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Independence Day, 245+1 Years Later

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: 

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 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:

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 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.”

On Juneteenth: In Defense of Historical Thinking

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.

CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 2022

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!

Avoiding the Creation of Arrogant Students

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.

Empowering Students through Writing

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.

6th Graders Can Compare Complex Ideas

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 The Bhagavad 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. 

An illustration depicting Karma.

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.

The Power (and Empowerment) of Teaching Through Primary Sources

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. 

A 1935 advertisement from the Social Security Board.

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.

Teachers are tired. Let’s Support Student Growth without Overburdening Them.

Teachers are tired. This school year has been hard. For decades, schools have been becoming more and more of a one stop shop (and attempted solution) for social, economic, and systemic issues that, let’s face it, schools were never designed to do. Teachers cannot be all things at once. A sustainable work schedule simply does not allow it. Teachers should be able focus on student academic growth and feel supported by those outside their classroom for the many other facets of growing children into strong adults.

Teachers are tired. Let’s support them.

One way that Thinking Nation hopes to alleviate teacher burdens while maintaining our commitment to drive student learning forward is through grading student essays. When Thinking Nation first began, we knew we wanted to build an online platform where teachers could assign robust historical essays, students could submit those essays, and then we would grade them, providing teachers with critical data to push the learners in their class forward. It remains one of our primary services for schools.

We believe that part of cultivating thinking citizens through the teaching of historical thinking is providing teachers with the tools and time to do so. As a department head, I noticed that one of the biggest obstacles for getting students to complete robust tasks that required deep thinking, analysis, and writing, was the grading that resulted for the teacher. Simply, when we ask more from our students, we are asking more of ourselves. As necessary as it is, it is exhausting. On average, for every DBQ I administered to my 130-150 students, I spent 12+ hours of my weekends grading. But teachers have hundreds of daily responsibilities, and many of those have to wait till after the school day. By grading student essays, teachers can redeem that time.

We want to cultivate thinking citizens. Time constraints and the need for data and vertical alignment creates a difficult puzzle. But, having outside graders assess student work on a uniform rubric can truly elevate student work and empower them to be deep, historical thinkers. For this reason, at Thinking Nation, we have expert teacher-graders to provide clear and helpful feedback for both teachers and students on student writing. Teachers are tired. Let’s support them.

Shifting Paradigms, Starting Revolutions

About a year ago, our blog was titled – A Needed Teaching Revolution: The Importance of a Skills-Based Curriculum. This week, we’re going to repost the blog as sort of an annual reminder. Historians are defined not by what they know, but by how they approach the past. May we cultivate those same skills in our students. May they be historical thinkers.

From last year’s blog:

Teaching history in schools needs a revolution. For years, the primary way to teach history, and measure student learning of history, has been content, content, content.

“Do you remember this event from the past? No?! Then you don’t know history!” This attitude toward history needs to change and is one of the primary reasons we began Thinking Nation.

Why a content-driven history classroom should not be our goal.

As you’ll recall from previous posts, history is not merely the past, it is the study of the past. History is a discipline. It is a process, not an outcome. It changes over time, it necessitates multiple perspectives, and it takes time. 

Often times, ensuring that students know a particular topic is the primary aim of the history teacher. While there are noble reasons for this, it should not be our primary aim. If our students know about many important people, dates, and events, but do not know how to think about those things, they may be walking encyclopedias, but they are not historians. To be historical thinkers, students must be able to contextualize those people, dates, and events. They must be able to identify patterns, make comparisons, and understand causation. Of course, this does not mean that the content of history should be neglected. After all, if historians have nothing to think about, they cannot be historical thinkers. Still, the content of history should be our means to the end, not the end in and of itself. 

At the heart of our curriculum is the idea that when students think historically, they are better citizens. They can think critically about their own time and place in the same way they think critically about the past. They have the skills and dispositions to navigate the present moment in an analytical way. This is why our skills-based curriculum goes deeply into specific areas of history rather than providing a cursory view of a broader range of topics. By doing this, students are empowered to analyze the past and draw their own evidence-based conclusions, not merely absorb the narrative that their teacher or textbook tells them. History becomes a dialogue, not a lecture. History becomes active. Historical thinkers are cultivated

To do all of this, though, we have to re-think our teaching of history. We need to be willing to a spend large amount of class time on a small amount of topics. We need to prioritize depth over breadth. We may not be able to cover all of the things we used to, but our students will be equipped to better remember what we do cover and be equipped to think – the ultimate tool we can give our students.

Join us in this revolution to teach historical thinking. May we cultivate thinking citizens and build up a thinking nation.

Stories from the Classroom – “I Almost Cried”

This week, I had the opportunity to be in a lot of classrooms. In fact, by the end of the week I had worked in at least one classroom at every grade level, grades 6-12. To be able to witness the teaching of historical thinking at such diverse age ranges in such a short period of time is a gift. 

I will probably reflect on the many great experiences in the coming weeks, but today I want to focus on one particular 9th grade class. In this class, students were exploring what life was like for Jewish people under Nazi Germany. They were engaging with one of our DBQs, guided by the prompt: “In what ways did the Nazis slowly change life for the Jewish people in Germany and German occupied land?”

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Spring 1943.

Students learned in the previous class period that the Holocaust was not inevitable. They worked under the historical concept of contingency in order to recognize the specific actions of individuals and governments that slowly restricted Jewish life and allowed for their persecution, discrimination, and eventually, execution. When students recognize that the past is contingent on the people who lived it, it can bring hope. After all, if atrocities were not inevitable before, perhaps we can apply a keener eye to our present injustices in order to prevent them snowballing into something worse. 

While I was there, we were able to go through various primary and secondary source documents that helped illuminate some answers to the prompt. Students began to make connections to how Nazi’s restricted Jewish life socially, economically, and politically. 

Wiesbaden Synagogue Burning on Kristallnacht

Students read the work of historians Saul Friedländer and Marion Kaplan. They analyzed a public announcement and a journalist’s picture that documented the social isolation Jews experienced early on when they were banned from public pools for “fear of contamination.” They wrestled with Joseph Goebbel’s diary entry where he applauded the atrocities of Kristallnacht. They empathized with a young girl who may have escaped the ghetto but did not escape the widespread persecution that awaited her outside the walls that consumed her sister. Students both analyzed and empathized in order to create their own argument about this time period. In short, they were asked to be historians.

At the end of class, the teacher and I thumbed through the exit slips, where the students could reflect on their learnings of the day. One of the questions was, “What surprised you in this lesson.” About half way through the stack of answers, I stopped and read one student’s response a second time. Then a third. Simply, she wrote, “I almost cried.”

In that moment, this student experienced the empathy that marks a good historian’s work. History was not merely “the past.” It came alive. This student engaged with the past in such a way where the past actors came to life. The statistics of atrocity bore a name, a story.

When we take the time to analyze the past and not merely remember it, it comes alive. Practicing these skills of historical thinking won’t just make us better students, but better people.

Black History Month: bell hooks

One of our recent assessments explores the experiences of women during the 2nd wave of feminism. While feminist women from the 1960s-80s shared many common goals, they were by no means uniform. Students analyze several primary source accounts from this era in order to compare and contrast the experiences of Black, Latina, and white women during this time. One of the sources they engage with is a book by bell hooks, a prominent Black feminist, activist, and English professor who recently passed away in December. 

For our last blog post during Black History Month, we’ll look a little more at bell hooks’ ideas and perspective during the 2nd wave of feminism. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks became her pen name to honor her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks. She insisted on not capitalizing her name because she wanted people to focus on the substance of her ideas, not her as a person.

While hooks went on to be a prominent scholar and activist, the book that gave her initial notoriety was her 1981 publication Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. In this book she contextualized the Black experience within the larger mainstream feminist movement. At some points, she offered analysis that surely rattled some feminists: “That as the man is more noble in reason, so the woman is more quick in sympathy.” Of course this quote is in a larger context, where she merely wants to point out that simply because men and women may be different, neither is superior or inferior. At the core of her aims was to bring about equality. An equality often not seen within the feminist movement itself. 

[THIS WEEK, PLEASE DOWNLOAD THIS FREE RESOURCE FOR STUDENTS TO ENGAGE WITH HOOKS’ WRITING]

Writing about Black feminist relations to their white counterparts, hooks lamented the clear disconnect. Black feminists “were disappointed and disillusioned when we discovered that white women in the movement had little knowledge of or concern for the problems of lower class and poor women or the particular problems of non-white women from all classes.” Women of color and poor women had real hurdles to jump that white women did not experience, but it did not seem that the white women cared.

hooks pushed her white counterparts to recognize their own willful ignorance and even racism. She pointed out “the appropriation of feminist ideology by elitist, racist white women” and then provided an example: “We could not even get a hearing at women’s groups because they were organized and controlled by white women… White women liberationists saw feminism as ‘their’ movement and resisted any efforts by non-white women to critique, challenge, or change its direction…”

bell hooks pursued gender and racial equality for the rest of her life, establishing the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Kentucky in 2004. She challenged illogical hierarchies and even in the simple action of her name, asked people to engage with ideas first. Her legacy will live on as an agent of change.

Black History Month: Ida B. Wells

In January 1900, Ida B. Wells confronted a Chicago audience of the horrors of lynching. Armed with gruesome statistics, she had documented an average of two hundred lynchings every year in the United States. Now that slavery was abolished, Wells acknowledged that lynching was the country’s “national crime.” Today’s blog will explore this landmark January speech, “Lynch Law in America.”

Ida B. Wells was the first person to use the power of statistics to highlight the horror of lynching. In many ways she established modern fact-finding journalism. Speaking in Chicago, a city that at least in theory would support the ending of this racist atrocity, she hoped to equip future supporters of racial equality in order to inspire government action against mob murder. 

Calling out her country, Wells maintained that it was time the United States acknowledged “herself a failure at self-government.” “The reign of national law,” she lamented, “was short-lived and illusionary.” By strategically pronouncing its guilt in the death of thousands of Black Americans, she hoped to ensure a confession by the government. Of course, the fact that Jim Crow lasted sixty more years meant that her call to action was ignored.

Although direct legislative change did not result from this and other speeches from Ida B. Wells (Congress did not pass an anti-lynching bill until 2018), her voice was no less important for America at the turn of the 20th century. Not only did Wells’ voice provide a woman’s perspective into what was often a male-dominated culture, but she demonstrated that racism could be countered with data. While her claims exhibited a pathos that was often found in the speeches of the 19th century’s most famous African American, Frederick Douglass, she grounded her appeals in fact. 

Ida B. Wells paved the way for documenting racism, something that we see in today’s social media. Forcing her audience to deal with the fact that many lynchings were grounded in hearsay and not evidence, she was able to force those who might be apathetic to the plight of many Black Americans in the South to see that in many cases, “men have been put to death whose innocence was afterward established.” In a world where a black man could be murdered with nothing but rumors supporting his guilt, Wells refused to operate her own claims off similar errors. She rose above.

Ida B. Wells became a voice for African American justice at the turn of the 20th century. The implication of her speech’s title—that lynching had become America’s law—would surely have caused her audience to pause, and the entirety of her speech provided the facts necessary for them to reflect upon. Today, we should take time to pause again. Let’s remember Wells and what she stood for and stand up for justice too.

Black History Month: 19th Century Calls for Emigration

1850 marked a turning point for many African Americans living in the United States. White America had double-downed on its quest for superiority through the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. This act not only affirmed the language of the 1793 version, making it the duty of those in authority of one state to arrest a runaway slave in order for him or her to be returned, but now expected all white Americans to do the same. In this context, prominent Black thinkers Augustus Washington and Martin R. Delany began to advocate a new solution for Black Americans to rise up above these circumstances: emigration.

Whereas immigration is entering into a country, emigration is the exit from a county. In a sense, these Black Americans were advocating for a modern day exodus out of the land that enslaved them. Calls for emigration were complex. Many Black Americans favored a mass exit, many opposed it, only knowing America, for all its flaws, as their home. Still, it is important to look into these calls for emigration in an effort to better understand this important chapter in Black history.

Augustus Washington (fun fact: Washington was an American photographer and daguerreotypist and yet we don’t have a picture of him), writing in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune in 1851, argued that it was time for African Americans to go somewhere “where they may secure an equality of rights and liberty with a mind unfettered and space to rise.” The United States could not be the place for African Americans to secure these things. 

Martin R. Delany

Likewise, Martin R. Delany did not see hope for African Americans staying in the United States. Delany appealed to his readers to look to South America as a future home, “To remain here in North America, and be crushed to the earth in vassalage and degradation, we never will.” Both authors saw hope for African Americans’ success in the U.S. 

Despite the country being built on a foundation of equality, white Americans saw themselves as superior to black Americans, and as Delany wrote, “to assume superiority, is to deny the equality of others.” Believing that the circumstances of the United States were the primary factor deterring African American success, emigration was the solution. Black Americans needed to break from the constraints of the United States’ law and attitude in order to flourish.

To Delany, who looked to South America as a future home, going to Africa, Liberia specifically, would not work for geographic and political reasons. Washington, on the other hand, did see Liberia as the best future home for “the African race.” He saw Liberia as a place for African Americans to achieve the same “cultivated intellect” as the “long-civilized and Christian Saxons” had been able to in North America. Seeing the Liberians as uneducated and uncultivated, Washington argued that African Americans could colonize Liberia, “and impart civilization and the arts and sciences to its heathen inhabitants.” American triumphalism may have worn off on African Americans such as Washington more than they recognized.

The thoughts of Augustus Washington and Martin R. Delany on African American emigration serve as a unique glimpse into how some believed Black Americans could break free into success. For them, it could not happen in America.

Stories from the Classroom – “You’re making us think too much!”

Today’s post will be the inaugural post of a new series on the blog: Stories from the Classroom. In this series, I will highlight different experiences I have when I go into classrooms to work with students and teachers as they engage in historical thinking.

I recently observed a 6th grade classroom, where the teacher was having the students engage in one of the Thinking Nation DBQs. Students were reading some historical context and analyzing four historical sources in order to answer the prompt: “How did the development of agriculture shape early civilizations?” Their teacher introduced me as “the person who created this assignment we’ve been working on this week.” Instantly, I was booed.

“What?! Why would you do this to us?” “Do you enjoy torturing kids??” “You’re who made us go through all of this??” “Why do we have to write so much?” 

Those were just some of the instant responses the class full of budding eleven year olds made sure I heard. Still, I remained in the class for another 30 minutes or so working with different students who were revising their final essay before turning it in. Toward the end of my time, one student asked if I could read her introduction paragraph. I did, and unfortunately I responded back to her that it did not make much sense. It felt both unclear and repetitive. Frustrated, she asked me what it needed to say.

A Student’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the sweet spot of growth in their learning. “A Productive Struggle.”

Rather than tell her, I asked her what the most interesting thing she learned during this assignment was. She told me that it was interesting how people raised sheep, goats, and pigs thousands of years ago in the Levant (The Fertile Crescent/ Ancient Mesopotamia). I said, “Great, let’s build off of that to capture your audience’s attention!”

As we slowly worked through turning her thoughts into writing, she constantly told me how exhausting the process was. She even said, looking at her peer sitting next to her, “You’re making us think too much!” 

I paused.

I asked her, “Before this week, have you had to think about the past and how things are affected in the past this much?” She answered as I expected: “No.” I then reminded her of how cool it is that she is drawing her own conclusions about the effects of a world changing event: the Agricultural Revolution. She isn’t just listening to a teacher or reading a textbook for a claim on the consequences of such an important event. Rather, she engaged in analysis and historical thinking in order to come up with her own evidence-based claims (I’m sure I said this more simply in the moment, ha!). 

As I stopped talking, she let out a big “Ohhhhh, woah, that’s cool.” Her smile went from ear to ear. In this moment, this young girl was an empowered learner. She had the confidence to be a historical thinker and use the tools at her disposal to read, analyze, and make meaning of the past. 

Moments like these are why we exist at Thinking Nation. We want to cultivate thinking citizens by empowering students to think historically. This simple interaction allowed the light bulb to go off for one student, where learning wasn’t necessarily “fun” but it felt good. It was edifying.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and America’s Promissory Note

On Monday we celebrate one of the greatest Americans history has known, Martin Luther King, Jr. When racial segregation was the rule and not the exception, King powerfully stood against injustice. While by no means the only voice of the Civil Rights Movement, King was integral to its success, both politically and culturally. After all, the entire country pauses life in his honor. Today, we are going to focus on a single phrase from his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” King commanded from his podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial:

“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.”

Today, many ridicule America’s founders and in many ways, they are right to. But in this line, consistent in much of King’s writing, he acknowledges the power in the documents those extremely flawed men constructed and signed.

King follows the above sentence, his voice reverberating through the packed Washington Mall, with “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned… America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Here, King was able to sift the wheat, that is the words of America’s founding documents, from the chaff, the actions of those documents’ writers.

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in the American experiment. He believed that flawed people could build wise foundations. To be American is not to throw away the founding creeds, but it is to hold one’s fellow citizens to those creeds. 

As citizens, as human beings, we fail to hold to those creeds daily. When flawed humans fail at those creeds, they also build and fortify institutions that fail at those creeds. There is nothing illogical or unpatriotic about acknowledging systemic injustice within America. The government can be both built on the “promissory note” of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and fall short and deviate from that foundation. 

As America witnessed during the Civil War, a foundation built on both liberty and slavery will crumble. But that foundation was still partly built on liberty and Abraham Lincoln did not throw that part away in order to work to save the republic. No, he purged the injustice of slavery from the Constitution. He extracted the cancer without killing the patient.

100 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other voices for Black liberation recognized that the cancer still lingered. Remission wasn’t complete. They worked together in another surgery of that lingering cancerous injustice. They successfully pushed Congress to pass several pieces of Civil Rights legislation.

Today, many people are exhausted with the cancer that still lingers. Police brutality is real. Racial inequality is real. Xenophobia, even in the halls of Congress, is real. But these are cancers to the Constitutional body. They are not the Constitutional body. We must not throw away the Constitution because of the cancers we’ve allowed to grow within it just like we would not kill a person if cancer remained.

King reminds us that the founding documents are promissory notes to all Americans. All people deserve equal rights outlined in the Bill of Rights. All people are created equal and deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let’s honor King and pursue this reality. It may be a never ending cause for justice in our own lifetime, but the arc of history is long.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

January 6th – One Year Later

Picture at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 from Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0

A year ago today, on January 6, 2021, our democracy was attacked in the most visceral way since perhaps the Civil War. Armed insurrectionists stormed our Capitol, the seat of our federal government, in an effort to force the government to overturn a fair election. Thankfully, they failed.

Still, the air has not been cleared. While many have been brought to justice, prosecuted for their crimes, many have not. Many Americans still believe that the events of that day were inconsequential to democracy, or at least not as consequential as their enemies make it out to be. “It was wrong, but let’s move on,” they say. But for democracy to flourish and not flounder, this is not an option. If we want repentance and forgiveness to occur between the American public, justice must first be served. If many believe that there was not injustice committed, how can forgiveness and unity happen? 

Picture at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 from Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0

At Thinking Nation, we believe that by teaching students to think historically, we can better equip them to preserve our democracy. Regardless of where they fall politically, they will take great pride in America’s greatest achievement: The Constitution. They will know how to navigate the past in order to learn from the past, both its successes and failures. Students who can think historically can better parse out fact from fiction, making the temptation of an insurrection or a coup fall by the wayside. Historical thinkers are critical thinkers. Historical thinkers are empathetic listeners. Historical thinkers are engaged and informed citizens.

Picture at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 from Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0

As we reflect on the dark day of January 6, 2021, let’s prioritize teaching historical thinking to our students. Teachers, feel free to use this free resource (teacher version), a DBQ on the January 6th insurrection (student version). Through it, students don’t merely engage with the events of the day, they navigate and analyze information, so that they can do the work of historians. They can make meaning of the past, even the most recent past.

Is Repeating History Bad?

George Santayana was a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard from 1889–1912.

It’s not uncommon for someone to reflect on a tumultuous moment in our present and respond: “A wise man once said, ‘Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it’.” This comes from philosopher George Santayana, who actually said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In some senses there is wisdom in this phrase. However, today we are going to address why it is problematic.

First, an underlying assumption in this perspective is the other famous aphorism, “history repeats itself.” As we looked at in a past blog post, there are issues with this phrase since history is in many ways the study of change over time. While there are continuities, there are numerous differences between our present and the past. Especially when considering the context that informs our opinions and actions. Today, though, let’s look at the embedded arrogance and pessimism in Santayana’s phrase.

It was this book where C.S. Lewis first coined “Chronological snobbery”

When we say that not learning history makes us “condemned to repeat it,” we are committing the crime of “chronological snobbery,” as 20th century British academic C.S. Lewis put it. Lewis defined chronological snobbery as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.” In other words, history is in a clear state of progress. There is little we can learn from the past other than to not commit their mistakes. (The idea that history is a story of dark to light is known as “whig history” and is discredited by almost all historians today even though we tend to hold to this belief when we cling to phrases like Santayana’s).

Of course, we can learn a lot more than mistakes from the past. We see heroic action that saves lives and inspires us. We learn of wise leadership that stabilizes whole people groups or regions. Or, we encounter courageous acts of resistance to injustice that inspire our current goals today. With these in mind, maybe the phrase should be “those who don’t learn history are doomed not to repeat it.” 

We have to be willing to humbly learn from the past. Not merely warning signs for what not to do, but real inspiration for how we should conduct our own lives. Sometimes even, we can humble ourselves enough to try to understand the motives and actions of past actors that we thought we disagreed with only to find real wisdom in how they lived. The past can transform us. Studying the past can make us better people.

The discipline of history is an endeavor in empathy. Historians seek to understand, not condemn. This also encourages humility, not chronological snobbery. Sure, at times we want to learn from past mistakes so as not to be “doomed to repeat it.” But perhaps more often than we give credit, we should aspire to repeat perspectives and actions of the past. We can learn wisdom, humility, heroism, courage, contemplation, even love from our ancestors. Let’s listen to them and learn.

Historical Thinking is Slow Thinking

As teachers get into a rhythm this year, Thinking Nation’s curriculum is being woven into more and more teacher’s classrooms. We’ve had the privilege to work with teachers from grades 6 to 12 in professional developments and guest lessons in their classrooms. One thing that continues to come up in conversations is the time it takes to do our historical thinking curriculum. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently spent 70 minutes on 7 sentences from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Historical thinking is slow thinking.

“Slow Thinking” by Danny Herrera on Dribble

Until we can shift our paradigm of history education, the time consuming nature of historical thinking will feel like a burden. When the needed shift takes place, however, it should feel liberating; an opportunity for deep learning. In this new light, we must recognize that historical thinking is slow thinking.

With various demands from state guidelines, school administrators, standardized tests, and our own historical interests, I have never met a history teacher who did not say that it was hard to cover “everything.” This is why we must root ourselves in the definition of history that is “the study of the past.” Not merely the past. We can never expect to cover everything, nor should we. Knowing a lot of history isn’t what makes a good historian. Knowing how to navigate historical information is. The skills embedded into historical thinking are the skills we need to cultivate thinking citizens. We must not only equip history teachers to teach such skills. We also need to help the gatekeepers (state standards and administrators) recognize how essential these skills are for the formation of our students.

At the heart of Thinking Nation is to cultivate thinking citizens. But in order to do this, we have to rethink the way we teach history. We have to slow down thinking. We have to cover less material. We have to be ok with not getting to it all. Given the constraints of education, we cannot successfully teach historical thinking until we get rid of the notion that content coverage is the goal of the history classroom. Once we do this, we can embed historical thinking into our classes, equip students as citizens, and better secure a democratic future.

How Can We Cultivate Empathetic Citizens?

Just over a year ago on our blog, we addressed how the historical thinking skill of continuity and change over time is not only a thinking skill helpful for navigating the past. But, it is also a skill that helps cultivate empathy in those that practice it. Since it has been a year, and some things are meant for reviewing, today’s blog is going to address this idea again. How can we cultivate empathetic citizens?

The opening line for L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between

Empathetic people are great listeners. They seek to understand before they draw conclusions, make judgements, or take action. The study of history enables us to practice this skill daily. When we look to the past, we recognize, as novelist L.P Hartley put it, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Just like we wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) enter a foreign country today and immediately decry their customs, mores, and societal structure without first understanding those things, we can’t simply make proclamations about the past without first understanding it. 

The main job of a historian is to understand the past. This takes a lot of restraint in refusing to project our own visions of how things should be on past actors. It doesn’t mean we can’t hold tight to our modern convictions. But, it does mean we can’t assume that the context of the past is the same as our present. There are specific reasons that we hold to the convictions we have today. We were mentored by someone, we read certain news, we grew up within a particular tradition, or we are surrounded by people who think a certain way. Historians must lay aside our own context, at least for a little while, as we seek to understand the context of the past—that foreign country.


When we do this, we practice empathy. When we teach this, we cultivate empathetic citizens. At Thinking Nation, we want to instill empathy into our students. We want to empower them with the tools needed to listen to the past. To do this, we provide a rich primary source-based curriculum to do this. We give students ample practice in asking historical questions of these sources. These are empathetic questions around historical context, intended audience, and historical significance. After all, we are not here to cultivate walking encyclopedias, able to recite historical facts on demand. Rather, we want to cultivate thinking citizens who are equipped to preserve our democracy. The skill of empathy practiced in the discipline of history helps us do just that.

Sometimes, Simple is Best

When I lead professional developments for teachers, I don’t shy away from the difficulty of teaching students to think historically. It’s rigorous, time consuming, and at times, frustrating. When we ask students to think historically, merely restating historical facts is no longer sufficient. Students need to interrogate past documents and perspectives in order to make evidence-based statements and draw conclusions for themselves. It’s hard. Still, I remind teachers that just because teaching historical thinking is difficult, does not mean it can’t be simple. Sometimes, simple is best.

At Thinking Nation, we are not trying to develop the next best educational buzzword. We aren’t trying to fill our curriculum with abundant strategies, games, interactives, or whatever the latest trend in education has become. Rather, we are looking to cultivate thinking citizens with targeted approaches to teaching historical thinking. What does this look like?

Well, to start, we want to introduce students to the practice of reading, interpreting, and synthesizing primary sources. These rich documents of the past are filled with so much insight to whatever moment in time they hail from that it is key that we don’t simply read them to remember what they said. Instead, we need to read them, ask questions of them, interrogate their authors, seek to understand their premise and historical context, and connect them to a larger vision of the past. Reading historical documents is not merely reading for knowledge. It is reading for understanding. 

T= Topic, H= Historical Context, I= Intended Audience, N= New Vocabulary K= Key Purpose, S= Significance

Our simple yet effective approach to teaching students this skill comes in the form of a graphic organizer. When students read a primary (and sometimes secondary) source within our materials, they use our “THINKS” graphic organizer to guide their own reading of the document. (Download a sample!) THINKS is a simple acronym that helps students think more deeply about the text. 

Last week, I had the privilege of conducting a guest lesson at a large LA high school. We read a 7 sentence excerpt of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations where he highlights the benefits of his theory of Division of Labor. I began the class with a simple breakdown of the term using Frayer’s Model, and then dedicated the next 70 minutes to those 7 sentences. All the students had in hand was the source and their THINKS graphic organizer. 

TIME FLEW. We interrogated the text using the prompting questions from the organizer. We dug deep in order to understand the context, purpose, and significance of Smith’s claim. We asked questions to challenge his claim. We identified new vocabulary. We did so much. 

Of course, the process must be refined more for students so they can internalize this approach to reading the past, but it was an incredibly successful start. The students were engaged and boring Adam Smith came alive. The historical thinking we engaged in was rigorous and difficult, but the process was simple. Students had a simple tool to help guide them on their road to historical thinking.