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.