Monday, July 27, 2009

History Connected: A New Teaching American History Grant

The Reading Public Schools is pleased to announce that it is one of ten Massachusetts school districts and one out of 123 school districts across the country who have received a United States Department of Education Teaching American History grant to improve the quality of American history education. The Reading Public Schools in partnership with the Danvers, Dracut, Haverhill, Lowell, North Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, and Wilmington Public Schools received a grant totaling $999,818 over three years for the History Connected project.

As part of the new History Connected project, the Reading Public Schools will develop activities in partnership with the Department of History at Boston College, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell Graduate School of Education, the Tsongas Center for Industrial History, and Primary Source, a nonprofit history and humanities organization based in Watertown.

History Connected will draw connections across time and place to the enduring themes and issues of U.S. history. Global connections between the United States and the world are an important feature of the program. So too are connections between ideas, individuals, documents and events as they developed on the local, national, and international levels. Over the course of three years, program participants will explore the connections that have shaped American history through three themes:
Year One: Equality, Citizenship, and the Law
Year Two: War and Society: The Civil War to Vietnam
Year Three: American Encounters: Movements of People and Ideas

The goal of this program is to demonstrate how school districts and institutions with expertise in American history can collaborate over a three-year period to ensure that teachers develop the knowledge and skills necessary to teach American history in an exciting and engaging way. “This project will greatly assist teachers in providing students with the knowledge and skills necessary to acquire a deep understanding of the history of United States so that they may develop a strong sense of civic and community awareness and involvement” said Patrick A. Schettini, Jr., J.D., Superintendent of the Reading Public Schools.

School day seminars, history book discussion study groups, historic site visits, and summer institutes will be offered over the course of the project.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hollywood Films in the History Classroom

Some would scoff at the idea of using Hollywood films in the US History classroom. However, if used correctly, these films can be used to engage students in a wide range of critical thinking. In researching this idea for my presentation at the Encounters and Exchanges 3rd Annual Conference, I found a significant amount of information produced in the 1960s and the past ten years. I thought it interesting that using Hollywood films is not a modern trend, but a time-honored, effective classroom tool.  I was inspired to pursue this topic further as my high school recently added a History in Film class to its course of studies as well as several graduate classes I’ve taken that have focused on the integration and impact of film and history. Here’s a brief summary of what I’ve found.


There’s no escaping it! The exponential growth of visual and media literacy consumes the present and the future. Whether the media is for entertainment or education, as teachers, we need to help our students navigate it.


In addition to providing an understanding of background and context, films should be used to teach students strategies for evaluating media sources. With the appropriate scaffolding and modeling, students can be challenged to analyze the content of the film and evaluate the director’s interpretation of the history. Pairing primary sources with film is a great way to have students evaluate the authenticity of the history in the film as well as identifying the director’s interpretation of sources by comparing how the source is portrayed in the film and how it is understood in reality.


I recommend the following website as a database for tools for using historical films in the classroom: This site provides basically all one would need to successfully use film to teach content and skills in your classroom. Though the sites requires a bit of exploring, it is organized by historical era. Each historical era has links to secondary sources, which provide background on the historical topic. This information is essential in establishing the background context that students, as well as teachers, might need to get the most educational value out of a film. It also provides links to primary sources that help students connect the Hollywood history to actual sources, preparing them to critique the authenticity and interpretation of the film.


Though Hollywood films provide excellent opportunity to challenges students on a variety of levels, students must recognize certain inherent weaknesses in Hollywood films that can adversely impact their understanding of history. Encourage students to identify the audience and purpose of the film. These two items can significantly compromise the value of the film. However, if students are aware of what to look out for before they watch the film, it will, most often, result in a happy, and of course, educational, ending! 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Too Funny, to pass up

Today friendly educators is an important date in American History- It's Bunker Hill Day! A day to celebrate and remember the second major battle of the revolution that happened here in our backyard, which may have been an American loss, but with huge loss of life to the British.

We all know that our comrades-in-arms who teach in Sufffolk County enjoy this day off (along with March 17th- no, no, not St. Patrick's Day, but Evactuation Day), but the State House and Senate are currently embroiled in a debate about whether we should keep these holidays, or whether they are a waste of money.

Apparently- Mayor Tom Menino believes in the importance of today. He said so today in a speech- "These youngsters over here aren’t taught that in school any more," Menino said as he gestured toward a group 80 children from two nearby Boston public grammar schools. "And so we are losing part of that American history."

It seems that Tom may not be familiar with the Massachusetts State Frameworks.

I'm not saying I would expect that he would have all of our curriculum memorized.
Our third graders are expected to....3.5 Explain important political, economic, and military developments leading to and during the American Revolution. (H, C) -d. the Battle of Bunker Hill. While our fifth graders should - 5.17 Describe the major battles of the Revolution and explain the factors leading to American victory and British defeat. (H) -B. Bunker Hill (1775)

I would think a staffer may have looked this up for him today:) What's even funnier......"Officials at Boston Public Schools could not be immediately reached this afternoon for comment. They took the day off to observe Bunker Hill Day."
What a great debate to pose to my students as I try to engage them tomorrow morning before Field Day! Should some people get to have this off as a holiday?
Check it out for yourself- Click here!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Phenomenal Jim Crow Websites

The reality of history is often difficult to present to high school students, yet it is essential to the classroom because of its ability to ignite intrinsic interest and motive civic action. With the technology available to teachers via the internet, we are better able to present history’s reality to our students.

The struggle for civil rights is an extensive and important theme that runs through US History I and US History II curriculums because it is an ongoing struggle that strives to fulfill an American vision of freedom and equality. The Encounters and Exchanges history book discussion group brought the great depth of the univeral nature of this struggle to my attention. Covering the struggles of Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and African Americans, one of the books we studied was Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder During the Jazz Age. In searching the internet for sources to bring the reality of African Americans and civil rights to my students, especially the oft-overlooked presence of Northern discrimination, I found two gems:

I’d like to highlight several pieces of the sites that could be beneficial to your classroom. Both sites include narratives, personal voices detailing life in Jim Crow America. These narratives include written testimonies, audio clips, and videos, as well as photographs that bring words to life. Both sites include interactive maps that chart a wealth and variety of information in a quick and easy format for students to interpret. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow site has maps that indicate the changing population of whites and blacks for each state and each decade. Other maps include the chilling number of white and black lynching victims. The maps on The History of Jim Crow highlight sports in Jim Crow America. By clicking on a state, you can read about the different accomplishments of African American athletes. There is also a “Jim Crow and the Supreme Court” map that indicates states (in)famous for Jim Crow judicial interpretations. By clicking on each state, a pop-up details the highlights of the case. Both sites have teacher resources that offer different activities and lesson plans.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow includes an interactive timeline. Students can click on an event and a description provides information. The site provides a student blog that is great for students to see what students outside their classroom are thinking. The site also includes interactive activities such as, “Voting, Then and Now,” which takes students through the various obstacles that prevent African Americans from voting, “Racial Realities,” which include real scenarios with audio clips of racial injustices with the law, and “Ways of Seeing,” which leads students in the analysis of controversial images.

The History of Jim Crow includes four different series of modules that are SO COOL! Students can select from “simulation,” in which students are led through a series of historically based decisions, a “cognitive organizer” in which students select terms to complete sentences, “document analysis,” in which students analyze primary sources, a “writing workshop,” which provides students with a graphic writing organizer, a “prediction center,” and a “quiz.” This site also includes a wealth of scholarly essays that are accessible to high school students. Furthermore, the site includes a list of American literature related to Jim Crow America, helpful for connecting English and history curriculums and offering enrichment reading for students.

I hope you enjoy, I certainly have!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Encounters and Exchanges TAH Grant --- Three Years, But Not Finished!

I am truly saddened as the third year of the TAH Grant comes to a close. Being a full-time participant for all three years, I was able to attend many of the amazing offerings. I hope that Kara secures an extension of the Grant and another for the Elementary level; both teachers and students would benefit!

Even though this grant is ending, it isn't really over! It is my understanding that the "Encounters and Exchanges" website will continue to be hosted by the University of Lowell. I will admit that I have not really browsed through many of my peers' lessons and other resources packed onto this site. I am usually scrounging around trying to finish my own!

The fact that this site will remain on the Web is, of course, a continuation of the effective pedagogy, materials, and great resources received through this grant. I have shared this site with my department members and have encouraged all to bookmark it for future reference.

I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for any future TAH Grants...

Hope everyone has a wonderful summer. It's been a pleasure meeting and working with so many exceptional educators!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

How to keep students engaged in the last month of school....

As the weather turns warmer and student's thoughts turn to permanent recess, it can be harder and harder to engage them in actually learning. I'm sure many of my colleagues thought I was crazy when I started a fairly major project a couple weeks ago. The idea for this project came from my TAH Elementary Book Club. Our leader, UMass Lowell professor Pat Fontaine shared a great project that had been previously used by third grade teachers in Lowell. The project called for children to research famous people and then to create life-size versions of these people. For specific parts of the people's bodies, the students would discuss what their famous people "saw with their eyes", "heard with their ears", "believed in their heart", etc.

I was immediately excited by this project and I knew right away what I wanted to do with it. For awhile I had been trying to think of some kind of engaging project to go with the standard in our Massachusetts Frameworks about Revolutionary War figures. I was an Art History minor in college and previously taught Art at summer camps and thought this would be a perfect combination of history and art. ( I somewhat knew what I was getting myself into as I had done slightly similar project when teacing about ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses in fourth grade.) I spent much of my April vacation hunting for a giant roll of paper. (not easy to come by at all) Lucked out when a friend who teachers Art said that she could hook me up. With paper in hand, I started to make my plan on how this project

My fabulous Library Media Specialist, who was coincidentally also a member of this book group, helped me make a plan on how we would execute this project at a fifth grade level. We wanted to upgrade a little to make more challenging. We added some aspects like "Legacy" and "Character Traits". I told the kids some limited information about the project to get them started. (I wanted to make some of it a surprise.) They were assigned in groups of three or four to a specific figure. We emphasized that they were responisble for doing their own research, and would be working together as a group on the final part of the project.

For about three to four classes, students worked on their research. I think research can be a difficult skill for students of most ages. For this project, research did prove to be tricky but it seemed that the second major step was the most difficult for many of the groups. When groups finished researching, they worked together to see if together they had answers to all the questions. Their next step was to use their research to write two to three really good answers in complete sentences. These answers would go in the speech bubbles that would be placed near the different parts of the body. The sentences that the students wrote showed me a great deal about what they ascertained from their research and where their writing skills are by the end of fifth grade. Some groups did a great job on this, but it was pretty clear that some groups missed the boat on the importance of some of these gentlemen. (Although it was frustrating, it was an opportunity to go back and help guide the kids with how to pick out the most important information.)

After the writing portion was okayed, some of the teammates worked on typing the responses in to speech bubbles while others worked on the art work. The kids were totally jazzed to make these people. The first step was to choose one of the students to be traced. ( I encouraged them not to pick the shortest, skinniest person in the group since these people were supposed to look like adults.) The funniest part of this whole process happened during this tracing step. Girls apparently didn't want to trace boys, and boys didn't want to trace girls. Puts it in perspective, doesn't it. I forget how little they are sometimes......I had also been thinking about how we could make these figures very recognizable to our Killam School audience. I knew that for the kids drawing the faces of these figures would be difficult. I decided to try blowing up recognized faces using the copy machine. (Alexander Hamilton's face actually came right off a 10 dollar bill.) I thought it kind of gave it a very artistic quality to have the real black and white faces on top of the drawn bodies.

They've been dilligently working away on the artistic construction of these people. I've assisted with the broadening of some shoulders and the thickening of some arms, but other than that they've done it all themselves. Here are some shots of them hard at work....

We've been working on these ALL over the building- library, random hallways, and so many students have seen us. My goal was fufilled when some first graders walked by us and said, "hey look, it's George Washington", which I know made that group feel really good.

We aren't quite finished yet, but I do have one group that finished on Thursday and I thought I would share some pictures to show you their finished product of James Madison. You'll notice that at the bottom of this paper is a copy of Madison's actual signature. The kid's thought this was a really cool touch. As more groups finish, I will try to add a group shot of all of these "Revolutionary" gentlemen together.

Monday, June 1, 2009

We Shall Remain

PBS has many valuable curriculum materials that connect directly to all three years of the Encounters and Exchanges in US History themes. Many of the grant participants have already utilized the series The American Experience, especially the episodes revolving around Kit Carson. The first year of the grant focused on the Colonial Era in US History and as part of the Primary Source Summer Institute, many of us were privileged to hear from Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, author, educator and scholar. In her presentation, she directly confronted the myth that Natives and their culture became extinct during the nineteenth century. In her presentation, she utilized many obituaries from that era that listed a member of a native group as the 'Last of the (insert native group name here)" that also, ironically, listed many family members for the deceased.
A great new resource, one to also confront this myth, is the new PBS documentary entitled We Shall Remain. Also part of the American Experience series, it focuses on the impact of Native Americans on US History and, as the title implies, blows to smithereens the myths that movies like The Last of the Mohegans perpetuate and Bruchac debunked in her presentation. Not only does this series demonstrate Native American History, but how this history is one of resilience, strength, and perseverance; not of Native Americans as supporting characters in their own stories, as too often is portrayed by textbooks. This series covers curriculum for all grade levels- from the first Thanksgiving to the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk to Wounded Knee. The companion website to the series (found at is excellent; providing both full length online episodes and behind the scenes information. I am looking forward to utilizing this series in my classroom for next year, and hope that you will consider it as well.

Monday, May 11, 2009

NYC- A 'trip' back in time!

The Encounters and Exchanges TAH Grant recently sponsored a trip into New York City over April vacation. It was a time to interact and share with other teachers while visiting some of the top destinations for history in the city: Central Park, Chinatown, the New York Historical Society, Little Italy, Harlem, and Ellis Island to name only a few. All were top notch; we gained valuable insight, got some great teaching materials and expanded our content knowledge.

One of the common groans heard throughout the trip was "I wish I could bring my students here!" Field trips, in this era of budget cuts and restrictive spending, have become almost extinct. Unfortunately, some historical sites need to be experienced first hand to truly have an impact.

While it may not be possible to bring 150 students down to New York to experience Ellis Island or the grandiose Central Park, one viable option is to plan a 'virtual field trip'. You could do this on your own with the wonderful "Google Earth" or utilize virtual tours provided by many museums. The Tenement Museum, which was the (almost) unanimous favorite of the group in NYC, provides an excellent virtual tour at their website

Opened in 1992, the Tenement Museum is located at 97 Orchard St on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Built in 1863, the top 5 floors of the building were condemned in the 1930's while store fronts still operated on the bottom floors. Shuttered from use and left to decay, the top floors were (and continue to be) renovated by the museum to offer a glimpse into immigrant history. Each apartment has been or is being restored to represent the time that one immigrant family lived in it; we visited the Confino family's apartment and stepped back in time to 1917. We met Victoria, the Confino's youngest daughter, who welcomed us as a new immigrant group. She explained her family's story, why they came to America, what the difference was between her life in the 'old country' and her life in America.

To access virtual tours, click on 'play' then 'virtual tours'. You- and your students- won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

DBQs in the US History Classroom Can Be Addictive

The DBQ Project is a series of US and World History projects for high school students. The effective component of these projects is that they are based on an over-arching question that students are challenged to research and answer in a five paragraph essay. The primary source/document material for the project is provided for the students to read, and has been thoughtfully excerpted for accessibility to a variety high school students. Additionally, the program offers a very effective Writers’ Workshop, background readings for each unit, and (within the Mini-Q projects) comprehension questions which effectively guide the students to the overarching question, and guiding them through the components of their essay.

The first DBQ I tackled with my classes was the Mini-Q on the Mexican War. The Mini-Q is similar to the full DBQ, however these projects include fewer documents and can be completed in a shorter period of time. The Mini-Qs offer two elements that I’ve found extremely useful. These include comprehension questions following each primary source, and the Writers’ Workshop at the end of each unit.

After reading the background essay to the class, I gave the class the Hook assignment which we read and worked on until the end of class. For homework, the first two of six documents were assigned as well as each of these two documents’ guiding comprehension questions.

On the second day of the project, I went over the questions on the first two documents on the overhead projector. Then, I read the next two documents to the class and assigned the questions for these two readings for homework. The third day was similar to the second day’s structure. However, after I went over the questions in class on the third day, we began to bucket them into categories.

On the fourth day of the project, we went over the buckets again and began to incorporate the Writer’s Workshop Essay Template with our bucket categories. Additionally, I highlighted the other body paragraph structures of the template on the overhead as well. For homework, the students were assigned to design their essays on a blank Essay Template.

Finally, on the fifth day, we went over a number of templates on the overhead and I assigned the essay. As I had previously arranged to have the computer room for two days, the students had two days to complete their essays in class.

The Mini-Q on the Mexican War was an unmitigated success. When I read my students’ essays, I found that an overwhelming number of them included all of the elements that I was looking for from the Writers’ Workshop Template. They structured their body paragraphs so that each offered a thesis and provided evidence on how their thesis ultimately answered the guiding question of the paper. I was very pleased with the results. The structure of the overall DBQ project not only provided my students guidance on how to express their understanding, but guided them to understand the subject matter.

Lastly, I was surprised how long this shorter version of the DBQ took to complete with my college level sophomores. Seven days in total, two of which were in the computer room for writing. Was it a good investment in time considering the product that the students produced? Absolutely, it was one of the most successful writing and research assignments I have ever given.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Teaching U.S. History – “Warts and All”, but not ALL Warts!

As a TAH Fellow, I was fortunate to attend this year’s NERC conference. Dr. William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education was a guest speaker at one of the sessions. I was looking forward to hearing him speak, and I was not disappointed; he was a dynamic orator. It turns out he was shamelessly promoting his new U.S. history book set and online curriculum titled: America: The Last Best Hope – A New Roadmap for Teaching History. When he introduced his approach to teaching U.S. history, he advocated teaching “warts and all”, but not ALL warts. This sentiment hit home with me. I have not read Dr. Bennett’s book, (I’m posting a link at the end of the blog), but I agree with at least that basic sentiment.

During these three years of excellent TAH programming, there has been a huge emphasis on the “warts” of U.S. History. The film series and book topics have largely focused on some of the most shameful aspects of our history. It is imperative, of course, that our students need to recognize and understand the evils of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the racist and erroneous ideas of social Darwinism, the economic inequities and the plight of immigrants and workers, etc. But it is also imperative that they understand the core values of our nation’s founding, namely the ideals of liberty and equality.

Sometimes I fear that if it’s all warts, and teachers aren’t also acknowledging the ideals and accomplishments of this great nation, students will not be inspired to become active citizens and make positive changes to enhance society. While at the NERC conference I was also fortunate to be able to see a colleague from Reading Public Schools, Jeffrey R. Ryan, receive the prestigious Kidger Award. After accepting the award, Jeffrey’s remarks eloquently addressed my concern regarding how to use the warts of the past and present to promote the ideals our nation. On teaching his students, Jeffrey said: “We must charge them with the vital, essential desperate task of ending racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, nativism, inadequate medical coverage and the threat of global thermonuclear war. Are these gargantuan tasks? Of course they are! But so was independence from Great Britain. Are idealistic? Of course, but so was the Declaration of Independence. Are they revolutionary? Certainly! Are they utopian? Of course, but so is “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans are, in the final analysis, a utopian people, and that is what makes our country such a magnificent one. We conceive bold visions. Sometimes we enliven them; often we fail, but eventually our visions become reality.”

Bravo to Jeffrey! Using the warts of the past and present to preserve and better our country.

How do you balance the warts in your teaching? Comments? Dr. William Bennett’s book site (this is NOT a plug! I haven’t read the books)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Legacy of Silence: Reconciling Past and Present With Better Questions

The book read for the April History Book Discussion Study Group was part of the Historians at Work series, What Did the Internment of Japanese Americans Mean? edited by Alice Yang Murray. The collection of essays regarding the internment of Japanese Americans provided a heavy analysis that revealed an evolving and painful history. As the book exposes as much about historiography as it does the history, I recommend the book to teachers whose curriculums include this topic. Though historiography can be as difficult to study as it is to say, I believe, in moderation, it is important to the high school classroom. Though there is seldom time to get through a year’s curriculum, let alone, teach several interpretations of one event, there is still value in teaching students the impact that source availability and public opinion has on history.

To supplement April’s book, we each read a chapter from Last Witnesses: Reflections of the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans edited by Erica Harth. I read “Legacy of Silence” by Mitsuye Yamada. In her reflection, Yamada reveals her present conflict and responsibility as a survivor of Japanese internment camps. With the hopes of protecting her children from racism, Yamada, as her parents before her, did not voluntarily share the experiences and emotions from her internment with her children. Through interactions with other victims, she soon realized that that burying the silence was a disservice, especially to her, but also to her children: “Our parents’ legacy of silence – “for the sake of the children” – had been a curse rather than a blessing.”

In efforts to rectify this wrong, Yamada offers great words of wisdom, to which teachers should pay close attention. Yamada suggests that, “We need to ask questions beyond “What was it like?” The assumption behind such questions is that as long as we are treated decently, we have nothing to complain about.” Asking superficial questions, such as “what was it like?” is important to begin a discussion, and often the easiest point of entry. However, these questions can lead students to compare suffering, which can lead them to conclude that the suffering wasn’t that bad. Yamada protests the danger in this by emphasizing that, “a wrong is still a wrong.” The way we present history can positively or negatively impact our students’ understanding of these wrongs.

The importance of her realization resonated within me. As teachers, we need to be conscious of how our questions could send unintentional messages to our students, impacting the way they view history, especially a sensitive history concerning victims. We need to deconstruct the meaning of the question and consider the purpose of this question. In considering what type of information it will provide and how we can and should process the information it provides, we can enrich our students’ historical understanding and restore the significance and value of people’s experiences.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Real Life Connections

As History teachers, we struggle to find ways to make what we are teaching (whether it is 20 years ago, 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago) relevant for our students. It can be very exciting when an opportunity presents itself.

This past week, My fifth graders and I performed our rendition of the Boston Tea Party debate. (see my previous post detailing last year's performances. They come from an excellent curriculm from the Old SouthMeetinghouse of Boston) This kids love the drama and the dress-up. You can imagine my excitement when parousing this week I discovered a very interesting real life protest in Boston- over bottle water no less. The kids loved it, loved seeing other people dressed up like them (some of them thought I was the one in red). We had a very interesting discussion about our society's obsession with bottled water.

I'm not sure how long it will be up there, but it is humorous.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's the Economy, Stupid!

Although I usually can't stand educational jargon, we have truly had a 'teachable moment' in these past few months. With all of the focus on standardized curriculum and testing, we rarely have the opportunity to stop and ask our students what they want or need to know. There are times, however, when it is our duty to stop and do just that. I know that many adults have started to panic over the current economy, and I have to start to wonder, what are my students thinking? I know statistically that many of their parents have been recently laid off or have been talking about 'cutting back'. What does that mean to our students? Are they worried they might lose their homes? How can we, as their teachers, help alleviate some of these fears?

This is a terrible situation for adults and for kids, but for kids, it is complicated by a lack of experience and understanding. While we can't fix the economy for them, they can benefit by some understanding of what is going on, what the government, private companies and individuals are doing to fix it, as well as the understanding that this has happened before. A great resource that we can use is a weekly publication called the 'Good Sheet'. This fall, it started to appear at Starbucks locations and many back issues are available online. There is a great one called 'Its the Economy, Stupid!' from October that looks at 20th-21st century economic history. Its great for students, lots of graphics, not too complicated, and uses examples they can relate to- like charting the price of milk over 100 years.

Hopefully, our students are just curious about the economy and we can satisfy student's desire to understand the situation. But if they are scared, an open dialogue in a safe environment can make the difference between being fearful and being informed and aware.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

R.I.P. History and Social Science MCAS

By now I'm sure that you've all heard the news; we social studies teachers are off the hook this year for MCAS. I have to admit, I have mixed feelings.

Since the redesign of the History and Social Science Curriculum Frameworks in 2003, there has been a marked level of stress and concern. The year 2003 saw a great shift in the frameworks. There was a huge switch to curriculum focused on U.S. History. It was a post-9/11 world and the frameworks reflected it. Districts spent thousands of dollars on new curriculums and teachers worked countless hours to develop new lessons to match with these changes. Fifth grade social studies was given 35 standards that covered pre-Columbian civilizations the causes of the Civil War. This is probably a freshmen year of college course in American history, but for ten year olds. The Department of Education let me know that my MCAS would be based on the material of fourth and fifth grade, and only up to standard 32 or so. No problem.......

It was my goal to meet this challenge head on. I tried not to think of how daunting it would be, I just tried every year to improve my teaching and see if it was really possible for me to cover all of these standards before MCAS. My greatest fear was that my students would encounter material on the test that I hadn't been able to cover. All the time, I wanted to make their learning of the material meaningful. (Being an active member of the TAH grant has certainly helped me with this!) I am proud to say that the majority of my students will tell you that social studies is FUN! And they do an amazing job at learning a great deal of material.

I felt like I was hitting my stride, and now they've cancelled the testing. According to the state, it is too expensive. Something has to go, and it's social studies. I have to wonder- we've only done trials of this test, and we've never received scaled scores, just raw scores. Time was running out before it was "to count" and be a graduation requirement. What does the state know that they aren't telling us? Were the students of Massachusetts bombing this test? Were the questions too picky? Why does it feel like social studies is the forgotten subject?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Resource Alert: Four Great Videos for Your Classroom!

Kara, in a December blog, announced the film series offered this year titled Through a Different Lens: Immigration and Migration in U.S. History. She also shared the titles and links to each film. Now that the series has ended, I would like to urge any teacher from any district to check out one or all four movies. All four districts had participants, so these movies are most likely already in your buildings! Hunt them down and view them. They are all excellent.

Each movie offers an in-depth look at issues relating to migration, immigration and/or race relations. Since the movies are on DVD’s it’s so easy to show shorter and/or age level appropriate vignettes.

Prince Among Slaves would be an excellent addition to any curriculum dealing with the issue of slavery. Not only is it another personal slave experience, but it also introduces an interesting dynamic of the role of Islam and slavery in the Americas. Students would be fascinated by this true story of an African nobleman kidnapped and sold into slavery. His life in bondage and his ultimate freedom (and its cost) is very powerful.

The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo would be a great addition to any curriculum dealing with the settlement of the American West, Manifest Destiny, Genocide, and/or Transnationalism. For anyone who read Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder last year, it would be a fabulous companion. Not only did the film discuss the Long Walk (forced relocation of the Navajo), but also the forced educational system and loss of traditional ways after the Navajos returned to their homelands.

Sacco and Vanzetti would be a useful addition to any course delving into immigration, justice/law, ethnicity, etc. While the case of Sacco and Vanzetti is set in the early 20th century, eerie comparisons can be made to justice in the 21st century regarding immigrants/terror suspects, etc.

Made in L.A. is a great example of how we are experiencing history today. This contemporary documentary follows the struggles of a Latino labor movement (led by women) to gain fair work practices. It is eye-opening for students and teachers alike to understand how the cost of goods effects the wages of the workers. Students might be shocked to see “sweatshops” still operating today. For those of us who just finished Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, it was especially powerful to see how little has changed for some laborers.

Each teacher participant created a lesson and will be submitting it by this Friday. Look for some of the lessons to appear on the Encounters and Exchanges site to help you incorporate these films into your curriculum. Scroll down to Kara’s earlier blog to see the covers and get the links to the sites promoting each film. Check them out. If you’re unsure if someone in your building participated, I’m sure Kara could let you know. It’s worth a little detective work.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Having been a full time participant in this Encounters and Exchanges TAH Grant for the last three years I read some really excellent historical books. As mentioned in previous posts, I was indeed a History major in college (Ten years out this June- yikes!) As an elementary school teacher, I feel pretty far removed from my in depth study of history. Participating in the grant, and especially in the book clubs all three years, has really helped me to gain much knowledge that I happily bring back directly to my students.

I haven't found all of the books chosen for book club easy to read. Some of them were difficult due to the content of the book, and some were more difficult because of the style of the author.

In the elementary book club we read the excellent book Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick. I had heard about this book several years ago, in fact I believe the author may have spoken at the Parker Middle School in Reading within the last two years. I wish now that I had gone to see him speak.I was pleased to find that Mayflower had very interesting content and a narrative kind of style to the text. Mayflower goes far beyond the traditional "Pilgrim" stories of natives and thanksgiving. Philbrick begins his study with the people that most Americans know as Pilgrims, but who most often referred to themselves as Separatists and their humble beginnings in Scrooby, England. He gave very interesting details of the group's travails to Leiden in the Netherlands.

The part of this book that I found the most interesting was background information about Squanto. The basic story being that he was kidnapped by European fishermen who were visiting the coast of New England. He made his way from Spain to London, and eventually back to New England. ( I love sharing with the kids that, "he got a ride home"!) Philbrick sheds light on Squanto, and perhaps his ulterior motives to assisting the Separatists. There was a great deal of discussion about how helping the Pilgrims, ultimately would help Squanto.

Apparently, Nathaniel Philbrick is not a historian. To be honest, I may have enjoyed it this book more because of this. The books is written more as a narrative, and I really enjoyed the "story" feel to this. I love anecdotes, and I enjoy teaching the kids about "the smaller stories" in history (the people behind the people).

I think that any teacher of Social Studies, at any level, would really enjoy this book and find that it adds something to their teaching.

The Conflict of Present and Past Values in Studying History

During the January book study group, much of our discussion focused on author Jacob Riis’s intentions in his book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890). Our discussion proved immensely valuable as it went beyond the tenements and their situation, elevating to the level of surrounding influences, which helped to adjust my understanding of the book. As I read through Riis’s work, I questioned the overwhelming presence of negative stereotypes, which, from my twenty-first century point of view, would only perpetuate the plight subjects. My mini-revelation reminded me of the importance of utilizing the Historical Thinking Benchmarks as a guide in teaching historical understanding. I have found that they ground me in focusing a lesson in skills as well as content. When one uses the “perspective” benchmark, which reads: “understanding that although the past tends to be viewed in terms of present values, a proper perception of the past requires a serious examination of values of that time,” Riis’s work can be examined on deeper level.

The introduction by David Leviatin addresses the culture in which Riis developed his worldview. Riis’s point of publication was to awaken Americans, in particular New Yorkers, to the troubles that brew in the horrid conditions of the tenements. He hoped to inspire and provoke change, as he asks in his introduction, “What are you going to do about it?” If you choose to use Riis’s book in to teach tenement life and progressive reform, I suggest that you use the book on two levels. The wealth and variety of pictures as well as descriptions that awaken all senses create awareness of tenement living. By dividing your class into small groups, assign each group a particular ethnic group. Have students assess their section with basic questions that address the tenement living. If time allows, advance your students to the “next level,” and direct them to explore his intentions and the culture in which his work was produced in a debate that asks if Riis’s work did more harm than good.

The historical thinking benchmarks can be found at

Friday, January 30, 2009

Resource Alert: Making Freedom- Primary Source

As teachers, we know that one of our most difficult tasks is often researching primary sources that will be readable and understandable for our students. It can often take hours to find one or two workable documents, and then more time to cut them down or create a vocabulary list for our students to be able to analyze them in the short class period. This set of books, created and compiled by Primary Source, are excellent time savers and resources that can expose teacher and student to primary sources that might be hard to find or put into context. Each lesson has a narrative, suggested activities and worksheets, and of course, primary sources including text, images and maps. This set focuses on African Americans in the United States, and, as the title of the series implies, freedom from the 'bottom up'. These books are a great way to approach American history through a light and point of view that textbooks often lack.

Note: Teachers in every partner district (Danvers, Lowell, North Reading, and Reading) have a copy of the Making Freedom Sourcebooks. Check in with Kara Gleason for more information about how to access them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wikis and Podcasts are Wicked Useful

We’re off to a great start to year three of the Encounters and Exchanges in US History Grant. In the preceding years of the grant, I have been fortunate to gain knowledge of superbly relative new skills and acquire fantastic materials that I’ve been able to use immediately in my classroom. This year has proven to be no different. The most recent additions to my teaching, thanks to my participation in the grant, is the employment of podcasts and wikis into my teaching repertoire.

Before the two-day training of wikis and podcasts, I have to honestly admit that I had no idea what either of these on-line phenomena were, much less how I could incorporate them into my teaching. With the completion of the workshops, I was using both a wiki and a podcast of my own creation in class the next day.

A podcast is simply a recording of audio that is posted live on the web for students (or anyone) to listen to at any time. This idea greatly interested me as I have been posting the audio of my textbook up on a simple web site and on the school’s server. This audio was taken from a collection of CDs that came with my text’s resource package. With a pair of headphones and a computer, students could listen to the text of the chapters read to them as they read silently with the book. I have found that this was a pretty effective way of supporting the special needs students and the many second language learner students in my classes. However, I was limited to only being able to provide audio of the text. With the ability to create a podcast, I could now offer the audio to primary sources and other secondary sources that may include difficult language for many of my students to read.

The creation of a podcast required a free software called Audacity. It can be found and downloaded from I used the beta version and I found that it worked just fine. Also, be sure that in addition to downloading the Audacity program that you also download “Lame mp3 Converter”. Lame will allow you to convert your Audacity “project” into a .mp3 or .wav, which can be posted and listened to on a web site or a school server. You will find Lame as an additional download after you choose your Audacity version. Additionally, I’ve found two video tutorials on Audacity created by Cambridge Community TV. They can be accessed at . Lastly, you can find free music to add to your podcast from a link provided on the Encounters and Exchanges website:

To make the podcast available, we created a website using Wikispaces. A wiki is an interactive web page where students/invited guests can contribute to your web page. I have not used my new Wikispaces page to it’s fullest abilities by allowing my students to make contributions to it, so I’m not going to be able to comment about this facet of Wikispaces. However, I would like to highlight how easy Wikispaces is to use and how simple it is to create a nice looking website that students can navigate easily and I can update simply.

Teachers can create a Wikispaces page for free by going to , entering the required information and pledging that their wiki will be used for educational purposes. Additionally, the wiki that I made is completely locked, which means that it functions just like any other web page and can be only edited by me. There is a good tutorial video on how to create and use a wiki on Wikispaces at: . Of course, there is a very informative step by step explanation on how to create a page on Wikispaces found on the Encounters and Exchanges website. This link is: .

Lastly, I would like to share the rather simple Wikispaces page that I created for my students based on a Supreme Court project we completed in December. The page concentrates Engle v. Vitale. The page includes a secondary source explanation of the case, a podcast of me reading the secondary source, an embedded video of students acting out the case, the required written response materials that students can print, and a teacher page containing a lesson plan using this page. This can be found at: . The home page to my site with links to my text audio, other projects and a link to this page can be viewed at: .

It’s great to be able to offer technology to students so that they can access the curriculum better. It is even better when it is easy for the teacher to create the technology. I hope that these links and suggestions entice you into investigating podcasts and using Wikispaces with your students.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Immigration, Photojournalism, Urbanization, Bias, and More!

How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis

The first assignment for the Year III History Book group was How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis. Most History majors encounter this book at some point in their undergraduate work. I know I did. I don’t know where that copy ended up after all these years, but I’m grateful to have received a newer edition, one with an enlightening introduction by David Leviatin. Leviatin offers an interesting historical essay where he presents information regarding Jacob Riis’ personal history as well as a concise glimpse of New York City and America in the 1880’s. This is incredibly useful, as many teachers will not only choose to discuss the obvious themes of Immigration, Photojournalism, Urbanization, but Riis’ experience and biases.

While Riis’ work hasn’t changed - it’s still an eye opening expose of tenement life in New York City in the late 19th century - the way teachers can use this Primary Source has definitely been broadened. Technology allows teachers of all grade levels to utilize Riis’ work. The Yale American Studies Program has Riis’ original Primary Source document online at: Since his work is divided up into short chapters, it’s easy to send older students to a certain chapter. Teachers of younger students can “grab” individual paragraphs to present to students. Having also just finished the TAH Wiki Workshop, it’s also possible for teachers of younger students to create podcasts for younger students to access the smaller quotes.

Teachers often strive to immerse the students into the tenement environment through the words of Riis. A great addition to his words is an online virtual tour of the Tenement Museum at: Students are also drawn into his stark, and at the time, revolutionary, photographs of tenement life. Yale’s online text does contain photos, but their quality isn’t the best. A few sites to quickly find powerful discussion starters are: Masters of Photography: Jacob Riis site and PBS American Experience site The Tenement Museum and the vast collection of photographs are easily accessible to all grade levels. A standard worksheet to help students analyze the photos as Primary Sources can be found through the National Archives site at:

Our discussion of Riis’ work was fascinating. Favorite passages and photographs were shared, and personal critiques varied widely. Through this blog I have been a champion for these History Book Groups. Even if you haven’t physically joined the group, you can still access the titles and all ancillary materials. Kara has created a wiki for the book group at: Our next title is Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaeltzer. I’ve only read the first few chapters, but it’s excellent. It is a painfully eye-opening documentation of pogroms against Chinese Americans in the American West. Already I know this book will change the way I teach the American West. Check it out!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Writing for History

On November 25th and January 5th elementary teachers from our district partners came together for a Writing for History workshop. This workshop linked content presented by notable scholars and writing prompts and activities for the elementary U.S. history classroom.

John Bezis-Selfa from Wheaton College kicked off our session in November with an interactive lecture on Connections between Colonial Massachusetts and Latin America/the Caribbean. Teachers engaged with a number of primary sources including selections from The Winthrop Papers and Samuel Sewall's The Selling of Joseph. In January, Eve LaPlante, the award-winning author of Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall discussed Samuel Sewall's life and actions in the context of Puritan New England.

Presenters from the Buzzard's Bay Writing Project, a National Writing Project Center site at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth also worked with our teachers. Teachers received copies of Content Area Writing: Every Teacher's Guide and the session led teachers to examine and complete a number of writing strategies for use in the classroom including "See, Think, Wonder," multigenre writing, writing and the visual arts, carousel brainstorming, and RAFT (role, audience, format, topic) strategies.