Black History Month: 19th Century Calls for Emigration

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

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

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

Martin R. Delany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused.

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

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

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

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

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

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

January 6th – One Year Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Repeating History Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Thinking is Slow Thinking

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

“Slow Thinking” by Danny Herrera on Dribble

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

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

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

How Can We Cultivate Empathetic Citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, Simple is Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushing Student Thinking through Socratic Seminars

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

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

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

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

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

Hispanic Heritage Month and the Mexican Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hispanic Heritage Month

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

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

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

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

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

Below are some clips from the Magazine:

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

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Remembering 9/11, Twenty Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Need Deep Analysis, Not Fact Retention

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

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

Defining History Graph
© American Historical Association

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

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

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

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

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

History Curriculums Must Serve Students Not Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Assessments Transform History Departments

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

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

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

Whole class data from a Common Assessment

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

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

History is Contested

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

An 1839 Painting depicting fighting during the Haitian Revolution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Re)Defining History Shapes our Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Thinking Paves a Better Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Thinking Combats Polarization

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

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

We have been consumed.

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

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