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....

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