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.

Empowering Students through Writing

Those who are familiar with our curriculum know how much emphasis we place on writing in the history classroom. It is the backbone of our curriculum. We believe that writing helps students think better, empowering them with a skill that can apply to so much beyond the history classroom. University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Adam Grant, puts it so well:

When we write, we are not merely communicating to our readers. We are working through our own ideas. When we slow down our thinking to write it down, we think better. Unfortunately, too many history classrooms are not built on writing. As a result, students may be able to remember the past, but they are not equipped to think about the past. This of course, as we’ve stated time and again, is not history. History is the study of the past. One of the best ways to equip students to study the past is by empowering students to be strong writers.

Of course, this takes practice. It takes effort. It takes targeted professional development so that teachers feel capable to push their students to write. After all, history teachers are literacy teachers, too. This is where Thinking Nation can help. We want to provide schools and teachers with innovative data-driven history curriculum and professional development to empower students to become thinking citizens. In fact, that is our mission.

If you are looking to empower the students at your school to think deeply about the things they read and the narratives they learn, the history classroom is the perfect place. As the department head at one of our partner schools put it, “​​Thinking Nation’s curriculum and their follow up PD has encouraged my students to think much deeper about significant historical topics.” 
We’d love to partner with you too. Let’s talk.

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.

Teachers are tired. Let’s Support Student Growth without Overburdening Them.

Teachers are tired. This school year has been hard. For decades, schools have been becoming more and more of a one stop shop (and attempted solution) for social, economic, and systemic issues that, let’s face it, schools were never designed to do. Teachers cannot be all things at once. A sustainable work schedule simply does not allow it. Teachers should be able focus on student academic growth and feel supported by those outside their classroom for the many other facets of growing children into strong adults.

Teachers are tired. Let’s support them.

One way that Thinking Nation hopes to alleviate teacher burdens while maintaining our commitment to drive student learning forward is through grading student essays. When Thinking Nation first began, we knew we wanted to build an online platform where teachers could assign robust historical essays, students could submit those essays, and then we would grade them, providing teachers with critical data to push the learners in their class forward. It remains one of our primary services for 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. 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. Simply, when we ask more from our students, we are asking more of ourselves. As necessary as it is, it is exhausting. On average, for every DBQ I administered to my 130-150 students, I spent 12+ hours of my weekends grading. But teachers have hundreds of daily responsibilities, and many of those have to wait till after the school day. By grading student essays, teachers can redeem that time.

We want to cultivate thinking citizens. Time constraints and the need for data and vertical alignment creates a difficult puzzle. But, 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. Teachers are tired. Let’s support them.

Shifting Paradigms, Starting Revolutions

About a year ago, our blog was titled – A Needed Teaching Revolution: The Importance of a Skills-Based Curriculum. This week, we’re going to repost the blog as sort of an annual reminder. Historians are defined not by what they know, but by how they approach the past. May we cultivate those same skills in our students. May they be historical thinkers.

From last year’s blog:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Black History Month: bell hooks

One of our recent assessments explores the experiences of women during the 2nd wave of feminism. While feminist women from the 1960s-80s shared many common goals, they were by no means uniform. Students analyze several primary source accounts from this era in order to compare and contrast the experiences of Black, Latina, and white women during this time. One of the sources they engage with is a book by bell hooks, a prominent Black feminist, activist, and English professor who recently passed away in December. 

For our last blog post during Black History Month, we’ll look a little more at bell hooks’ ideas and perspective during the 2nd wave of feminism. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks became her pen name to honor her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks. She insisted on not capitalizing her name because she wanted people to focus on the substance of her ideas, not her as a person.

While hooks went on to be a prominent scholar and activist, the book that gave her initial notoriety was her 1981 publication Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. In this book she contextualized the Black experience within the larger mainstream feminist movement. At some points, she offered analysis that surely rattled some feminists: “That as the man is more noble in reason, so the woman is more quick in sympathy.” Of course this quote is in a larger context, where she merely wants to point out that simply because men and women may be different, neither is superior or inferior. At the core of her aims was to bring about equality. An equality often not seen within the feminist movement itself. 


Writing about Black feminist relations to their white counterparts, hooks lamented the clear disconnect. Black feminists “were disappointed and disillusioned when we discovered that white women in the movement had little knowledge of or concern for the problems of lower class and poor women or the particular problems of non-white women from all classes.” Women of color and poor women had real hurdles to jump that white women did not experience, but it did not seem that the white women cared.

hooks pushed her white counterparts to recognize their own willful ignorance and even racism. She pointed out “the appropriation of feminist ideology by elitist, racist white women” and then provided an example: “We could not even get a hearing at women’s groups because they were organized and controlled by white women… White women liberationists saw feminism as ‘their’ movement and resisted any efforts by non-white women to critique, challenge, or change its direction…”

bell hooks pursued gender and racial equality for the rest of her life, establishing the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Kentucky in 2004. She challenged illogical hierarchies and even in the simple action of her name, asked people to engage with ideas first. Her legacy will live on as an agent of change.

Black History Month: Ida B. Wells

In January 1900, Ida B. Wells confronted a Chicago audience of the horrors of lynching. Armed with gruesome statistics, she had documented an average of two hundred lynchings every year in the United States. Now that slavery was abolished, Wells acknowledged that lynching was the country’s “national crime.” Today’s blog will explore this landmark January speech, “Lynch Law in America.”

Ida B. Wells was the first person to use the power of statistics to highlight the horror of lynching. In many ways she established modern fact-finding journalism. Speaking in Chicago, a city that at least in theory would support the ending of this racist atrocity, she hoped to equip future supporters of racial equality in order to inspire government action against mob murder. 

Calling out her country, Wells maintained that it was time the United States acknowledged “herself a failure at self-government.” “The reign of national law,” she lamented, “was short-lived and illusionary.” By strategically pronouncing its guilt in the death of thousands of Black Americans, she hoped to ensure a confession by the government. Of course, the fact that Jim Crow lasted sixty more years meant that her call to action was ignored.

Although direct legislative change did not result from this and other speeches from Ida B. Wells (Congress did not pass an anti-lynching bill until 2018), her voice was no less important for America at the turn of the 20th century. Not only did Wells’ voice provide a woman’s perspective into what was often a male-dominated culture, but she demonstrated that racism could be countered with data. While her claims exhibited a pathos that was often found in the speeches of the 19th century’s most famous African American, Frederick Douglass, she grounded her appeals in fact. 

Ida B. Wells paved the way for documenting racism, something that we see in today’s social media. Forcing her audience to deal with the fact that many lynchings were grounded in hearsay and not evidence, she was able to force those who might be apathetic to the plight of many Black Americans in the South to see that in many cases, “men have been put to death whose innocence was afterward established.” In a world where a black man could be murdered with nothing but rumors supporting his guilt, Wells refused to operate her own claims off similar errors. She rose above.

Ida B. Wells became a voice for African American justice at the turn of the 20th century. The implication of her speech’s title—that lynching had become America’s law—would surely have caused her audience to pause, and the entirety of her speech provided the facts necessary for them to reflect upon. Today, we should take time to pause again. Let’s remember Wells and what she stood for and stand up for justice too.

Black History Month: 19th Century Calls for Emigration

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

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

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

Martin R. Delany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused.

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

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

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

Historical Thinking is Slow Thinking

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

“Slow Thinking” by Danny Herrera on Dribble

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

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

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

How Can We Cultivate Empathetic Citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, Simple is Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushing Student Thinking through Socratic Seminars

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

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

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

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

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

Hispanic Heritage Month and the Mexican Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Common Assessments Transform History Departments

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

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

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

A student rubric from a common assessment

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

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