Learning from students’ wrong answers

I have written before about why I am not a fan of Multiple Choice questions. I just reviewed that piece from a year ago, and it still holds up reasonably well. My main three points were 1) I like learning, and I can’t learn as much from multiple choice questions; 2) my students need practice writing; and 3) my students often surprise me with their questions and insights.

I was thinking about all of this because I just gave a quiz to my students. I gave them a blank piece of paper and asked them to list and describe six events that led up to the Civil War.

We had been doing research in class about eight events between the Mexican-American War and Lincoln’s election in 1860, and I wanted to see what they knew. For history geeks, I will list the items they were responsible for — California Gold rush; Compromise of 1850; Uncle Tom’s Cabin and/or Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (both were anti-slavery documents from 1852); Bleeding Kansas and Popular Sovereignty; the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate; the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates; and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

I am curious to see which events students leave out, and I am curious which events they don’t describe very well — that will tell me what we need to go over.

If I had given a multiple choice test, I could do an error analysis to see which questions students got wrong the most, but I would not have any insight into their wrong or incomplete thinking process.

For example, one of my stronger students wrote about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He described the book quite well, but he then went on to say that “this book was rejected by the South and being seen reading it would most likely result in some form of confrontation.”

I took a moment to send him this email (I find that some of my best teaching these days happens via targeted emails)

You posited that someone found reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the South could prompt a confrontation.  If the person was reading it and calling it rubbish, I don’t think there would be a problem. And few Southerners would likely agree with her depictions (though I wonder how many Southerners read it and changed their thinking). But I presume educated people in the South did read the book — so they’d know what she was talking about.
[I know people who don’t agree with much of what Donald Trump says, but they do watch some of his rallies on YouTube, just to see what’s going on…]
I did some research and found this:
You may find it interesting to learn that some people in the South published counter-narratives about how slaves were treated so well.

.

Because I gave an open-ended quiz, I’ve learned something unexpected from my student’s wrong answer. The next time I teach, I may have students read a counter-narrative after they read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It gives a more complete picture of how the book was received in the South.

My student still gets full credit, and I get to share this blog post with the class. Most of them won’t care too much about this specific detail (it’s spring), but I do hope they take away the idea that history is all about the details — it’s about really thinking about what life would have been like in the 1850s in the South, and how people would have reacted to a book such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (we read the first 18 pages of it in my class — it’s available here if you’re curious).

Also, I’m trying to drive home the idea that they should ask questions and then do research to explore their questions. I asked myself, for example, this question:
UTC

Then I did some research and learned about the counter-narratives.

If I just had students memorize the events well enough so that they could pass a simple quiz or test, they would forget them shortly after memorizing them. By asking them to write and expand on their thought process, we can all learn more about the 1850s.

This idea of “writing more” is challenging for some of my students, though — they ask things like “is this enough?” and “is this right?” They seem to be interested in doing the least amount of work possible, rather than trying to explore the past creatively.

I need to be more explicit in telling students that they can get extra credit for engaging with the material in innovative ways. I made that clearer to my classes last year, I think — but for some reason, some of my students this year are not pushing themselves as much as they could.

Maybe when they read this blog post, they’ll “get it” a bit more, and will ask thoughtful questions about the people who fought in and lived through the US Civil War in our next unit.

But then again, it’s spring…

At least I can share this blog post with my students at the start of the year next year🙂

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Don’t just read — Annotate!

I teach US History to high school students. I often ask my students to annotate the readings we do for class. I want to see evidence that they engaged with the reading and I want to find out what questions they had about the reading. I find this far more productive than asking all of my students to answer the same set of questions, to test for basic comprehension of the reading.

Invariably, some of my students tell me, “I read it, but I didn’t annotate it.”

This is not helpful. First, I can’t tell if these students did the reading.

Second (and more importantly) I don’t get to find out how my students’ brains engaged with the reading. I love learning from the questions my students ask. If students just read, but don’t annotate, the deprive me (and their classmates) of an opportunity to learn.

For instance, this morning we were discussing the Louisiana Purchase, and how some members of the opposing political party did not vote for this famous purchase of land (Thomas Jefferson, the president at the time of the purchase, was a Democratic-Republican; the opposing party was the Federalists).

(pictured below is the Louisiana Territory in purple — I think it’s useful to see what’s claimed by Spain at the time)

carte_lewis_and_clark_expedition

source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/Carte_Lewis_and_Clark_Expedition.png

One of my students, arguing the Federalist perspective, made a comparison to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. There, people who were far away from the seat of power in Boston and who were upset with having to pay taxes, decided to rebel in the western part of the state.

What I should have pointed out in class (but now I’ll point it out in class tomorrow) is that the way George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania in 1794 showed that the federal government might actually be capable of controlling far-away lands.

But the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country — how far could people travel in the 1800s?

In any case, it was a very cool connection. I’m not sure if he made that connection while thinking in class, or in his annotations (or both), but I do know that connections like that one — Shays’ Rebellion to Louisiana Purchase — happen only when students engage with the material.

Another student asked — in his annotations — how the US got the money to pay for the Louisiana Purchase, and wondered whether the US had to go further into debt to make the $15 million purchase back in 1803.

Not surprisingly, the US did have to go further into debt —

the price was more than the United States could afford. As a result, it was forced to borrow from two European banks at 6 percent interest. It did not finish repaying the loan until 1823, by which time the total cost for the Louisiana Purchase had risen to over $23 million.

source: http://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-louisiana-purchase

When students ask these sort of engaging questions, it shows that they are making meaningful connections to the history we are studying.

And that’s cool on many levels.

So don’t just read — annotate!

***

In response to a comment on my post, here’s a sample student annotation (with the student’s name taken out):

annots

I have students use Google Docs, and this also tells me when a student did his/her work — a useful tool for tracking a group’s work in a shared document🙂

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Powerball Math for more than $1 billion

This Wednesday evening’s Powerball jackpot is predicted to top $1.3 billion. It got that big because Saturday’s jackpot was bigger than $900 million, and nobody won. Here’s a short video showing Saturday night’s Powerball drawing:

If you have really good vision, you would notice 69 white balls in the container on the left and 26 red balls in the container on the right. What are the odds of choosing all five white balls correctly and also choosing the red Powerball?

This is an important question because if you match all six on Wednesday night, you would win the jackpot — so this is literally a $1,300,000,000 question (probably more — the jackpot goes up more if more people play — $1.3 billion is the best guess right now).

The Powerball website says the odds of hitting the jackpot are a little more than 1 in 292 million:

power odds

That’s correct, but how does that math work? And how could we figure out the odds of other events happening?

This sort of math is called “statistics and probability.” The idea of probability is to figure out how likely it is that an event (or series of events) will happen. For example: “The chance of an average person living in the US being struck by lightning in a given year is estimated at 1 in 960,000” according to the Wikipedia article about Lightning strikes.

With Powerball odds of 1-in-292-million, you are more than 300 times more likely to be hit by lightning than you are to win the jackpot.

But it’s at least 300 times more fun to win at Powerball than it is to get hit by lightning… so let’s use math to understand the odds of choosing five balls out of 69, plus the red Powerball.

If the game involved picking just one white ball, we would have a 1-in-59 chance of winning. If they picked two balls, what would our odds be? Well, when there are two events, you multiply their likelihood of happening together.

To win the Powerball jackpot, we need to get all five white balls, plus the red Powerball. You might think that the odds of getting the five white balls is 1-in-69 raised to the 5th power. Let’s say I get the first ball right (woo hoo!) Once I do that, the odds of getting the second ball right are actually 1-in-68, because now there are only 68 balls left (I got the first one right, remember?)

So the odds of picking five balls out of 69 would be 69 x 68 x 67 x 66 x 65, right? Well, no — let’s say the winning numbers in Powerball are 10-20-30-40-50. The lottery does not care whether the numbers come out in the order of 10-20-30-40-50 or 50-40-30-20-10.  In fact, they could come out 10-30-20-40-50 and I would still win. 

So what I did in just multiplying 59 x 58 x 57 x 56 x 55 was to neglect to take into account the multiple ways that the winning numbers can come up. It turns out there are 120 different ways to select five numbers. Imagine thinking of all the different ways to order these letters:

Mathematicians have figured out that the number of ways to order “n” objects is something called n!, or n-factorial.

5! would be 5 x 4 x 3 x 2, or 120.

Factorial, probabilities, combinations and permutations are all explained extremely well in this great resource called Combinations and Permutations from the fine folks at “Math is Fun.”

For Powerball math purposes, the key formula from that resource is this one:

formula

With Powerball, we have 69 things (white balls) and we are choosing 5 of them. So “n” is 69 and “r” is 5.

So if we plug all this in, we get 11,238,513.

But that’s not 1-in-292 million. What gives?

That formula only calculated the odds of getting the five white balls — if you do that, you get a million dollars. To get the big money, you also have to get the red Powerball — so you have to multiply 11 million by 26, which works out to 292 million.

So now here’s an application question that matters right now: is Powerball a good bet with an expected jackpot of $1.3 billion?

Generally speaking, it costs $2 to get a ticket, and each ticket has a 1-in-292 million chance of winning.  So is that a good bet?  Well, it depends on what the jackpot is… a ticket is worth the investment only when the expected monetary value (EMV) of the ticket exceeds the purchase price of the ticket — in this case $2.

A $1.3 billion payoff means that your ticket is worth 1/292,000,000 (the fractional chance you will win) times $1,300,000,000, which seems to work out to about $4.50.

So right now it seems like a ticket is technically worth $4.50 (really a little more, since you can also win smaller prizes, but the math is complicated enough to just think about the jackpot).

But that’s wrong, because you don’t get the full $1,300,000,000 — you get a portion of that if you take a lump-sum payment… and then you have to pay some hefty taxes on your winnings. Time Magazine has a nice piece called The One Time It’s Mathematically Advantageous to Play Powerball that explains this in more detail.

When the take-home value of the jackpot hits about $584,000,000, the EMV is $2.  So basically, when the take-home value goes over $600 million, it actually makes sense — mathematically speaking — to buy a ticket.

Extending this logic, it seems like a great idea to buy up all the tickets. Sure, at $2 a ticket, it would cost you just under $600 million to do — but you would be guaranteed a $1.3 billion payout. Let’s go!!!

Hold on — here’s where math and reality diverge🙂

Even if you bought a ticket a second — in reality, it takes much longer than that, and you would need breaks — it would take you 292 million seconds to buy up all the tickets and ensure that you get the winning ticket.  That works out to more than nine years.

And if someone else used the same strategy (or got really lucky), you would have to split the jackpot.

The LA Times has a good simulator that shows how it’s incredibly unlikely that you will win any money playing Powerball. But when the jackpot gets this high, it’s still fun to play — and to think about the math in Powerball.

And there’s ethics, too — consider the morality of state-sponsored lotteries. Who are more likely to buy lottery tickets? Rich people or poor people? A book written by a pair of Duke professors, Selling Hope, calls lotteries an “insecurity tax” and argues that such lotteries are regressive, as opposed to progressive.

But lotteries fund all sorts of worthwhile projects.

According to the North Carolina Education Lottery website, lottery funds have contributed $4 billion to education programs since it started. Should North Carolina fund its education programs partially through lottery revenues?

So many questions and so little time… I’m going to buy a few Powerball tickets🙂

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The Secret History of a local shooting

Less than a mile from where I live, in Durham, NC, a white bus driver shot this US soldier twice:

Spicely pic

The soldier, Private Booker Spicely, apparently did not sit where he was supposed to sit on the bus, and words were exchanged between the bus driver, Herman Lee Council, and Private Spicely. When Private Spicely got off of the bus, Council followed him — he then shot Spicely twice. Spicely died on the street.

After the shooting, the bus driver got back on his bus and finished his route before turning himself in. “The Duke Power Company, which owned and operated the buses in Durham, bailed Council out a few hours later.”

(source for this quote: a website about Booker Spicely from the Northeastern School of Law)

This shooting happened in 1944, but I’m amazed — particularly as a history teacher — that I am just learning about it now. Why isn’t this incident more well-known?

Secret Game Cover

I learned about Private Spicely’s death from reading The Secret Game, a wonderfully engaging book that gets its title from a secret inter-racial basketball game played in March of 1944 in Durham, NC.

The game took place between a white team from Duke and a black team from what would become North Carolina Central University. For context, this game happened ten years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation.

The book, as you can imagine, is about far more than basketball. Let me set the scene for you about the shooting I described to open this blog post, and then you can read a few pages from the book.

Booker Spicely, a Private in the US Army, was “on leave” in Durham on a Saturday night. He came from Camp Butner, an army camp with tens of thousands of soldiers that was set up just north of Durham During World War II.

I made this map showing roughly where Camp Butner was located, relative to the school where I teach, Research Triangle High School (RTHS).

Private Spicely did not comply with the segregation guidelines about where he was supposed to sit. Since I read about this incident in the book The Secret Game, I’ve done a a bit more research. As with most events in history, accounts vary about exactly where Private Spicely was sitting — he was likely in the second-to-last row.

Now that you know some of the basics, let’s pick up the story with a few pages from the book. It’s July 8, 1944 and it’s a Saturday night.

Start reading below where Private Spively says “I don’t see why I have to move back,” he told them [two white soldiers]. “In Pennsylvania, we pay our fare and sit where we please.”

Secret Game p285

p286

p286a

I went to college at Duke, I have lived in Durham for much of my adult life, and before picking up “The Secret Game” I had never before heard anything about this shooting. The whites-only hospital was the old Watts Hospital — now the campus of the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM). I wonder if students who attend NCSSM know anything about this shooting.

What I find most chilling is that the bus driver shot Booker Spicely, the police arrived, and they allowed the bus driver to get back on his bus and finish his route, before turning himself in to the authorities.

This is a bad story. I’m glad that I can’t picture these events happening quite the same way in 2015. I would like to think that a jury today would at least deliberate for more than 28 minutes. Council claimed self-defense. But given the facts I’ve found so far, I find that claim hard to believe.

I am having trouble envisioning how these events played out in 1944. Were there other people who stayed on the bus while the bus driver/shooter finished his route? Was there anyone on the jury who wanted to deliberate longer? We’ll probably never know…

At the trial, here’s what the judge told the jury — this is from a few pages later in “The Secret Game”:

verdict

This is compelling history.

This is a troubling moment in Durham’s history, and it seems like a good moment for students in my US History 2 class to consider. There are lots of questions we can ask.

I want to do two things with this story — first, I want us to try to piece together what actually happened in 1944 in Durham. Where was Private Spicely seated on the bus? What, exactly, did he say? (in an age before video cameras were prevalent, can we ever know?) And why was Herman Lee Council, the bus driver, found innocent so quickly?

Here’s one quality source we can consult to get started. I wonder if we can get our hands on the court records in Durham from the trial. Did local papers cover the story? I also wonder if anyone on the bus (or on the street who witnessed the events) is still alive today.

Second, I want to think about why is it likely that none of my students have heard this story before. By contrast, I’m betting that nearly all of them will know about Rosa Parks and the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that followed her arrest.

Who writes our history books? Why are certain people included in history and why are others excluded? Why is it so hard to empathize with life in 1944?

How are Rosa Parks and MLK typically portrayed in our history books? Do we talk about MLK as a crusder for economic justice and an anti-war advocate or just about his work in relation to civil rights? What is the typical account for Rosa Parks? Is this accurate? The book Lies My Teacher Told Me has an interesting chapter about this. It argues that Parks is typically portrayed as some woman who randomly decided she didn’t want to move, when in reality, she had been working for a while in the civil rights movement.

In 1954, when she was arrested, Rosa Parks was a secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. While her act of defiance was not planned for the particular day she got arrested, civil disobedience in Montgomery had been considered before. See the Wikipedia article about Rosa Parks for more details.

When you start to learn about the Civil Rights Era in some depth (rather than at a superficial level), you see that it’s far more complex and complicated than it appears. You also see tons of connections. For instance, when you look up Booker Spicely, you get this blurb on Wikipedia.

Spicely Wiki

I’m assuming most of my students know about Emmett Till (if not, please look him up — but be prepared — that’s a truly awful story). But I’d never heard of Irene Morgan before I started this blog post. I certainly did not know her case went to the Supreme Court in 1946. That case never came up when I was in law school. We will talk about Irene Morgan in class this week.

And then we’re back to asking what history gets recorded (and who records it). If Wikipedia is right, and Booker Spicely’s murder “contributed to rising activism in the Civil Rights movement,” why isn’t he more well-known? If he’s not well-known nationally, that makes sense — but shouldn’t he be well-known here in the Triangle?

The Triangle has three local law schools — Duke and NCCU are in Durham, and UNC is in Chapel Hill. Why is the best collection of online resources I could find about Booker T. Spicely housed at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston? (If Duke or NCCU or UNC Law has looked into this case, their resources are not easily found online)

[to be fair, there was a piece on the NCCU website in 2011, and Scott Ellsworth, the author of The Secret Game, did write a piece for Duke’s Alumni Magazine before he wrote his recent book — but there’s far more information about the case at Northeastern’s web site]

I presume there’s some sort of record of this case in the Durham newspapers from 1944… it would be good to do some research on microfilm and find out how the local papers covered the event.

In 2013, there was a column in the Herald Sun that talked about Booker Spicely.

After reading that column, I learned about George Stinney, a 14-year old boy who, in 1944, was falsely accused and convicted and executed for two murders he did not commit. Stinney’s story happened in Alcolu, a segregated mill town in South Carolina. When I looked up George Stinney, I found an article in the Washington Post about how his conviction was vacated 70 years later.

The judge in the case that overturned the conviction from 1944 wrote that “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.”

George Stinney

We need to know about these cases of past injustice — about Booker Spicely and George Stinney — and we also need to know about cases in the news today, such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner — and we need to work to make sure these cases stop. It’s time that America lived up to its pledge — which we recite every morning — of providing “Liberty and Justice for all.”

SOURCE NOTES:

By the way — I got the picture of Private Spicely from a local history website called Open Durham. It’s a pretty good starting source for historical research about Durham.

In an effort to picture how World War II changed Durham, I looked up Camp Butner.

I’m amazed that 3,500 buildings were constructed in six months! And it surprised me to learn that Axis prisoners of war were housed at the camp. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia artcile about Camp Butner:

The Camp site was chosen around early January 1942 to have a major training area built and in just 6 short months, over 3500 buildings were constructed. There were enough beds in the enlisted barracks alone to accommodate over 35,000 soldiers.

Camp Bunter

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Mistakes and questions lead to authentic learning

It’s easy to spit back information the teacher provides.  Memorize it, recall it on the exam, and forget about most of it…

But when you engage with information and ideas, that’s when real learning happens.

My students are finally starting to ask real questions and take risks.  For homework this weekend, I had them read excerpts from Building the First Slavery Museum in America, a compelling article in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about a plantation in New Orleans that has been converted to a slave museum.  It just opened in December 2014.

One of my students found it amazing that there were 107,000 slaves held in one slave jail.  Indeed, that would be amazing.  It turns out the student misread the 107,000 figure — it’s not that there were 107,000 slaves in one jail at that plantation.  It’s that 107,000 slaves spent their lives in Louisiana up to 1820 — here’s the line from the article:

A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820.

But it’s GREAT that this student made this mistake.  Becuase it forced me to think more about what that 107,000 figure meant.

Why would you stop counting the slaves who spent their lived in Louisiana at 1820?  Well, you wouldn’t.  The musuem is a work in progress.  Another article I found about the museum seems to say that the idea is to eventually document the name of every single slave who lived in Louisiana:

Influenced by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Cummings [the patron of the museum, who has contributed $8 million of his own money to build it] designed the slaves tribute and had it manufactured on-site. “We have our own engraving machine,” he said. “I’ve got plaques still being printed.” Eventually, there will be about 400,000 names to intimately document slavery’s existence in this state through 1865, he said.

The polished panels are less restrained, more overtly emotional, than Lin’s monument to soldiers who died in Vietnam. Inset in large type between names are quotations from the oral histories of Louisiana slaves found in the Library of Congress. In effect, they’re little everyday stories about how it looked, felt and tasted to be a slave.

If there were 400,000 slaves in total in Louisiana, I wondered how many slaves there were in Louisiana in 1860 (the last year there would be a census asking people to record their “property”)

I re-formatted data I got from http://www.civil-war.net/pages/1860_census.html to sort it by total number of slaves, rather than alphabetically by state name — that way, you can see which states had the most slaves.

As you can see in the chart below, Louisiana was #6, neck-and-neck with North Carolina (where I teach), at 331,000 slaves each.  But NC had nearly twice as many free people — 660,000 to 375,000.

1860 census

This is exactly the sort of inter-disciplinary work I want to see students doing in my classes.  Math and excel spreadsheets are definitely part of history.  Eventually, I want my students to be the ones who look up data, paste it into excel, and and re-format the information to make it more user-friendly — but for now, I’ll model the process.

Another student in class was struck by this line in the article:

Louisiana is the eighth-poorest state in the nation. Yet in the lush sugar plantations that crop up every couple of miles, you can glimpse the excess that defined the region before the Civil War.

She was curious about how Louisiana could be the eighth poorest state in the nation.  She had the impression it was a wealthy state before the Civil War.

In class, we talked brielfy about how, before the Civil War, slaves were property.  So a plantation owner with 100 slaves would be quite rich.  By the way, 100 slaves would be huge for that time period — most slave owners had 5 or fewer slaves — we tend to focus on the large plantations, which were not typical.

After the civil war, that plantation owner is less rich by 100 times however much a slave is worth.  If a slave were worth $1,000, that means that person lost $100,000 in wealth when slavery ended.  Additionally, assuming all 100 slaves survived the Civil War, they would each be new people in the state with zero wealth.  They would significantly bring down the average of wealth per person.  We discussed how that lack of wealth would lead many former slaves to become sharecroppers.

Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article on sharecropping

Sharecropping, along with tenant farming, was a dominant form in the cotton South from the 1870s to the 1950s, among both blacks and whites.

Following the Civil War of the United States, the nation lay in ruins. Plantations and other lands throughout the Southern United States were seized by the federal government and thousands of freed black slaves known as freedmen, found themselves free, yet without means to support their families. The situation was made more complex due to General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order Number 15, which in January 1865, announced he would temporarily grant newly freed families 40 acres of land on the islands and coastal regions of Georgia. This policy was also referred to as Forty Acres and a Mule. Many believed that this policy would be extended to all former slaves and their families as repayment for their treatment at the end of the war. An alternative path was selected and enforced. 3 months later in the summer of 1865; President Andrew Johnson, as one of the first acts of Reconstruction, instead ordered all land under federal control be returned to its previous owners. This meant that plantation and land owners in the South regained their land but lacked a labor force. The solution was to use Sharecropping. It would allow the government to match labor with demand and begin the process of economically rebuilding the nation via labor contracts.

In Reconstruction-era United States, sharecropping was one of few options for penniless freedmen to conduct subsistence farming and support themselves and their families.

This notion of Louisiana as the eighth “poorest state” raises another question about how to interpret numbers — how do you measure poverty?  Is it by median household income?  By per-capita income?  Or by average wealth of each family?

On this list of US states by income, Louisiana comes in at #44 by median household income ($41,734), and #39 in per-capita income ($24,442).

The point is that my students engaged with the material in a way that will help us think in sophisticated ways about history.

  • How many slaves were in the South before the Civil War?  Where were they concentrated?
  • What were the slaves’ lives like? (that’s the point of the new slavery museum)
  • How would the South be transformed as a result of the Civil War? (not just economically, but also politically and socially and culturally)

Here’s to more student mistakes and more student questions — both lead to authentic learning.

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It’s hard to learn from multiple choice

I teach history, but I rarely give multiple choice quizzes or tests.  Some of my students have been asking me why. They seem used to taking mutiple choice tests.

I have a three-part reason for generally avoiding multiple choice quizzes and tests:

First, I like learning, and I don’t learn much from the wrong answers students give on multiple choice tests.  I suppose that if everyone got #4 wrong, I’d know to go over that one.  But what I’d learn would be limited.  The answer was C and they put D.

With short and medium answer questions, I find out in more detail what my students don’t understand, so we can go over those concepts in class.  And isn’t that the whole purpose of a quiz?  It’s not to generate a grade — it’s to find out whether students are getting the material.

For example, in response to the question “Who was Tecumseh?” on a recent quiz,

several students wrote that “Tecumseh was the leader of the Native Americans.”

This tells me that my students and I need to do a better job differentiating between Native American gropus.  There were a lot of different Native American tribes, as shown in this map of linguistc diversity (click here for a link to a bigger version of the map):

Native Diversity

That key in the lower right corner looks like this when you blow it up:

linguistic

I don’t think my students have any sense that Native Americans spoke different languages.  It might be useful to think of Native Americans in the 1800s in the US the way we think of Europe today — there are many different languages and cultures as you move from say France to Germany to Sweden.

It’s a problem that most of my students said that “Tecumseh was the leader of the Native Americans in the War of 1812.”

Tecumseh lived in the Indiana territory and around the Great Lakes region, but he had little to do with Native Americans in other areas, such as the Creek Indians (who Andrew Jackson defeated — the US gained 23 million acres of land) and the Seminole Indians (who Andrew Jackson will defeat in the First Seminole War, which we’ve not studied yet).

Because of the confusion on the quiz, I was motivated to find some maps to show my students so we can clear up where Native Americans are located, and how Tecumseh could not have united all of them:

This is where Tecumseh would be found — up in the Great Lakes region (his tribe, the Shawnee, are circled in red).shawnee

Moving further south, the Seminole and Creek would found at numbers 1 and 2 on this map:
Seminole and Creek

It’s not a coincidence that when I asked students about the consequences of the War of 1812, most students failed to mention that the Native Americans lost the most, while the US and British basically fought to a draw.  We tend to forget about Native Americans.

At the start of next year, I need to do a better job with teaching about Native Americans.

Also, many students were confused about the term “War Hawks.”  Some actually wrote that they were Native Americans.  A surprising number wrote that Patrick Henry was an example of a War Hawk.  This is an interesting theory, but War Hawks were congressmen who pressured President Madison into going to war in 1812.  And Patrick Henry died in 1799, so that’s not possible.

We had studied Patrick Henry earlier this semester, and I intended him to be an example of an early colonist who gave a famous speech in 1775 in Virginia.  Somehow, students conflated Patrick Henry with the War Hawks, who came nearly 40 years later.  I think this highlights how it’s hard for students to get a sense of chronology — to many of them, all of this happened “a long time ago.”  That’s why I put up a large chronology in our classroom (well, in my three classrooms).  To help students get a sense of chronology.

Actual examples of War Hawks would be Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, who were mentioned in our reading.

I’ll provide a few more examples of common mistakes my students made at the end of this post (and I’ll use this post with my students so that we can learn from the quiz we took last week).

If my goal is for students to learn the material in a meaningful way, it’s GOOD for students to make mistakes and over-simplifications about Native Americans (see my earlier blog post that unpacks the sentence The English arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 — they actually landed in Puerto Rico first).

We can (and will) learn from our mistakes.  And students have an opportunity to show that they have in fact learned from their mistakes.  My grading philosophy is to allow students who do badly on quizzes to hand in quiz corrections.  If they show me that they know the material better than they did when they took the quiz, I’m happy to raise their grade accordingly.

The second reason I give tests and quizzes that require students to do some writing is that, in general, my students need practice writing.  They won’t get better at writing unless they practice.  Several of them wrote that the “boarders” did not change after the War of 1812 — and while I’m glad they have the concept down, enough of them made that spelling mistake that it’s worth talking about.

Similarly, many students wrote about how Native Americans “loose” 23 million acres of land as a result of the War of 1812.

These minor spelling errors are not that big of a deal, but they are symptomatic of a larger problem — that most high school students need more practice writing.

So even though it takes me significantly longer to grade quizzes that require writing, I’ll be sticking with short (and medium-length) answer questions.  As a school, we’re working on the idea that all teachers are writing teachers — even math and science teachers.

The third reason I like short answer questions is that my students often surprise me with their questions and insights — and it’s hard to get questions and insights from a multiple choice quiz.

For example, when I asked students to list the consequences of the War of 1812, we had talked about five consequences in class — they were listed on our study guide.  Most students reproduced that list pretty well.  But several of my students went beyond that list and mentioned a consequence that makes sense — “increased war debt.” Similarly, one student pointed out that as a result of US naval victories, “Britain’s illusion of invincibility was shattered.”

And so, I give short answer questions so that I can learn from what my students write on their quizzes.

Here are a few more things I learned from grading our most recent quiz — this won’t make sense to people not in my class, but it should be useful for my students…

Several students thought Tecumseh was killed at Tippecanoe.  That battle was launched specifically because Tecumseh was away from the holy city of Prophetstown.  Tecumseh was killed the next year, in 1813, at the Battle of Thames (end of paragraph 9 of our reading).

The “elastic clause” is also called the “necessary and proper” clause — it’s part of the Constitution that allows Congress to expand its power to do things that are not specified in the Constitution,  such as chartering a bank or purchasing Louisiana.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necessary_and_Proper_Clause

On slavery…

“Forks of the Road” is connected to the “Second Middle Passage” but it is not correct to call it the Second Middle Passage.  It was the second-largest slave market in the US and we saw it in the Henry Louis Gates video.  It’s on the study guide.  This is the place that the video referred to as an 1800s version of Costco or Walmart, but for slaves.

The largest slave market was in New Orleans — this makes sense because both New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi are on the Mississippi River, which was the main trade artery for the US at the time.  Control of the Mississippi River will be key during the Civil War.

And finally, on the topic of slavery, some people said that the cotton gin made life easier for slaves who picked cotton.  That’s not exactly right — slaves who worked in the cotton fields did plenty of hard work with or without the cotton gin.  What the cotton gin did was to make cotton farming protitable, which meant an influx of slaves from the South to the Deep South.  That voyage is what the video referred to as the Second Middle Passage.

One odd thing happened on the quiz — some students talked about “land” as a cause for the War of 1812.  Indeed, land is often something that people fight over.  But what I found odd was that many students talked about the British wanting to take American lands, or Native Americans attacking the United States.  I think it’s fair to say that the US desire for more land was one cause of the war.  The US declared war on Great Britain, wanting to take more land in Canada.  And the War Hawks also thought land could come from the Spanish in Florida (they were right).  As we discussed, Andrew Jackson got around 23 million acres of land from the Creek Indians during the course of the war. That’s worth thinking about from the Native American perspective.

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From the Space Shuttle to the Civil War

My family and I are in South Florida, visiting my father.  Thanks to my father’s penchant for technology, we all had a chance to visit the Kennedy Space Center, where we saw the space shuttle Atlantis up close.

As the Kennedy Center website says, “Space Shuttle Atlantis showcases the priceless, historic spacecraft that tells the incredible story of NASA’s 30-year Space Shuttle Program. Space Shuttle Atlantis is displayed as only spacewalking astronauts have seen her before — rotated 43.21 degrees with payload doors open and its Canadarm (robotic arm) extended, as it has just undocked from the International Space Station.”

Atlantis

What was so cool about this exhibit is that visitors first see two short upbeat videos about taking the idea of “making a shuttle that is re-usable,” and following that idea through a 12-year process from idea to actual space shuttle.

The videos, shown on a HUGE screen, end with a picture of Atlantis at an angle (apparently a 43.21 degree angle).  At the end of the movie, the screen turns transparent to reveal the actual shuttle behind the screen.  Then the screen lifts up, and the group you entered the exhibit with can walk right up to the railing and see the shuttle (and explore the 60 interactive exhibits that surround Atlantis).

So after the movie ends, you literally walk into the scene above.  And as my chicken scratching says in yellow above, you can almost touch the shuttle.  Up close, the heat shields — which prevent the shuttle from burning up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere —  look like a quilt of old blankets (see the lower right corner of this picture below).

heat shields

More pictures of the Atlantis Space Shuttle are on this great June 2013 article from BoingBoing.

My point is that the exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has a great “hook” — it makes you excited about the space program, and then brings to life the Atlantis mission. When the screen comes up, you want to learn as much as possible about the shuttle (though to be fair, you wanted to learn about Space in the first place, or you would not have come to visit the KSC).  Having one of the actual space shuttles suspended in mid-air in front of you while you learn about it is extremely cool.

I wonder if there’s some way to bring to life events in US History from the pre-Civil War period in a similar fashion… we’d need to find a compelling question and some neat artifacts.  But I’m guessing there’s a way to do it.  We’ll work on that the rest of this year, as we explore how the United States grew larger and ultimately split apart in a civil war that lasted 4 years and claimed the lives of 620,000 to 700,000 people.

That’s a lot of people dying.

To put that number in perspective, the US population in 1860 was about 31 million, so 620,000 people represents 2% of the people.  The US today has about 320 million people, so losing 2% of today’s population would mean 6.4 million people killed.

As you can see below, more people died in the Civil War than in all other US wars combined (though World War II is a close second):

Casulatiessource for data: US Military Casulaties of War from Wikipedia.

My students did not choose to sign up to take a class in the US Civil War, the way we chose to visit the KSC — but the Civil War is a compelling subject that I’ll work to bring to life for them.  The battle at Gettysburg, PA, for example, resulted in nearly 8,000 deaths over the course of three days of fighting (July 1-3, 1863), plus more than 25,000 injured.

Gettysburg

Here’s what President Abraham Lincoln had to say when he visited Gettysburg in November of 1863, just four months after the bloody battle.  He was there to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery.  This is one of the most famous (and shortest) speeches in U.S. History.  We will read and analyze it soon after we start classes again in January — and then we will work to learn more about events that led up to the civil war in order to put this speech in perspective.  Here’s a first look at Honest Abe’s most famous speech:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Source: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

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