Pushing Student Thinking through Socratic Seminars

This week I had the opportunity to do a two-part guest lesson with a group of seniors in their government class. Our essential question was “Why is America so polarized?” We looked at four different sources to answer this question: a Pew Research Study, a conservative’s OpEd, a liberal’s OpEd, and a podcast interview. I’ll be honest, the students did not love digging deeply into those four sources. It was mentally rigorous and at times, exhausting. But I knew that they needed that information for day 2’s agenda: a socratic seminar.

When the time came for the seminar, students were ready to speak. They shared their own personal vision for America, they supported what they believed to be the biggest contributing factor to political polarization with evidence from our readings, and they debated the best way to move forward to diminish the crippling polarization we see daily. The vast majority of students, even the shyest, participated in the discussion, bouncing ideas off of each other and challenging others’ conceptions with the evidence they drew from the articles. It was really a joy to just sit back in a student’s chair during this time and listen to these seniors, who will be voting in the next election, debate real ideas with real consequences. Socratic Seminars provide a great platform to do this.

In Socratic Seminars, students usually sit in a circle and discuss deeper questions that then lead to a bigger, essential question, which encapsulates the whole learning event. Teachers often stay back, letting students start the conversation (perhaps with some questions on the board), engage with one another, cite evidence from previously-read sources, and draw conclusions together. Socratic Seminars put the onus of learning on the students and allows them to explore different answers to complex questions in the safety of their classroom.

When I lead professional developments for schools who use the Thinking Nation curriculum, I often encourage teachers to incorporate socratic seminars into their use of our materials. While Socratic Seminars may seem intimidating at first, they are excellent ways to have students engage with complex ideas and empower them to think critically about the content they are studying. To successfully engage in a Socratic Seminar, students need to have read or looked at relevant sources to the topic at hand. They must have a broad essential question to frame their thinking about those materials and they need smaller open-ended questions that can guide their thinking throughout the discussion process. We’ve designed our curricular materials, especially our DBQs, to include all of these things so that teachers can effectively attach a Socratic Seminar to that learning process.

At Thinking Nation, we believe in empowers students to think historically. We aren’t satisfied with them being mere passive receivers of a historical narrative; rather, we want them to actively engage with the past. We want students to wrestle with historical sources and draw evidence-based conclusions as they navigate the sea of the past. Implementing Socratic Seminars gives students such opportunities in their learning process. 

Hispanic Heritage Month and the Mexican Revolution

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, we will look at origins in this blog post. Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off each year on September 16th because September 16th is celebrated as Mexican Independence Day. On September 16th, 1810, Priest Miguel Hidalgo called for Mexican independence from its colonial ruler, Spain. However, the next 100 years were filled with instability in Mexico, leading to a revolution beginning in 1910. 

One of our DBQs focuses on this Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910-1920. In it, students are asked to respond to the question: “Was the Mexican Revolution successful?” They explore the historical context of the revolution, key documents from the revolutionaries themselves, as well as some reflective pieces from the years after in order to draw their own evidence-based conclusions. While we won’t seek to answer this question in today’s post (after all, that is for the students to decide!), we will highlight some aspects of the revolution so we can have a better understanding.

First, some historical context. In the first 55 years in Mexico’s history after its independence from Spain, the country’s leadership changed 75 times. Power was unstable and during this time, the United States took over half of Mexico’s land in the US-Mexican War (1846-1848). (It’s worthwhile noting that many Americans completely disavowed the U.S. Government’s actions in taking Mexico’s land seeing it as a clear infringement on Mexico’s sovereignty. For example, see Frederick Douglass’s editorial). Then, in 1876 Mexican general Porfirio Díaz became president of Mexico. While he did bring stability, Mexico had to endure his dictatorial regime for 35 years. It was in this context that the Mexican people stood against oppression, beginning the revolution.

A portion of Diego Rivera’s famous mural, “The History of Mexico,” at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Different factions within the revolutionaries arose. Some, like Venustiano Carranza, pushed for political rights. Others like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa fought for labor rights and economic equality. “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty) was their motto. Zapata and Villa’s contributions were unquestionable (it is they, not Carranza, who are better known today). Still, it was Carranza’s vision that won in the end. In 1917, Mexico drafter a new Constitution. While it did have some concessions to the goals of Zapata and Villa, it was largely a political document as Carranza and his allies pushed for.

Despite Hispanic Heritage Month being based on Mexico’s 1810 independence from Spain, the revolution that occurred 100 years later is perhaps even more influential for the modern country. We hope that students who engage with this part of our historical thinking curriculum don’t just become better historical thinkers. We want them to become better aware of the history of our southern neighbor, Mexico.

Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15th kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month! To celebrate this month, today’s blog post will focus on some pictures and other magazine clips from El Malcriado, a Chicano labor newspaper from 1964-1976, established by Cesar Chavez. Chavez was a core leader in the United Farm Worker’s Movement of the 60s and 70s that advocated for farmworker rights and fair wages.

In preparing for one of our DBQs on the Delano Grape Strike, we relied heavily on El Malcriado  as it is full of rich documentation of the farmworker’s movement. Here is a brief summary of the strike, excerpted from our DBQ: 

In 1965, after a successful strike in Coachella Valley, Larry Itliong led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to Delano to fight for farm worker rights during the grape harvest. Having gained a $1.40/hour wage for farm workers in Coachella, he prepared workers to go on strike in Delano when growers refused to pay more than $1.20/hour. However, while the Filipino workers under Itliong readily joined the strike, Mexican workers were willing to accept $1.20/hour and work in the strikers’ place. 

Recognizing that unless they banded together, no one would win, Itliong approached and convinced Cesar Chavez and his union, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), to join the strike. AWOC strikers began on September 8, 1965 and the NFWA joined the strike on September 16. For the next five years, the strike persisted into a global movement of labor strikes and consumer boycotts to fight for fair wages for farmworkers.

In March 1966, Cesar Chavez led a 300 mile march from Delano to Sacramento to pressure the state to answer farm worker demands. Then, after almost a year of striking together, the two unions merged together as the United Farm Workers (UFW) in August 1966. Chavez, Itliong, and Dolores Huerta were its top leaders.

Below are some clips from the Magazine:

Dolores Huerta holding “HUELGA” sign in issue 21 of El Malcriado. ‘Huelga’ means ‘strike.’
More protesters holding “HUELGA” signs from issue 21 of El Malcriado.
A powerful essay on unity in the strike from issue 23 of El Malcriado.
The cover from issue 26 of El Malcriado.
Scenes of farmworkers from the August 22, 1966 issue of El Malcriado.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Remembering 9/11, Twenty Years Later

Unfortunately, the 21st century was ushered in by a tragic terrorist attack that shook the nation. The last 18 months have felt like its own decade in itself that we can sometimes forget just how much has happened in the 21st century. But as we approach the 20th anniversary of the horrific attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001, we would do good to remember and reflect.

When I was teaching, I would dedicate class every year on 9/11 to just that. Often, especially the last few years, my students were not born yet and so the day fit right in with the many “history lessons” of the school year. But this day was different.

I remember my neighbor knocking on our door at 6:30 am, telling us to turn on our TV. By then, two planes had already struck the World Trade Center and minutes later, a third struck the Pentagon. I was shocked. The remainder of the tragic day played out in real time. I saw the first tower collapse on live television. Then the second. Then I heard about Flight 93. Sorrow filled our hearts and minds that day.

My first year teaching I showed the History Channel’s breakdown of the day alongside my own personal story. The History Channel does a fantastic job explaining the timeline, but at the end of it, I felt something was still missing. The students didn’t feel what I felt.

My second year, I decided to do something different. I showed a clip of that day’s news. Not thinking, I didn’t bother to watch it beforehand. As it played, I sobbed. The news took me back to that morning. I told my students I needed some time. I forgot how much the events of that day affected me.

I had a similar moment earlier this week. I read the Washington Post’s excellent story that highlighted 4 young adults that were still in the womb the day their father’s died in the attacks (The Post’s “9/11 20 years later” thread of articles is moving journalism). Now in college or the military, they grew up their whole lives hearing stories or watching home videos of the dads they never knew. Again, I sobbed. They each lost someone, before they even knew he was theirs. 9/11 took their dads from them. 

As we reflect on 9/11, twenty years later, may we never forget the tragic day. May we remember the lives lost, the families directly impacted, and the country’s trajectory over the last two decades. It’s good for us to remember, even when it’s hard. 

We Need Deep Analysis, Not Fact Retention

Last week we argued that history curriculums need to serve students, not politics. History classrooms should focus on equipping students with the skills for deep analysis, not fueling the fire of political partisanship that plagues social media. 

This week, the American Historical Association made a similar argument. Today’s blog is short, as it is more or less reiterating our claims from last week, but it is worth highlighting what the AHA published as it supports the theme we highlighted.

Defining History Graph
© American Historical Association

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the AHA conducted a survey asking about public perceptions of history. The survey is very in depth and is worth exploring more, but we will only focus on a particular consequence of its findings. 

The survey illuminated that most people focus on the “what” of history—those names, dates, events, and places that can often cloud the deeper discipline-specific skills. The public acknowledged the credibility of academic sources and primary sources, but these were generally low on the list of sources most consulted when learning about the past (Interestingly, movies were ranked at the top for sources consulted even though they were toward the bottom of acknowledged credibility).

Graph on the benefits of Deep Analysis in the history classroom.
Graph © American Historical Association. This data shows that people are more motivated to learn history in an inquiry-based model over fact-based.

With the data, the survey’s authors make a compelling statement: “If wider interests and greater empathy are desired outcomes of history education, then educators might need to rethink the content-mastery versus inquiry environments they foster.” For these same reasons, Thinking Nation focuses on an inquiry-based model for teaching history. This centers on historical thinking

We hope that as research like this comes to light, more voices will join these calls to action. History education needs a revolution. We need to be defined by our deep analysis. Join us as we seek to cultivate that revolution in the K-12 setting.

History Curriculums Must Serve Students Not Politics

In his research, Peter Seixas, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, outlined some key observations about history curriculums and teaching historical thinking that will serve as the baseline for today’s blog. Seixas oversaw Canada’s Historical Thinking Project, a federally funded curriculum project that sought to reorient Canada’s history education toward historical thinking. What they produced was illuminating and the United States would do well to focus their attention on something similar. 

Seixas and his colleague, Carla Peck from the University of Alberta, write that history curriculums are often presented in one of three ways: as a way to teach a nation-building narrative, to analyze contemporary events in historical context (social studies), or as a discipline of inquiry focused on historical thinking. Despite these three approaches to history education, the general public usually only associates history education with the first: nation-building.

Image from David Gothard in a Los Angeles Times article on the culture wars.

Our current culture wars are a perfect example. On one hand, many Americans see a waning respect for our country and believe that the history classroom must reinvigorate this respect by telling stories of American greatness. The 1776 Report commissioned by former president Donald Trump is a prime example of this. On the other hand, many other Americans hope to decolonize the history classroom by replacing white settler-dominated narratives with stories of oppressed groups, indigenous nations, and people of color. History from the bottom up as they say. Both of these fit the narrative of nation-building even if they dramatically differ on what type of nation they want to build.

But centering history education into the middle of this debate misses the point of history education. History, as we’ve noted time and again, is not the past, it is the study of the past. So teachers of history should be teaching how to study the past, not just the past. When history education becomes about the narrative it tells, we’ll endlessly debate questions about which story to tell instead of equipping students with the skills of historical thinking. 

Graphic from Canada’s Historical Thinking Project, spearheaded by Peter Seixas.

Thinking Nation’s curriculum rises above this politicization of the history classroom by focusing less on which story to tell and much more on the modes of inquiry inherent to historical thinking. Even though teachers are stopped and asked “Do you teach CRT?” by people who cannot even define the theory itself, we only play to the political game by entering these debates. It becomes about proving our allegiance rather than educating children. As a discipline, we can rise above the partisan narratives by teaching history as a discipline and not a synonym with “the past.” We can equip our students with tangible skills of analysis instead of assuming that our chosen narrative of the past is superior to all others. 

We want to work with schools aren’t looking to adopt curriculums merely to please their chosen political tribe, but who want curriculums built with the students in mind. Schools who want to facilitate real learning, the deep thinking, or paideia that the great scholar Cornel West so often reminds us is the purpose of education.

Common Assessments Transform History Departments

At Thinking Nation, we believe that teaching students how to think historically is key to cultivating thinking citizens. With this, though, we recognize that equipping teachers with the time and tools to do so is essential. This is why we make common assessments the backbone of our curriculum.

Common Assessments are simply tests or quizzes given by teachers across grade levels and/or departments. When multiple teachers give (almost) identical assessments, it dramatically increases opportunities for teachers to collaborate with one another to push student learning forward. While many subject areas prioritize giving common assessments, these are often lacking in social studies classrooms; and even if social studies departments do administer these, they are often based on content-knowledge rather than the skills that define thinking citizens. Our mission is to change that.

Thinking Nation’s formative assessments and DBQs assess how students think, not what they think. Our rubrics are designed to give students and teachers targeted feedback on the thinking process. When these are given as common assessments across multiple classrooms, student growth is not just localized within one classroom but is shared across a school or district. Teachers can have baselines for conversations, data analysis, and re-teaching lessons. When more teachers can talk about pathways to student growth, students benefit. And that is the goal of education.

Whole class data from a Common Assessment

Since our DBQs vary in topics but assess the same skills, this also means that the assessments can be common without being identical. This gives teachers freedom to use our materials for whatever content they are currently teaching in their class. Even if two classes are administering two different DBQs from our online platform, the resulting collaboration is just as helpful because the conversation is about students’ ability to think historically, not memorize historical information. 

When we assess our students on their understandings of history, we can better serve their needs. We can meet them where they are at. With common assessments across a school or district, we can meet more students’ needs and elevate more students’ learning experiences. This allows student growth to go from isolated incidents to district-wide trends. It can transform the way that history departments work. For these reasons, Thinking Nation is committed to providing teachers, schools, and districts the curricular and professional development resources to realize these goals. 

History is Contested

This week was spent deep in curriculum research. After reading several historian’s books on the Haitian Revolution, I noticed that depending on who I was reading, the effects of the Haitian Revolution differed. I was reminded of just how much history is contested. 

An 1839 Painting depicting fighting during the Haitian Revolution.

We obviously see it in our current political state. States around the country have been drafting legislation encouraging or condemning certain approaches to history in their public schools. Teachers are being unnecessarily confronted with absurd demands by people who have not been in a classroom since they were teenagers. Ironically, all of these debates, in a way, are actually living out the very aspects of the history discipline that we prize.

Of course, we should not condone the hyper-partisan views on history that tend to dominate the current debate. Condemning certain approaches to history that you may (even strongly) disagree with only provides fuel for “the other side” to condemn your preferred approach when they have power. Nobody wins. But maybe what is worth celebrating is the fact that we are acknowledging the contested nature of history, even if the mode in which the contestation is happening is unhealthy.

Removed from mainstream media’s gaze, historians have vigorously debated the nature and meaning of the past since the inception of the discipline. As we’ve addressed in past blogs, historiography is the study of historical writing. In it, we see that historians will collect and interpret differently from others, which can lead to various conclusions about the past. Or, perhaps the lens in which they see the past results in a particular focus that differs from others. Historians, not confined to the notion that history is merely the past, revel in this aspect of our discipline. We can have highly evidence-based discussions about the events of the past and still argue about the nature of those events. 

For instance, this week, I’ve been reading about the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution was undoubtedly a turning point in world history. It was the largest slave rebellion to ever take place and it resulted in the first independent modern Black nation. In an era where racism, racial hierarchy, and slavery was the rule rather than the exception, the Black population of Haiti united in an unprecedented struggle of self-emancipation. Still, how did this profound event impact the surrounding world? 

Well, it depends on which historian you go to for the answer. Some emphasize how often abolitionists cited the success of Haiti as a rallying cry for abolition in another part of the world. Other historians will point out that outside of Haiti, the economy driven by slave labor and the slave trade actually increased. These are clearly competing conclusions. The thing is, both perspectives have ample evidence to demonstrate their view. For every piece of evidence that reveals the contagion of liberty brought about by the Haitian Revolution, there is a piece that shows that there was little spread of antislavery fervor as a result of the triumph on that island.

This, to this historian, is not just tolerable, it’s a hallmark of why we study the past. We are ok that history is contested. We are excited to engage in a debate with other scholars. In fact, unless a book is truly the first book on a given subject, every published history book is an opposing argument on a given topic. History is an ongoing discussion. If it weren’t, the textbooks from 1925 would be equally relevant to us today as they were then.

Perhaps if we weren’t so dogmatic on what “the right history” was, we would be humble enough to engage in a dialogue, not a shouting match. At Thinking Nation, we hope to cultivate those skills for our students. We know that when we help students think historically, they are better prepared to be thinking citizens. Everyone is better for it.

(Re)Defining History Shapes our Teaching

In our very first blog we defined history. We’ve brought this blog up pretty consistently in other blog posts, too. History is not the past. History is the study of the past. Today, I want to pose that we history teachers take that definition seriously when designing our class lessons and unit plans.

In several past blogs we’ve also covered the importance of depth over breadth when teaching and that content coverage isn’t the end goal. We’ve even asked, “But what if the rigor, the analysis, the deep thinking was the essential content?” It is this essential content that we will teach if we truly teach history by its own definition.

Unfortunately, when most people hear that we are history teachers, they interpret that to mean that we are teachers of the past. Even more unfortunate? We often internalize this definition of our profession too. We get caught up in covering content so much that history and the past become interchangeable in our lessons and even our identities as teachers. But what if we truly internalized history’s proper definition? What would that look like?

When students came into our classrooms, they would learn how to study the past, not just know it. Their skills of analysis, thought, and writing would be cultivated. We would no longer be satisfied with creating walking encyclopedias, able to drop knowledge of past events when asked; rather, we would cultivate thinking citizens, equipped to analyze both the past and present. Our lessons would be rooted in cultivating those skills. The content would no longer be our end goal, but rather the means by which we teach our end goal: to think historically.

Sometimes grounding ourselves in simple definitions can shift our own paradigms and approaches in life. In the case of the history classroom, we as a profession need to re-ground ourselves in our discipline’s definition. If we don’t, we will quietly put ourselves out of a job. 

21st century technology has made merely knowing the past less and less essential. At any moment, I can pull out my phone and google almost any piece of historical information. But google can’t teach us how to navigate that information. Encyclopedias don’t teach critical thinking. But history can. At Thinking Nation, we want to revolutionize the history classroom, not into something completely new, but by reevaluating it in light of the discipline’s own definition. Let’s teach students how to study the past.

Historical Thinking Paves a Better Way Forward

This week, I came across a statement by the Big City District-University Social Studies Group. In it, the authors write that “social studies must have a prominent role in the ‘build back better’ Conversation.”

They (rightfully) contend that any conversation around equity or combatting learning loss must contain a plan for a robust social studies curriculum in classrooms. Of course, we joyously agreed with their statement and accompanying sentiments. If we want a better way forward, we need a social studies curriculum that is centered on historical thinking.

This week, I also attended an online forum on equity in education in Los Angeles. Throughout the forum, the speakers pointed out the gross physical inequities exacerbated by this past year of virtual learning. Whole families who only had internet through a couple of smart phones had to figure out how multiple children were going to “attend” school every day. In blunt terms, it was impossible.

Focusing on physical inequity is crucial to building a better way forward. We need to ensure that every child has the physical means to grow and learn. But this can’t be the end of the road toward equity. There is still a necessary conversation about what we do now that students have equal access. Do they still have an equal experience

Unfortunately, the answer is still no for so many communities. Resource rich students are still ill-equipped to sustain the future of our democracy. This is why the above-mentioned statement is so true. In order to overcome the ailments of our society and democracy, we must rethink how students are introduced and taught to engage with the past. To deny the connections between the past and present is to deny reality. We have to teach students to critically engage with the past. We have to empower them to be doers of history, to think historically. When students are empowered to do the above, they can build a more equitable future. They can pave a better way forward. 

As we move into the 2021-22 School year, may we re-evaluate how we are teaching social studies to our next generation of engaged citizens. Let’s center historical thinking as a way to empower our students. When our students are confident in their ability to think about the issues of the past, they will be able to intelligently engage with the issues at our present. 

Thinking Nation is ready to partner with schools who see this tall order and know that it is time to act. We want to empower students to think historically. They can’t wait any longer.

Historical Thinking Combats Polarization

Why are we so polarized right now? If “the other side” says it, we automatically discount it. We don’t know how to debate, or even argue well. We just yell. We devour information that feeds our own perspective and spit out any information that we disagree with as “fake news.” We are hurting ourselves, hurting our local communities, and hurting our national democracy. 

In his 1796 Farewell Address, our first President George Washington warned his country that the “spirit of party” “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” he continues, in words that will jolt the eyes of any modern reader. This spirit of party is “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” 

We have been consumed.

But we don’t have to remain this way. We can still put the fire out. But, like any fire, this is going to take time, a lot of resources, and the skill to do so properly. Within this solution is the core of our curriculum: historical thinking.

When we think historically, we are skilled to navigate evidence appropriately, engage with multiple perspectives, recognize causation, recognize trends, and have the knowledge of historical precedents needed to make informed decisions about our present. Historical thinking is critical thinking. It’s slow thinking, counterintuitive to the click bait culture our social media accounts reward. It’s persistent thinking, willing to engage with a topic enough to actually understand it. It’s empathetic thinking, willing to compassionately understand those we study rather than jump to ill-informed conclusions.
Historical thinking is the type of thinking we need the upcoming generations of citizens to embody if we don’t want to continue to be consumed by the fire of factions and polarization. Let’s slow things down, revolutionize the history classroom, and cultivate a Thinking Nation.

Independence Day, 245 Years Later

According to John Adams, we should all be firing up our grills and lighting off our fireworks today. 245 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: 

At the bottom of this scan of Adam’s letter, you can see he begins to explain his thoughts on July 2. Scan from the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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 the blog two weeks ago, 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:

Frederick Douglass, 1852.

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.
Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, 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 2021. 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 2021 we are only 57 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 245th birthday of the United States and a call to action to live out the Declaration’s principles “on all occasions,” and “whatever the cost.”

The Filibuster

The filibuster has been in the news a lot lately. With the increasing polarization in Congress, Democrats in the Senate have been advocating abolishing the filibuster since the end of 2020. With holdouts like Dem. Sen. Joe Manchin III who has said that he will not vote to end it, Democrats are unable to move forward with abolishing the filibuster, which would make it easier to get much of their progressive legislation passed. 

But what is the filibuster? Simply put, it is a mechanism in the Senate that gives the minority party more control over a piece of legislation. Historically, to filibuster meant to actively speak on the Senate floor in order to delay the legislative process and prevent a vote from taking place. Now, senators do not need to stand on the floor. A senator can simply invoke the filibuster, and unless there are 60 votes to overrule the filibuster (this is called cloture), the bill is essentially stopped in its tracks. Democrats today argue that since Republicans are constantly filibustering their legislation, Congress has essentially become a minority rule legislature. Even though Democrats control the White House, House of Representatives, and (narrowly) the Senate, they cannot pass progressive legislation because of this. Of course, a democracy is by definition “majority rule,” so many argue that by keeping the filibuster in place, it is preventing democracy from happening. This begs the question: why did the filibuster begin in the first place?

Really, filibusters have existed since the beginning of our Constitution. In September 1789, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay wrote that the “design of the Virginians… was to talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed.” Long, seemingly pointless speeches have been eating up legislation from the beginning. But it was not until 1917 that cloture was established. From then, if 2/3 of the Senate voted to, the debate (the filibuster) would end. Then a vote could take place. In 1975, that vote changed to only 60/100 Senators instead of 67. The trajectory of U.S. history, then, is to curb the stalling nature of filibuster in order to keep Congress doing its job: to legislate. 

Today, as debate continues over what to do with the filibuster, this history should help. When the filibuster becomes more than just a tool of the minority party to force compromise, but rather becomes a tool to prevent “the other side” from winning, perhaps reform is needed. 

Does this mean the filibuster should be abolished? Well, Democrats may not like the long term consequences of its abolition once they no longer control Congress. Then, Republicans, or some future party, could pass sweeping legislation in the same way they hope to now. Still, as our history reminds us, reform is often good and necessary. It’s why we have amendments, it’s why we have term limits for presidents, and it’s why we have a Supreme Court to interpret laws and how they may change over time. Now, it’s just Congress’s job to figure out what reform goes beyond just helping the particular political cause of the moment and actually strengthens the Constitutional system that has existed for more than two centuries.

Juneteenth: America’s Holiday

For the first time in almost 40 years, Congress established a new national holiday: Juneteenth. In such a politically polarized world, the quick bi-partisan support for this holiday should not go unnoticed. The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday, June 15. It passed the House the next day, 415-14, and then yesterday June 17, it was signed into law by President Joe Biden. Something that passed so quickly and with such bipartisan support must be understood. After all, it is now our 11th federal holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX that the 250,000 enslaved men, women, and children in the state were free. While they were technically free as early as January 1, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, because Texas never fell to U.S. troops during the Civil War, it took two and half more years for the news to reach them. Beginning that day, Black Texans would celebrate its anniversary every year after. 

A Band in Austin, TX celebrates Juneteenth in 1900.

For over 150 years, Black Americans have celebrated this joyous holiday. For many years, to come, all Americans will celebrate it. Juneteenth is for all of us. Historian Eric Foner has called Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, America’s second founding. The first 100 years of our nation’s history was defined by a great paradox: Celebrating liberty while spreading slavery. In order to begin the ongoing process (which we still must pursue, after all, even the founder’s acknowledged the task of forming “a more perfect union”) of living to our creeds, the nation had to abolish slavery. Juneteenth is a clear way to celebrate this second founding in the same way that we celebrate our first founding every July 4th.

Last month, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Annette Gordon-Reed published her part national history part memoir On Juneteenth.

There is also something incredibly significant about adopting a holiday to celebrate this second founding, not on some anniversary of a legislative act, but on a day that Black Americans have celebrated for a century and a half. By honoring a day that has such a rich cultural heritage, the government reminds us that federal holidays are for the people. Black Americans have set the tone for celebrations of this day over generations, it is now fitting for the rest of America to join the celebratory chorus.

On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass reminded his Rochester, NY audience of America’s double standard in celebrating Independence Day every July 4th. 

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Frederick Douglass, 1852

Douglass rightfully condemned the hypocrisy of celebrating July 4th in a nation that enslaved millions. Now, we get to celebrate Juneteenth as the day our new republic began. Not perfect, but more perfect. Tomorrow is a big day. It deserves any respect we hold for the 4th of July. So let’s celebrate!

Historical Thinking Cultivates Citizens No Matter Their Time or Place

The Last Archive podcast explores hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and doubt in its 2nd season.

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast, The Last Archive. Hosted by Harvard historian and New Yorker columnist, Jill Lepore, The Last Archive’s current season looks at conspiracy theories and hoaxes in American history. “Who killed truth?” she often asks throughout each episode. In this episode, “Believe it,” she looks at the role of early radio in the 1930s and how it sowed doubt in the American public. 

Unable to see what was being said or heard, early radio shows could take advantage of their audience’s gullible sensibilities. For instance, there was apparently mass hysteria when Orson Welles broadcasted his famous “War of the Worlds” in 1938. People around the country genuinely believed that there was an alien invasion. You could hear their fear in subsequent interviews. As Lepore summarized it, if it was on the radio, people believed it.

This of course sounds a lot like much of the “fake news” that can dominate the internet in the 21st century. Unequipped to validate sources, people will take a Facebook or Instagram post at face value, share it to their friends, and before you know it, a fake story has spread to millions of believers. Obviously this is extremely unhealthy for democracy and civic life. Like Americans almost 100 years ago were duped by the new extravagant technology of the radio, we are duped by wild stories on the internet. 

Many people recognize this problem. Whole organizations are dedicated to equipping people to separate fact from fiction on the internet. At Thinking Nation, we applaud these efforts. But we also look to moments in the past like early radio to understand that these moments of doubt are not new. Targeted efforts to combat radio fake news were needed in the 1930s just like targeted efforts are needed today for the internet. But what if there was something broader and more holistic to combat these issues? There is! Historical thinking.

We place so much emphasis on historical thinking at Thinking Nation because we believe that these skills transcend time, place, and space. Using history to teach students to interpret documents, events, and their outcomes in the general can equip students to separate fact from fiction in the particular. Historical thinking allows our conversations to be richer, our evidence to be sound, and our arguments to be strong. Join us at Thinking Nation as we prioritize historical thinking in order to cultivate thinking citizens.

We’re Cultivating Historians, Not History Enthusiasts

A few weeks ago, our blog was entitled “Knowing History vs. Doing History.” In it, we briefly brought up the difference between a historian and a history enthusiast. History enthusiasts may know history, however, rarely do they “do history.” Today, we’ll take some more space to illuminate this distinction.

In the world of history, there tends to be two types of people interested in the past: historians and history enthusiasts. The former tend to explore the past in such a way to form arguments, riddled with nuance, exposing history’s complexity. Their study of the past does not stop at knowing what happened, but rather understanding what happened. This could take the shape of seeking out the causes of events, comparing eras or events, contextualizing a specific action within a larger setting, or even taking a broader approach and dissecting how things change or stay the same over time. 

Doing the work of a historian goes far beyond what can be found in an encyclopedia.

The interest of the history enthusiast is less complex. Fascinated by quirks of the past, the history enthusiast emphasizes unique ‘tidbits’ of information. This allows them to have an encyclopedic knowledge of whatever era or topic they are most interested in, but does not necessarily contribute to the complex vision that professional historians seek after. 

Of course, the above examples of how historians explore the past embody the “4 C’s” that our curriculum is centered on: Causation, Comparison, Contextualization, and Change and Continuity over Time. When students interrogate the past through these historical thinking skills, the past becomes alive. Rather than being a stagnant pond full of facts, it becomes a roaring river with rocks and rapids to navigate. It becomes a journey of exploration, not merely a preordained pathway of knowledge.

When we “do history,” we navigate the rapids of the past. This takes skill, which must be taught.

So, as we reflect on this difference, may we ask: What type of history are we teaching in our classrooms? Are we relaying information about the past with simple, albeit witty, stories that may draw interest? Or are we equipping our students for the rapids of history, cultivating the necessary skills for them to construct knowledge and form arguments about the past? The former may be a helpful segue to grab attention, but it lacks depth. We must cultivate historical thinkers if we want to build up a thinking nation.

Resistance and Persistence for Equality: Honoring the AAPI Community

The month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As the month comes to a close, we want to take this week’s blog to honor those who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality within the AAPI community. This week’s blog will highlight three instances where Asian Americans called the United States to live up to its founding ideas of liberty and justice for all. Each of these stories come from our curriculum’s library of DBQs and we hope that as you engage with their heroism today, students will engage with their stories in the classroom.

Our first story of resistance and persistence comes from San Francisco in 1886. Chinese men Yick Wo and Wo Lee were denied permits to operate their laundry businesses under a new discriminatory law in San Francisco. While the law did not mention race at all, after the city council passed it, only white laundry business owners could obtain permits to legally operate in the city. Yick Wo and Wong Lee challenged this discrimination on the basis of the relatively new (passed in 1868) 14th Amendment, which states, “No State shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” To put the amendment to the test, they continued to operate their businesses without permits, and then when threatened by the city, made their case in the U.S. legal system. Despite the new city law not explicitly referencing Chinese San Franciscans, Wo and Lee took their case (Yick Wo v. Hopkins) all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that the city’s laws violated their 14th amendment rights. The court unanimously sided with Wo and Lee and set a profound precedent in U.S. legal history. The court argued that just because a law is not racist on its face doesn’t mean it can’t violate a citizen’s 14th Amendment rights. Their resistance and persistence led to an important change in our justice system.

Our second story comes during the American tragedy of Japanese internment. During World War II, the American government forced Japanese Americans out of their homes, rounded them up, and forced them to live for almost three years in concentration camps in remote areas mostly in the Western United States. Resisting this unjust internment, Fred Korematsu hid in Oakland. He was later arrested and jailed for refusing to be taken from his home to one of these camps. The ACLU used his arrest as an opportunity to test the legality of Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed to intern Japanese Americans, arguing that it was in the interest of national security. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court did not uphold the 14th Amendment rights like it did in 1886 and ruled 6-3 in favor of Korematsu’s conviction. Still, Korematsu paved the way for America’s apology for this atrocious act against Japanese Americans. In 1982 a federal commission found that the Executive Order was shaped by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1988, the government paid $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee. Korematsu’s resistance set the foundation for justice. 

Our third story takes place in 1965. Thousands of Filipino farmworkers in California were working underpaid and in inhumane conditions in California farms. Filipino-native Larry Itliong, who led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led a successful strike in Coachella to raise the wages and working conditions of Filipino farmworkers. From there, the workers followed the grape crops to Delano, CA. When refused the same wages they were granted in Coachella, they planned another strike. But to avoid Mexican workers taking the jobs once the Filipinos went on strike, Itliong approached Cesar Chavez, the leader of the association that primarily served Mexican farmworkers. Initially hesitant, Chavez agreed to help Itliong and join the strike. This became the great Delano Grape Strike that lasted 5 years and became an international movement to advocate farmworker rights. If it were not for the resistance and persistence of Larry Itliong, the movement would have never come about.

As May ends, may we remember the contributions of the above three men and so many more within the AAPI community who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality on behalf of Asian Americans throughout the United States.

History Does Not Have to be Familiar to be Relevant

When most people talk about history needing to be relevant for students, I fear what they mean is that it needs to be familiar. These voices argue that if a historical subject is too different from the students that learn it, they’ll just tune out. Or that students need to see themselves in the past in order for it to be meaningful in the present. While there are some truths to this, I fear that if we cling too tightly to this false equivalency, that familiarity = relevance, our students will miss out on just how great history is.

To be fair, the motives behind this false equivalency are good. Unfortunately, so many students are taught a specific narrative about the past that neglects the beautiful diversity of past characters. History is often taught from a purely political lens, leaving out the rich social, cultural, economic, and religious aspects. Or, even worse, history becomes a hagiography, where it is just a series of biographies of the past’s “great men.” These approaches to history miss so much richness, and it is true, can be very hard for students to be attracted to, especially if they can’t see themselves in those stories. We need a history curriculum that highlights diverse voices and perspectives and avoids simply conveying some grand narrative whose only grandeur is that it has been repeated over generations. Mere repetition does not make something more true. 

Still, if we try to right this wrong by only focusing on whatever history is clearly connected to our present moment, we make history something that it never was supposed to be. 

History is not meant to serve the agenda of the modern mind.* Just as historians rightly point out when politicians quote historical anecdotes just to show that they are “on the right side,” we must also challenge history curriculums that are all too directly tied to our current cultural moment. When we only focus on this history that is familiar or supports our current trends, we enable our own narcissism, believing that the past is just meant to serve our needs. It wasn’t.

As novelist L. P. Hartley opened one of his novels, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” 

It is ok for the past to feel very foreign, or unfamiliar, when we study it. This lack of familiarity has the ability to humble us. It forces us to have empathy for those we study. It forces us to get out of our modern bubbles and seek to understand those not like us. It gives us the dispositions to navigate a world where people grew up differently from us, worship differently than us, adhere to political parties opposite of us, or uphold different customs from us. When we study an unfamiliar past, we better fit in with the human family. We see humanity in others before anything else. We have better ears for listening and better hearts for understanding. This has a much deeper relevance than simply making sure our students can see themselves in the past. It helps us become better people, ready to learn from those we’ve been told are so different from us.

At Thinking Nation, our goal is for students to engage with both the familiar and the foreign in the past. They can learn from stories they feel strong connections to, while at the same time seek to understand stories where the connection isn’t clear. Through this, they can be better citizens in both the U.S. and the world.

*Here, it is important to acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with our modern mind influencing our focus for our own study of history. Often, our own political, social, or cultural goals influence what parts of the past we want to uncover. Still, we must avoid trying to make the past fit into our present conceptions. There often will not be any subject that is a perfect fit for what we are looking for and we need to be able to wrestle with that complexity without simplifying past stories to fit our own outlooks.

Knowing History vs. Doing History

In last week’s blog, we emphasized the importance of depth over breadth. In recognizing the fact that we can never “cover it all,” teaching the depth of history over covering as much content as we can actually gives freedom to teachers. Not stressed about how much they need to cover, teachers can dive deep into particular historical subjects with their students in an effort to equip students to think historically. This brings us to today’s blog topic: Knowing History vs. Doing History.

The Podcast, “Ben Franklin’s World,” has a great “Doing History” thread of episodes that walks listeners through the process by which historians investigate the past.

First off, as we wrote about in our first ever blog, history is not merely “the past,” but the study of the past. With this in mind, “knowing history” does not simply mean knowing a lot about the past. Still, for the sake of today’s blog, that’s exactly how I want us to see it. Often, when people hear others spout off knowledge about the past, they respond with, “You know a lot of history!” This misrepresentation of history exists everywhere, from classrooms to movies. The fact is, while historians do in fact know a lot of history, this is not what makes them a historian. We must differentiate between the history enthusiast (those who love to collect tidbits about the past in a knowledge closet) and a historian. Historians do not merely know history, they do history.

This idea, of “doing history,” is at the heart of our curriculum at Thinking Nation. We don’t simply want students to passively receive historical facts (or a particular historical narrative) from their teachers. We want students to actively engage with the past, interrogating it in order to make meaning of the world that came before them. This is historical thinking. This is doing history. 

Knowing history can puff up people as walking encyclopedias, quick to tout their knowledge superiority, but this does not produce the empathy and humility that results from being able to think historically. When we can “do history,” we can wrestle with competing accounts and narratives, we can investigate past stories, and we can learn to understand those that are foreign to us (even if not foreign in space, historical actors are foreign in time). This is not only more fulfilling than knowledge acquisition (we aren’t giving students fish, we are teaching them to fish), it is a humbling endeavor. 

Furthermore, doing history not only makes us better historians, it also strengthens our critical thinking skills for all subjects. When students are equipped to think historically (to do history), they are better prepared to investigate robust math equations, analyze complex literature, and solve present scientific issues. The ability to merely cite various historical events does not have such interdisciplinary applications. 

This is why we must prioritize depth over breadth. We must prioritize doing history over knowing history. When we do this, we empower students to actively engage with the past, and in turn, cultivate thinking citizens.