This week’s poster is our very own KCSS President, Thomas Fulbright: I have been teaching history at Hope Street Academy, a public charter school, in Topeka since 2008. My wife and I have three daughters, Claire, Nora, and Meredith. I intend to spend my entire life convincing them how exciting and important history is! My bio picture is of Claire and I meeting President Lincoln!
I will start this post with an apology. Last March I made another post advocating for a different approach to teaching history. It seems unreasonable for me to now suggest that approach could be improved. Here is the thing though, even if you are doing something in your classroom that you believe is working well, you can’t help but notice things (some little, some large) that can improve your approach. Good teachers are always searching to find ways to improve their pedagogy, which I assume is why you (I will venture another assumption: you are a good teacher because you use this site!) are reading this blog.
In my last post I discussed teaching history through the use of a simulation of Congress. I gave students a bill from the past, then had them “cast a vote” on the bill by writing an argumentative essay using evidence from the time period (speeches delivered in Congress, newspaper articles, editorial cartoons, etc.) to justify their “vote”. The last part of the process was I had students make a “Contemporary Connection” by reading an NPR article about a similar policy debate being had today in Washington. Students then had to decide if they support or oppose today’s policy. Lastly, they then had to make a comparison to their opinion on the past policy debate with their opinion on the policy debate today. For example; students would have to account for why they had “voted” in favor of H.R.5804 (which became the “Chinese Exclusion Act”), but were then opposed to restrictive immigration policies today?
The observation I made over the past year was that the “Contemporary Connection” part of the process was what drew the most interest and engagement from students. While I think, as a student, I would have enjoyed the Congressional simulation, in high school I was already a history nerd. Few of my students are even remotely interested in history. However, for better or worse, many of the students are passionate about the political ongoings in Washington today, almost all it takes to hook them into a topic is to make a connection to the current administration. I decided to adjust my approach accordingly. So, here is my revised approach to teaching history:
I have abandoned the role play of Congress in favor of having students for policy “Think Tank”. To get things started at the beginning of the semester, I pose this question to my students; “What is the purpose of studying history?”. While I get a variety of responses, I typically have enough students respond with “So we don’t repeat it”, that I can introduce the quote from philosopher George Santayana’s book The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. In 1905, Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The class discusses the idea and typically comes to the consensus that we should study the past in order to make better decisions today. I agree with them then tell them in order to accomplish that goal we will spend the year becoming experts in past policy debates, then use that knowledge to give policy makers today advice.
The “Think Tank” process is pretty simple, it follows three steps:
First: the “Hook” – a Contemporary Policy Debate. Students first learn about a policy debate happening today by reading a NPR article. I use NPR as a source because, although studies show most listeners are more liberal, most media analysts rate NPR as center. The article is accompanied by a few simple comprehension questions (Essentially: 1. Explain the policy being debated, 2. Why do people support the policy? 3. Why do people oppose the policy?), then they are asked a final question; “With what you know about the policy debate now, do you support or oppose the policy?.
Second: The “Case Study” – a Past Policy Debate. After students have given their personal opinion on the contemporary debate, I guide them to my website which contains information about a past policy debate. (The linked page is for the Immigration case study over H.R.5804 “to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese”. This bill became what we know as the “Chinese Exclusion Act”) The Case studies are formatted similarly to a C3 Inquiry. We begin each case study with a “Compelling” Policy Question that resonates with the policy debate happening today. (For the linked example the Question was “What should be the goal of immigration policy?”). The Organization of the Case Study follows this order:
- Read a modified version of the bill, so students understand the past policy being debated
- Review the “Historical Context” so students understand the context of the time the policy was being debated.
- Section 1:Documents Supporting the Policy. These are framed with a “Guiding Question”. (The Guiding Question in the linked example is: “Why do people think immigration policy should restrict the right to immigrate to America?”) Note that many of the documents are modified to make them more accessible to my students but links to the original document are often included.
- Section 2: Documents Opposing the Policy. These are also framed by a “Guiding Question. (for the linked example: Why do people believe immigration policy should not restrict the right to immigrate to America?)
Students are required to gather two pieces of evidence from each section, one written and one visual, to explain why people supported or opposed the past policy. This forces students to work on their literacy, and historical analysis skills.
They collect this evidence to use in the final step of the “Think Tank” process.
The Final Step: Taking informed action.
To finish the process students write a letter to give advice to a contemporary policy maker.
This is the template – I started with the Schaffer model then modified it to my needs. I provide my students with sentence stems, and other built in supports to help them through the process.
Students have to:
- Tell the policy maker which if they should support or oppose the contemporary policy they learned about in the first part of the process.
- Use two pieces of evidence from the case study to explain to the policy maker ideas which justify their policy advice.
- Use one piece of evidence from the case study that someone might use to oppose their position, and explain why that evidence is not enough of a reason to vote the other way.
- Provide one last explanation why the policy maker should support or oppose the policy.
- Conclude with a statement offering the policy maker advice on what we should always consider before we make legislation on a certain topic. Example Student finished form
Throughout the semester students have the option to send their letters to policy makers, however for their class final they are expected to dive a little deeper into the policy debate they found most interesting during the semester, write a more detailed letter and send it. So far, while many students have sent letters to various politicians, the only ones who have gotten responses are those who sent letters to the White House. While all of these have been form letters, those letters at least show the student their letter made it that far, was opened, and most likely read. Maybe only by a staffer, but in the end they took a civic action and got a response.