6th Graders Can Compare Complex Ideas

I recently had the opportunity to teach a guest lesson in a 6th grade classroom. The students had engaged with the context and historical documents surrounding the historical topic at hand and I came in to guide them through outlining an evidenced-based essay. Their task was to answer this prompt: Compare and Contrast TWO of the following Hindu teachings: dharma, karma, samsara, and moksha. Whereas many 6th grade classrooms teach about Hinduism and its ancient roots, this task asked students to make evidence-based comparisons between two core Hindu ideas in an effort to better understand their relationship to one another. 

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the room. To start, I asked students to define each term. To my surprise, almost a dozen hands went up with each solicited definition and every time a student answered, they were spot on. Of course, this is a testament to their teacher who more than adequately prepared them for this task in historical thinking. 

Once we defined each term, we decided that we wanted to focus on dharma and karma in our essay. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these terms, dharma means the “right way of living,” or duty for all living things. Karma means “action.” It is the Hindu principle that every action has a consequence, both positive and negative. Students were to analyze several documents ranging from excerpts from The Bhagavad Gita, The Ramayana, and The Brihadâranyaka Upanishad. Each is a core text to the Hindu religion.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure if students were going to be able to identify both similarities and differences between the two concepts. But once again, I was pleasantly surprised. One student quickly noted that both ideas deal with people’s actions–a similarity. We quickly wrote this similarity down. Students continued to talk through their own thinking about the concepts in order to make comparisons. It was an empowering sight to see. Here, 10-11 year olds thought through concepts foreign to their own life experience in order to better understand their relationship to each other. 

An illustration depicting Karma.

When we moved to differences, students had quite a bit of conversation under their belt. One student excitedly raised her hand to share a difference she noticed between the two. While dharma is something people choose to do (after all, we all neglect our duties sometimes), karma is something that happens to people no matter what choice they made. For example, she went on, people can avoid their dharma but they cannot avoid the resulting karma. Whether good or bad, karma will come. Dissertations are made of this type of simple but nuanced distinction. It demands further analysis (which the students then did with the primary sources) and, in the end, facilitates a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

In this classroom, students were not merely recalling information about a religion. They were diving deeper. They were incorporating evidence from documents that were thousands of years old in order to make subtle distinctions between complex concepts. 

This was not a university level world religions course. These were 6th graders. Many have not even hit puberty yet!

At Thinking Nation, we know that students are capable of deep thought. We want to equip teachers to facilitate such learning experiences for students because we know that students walk away from such experiences feeling empowered. Historical thinking empowers.

The Power (and Empowerment) of Teaching Through Primary Sources

As expressed in previous blogs, at Thinking Nation we prioritize supporting teachers as they work to teach their students how to think historically. One way we do this is by offering to do guest lessons for teachers at our partner schools. This week, I had the opportunity to do a guest lesson on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program in an 11th grade classroom. The opportunity had me reflecting on just how important teaching the past through primary sources can be.

In this lesson, students work to write an essay answering the prompt: “Evaluate the extent to which FDR’s New Deal improved the lives of African Americans.” Since history is complex, we wanted students to wrestle with the complexity of this era of massive legislation and that legislation’s impact on a particular group of Americans. Some of the documents analyzed point out how much progress for all Americans (including Black Americans) came as a result of New Deal policies. Others show the implicit (and sometimes explicit) discrimination toward Black Americans that was a real problem with New Deal legislation. 

Rather than being mere passive receivers of a story regarding this era of American history, students were engaging with arguments about the past, modeling the very type of thinking historians employ in their own research. 

A 1935 advertisement from the Social Security Board.

After reading a testimony from Charles Houston (a representative of the NAACP) to the House Ways and Means Committee, where he pointed out the systemic inequality that occurred in the Social Security Act, we looked at how this document fits within the prompt of improving the lives of African Americans. Houston pointed out that since Agriculture and Domestic Service were two industries dominated by Black Americans (and those industries were excluded from Social Security benefits), Black Americans received no support from the federal government’s program even though statistically they had the most to benefit from it.

The content of his testimony is mostly an example of how The New Deal did not improve the lives of African Americans. But one girl raised her hand. “Can’t this be seen as a positive example of Black progress?” she asked. Her classmates looked confused as if they were thinking “Oh no, she really isn’t paying attention.” She continued, “In this case, a Black man is testifying to Congress and they are listening. So even though he is pointing out negative aspects of the New Deal, the very fact that he is in that room shows progress toward more racial equality.” We were all impressed. In all honesty, I had not even seen that argument before.

In that instance, a student recognized the nuances of the past. She became an active participant in historical study. She was not just a learner of the past, but a doer of history. The complexities of the prompt at hand, and perhaps history more generally, came alive. Seeing that lightbulb shine was not just a powerful moment as an educator, it was an empowering moment for the student. She had an evidence-based perspective that shined light on history’s complexity. This is the type of (historical) thinking that we want. It’s the type of moment in the classroom that cultivates thinking citizens.

Stories from the Classroom – “I Almost Cried”

This week, I had the opportunity to be in a lot of classrooms. In fact, by the end of the week I had worked in at least one classroom at every grade level, grades 6-12. To be able to witness the teaching of historical thinking at such diverse age ranges in such a short period of time is a gift. 

I will probably reflect on the many great experiences in the coming weeks, but today I want to focus on one particular 9th grade class. In this class, students were exploring what life was like for Jewish people under Nazi Germany. They were engaging with one of our DBQs, guided by the prompt: “In what ways did the Nazis slowly change life for the Jewish people in Germany and German occupied land?”

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Spring 1943.

Students learned in the previous class period that the Holocaust was not inevitable. They worked under the historical concept of contingency in order to recognize the specific actions of individuals and governments that slowly restricted Jewish life and allowed for their persecution, discrimination, and eventually, execution. When students recognize that the past is contingent on the people who lived it, it can bring hope. After all, if atrocities were not inevitable before, perhaps we can apply a keener eye to our present injustices in order to prevent them snowballing into something worse. 

While I was there, we were able to go through various primary and secondary source documents that helped illuminate some answers to the prompt. Students began to make connections to how Nazi’s restricted Jewish life socially, economically, and politically. 

Wiesbaden Synagogue Burning on Kristallnacht

Students read the work of historians Saul Friedländer and Marion Kaplan. They analyzed a public announcement and a journalist’s picture that documented the social isolation Jews experienced early on when they were banned from public pools for “fear of contamination.” They wrestled with Joseph Goebbel’s diary entry where he applauded the atrocities of Kristallnacht. They empathized with a young girl who may have escaped the ghetto but did not escape the widespread persecution that awaited her outside the walls that consumed her sister. Students both analyzed and empathized in order to create their own argument about this time period. In short, they were asked to be historians.

At the end of class, the teacher and I thumbed through the exit slips, where the students could reflect on their learnings of the day. One of the questions was, “What surprised you in this lesson.” About half way through the stack of answers, I stopped and read one student’s response a second time. Then a third. Simply, she wrote, “I almost cried.”

In that moment, this student experienced the empathy that marks a good historian’s work. History was not merely “the past.” It came alive. This student engaged with the past in such a way where the past actors came to life. The statistics of atrocity bore a name, a story.

When we take the time to analyze the past and not merely remember it, it comes alive. Practicing these skills of historical thinking won’t just make us better students, but better people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused.

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

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

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