On Juneteenth: In Defense of Historical Thinking

Last year, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law on June 17th, making June 19th our 11th federal holiday. For a summary of the holiday and its incredible significance, read last year’s blog. However, this year, we want to explore historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s 2021 award winning book: On Juneteenth

Annette Gordon-Reed is perhaps most famous for her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which as Pulitzer.org puts it, is “A painstaking exploration of a sprawling multi-generation slave family that casts provocative new light on the relationship between Sally Hemings and her master, Thomas Jefferson.” In her much smaller series of essays, On Juneteenth, she writes a mix of history, memoir, and even historical methods. Today, we will focus on the importance of historical methods in her book, as she weaves their importance throughout. 

Early on, she calls out the hypocrisy of how we often remember the past. In the Texas she grew up in, “Slavery was done. There was no point in dwelling on the past” (p. 27). Of course, she reminds the reader, “Except we did dwell on the past. We were exhorted to ‘Remember the Alamo’ and to ‘Remember Goliad…’ (28). Here, she rightfully calls out the role of “legend and myth” as she calls them, and how they skew the teaching and remembering of history. 

In contrast, historical thinking offers something less nostalgic, but it is bound by a more truthful representation of the past. She writes a little later, “The past is dead. But, like other formerly living things, echoes of the past remain, leaving their traces in the people and events of the present and future” (33). Historians uncover those echoes, the actual echoes, not just what we may want those echoes to tell us.

As she unravels much of Texas’s history that conveniently doesn’t make the cut for many textbooks, she reminds her readers what history is. “History is about people and events in a particular setting and context, and how those things have changed over time in ways that make the past different from our own time, with an understanding that those changes were not inevitable” (58). In this succinct definition of the discipline, she illuminates two core historical thinking skills: Continuity and Change over Time and Contingency. These, unlike the “memory and mythology” that often lives in a “nationalistic-oriented history” (62), remind us of “the demands of historical thinking” (58). 

In that small paragraph, Gordon-Reed illuminates some of the driving factors of our own mission and curriculum at Thinking Nation. We want to empower students to think historically. Not to be grabbed by a convenient history that we easily see ourselves in or might make us feel important, but to be empathetic in our quest to understand the actors and events of the past.

Later, as she seamlessly contextualizes this holiday for both the nation and her own personal life, she reemphasizes the nature of contingency in history. “Writers, and consumers, of history” she cautions, “must take great care not to import the knowledge we have into the minds of people and of circumstances in the past” (82). Because the past is contingent, we must not be presentists. To treat the past fairly and with respect, we must understand it on its own terms.

When we seek that, we remember that revisionist history is not a swear word. It’s at the core of what it means to do history. Gordon-Reed explains that “history is always being revised, as new information comes to light and when different people see known documents and have their own responses to them, shaped by their individual experiences” (107). 

With remarkable clarity and convincing argument, Annette Gordon-Reed successfully captivates the reader with her own personal history growing up in Texas, the meaning of Juneteenth for Texans, and by result the nation, and perhaps most lastingly, a robust framework for studying the past. Her incredibly accessible book doesn’t just illuminate the context of the nation’s 11th federal holiday, it is a helpful refresher on what it exactly means to think historically.

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.

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 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.

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.

Historical Thinking Cultivates Citizens No Matter Their Time or Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re Cultivating Historians, Not History Enthusiasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Does Not Have to be Familiar to be Relevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing History vs. Doing History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 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.

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.