Happy Civic Learning Week!

Today marks day 1 of Civic Learning Week! It has already been a busy one for us. 

The first mark we made on the week came in the form of an Oped I wrote in The Fulcrum that explored the essential nature of social studies skills for cultivating civic dispositions. In a recent oped on the same site, a binary of skills vs. content was established that I don’t think fully captures the goals of the social studies classroom. In today’s blog I responded and outlined just why the skills of our discipline are so essential. Give it a read.

Next, at 9am PT, I joined Dr. Larry Paska of the National Council for Social Studies for a webinar on the state of social studies education. If you’ve been following our blogs recently, you know we’ve hosted a mini podcast series on this topic, where I interviewed various thinkers about the subject. In fact, we released episode 6 of the series on Friday, March 8th. In that interview, I really enjoyed my conversation with Shawn Healy of iCivics. Shawn serves as Senior Director for Policy and Advocacy and he brought a really helpful policy perspective to the conversation. Take a listen!

Back to the webinar with Dr. Paska. We started with a brief interview of Dr. Bill Daggett of the Successful Practices Network. We wanted to hear what an outside perspective had to say about the current state of social studies education and were grateful to Dr. Daggett for sharing his own perspective built on decades of experience in the broader education reform movement. 

From there, Larry and I explored the research from Thinking Nation’s white paper, NCSS’s annual survey, and three studies that specifically looked at the state of social studies education in the elementary classroom. The studies are:

  1. 2020 Fordham Institute Study: “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study”
  2. 2023 Rand Corporation Study: “The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction”
  3. 2023 CCSSO Guidelines: “Effective Social Studies Integration in Elementary Classrooms”

It was really helpful to take all the data together and think through its meaning and how we can best move forward as a discipline. There are so many exciting events for Civic Learning Week and it was exciting to kick off the week with NCSS!

Moving on to midday, Larry and I were the primary guest’s for KPBS’s Midday edition. KPBS is San Diego’s public radio station and it was such a treat to speak with host, Jade Hindmon. The recording of the interview should be uploaded as a podcast soon, and I’d encourage you to listen to this more focused (and less data-oriented) conversation around social studies and civic education. I’m grateful to KPBS for prioritizing Civic Learning Week in their programming!

Lastly, tonight, Thinking Nation will take over the #sschat feed on X for 10 or so minutes as part of Civic Learning Week. Follow the hashtag #sschat on the app from 5-6pm PT to engage with several organizations who are trying to think together about how we can make the most of this important week. 

Student Art Contest – Final Days!

It’s of course a busy week, and we hope that for your students it is too! Friday is the last day that students can submit an art piece for our annual art contest! As a reminder, We teamed up with the National Alliance for Charter Schools again this year to host a nationwide student art contest for middle and high school students. (Check out last year’s!)  This year’s National Charter School Conference will be in Boston, MA from June 30-July 3. Since the conference leads right into Independence Day in one of the nation’s most revolutionary cities, we decided to build our theme around the future of American democracy. Students can create a creative work of art that addresses the prompt: What does the future of American Democracy look like?

Submissions for this Student Art Contest for Democracy will be accepted until March 15th and the top 20 will be featured at the National Charter Schools Conference! The top 2 will even win cash prizes! For full details on the contest, check out the contest flyer. Be sure to have your students submit!

ExcelinEd and a Thanksgiving Reflection

Last week, Thinking Nation’s executive team headed to Atlanta, GA for the 15th Annual National Summit on Education hosted by ExcelinEd. Each year at ExcelinEd, policy makers, nonprofits, and other education organizations get together to talk to and learn from each other on how we can build an education system that prioritizes students over systems. I left feeling both inspired and challenged in and I am looking forward to integrating some of the takeaways into our own work at Thinking Nation. Today, I’d like to highlight two of the keynote addresses from the conference that equally inspired and challenged me.

Jonathan Haidt has been inspiring me with his research and writing for the better part of the last decade. So, as you can imagine, when I learned that he would be at the conference, I was excited for what he would focus on. In the past few years, his book The Righteous Mind gave me a concrete way to understand how people come to different political views. His research is very much aligned to the historian’s chief job: to understand people from a time and place not like our own. In 2018, he and Greg Lukianoff wrote The Coddling of the American Mind. Once again, I was taken by their findings. This time, he explored “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas” (chiefly at universities) “Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” I encourage all of us who work in education to read it.

As you can tell, I’m great with selfies…

For the past couple of years, Haidt has built off that research and explored the specific impact of social media on our younger generations. Thus, in his talk for us, he introduced some of his new findings that will be in her newest book, The Anxious Generation, coming out in Spring 2024. As he’s written elsewhere, he pointed out that social media is producing much more harm than good, especially for younger users, and especially for younger female users. Second, he called on the audience, many of which have the power to introduce corresponding legislation in their states, to “get phones out of school now.” His ExcelinEd presentation provided compelling findings that demonstrate the negative impact of screens in school. Both he, and the next speaker I’ll highlight, Arthur Brooks, noted that at the schools that they teach at (NYU and Harvard Business School, respectively) do not allow devices in their classrooms. If these elite institutions recognize the need for analog classrooms, we all must consider the ramifications of our own technological choices in the classroom.

Of course, as an organization, we have built an entire web-based platform for teacher and student use. This complicates things. At Thinking Nation, we recognize just how much technology can help us shift the paradigm of social studies education. Still, we know that not all classrooms operate the same. This is why all of our resources are available to our teachers both to assign directly on our platform, or to download as PDFs for student use. Technology can expedite growth but we also must be realistic about the times that it is a growth inhibitor.

The second speaker I’ll highlight here is Arthur Brooks. Brooks has become a mainstay in my weekly reading over at The Atlantic with his Thursday “happiness” column: How to Build a Life. Not to be confused with that overly-optimistic friend we all have that secretly makes us want to throw up, Brooks’ columns and research feels both authentic and practical. 

Brooks’ talk challenged us at ExcelinEd to think about how we can teach happiness to our students and he gave us very practical approaches to do so. First, he highlighted that happiness is comprised of three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. 

Arthur Brooks speaking with former congressman, Eric Cantor

While each of these three things are important on their own, it is when they work in concert with each other that we experience happiness. He continued to give us at ExcelinEd practical outlines and activities to promote self-awareness and happiness, many of which can be done with students. But it was his two questions he left for us to answer that stuck with me the most. He said that the mere ability to answer the following two questions are the best indicator to whether you have found meaning in your life. One’s answer to those questions doesn’t matter as much as the sheer ability to answer them. The questions?

  1. Why am I alive?
  2. For what would I be willing to die, today?

Brooks continued to challenge us, but this is a good spot to transition to the other topic of today’s blog: Thanksgiving. Before I do though, whenever I travel for Thinking Nation, I like to prioritize at least one historical landmark. So, thank you ExcelinEd, for giving me the ability to see Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth home and Ebenezer Baptist Church. MLK was a model for us of how to best be an American and it was special to visit those sites.

MLK’s Birth home

The original Ebenezer Baptist Church

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a special holiday filled with historical tension. While it is worth exploring the tensions of the ethnic roots of some of the holiday traditions, today (as I’ve done in the past), I’d like for us to merely consider the purpose of the day: to give thanks. At the heart of gratitude is humility. We cannot be thankful for anyone or anything without acknowledging that others help us. A humble person gives thanks. 

History, with its core purpose to be the understanding of people and places not like our own, is a discipline rooted in humility. As I wrote in the blog linked above:

“With no urgent need to use the past for present benefits, historians can humbly try to understand the past rather than co-opting it for a specific purpose or use. This intellectual humility can lead to an intellectual gratitude.”

This intellectual gratitude is embedded throughout our resources. We challenge students to understand diverse perspectives, identify historical significance, and take on historical empathy. These tools, inherent to our discipline, is why we believe that our curriculum, assessments, and professional development can support teachers in cultivating thinking citizens.

Thinking Nation’s New Look

For those of you who have followed along with the last couple of blogs, you’ve seen that we’ve changed and added things over summer (more to come!). Today, we want to explain what is really at the core of these exciting shifts: our new brand identity!

If you go to our website right now, you will see that we have a new logo and colors to define who we are. We are really excited about our new brand identity and especially excited to explain why! (If you’re a partner school who has already had beginning of the year PD with us, this is probably just a review!).

www.thinkingnation.org

First, why change? As Thinking Nation has grown into more schools across the United States, we’ve also had so many more conversations with people from different contexts. Throughout these conversations, we’ve learned a couple things about how people see us.

First, people assumed that we only covered Civics and American History. With the red, white, and blue, and Lady Liberty as our identity, who could blame them? However, like calling our essays “DBQs” took an extra layer of explanation, we’d have to take extra time to explain that we focus on social studies more broadly and that we really want to emphasize the disciplinary thinking that is inherent to good study in our field. 

Second, many people saw our organization as partisan. However, a crucial aspect of our nonprofit mission is to be nonpartisan. We believe that good history and social studies education transcends political ideologies and can encompass both sides of the aisle, even if our current culture wars think otherwise. By focusing on the “why” of our discipline as the chief aim (rather than the “what”) we are proud to work with schools in a variety of political contexts. After all, the two largest states we work in are California and Texas. Historical thinking is for everyone, even if we disagree come election day.

As expressed on our website, we want to shift the paradigm of history education. This is our purpose. We believe that when students learn how to think historically, they are better equipped as citizens. They can lean into the tension produced by listening to multiple perspectives. They can take the time to contextualize the stories they come across. They can empathize with others in an attempt to understand rather than judge. If we can shift the way we see social studies away from a memory-based education and into a thinking-focused education, our students are better served. We wanted a brand to represent this. 

Our new brand, designed for us by Lunour, gets to this vision. With two dialogue bubbles, we stress the importance of nuance. There is never only one historical narrative, but history is filled with multiple perspectives. Dialogue bubbles illustrate that. Similarly, when our students engage in disciplinary study, they have to recognize that what they study is not stagnant. Scholars are in constant dialogue about the subjects they study. In fact, historiography, this study of historical writing, demonstrate that the discipline of history is one big dialogue about the past. 

Not only do dialogue bubbles get to the heart of how we should teach and learn in social studies, they also get to the heart of our vision: “that all students will mature into thinking citizens, equipped with the essential skills to participate in a robust democracy.” If we want to sustain a pluralistic society governed through democracy, we have to learn to talk with one another. Through our work, we hope to equip educators to empower students for that future, a future where empathetic conversation dominates the public square, not bitter polarization. We’re excited for a logo that captures all of this!

Oh, and it’s pretty cool (in case you haven’t noticed yet) that the two dialogue bubbles make a “T” and the negative space makes an “N.” A Thinking Nation is built on dialogue.

To wrap up this lengthy post, we want to acknowledge some logistics. Thinking Nation is a small nonprofit, so this new brand identity will come out in waves. We will update our website, platform, and social media first. We are currently working on updating our curricular resources to fit the new brand, but this will take some time! So, if you see some materials in our old brand and some in our new, know that we are working hard at bringing everything over to our new and exciting brand! Our mission hasn’t changed, but we’re excited for an identity that better reflects who we are as an organization. 

Happy beginning of the school year!

The Importance of Bipartisan Ed Reform: Reflecting on RISE

Last week, some of the Thinking Nation team was able to attend the Reagan Institute’s Summit on Education (RISE) in Washington DC. The day was jam packed with thoughtful panels, fireside chats, and discussions among some of the nation’s leading thinkers on education and ed policy. Most importantly, these leaders adhere to diverse political persuasions. This context meant that there was fruitful (and sometimes tense) conversations about how we can truly make education better for all children in the United States. As Thinking Nation spends most of its time in social studies and civics spaces, this was a very special event to engage with even broader bipartisan ed reform and ed policy.

I wanted to take some time to highlight some of the panels and speakers here as we reflect on how essential these bipartisan summits are if we really want to enact systemic change.

The Panelists on “The Imperative for Education Reform.

To start the morning, the first panel, “The Imperative for Education Reform,” engaged conversation among Arnie Duncan (Sec. of Education under President Obama), Rick Hess (Ed. Policy Fellow at American Enterprise Institute), Bill Kristol (Founder, Defending Democracy Together), Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone. I personally remember the documentary Waiting for Superman, which highlighted Canada’s work being very transformational in my own journey into education. Needless to say, I was excited to learn.

Thinking Nation’s Chief Partnership Officer, Liz Connolly and Executive Director, Zachary Cote hanging out on at the Reagan Institute.

The conversation among the panelists was robust as they reflected on the political context that has led to the many crossroads we are at in public education. But for the sake of brevity, I’d like to highlight something Canada said: “Often education has been a political cudgel.” He said this as he reflected his own journey in education and how at some points he was praised by progressives and at other times he was praised by conservatives. As he noted, he was simply trying to do what was best for kids. But he remarked how political allegiances clouded both sides’ ability to do the same. Canada’s focus on the needs of children was a breath of fresh air.

Later in the morning, a panel entitled, “Teaching and Learning in the Age of AI,” was incredibly apropos for our current moment. While I felt that the panel leaned more optimistic without really wrestling with ramifications for rigorous learning, I was struck by something that Mary Snapp, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Microsoft, stated. In ensuring that developers build out resources that don’t undermine democracy, she noted that “engineers need to learn history too.” Absolutely, Mary. Absolutely. 

Remarks by the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden.

After lunch, we were fortunate enough to hear from our First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Biden remarked that the last time she came to RISE, she was late because she had to rush over after teaching her class at a local community college, a good reminder that FLOTUS has quite a bit of first hand experience in education. Her address consistently thanked the Reagan Institute for hosting a bipartisan ed reform forum, and while she reminded the audience often of the President’s plan for education, she took quite a bit of time emphasizing the need for stakeholders of different persuasions to seek out commonality to effect real change. I hope we make real waves to push for such consensus.

NBC’s Chuck Todd interviewing Maryland Governor, Wes Moore.

In the afternoon, we were able to hear from former Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who recently announced his candidacy for President, followed directly by the new Governor for Maryland, Wes Moore. These two men of opposing political persuasions did not emphasize those areas of opposition. They healthily staked their claims while advocating for as much bipartisan legislation as possible to initiate change. Moore reminded the audience that even though he could have passed state legislation with just the Democratic Party’s support, he pushed for legislation to be written in ways that would garner bipartisan support, because he knew that “it simply won’t work” if only one party is behind it. I hope that wisdom around bipartisan ed reform transcends his state boundaries and enters the Capitol that was just a couple miles down the road from us at the time. 

In all, the summit was a day to both challenge and bring hope for public education in the United States. We are grateful to the Reagan Institute for having us.

No, ChatGPT has not killed the essay

If we think OpenAI’s ChatGPT has killed the essay, we’re missing the point of writing.

Humanists have sounded the alarm over OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Some are even saying that ChatGPT has killed the essay. Its capability to generate accurate, readable, and even engaging text given any prompt is incredible. It will undoubtedly become a tool used (and abused) by students in both secondary and postsecondary education. Focused on its potential misuses, many teachers express worry about what it will do to writing in the classroom. While some of those fears are warranted, I hope that the existence of ChatGPT and its future competitors will cause reflection about why we teach writing, not fear about its demise. ChatGPT’s existence does not have to mean the death of the essay.

Of course, if the only goal of writing an essay is to convey an idea, then yes, this may be the end of the essay as we know it. But I have to believe that there is more to writing. In order to discover what that might be, it is important to draw a clear connection between what it means to write and what it means to learn.

My first introduction to this connection came as an undergraduate majoring in history at California State University, Channel Islands. I was taking Historiography, our historical methods course, when my professor, Dr. Nian Shen Huang, reminded the small group of students in the room: “Talking rarely deepens people’s minds, but writing forces one to think; good, persistent writing produces good thinking.”

Always looking to him for wisdom, my pen quickly recorded his words on my spiral notebook. Like other moments in his classes, which I signed up for as often as my schedule allowed, I was inspired. To him, writing’s purpose was not solely found in its product, but perhaps even more importantly, its process. 

Fast forward to my 5 years as a middle school history teacher in South Los Angeles, I took that inspiration and emphasized writing daily in my class. The above quote from Dr. Huang made my “quote of the week” section of my whiteboard at least once a year. I often reminded my students of the importance of using writing to solidify their thoughts. In this respect, the art of the rough draft held deep importance–something I attempted to model regularly by writing essays as a class up on the whiteboard, the quote of the week serving as our inspiration in the corner.

In December 2021, Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist at The Wharton School, reminded us of this approach to writing in a Tweet:

Writing is more than a vehicle for communicating ideas. It’s a tool for crystallizing ideas.

Writing exposes gaps in your knowledge and logic. It pushes you to articulate assumptions and consider counterarguments.

One of the best paths to sharper thinking is frequent writing.

When I read Grant’s tweet, I instantly thought of that Historiography class almost a decade prior. Why do we write? To formulate our ideas. To sharpen our thinking. The product is only part of an important process. If we can do a better job of getting this goal of writing across to our students, perhaps the essay is not dead.

At Thinking Nation, we continue to stress this goal of writing whenever I can. We believe it is transformative for empowering students. When students write, they think better. We cannot let artificial intelligence take that away from them.

Almost every week I get to enter into secondary classrooms where students are wrestling with deep questions, analyzing various sources, and presenting their thoughts through that very medium that is supposedly “dead.” But it’s not. 

The essay provides students with a place to try out their ideas, explore the use of evidence, and refine their ability to make a claim. Of course, the product still does matter, but the process reveals far more useful information on student thinking.

ChatGPT has not killed the essay. To be sure, we may need to rethink how we do essays in our classes given AI technology. But writing an essay is far more than the product at the end. ChatGPT may transform the way we think, but we cannot let it replace our thinking.

As long as we can remember that as educators and emphasize that for our students, we can still rely on that trusty, and perhaps even timeless, method of assessment: the essay.

Building Collaboration Without Losing Autonomy: Our Session at the California Council for Social Studies

In a month, we get to join hundreds of California Social Studies teachers at the CCSS (California Council for Social Studies) annual conference. As every year, I am excited to engage with those passionate about social studies education in our home state. 

On Friday, February 24th, I will be leading a session called: Building Collaboration Without Losing Autonomy: Common Assessments on Historical Thinking. I am excited to talk with teachers about the importance of common assessments, historical thinking, and the collaboration that can be had by combining the two. 

So often, history teachers work in silos. The lack of funding, the variety of content eras under the umbrella of “social studies,” and the general lack of time often keep us from collaborating with others both in the department and in other departments. Common assessments, when built in as a routine, can change that! By widening the community of practice, we can gain more support, better ideas, and clearer data on student growth. These are all wins as we pursue the aim of cultivating historical thinkers in our classrooms. 

Often, our counterparts in ELA and STEM have clear means to build collaboration with one another (not to mention the funding to go with it… sigh). But by utilizing common assessments that emphasize historical thinking and the skills of the historian, we too, can build this type of collaboration. What’s even better about this approach to common assessments is that they do not interfere with the general content scope and sequence of our classes. By assessing our students’ ability to think historically, we assess how they navigate the information that their class is defined by, rather than their mere retention of that information. This opens up so many doors for both vertical alignment in Social Studies across grade levels, but also interdisciplinary collaboration with our ELA and STEM peers. 

I’m excited to dive into the specifics of this approach with a room of impactful educators up in Santa Clara County. If you are attending the California Council for Social Studies conference, be sure to come and say hi at our session or our booth!

Thinking Nation’s First Webinar

This week, we hosted our first Thinking Nation Webinar. We walked attendees through our mission and vision, our resources, and our platform. Knowing that not everyone can attend these time-specific meetings, we’re posting the recording to this week’s blog. If you’ve wanted to to get to know Thinking Nation a little better, we hope this webinar recording helps!

Click here to watch the Webinar Recording.

https://us06web.zoom.us/rec/share/n8rDbM4T7iq7DfzYZyJWoXEeZ3FbjHBcZt_kH3u8FIrgn0dxMphMQFhNbigUvWU-.C1AjHmOy2c9bHJbV?startTime=1673395064000

Empowered Middle School Writers

When visiting one of our partner schools this week, I was able to watch students engage in the writing process using Thinking Nation DBQs centered on historical thinking. At this particular Los Angeles middle school, the 6th and 8th grade classrooms sit directly across the hallway from each other, allowing me to bounce between the two classes while on campus.

In the 6th grade classroom, students were beginning the outlining process for writing an essay to answer the question: In what ways was Queen Hatshepsut’s reign as Pharaoh of Egypt historically significant? In the 8th grade classroom, students were about half way through outlining their essays to answer the question: Why did the founders create a government built on the separation of powers?

A 6th Grader outlining their essay.

Both groups of students were thinking critically about primary source materials in order to answer those questions. For the 15-20 minutes that I was able to hang out in each classroom, I saw all types of analysis as students engaged with the material. 6th grade students were looking at pictures of statues of Hatshepsut and noting how she portrayed herself as a deity in order to give herself legitimacy as a female pharaoh in a largely male-dominated society. They drew attention to her building projects like her massive obelisks or her mortuary temple, Deir el-Bahari. Students were constructing a thesis statement that highlighted how accomplishments like this made her historically significant.

In the 8th grade classroom, most students were interrogating James Madison’s meaning for the behind “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” and thinking of clever ways to word their paragraphs in order to explain how the founders wanted to build a government that recognized the inherent selfishness that Madison saw in human nature. Their conversations straddled the line between history and philosophy and it was inspiring to listen in and even engage with some of their thoughts. 

A table of 8th graders collaborating on their outlines.

In both cases, students were not merely passively receiving a historical narrative and telling their teacher what they remembered about it. Rather, they were actively engaging in historical arguments. Arguments of both significance and purpose. Of course, understanding significance and purpose for many is a lifelong endeavor; but how much more equipped will these students be to ask such questions of their present after dissecting their meaning in the past?

Historical thinking not only builds up students analytical skills, it gives them a necessary tool belt to engage with life’s biggest questions. They can think historically about their own world and rather than simply be bystanders to the events of the day, they can enter into the conversation in order to offer up their own solutions, just as they offer their own interpretations of the past. Historical thinking matters.

Keeping the Conversation Going: Thinking Nation’s Chat Feature

On the teacher’s homepage, teachers are notified when students have asked them a question.

Students often have “in the moment” questions about history, historical thinking, and writing during class. Truthfully, we can’t get to them all nor do all of our students feel that they “really” need to ask their question. With Thinking Nation’s chat feature, however, all students can ask their teacher questions during the analysis and writing process. Even if teachers can’t get to the questions immediately, they can sift through student questions on their notifications tab on their own account home page. This way, students can ask their questions when they are top of mind even if the teacher is unavailable to answer them at that moment.

When teachers click the student comment, they can reply. Students will then be notified that the teacher responded.

We want the conversation about historical thinking and writing to have the opportunity to continue even after the bell rings. Our chat feature, embedded in all of our DBQs, allows just this. All students need to do is highlight the text or section of the resource that they have a question about. Next, they type their question, click the “send as chat” option and press “save.” Teachers are notified and can then respond when they are able. Students are also notified when a teacher responds so that an intellectual direct message conversation can ensue.

So, teachers! Make sure your students know that they can do this and be sure to utilize this feature as you continue to empower your students to think historically. Lastly, in light of our last blog. THERE ARE ONLY 10 DAYS LEFT IN OCTOBER. You got this!

Student questions are highlighted in yellow to distinguish them from their regular annotations.

The Dreaded Month: Teaching in October

If you’ve taught more than one semester before, you’ve experienced teaching in October. The honeymoon stage with the students is over. Behavior in the class, if things were not established in incredibly explicit terms, begins to be harder to manage. Students begin feel a little tired and perhaps even a little apathetic toward learning, wishing to be back on summer break. October is hard! Many people know that November 1st of my first year of teaching was my lowest point as an educator. I felt defeated and I quite literally questioned my choice of going into education. I was equally exhausted and perplexed. 

These scenarios and reflections are not uncommon in education. Just talk to a teacher. With that being the case, though, what do we do? How do we set ourselves up for success despite the pitfalls that come in this month? How can we continue to set the foundation for a year of academic growth for our students? 

Unfortunately, I don’t have a 5 point plan for success when teaching in October. I’m not sure one exists. But there are some important things we should consider and reflect on, especially as history teachers.

First, we must remind ourselves of our purpose as teachers. As this blog has emphasized time and again, our job is to teach students how to study the past. Teaching the past is not enough. History is bigger than a timeline. It’s a discipline of study. Creating routines in our classrooms around reading, analyzing, and writing about the past reminds students that they are in our classroom to become better thinkers, not better at recall. Reminding ourselves of this purpose (DAILY!) is critical for cementing our purpose as history teachers.

We also have to reset structures if they need to be reset. Do you see things that irritate you as a teacher but aren’t quite enough to call out? Call them out anyway. Set your behavioral standards in stone. Resetting is hard, but it is better in October than in January. Good, quality, historical thinking cannot happen in classrooms where management takes all of our energy. 

The last thing worth considering, at least in this post, is to set a routine of historical thinking in your room. Make that word have daily resonance with your students. Introduce a new skill each week. Give concrete examples of it and adequate time to practice thinking that way. Have students write something argumentative, even if short, as often as possible. If they aren’t ready to do it on their own, do it with them! Students cannot do what they’ve never seen. Be a model of analysis. Doing heavy lifting for students at this point of the year is ok! Especially if you are giving them the framework to do that lifting on their own later in the year.

Teaching in October is hard. So many things are thrown at teachers. But, reminding ourselves of our purpose daily, resetting structures to create pathways to success, and embedding historical thinking into every lesson are important steps to take to make it a successful year of academic growth.

CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 2022

For most of the 12th grade students we served this year, their entire 11th grade year was virtual. That simple fact made this year so special. It was a year to rekindle friendships, play sports again, interact with teachers in person, and so many other benefits to being in person. These students also were able to push their thinking and writing skills in their social studies classes with the Thinking Nation curriculum. To say congratulations class of 2022, we want to recount some fun moments in senior-level classrooms this year.

Early on in the year, seniors in US Government analyzed Enlightenment-era and founding documents in order to determine why America’s founders set up a government based on the separation of powers. Students interrogated the documents in a Socratic Seminar and then wrote essays to argue their point. 

Students in an Economics class explored some of the key foundational writings of Adam Smith in order to determine the extent of his influence on modern economics. Reflecting on his ideas in the context of the 21st century gave students the opportunity to identify his most lasting impacts. In one particular class, students intensively dissected a seven sentence excerpt of The Wealth of Nations over the course of an hour long period. Their questions and the level of detail in their analysis illuminated why inquiry-based history education is so valuable.

In another economic class, students debated various solutions for solving economic inequality in the United States. They explored scholarly research, government graphs and charts, and popular level journalism in order to write evidence based arguments justifying their point of view.

One government class spent a week with our DBQ on Social Media’s role in democracy. After combing through the documents, the class was pretty split in their lively debate: does social media strengthen or weaken democracy?

In an Ethnic Studies class, seniors pored over 150 years of evidence to analyze the environmental injustices experienced by American Indians and how they have cultivated solutions for environmental justice (FREE RESOURCE!). The analysis and detail in their essays showed great depth and nuance for such an important topic. 

As a whole, the seniors who used Thinking Nation this year thought critically, wrote persuasively, and pushed themselves intellectually. In short, they grew. As they move onto life after high school, many of them moving away from home and going to college, we wish them the best! Congratulations class of 2022!

Hispanic Heritage Month

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

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

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

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

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

Below are some clips from the Magazine:

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

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Remembering 9/11, Twenty Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Curriculums Must Serve Students Not Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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