They become arrogant students. When history is only about the retention of facts, whoever can retain more “wins.” History becomes a competition, not a conversation.
To avoid the cultivation of arrogance in our students, then, we must shift the paradigm of history education. We must break away from making knowledge about the past the end goal of our lessons. Rather, we must work to teach our students how to analyze the past, ask questions of the information they encounter, and seek to understand history’s complexities. When we do this, we can cultivate thinking citizens, yes. But, perhaps most importantly, we can cultivate humble and empathetic humans.
Those who are familiar with our curriculum know how much emphasis we place on writing in the history classroom. It is the backbone of our curriculum. We believe that writing helps students think better, empowering them with a skill that can apply to so much beyond the history classroom. University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Adam Grant, puts it so well:
When we write, we are not merely communicating to our readers. We are working through our own ideas. When we slow down our thinking to write it down, we think better. Unfortunately, too many history classrooms are not built on writing. As a result, students may be able to remember the past, but they are not equipped to think about the past. This of course, as we’ve stated time and again, is not history. History is the study of the past. One of the best ways to equip students to study the past is by empowering students to be strong writers.
Of course, this takes practice. It takes effort. It takes targeted professional development so that teachers feel capable to push their students to write. After all, history teachers are literacy teachers, too. This is where Thinking Nation can help. We want to provide schools and teachers with innovative data-driven history curriculum and professional development to empower students to become thinking citizens. In fact, that is our mission.
If you are looking to empower the students at your school to think deeply about the things they read and the narratives they learn, the history classroom is the perfect place. As the department head at one of our partner schools put it, “Thinking Nation’s curriculum and their follow up PD has encouraged my students to think much deeper about significant historical topics.” We’d love to partner with you too. Let’s talk.
I recently had the opportunity to teach a guest lesson in a 6th grade classroom. The students had engaged with the context and historical documents surrounding the historical topic at hand and I came in to guide them through outlining an evidenced-based essay. Their task was to answer this prompt: Compare and Contrast TWO of the following Hindu teachings: dharma, karma, samsara, and moksha. Whereas many 6th grade classrooms teach about Hinduism and its ancient roots, this task asked students to make evidence-based comparisons between two core Hindu ideas in an effort to better understand their relationship to one another.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the room. To start, I asked students to define each term. To my surprise, almost a dozen hands went up with each solicited definition and every time a student answered, they were spot on. Of course, this is a testament to their teacher who more than adequately prepared them for this task in historical thinking.
Once we defined each term, we decided that we wanted to focus on dharma and karma in our essay. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these terms, dharma means the “right way of living,” or duty for all living things. Karma means “action.” It is the Hindu principle that every action has a consequence, both positive and negative. Students were to analyze several documents ranging from excerpts from TheBhagavad Gita, The Ramayana, and The Brihadâranyaka Upanishad. Each is a core text to the Hindu religion.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure if students were going to be able to identify both similarities and differences between the two concepts. But once again, I was pleasantly surprised. One student quickly noted that both ideas deal with people’s actions–a similarity. We quickly wrote this similarity down. Students continued to talk through their own thinking about the concepts in order to make comparisons. It was an empowering sight to see. Here, 10-11 year olds thought through concepts foreign to their own life experience in order to better understand their relationship to each other.
When we moved to differences, students had quite a bit of conversation under their belt. One student excitedly raised her hand to share a difference she noticed between the two. While dharma is something people choose to do (after all, we all neglect our duties sometimes), karma is something that happens to people no matter what choice they made. For example, she went on, people can avoid their dharma but they cannot avoid the resulting karma. Whether good or bad, karma will come. Dissertations are made of this type of simple but nuanced distinction. It demands further analysis (which the students then did with the primary sources) and, in the end, facilitates a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.
In this classroom, students were not merely recalling information about a religion. They were diving deeper. They were incorporating evidence from documents that were thousands of years old in order to make subtle distinctions between complex concepts.
This was not a university level world religions course. These were 6th graders. Many have not even hit puberty yet!
At Thinking Nation, we know that students are capable of deep thought. We want to equip teachers to facilitate such learning experiences for students because we know that students walk away from such experiences feeling empowered. Historical thinking empowers.
As expressed in previous blogs, at Thinking Nation we prioritize supporting teachers as they work to teach their students how to think historically. One way we do this is by offering to do guest lessons for teachers at our partner schools. This week, I had the opportunity to do a guest lesson on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program in an 11th grade classroom. The opportunity had me reflecting on just how important teaching the past through primary sources can be.
In this lesson, students work to write an essay answering the prompt: “Evaluate the extent to which FDR’s New Deal improved the lives of African Americans.” Since history is complex, we wanted students to wrestle with the complexity of this era of massive legislation and that legislation’s impact on a particular group of Americans. Some of the documents analyzed point out how much progress for all Americans (including Black Americans) came as a result of New Deal policies. Others show the implicit (and sometimes explicit) discrimination toward Black Americans that was a real problem with New Deal legislation.
Rather than being mere passive receivers of a story regarding this era of American history, students were engaging with arguments about the past, modeling the very type of thinking historians employ in their own research.
After reading a testimony from Charles Houston (a representative of the NAACP) to the House Ways and Means Committee, where he pointed out the systemic inequality that occurred in the Social Security Act, we looked at how this document fits within the prompt of improving the lives of African Americans. Houston pointed out that since Agriculture and Domestic Service were two industries dominated by Black Americans (and those industries were excluded from Social Security benefits), Black Americans received no support from the federal government’s program even though statistically they had the most to benefit from it.
The content of his testimony is mostly an example of how The New Deal did not improve the lives of African Americans. But one girl raised her hand. “Can’t this be seen as a positive example of Black progress?” she asked. Her classmates looked confused as if they were thinking “Oh no, she really isn’t paying attention.” She continued, “In this case, a Black man is testifying to Congress and they are listening. So even though he is pointing out negative aspects of the New Deal, the very fact that he is in that room shows progress toward more racial equality.” We were all impressed. In all honesty, I had not even seen that argument before.
In that instance, a student recognized the nuances of the past. She became an active participant in historical study. She was not just a learner of the past, but a doer of history. The complexities of the prompt at hand, and perhaps history more generally, came alive. Seeing that lightbulb shine was not just a powerful moment as an educator, it was an empowering moment for the student. She had an evidence-based perspective that shined light on history’s complexity. This is the type of (historical) thinking that we want. It’s the type of moment in the classroom that cultivates thinking citizens.