Thursday, September 4, 2014

Teaching Historical Thinking and the SBG Part I

      I know this blog post is long, long, long overdue (My bad Joe!) and the general idea is to discuss how to teach historical thinking. However, I aim to discuss my foray into using standards based grading as well because I believe the two are intimately related. How? Well consider the following points:

1. Skills: To teach historical thinking properly, one must focus on skills that require students to act like historians. SBG also focuses on skills rather than the reliance on simple fact memorization. This approach is different for students.

2. It's Unnatural: Historical thinking is, to quote Sam Wineberg, an "unnatural act" that many students have a difficult time grasping due to several factors. SBG has the same issue: "What do you mean I don't get points for this?" SBG is clearly an "unnatural" process for students to understand.

3. Institutionalization: I do not want to play the "blame game" here but every school is a part of an institution and certain practices tend to get institutionalized. Both historical thinking and SBG tend to run counter to that institutionalization and when an individual is attempting to implement either (or in my case both! What was I thinking?), they will have to change students' thinking about history and/or how they are assessed. That type of thinking is not a part of the normal practice in most schools. 

4. Do Over! : Students need to learn that not only is failure and option, it's expected!! Who has ever picked up a soccer ball, a baseball bat, a basketball and was immediately a pro at it? Who has ever opened a piano or grabbed a guitar and was all of a sudden a Mozart or a Jimi Hendrix? No one. Ever. So why do we expect students to fail at those things (and continue to practice, practice)  but when it comes to thinking and learning we only give them one shot on one day??? If you think about it for more than a minute, you are over thinking it. Teaching students to see both the trees and the forest (historical thinking metaphor!) and to hone, aye! perfect their skills takes time to do it again and again and again and again. Instantaneous is not the droids (oops word) you are looking for! 

So, where do I begin: SBG or historical thinking? Since teaching historical thinking is what led me to standards based grading, I think I will start there.

Teaching Historical Thinking in the Digital Age

     For history teachers the global connection of information and knowledge is both a blessing and a curse. Students no longer use the glossary as a crutch when studying history they now have wikipedia (not bad) and Yahoo answers (getting worse) and help us all Cha-Cha (please no) Teaching in this white noise of information is a blessing because with so much information at the student's finger tips, the teaching of history has never been easier. However, the teaching of historical thinking has never been more difficult. That's the curse. Teaching students that facts can be found on Google but using those facts and crafting an argument cannot. That is also a part of the curse as well. So how does one teach historical thinking in this yottabyte of information? It helps when you begin to focus on the skills that historians use when they examine history.
     The reason Sam Wineburg wrote that historical thinking is an "unnatural act" (His book is here) is well, quite frankly, it is unnatural for most people let alone 15 yr old teens! The big problem for history teachers is this thought courtesy of Jackie Boyle (a long time ELA/History teacher in my building): we as teachers all think historically naturally. We don't know why or really how, we just do! The secret is to get them to think like you! (a dangerous proposition I know) You have to teach how you think, analyze, dissect, and interpret history. For us, this is a natural process. You have to teach that process to your students. When we think about how we do that, here is what comes to my mind:

1. No facts in isolation: I was going to put memorization but I am not a fan of that word. See this is where most students think history stops: at the memorization and regurgitation of simple facts. For example, students should know that it was Lyndon B. Johnson who was president at the start of the war in Vietnam. Yes. However, they should also know that at the height of that war, Johnson quits and leaves the country in a bit of turmoil. That puts him in better context of the era. 

2. I am Michael S Wolski and I Support this Message: The second skill students need to know is how to support statements with evidence. This does not have to be some long drawn out thesis statement that requires a 10 page paper. This can be one sentence like: When Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to accept his party's nomination for president in 1968, it left the country in turmoil. Open ended and a challenge to many students, but this is the kind of statement, even on a small scale, that history teachers can engage in everyday. 

3. Reading and writing are not dead!: I am a voracious reader. I have been ever since 4th grade. I know many complain that students do not read, but I think if we approached it in a way that showed students the value of reading, that would help improve the lack of reading. Also, if we gave them choice while making the reading interesting and as relevant to their lives as possible that would help. Guided readings are the death of reading. I know it is easy, but from my experience, textbook based reading guides are boring and really don't get to the heart of the reading. 
     "Mr Wolski, this isn't English class" Teaching history, I get that a lot. But I understand their confusion. History is a story and you have to write the story. This is "unusual" and because of this fact, students have a difficult time writing within and about history. Historical writing is different than regular writing in that it is a process, it's an argument, and it has to fit within the context of the historical narrative. And that narrative changes depending on the time period you are studying. For example, when writing about the industrial revolution, the context is not the same as the Civil Rights Movement. Sure there are similarities, but the influences for both are different. Sometimes, the student have the difficulty seeing that forest. They just want to write about the trees. 

Continued in Part II....

Monday, June 2, 2014

June Blog Circle Topic: Reflecting on Successes and Areas of Improvement

Hello everyone,

I was reminded today that our last blog circle posts are from April! That's ok. Time to regroup.  

First, if, more recently, you have sent me a post that I have not uploaded, I apologize. Please let me know and I will be sure to upload it.

I think the concept of a blog circle is really powerful. At the same time, we need to be realistic and accept that at times the busyness of the school year is going to prevent us from doing this every month. That's ok. 

As we begin June, wrapping up the 2013-14 school year, let’s spend this month reflecting on both our successes and areas that still need improvement.

I look forward to reading each of your posts.  

Friday, April 18, 2014


The theme for this month’s blog circle post is ‘How to Assess Historical Thinking’.
Historical Thinking Skills take Time to Teach
Few, if any, historical thinking skills (HTS) can be learned in a single lesson. HTS are often not intuitive and require considerable practice and feedback. In future blog posts, I want to explore how I am going to set up my course so that I can teach these skills systematically and, ultimately, more effectively.
The HTS that I chose to focus on for this blog post is the skill of sourcing a document or photo.
Overview/Some Commentary
The mentality that we need to help students learn to avoid is just accepting a source at face value. This, I am reminded repeatedly, is the default mentality for most students and, I suspect, many adults, as well.
How do we do this? We do this by reminding students that since all primary and secondary sources are created by people, they need to viewed with an eye for the creator’s point of view and goals, both of which exist in a specific context. (Note: Historian Keith Barton reminds us that not all sources provide testimony. And because all sources DO NOT provide testimony, a simple sourcing heuristic is not always helpful. Issues of reliability and credibility are, obviously, most relevant when we are reading sources created for the purpose of transmitting a message and meaning, such as a letter or speech. Once a source's authenticity has been established, issues of credibility are NOT relevant when an historian is using evidence from the time period that does not provide testimony, such as receipts, newspaper ads, or government statistics...(make sense? I may need to review Barton and revise this section.))

What do students who DO NOT  grasp the ideas and skills associated with sourcing tend to do?
A basic or novice understanding of sourcing involves a reader approaching a source with the following in mind:
Bias = bad, Unbiased = Good
We need to create experiences that helps students move beyond these simplistic notions.
Novice views of Sourcing
-If the source expresses bias, it cannot be used. Therefore, the source should be discarded.
-It IS possible and desirable to find and use unbiased source. This, after all, students assume, is what historians spend most of their time trying to do, discovering 'the truth' by finding unbiased sources that reveal it.  
-Textbooks are an excellent place to turn if one is looking for an unbiased source.
-Primary sources provide us with a direct window to the past (using SHEG Stanford’s rubric language here with ‘direct window to the past.’)
Understandings that we should help our students move toward.
Any time an historian encounters a source of information, they analyze it to decide if and how they may use it in an historical argument.
All of us, whether historians or not, need to think about and analyze  where the information we encounter is coming from. Otherwise, we have no way to judge the best way to respond to that content.  
When we source, we can be more confident that we have answers to the following questions: What are we to make of this source? What meanings can we derive and infer from this source? Is this source trustworthy? How do we make this judgment? What parts of this source should we reject and why? What parts of this source should we accept and why? 

What did I do in the classroom?

I set up this exercise using a source depicting Louis XVI’s execution. I was not able to determine the origin of this source. For the purpose of this assignment, I told students that we were going to assume it was created in 1830. Why did I have to give them a year? And why did I choose 1830? I knew that handing them a source and providing them with no information about who created it  and when undermined the sourcing that I was going to have them do. I chose 1830 because I wanted to force students to think about the distance between the execution of Louis and the (supposed) creation of this source. What impact did over  three decades have on how students interpreted this source?   Louis Execu.jpg

How did I set this up?
Here are some questions that I used in class.
What is a source? (Some points to make/questions to ask: Are all sources the same? Should we treat a letter from a soldier to his wife differently than we might treat a collection of receipts or government statistics? If so, why? What's the difference?  

Key point: A source is someone/something from which we get information. Students are often desensitized to the sources they  encounter regularly, especially textbooks and teachers. Student desensitization is evident when their default is to accept information on face value that is provided by teachers and textbooks.)
Why is it important to question a source?  (Some points to make/questions to ask:  And what do we even mean by questioning a source? When we question a source, what kinds of questions should we ask? Some expected student responses to the importance of questioning a source:
So you can decide whether or not to believe the information.
So you can evaluate how accurate the information is.
(What are some points that I ought to make at this point in the lesson? Or at some point in this lesson? A source can often tell us much more than it literally says. It can tell us about the time period being studied. We need to interrogate a source in order to arrive at some of the more subtle meanings and messages contained within a source. When we get information we need to think about how the messenger influences the message. Source work is conducted for a reason.  When historians are working with sources, whether primary or secondary, it is because they are trying to answer certain questions about the past.
How did I transition to the activity?
Tell students that sourcing is the first step in historical analysis, in thinking like an historian (see Big Six: 47).
Some sourcing questions are straightforward.
When was this source written/created?
Who created it?
What was the creator’s point of view? How do we know?
The Big Six text discusses how sourcing questions can become more subtle, abstract, and inference based. The big idea here, I think, is that we need to take what we have learned via our sourcing questions and draw some inferences, make some educated predictions about the reliability and usefulness of the source.
Based on our sourcing questions and answers, we to consider the creator of the source’s agenda: their purpose, goal(s) and motivations. And we need to keep these factors in mind when making judgments about the source.
For example, just because Napoleon says something happened, doesn’t mean that it happened exactly as he says. Napoleon’s words, though, do reveal aspects of his personality and character. They also tell us about his world, what was going on around him. For this reason, once we identify and account for a source's main biases, we can use the source to support our arguments about the past. 
How reliable is this source? It depends on the historical questions you are asking.
Questions of reliability need to be precisely stated. Reliability does not just exist out there, as a concept. Reliable how? If this source is being used to consider how artists at different moments in time have portrayed Louis’ execution, then this source is reliable, in as far as it tells us something about the time period when it was created. If this source is being considered as evidence of how Louis XVI acted in the moments leading up to his execution, then it may be less reliable, given (at least for the purpose of this assignment) that it was created thirty years after his execution.  

How did students interpret this source?
Some students were quick to describe the image, an essential beginning step in analyzing a source. It is necessary, however, that we teach students that they need to do more than just describe what they read or what they see. They need to link these observations to larger questions and answers. When students do this, they are beginning to think like an historian.
Here are some student comments that I’d like to consider (I have more that I will add and comment on) as I think about my rubric (linked below) and historical thinking in general:
Some student comments describing the image, describing Louis.
“Louis looks depressed.”
“..he must be scared. He is about to die. He acted calm and collected.”
“He listened to all of the orders he was given.” (We need to push the student to tell us why he is saying this. Is this accurate? We cannot determine the accuracy of this from a single source.)
“It is a picture of Louis getting executed.” (Though true, a basic observation.)

More comments will be added...
Additional Comments/Thoughts
-Some students may not even attempt to ‘close view/read’ the source. We should be able to discern whether or not a student has taken the time to view the source, to make some observations. Some students may 'close view' the source and see things that are not actually there. It is important that our rubric accounts for both possibilities.
Link to my Rubric ( I need to spend more time thinking about and writing about how I used this rubric and how it may need some revision.)


Thursday, April 17, 2014


Our March question was: How do you asses historical thinking. I know it is the middle of April already, but I finally finished with a blog post for our history group. Here it is. 

Why didn't you teach me to think historically old social studies teacher?

Dear Social Teachers of my Past,

I know teachers usually teach in the they they were taught. Heck, most new parents use the parenting skills of their parents. But does that make this correct? Yes and No. While I am sure you are taking the best skills of the teachers of your past, don’t get sucked into the their worst traits. This means, don’t lecture any more! Well at least not all the time. You need to teach me to think, and history teachers, you needed me to think like a historian!

Throughout school, you always had us write essays, take tests, do projects, etc, etc, etc. While in school I thought you were trying to give us busy work, in reality you were trying to teach us to think historically, I think.  You believed that if students could memorize facts and repeat information, then they must be able to think like a historian. Well, not so fast my old teachers!

Today old teachers, I think it is more important to teach your students how to think historically. This reason maybe why history repeats itself! Most people have forgotten the facts they were made to memorize for the test! Here is how.

First, engage me in great questions. Yes you heard me, ask great questions. Not one of those Lower Blooms questions that I can simply Google or what you call a test that has multiple choice and fill in the blank questions, but give me something that will actually make me think. While I may not like it this moment, I will thank you later (which I have for the harder work you made me do!). Secondly, teach me to think historically. What does this mean? Well, teach me to look at viewpoints objectively, teach me to weigh and analyze conflicting evidence. Teach me to think for myself and be a great citizen. This is the tricky part, how do you do this?

First you need to teach me to ask questions. I need to be able to collect information from texts, images, videos, or any other type of Primary/Secondary source. Secondly, I need to be able to contextualize the information. What does that mean? Well it means I am able to put events in place and time. If I am reading a document from the 1800s, I can visualize time and place. Thirdly, I need to be able to carefully consider what the source is saying. I need to be able to understand the language they are using. Fourthly, I need to be able determine points of agreement and disagreement. I need to be able to compare and contrast these sources. Finally, I am able to make judgements about what is really being said.

As to not be to objective, make a rubric that has what you are expecting me to know based on the criteria above. Remember, I am a sponge and I want to learn. Teach me to ask questions, I will always use this skill.


Some of this information is based on the data I learned from

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Link to @WilliamABerry11 's post.


In an effort to extend students' skills with primary documents, offer an arrhythmic assessment in the midst of a series of short course units, incorporate technology, and meet content expectations, I devised a project-based assessment for a unit that introduced students to the early years of the Cold War (1945-1960). As has typically been the case when I have facilitated a task like this, our class experienced mixed results. I would definitely incorporate this project again, but I would like to share some of my takeaways - partly so I don't allow frustration with imperfect results to shape future decisions.
The base information for the activity (with a link to a Google Doc that students were to copy and use as a collection tool) is found here: . With this and an introductory video I made using Tellagami - both first-time tools for me - I was modeling technological experimentation for my students. I hoped to cultivate a sense of adventure with these. On our first day of working with this material, I shared some basic vocabulary terms as well as the background information pertinent to the start of the Cold War as the cooperating Allies concluded their efforts in World War II.
Using the resources of Stanford History Education Group , I offered students four documents to help them begin this process of gathering primary documents to support their conclusions. Students were encouraged to collaborate in their document work through prompts about the Novikov Telegram and Truman Doctrine. In sharing the letter from Henry Wallace to President Truman, I needed to underscore the postscript that Wallace was asked to resign after writing this letter. While we have been working with primary sources throughout the year, a number of students still need guidance on recognizing subtleties.  I need to emphasize the notes that primary documents often provide more intentionally in the future - in a manner similar to emphasizing the need to read directions.
While most of my students have become competent at interpreting primary documents, I overestimated their ability to distinguish primary sources from secondary ones. While the Stanford resources applied well to the first two unit goal questions, I recommended other websites to use as well. Students had access to the link as well as a QR code to direct them to this collection site. In first drafts of work submitted, students occasionally used one of the base sites as their primary source and quoted an introductory paragraph from it. "But I found it in the Bitly Bundle!" was exclaimed in defense of this maneuver; this led to a review session of how historians tell the story versus a more direct account anchored in the time period that sheds light on what happened. It would have been a worthwhile investment to exercise primary document recognition skills prior to having students tackle this work.
Students were not as adept at Google Doc sharing as I had anticipated. Reminding that the default setting keeps a document private was a daily announcement. An analogy that seemed to resonate with a number of students was that giving me a link without opening access to the document was like asking me to open a padlocked locker without providing a combination.
Positive aspects of this project included the number of skills that needed to be applied. From primary document recognition to communicating through a presentation tool, students were asked to create meaning and connect their ideas to the content. An example of an exceptional student product for the third unit goal is provided here:  . This student had used Thinglink in the past, and it was such an awesome feeling to see how she used this tool to convey her understanding of the content and application of primary sources! While I occasionally smile upon reading a solid essay, I rarely experience a "wow" to the degree that I did upon evaluating this work.
The interactive nature of the "turn-in" document was positive as well. Asking students to communicate what they wanted me to notice or what they liked about their work was not merely a nice gesture, but it asked them to reflect upon their work. I feel like I don't do this enough and, with about 150 students, it opened up the opportunity for conversations that simply can't occur in the confines of a class period. Students appreciated the chance to improve their work and use the comments that I offered. On the second day dedicated to this project, I showed students how I had commented on a student's Prezi using the turn-in document. There was an audible gasp in one of the class periods as they noticed that I had directly remarked on a request a student had made in her reflection column. "You mean that we can ask you if we think we did something wrong and then we'd have a chance to correct it?" Yes, that still counts as learning.
Mini-lessons on the processes and content at the beginning of each class period that served as a work session helped students. Since this unit introduced the Cold War, I knew that I had the opportunity to clarify widespread misunderstandings in future units that examine the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War. Thus, the foundation of understanding could be guaranteed while the structures produced from the foundation could certainly be varied - at least over the course of this unit.
The scoring rubric performed as I hoped. It rewarded deeper thinking and synthesis. It offered a "C" to a student who capped his/her work with only one primary source on a unit goal. Because I use standards-based grading, the unit goal scores were recorded on a spreadsheet and a trend score was determined prior to establishing an overall percentage grade on the work. On a typical unit test, a student who does not "test out" of a unit goal, or standard, earns a score of "NYC" for "not yet competent" on the unit. This means that the student's grade stands as 50% until the lack of understanding is remedied. A similar principle was applied on this project since it served as a unit assessment: NYC conditions- Only secondary sources are used. Only a student's interpretation of the question is used. No citations are provided. Inaccuracies are frequent. Unfortunately, some students carried this as their score on this project as the calendar page flipped to fourth quarter. As an instructor, this is part of the eternal struggle; is it best to let unfinished work haunt a student for an entire grading period or to pinch a student's grade at the time of a grading period? Class-time work on this project concluded on March 28. Third quarter ended on April 4. Some students will opt to finish this project in a month that rhymes with "hey" for any number of reasons - just as is sometimes the case when a student is absent in the days prior to a test and postpones making it up until feeling completely ready.
This project provided many twists and turns for students and for the instructor implementing it for the first time. This wasn't the safest way to assess my students' understanding of the early stages of the Cold War. It wasn't the easiest way to determine the degree to which they grasped the struggle between the superpowers. This project didn't lead to a mundane weekend of correcting forty test questions. It stretched my students and me. It amplified the need to address supplementary skills over the course of the year. It showcased synthesis and rewarded persistence. It required students to tell a story anchored in historical documentation. As I reflect on it, it is essential to celebrate these victories rather than opting to take the beaten path of traditional assessment all of the time. I owe this to my strongest students and the ones who found ways to get lost on this winding path cannot be my impetus for selecting instructional methods. If I only act in accordance with the students who produce the least, I do a disservice to those who are willing and able to extend themselves. It is difficult to accept how often a desire to give all students a chance to succeed leads me to minimize my expectations.

Monday, March 3, 2014

March's Topic- How to Assess Historical Thinking

Based on this month’s poll, our theme for March is ‘How to Assess Historical Thinking’.  Since we all currently have students, this is a great time for us to discuss assignments, rubrics, and student work samples.

Here are some resources that, I think, connect to this prompt.

Writing w/ Evidence Rubric

Historical Thinking Skills (more rubrics)

These two rubrics were shared by Stephen Lazar