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Knowing History vs. Doing History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depth > Breadth

You can never cover it all.” 

If there was a slogan that we history teachers should put on the front of every yearly plan, unit plan, or lesson plan, it should be this. In an education environment where history teachers are guided by chronological standards, it is no wonder that we often feel discouraged toward the end of the school year, lamenting what we have to cut out for the lack of time. I’ve heard “We just couldn’t get to it this year” countless times from colleagues. Unfortunately, the content-coverage approach to teaching history makes us feel rushed and dissatisfied with our results each year. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

At Thinking Nation, we prioritize teaching historical thinking over content. We recognize that it will always be impossible to cover every important part of the past. This also means that it is impossible to make sure that every voice is heard or every story is told, even if that story is incredibly important to us or some of our students. But that doesn’t mean that our history classrooms cannot be incredibly impactful.

If we teach students how to think historically, they can apply those skills to historical topics that they are most interested in. Like in university-level history classes, students can engage in research projects where they apply the thinking skills that have been cultivated in their history classrooms in order to pursue historical knowledge on a topic of their choosing. Not only does this allow the content to feel more relevant to themselves, but it also pushes them to be actively engaged with the study of the past, not merely passive receivers of historical information. This is empowering.

If we focus less on the breadth of what we cover in class and more on the depth in which topics are engaged with, students can experience the power of doing history. They can be equipped to tackle any topic they feel pulled toward both in and outside of the classroom. No matter the subject in school, the major in college, or the career path they choose, when students are empowered to think historically they can apply those skills to be the leaders and agents of change we hope for them to be. That is far more important than knowing “at least I addressed such and such topic.” So, let’s prioritize depth over breadth when teaching the past in an effort to equip and empower our students for what lies ahead.

And if there was a second slogan, perhaps it should be:

“You will never get it perfect.” 

And that’s ok.

The Discipline of History is Our Best Chance at Interdisciplinary Collaboration

One of the core aspects of our platform is providing schools with useful data on student writing performance, aligned to common core standards. Many curriculums also do this; however, they do not clearly and unabashedly align the content of their curriculum to the study of the past and the unique skills that that entails. We prioritize history and historical thinking while also providing schools with necessary data in order to drive student learning forward and provide schools helpful tools to ensure their students are equipped to do well on high stakes state exams. We can do this because the discipline of history is better set up than any other subject for interdisciplinary collaboration.

In our first blog of 2021, I brought up how I would show my students that everything is history. No matter what you are studying, it is history, because everything that is studied happened before this very moment. The different areas of emphasis among historians solidifies this fact. We have historians of science, medicine, religion, math, literature, art, economics, politics, the environment, transportation, and the list could go on… endlessly. History is the study of the past, and depending on one’s framework, that study can take a variety of forms. Due to this, the history classroom is uniquely set up at the level of secondary education to collaborate with any other discipline. It is versatile in its content, allowing for the adaptation of its accompanying skills to any particular field of study. History does not need to fit into a framework like the hard sciences or social sciences. Yet, unfortunately, history is often merely an afterthought in many school curriculums today. It rarely receives the notoriety of STEM or English Language Arts, and because of that, it also receives little funding. This is a travesty for both education and our democracy. It is why creating a “thinking nation,” to us, means emphasizing history education. It is why we want to create a teaching revolution that prioritizes the discipline of history as a core subject.

If we stop seeing history as its own silo of learning, we can expand that teaching revolution beyond history classrooms. If the other subjects taught at schools see history as the perfect partnering subject, no matter the content, not only will students better understand the context of any content area, they will be stronger thinkers and writers, applying the analytical skills fundamental to history to all of their subjects. The result? Empowered students and citizens, ready and equipped to make our future better.

When we see history as the bridge that connects all content areas, we can create more robust and rigorous educational atmospheres. Interdisciplinary collaboration is a powerful tool for teachers to provide the education our students need. We hope that by centering history and writing as the foundation of our curriculum and platform, we can come along schools to provide them the tools needed to equip students and cultivate citizens.

The Power of Resistance: Harriet Jacobs’ Story

This week, we’re going to veer a little from our normal coverage of teaching and doing history and look at a particular story from the past. This past week, I’ve been working on a new DBQ for our Ethnic Studies curriculum, which will be available to partnering schools next school year. For research, I read Harriet Jacob’s famous slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which she wrote as “Linda Brent” knowing the potential repercussions of using her real name given her own personal story.

Harriet Jacobs in 1894 at 81 years old.

Harriet Jacobs’ story is so important for us to understand the lives of the enslaved in 19th century America. Even though I’ve read around her book for years, it was humbling to finally dive into the whole thing. At one point in her autobiography, she writes, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” Her narrative demonstrates just how hard her life was as an enslaved woman.

When she turned 15, her enslaver, Dr. James Norcom (in the book she calls him Dr. Flint) began to sexually harass her and “began to whisper foul words in my ear.” He even built a cottage on nearby land for Jacobs to live on so that he could have his way with her without drawing attention to his wife or the local town. Jacobs, determined to not let this happen, had sexual relations with a local white man and became pregnant. For her, “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, then to submit to compulsion.” When her enslaver told her to move to the cottage, she retorted, “I will never go there. In a few months I shall be a mother.” Norcom “stood and looked at me in dumb amazement, and left the house without a word.” 

In a rather unique, but no less empowering way, Jacobs resisted her enslavement and her enslaver. In a culture where enslavers became rich off of human chattel from their own lust, raping their female slaves, Jacobs resisted. While she did struggle with her own moral conscience given her choice, she was determined not to let her enslaver’s greed and lust control her life and the lives of her children (she ended up having two children with the abovementioned man).

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl - Wikipedia
Jacob’s Narrative, published in 1861.

Jacobs’ story only grows in intensity. She ends up having to hide in her grandmother’s attic for 7 years, hearing and seeing her son and daughter, but unable to speak with them. After those 7 years, she was able to make her escape thanks to a local free black man’s keen awareness. She goes up to New York and is reunited with her daughter in Brooklyn, and then later, her son. Jacob’s story is one of victory. Although her trials were unspeakable, she persisted. She lived a long life in freedom with both of her children, an outcome that never existed for millions who were in bondage on American soil. 

Jacob’s story is powerful and emotional and we are humbled to share her story as a part of one of our DBQs on American history.

Our Goals: To Empower, Promote Equity, and Cultivate Citizens

If you have been on our website’s homepage recently, you may have noticed a change. Now, when you head to thinkingnation.org, you see this slogan:

As we talked about last month, we are seeking a teaching revolution. One where the history classroom is more than just learning about the past, but learning how to understand the past. In short, one where historical thinking is prized. Today, we are going to look at some of the profound benefits of being able to think historically.

First, historical thinking empowers. As a principle, education should empower students. Yes, knowledge is power, but perhaps wisdom is the type of power we should all seek. While knowledge is critical, wisdom is the ability to discern what to do with that knowledge. The ability to think historically, to reason with the past, helps us to exercise that wisdom. It empowers us. When students learn about the past, no matter how inspiring the story, if they can’t think historically about the past, they are more like an encyclopedia than a true student. But when students contextualize the past, identify patterns and change, causes, and can make historical comparisons, they are empowered to actively engage with the past and not merely be passive receivers of a particular narrative. That empowerment builds confidence with how they engage with their present. A particular narrative no longer needs to be simply accepted, but it can be interrogated and wrestled with. Historical thinking empowers them to do so.

Historical thinking promotes equity. There is a clear gap in our educational world. Students who have historically had access to a variety of resources consistently do better than students who haven’t. Numerous schools and organizations have dedicated their time and energy to closing this gap, but we still have a lot to do. One thing we can focus on is equipping students to think historically. While knowing about a diverse past is critical to helping students see themselves in others, we must also equip students to reason with the past. We must work hard to push our students to think critically about the documents and people of the past. We must work to equip our students to analyze historical perspectives. We must work to help our students articulate their analysis in clear, evidence-based writing. When students feel like they can draw their own conclusions about the past because they have been taught to think historically, they are better able to engage in dialogue about robust topics, even if those they dialogue with know more than them. As the adage goes, we must teach students how to think and not what to think. If historically-disadvantaged students are empowered with the above skills, we will have a more equitable education system.

Lastly, historical thinking cultivates citizens. At the core of who we are at Thinking Nation is our desire to cultivate thinking citizens. We want students to be equipped with the skills to participate in a robust democracy. Part of these skills is the ability to think historically. While we live in “the information age” we also live in an era of disinformation. In order to sustain democracy, students need to be able to sift through a variety of sources and perspectives, make analytical judgments, and draw evidence-based conclusions. The study of the past is an excellent way to cultivate these skills. When students engage with history, they have to ask deep and difficult questions about the nature of people and their decisions. These skills, embedded in the ability to think historically, allow students to be informed citizens, ready to tackle the issues of the present in order to preserve democracy. 

The ability to think historically is central to our curriculum. We believe that historical thinking empowers, promotes equity, and cultivates citizens. Join us as we use the study of the past to build a more democratic future.

Our Professional Development Empowers and Equips Teachers

Today is our 30th blog! In the last 30 posts, we’ve defined key ideas like history, historical thinking, and its examples. We’ve explored the relevancy of the U.S. Constitution to our current moment, we’ve explored the richness of the historical discipline and its historiography, and tried to understand the present by looking to the past. At Thinking Nation, we want to equip all stakeholders in history education for their various roles. At the heart of our mission is to cultivate thinking citizens in our students through our historical-thinking centered curriculum. But just as important, we want to equip our teachers to be agents of change in a teaching revolution. This is why we prioritize professional development for all of our partners.

Practically, we want to make sure teachers understand our DBQ process, our scaffolded lessons, and our online platform. But good teaching isn’t just understanding the mechanics. It’s being inspired to walk into class every day, knowing that we teach the most important subject for sustaining our democracy and civic society. We are not merely conveyers of knowledge. We are empowering students to be the best they can be by teaching them to think critically and better understand where we are by understanding where we’ve been. As the ancient Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero put it, “to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” By teaching history and historical thinking, we are cultivating mature citizens.

With this ethos driving our mission, our professional developments seek to reinvigorate history educators in their own missions. Like a conference does for so many of us, PDs should provide us a renewed sense of purpose in our vocation. This is why our PDs focus on both the philosophical and the practical. Once we are reminded of just how important history education is, we can understand the mechanics in our mode of teaching. It’s not until a person understands the beauty of a car that working on it has meaning. The same goes for teaching!

As we seek to cultivate thinking citizens, empowered by their ability to think historically, we want to equip teachers with both the understandings and dispositions to be successful in doing so. When schools join us in this mission, we ensure that educators feel inspired, supported, and equipped, starting with the professional developments we provide.

Our Online Platform Prioritizes Academic Excellence

Teaching in the last year has shown us just how important it is for lessons to be adapted for a digital platform. Teachers had to rethink lessons that were built for in person learning in new ways so that they could be administered digitally. Unfortunately, this approach can often come at the price of de-emphasizing the rigor of the assignment in an effort to ensure there is understanding of the “essential content” that needs to be acquired. But what if the rigor, the analysis, the deep thinking was the essential content?

With our online platform for administering DBQs (Document-Based Questions) and formative assessments for historical thinking and writing, we want to ensure that deep thinking and analysis are prioritized no matter if learning is taking place virtually or in a classroom. We want to provide teachers and students in all learning circumstances with the tools necessary to cultivate thinking citizens. Whether a teacher assigns our DBQs directly on our platform for students to complete, or prints out the PDF versions of our DBQs for students in class, learners have access to complex historical topics where they can employ historical thinking skills to better understand our past and be better equipped to engage with our present. 

For a simple tutorial of our teacher and student platforms, head to our website and watch our videos on how to navigate the platform. We hope to come alongside teachers and schools who are pursuing academic excellence for their students and equip them with tools to do so. Our online platform for teaching, learning, and assessing historical thinking and writing gives teachers the flexibility they need in that pursuit.

Why Data Matters

Honestly, the idea of “data-driven instruction” bugged me for years. I hated reducing students to percentage points of growth. I hated “mining data” to refine my instruction. It all felt formulaic for something that was really an art in my mind. But my frustrations were based on misunderstandings. My premises were wrong. Data-driven instruction is truly key to providing the best education possible for our students, if we use this tool in the way it was intended for.

Head over to Thinkingnation.org/technology to watch two videos showing how our platform works.

I often think in my head that the difference between a ‘good cook’ and a chef is the recipe. Anyone can make something delicious once, but to be an expert, the dish must be able to be replicated day in and day out in a restaurant or even in the hands of someone else if they are provided the recipe and some helpful tools. It would benefit us to think of teaching in this way. A good lesson or unit is worth praising, but expertise lies in our ability to build off that success to create more success for both ourselves and our students. Data affords us that opportunity.

At Thinking Nation, as we addressed last week, we provide grading services to our partnering schools. One of the strengths of this approach, summarized last week, is the ability to use data to enable vertical alignment across grade levels. We suggested that “having access to uniform data assessing the same standards over [the] years is crucial for the development of deep thinking and analysis.” If one teacher can build upon the gains of another teacher in cultivating historical thinkers and writers, we begin to look like chefs whose dishes are replicated in kitchens everywhere. We build a community of experts, not simply star teachers in isolated cases.

But we don’t need to wait for vertical alignment to be a possibility for data to be incredibly useful to our teaching. When teachers receive a data report (see a sample here), they get simple but helpful feedback on whole class trends and individual students. Using this data, teachers can go back to our document analysis worksheets to re-teach primary source analysis or review how to write a thesis statement and then check progress by implementing one of our formative assessments. Of course, teachers can go beyond Thinking Nation resources too, re-teaching or pushing rigor further depending on student needs. The important thing is that by having distilled data on student performance, teachers can best address their students’ needs in order to cultivate them as thinking citizens.

Data, especially in history and the humanities, can sometimes feel like a “4 letter word” (I know, I know, it is…). But in reality, when we have data on how students are doing on complex writing tasks like DBQs, we can tailor instruction specifically to meet their needs. Data allows us to see our students as people with specific skill sets and then take those observations and build something appropriate for their growth. With our online platform, teachers don’t need to spend extra time compiling that data; rather, they can dive right into it, reflect on it, and then do what teachers do best: teach.

Why Having Outside Graders Can Help Your Teaching

As part of our DBQ-based curriculum, we wanted to provide grading services for partnering 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. But giving teachers back valuable time with our grading services is not the only reason having outside graders is helpful. Today’s blog is more on the practical side of our blogs, but it is just as significant for realizing our mission of cultivating thinking citizens.

If Your Teacher Likes You, You Might Get A Better Grade : NPR Ed : NPR
Image from NPR (https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/02/22/387481854/if-your-teacher-likes-you-you-might-get-a-better-grade)

First: time. 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. On average, for every DBQ I administered to my 130-150 students, I spent 12+ hours of my weekends grading. I wanted to ensure that my students received their grades with feedback in a timely manner so that the topic and skills were still fresh on their minds and so I could do any reteaching that appeared necessary based on the results. Getting this amount of time from all teachers, on top of their many other responsibilities, was difficult. Teachers have hundreds of daily responsibilities, and many of those have to wait till after the school day. So giving that time spent grading back to teachers while still allowing them to implement rigorous assessments was huge for creating more buy in.

Second: Data and Vertical Alignment. Cultivating thinking citizens is a marathon, not a sprint. To truly equip students, teachers must partner with teachers across grade levels. When this vertical collaboration happens, teachers can best meet the needs of students throughout their academic careers. Having access to uniform data assessing the same standards over those years is crucial for the development of deep thinking and analysis. When schools use our platform and grading services, they can do just that. 

Third: Bias. Of course, the issue of teacher bias when grading can be contentious. But there is plenty of research out there that reminds us that teacher bias when grading most often impacts students in minority populations (Just do an internet search of “teacher bias when grading” for dozens of research-based articles on this topic). But getting even more granular, all of us teachers have said “well they tried,” or “but they didn’t do the prework!” when we grade. Our grades for those individual students, then, reflect more than just the essay they’ve produced. Whether this is fair or not (we can save that debate for another time), it does not accurately reflect the student’s skills on that given task. This only hurts the vertical alignment previously mentioned and clouds the specific scaffolds that may be needed to further student growth. Teacher bias is inevitable, but when grading is done from an outsider to the classroom, unable to know the details of a particular student, then only the assessment at hand is being graded, nothing more. This removal of bias in the grading process ensures clarity and accuracy in the grading process, allowing for student needs to be met and for growth to occur.

We want to cultivate thinking citizens. Due to time constraints, the need for data and vertical alignment, and the potential for teacher bias when grading, 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. 

History Teachers are Literacy Teachers, Too

Last week, we focused our blog on the need for a revolution in teaching history. Content-knowledge can no longer be the end goal of a history education. Content is merely the means to an end of creating historical thinkers. To be a historical thinker, though, literacy is key. 

Often, when school administrators or instructional coaches remind their history departments that “they teach literacy too,” it almost sounds as if the history teacher is only providing a supporting role for the more important English- Language Arts teacher and curriculum. After all, at least in California, it is the ELA standards that are assessed by high-stakes state exams. But this assumption profoundly misunderstands the power of a history education, centered on historical thinking, in cultivating both thinking and literate citizens. 

In fact, many of the Common Core standards in literacy may in fact be best suited for the history classroom. When we look to the news, social media, or the political landscape, these common core skills (citing textual evidence, identifying a central idea, defending a claim, etc.) are rooted in history. When people look for the present moment to be contextualized or understood more clearly, they often look to historians to make relevant judgments. In fact, in the world around us these skills of literacy are almost always rooted in the study of the past.

With this landscape in mind, part of the needed teaching revolution is for history teachers to reclaim their role as primarily teachers of literacy. We want students to be able to interrogate documents, identify key evidence, and make defensible claims with that evidence. Yes, when many in education hear these goals, their minds quickly go to the English classroom and the Common-Core standards privileged in those classrooms. But the history classroom has so much to offer here. Not merely as a support role, but as leaders in equipping students in literacy.

For this reason, Thinking Nation’s rubrics are clearly aligned to Common Core standards. For students to be successful on our DBQs, they must be able to craft claims, cite evidence, identify central ideas, and write in a professional style. When we teachers require this type of writing and analysis of our students, we reclaim our role as teachers of literacy. We bring about opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, demonstrating to students just how transferable the skills they gain in the history classroom are to their entire education. 

A Needed Teaching Revolution: The Importance of a Skills-Based Curriculum

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.

The Importance of History in Honoring Black Americans

For the month of February, we have used our blog to pay respect to Black history. In the first week, we looked at the document we cherish, the Consitution, and wrestled with its flaws. Multiple times, it allowed for the continuation of slavery and protected enslavers. Thank God for amendments! In week 2, we looked at the people who operated Mount Vernon: George Washington’s enslaved workers. Last week, we looked back at one of the greatest Americans to ever live, Frederick Douglass, and his prophetic role in American history. This week, we’re going to look at the larger importance of Black History Month. 

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.”

Carter G. Woodson, 1915

In our 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 comes to a close, may our study of Black history only continue. 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 Black history as 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. 

Frederick Douglass and America’s Double Standard

For those of us fascinated by Frederick Douglass, February is an especially important month. While he never knew his actual birthday, he celebrated it on February 14th. Then, on February 20th, 1895, Douglass died in the entryway to his home in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow is the 126th anniversary of the great abolitionist, orator, and writer’s death. 

Douglass in 1845

Frederick Douglass often appealed to the contradiction he saw in American society: a people who cherished their liberty but held millions in bondage. This theme spans decades of his work and is demonstrated in a variety of contexts. At the heart of his message was the idea that America was holding a double standard. The liberty and rights claimed for all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were, in practice, only apportioned to white Americans, perhaps even only white men.

Douglass in 1855

Shortly after his escape from slavery, and immediately after he returned from a two year time in Great Britain, Douglass was distraught. The very country that took away the liberty of the rest Americans treated him with dignity and respect. In his words, “I went to England, monarchical England, to get rid of democratic slavery.”

Throughout much of his writing, Douglass referenced the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Among these principles, his writing emphasized that the government’s job is to protect the rights of its people. In 1847 he called for the “Constitution [to be] shriveled in a thousand fragments.” 

Douglass in 1863

In a different context, in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” he declared that “The principles contained in that instrument (the Declaration of Independence) are saving principles.” Interestingly, despite his stinging words against the Constitution in years prior, he affirmed what many of his white contemporaries would have agreed to—the principles of the Declaration of Independence were principles worth following. These principles he advocated to “be true to… on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” By 1852, Douglass had changed to believe that the Constitution was in fact an antislavery document. Then, he was not shy about calling out that Americans had not adhered to those principles. It was in this speech that he devoted most of his words to defending his observations “that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July.” Using the very occasion to celebrate America’s birthday, Douglass called his audience back to its founding principles, reminding them of the nation’s failure to uphold them for all people. Americans were not holding true to their goals, and Douglass felt it his duty to open their eyes.

Douglass in 1870

Then, in 1865, in reference to asserting African American’s rights, he asked for “not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice” for “the colored people.” This justice found its basis in the “saving principles” of America’s founding documents. Douglass asked for nothing more than for these principles to be applied to African Americans, as they were White Americans. He wanted the simple justice of “the Negro’s right to suffrage.” It is here, too, that he decries America’s inability to extend this same right to women. Simply, and to applause, Douglass declared, “I hold that women, as well as men, have the right to vote.” The double standard of American liberty did not stop at the white-black dichotomy, but also between women and men.

Douglass in 1879

Douglass would at times put forth the responsibility for change on his fellow African Americans, wanting them to ask themselves “What am I doing to elevate and improve my condition, and that of my brethren at large?” Still, it must be seen that he believed that until America reconciled its double standard of liberty, equality-for-all could not be guaranteed. America could not simply rid of this disparity by sending African Americans away. Throughout his writings and speeches, he called to action both white and black Americans to break down the splintered scaffolding that rested on the “saving principles” of America’s founding in order to rebuild a sturdy frame on a sturdy foundation. Because, after all, African Americans “are here and are here to stay.

Douglass was an American hero. He chastised his country as a prophet and worked tirelessly to bring about real equality. He embodied historical thinking. We would do well to live in his legacy.

Douglass in the 1890s

The Silent Graves at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

On Monday, the country celebrates George Washington’s birthday, our first president. If bodies didn’t decay, he would be 289 years old today. But you might ask, why write about Washington for a blog during Black History Month? Today, we’ll use his birthday to commemorate a different group of people who lived at his Mount Vernon estate: the men and women he enslaved.

At the time of his death, 317 enslaved men and women lived at Mount Vernon. While he did put it in his will to free the people he owned upon his death, this did not mean those 317 were emancipated when he left this life. More than half of those slaves, under his wife’s estate, remained in bondage.

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A Cabin for an enslaved family at Mount Vernon. This small cabin would have between 8-12 family members in it.

Washington is a complicated person. He was an enslaver. He even wrote down that physical force (beating and whipping) was perfectly acceptable if a slave needed to be prodded to work harder. Weirdly, he also wrote in a 1786 letter to Robert Morris, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to a see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].” Whatever his internal will actually was in reference to this statement, his actions don’t help him.

When President George Washington resided in Philadelphia, he brought some of the people he enslaved with him. One of those, Ona Judge, was Martha’s maid and seamstress. In the years of living among the free black population in Philadelphia, she was inspired to become free, and so as the Washington’s packed to go home to Mount Vernon for the summer in 1796, she packed for her escape. Eventually fleeing to New Hampshire, Washington pursued her for 3 years, offering rewards for her capture and even sending someone to New Hampshire to “convince her” to come back. She didn’t. She remained a fugitive for the rest of her life. Against the wishes of her enslaver, Washington, she chose freedom.

Other than Judge’s story, which is well documented in Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, many of the lives of the enslaved at Mount Vernon are not well known. However, if you have the chance to visit Mount Vernon today, you will see a strong effort by the estate to highlight the lives of the enslaved. There are tours dedicated to their hardships, there are replicas of their bleak slave quarters, and most moving, archeologists are currently excavating the enslaved community’s cemetery to properly document graves and pay appropriate homage to those who lived and died on Washington’s plantation.

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Three years ago when I visited, my students and I walked the long path down the hill from the Washington mansion to the slave cemetery. We sat, read some of the markers, and took it in. Then, a reenactor, dressed in 18th century clothing, began playing the ute. After playing some songs that were clearly from Washington’s era, he asked the crowd to join in singing the next song with him, if they knew it.

He began to play Amazing Grace. Of course, the author of the hymn, John Newton, wrote it after becoming a Christian and repenting of his involvement in the slave trade. There couldn’t have been a more perfect song. It brought me to tears.

For centuries, the graves of the enslaved at the Mount Vernon estate have largely been silent. Moments like that gave them a voice.

The Paradox of Liberty: Slavery and the U.S. Constitution

The creators of the United States Constitution set out on a difficult task. In creating a document to unify thirteen new states, while at the same time upholding those states’ sovereignty, the founders could not escape an inherent tension. Specifically, the issue of slavery coupled with the ideal of equality could hardly be reconciled. 

In its preamble, the Constitution illuminates several actions of the “People of the United States” as a foundation to “form a more perfect Union.” Some of these actions are to “establish Justice, “insure domestic Tranquility,” “promote the general Welfare,” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This foundation upon which the rest of the document lays upon forces several questions: What is justice and for whom? Who is able to experience tranquility? Who falls under ‘general welfare’? Who’s liberty is secured? 

Eventually, the nation’s stain of slavery would drip across this entire foundation and cause the Civil War.

Slavery is addressed three times in the 1787 Constitution. In Article I, Section 2, enslaved people are counted as “three fifths” of a person in regards to representation. This compromise kept southern states from garnering too much political power as they could have had if their vast slave population fully counted toward the amount of delegates they were allotted for the House of Representatives. In section 9 of the same article, the legal importation of slaves was given an end date, 1808.

 

Lastly, in Article IV, section 2, the Constitution stated that “No Person held to Service or Labour in one state, under the Laws thereof, escaping to another, shall… be discharged from such Service or Labour.” Known as the fugitive slave clause, this vague principle protected slaveholders’ right to pursue and retrieve an escaped slave, even if the fugitive made it to a state where slavery was abolished. It is in this last article that the preamble is put to the test. What was justice to a free-state may not be justice to the slave-state; likewise, “domestic Tranquility” could turn into domestic distrust if citizens within differing states chose not to cooperate. These inconsistencies between preamble goals and actual governance weakened America’s foundation.

Despite this visible crack in the new nation’s foundation, it appears that the framers of the Constitution saw no other way forward. They believed that abolishing slavery in the whole nation was out of the question if each of the states was expected to sign the Constitution. Not only did the southern states explicitly build their economy off of the backs of slaves, but as Thomas Jefferson noted, “for tho’ their [the northern] people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” The colonies had built an economy with slavery at its core, and if they wanted to create a new constitution in 1787, calling for slavery’s abolition was inconceivable to them. 

Herein lies the deep paradox of our Constitution. Yes, as we at Thinking Nation believe, the principles of the U.S. Constitution are strong and enduring. We would do well as a country to adhere to them. Still, the Constitution is not sacred. It had significant flaws that deprived millions of Americans their personhood and allowed slavery to not simply continue, but to expand in the 70 years after it was signed. If we want to praise the principles of government outlined in our Constitution, we must, as many before us, condemn the errors that prioritized white compromises at the expense of black bodies.

The Past is Our Mirror

Mirrors provide people the ability to get an accurate picture of themselves. Knowing that people are products of their pasts—personal and communal—the past acts as a mirror for those living in the present. This is not only true for the average person seeking to understand his or herself more fully, but also for historians who seek to make the people they study more fully understood. Understanding the past helps us to better understand the present. If we can situate ourselves among those who have come before us, we can better understand why things got to be the way they are. This question, “How did we get here?” has surely been on many of our minds lately.

In 1884, as Jim Crow laws overtook American life, the great abolitionist, writer, and orator, Frederick Douglass, reflected on this idea of historical memory. In a speech he reminded his listeners:

While it is well to attend to the issues of the present and to look hopefully forward to the future, it is well not to forget the past. Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is in some sense the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make them more symmetrical.

Many of us want to understand where we should go next. We want to be changemakers in our local communities and our nation at large. At Thinking Nation, we believe that one of the most often overlooked ways to do this is by studying the past. But as Douglass reminds us, when we use the past as a mirror, “we may discern the dim outlines of the future.” When we know where we’ve come from, we are better equipped to steer the ship moving forward. May we pause. May we reflect. May we remember. 

Thinking historically gives us the tools to do this and is why historical thinking skills are at the center of our curriculum.

“Accurate” History and the 1776 Commission Report

First, let’s recognize the mundane, yet momentous occasion that happened this week: The Inauguration. Of course, I use mundane lightly, as the ceremony was emotion-filled for so many people. If you missed Amanda Gorman’s poem,  I encourage you to listen to her heartfelt summary of America and American opportunity. Back in October, our blog addressed how the Constitution ensures the peaceful transfer of power. Of course, with the invasion of our Capitol earlier this month, it was not as peaceful as it should have been, but still, Wednesday’s inauguration was ceremonial and a new president took the oath of office (Read it here! (End of Section I) It’s straight from Article II of the Constitution). Power was transferred and our republic moves forward. 

For this (long) blog, though, I want to address a document that was released on Monday by the Trump administration: “The 1776 Report” by The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. Yes, it is true, as early as Thursday morning, the Biden administration has already removed the report from whitegouse.gov. This means that one of President Biden’s first acts was to revoke the commission. It’s gone. But it’s not.

The sentiments laid out in the 1776 report do not simply die with the presidency that commissioned it, and so, I think it is important for us to understand what it was asking of educators across the country.

First, as one might expect with an American history report coming from the Trump administration, it received a lot of pushback, especially from academic historians. One reason is that there were no academic historians on the commission itself. One historian from Princeton, Kevin Kruse, demonstrated the skewed picture the report, released on MLK Day, painted of Martin Luther King, Jr. James Grossman, president of the American Historical Association (AHA), commented that the report was “a hack job. It’s not a work of history,”  and “It’s a work of contentious politics designed to stoke culture wars.” In fact, the AHA published a statement condemning the report that was then signed by 33 other professional historical associations.

The 1776 report was the Trump Administration’s attempt to counter last year’s “1619 Project,” published by the New York Times, which sought to center America’s hand in slavery into American history. The 1619 Project mostly received praise, with a few exceptions from certain prominent scholars. Analysis of the Project deserves a series of blog posts, so any thoughts on it will be spared from this post.

Today’s blog serves as Thinking Nation’s comment on the 1776 Commission’s Report. The U.S. Constitution, and its principles, are at the heart of our curriculum, and since the 1776 Commission claims the same, it is important to acknowledge both alignment to and departure from our goals for the history classroom.

First, in the introduction, the report states that its purpose is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” Honestly, beyond the thinly veiled jab at the 1619 Project with the reference to 1776, this purpose seems hard to refute. At Thinking Nation, we want to cultivate thinking citizens and embed Constitutional principles into our historical thinking curriculum. Its intended purpose states the same. Furthermore, the report notes that “To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.” Partisan squabbles aside, I know of few history teachers would disagree with this statement. Many of us echoed this same sentiment loudly in the aftermath of January 6th’s insurrection. “Our country needs civics,” we cried. “Fund history education!” So far, 1776 Report, so good.

However, the report continuously contends that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” Here, they argue that their report does not have partisan aims, but seeks that “Educators should teach an accurate history of how the permanent principles of America’s founding have been challenged and preserved since 1776.” But who determines what is accurate or which principles are permanent? Surely, a 45 page report cannot summarize an accurate American History? And it doesn’t.

While the 1776 Report claims not to be partisan and to present an accurate view of the past, it cannot honestly reflect on its presentation and come to the conclusion that it lived up to its aims. The report lumps early 20th century “Progressivism” with Slavery, Communism, and Fascism as a “Challenge to America’s Principles.” Of course, since Progressivism is a vital part of American history that has undoubtedly led to needed reform, it is clear that there is a conservative bent to this report. If progressivism is a challenge, then conservatism is the remedy, logic would have it. Partisanship is therefore central to the 1776 report, despite it claiming that “States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions…” Then it might need to reject large swaths of its own report.

There are a slew of historical inaccuracies and evidence-less claims in the report, in fact so many that I spent just as much time annotating the report as I did reading it. But for this blog, let’s continue to focus on big ideas. The last aspect of the report that deserves attention is its answering of these two fundamental questions: What is history? (Our first blog post) and What is the purpose of history education?

Revisiting a quote cited above, the report claims that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” This of course implies a certain definition of history: Past facts = history. But as we demonstrated in our first blog, history is not merely the past: it is the interpretation of the past. Any historian would acknowledge that interpretations can differ, and that is ok. So when a report that bases its entire foundation on history claims that facts are simply “a matter of history,” they narrow our view of a profound and complex discipline. Shortchanging the meaning of history is great for propagandizing a partisan agenda but not so great for illuminating a complex past. 

As to history’s purpose, the report states that “educators must convey a sense of enlightened patriotism that equips each generation with a knowledge of America’s founding principles, a deep reverence for their liberties, and a profound love of their country.” But history education, even civics education, should not be reduced this way. Understanding is the chief goal of any education, but here, the report claims that “a profound love of their country,” is the measure of success. Now, there should be no problem if someone arrives at that love of country through historical and civic study. A case can even be made that it is healthy. But it is not the purpose. History education is not a Sunday sermon, cultivating a particular belief system and fostering devotion to that system. It may have some of the same byproducts as said sermon, but one should not equate the two. Perhaps the simplest rebuttal to the prescribed purpose of education in the 1776 Report is this simple reminder: Our job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. While the report pays lip service to this phrase throughout the 45 pages, it blatantly defies this purpose with its own goals.

The 1776 report claims to offer an “accurate” presentation of history. It fails. While it has certain characteristics that are worth commending, as a whole, it falls far short of its own aspirations. By doubling-down on partisan rhetoric and old views of history that prioritize America’s “greatness” over America’s complexity, it has no place in a history classroom where we want students to think historically, interrogate the historical record, and be equipped to draw evidence-based conclusions. Even though the report itself has been revoked, it’s skewed view of American history will continue to be applauded in many political and educational circles in the coming years. These views are not new. Thus, it is important to engage with them. 

We believe that in order for democracy to thrive, we must cultivate thinking citizens. But the 1776 Report, or the skewed view of history it presents, is not the way to do this.

What About the Freedom of Speech?

A few weeks ago, our blog focused on providing a refresher on the Bill of Rights, that is, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment is where we get the “Freedom of Speech.” This freedom has been invoked frequently in the days since the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, so we thought it would be prudent to review this amendment and its protections in more detail.

First, let’s read the 1st Amendment in its entirety: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There is a lot packed into this sentence, so let’s abbreviate to focus on our topic for today: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” 

Let’s look a little closer. Who is the subject? Congress. And what can’t Congress do? Make a law that abridges freedom of speech. This is key, The Constitutional protections of freedom of speech involve potential infringements of speech by the federal government

Here, it is important to note that private companies are not bound by the U.S. Constitution to uphold the freedom of speech. The First Amendment only protects against government suppression of speech and government censorship. 

In the past week, many have protested major social media companies for banning President Trump’s accounts. Often, the people protesting this action decry it as denying the freedom of speech. However, as shown above, this freedom is meant to be a protection against the government, not private companies. Private companies are well within their rights to dictate the terms of using their platforms (i.e. their “terms and conditions”), and if those terms are violated, they can freeze or ban an account. There are many laws that influence private business practices, however, the Bill of Rights is not one of them.

At Thinking Nation, we think it is incredibly important to make this distinction. We hold the Constitution highly and believe it to be the bedrock of our democracy. With that said, we also believe that misrepresentation of our nation’s founding document can harm that very democracy. When we misuse the Constitution, especially when seeking our own benefit, we put a cloud over the intentions of our nation’s founders and weaken our own country’s foundation.

In this contentious time in American history, let’s cling to the principles outlined by our Constitution. May we not detract from their potency on one hand, and may we not make them to be more than they were meant to be on the other. 

The Constitution is Everywhere

2020 was quite a year. The U.S. Constitution was invoked throughout it. In an impeachment trial, rules relating to pandemic response, how to bring about true racial equality, appointing Supreme Court Justices, what to do when a sitting president refuses to concede a lost election, how to navigate an “omnibus bill” passed by Congress, and surely the list goes on. Each of these events both relate to and involve average citizens and thus, our ability to navigate our nation’s founding document directly relates to our ability to properly navigate our current circumstances. It is with this in mind that Thinking Nation integrates Constitutional literacy into all of our DBQs. This way, students can not only think critically about the past, but can be more informed and engaged citizens in our democracy.

Knowing the Constitution and internalizing its principles affects us far more than we realize. When we feel like Congress is at a stand still, where can we go to better understand the origins of this gridlock? The Constitution. When the President takes legislative matters into his own hands, how can we challenge it? Cite the Constitution. When voting rights are infringed upon, what is cited to defend the votes of all Americans? The Constitution. When we feel like free speech or the freedom of the press is being suppressed, where do we turn? The Constitution. We probably even quote or paraphrase the Constitution (unfortunately sometimes out of context) more than we even realize it. It is not only the nation’s founding document, it is a document that guides the political and public lives of that nation’s citizens.

In short, the Constitution is the foundation of American democracy and American citizenship. Therefore, we believe that part of making students engaged and informed citizens is familiarizing them with the Constitution. However, since our historical thinking curriculum stems far beyond the history of the United States, connecting it to the Constitution happens in two distinct ways. 

First, for United States History DBQs, we want to demonstrate that the Constitution is tied to all facets of U.S.https://www.thinkingnation.org/curriculum/#sample-DBQs History. As soon as an event enters the public realm, the Constitution can be invoked, even if it “does not expressly say” as President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged in his famous First Inaugural Address.

Second, for World History DBQs, we want to demonstrate that the Constitution was not created in a vacuum. It is attached to a much longer history than itself, inspired by the past in what it should and should not be as a governing document. 

In sum, the Constitution is connected to each of the DBQ tasks within this curriculum: as a product of the past, a contextualizing document for U.S. History, and a guide for how to ensure the success of the American experiment. In this way, we hope to simultaneously equip students with a Constitutional literacy as we equip students to think historically. In the end, we hope to cultivate thinking citizens who can reflect on the past, navigate the present, and better our future.

Welcoming the New Year by Reflecting on the Past

Happy New Year! 2021 could not have come soon enough. 

I do, unfortunately, have to be the bearer of bad news. Simply because the calendar changes does not mean that the problems that encompassed 2020 just completely end. Realistically, we must remember 2020 in order to make 2021 a better year. Yes, like any historian out there will tell you, here’s my reminder: we must reflect on the old in order to usher in the new.

As a teacher, I would make a bold claim to my students (that I’m sure would work for any subject with an educator passionate about their discipline, but it was still fun). I would tell them that history is everywhere in your life. You cannot escape it and you use it every day to make your own decisions without even knowing it. Trying to make the importance of history that much more real to them I told them to challenge me. They could give me any aspect/event/circumstance in their lives, and I would tell them how history is an integral part of whatever it is they shared. I would get a slew of answers. “My dog died.” “I take the bus home from school.” “My best friend’s name is _____.” “I’m an only child.” “I have 7 brothers and sisters.” “I love soccer.” and they continued. Each of my responses could fit into just a handful of categories: precedent, heritage, past research, and contextualization. Over time, the students who caught on would tell the more persistent students to stop trying. “Mr. Cote is obviously going to find a way to connect it to history,” they would say. History had won. Just like a mathematician can find numbers wherever they look, a historian sees the past in everything. As the American Historical Association’s Executive Director, James Grossman always reminds us: #everythinghasahistory.

Since everything has a history and knowing that history can better inform our present decisions, we must have an eye to the past if we want to make worthy New Year’s Resolutions. We have to look backward if we want to move forward. We have to reflect on where we’ve been if we want to see where we are going more clearly. 

One of my favorite units to teach my 8th graders was on The Civil War. We would read the Graphic History Battle Lines, co-authored by historian Ari Kelman and graphic artist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. In the last scene of the book, the authors leave the readers with a similar impression of the importance of the past. A train operator sits in the caboose and tells the young worker next to him, “Nine out of ten people say the engine’s the most important part of the train. Truth is, It’s the hearse that matters most. We’re the ones who watch the train. It’s only us who can tell if she’s missed a switch. Or has a mind to jump track. And we ain’t so busy stoking the fire, trying to make time, that we can’t take a moment to look out the back. If only to mark where it is we’re coming from.”

As we move forward into a new year, don’t be too busy trying to “stoke the fire” and move forward that you forget to look back. We cannot celebrate what’s to come until we’ve pondered what’s come before.