What are Historical Thinking Skills?

At Thinking Nation, we’ve consistently stood by the belief that historical thinking empowers students. When students think historically, they are equipped with the skills and dispositions necessary to sustain democracy and carve out a better future. Social Studies, as a discipline, is uniquely set up to equip students in this way, but what these historical thinking skills exactly are can be challenging to define. 


One of our first blogs simply asked “What does it mean to think historically?” In the blog, I wrote,  “Simply, historical thinking skills are the skills needed to properly interpret documents, events, and their outcomes.” Being able to interpret (and effectively analyze) what is put in front of you in order to make meaning of what you are interpreting is one of life’s most critical skills. It is a skill at the heart of our discipline.

Staying at a 30,000 foot view of the definition of historical thinking skills, I’d also like to add that these are simply the skills that historians employ in their study of the past. While they are by no means natural, as Sam Wineburg points out, they can be learned if students are given adequate instruction and practice. 

Historical Empathy

Historical thinking skills are the historian’s toolbelt. At least that’s how I summed it up when asked by historian John Fea. But these skills, while cultivated in social studies, don’t just remain there. Historical thinking skills are incredibly helpful in navigating everyday life—from the news, to the workplace, even to our relationships. I often tell people how learning to think historically did not just make me a better analyst or writer. It’s made me a better dad, husband, and neighbor. 

Evaluating Evidence

As I wrote above, historical thinking is empowering. Paradoxically, historical thinking is humbling, too. When students think historically, they have the agency to enter into conversations about complex ideas. They are empowered. But, they also know their limits. They seek to empathize with who they study. They rely on evidence over their own opinion. They’re humbled.

With all of this in mind, as we continue in our goal to shift the paradigm of social studies education in building both teacher’s and student’s capacities to think historically, we wanted to have a simple and clear way to communicate those skills to those who engage with our resources. We needed a visual.

Therefore, as a part of our organization’s rebrand, we worked with the talented design firm, Josh Warren Design, to create visual icons to represent the various skills embedded into our curriculum. Currently, we’ve focused on 10 skills. Below, you can see each of them with their corresponding icon.

Each of these icons will now follow their respective historical thinking skill around our curriculum. Students will see them when they engage in document analysis, formative assessments, or engage in a curated research paper. We hope that these clear visuals, along with their succinct definitions (some examples here!), will help students internalize these thinking skills. We know that the internalization of such skills won’t just be a good way to score well on a history test. Most importantly, it will set up students for success outside of the classroom in creating confident citizens, prepared to think critically about the world they live in.

Thinking Historically About: Our New Podcast

Well, another week, another podcast. Though, this time it’s our own: Thinking Historically About.

As many of you know, we continually try to be a bridge between secondary education and the university. Rather than thinking how we can put a historical thinking “twist” on traditional classroom narratives in social studies, we look at how professional historians define their discipline and then think through how to scaffold those approaches for younger learners. 

Another way we try to be that bridge is by seeking out the expertise of scholars as we construct our own units. Thanks to the generosity of so many historians offering their expertise, Thinking Nation students have access to high level thinking about complex historical events through our materials. I appreciate historians like Carol Berkin, who helped shape our unit on Women and the American Revolution, Manisha Sinha, who guided our unit on Slave Resistance, John Fea, who made sure students can think historically about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and James Walvin who thought deeply about the Haitian Revolution with me and how to best get students thinking about its consequences. These scholars, among many others, have made our curriculum so much stronger.

One of the next stages of incorporating the expertise of scholars into our resources is through our new Youtube Series and Podcast: Thinking Historically About. In this series, we interview scholars specifically about the inquiry questions that students engage with in our units. Our goal with these is that students can hear how an expert in the field wrestles with the same question they will wrestle with and potentially write about through our Curated Research Papers. We’ve been quietly uploading some on our Youtube channel, but starting this month, we will release one interview a month via podcast. We hope that this gives teachers multiple methods for allowing students to engage with these quick conversations either before or during their own engagement with the historical events they study in their classes. 

Our first episode, Thinking Historically About Ancient Rome can be found on Apple Podcasts here (Or Spotify). Or, if you want to play the video interview for your students, you can find it on Youtube. We are grateful to Ancient Rome scholar, Nadya Williams, for sharing her own expertise in both the crafting of the unit and in her reflection in the interview. We hope these interviews become useful for your classroom!

Lastly, to contribute to the funding of these interviews and other collaborations with scholars  You can donate here.


New Resource Alert: Quantitative Analysis

Today’s blog comes to us from Annie Jenson, Thinking Nation’s Director of Curriculum, who has been hard at work this summer creating a variety of resources for our teachers:

We’ve all heard some iteration of this quote by Mark Twain, “Facts are stubborn little things, but statistics are pliable.” And in an era where stats and data are so easily accessible and then disseminated, the role of the historian and educator has become even more integral to a functioning democratic society.

Our mission at Thinking Nation may be simple – “To cultivate thinking citizens” – but our work is complex. Part of developing critical thinking skills in students must include education and practice in analyzing data. 

Over the summer, we have created a tool to help teachers do just that. We are calling it our “Quantitative Analysis Formative Assessment.”

Our newest resource is a 15-30 minute activity in which students are first exposed to data. After a brief analysis, students evaluate the accuracy of conclusions based on the information provided in the data. To conclude, students justify their answer.

We utilize “Weighted Multiple Choice” (WMC) in this assessment in which there is only one incorrect answer and the other options are ranked. As described by historian Bruce Vansledright, WMCs allow us to “retain some scoring efficiencies while assessing much more complex ideas and interpretations. These items also do improved justice to the [history] domain’s complexity…” 

The inclusion of WMCs in the classroom not only does “justice to the domain’s complexity” it also fuels increased classroom discussion. As answers are correct to a differing degree and students must justify their answer, there is ample opportunity for debate. Rather than a student feeling embarrassed from choosing an incorrect answer, they feel motivated to defend their choice.

In these discussions, we have witnessed democracy in action. Students make claims, use evidence to support their reasoning, and provide counterarguments to the assessments of their peers. And this is how students become both empowered and capable of engaging in meaningful dialogue outside of the four walls of a classroom.

There are so many ways to misinterpret data. From considering the collection of data, to analyzing whether the data is sufficiently representative, to generalizing information, it is no wonder that the exact same graph can yield wildly different conclusions.

In our Quantitative Analysis Formative Assessment, students are exposed to both accurate conclusions and data misunderstandings. Through this practice, they will become more attuned to the critical way in which statistical information should be evaluated. 

The most polarizing conversations in our nation lately have been political in nature. And there are abundant recent examples of both the misinterpretation and misuse of political data presented. Thus, we especially focused on creating Quantitative Analysis Formative Assessments for students in an American Government course.

In one of our formative assessments (Linked here!), students have the opportunity to consider the balance between civil liberties and national security. The graphs depict American attitudes from 2004 to 2015 on how the government has handled terrorism.

In our WMC, one conclusion states, “Age is the only factor that impacts one’s opinion on U.S. efforts to protect civil liberties.” This is a classic example of misinterpretation. Just because age is the only factor represented, it does not mean that it is the only factor involved. For students who choose this answer, they would receive “0” points, however, the weight of the lesson learned is immeasurable. These students will be much more critical in the future as they consider what data is represented and what data is not included.

We are excited about this new offering to our partner schools as we are continually seeking ways to support the efforts of cultivating thinking citizens!

The Curated Research Paper

The Thinking Nation team has been hard at work this summer preparing for the 23-24 school year. We will roll out various changes, updates, curriculum, and more in the coming weeks; but, today, I want to address our summative assessment: the Curated Research Paper.

As you will see, our summative assessments have not changed in structure. They contain an inquiry question, context activities such as vocabulary, relevance to the present, and historical context, and a document set made up of primary and secondary sources. Students take all of this information and construct an argumentative essay that addresses the inquiry question and incorporates the analysis they did of the abovementioned components. In short, they complete a curated research paper.

Out with the old and in with the new.

Most people call this process a “DBQ,” or Document Based Question. This name has its origin in AP (Advanced Placement) Exams, put out by the College Board. The College Board, of course, has received a ton of attention in the past few years with many universities foregoing SAT requirements, the new African American Studies course, and the particularly low AP U.S. History scores that came out about a month ago. For much of High School history education in the United States, the College Board serves as an anchor for teachers and schools to compare what they do too. Thus, it has made sense for us and others to use “DBQ” as a term to describe what it is we do.

However, we have decided to break away from this terminology and call our assessments what they actually are. I want to take today’s blog to briefly explain our rationale for this change in hopes of continuing the dialogue for our organization’s ultimate goal: to shift the paradigm of history education. We hope to bring a new dialogue in social studies.

  1. The term “Document Based Question” does not accurately describe what we are asking students and teachers to do. In fact, I can recall dozens of instances when I told someone we did DBQs and they told me that they did too. Then, they began to explain what, essentially, was a textbook reading assignment. Read a short excerpt of a document, and answer one or more questions about it. Sometimes these questions never even broke the DOK 1 threshold. Clearly, we had a different definition!
  2. A part of growing up is making decisions because you thought through them, not simply because that’s what your parents did. For sometime, most of us have used the term DBQ because it’s what the “parent” (College Board) used. Those of us in that circle knew exactly what we meant, but the broader public (and most new teachers) had no idea, unless of course, they took an AP history class. This means that every time we talk about DBQs with a new audience, we have to add an extra layer of explanation. We believe that this extra layer can be removed and we can make a more evidence-based conclusion about what to name the process we are asking students to engage in. Thus we have the Curated Research Paper, or “CRP.”

To recap, we believe that Curated Research Paper is the best way to articulate the summative tasks within Thinking Nation’s curriculum. Using CRP with both the professional community and the wider public will more clearly articulate for all stakeholders what exactly the expectations are. 

We are looking forward to engaging in CRPs with our partner schools this year! In the weeks to come, I’m excited to draw attention to more exciting things coming out of Thinking Nation!

Oped: Our Response to the NAEP Scores

Last week, Education Week published my response to the recent NAEP scores which showed a decline in students’ understanding of both American History and Civics. They summarized my article succinctly: History Teachers Deserve Respect. I’d like to nuance this slightly to say that “The Discipline of History Demands Respect.” Please read an excerpt below, and then head over to Education Week to read the full article.

Trend in eighth-grade U.S. history average scores (https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/ushistory/)

“The National Assessment of Educational Progress released the 2022 scores in history and civics for 8th graders earlier this month. I cannot say I was surprised by the decline. As others have noted, decreased time spent on social studies, a lack of funding, and recent state legislation prohibiting the teaching of a full and honest history were likely contributing factors.

I’d like to make the case that each of those causes represent a larger issue worth addressing: the lack of respect or attention to history education. This lack of respect permeates school buildings in how tests are built, professional development is allotted, teacher bonuses are awarded, and teaching assignments are given.

Most people do not actually see history as a discipline. They see it as a content. This distinction is crucial. When we only see history as a content of stories to be told, we get lost in the weeds of which stories to choose. The ongoing culture wars over what we can teach in history classrooms illustrates how this quickly spirals out of control. Rather than having constructive conversations about competing interpretations of the past, many people have become dogmatic about particular narratives, distracting us from the disciplinary practices inherent to the study of history.

If we truly care about equipping the next generation of citizens to be proficient in history and civics, we need to start by redefining what it is we do as history teachers. Of course, as I often tell the teachers I coach, this does not mean that we get rid of content in favor of skills, but it does mean that content becomes a means to an end—to the loftier goal of empowering our students to think historically.

We must… cultivate historical thinkers, empowered to engage with the diversity of ideas that they encounter both in and out of our classrooms.

To do this effectively, we need to build a common language around how we think about history so that social studies teachers don’t just have surface-level conversations about student progress within their content silos. We also need to provide common assessments on historical thinking that facilitate the use of that common language.

We can bring legitimacy back to what we do. Focusing on the discipline rather than the content allows us to rise above the culture wars, redeem ourselves as teachers of literacy so that we can properly collaborate with other content areas, and, most importantly, empower our students with the skills and dispositions to reinvigorate a visibly injured democracy.

As a bonus? Yeah, the NAEP scores will increase, too.”

Teacher Appreciation Week!

On our social media this week for Teacher Appreciation Week, we featured teachers at some of our partner schools around the country who are absolutely CRUSHING IT! We are so grateful to work with such inspiring teachers and want to take some time to honor them here, too.

Following each teacher introduction, we will highlight some of their thoughts on history education through a mini Q+A.

First up for Teacher Appreciation Week: Dr. Carlo Aaron Purther. Dr. Purther currently is the department head at Birmingham Community Charter High School and has been teaching for 21 years. This year teaches US History, US History EL, AP Euro, and Government. To add to that he also teaches at Cal State University, Northridge. We love how we constantly integrates historical writing and analysis into his classes. We appreciate you, Dr. Purther!

Dr. Carlo Aaron Purther, Birmingham Community Charter School, Van Nuys, CA.

Q:  Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?

A: The mission is to help students become responsible democratic citizens.   In addition to the number of skills one needs to be an effective citizen such as supporting an argument with textual evidence like they do with DBQs, one should also be able to think historically.  That is, students should be able to understand the context and contingency of situations to better understand their place in the present and future.  Additionally, students should be able to identify the cause and effect of events, how things change over time, and be able to comprehend the complexities of situations.  All of this leads to students becoming responsible democratic citizens.

Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?

A: I would like to see (1) more cross-curriculum skill-based work with other subjects (2) students being service focused  (3) focus on depth of historical events based on interests and/or needs of a local community.

Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!

A: Because of our school’s work with Thinking Nation, students have improved in  (1) summarizing documents (2) being able to explain how textual evidence supports a thesis (3) and connecting what they learned from the writing an essay to event in another historical era.

Moving across the country to Michigan, we want to highlight the work of Uplift Michigan Online High School teacher, Jenifer Gould! Mrs. Gould is an incredibly reflective educator who continuously pushes her students to think deeply about the past. We appreciate you, Mrs. Gould!

Jenifer Gould, Uplift Michigan Online School

Q:  Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?

A: Teaching students to think historically is so important as it teaches them lifelong skills of analyzing, thinking objectively, and making sure they have evidence to support their position. Especially in the current climate we live in, it is more important than ever that students have these skills.

Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?

My hope is that history education would start focusing much more on primary sources, analysis, and critical thinking, versus memorization and multiple-choice answers. Teaching history using primary sources is so rewarding as students see historical events in an entirely new light. 

Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!

It has been so fun, rewarding, and worth the effort to incorporate and use primary source documents in class as I have seen “light bulb” moments in several students as they have learned about historical events that they previously learned about, but now are seeing it from a totally different perspective. 

From the Mitten State to the Lone Star State, we are going to the classroom of Gabriel Hernandez at Idea Public Schools in Weslaco, TX. Mr. Hernandez is a go-getter and risk taker that cares deeply for his students. We appreciate you, Mr. Hernandez!

Mr. Hernandez reviewing for the AP exam with all of his students at Weslaco IDEA Pike College Prep!

Q:  Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?

A: It is important for our students to think historically and view concepts through a historical lens to ensure we grasp it through the interpretation of then and now.  To make sure history does not repeat itself, since history is a  generation away from being lost.

Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?

A: History in the future should be something we all carry with us, and be showcased through multiple platforms, topics and not just what is required, but special topics, narratives, and interpretation from scholars and others that will bring more attention to History education.

Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!

A: A bright spot of student thinking in my classroom consists of peer feedback, pair shares and a WATCHA wall (oh look at this work/Spanish translation) that showcases student work and achievement. The photo that I attached is one of our last days of review, we build Key Concept hats and students were to showcase all day to other staff and students!  I apologize for the walls being covered, since it was right before exams, we are not allowed to have any work up (timelines, anchor charts and such).

Finally, for Teacher Appreciation Week, we’d like to (again) highlight the work of Abraham Martinez at Stella Middle Charter Academy in Los Angeles, CA. Mr. Martinez has been teaching for 7 years and continuously reflects on how to best empower his students to think historically. We appreciate you, Mr. Martinez!

Mr. Martinez going over a Thinking Nation Formative Assessment with his 8th graders.

Q:  Why do you think it is important to teach your students to think historically?

A: Teaching students to think historically is important as it gives them a framework and thought process to approach primary sources in an academic setting. I also believe that this framework can be applied outside of the history classroom into other content areas and beyond. Ultimately, it helps them become better people and gives them the problem solving skills that they will need throughout their entire lives.

Q: Where would you like to see history education go in the future?

A: This is a tough one. I believe that history education has moved into the right direction in the last 20 years by focusing on the historical thinking aspect of the discipline in addition to the names, dates, and facts. However, I don’t think that everyone in education seems to see this importance. I would like for education leaders to highlight and recognize the importance that history education plays in the role of developing the “whole student”. Perhaps this may be a reflection of my thoughts on education as a whole, but we need to make sure that we are developing better humans that are able to think for themselves, not just for academic purposes.

Q: Share with us a bright spot of student thinking from your classroom!

A: One of the brightest moments that I witnessed this year was when we had a socratic seminar on the Monroe Doctrine. Students were so excited to discuss what would normally be a rather “boring” topic according to an 8th grader. My 4th period class was so engaged in the conversation that they chose to stay in during lunch to continue the discussion. It was amazing to see their excitement and passion.

Take some time today to celebrate the teachers in your life for Teacher Appreciation Week. And all the teachers out there: Know that we see you and appreciate how much you do for the students in your room.

AAPI Heritage Month: Students Can Explore Resilience

[This blog was adapted from a previous Thinking Nation blog on May 28, 2021]

The month of May is AAPI Heritage Month, or Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. We want to take this week’s blog to honor those who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality within the AAPI community. This week’s blog will highlight three instances where Asian Americans called the United States to live up to its founding ideas of liberty and justice for all. Each of these stories come from our curriculum’s library of DBQs and we hope that as you engage with their heroism today, students will engage with their stories in the classroom.

Our first story of resistance and persistence comes from San Francisco in 1886. Chinese men Yick Wo and Wo Lee were denied permits to operate their laundry businesses under a new discriminatory law in San Francisco. While the law did not mention race at all, after the city council passed it, only white laundry business owners could obtain permits to legally operate in the city. Yick Wo and Wong Lee challenged this discrimination on the basis of the relatively new (passed in 1868) 14th Amendment, which states, “No State shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” To put the amendment to the test, they continued to operate their businesses without permits, and then when threatened by the city, made their case in the U.S. legal system. Despite the new city law not explicitly referencing Chinese San Franciscans, Wo and Lee took their case (Yick Wo v. Hopkins) all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that the city’s laws violated their 14th amendment rights. The court unanimously sided with Wo and Lee and set a profound precedent in U.S. legal history. The court argued that just because a law is not racist on its face doesn’t mean it can’t violate a citizen’s 14th Amendment rights. Their resistance and persistence led to an important change in our justice system. (Here is a free document analysis activity highlighting the court case).

Our second story to highlight during AAPI Heritage Month comes during the American tragedy of Japanese internment. During World War II, the American government forced Japanese Americans out of their homes, rounded them up, and forced them to live for almost three years in concentration camps in remote areas mostly in the Western United States. Resisting this unjust internment, Fred Korematsu hid in Oakland. He was later arrested and jailed for refusing to be taken from his home to one of these camps. The ACLU used his arrest as an opportunity to test the legality of Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed to intern Japanese Americans, arguing that it was in the interest of national security. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court did not uphold the 14th Amendment rights like it did in 1886 and ruled 6-3 in favor of Korematsu’s conviction. Still, Korematsu paved the way for America’s apology for this atrocious act against Japanese Americans. In 1982 a federal commission found that the Executive Order was shaped by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1988, the government paid $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee. Korematsu’s resistance set the foundation for justice. 

Our third story takes place in 1965. Thousands of Filipino farmworkers in California were working underpaid and in inhumane conditions in California farms. Filipino-native Larry Itliong, who led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led a successful strike in Coachella to raise the wages and working conditions of Filipino farmworkers. From there, the workers followed the grape crops to Delano, CA. When refused the same wages they were granted in Coachella, they planned another strike. But to avoid Mexican workers taking the jobs once the Filipinos went on strike, Itliong approached Cesar Chavez, the leader of the association that primarily served Mexican farmworkers. Initially hesitant, Chavez agreed to help Itliong and join the strike. This became the great Delano Grape Strike that lasted 5 years and became an international movement to advocate farmworker rights. If it were not for the resistance and persistence of Larry Itliong, the movement would have never come about.

During AAPI Heritage Month, may we remember the contributions of the above three men and so many more within the AAPI community who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality on behalf of Asian Americans throughout the United States.

Oped: Primary sources allow teachers to continue the National Week of Conversation

We shipped this week’s blog elsewhere thanks to The Fulcrum, “a platform where insiders and outsiders to politics are informed, meet, talk, and act to repair our democracy and make it live and work in our everyday lives.”

In it, I address how we can continue the National Week of Conversation in our classrooms by giving our students ample opportunities to read primary sources.

The primary source the student in that classroom analyzed.

Here is a taste:

As seen in the classroom that day, listening to the past through the analysis of primary sources can be a powerful act of empathy for students. When we incorporate student discussions into that analysis, we only deepen empathy. Students model a listening process for their analysis of past documents as a way to set them up to listen in the contemporary conversations they engage with every day.

It is my hope that we continue the themes of #NWOC [ National Week of Conversation ] far beyond this week. Let’s support teachers around the country as they pause and look for opportunities to have students listen to the past and engage in empathetic conversations about its significance. Not only will students grow in their intellectual capacity through these conversations, such conversations are foundational for the preservation of our constitutional democracy.

Head over to the full article to read the rest.

Our Juneteenth Art Contest!

Teachers and high school students! For the month of April, we are collaborating with the National Liberty Museum and Youth Advocates for Change to host a Juneteenth art contest! 

This year’s National Charter School Conference takes place in Austin, Texas. This is the weekend of our nation’s newest national holiday: Juneteenth. As a way to celebrate a holiday defined by liberation, our art competition challenges students to imagine and envision a Black leader or artist and their contributions to liberation. The top 20 students will be featured in a pop up exhibit at the National Charter School Conference. Then the top 3 students will even win cash prizes of $1000, $500, and $250 respectively.

The National Alliance for Charter Schools is sponsoring this contest. This means it is only open to HS charter school students, so if you teach at any charter school in the U.S. WE’D LOVE FOR YOUR STUDENTS TO SUBMIT THEIR ART WORK! This is a really great fourth quarter activity to stretch students beyond the traditional scope and sequence and demonstrate civic participation.

Teachers: We’ve also collaborated with the National Liberty Museum on two introductory activities, linked here. The first has students read General Granger’s Order NO. 3, dubbed the Juneteenth orders, which declared the Emancipation Proclamation to the wrongfully enslaved communities in Texas. The second has students analyze art work to help them plan out their own art submission. Please use these activities in your classrooms to situate your students before they begin on their submission for the Juneteenth art contest. 

We can’t wait to see what students come up with! If you have any questions, please contact Thinking Nation’s Community Outreach Manager, Tiana Day (tiana.day@thinkingnation.org)

Here is our flyer! (Also linked here in PDF form). We cannot wait to see all of the talented submissions by your students!

The Juneteenth Art Contest Flyer (pdf linked above)

How We Can Shift and Shape School Culture

I was visiting one of our partner schools in Los Angeles recently and I happily saw that the 8th grade teacher, Mr. Martinez, had student writing on the wall in the hallway outside his classroom. His school, Stella Middle Charter Academy, has partnered with Thinking Nation for a few years now and it has been so rewarding to watch the students grow. 

student writing on hallway wall
Mr. Martinez’s Wall

My initial reaction was admittedly a little proud. It’s always cool to see Thinking Nation out and about. But as I reflected, I recognized that what Mr. Martinez was doing was both shifting and shaping the culture of learning at his campus.

Most times that we put up student work, it is the work that has immediate visual appeal. Artwork, maps, pamphlets, etc. This work does indeed look nice, but it often does not showcase student thinking. In fact, many of these assignments require the same amount of DOK 1 knowledge that most content-based multiple choice questions require. In a way, these pieces of student work reward students for restating the information that we or a textbook or website gave them at an earlier date. By putting them up, we are sending a message of what we reward in our class.

In the case of much (not all!) student art work, we are sending the message that what is valued by us (and at our school) is visually appealing work that demonstrates content knowledge. But this isn’t history.

History is the study of the past and we have to employ historical thinking in order to do that well. What Mr. Martinez was doing was demonstrating to students and passing staff and parents that he was rewarding something deeper. He was showcasing student writing that couldn’t simply be taken in by quickly walking by. It encouraged the passerby to stop, read samples of student work, look at a rubric that assessed higher order thinking and writing skills, and engage with a variety of arguments. Mr. Martinez was rewarding historical thinking.

student writing on hallway wall

This may seem small, but in this simple way he was setting a tone for the type of work that was celebrated in his class. He was shifting the culture from “this looks nice, let’s post it,” to “this is deep work, let’s celebrate it!” If we want to cultivate thinking citizens and shift the paradigm of history education, this is the school culture shift we need. If we shape our culture to reward deep thinking and complex writing, guess what? Students will begin to showcase their deep thinking and push to become better writers. From there, the paradigm will shift.

As we reflect on what we reward at our schools, I hope that Mr. Martinez’s example can serve as an inspiration for us all.

Elizabeth Keckley and Women’s History Month

For our last blog, we talked about the special occasion of listening to Dolores Huerta speak on International Women’s Day. Today, we want to continue to celebrate Women’s History Month by honoring a lesser known, but incredibly important voice: Elizabeth Keckley. 

If you’ll recall our last blog post of 2022, I highlighted my top 5 history books of 2022, one of them being Keckley’s autobiography. Her story is incredible. From that blog: 

Picture of Elizabeth Keckley

“Wow. Keckley’s experience as an enslaved, then free, seamstress was riveting. Put simply, there needs to be a movie about her. A seamstress for Jefferson Davis’s wife before the Civil War, she refused to go with them once the war began. Through her own grit, she became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress during Lincoln’s tenure in the White House. She was a confidant for Mrs. Lincoln and was often “in the room” with President Lincoln at critical personal moments. I could not put her book down.”

Keckley’s life story is truly incredible. I was blown away by her story and how she was able to be such a crucial part of the Lincoln family’s life while they were in the White House. She witnessed so much! She spent so much time in the presence of the first lady and her husband, the president, that she offered such fascinating insights into the inner workings of Lincoln. For instance, read her perspective on his integrity and trust in others:

OFTEN Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln discussed the relations of Cabinet officers, and gentlemen prominent in politics, in my presence. I soon learned that the wife of the President had no love for Mr. Salmon P. Chase, at that time Secretary of the Treasury. She was well versed in human character, was somewhat suspicious of those by whom she was surrounded, and often her judgment was correct. Her intuition about the sincerity of individuals was more accurate than that of her husband. She looked beyond, and read the reflection of action in the future. Her hostility to Mr. Chase was very bitter. She claimed that he was a selfish politician instead of a true patriot, and warned Mr. Lincoln not to trust him too far. The daughter of the Secretary was quite a belle in Washington, and Mrs. Lincoln, who was jealous of the popularity of others, had no desire to build up her social position through political favor to her father. Miss Chase, now Mrs. Senator Sprague, was a lovely woman, and was worthy of all the admiration she received. Mr. Lincoln was more confiding than his wife. He never suspected the fidelity of those who claimed to be his friends. Honest to the very core himself, and frank as a child, he never dreamed of questioning the sincerity of others.

Elizabeth Keckley in many ways was an American hero. The stability and restraint that she brought to the White House flies flat in the face of the “get ahead however you can” culture that often runs our world. Her empathy for others is worth emulating. 

In our middle school Civil War DBQ, students are asked to look at the various experiences of women during the Civil War, one of whom is Elizabeth Keckley. Teachers, if you would like to introduce Keckley’s story and efforts to your students, please download this document analysis worksheet that highlights her efforts during the Civil War. 

Happy Women’s History Month!

Celebrating Women’s History Month by Honoring Dolores Huerta

This past Wednesday, we celebrated International Women’s Day, and of course, this month is Women’s History Month. Fortunately, I was able to attend an event honoring the great civil rights activist, Dolores Huerta, on Wednesday. She spoke to the crowd and challenged us, she read a beautiful children’s book capturing her life to a group of local 4th graders, and those 4th graders sang a perfect rendition of “De Colores” for the audience. It was such a special day. 

An art piece from the new exhibit at CSUCI.

It’s not often that you are presented with the opportunity to sit in the presence of such a powerful person in history–and the crowd at California State University, Channel Islands knew it.

Dolores Huerta came to the university that day to inaugurate a new exhibit housed at CSUCI put together by the Smithsonian. I was lucky enough to sit next to Maria del Carmen Cossu Saettone, the Project Director for Latino Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Cossu Saettone’s hard work on the exhibit manifested itself clearly that day. Her dedication to spreading the word of important history shined in her passion and focus.

Before reading the children’s book, Huerta took the opportunity to speak to the intently focused crowd. She mentioned how her organizing helped save the local community of La Colonia in Oxnard, CA from being bulldozed in the 60s before the Farm Workers’ Movement really began to take shape. After she told that story, she reminded us, “All they [the people] have to do is come together, organize, vote, and I’ll say it again, vote!” She wasted no time in her efforts to organize at the event.

An art piece from the new exhibit at CSUCI.

She spoke to the necessity of passing the Equal Rights Amendment, the importance of funding education and dissolving the education to prison pipeline, she addressed what she identifies as creeping fascism in the United States, and even challenged the crowd to write to our senator to stop the inhumane treatment at a migrant detention center in Kern county. “Can you do that?” she asked. We’ll make it easy for you, readers. Here is his contact information. Voicing my concern took less than 5 minutes.

Huerta ended her speech by asking everyone to stand up in true organizer form. She had us answer her questions. “Who has the power?” and “What kind of power?” In return, the crowd shouted: “WE HAVE THE POWER.” and “PEOPLE POWER!” This moment brought me right back to my studying of the Delano Grape Strike, where Huerta, Caesar Chavez, and Larry Itliong organized a nationwide strike on behalf of the farmworkers who were working for deplorable wages in inhumane conditions. 

Awhile back, our blog covered this event to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Huerta and others sacrificed so much for the voiceless. Now, at 92 years old, Huerta has not stopped the fight. She is the personification of tenacity, grit, and service. May we take some time to reflect and learn from her this Women’s History Month (Teachers, use this primary source analysis resource to talk about Huerta’s work and the Delano Grape Strike in your class).

Dolores Huerta addressing the crowd at CSUCI.

Huerta’s response to a 4th grader’s question sums up her goals well. The 4th grader asked, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” 

Dolores shouted: “Organize! I love to get people together and tell people that they have power… Come together and fight for justice.”

Or perhaps another 4th grader’s question: “What sport did you play when you were little?”

Chuckling, she responded, “Well I was so small that no one picked me for sports teams. But, I love dancing. Everyone should dance. If you dance when you’re small, your legs get strong so you can march!

Our Annual “Let’s shift this paradigm together” Reminder

Two years in March, our blog was titled – A Needed Teaching Revolution: The Importance of a Skills-Based Curriculum. One year ago, we posted it again.Well, it seems that March is the month to reevaluate our foundation and remind ourselves of the work that needs to be done, so today’s blog highlights just why we need a teaching revolution in history. Lets cultivate historical thinkers.

The Reminder:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Books of 2022

To wrap up the year, I wanted to take some time to reflect on some of my favorite books read in 2022. These books continue to shape my understanding of history, historiography, methods, and pedagogy. Here are the top 5, in order of when they were read.

  1. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Friere

One of our partner school teachers recommended this book that I had sadly not read yet. More than anything, this book challenged the way I think about how others think. It reminded me that what we think is not just contextualized into our own experiences, but how we think is too. The methods of our thinking vary based on our own lived experiences, and as we develop curriculum we need to consider these varying modes of thinking. Like millions before me, Friere challenged me deeply.

  1. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker

I read this immediately after Friere’s book as I was building a unit on Indigenous Environmental Justice for our Ethnic Studies curriculum. At the end of the unit, students are asked how they can promote justice (free graphic organizer!) based on their engagement with this history. Gilio-Whitaker’s work was incredibly scholarly and incredibly readable, a combination that is pretty hard to come by. She challenged the way I saw certain events in history and enlightened me to just how important environmental justice is to American Indians. She demonstrated why land is so much more than a physical asset for indigenous communities, as land is tied to indigenous culture, religion, economics, food, and more. Her holistic history was incredibly eye opening.

  1. Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

Wow. Keckley’s experience as an enslaved, then free, seamstress was riveting. Put simply, there needs to be a movie about her. A seamstress for Jefferson Davis’s wife before the Civil War, she refused to go with them once the war began. Through her own grit, she became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress during Lincoln’s tenure in the White House. She was a confidant for Mrs. Lincoln and was often “in the room” with President Lincoln at critical personal moments. I could not put her book down. 

  1. On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

Back on Juneteenth, I dedicated a whole blog post to this book, so I will link to it rather than restate much of what is there. In sum, Gordon-Reed’s book was equal parts memoir, history, and a treatise on historical methodology. This book should be read in undergraduate methodology courses.

  1. The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch

This is somewhat of a canonical book in historiography, and yet I hadn’t read it until this year. Bloch was a part of the Annales school of historical methodology in France in the years before WWII. An activist, he stood against the Nazi regime when they took over the area of France he lived in. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and wrote this entire book while imprisoned. The book ends with a “…” because he was executed before he finished and edited the book. Even in its incomplete state, Bloch’s reminders of what it means to “do history” are foundational to what we do at Thinking Nation

Each of these books were formative in my own historical thinking and I’m excited for students to experience this type of thinking in our curriculum.

Learning from 7th Graders

This week, I had the opportunity to teach a few classes at one of our partner schools: Rise Kohyang Middle School in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA. For three class periods, I was able to work through the history of Ancient Rome. Specifically, the students were working on answering the essential question: How did the idea of citizenship in Ancient Rome change over time?

As a guest teacher, I never really know what I’m walking into. I find this exciting! It gives me the opportunity to let the students lead a little as I pry and figure out what they know and what they know how to do.

We started reading some historical context of Ancient Rome. Right away, the students were making poignant observations. One student noted that “just because the plebeians became citizens did not mean that they became equal to the patricians” pretty early on. I had some fun and ignored raised hands when it was time to give an answer to a text based question and simply said “say it if you know it!” Dozens of students shouted out the answers. The students were engaged, inquisitive, and prepared to participate. I was impressed.

An 1882 painting depicting Rome’s upper class men.

As we began to talk about the document that cemented the last large expansion of citizenship in Ancient Rome, the Edict of Caracalla, some of the students’ brains really began to turn. Emperor Caracalla signed the Edict of Caracalla in 212 C.E. It essentially gave citizenship to all free people living in the Roman Empire. Many scholars point out that this was probably the largest expansion of citizenship to ever take place from a single event in world history. People across the empire, living on three continents, instantly became citizens. Its significance is profound.

The classroom was set up with four rows of desks on each side of the room, all facing the center. As I looked down the center walkway dividing these sections, I noticed one student sitting in the first row, closest to the center but in the back of the room. She was clearly pondering something. Her hand went up. 

“You know how a lot of people say that Rome didn’t fall because of invaders from the outside, but that it crumbled from within?” Without waiting for my response, she continued, “Do you think that Rome expanding citizenship to too many people too fast was a reason that it fell from within? That they couldn’t make everyone happy or keep order which led to it crumbling?”

Of course, this was not where my brain was at that moment. I was thinking about the inclusiveness of the act. She was thinking about its unintended consequences. To be sure, I’m no expert on Ancient Rome. I let her know that that is a really interesting and plausible consequence of the edict. We then opened the conversation up to the class. What is the purpose of a government? What happens when it can’t fulfill that purpose? Students began to express their thoughts, compare Rome to the U.S.A today, and most relevant to this unit, really began to grasp just how large the Roman Empire was.

It’s always a privilege when I get to join students in their academic journey. This week was yet another example why. I came in with a specific purpose around a specific question. That particular student was making different connections, based on her own interests. The intersection of those two goals produced a brilliant exchange with a group of Los Angeles middle schoolers. We often are unsure if young students can analyze deep concepts in history. I hope this example reminds us not just that yes they can, but that they want to. We just have to provide them the opportunities.

Chicana Feminism – Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month began last week. As we celebrate both Hispanic heritage and Hispanic contributions to United States history, we are going to focus on an area often under explored: Chicana feminism. 

The Second Wave of Feminism is largely seen as the feminist movement that began with The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963 and then lasted into the early 1980s. Over a twenty year period, women pushed for equality that went far beyond the right to vote, which is the right that defined the first wave of feminism (1848-1920). Even within the noble aims of this second wave, however, many feminists of color felt a disconnect between the fight of their white counterparts and their lived reality. Thus, Black and Chicana feminists often called out racism within the movement and sometimes banded separately from the “mainstream” movement to fight for rights at the intersection of race and sex.

The disconnect felt by Chicana feminists in particular are illuminated in a provocative poem by Jo Carillo. Carillo was Chicana and Native American and published this poem, entitled “And When You Leave, Take You Pictures With You,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, published in 1981. For today’s blog, we want to publish the poem below, as it gives a good glimpse into a perspective of Chicana Feminism. In our DBQ on the second wave of feminism, students analyze this poem as well.

Our white sisters
radical friends
love to own pictures of us
sitting at a factory machine
wielding a machete
in our bright bandanas
holding brown yellow black red children
reading books from literacy campaigns
holding machine guns bayonets bombs knives
Our white sisters
radical friends
should think

Our white sisters / radical friends
love to own pictures of us
walking to the fields in the hot sun
with straw hat on head if brown
bandana if black
in bright embroidered shirts
holding brown yellow black red children
reading books from literacy campaigns
Our white sisters
should think again.
No one smiles
at the beginning of a day spent
digging for souvenir chunks of uranium
of cleaning up after
our white sisters
radical friends.

And when our white sisters
radical friends see us
in the flesh
not as a picture they own,
they are not quite sure
they like us as much.
We’re not as happy as we look

The Significance of Historical Significance

In the realm of historical thinking skills, I fear that analyzing historical significance is the most forgotten. We love to talk about causation, continuity and change over time, and contextualization, but historical significance (besides not conveniently beginning with a “c”) receives far less attention. What a shame.

Image from Canada’s Historical Thinking Project

Canada’s Historical Thinking Project, on the other hand, lists it first on its page of historical concepts. We could learn a lot from our friends up north in this respect. The project admits that “Significance depends upon one’s perspective and purpose.” History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The project’s description elaborates that, “a historical person or event can acquire significance if we, the historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something important for us today.” Today, though, I want to extend its importance more broadly to Thinking Nation’s mission of cultivating thinking citizens.

On all of our DBQs that focus on historical significance, we include this simple definition for students: “Thinking historically means identifying and exploring the reasons why historical people, places, events, or ideas are worth remembering; that is, their historical significance.” Exploring historical significance challenges students to consider the importance of historical events and people that they may not initially connect with. In essence, it is a tool that leads to historical empathy.

When we try to understand why something is historically significant, we are empathizing. We are trying to better understand past people, places, and events in a way that accurately reflects what happened. This type of understanding–of people not like us– is something our democracy desperately needs.

As we’ve argued before, the past does not need to be familiar to be relevant. Students who try to understand the significance of events can more easily humanize their subjects. This act of empathy is such a beautiful result of historical thinking that we must stress more in our classrooms. We don’t just want to cultivate historical thinkers. We want to cultivate thinking citizens. Citizens who make their neighborhoods, states, and country more understanding, inclusive, and kind. Teaching students to analyze historical significance can do a lot to help us get there.

When Sports Strategy and Historical Thinking Converge

I remember baseball practice vividly growing up. For a decade of my life, baseball consumed me. I honestly loved every minute of it. Practice began with stretching, playing catch, running the bases, fielding ground and fly balls, and sometimes, batting practice. We practiced skills. What practice didn’t consist of, however, was playing a full game.

Fast forward to my life as a teacher. I regularly watched the soccer, basketball, and football players practice on campus. Just like my own experience, these players rarely played games. They conditioned, practiced specific skills in drills, and learned a little bit of the “why” for certain plays. 

In reality, the vast majority of time playing a sport is not game time. It’s practice time. Filled with repetition and focused training, practice is much more time consuming than playing the game itself, but it is absolutely essential if one wants to perform well come game time.

Coaches understand that without constant repetition and concentrated practice in specific skills, players will not be adequately prepared once the referee blows the whistle or the umpire shouts “play ball!” As teachers of historical thinking, we would do well to adopt a similar approach.

From “Team Drills Are Beneficial at Any Age” littleleague.org

As much as we love deep discussions through socratic seminars or long, elaborative essays answering profound historical questions, our students cannot feel successful in these big tasks if they have not internalized the foundational skills of historians. In a sense, we need to bring “the drill” into the classroom. At Thinking Nation, we believe that in order to cultivate thinking citizens, we need to give students constant practice in the skills of historical thinking. A practical way we do this is through our Document Analysis graphic organizers.

For all of our units, we pair primary and secondary sources with our THINKS (free download!) analysis organizer. We also provide various historical thinking skill-specific organizers (Skills like Historical Significance, Causation, Causation, and Continuity and Change over Time). Teachers should try to carve our one day a week for students to do this time of focused analysis on a single document. 

We believe that if students have regular practice asking the questions of documents inherent to these organizers, students can internalize those questions as they analyze all texts, whether in or out of our classrooms. The organizers (more free downloads!) act like a drill. Just as the athlete will field 100 ground balls in order to be prepared for the couple that may come during a game, the student will repeatedly ask the same questions of every document in order to be prepared for the rigor of a DBQ or socratic seminar.

Athletes who don’t practice consistently cannot perform well during a game. Likewise, we cannot expect our students to flourish in complex tasks inherent to our domain if we do not give them regular and adequate practice with the skills they need to succeed. As teachers plan out the year ahead, let’s prioritize giving students regular practice with rigorous concepts. This way, our students feel empowered to dive into history deeply, knowing they have the skills to do so.

Back to School! Introducing Historical Thinking Skills

Summer is quickly coming to an end. Teachers are preparing for the return of a new group of students to enter their classroom. The beginning of the school year is always so exciting because it is filled with so much potential. A full year of new learning, beautiful growth, and deep relationships is about to unfold. 

As teachers begin to plan out that first week of school, it’s important to carve out time to simply get to know the students, create a safe atmosphere for learning, and set clear expectations that will make for a successful school year. But it is important to not let those priorities completely replace setting the foundation for the content we teach. Weaving our social emotional goals into our curricular goals is a great way for students to get a clear picture of both the style of our class and the content we teach. 

In short, the first week of school is a great time to introduce historical thinking skills! We can do this with fun get-to-know-you activities like having each student bring in their own personal object to guide a discussion about primary sources. We can even have their classmates guess the object’s meaning to the student who brought it in order to facilitate a conversation around the importance of contextualization. Or, if we want students to begin to grapple with the skill of continuity and change over time, maybe we want them to document their own life story, paying close attention to how they have changed over time as well as certain ways that they have remained the same.

In tandem with these types of activities, it will also be helpful for students to have hard copies of these definitions and their thoughts about historical thinking that they can reference throughout the year. Thinking Nation’s “What is…?” worksheets are helpful reference points on what each historical thinking skill is and how it can be used. They are linked to this blog! So, please feel free to download them and use them as you prepare for your school year.

Worksheets for Introducing Historical Thinking Skills


1. What is Causation?

2. What is Contextualization?

3. What is Continuity and Change over Time?

4. What is Comparison?

5. What is Historical Significance?

6. How Can I Promote Justice?

The beginning of every school year is such a great opportunity to set the foundation for the importance of historical thinking in your classroom. We hope these simple graphic organizers can help spur deeper conversation about what each skill means.

Avoiding the Creation of Arrogant Students

It is foundational to our goals as an organization to teach students history in order to cultivate thinking citizens. But, we believe that our approach to history goes much deeper. By rooting our curriculum in a definition of history as the study of the past and not merely the past, we equip students to think critically. But this approach to history also cultivates humble citizens rather than arrogant students.

When teaching history only requires students to remember the past, students are not equipped to think for themselves. The necessary ability to evaluate sources and make evidence-based claims is left uncultivated. Instead, students race to prove that they know whatever information is on the test. But, as we’ve noted before, this only creates walking encyclopedias. If students can recall relevant (or seemingly irrelevant) information but do not have the skills to evaluate that information, they only mirror a google search. Like an encyclopedia, they can provide facts but offer no analysis. 

A history curriculum rooted in the teaching of historical thinking, however, offers something better. Students can encounter different types of information and employ their skills of historical thinking in order to make meaning of that information. Rather than seeking to memorize, they seek to understand.

This is empathy. Quite simply, the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Students who think historically, by nature, practice historical empathy. They seek to understand what is in front of them, whether it be historical events or people. They try to set aside their own biases in order to put themselves in the shoes of those that they study in order to best understand the actions and events that make up the past. 

In contrast, students who only remember cannot cultivate those skills. Instead, they become entrenched in whatever narrative they were first presented with. They do not have the skills to ask questions of that narrative, compare it to other narratives, or contextualize it into a larger picture. Within this, pride can seep in as they seek to prove that they know more than someone else. They become arrogant students. When history is only about the retention of facts, whoever can retain more “wins.” History becomes a competition, not a conversation. 

To avoid the cultivation of arrogance in our students, then, we must shift the paradigm of history education. We must break away from making knowledge about the past the end goal of our lessons. Rather, we must work to teach our students how to analyze the past, ask questions of the information they encounter, and seek to understand history’s complexities. When we do this, we can cultivate thinking citizens, yes. But, perhaps most importantly, we can cultivate humble and empathetic humans.