As many of you know, we continually try to be a bridge between secondary education and the university. Rather than thinking how we can put a historical thinking “twist” on traditional classroom narratives in social studies, we look at how professional historians define their discipline and then think through how to scaffold those approaches for younger learners.
Another way we try to be that bridge is by seeking out the expertise of scholars as we construct our own units. Thanks to the generosity of so many historians offering their expertise, Thinking Nation students have access to high level thinking about complex historical events through our materials. I appreciate historians like Carol Berkin, who helped shape our unit on Women and the American Revolution, Manisha Sinha, who guided our unit on Slave Resistance, John Fea, who made sure students can think historically about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and James Walvin who thought deeply about the Haitian Revolution with me and how to best get students thinking about its consequences. These scholars, among many others, have made our curriculum so much stronger.
One of the next stages of incorporating the expertise of scholars into our resources is through our new Youtube Series and Podcast: Thinking Historically About. In this series, we interview scholars specifically about the inquiry questions that students engage with in our units. Our goal with these is that students can hear how an expert in the field wrestles with the same question they will wrestle with and potentially write about through our Curated Research Papers. We’ve been quietly uploading some on our Youtube channel, but starting this month, we will release one interview a month via podcast. We hope that this gives teachers multiple methods for allowing students to engage with these quick conversations either before or during their own engagement with the historical events they study in their classes.
Our first episode, Thinking Historically About Ancient Rome can be found on Apple Podcasts here (Or Spotify). Or, if you want to play the video interview for your students, you can find it on Youtube. We are grateful to Ancient Rome scholar, Nadya Williams, for sharing her own expertise in both the crafting of the unit and in her reflection in the interview. We hope these interviews become useful for your classroom!
Lastly, to contribute to the funding of these interviews and other collaborations with scholars You can donate here.
As a teacher, I thought I had found the ultimate historical thinking podcast to listen to back in January 2016. In just some of the first few episodes, guests included Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association; Sam Wineburg, founder of the Stanford History Education Group, and Annette Gordon Reed, Pulitzer Prize (and National Humanities Medal and Macarthur genius) winning historian. (Gordon-Reed has also been the subject of one of our past blogs). Since I already looked up to these three scholars, it was special to find a place where they were all being interviewed was such a treat. It felt like a special corner of the growing podcast sphere that I got to be a part of as a listener.
The podcast, hosted by historian John Fea, is entitled “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” after his first book, which explored the American Enlightenment. Dr. Fea has long been a champion of historical thinking at both the college level and in K-12 education. He has a track record of working with K-12 teachers to help them refine their own pedagogy when it comes to incorporating historical thinking skills into their classroom, and has personally inspired me greatly over the years. His work with the Gilder Lehrman Institute is especially notable. He taught graduate level history courses for teachers looking to get their Master’s degrees and led week-long institutes at historical locations for history teachers looking to gain more content expertise.
Dr. Fea has also graciously helped us refine one of our own units. His expertise strengthened our unit on Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s competing visions for government. With all of this in mind, you might imagine how honored I felt when he asked me to join him on his podcast late last month! I felt so fortunate to be interviewed by John and share more about our vision for teaching and assessing historical thinking in K-12 education.
“If you’ve listened to this podcast over the years you know that we champion “historical thinking” as one of our best hopes for sustaining and preserving American democratic life. In this episode we talk with Zachary Cote, the Executive Director of THINKING NATION, a non-profit organization devoted to helping K-12 social studies students mature into citizens who are empowered to analyze information effectively, think historically, and write persuasively in order to build a better democratic future. If you are a school superintendent, principal, or history teacher you are not going to miss this episode!”
With that, we’d love for you to listen! I’m thankful to John for hosting me and excited to continue to share the ways in which we want to shift the paradigm of history education. I’ve linked the podcast here through Apple podcasts, but it is available across all podcast directories.
For those of you who have followed along with the last couple of blogs, you’ve seen that we’ve changed and added things over summer (more to come!). Today, we want to explain what is really at the core of these exciting shifts: our new brand identity!
If you go to our website right now, you will see that we have a new logo and colors to define who we are. We are really excited about our new brand identity and especially excited to explain why! (If you’re a partner school who has already had beginning of the year PD with us, this is probably just a review!).
First, why change? As Thinking Nation has grown into more schools across the United States, we’ve also had so many more conversations with people from different contexts. Throughout these conversations, we’ve learned a couple things about how people see us.
First, people assumed that we only covered Civics and American History. With the red, white, and blue, and Lady Liberty as our identity, who could blame them? However, like calling our essays “DBQs” took an extra layer of explanation, we’d have to take extra time to explain that we focus on social studies more broadly and that we really want to emphasize the disciplinary thinking that is inherent to good study in our field.
Second, many people saw our organization as partisan. However, a crucial aspect of our nonprofit mission is to be nonpartisan. We believe that good history and social studies education transcends political ideologies and can encompass both sides of the aisle, even if our current culture wars think otherwise. By focusing on the “why” of our discipline as the chief aim (rather than the “what”) we are proud to work with schools in a variety of political contexts. After all, the two largest states we work in are California and Texas. Historical thinking is for everyone, even if we disagree come election day.
As expressed on our website, we want to shift the paradigm of history education. This is our purpose. We believe that when students learn how to think historically, they are better equipped as citizens. They can lean into the tension produced by listening to multiple perspectives. They can take the time to contextualize the stories they come across. They can empathize with others in an attempt to understand rather than judge. If we can shift the way we see social studies away from a memory-based education and into a thinking-focused education, our students are better served. We wanted a brand to represent this.
Our new brand, designed for us by Lunour, gets to this vision. With two dialogue bubbles, we stress the importance of nuance. There is never only one historical narrative, but history is filled with multiple perspectives. Dialogue bubbles illustrate that. Similarly, when our students engage in disciplinary study, they have to recognize that what they study is not stagnant. Scholars are in constant dialogue about the subjects they study. In fact, historiography, this study of historical writing, demonstrate that the discipline of history is one big dialogue about the past.
Not only do dialogue bubbles get to the heart of how we should teach and learn in social studies, they also get to the heart of our vision: “that all students will mature into thinking citizens, equipped with the essential skills to participate in a robust democracy.” If we want to sustain a pluralistic society governed through democracy, we have to learn to talk with one another. Through our work, we hope to equip educators to empower students for that future, a future where empathetic conversation dominates the public square, not bitter polarization. We’re excited for a logo that captures all of this!
Oh, and it’s pretty cool (in case you haven’t noticed yet) that the two dialogue bubbles make a “T” and the negative space makes an “N.” A Thinking Nation is built on dialogue.
To wrap up this lengthy post, we want to acknowledge some logistics. Thinking Nation is a small nonprofit, so this new brand identity will come out in waves. We will update our website, platform, and social media first. We are currently working on updating our curricular resources to fit the new brand, but this will take some time! So, if you see some materials in our old brand and some in our new, know that we are working hard at bringing everything over to our new and exciting brand! Our mission hasn’t changed, but we’re excited for an identity that better reflects who we are as an organization.
Today’s blog comes to us from Annie Jenson, Thinking Nation’s Director of Curriculum, who has been hard at work this summer creating a variety of resources for our teachers:
We’ve all heard some iteration of this quote by Mark Twain, “Facts are stubborn little things, but statistics are pliable.” And in an era where stats and data are so easily accessible and then disseminated, the role of the historian and educator has become even more integral to a functioning democratic society.
Our mission at Thinking Nation may be simple – “To cultivate thinking citizens” – but our work is complex. Part of developing critical thinking skills in students must include education and practice in analyzing data.
Over the summer, we have created a tool to help teachers do just that. We are calling it our “Quantitative Analysis Formative Assessment.”
Our newest resource is a 15-30 minute activity in which students are first exposed to data. After a brief analysis, students evaluate the accuracy of conclusions based on the information provided in the data. To conclude, students justify their answer.
We utilize “Weighted Multiple Choice” (WMC) in this assessment in which there is only one incorrect answer and the other options are ranked. As described by historian Bruce Vansledright, WMCs allow us to “retain some scoring efficiencies while assessing much more complex ideas and interpretations. These items also do improved justice to the [history] domain’s complexity…”
The inclusion of WMCs in the classroom not only does “justice to the domain’s complexity” it also fuels increased classroom discussion. As answers are correct to a differing degree and students must justify their answer, there is ample opportunity for debate. Rather than a student feeling embarrassed from choosing an incorrect answer, they feel motivated to defend their choice.
In these discussions, we have witnessed democracy in action. Students make claims, use evidence to support their reasoning, and provide counterarguments to the assessments of their peers. And this is how students become both empowered and capable of engaging in meaningful dialogue outside of the four walls of a classroom.
There are so many ways to misinterpret data. From considering the collection of data, to analyzing whether the data is sufficiently representative, to generalizing information, it is no wonder that the exact same graph can yield wildly different conclusions.
In our Quantitative Analysis Formative Assessment, students are exposed to both accurate conclusions and data misunderstandings. Through this practice, they will become more attuned to the critical way in which statistical information should be evaluated.
The most polarizing conversations in our nation lately have been political in nature. And there are abundant recent examples of both the misinterpretation and misuse of political data presented. Thus, we especially focused on creating Quantitative Analysis Formative Assessments for students in an American Government course.
In one of our formative assessments (Linked here!), students have the opportunity to consider the balance between civil liberties and national security. The graphs depict American attitudes from 2004 to 2015 on how the government has handled terrorism.
In our WMC, one conclusion states, “Age is the only factor that impacts one’s opinion on U.S. efforts to protect civil liberties.” This is a classic example of misinterpretation. Just because age is the only factor represented, it does not mean that it is the only factor involved. For students who choose this answer, they would receive “0” points, however, the weight of the lesson learned is immeasurable. These students will be much more critical in the future as they consider what data is represented andwhat data is not included.
We are excited about this new offering to our partner schools as we are continually seeking ways to support the efforts of cultivating thinking citizens!
The Thinking Nation team has been hard at work this summer preparing for the 23-24 school year. We will roll out various changes, updates, curriculum, and more in the coming weeks; but, today, I want to address our summative assessment: the Curated Research Paper.
As you will see, our summative assessments have not changed in structure. They contain an inquiry question, context activities such as vocabulary, relevance to the present, and historical context, and a document set made up of primary and secondary sources. Students take all of this information and construct an argumentative essay that addresses the inquiry question and incorporates the analysis they did of the abovementioned components. In short, they complete a curated research paper.
Most people call this process a “DBQ,” or Document Based Question. This name has its origin in AP (Advanced Placement) Exams, put out by the College Board. The College Board, of course, has received a ton of attention in the past few years with many universities foregoing SAT requirements, the new African American Studies course, and the particularly low AP U.S. History scores that came out about a month ago. For much of High School history education in the United States, the College Board serves as an anchor for teachers and schools to compare what they do too. Thus, it has made sense for us and others to use “DBQ” as a term to describe what it is we do.
However, we have decided to break away from this terminology and call our assessments what they actually are. I want to take today’s blog to briefly explain our rationale for this change in hopes of continuing the dialogue for our organization’s ultimate goal: to shift the paradigm of history education. We hope to bring a new dialogue in social studies.
The term “Document Based Question” does not accurately describe what we are asking students and teachers to do. In fact, I can recall dozens of instances when I told someone we did DBQs and they told me that they did too. Then, they began to explain what, essentially, was a textbook reading assignment. Read a short excerpt of a document, and answer one or more questions about it. Sometimes these questions never even broke the DOK 1 threshold. Clearly, we had a different definition!
A part of growing up is making decisions because you thought through them, not simply because that’s what your parents did. For sometime, most of us have used the term DBQ because it’s what the “parent” (College Board) used. Those of us in that circle knew exactly what we meant, but the broader public (and most new teachers) had no idea, unless of course, they took an AP history class. This means that every time we talk about DBQs with a new audience, we have to add an extra layer of explanation. We believe that this extra layer can be removed and we can make a more evidence-based conclusion about what to name the process we are asking students to engage in. Thus we have the Curated Research Paper, or “CRP.”
To recap, we believe that Curated Research Paper is the best way to articulate the summative tasks within Thinking Nation’s curriculum. Using CRP with both the professional community and the wider public will more clearly articulate for all stakeholders what exactly the expectations are.
We are looking forward to engaging in CRPs with our partner schools this year! In the weeks to come, I’m excited to draw attention to more exciting things coming out of Thinking Nation!
Keep Indiana Learning and Building Thinking Classrooms
The last two days of June some of the Thinking Nation team was able to join hundreds of educators from around the country in Franklin, IN for the Building Thinking Classrooms Conference hosted by Keep Indiana Learning. This was a great conference to end a hectic two months of travel for the team.
Dr. Peter Liljedahl, Professor of Mathematics Education at Simon Fraser University, published Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics in 2020, quickly garnering recognition for his research. As the title suggests, Dr. Liljedahl presents new and innovative strategies and mindsets that teachers can incorporate into their classrooms to make them thinking classrooms. While his work specifies the math classroom, there is so much that social studies teachers can glean from his book.
I was fortunate to be able to present at the conference, taking a deeper look into how some of the strategies could be realized in social studies classrooms. As our own organization’s name implies, we believe it is essential to build thinking classrooms. In fact, my session was simply titled: Building Thinking (Social Studies) Classrooms.
I specifically wanted to explore the intersection of Liljedahl’s work and the role of assessment in social studies classrooms. As I’ve often writtenabout, if we truly want to shift the paradigm of history education, we must rethink how we measure success in the classroom. In Building Thinking Classrooms, Liljedahl rightfully reminds us that “we evaluate what we value” (BTC Practice 12). I took the time to challenge the room to think about what types of messages we send when all we evaluate in social studies is content acquisition. As I’ve noted before, it is not our job to create walking encyclopedias, but thinking citizens.
Thinking Nation really focuses on this work through our formative assessments on disciplinary thinking and our summative assessments, which we call Curated Research Papers (more on that term perhaps next week!) If we as teachers take backwards planning seriously and backward plan from assessments on thinking rather than solely content knowledge, we demonstrate to our students that deep thought is what is valued most by us. This is essential if we truly want to shift the paradigm of social studies education.
June was a busy travel month for Thinking Nation. On any given day, a Thinking Nation team member could have been in any of the three time zones across the continental U.S. While July has its own business, its lack of travel allows us to reflect a little on June.
Our last blog featured Tiana Day’s experience at the Black Minds Matter Summit in Washington DC. The very next weekend, she and other Thinking Nation team members were in Austin, Texas for the National Charter Schools Conference. NCSC is the largest gathering of charter schools and their stakeholders each year, and it is always an exciting thing to be a part of.
This year, the National Alliance for Charter Schools reached out to Thinking Nation to help coordinate a Juneteenth celebration, given that the conference fell on the national holiday. Excitedly, we brainstormed several ways to commemorate and celebrate this profound holiday of freedom. In past years on Juneteenth, our blog addressed why this newest national holiday must be seen as America’s holiday and not merely a celebration for Black Americans. We also took a dive into Annette Gordon-Reed’s moving memoir-meets-monograph, On Juneteenth. Today’s reflective post covers how we were able to celebrate Juneteenth in Austin!
Tiana orchestrated a nationwide student art competition, which she named “Liberation in the Lens of Artivism.” Thinking Nation provided a historical analysis activity to go with the contest, and our friends at the National Liberty Museum provided students with an artwork analysis activity. The top student submissions were featured at the National Charter Schools Conference, and the National Alliance for Charter Schools generously sponsored the cash prizes for the top three students in the contest.
Our first and third place winners came from Mastery East Camden Middle School in Camden, NJ. East Camden is a part of the Mastery Schools network, with schools in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ. Our 2nd place winner came from Stella High Charter Academy in Los Angeles, CA. SHCA is a part of Bright Star Schools. All of the student art work was inspiring. The National Alliance for Charter Schools really showcased the student work in the pop up exhibit.
We were also able to incorporate the expertise of some of our new friends into building out a pop up exhibit for the attendees of NCSC. Black Minds Matter provided a compelling history of education freedom for Black communities throughout American history, demonstrating a link between the freedom from slavery recognized in Juneteenth to the freedom to receive an education shown in the ingenuity of Black communities both past and present. The Black Minds Matter exhibit contained inspiring videos of movers and shakers showcasing the inspiring work of Black school founders since the 19th century.
Lastly, we were able to highlight the work of the forthcoming National Juneteenth Museum, which is set to open to the public in 2025 in Fort Worth, TX. NJM provided attendees with an origin story of the holiday, as well as its future plans to commemorate it as a museum. I am so excited to go to the museum when it opens!
It was truly an honor to work with such talented people to make the exhibit a reality for conference attendees. Just to reemphasize the collaborative nature of this project, I want to end with thanking all of the hands that went into what attendees engaged with. The Juneteenth exhibit would never have happened if it weren’t for the generosity of the National Alliance for Charter Schools and their trust in Thinking Nation for organizing the exhibit.
The art contest would have never got off the ground if it weren’t for Tiana, her own nonprofit, Youth Advocates for Change, and the dedicated artists that judged the contest. The students could not have engaged with the art effectively if it wasn’t for the scaffolds created by the National Liberty Museum. The holiday could not have been contextualized without the National Juneteenth Museum. Lastly, if it weren’t for Black Minds Matter, attendees would not have been able to see the direct connection of Juneteenth to education freedom, the premise that guides charter schools in their daily work. We were so grateful to be a part of this! Till Boston in 2024!
In this post, our Community Outreach Manager, Tiana Day, reflects on her time last week at the National Black Minds Matter Summit in Washington, DC.
Thinking Nation was a proud sponsor of the 2023 National Black Minds Matter Summit. The conference brought together compelling Black school founders, politicians, allies, and advocates from across the country to discuss how to better support Black students in education.
Elizabeth Connolly (Chief Partnership Officer) and I traveled to Washington D.C. to support our partners at Black Minds Matter and attend this conference.
“Black Minds Matter is a national movement to celebrate Black minds, support excellence, and promote the development of high-quality school options for Black students.” -BMM Site
During this three-day conference, we listened to inspiring panelists share their success journeys, ups and downs, and the advice they have gained from working in the education space.
One of the first presentations was conducted by students attending Legends Charter School, based just outside the nation’s capital in Lanham, MD. Legends School, founded by Shomari and Atasha James, focuses on integrating financial literacy courses into their curriculum. The 7th-grade students who attended the conference presented a stock market analysis. It was incredible to see such young people speak confidently about investing and closing the wealth gaps in historically marginalized communities. I personally learned a thing or two from these students! I also learned that school founders can take innovative approaches to education to tackle systemic issues during students’ K-12 years.
One of the most compelling speakers we heard from was Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship Public Charter Schools. Friendship Schools (PK3-12) is a leading group of 15 physical charter schools in the Washington D.C. area that started with two locations in 1998. Brantley believes that the representation of teachers in the classroom has contributed to the success of her students. Her schools focus on ensuring teachers reflect the diverse populations of the students they serve. Friendship Schools also value accessibility, offering an online platform for students in grades K-8 living in the Washington D.C. area. Brantley celebrated their 25th-year anniversary and achievements, boasting a 95% graduation rate with 100% of students who have attended Friendship Schools being accepted into 4-year colleges and universities.
As I reflect on my own educational journey and why I love working with Thinking Nation, I think about the lack of representation I faced as a Black student during my K-12 experience. Today, my passion lies in creating a safe space for students to feel supported by a community where they feel they belong. When students feel a sense of belonging, they feel celebrated, and their confidence often translates into academic achievements. We heard from a politician based in Indiana who shared that at one point, there were only 10 Black male teachers in the entire state serving 1.2 million students. I pondered whether the students who had access to learning from those Black male teachers knew how rare it was to gain that perspective. It truly changed my perspective on the importance of having representation in the classroom as leaders for students to look up to.
We also heard from politicians who shared with the participants how to get in contact with their state legislators and build genuine relationships. One politician shared that for them, it only takes one impactful story to inspire action, and hearing from a quality parent, student, or community member has a greater impact than receiving thousands of template-filled emails. Another politician shared that they prefer scheduling coffee meetings during breaks or between sessions with community members and enjoying attending community events. Each shared a different perspective on how they like to be communicated with. However, they all agreed on three things: the importance of getting to know representatives at the local, state, and national levels, being informed before approaching a representative, and being respectful and non-confrontational when advocating for what one believes is right.
A unique aspect of this conference was a presentation from Lauren Zelt and Kristin Hoff from Zelt Communications Group, who taught school founders how to use media for visibility. In today’s society, where we are constantly consuming media, leveraging it can be an effective way for school founders to spread the word about their schools. We learned about hosting press conferences and reaching out to broadcast, radio, and news stations to gain coverage. They emphasized the importance of building media relations to expand brand awareness.
Through a partnership with the American National Federation of Schools, founders attending this conference would gain access to free consulting and media training from Zelt Communications. This is often an overlooked aspect when starting a school or any endeavor, really. The media can help amplify our messages, and with proper training and confidence, it can be an essential tool for founders and educators to scale their impact, reach more students and parents, and inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
I felt like I left this conference with a wealth of knowledge from others’ lived experiences and perspectives. It was truly inspiring to hear from these leaders who spoke with immense passion about their students.
My biggest takeaway from the National Black Minds Matter Summit was that Black-founded schools are not monolithic. The majority of these founders aim to use innovative techniques relevant to students to equip them with skills that go beyond academics and prepare them for life. Many schools offer unconventional classes such as computer science engineering or financial literacy to help students align better with their educational and life goals. Attending this conference was an incredible experience for both Elizabeth and me. Simply listening and learning how Thinking Nation can continue to support schools and reach students across the country has been a valuable experience.
Last week, some of the Thinking Nation team was able to attend the Reagan Institute’s Summit on Education (RISE) in Washington DC. The day was jam packed with thoughtful panels, fireside chats, and discussions among some of the nation’s leading thinkers on education and ed policy. Most importantly, these leaders adhere to diverse political persuasions. This context meant that there was fruitful (and sometimes tense) conversations about how we can truly make education better for all children in the United States. As Thinking Nation spends most of its time in social studies and civics spaces, this was a very special event to engage with even broader bipartisan ed reform and ed policy.
I wanted to take some time to highlight some of the panels and speakers here as we reflect on how essential these bipartisan summits are if we really want to enact systemic change.
To start the morning, the first panel, “The Imperative for Education Reform,” engaged conversation among Arnie Duncan (Sec. of Education under President Obama), Rick Hess (Ed. Policy Fellow at American Enterprise Institute), Bill Kristol (Founder, Defending Democracy Together), Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone. I personally remember the documentary Waiting for Superman, which highlighted Canada’s work being very transformational in my own journey into education. Needless to say, I was excited to learn.
The conversation among the panelists was robust as they reflected on the political context that has led to the many crossroads we are at in public education. But for the sake of brevity, I’d like to highlight something Canada said: “Often education has been a political cudgel.” He said this as he reflected his own journey in education and how at some points he was praised by progressives and at other times he was praised by conservatives. As he noted, he was simply trying to do what was best for kids. But he remarked how political allegiances clouded both sides’ ability to do the same. Canada’s focus on the needs of children was a breath of fresh air.
Later in the morning, a panel entitled, “Teaching and Learning in the Age of AI,” was incredibly apropos for our current moment. While I felt that the panel leaned more optimistic without really wrestling with ramifications for rigorous learning, I was struck by something that Mary Snapp, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Microsoft, stated. In ensuring that developers build out resources that don’t undermine democracy, she noted that “engineers need to learn history too.” Absolutely, Mary. Absolutely.
After lunch, we were fortunate enough to hear from our First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Biden remarked that the last time she came to RISE, she was late because she had to rush over after teaching her class at a local community college, a good reminder that FLOTUS has quite a bit of first hand experience in education. Her address consistently thanked the Reagan Institute for hosting a bipartisan ed reform forum, and while she reminded the audience often of the President’s plan for education, she took quite a bit of time emphasizing the need for stakeholders of different persuasions to seek out commonality to effect real change. I hope we make real waves to push for such consensus.
In the afternoon, we were able to hear from former Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who recently announced his candidacy for President, followed directly by the new Governor for Maryland, Wes Moore. These two men of opposing political persuasions did not emphasize those areas of opposition. They healthily staked their claims while advocating for as much bipartisan legislation as possible to initiate change. Moore reminded the audience that even though he could have passed state legislation with just the Democratic Party’s support, he pushed for legislation to be written in ways that would garner bipartisan support, because he knew that “it simply won’t work” if only one party is behind it. I hope that wisdom around bipartisan ed reform transcends his state boundaries and enters the Capitol that was just a couple miles down the road from us at the time.
In all, the summit was a day to both challenge and bring hope for public education in the United States. We are grateful to the Reagan Institute for having us.
Last week, Education Week published my response to the recent NAEP scores which showed a decline in students’ understanding of both American History and Civics. They summarized my article succinctly: History Teachers Deserve Respect. I’d like to nuance this slightly to say that “The Discipline of History Demands Respect.” Please read an excerpt below, and then head over to Education Week to read the full article.
“The National Assessment of Educational Progress released the 2022 scores in history and civics for 8th graders earlier this month. I cannot say I was surprised by the decline. As others have noted, decreased time spent on social studies, a lack of funding, and recent state legislation prohibiting the teaching of a full and honest history were likely contributing factors.
I’d like to make the case that each of those causes represent a larger issue worth addressing: the lack of respect or attention to history education. This lack of respect permeates school buildings in how tests are built, professional development is allotted, teacher bonuses are awarded, and teaching assignments are given.
Most people do not actually see history as a discipline. They see it as a content. This distinction is crucial. When we only see history as a content of stories to be told, we get lost in the weeds of which stories to choose. The ongoing culture wars over what we can teach in history classrooms illustrates how this quickly spirals out of control. Rather than having constructive conversations about competing interpretations of the past, many people have become dogmatic about particular narratives, distracting us from the disciplinary practices inherent to the study of history.
If we truly care about equipping the next generation of citizens to be proficient in history and civics, we need to start by redefining what it is we do as history teachers. Of course, as I often tell the teachers I coach, this does not mean that we get rid of content in favor of skills, but it does mean that content becomes a means to an end—to the loftier goal of empowering our students to think historically.
We must… cultivate historical thinkers, empowered to engage with the diversity of ideas that they encounter both in and out of our classrooms.
To do this effectively, we need to build a common language around how we think about history so that social studies teachers don’t just have surface-level conversations about student progress within their content silos. We also need to provide common assessments on historical thinking that facilitate the use of that common language.
We can bring legitimacy back to what we do. Focusing on the discipline rather than the content allows us to rise above the culture wars, redeem ourselves as teachers of literacy so that we can properly collaborate with other content areas, and, most importantly, empower our students with the skills and dispositions to reinvigorate a visibly injured democracy.
As a bonus? Yeah, the NAEP scores will increase, too.”
On our social media this week for Teacher Appreciation Week, we featured teachers at some of our partner schools around the country who are absolutely CRUSHING IT! We are so grateful to work with such inspiring teachers and want to take some time to honor them here, too.
Following each teacher introduction, we will highlight some of their thoughts on history education through a mini Q+A.
First up for Teacher Appreciation Week: Dr. Carlo Aaron Purther. Dr. Purther currently is the department head at Birmingham Community Charter High School and has been teaching for 21 years. This year teaches US History, US History EL, AP Euro, and Government. To add to that he also teaches at Cal State University, Northridge. We love how we constantly integrates historical writing and analysis into his classes. We appreciate you, Dr. Purther!
Q: Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?
A: The mission is to help students become responsible democratic citizens. In addition to the number of skills one needs to be an effective citizen such as supporting an argument with textual evidence like they do with DBQs, one should also be able to think historically. That is, students should be able to understand the context and contingency of situations to better understand their place in the present and future. Additionally, students should be able to identify the cause and effect of events, how things change over time, and be able to comprehend the complexities of situations. All of this leads to students becoming responsible democratic citizens.
Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?
A: I would like to see (1) more cross-curriculum skill-based work with other subjects (2) students being service focused (3) focus on depth of historical events based on interests and/or needs of a local community.
Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!
A: Because of our school’s work with Thinking Nation, students have improved in (1) summarizing documents (2) being able to explain how textual evidence supports a thesis (3) and connecting what they learned from the writing an essay to event in another historical era.
Moving across the country to Michigan, we want to highlight the work of Uplift Michigan Online High School teacher, Jenifer Gould! Mrs. Gould is an incredibly reflective educator who continuously pushes her students to think deeply about the past. We appreciate you, Mrs. Gould!
Q: Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?
A: Teaching students to think historically is so important as it teaches them lifelong skills of analyzing, thinking objectively, and making sure they have evidence to support their position. Especially in the current climate we live in, it is more important than ever that students have these skills.
Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?
My hope is that history education would start focusing much more on primary sources, analysis, and critical thinking, versus memorization and multiple-choice answers. Teaching history using primary sources is so rewarding as students see historical events in an entirely new light.
Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!
It has been so fun, rewarding, and worth the effort to incorporate and use primary source documents in class as I have seen “light bulb” moments in several students as they have learned about historical events that they previously learned about, but now are seeing it from a totally different perspective.
From the Mitten State to the Lone Star State, we are going to the classroom of Gabriel Hernandez at Idea Public Schools in Weslaco, TX. Mr. Hernandez is a go-getter and risk taker that cares deeply for his students. We appreciate you, Mr. Hernandez!
Q: Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?
A: It is important for our students to think historically and view concepts through a historical lens to ensure we grasp it through the interpretation of then and now. To make sure history does not repeat itself, since history is a generation away from being lost.
Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?
A: History in the future should be something we all carry with us, and be showcased through multiple platforms, topics and not just what is required, but special topics, narratives, and interpretation from scholars and others that will bring more attention to History education.
Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!
A: A bright spot of student thinking in my classroom consists of peer feedback, pair shares and a WATCHA wall (oh look at this work/Spanish translation) that showcases student work and achievement. The photo that I attached is one of our last days of review, we build Key Concept hats and students were to showcase all day to other staff and students! I apologize for the walls being covered, since it was right before exams, we are not allowed to have any work up (timelines, anchor charts and such).
Finally, for Teacher Appreciation Week, we’d like to (again) highlight the work of Abraham Martinez at Stella Middle Charter Academy in Los Angeles, CA. Mr. Martinez has been teaching for 7 years and continuously reflects on how to best empower his students to think historically. We appreciate you, Mr. Martinez!
Q: Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?
A: Teaching students to think historically is important as it gives them a framework and thought process to approach primary sources in an academic setting. I also believe that this framework can be applied outside of the history classroom into other content areas and beyond. Ultimately, it helps them become better people and gives them the problem solving skills that they will need throughout their entire lives.
Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?
A: This is a tough one. I believe that history education has moved into the right direction in the last 20 years by focusing on the historical thinking aspect of the discipline in addition to the names, dates, and facts. However, I don’t think that everyone in education seems to see this importance. I would like for education leaders to highlight and recognize the importance that history education plays in the role of developing the “whole student”. Perhaps this may be a reflection of my thoughts on education as a whole, but we need to make sure that we are developing better humans that are able to think for themselves, not just for academic purposes.
Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!
A: One of the brightest moments that I witnessed this year was when we had a socratic seminar on the Monroe Doctrine. Students were so excited to discuss what would normally be a rather “boring” topic according to an 8th grader. My 4th period class was so engaged in the conversation that they chose to stay in during lunch to continue the discussion. It was amazing to see their excitement and passion.
Take some time today to celebrate the teachers in your life for Teacher Appreciation Week. And all the teachers out there: Know that we see you and appreciate how much you do for the students in your room.
[This blog was adapted from a previous Thinking Nation blog on May 28, 2021]
The month of May is AAPI Heritage Month, or Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 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. (Here is a free document analysis activity highlighting the court case).
Our second story to highlight during AAPI Heritage Month 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.
During AAPI Heritage Month, 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.
We shipped this week’s blog elsewhere thanks to The Fulcrum, “a platform where insiders and outsiders to politics are informed, meet, talk, and act to repair our democracy and make it live and work in our everyday lives.”
In it, I address how we can continue the National Week of Conversation in our classrooms by giving our students ample opportunities to read primary sources.
Here is a taste:
As seen in the classroom that day, listening to the past through the analysis of primary sources can be a powerful act of empathy for students. When we incorporate student discussions into that analysis, we only deepen empathy. Students model a listening process for their analysis of past documents as a way to set them up to listen in the contemporary conversations they engage with every day.
It is my hope that we continue the themes of #NWOC [ National Week of Conversation ] far beyond this week. Let’s support teachers around the country as they pause and look for opportunities to have students listen to the past and engage in empathetic conversations about its significance. Not only will students grow in their intellectual capacity through these conversations, such conversations are foundational for the preservation of our constitutional democracy.
This year’s National Charter School Conference takes place in Austin, Texas. This is the weekend of our nation’s newest national holiday: Juneteenth. As a way to celebrate a holiday defined by liberation, our art competition challenges students to imagine and envision a Black leader or artist and their contributions to liberation. The top 20 students will be featured in a pop up exhibit at the National Charter School Conference. Then the top 3 students will even win cash prizes of $1000, $500, and $250 respectively.
The National Alliance for Charter Schools is sponsoring this contest. This means it is only open to HS charter school students, so if you teach at any charter school in the U.S. WE’D LOVE FOR YOUR STUDENTS TO SUBMIT THEIR ART WORK! This is a really great fourth quarter activity to stretch students beyond the traditional scope and sequence and demonstrate civic participation.
Teachers: We’ve also collaborated with the National Liberty Museum on two introductory activities, linked here. The first has students read General Granger’s Order NO. 3, dubbed the Juneteenth orders, which declared the Emancipation Proclamation to the wrongfully enslaved communities in Texas. The second has students analyze art work to help them plan out their own art submission. Please use these activities in your classrooms to situate your students before they begin on their submission for the Juneteenth art contest.
We can’t wait to see what students come up with! If you have any questions, please contact Thinking Nation’s Community Outreach Manager, Tiana Day (email@example.com)
Here is our flyer! (Also linked here in PDF form). We cannot wait to see all of the talented submissions by your students!
I was visiting one of our partner schools in Los Angeles recently and I happily saw that the 8th grade teacher, Mr. Martinez, had student writing on the wall in the hallway outside his classroom. His school, Stella Middle Charter Academy, has partnered with Thinking Nation for a few years now and it has been so rewarding to watch the students grow.
My initial reaction was admittedly a little proud. It’s always cool to see Thinking Nation out and about. But as I reflected, I recognized that what Mr. Martinez was doing was both shifting and shaping the culture of learning at his campus.
Most times that we put up student work, it is the work that has immediate visual appeal. Artwork, maps, pamphlets, etc. This work does indeed look nice, but it often does not showcase student thinking. In fact, many of these assignments require the same amount of DOK 1 knowledge that most content-based multiple choice questions require. In a way, these pieces of student work reward students for restating the information that we or a textbook or website gave them at an earlier date. By putting them up, we are sending a message of what we reward in our class.
In the case of much (not all!) student art work, we are sending the message that what is valued by us (and at our school) is visually appealing work that demonstrates content knowledge. But this isn’t history.
History is the study of the past and we have to employ historical thinking in order to do that well. What Mr. Martinez was doing was demonstrating to students and passing staff and parents that he was rewarding something deeper. He was showcasing student writing that couldn’t simply be taken in by quickly walking by. It encouraged the passerby to stop, read samples of student work, look at a rubric that assessed higher order thinking and writing skills, and engage with a variety of arguments. Mr. Martinez was rewarding historical thinking.
This may seem small, but in this simple way he was setting a tone for the type of work that was celebrated in his class. He was shifting the culture from “this looks nice, let’s post it,” to “this is deep work, let’s celebrate it!” If we want to cultivate thinking citizens and shift the paradigm of history education, this is the school culture shift we need. If we shape our culture to reward deep thinking and complex writing, guess what? Students will begin to showcase their deep thinking and push to become better writers. From there, the paradigm will shift.
As we reflect on what we reward at our schools, I hope that Mr. Martinez’s example can serve as an inspiration for us all.
For our last blog, we talked about the special occasion of listening to Dolores Huerta speak on International Women’s Day. Today, we want to continue to celebrate Women’s History Month by honoring a lesser known, but incredibly important voice: Elizabeth Keckley.
If you’ll recall our last blog post of 2022, I highlighted my top 5 history books of 2022, one of them being Keckley’s autobiography. Her story is incredible. From that blog:
“Wow. Keckley’s experience as an enslaved, then free, seamstress was riveting. Put simply, there needs to be a movie about her. A seamstress for Jefferson Davis’s wife before the Civil War, she refused to go with them once the war began. Through her own grit, she became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress during Lincoln’s tenure in the White House. She was a confidant for Mrs. Lincoln and was often “in the room” with President Lincoln at critical personal moments. I could not put her book down.”
Keckley’s life story is truly incredible. I was blown away by her story and how she was able to be such a crucial part of the Lincoln family’s life while they were in the White House. She witnessed so much! She spent so much time in the presence of the first lady and her husband, the president, that she offered such fascinating insights into the inner workings of Lincoln. For instance, read her perspective on his integrity and trust in others:
OFTEN Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln discussed the relations of Cabinet officers, and gentlemen prominent in politics, in my presence. I soon learned that the wife of the President had no love for Mr. Salmon P. Chase, at that time Secretary of the Treasury. She was well versed in human character, was somewhat suspicious of those by whom she was surrounded, and often her judgment was correct. Her intuition about the sincerity of individuals was more accurate than that of her husband. She looked beyond, and read the reflection of action in the future. Her hostility to Mr. Chase was very bitter. She claimed that he was a selfish politician instead of a true patriot, and warned Mr. Lincoln not to trust him too far. The daughter of the Secretary was quite a belle in Washington, and Mrs. Lincoln, who was jealous of the popularity of others, had no desire to build up her social position through political favor to her father. Miss Chase, now Mrs. Senator Sprague, was a lovely woman, and was worthy of all the admiration she received. Mr. Lincoln was more confiding than his wife. He never suspected the fidelity of those who claimed to be his friends. Honest to the very core himself, and frank as a child, he never dreamed of questioning the sincerity of others.
Elizabeth Keckley in many ways was an American hero. The stability and restraint that she brought to the White House flies flat in the face of the “get ahead however you can” culture that often runs our world. Her empathy for others is worth emulating.
In our middle school Civil War DBQ, students are asked to look at the various experiences of women during the Civil War, one of whom is Elizabeth Keckley. Teachers, if you would like to introduce Keckley’s story and efforts to your students, please download this document analysis worksheet that highlights her efforts during the Civil War.
This past Wednesday, we celebrated International Women’s Day, and of course, this month is Women’s History Month. Fortunately, I was able to attend an event honoring the great civil rights activist, Dolores Huerta, on Wednesday. She spoke to the crowd and challenged us, she read a beautiful children’s book capturing her life to a group of local 4th graders, and those 4th graders sang a perfect rendition of “De Colores” for the audience. It was such a special day.
It’s not often that you are presented with the opportunity to sit in the presence of such a powerful person in history–and the crowd at California State University, Channel Islands knew it.
Dolores Huerta came to the university that day to inaugurate a new exhibit housed at CSUCI put together by the Smithsonian. I was lucky enough to sit next to Maria del Carmen Cossu Saettone, the Project Director for Latino Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Cossu Saettone’s hard work on the exhibit manifested itself clearly that day. Her dedication to spreading the word of important history shined in her passion and focus.
Before reading the children’s book, Huerta took the opportunity to speak to the intently focused crowd. She mentioned how her organizing helped save the local community of La Colonia in Oxnard, CA from being bulldozed in the 60s before the Farm Workers’ Movement really began to take shape. After she told that story, she reminded us, “All they [the people] have to do is come together, organize, vote, and I’ll say it again, vote!” She wasted no time in her efforts to organize at the event.
She spoke to the necessity of passing the Equal Rights Amendment, the importance of funding education and dissolving the education to prison pipeline, she addressed what she identifies as creeping fascism in the United States, and even challenged the crowd to write to our senator to stop the inhumane treatment at a migrant detention center in Kern county. “Can you do that?” she asked. We’ll make it easy for you, readers. Here is his contact information. Voicing my concern took less than 5 minutes.
Huerta ended her speech by asking everyone to stand up in true organizer form. She had us answer her questions. “Who has the power?” and “What kind of power?” In return, the crowd shouted: “WE HAVE THE POWER.” and “PEOPLE POWER!” This moment brought me right back to my studying of the Delano Grape Strike, where Huerta, Caesar Chavez, and Larry Itliong organized a nationwide strike on behalf of the farmworkers who were working for deplorable wages in inhumane conditions.
Awhile back, our blog covered this event to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Huerta and others sacrificed so much for the voiceless. Now, at 92 years old, Huerta has not stopped the fight. She is the personification of tenacity, grit, and service. May we take some time to reflect and learn from her this Women’s History Month (Teachers, use this primary source analysis resource to talk about Huerta’s work and the Delano Grape Strike in your class).
Huerta’s response to a 4th grader’s question sums up her goals well. The 4th grader asked, “What’s your favorite thing to do?”
Dolores shouted: “Organize! I love to get people together and tell people that they have power… Come together and fight for justice.”
Or perhaps another 4th grader’s question: “What sport did you play when you were little?”
Chuckling, she responded, “Well I was so small that no one picked me for sports teams. But, I love dancing. Everyone should dance. If you dance when you’re small, your legs get strong so you can march!”
Two years in March, our blog was titled – A Needed Teaching Revolution: The Importance of a Skills-Based Curriculum. One year ago, we posted it again.Well, it seems that March is the month to reevaluate our foundation and remind ourselves of the work that needs to be done, so today’s blog highlights just why we need a teaching revolution in history. Lets cultivate historical thinkers.
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.
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. It helps us cultivate historical thinkers.
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.
If we think OpenAI’s ChatGPT has killed the essay, we’re missing the point of writing.
Humanists have sounded the alarm over OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Some are even saying that ChatGPT has killed the essay. Its capability to generate accurate, readable, and even engaging text given any prompt is incredible. It will undoubtedly become a tool used (and abused) by students in both secondary and postsecondary education. Focused on its potential misuses, many teachers express worry about what it will do to writing in the classroom. While some of those fears are warranted, I hope that the existence of ChatGPT and its future competitors will cause reflection about why we teach writing, not fear about its demise. ChatGPT’s existence does not have to mean the death of the essay.
Of course, if the only goal of writing an essay is to convey an idea, then yes, this may be the end of the essay as we know it. But I have to believe that there is more to writing. In order to discover what that might be, it is important to draw a clear connection between what it means to write and what it means to learn.
My first introduction to this connection came as an undergraduate majoring in history at California State University, Channel Islands. I was taking Historiography, our historical methods course, when my professor, Dr. Nian Shen Huang, reminded the small group of students in the room: “Talking rarely deepens people’s minds, but writing forces one to think; good, persistent writing produces good thinking.”
Always looking to him for wisdom, my pen quickly recorded his words on my spiral notebook. Like other moments in his classes, which I signed up for as often as my schedule allowed, I was inspired. To him, writing’s purpose was not solely found in its product, but perhaps even more importantly, its process.
Fast forward to my 5 years as a middle school history teacher in South Los Angeles, I took that inspiration and emphasized writing daily in my class. The above quote from Dr. Huang made my “quote of the week” section of my whiteboard at least once a year. I often reminded my students of the importance of using writing to solidify their thoughts. In this respect, the art of the rough draft held deep importance–something I attempted to model regularly by writing essays as a class up on the whiteboard, the quote of the week serving as our inspiration in the corner.
In December 2021, Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist at The Wharton School, reminded us of this approach to writing in a Tweet:
Writing is more than a vehicle for communicating ideas. It’s a tool for crystallizing ideas.
Writing exposes gaps in your knowledge and logic. It pushes you to articulate assumptions and consider counterarguments.
One of the best paths to sharper thinking is frequent writing.
When I read Grant’s tweet, I instantly thought of that Historiography class almost a decade prior. Why do we write? To formulate our ideas. To sharpen our thinking. The product is only part of an important process. If we can do a better job of getting this goal of writing across to our students, perhaps the essay is not dead.
At Thinking Nation, we continue to stress this goal of writing whenever I can. We believe it is transformative for empowering students. When students write, they think better. We cannot let artificial intelligence take that away from them.
Almost every week I get to enter into secondary classrooms where students are wrestling with deep questions, analyzing various sources, and presenting their thoughts through that very medium that is supposedly “dead.” But it’s not.
The essay provides students with a place to try out their ideas, explore the use of evidence, and refine their ability to make a claim. Of course, the product still does matter, but the process reveals far more useful information on student thinking.
ChatGPT has not killed the essay. To be sure, we may need to rethink how we do essays in our classes given AI technology. But writing an essay is far more than the product at the end. ChatGPT may transform the way we think, but we cannot let it replace our thinking.
As long as we can remember that as educators and emphasize that for our students, we can still rely on that trusty, and perhaps even timeless, method of assessment: the essay.
Black History Month has its origins in “Negro History Week” which was launched in February of 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, the “father of Black history.” Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, was born in 1875 to former slaves. His life as a historian paved the path for Black history to be an integral part of American history, even if it took generations after him for Black history to be treated with the respect it deserved from the academy. Woodson recognized something before so many others: that Black history is American history and that the more we know about the history of Black Americans, the better we can understand the nation that claims to prize “liberty and justice for all.”
In our very first blog post, we looked at the definition of history—the study of the past. Since then, we have constantly referenced this definition. Understanding it is vital to recognizing its importance in uncovering the past and how that past shapes, and is shaped by, our present. When Woodson debuted “Negro History Week,” America was in the depths of Jim Crow. Black Americans were individually and systematically discriminated against by white Americans who refused to acknowledge their humanity. The history they were taught only confirmed these prejudices. Woodson understood this. He recognized that if an accurate American history was portrayed, one which equalized the voices of Black Americans with white Americans, people would be able to engage with the accomplishments, the contributions, and of course, the humanity of Black Americans.
Once we recognize that history is not merely the past, but the study of the past, we can be open to the truth that there is more history to uncover, more history to learn, and more history to engage with. Narratives can change and despite what political pundits will have us believe, that is a good thing. It means we are wrestling with the past, not just passively receiving it as fact.
So, as Black History Month begins, may we use this time to reflect on both what it means to study history and what it means to be American. We live in a moment where there is still racism, both individual and systemic. We must collectively combat this fact of our present. And we can. When we elevate the stories of Black Americans, we elevate America. The narrative, perhaps of America’s exceptional greatness, may shift, but this is not a bad thing. When our collective understanding of the past represents who we are as a collective, we all grow. When we see that Black history is American history, we can better see citizens who may look differently or believe differently from us as equals rather than others. “We the People” becomes an accurate description of all Americans, not simply the founder’s ideal.