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Want to Empower Students? Teach Them to “Think Like a Historian”
Event Recap

May 21, 2019
Event Recap

A team of four educators — from Chicago, Nashville, and D.C. — was trying to figure out the chronological sequence of five images from Reconstruction.

The group easily identified the images associated with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and a call for voting rights for African-Americans at the close of the Civil War (1865). But the order of the other three images — of black politicians debating on an assembly floor, of two groups of white supremacists shaking hands, and of an African-American kneeling and weeping on the bodies of dead comrades — was more difficult to determine.

As participants studied the drawings, they started to notice small details. One was printed in a Northern newspaper. Another had a telling caption that helped nail down its time frame. Using information like this, the group not only completed an engaging review of the pivotal events of the Reconstruction period, but also were able to correctly order the images.  

This was “Thinking Like a Historian,” the introductory session at a workshop on middle school history at The Robertson Center, where educators from around the country gathered to explore Success Academy’s newly released middle school U.S. History Curriculum (find it here), and learn about SA’s approach to inquiry-based history instruction.

The aim of this first session, consisting of several “stations,” was to give educators a hands-on experience of the kind of historical thinking that SA educators seek to elicit in their scholars. At each station, participants read, compared, discussed, and drew evidence from a number of primary texts and/or artifacts in order to respond to an essential question. The activities reflected the “Five Habits of Great Historians” that SA uses to guide instruction and evaluate the quality of teaching and learning in its history classrooms. The habits include building background knowledge; evaluating reliability of historical texts by looking at author, audience, and language; considering historical context and how it impacts perspective; comparing and contrasting historical accounts to figure out what most likely happened and why; and identifying big ideas in history and the evidence used to support them.

“We want our scholars to fully internalize the idea that just because something is a primary source, it is not necessarily reliable,” said Marissa Friedman, Manager of History at Success Academy and a facilitator of the workshop. “They need to directly experience the fact that history involves reading and evaluating a variety of sources and drawing evidence from these sources to build and support an interpretation, argument, or ‘big idea’ about the past.”

To better understand how this vision plays out in the classroom, participants experienced one lesson, “Slavery and the Constitution,” from the perspective of both a teacher and a student. First, they carried out the kind of preparation SA teachers undertake for each lesson: they read the lesson texts, which included the Constitution slavery clauses, excerpts from speeches by northern and southern delegates debating the clauses, and later reflections on the Constitution by Frederick Douglass; then they jotted down the main ideas and drew on these sources to write out a response to the central question of the lesson: “Why did the framers protect slavery in the Constitution?”

Then they participated in the lesson as scholars. After watching a short video on the economic role of slavery, Jess Johnson, a history teacher at SA Hudson Yards, led them in discussion through three questions: How did the slavery clauses protect the institution of slavery? Why did the clauses ultimately leave the question of slavery unsettled? And to what extent was the constitution supportive of slavery? Answering these question required going back to the texts, building on each other’s thinking, and drawing on what they already knew about the historical context. The workshop participants were able to experience firsthand how students, through this kind of inquiry-based discussion, are able to develop and articulate their own argument regarding the question of why the framers protected slavery in the constitution.

As the workshop closed, participants shared their insights and ideas for bringing back learning to their schools. “We are always told to make learning ‘student-centered,’ but we are never told how to do that” said one educator. “This model helps me understand what a student-centered history lesson looks like.” For Jaymes Joyce, a social studies teacher at Brooke Charter Schools in Boston, the five habits of historical thinkers offered a powerful lens for observing and evaluating history instruction. “We are re-prioritizing non-fiction reading and using social studies to do that,” Joyce explained. “The Five Habits provide a compass through which to construct — and give feedback on — a great text-based social studies lesson.”

A curriculum director from KIPP Texas offered further thoughts, “Our goal for the history program at KIPP Texas schools is not just to give students deep foundational knowledge but also to help them see themselves as active agents of change in the history unfolding today. This approach supports that vision.”

 

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