More teaching American history well

More teaching American history well

Watching an educational film on the human body reminded me once more what makes for good instruction. While the practices displayed in the film apply to more than teaching American history, they underscore the them in a recent article in The Atlantic, High School History Doesn’t Have to be Boring.

History, learning and the Eiffel Tower

Watching this film in a high school freshman/sophomore biology class, I noted how the hour or so long film used certain techniques that made it more interesting, (less boring), to students than many I’d seen. The techniques used were:

  • Teach one main idea at a time
  • Employ an open-ended question
  • Present two or three facts
  • Activate prior knowledge using example or analogy

porous femurEach main idea was emphasized by a question posed by the narrator. Though rhetorical, the narrator didn’t immediately answer the question. The example that impressed me most concerned the skeletal system, the question having to do with why the thigh bone is constructed as it is. Several facts were presented. The thigh bone supports more weight than bones in the upper body. The thigh bone also absorbs the shock and compounded weight of walking and jumping, Finally, the ends of the thigh bone are porous. Next came the example that connected to prior knowledge.

History, learning and the Eiffel Tower


Unknown to me, Gustave Eiffel had studied the femur years before designing the famous landmark that bears his name. Taking note of how the body’s strongest bone had mass only where needed, thus the porous structure, Eiffel later designed the famous tower with its conspicuous design of thick, strong legs at the base with diminishing amounts of material seen as the structure supports less and less weight as it rises above Paris. Where support is not needed, there is no material – just like a human femur.

By high school, most if not all students have at least seen a picture of the Eiffel Tower. For the film’s purpose, it was not necessary that students knew many facts at all about the landmark structure, let alone its history, for the connection to be made. This particular example wasn’t an analogy, though it could have been.

How do you know learning has occurred?

I’d long ago learned never to show a film for much more than ten to fifteen minutes without stopping to check for learning. By this I mean I’ve learned to engage in formative assessment, usually by means of a few probing, open-ended questions, those requiring more than a simple response from the student. When I stopped the film, which of course was a CD, I was pleased with the student responses.

Like me, students were unaware of the connection between the femur and the design of the Eiffel Tower. My open-ended questions soon sparked a small, but thoughtful class discussion on the key points of why bones that carry more weight are designed differently than those supporting less and how the body’s process of growing new bone at points of stress while removing bone mass in compensating areas of little stress causes many bones to be completely regenerated every decade The students applied their prior prior knowledge of what might at first have seemed an unrelated item and expanded their learning far beyond the basic facts presented.

Lessons for better lessons

In David Cutler’s article, two statements, one by Cutler, another quoted from yet another author on the subject of teaching well, stand in contrast to standing practices of many. The first of these is particularly apt for a blog entitled History as Prologue.

In American history, I start each unit by making obvious the connections to today. – David Cutler

That quote implies the teacher routinely involves students in current events, which Cutler confirms he does each Wednesday. Using such a strategy in conjunction with the practices illustrated by the Human Body CD, teachers can dramatically, I argue, improve student achievement. But redefining or perhaps clarifying what it is you want the student in an American history course to actually achieve is the point of the second quote.

Quoted from Bruce Lesh, like Cutler, also a history teacher, in his book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12, an innovative reasoning of why we teach history is presented.

“I’m preparing you to make a presentation to a client as to why your proposal to build their building is the best one. My job is to teach you how to make arguments. Arguments are based on the application of evidence, and evidence is gained through analysis of information…We teach you ways to use evidence to support your argument.” – Bruce Lesh

Though this shouldn’t be seen as revolutionary to social studies teachers, there are those so lashed down by false nostalgia that teaching students to make good arguments is seen, quite irrationally in my opinion, that higher order skills implies, in their minds, that facts don’t matter. That, of course, isn’t the case.

Teacher Task: Learning what the students know

Like so many terms in teacher talk, formative assessment or evaluation is ubiquitous. It’s meaning, to diagnose student learning in order to adjust instructional activities for the student to maximize achievement, has become the sad practice of conducting pre and post-unit assessments with little to no differentiation driven by assessment. Once again, the further away from the individual student instruction is planned, the exponentially less is the achievement. Assessing and then providing scaffolding for student skills is indispensable. For more on this, see Teaching American History Badly.

Knowing what the student knows, likes and piques his or her curiosity remains, in my opinion, key to maximizing achievement. As I’ve stated previously, learning as early as possible from the true expert on the student – the parent or guardian – what strengths and weaknesses students have before a unit of study is constructed is the most promising means of teaching American history well.

Forgetting King, Kennedy and Indianapolis

Forgetting King, Kennedy and Indianapolis

It was Friday and the students were in a noticeably high mood even for a Friday. I was teaching in an English, (as in grammar), classroom at an urban Indianapolis area school with a diverse, largely African-American profile. In addition to being the end of a school week, the date was April 4.

Even I had overlooked the date’s historic significance for hours after rising. A lone Facebook entry by a fellow history buff alerted me to the fact that it was 46 years earlier, when I was still six years old, that an assassin murdered America’s civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I took a moment to share with each class the significance of the day’s date. Only two students knew the history of April 4, 1968.

Scheduled to campaign in Indy for the Democratic primary that night was Robert “Bobby” Kennedy. His visit is now immortalized, but the memory of what both he and King were fighting for at the times of their respective deaths has faded.

According to an article in the Indianapolis Star, Kennedy was in Muncie, Indiana at the time of Dr. King’s murder. The Mayor of Indianapolis then, future senator Richard Lugar, urged Kennedy to call off his visit, but the senator from New York rejected the advice.

Upon arrival, Kennedy spoke to a gathered audience at the near-north side of the city. Work of King’s death had not yet reached most of those in attendance who’d been waiting in rain to greet the candidate. Kennedy broke the news, stunning the listeners.

History records the violent reactions that swept through many major cities across the country, most east of the Mississippi. In the western half of the United States, news of Martin Luther King’s death came while most people were still at work, perhaps creating a period of grace in which emotions were processed differently than in the East. Certainly at play due to the time difference was the opportunity for affirmative responses such as those of Los Angeles in which city officials and local activists organized vigils.

Lost memories

Downplayed, if not outright ignored in accounts of that day are the many acts of leadership by Indianapolis community and church activists. Here in Indy, the key role played by Bobby Kennedy should never be downplayed, but neither should the positive influence of local civic leaders, particularly within the African-American community.

Also largely ignored, both then and today, is the role played by Indianapolis’ Chief of Police, Winston Churchill, (I’m not kidding), and civil rights leader, current Congressman John Lewis. Churchill informed Kennedy’s staff that his department couldn’t protect the senator in the event of rioting. Kennedy soon discovered why the police could not, in fact, provide protection. Though the city provided the Kennedy party a police escort from the airport, the escort unexpectedly broke off upon reaching the outskirts of the black neighborhood where Kennedy was to speak. The Indianapolis Police Department would not enter the so-called Black ghetto.

John Lewis, who’d learned of King’s death before most others in the crowd, was adamant that Kennedy speak to the rain-soaked crowd gathered at Broadway Park, (17th and Broadway). Lewis had been meeting with those described by William Barry, a close friend of Kennedy who provided security for the senator, as hostile black militants. Barry had joined those who urged Kennedy to cancel the speech, but Lewis’ insistence otherwise to the candidate only confirmed Kennedy’s resolve.

According to Barry, the hostile black militants “pledged their support for Kennedy following the now famous speech in Indianapolis. No recent accounts I’ve read make any mention of John Lewis’ presence , nor of local community leaders. Overlooked is the critical role these parties played in carrying out the pleas for non-violent reaction to Dr. King’s assassination. Also absent from contemporary recollection is the lack of positive contribution on the part of the Lugar Administration and that of his Chief of Police, (who would be forced to resign a half-dozen years later after wide-spread corruption in his department was made public).

History as Prologue: Are the dreams dead?

It was Robert Kennedy himself who urged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize what was to become the Poor People’s March. Largely forgotten today, King had expanded his focus on ending segregation and voter rights suppression of Blacks to addressing poverty, a common cause shared with Bobby Kennedy. In fact, King was in Memphis at the time of his death in support of striking sanitation workers seeking union recognition and equitable pay following the deaths of two garbage collectors earlier that year. The civil rights leader’s death contributed to the City of Memphis’s recognition of a union for the sanitation workers later in 1968.

Kennedy’s assassination in June of ’68 put the Democrat Party in chaos and Richard Nixon in the White House. It can also be argued the resolve for peace shown in Indianapolis that year was forgotten with a vengeance.

Since the day MLK was murdered and Robert Kennedy spoke so eloquently in Indianapolis, the shared cause of poverty and worker rights in whose name both men died have taken a clubbing in Indiana and the rest of the nation.

Since 1974, teachers in Indiana have not had the right to strike. More than three decades later, most collective bargaining rights were also stripped from Indiana teachers.

Recently, financed largely by out-of-state business lobbies, the Hoosier State passed a so-called Right-to-Work law, (the second such legislation in the state’s labor history).

As of 2012, Indiana children living in poverty had dropped from the national average of 23 percent the year before to 22 percent. Most forget that it was Robert Kennedy’s experiences visiting the Deep South during which he witnessed appalling poverty that helped convince him to campaign against incumbent President Johnson. 46 years later with Mississippi boasting a childhood poverty rate of 35 percent, more than twice the lowest figure of 14 percent shared by only two states, it’s worth asking if anyone even cares to remember King, Kennedy and the promise of justice seen in Broadway Park that sad April night so many years ago?

Perhaps it’s just too shameful to recall.

Teaching research skills before students go solo

Teach research skills before your students go solo

flt. instr. bill fisher 5-18-77
My flight instructor climbed out from the Cessna’s right seat and casually told me to “taker her up, fly the pattern, land and taxi back here.” Both of us knew I was prepared. It was my sixteenth birthday, the youngest age one can solo a powered aircraft. Thinking back on that still vivid memory, I can’t but help compare my first solo flight with the process of teaching research skills to students. In contrast, however, I know no flight instructor would ever leave an airplane in the hands of a student if he or she was as unprepared as most students now assigned a typical research paper.

Don’t skip the walk-around

My first time flying was with my Dad. He’d been a fighter pilot during the Korean War. I’d grown up listening to stories about flying the F-86 Sabre Jet and so wanting to fly at an early age was quite natural for me. Two decades after my father left the Air Force, he took up civilian flying, earning his Private Pilot’s license, which granted him the ability to take up passengers.

Like all young teens, I wanted to jump right into the Cessna 172 and take to the skies with Dad at the controls and me as co-pilot. However, as every pilot knows, you always start with what’s known as the pre-flight, short for pre-flight inspection, also commonly called the walk-around. No matter if you’re only planning a local flight that never leaves the general area of your airport or a long cross country, you always perform a very thorough 360 degree walk-around. If you find a problem, you don’t fly until the problem is completely corrected. No exceptions.

As a substitute teacher and having spent many days in multiple classrooms while running a gifted education program, I’ve witnessed scores of times the launching of research projects at every grade level. For most of those, my heart would sink as students wasted no time in their headlong attacks on Google. Predictably it would all go downhill from there. I say predictably because too many teachers assume their students understand why research tasks must be approached with the same care as a pre-flight.

Just as pilots inspects their aircraft for signs of defects that might compromise safety, teachers need to observe students through each step of the research process for signs of learning gaps. If a student jumps right into a search engine without having made a thorough study of the research task, that student should not be cleared to take off alone.

Pay attention to your instruments

Cessna 150 cockpitSeveral times a year my father would receive in the mail a bulletin from the Airplane Owner and Pilots Association, (AOPA), describing in clinical terms the basic facts concerning fatal crashes from around the country. Wings separated from fuselage often followed reports of pilots flying small aircraft into violent thunderstorms. Other grim phrases described pilots impacting the planet having ignored or not trusted their instruments, confident of their gut instincts right until the propeller struck. While botching a research project is unlikely to produce lethal outcomes, an observant teacher should constantly check for student feedback, including non-verbal input, indicating the student is drifting off course. Each step of the research process a student takes is like the information provided a pilot by the cockpit gages.

Safe flying is the repeated practice of good habits

I’d already spent an hour flying with my Dad, (who drove me to the airport as I’d not yet received my driver’s license), practicing takeoffs and the much more demanding landings before Bill Fisher arrived. He was my flight instructor and had also instructed my father while obtaining his Private License. While I have no doubt Bill trusted my father’s instructions to his son, he had me begin with a pre-flight on the little red Cessna-150 in which I was about to solo. Bill Fisher understood what all teachers should when assigning a research project; don’t assume it’s not your job to teach the necessary skills.

After a quick check ride to ensure I was familiar with emergency procedures, he had me taxi back to the tarmac near the end of runway two-seven, the runway’s abbreviated compass heading and direction of the prevailing winds. With the tips of my feet holding down the brakes, my instructor departed the craft after issuing his directions. When I returned from making single circuit around the patch, landing without bending the leased trainer Bill would sign my logbook and FAA medical certificate serving as my solo permit. He and my father knew I was ready to solo, though as a parent, I can now empathize with the natural anxiety Dad felt until I safely landed that first time by myself.

Aside from the rare appearance of a twin turboprop announcing his intention of entering the normally sleepy airport’s pattern, an unexpected occurrence requiring a young student pilot to extend his own pattern to accommodate the much faster airplane’s speed, my solo flight ended with a safe landing and proud taxi run back to the spot where my instructor had minutes earlier handed over the plane to a high-school sophomore.


Like safe flying, the application of research skills is nothing less than the repeated practice of good habits. Speaking as a history teacher, student achievement in my discipline is largely dependent upon my students possessing the confidence that comes with strong research skills. No teacher can assume the student knows how to properly research a subject or that teaching those skills is someone else’s job.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ll define and defend my strongly held beliefs on what constitutes the research process in a subsequent article.