My student showed me I made a mistake… and that’s a good thing

Today, one of my students did some research in class and showed that I’d made a mistake. This was fantastic, because it drives home a few different ideas:

1) it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them;
2) it’s bad to rely on one source, even if it’s a fancy animated source;
3) when you corroborate your sources, you often learn neat new information.

I was teaching about Teddy Roosevelt, and I showed students this 90-second video that shows how the Great White Fleet (a fleet of 16 new battleships painted white) traveled all around the world from 1907-1909 to showcase U.S. military power.

At the 1:08 mark of the video, the video draws a helpful line that traces the path the ships took on their voyage:

108 great white

According to the animation, the Great White Fleet crossed the Atlantic and went through the Straits of Gibraltar (between Spain and Africa), then passed through the Suez Canal, and then headed over to India and then over to Japan and then on to Australia…


The people who made the video did such a nice animation… I can really picture how the 16 ships stopped at ports along the way to refuel and get more supplies.

There’s just one problem — the ships went the other way!!!

What I love is that one of my students pointed this out by doing research in class (we’re a 1:1 school, so all students have laptops). He was adding images to his notes (as I encourage students to do to reinforce their learning) and my student came across several maps that showed the ships going the other way.

Here’s one example he sent me:

As you can see, there are numbers and dates that show when the fleet hit each port on its itinerary. But surely the people who made the animation checked first before they invested all the time in making the animation…

Actually, no — the animation is wrong and this map that my student found is correct. How do I know? I checked a third source (and then a fourth before I decided to blog about this — how embarrassing would it be to get this wrong?).

Here’s a source from Wikipedia that corroborates the map my student found:

wiki corroboration


And here’s another source from the Theodore Roosevelt Center (which really ought to know what it’s talking about):

Called the Great White Fleet because the ships were painted white instead of modern gray, the fleet covered 43,000 miles and made twenty port calls on six different continents. The fleet first deployed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, and sailed to Trinidad, British West Indies, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and made port back in the United States at San Francisco. The fleet’s journey stopped briefly when they made port call at San Francisco on May 6, 1908, because some ships left the fleet for other duties while others joined the fleet for the next leg of its journey. The command also changed from Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans to Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry.

The Great White Fleet sailed again on July 7, 1908, and traveled to Hawaii, New Zealand, three ports in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Ceylon, and Egypt. They stopped in Egypt on January 3, 1909. Learning that an earthquake had struck Sicily, the Great White Fleet sailed to help with the wreckage and recovery work. After their assistance, they traveled on to Naples, Italy, and from there to Gibraltar and on to Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the fleet’s journey concluded.


I found it particularly interesting that “The fleet’s journey stopped briefly when they made port call at San Francisco on May 6, 1908, because some ships left the fleet for other duties while others joined the fleet for the next leg of its journey.” That reinforces the idea that these are real battleships that have real duties, so there had to be a substitution. I wonder how much food they had on the ship from port to port, and I wonder if they ever picked up local cuisines.

The video I showed to my students was one of the first ones that came up when I looked for videos of the Great White Fleet. It’s a good video in many respects, but it gets the direction of the route backwards.

I’ve told my students that this video reinforces why they need to turn in an early draft of their final research project — the past is complicated, and we need time to think things through… or at least make sure we’re at least going in the right direction.

The best thing about making a mistake (and taking the time to correct it) is that you’re more likely to remember the topic. If the video I found had gone in the right direction to start with, my student would not have had an “aha” moment, and it would not have been as interesting. This blog post would not have resulted and my students’ brains would have spent less time thinking about the Great White Fleet. So yay for mistakes!


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Slow down — think; ask questions; learn

I was listening to NPR this morning, and I heard this great piece about gas shortages in Venezuela. The opening line says “Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world — almost 300 billion barrels of oil lie beneath its territory” — but that Venezuela is running out of gasoline and there are ridiculously long lines to get gas. The reporter for the story interviewed a dairy farmer in a place that sounded like “Via del Rosario” who has been in line for gas for five days. It’s worth listening to the story (it runs just under 4 minutes).

Okay, here’s a question I always like to ask when I’m learning about the world: where is this story taking place? The report said it’s near the Colombian border, but I honestly can’t picture Venezuela’s border with Colombia — let’s get a map.

Before you look at my map, slow down and try to find it yourself… It took me at least 10 minutes to find it — see what you can do before you read more of this blog.

I’ll give you some blank space… don’t cheat 🙂








My problem was that I had the name wrong — it’s not “Via del Rosario” — that doesn’t exist in Venezuela. The name of the town is “La Villa de Rosario”

What threw me initially is that there is a “Via de Rosario,” but it’s in Colombia, near the Venezuelan border.

via not villa

It’s not a problem to make a mistake (as long as you figure out you’re wrong and you fix it). My mistake actually made me slow down and think more about life in Colombia — I wonder what gas prices are like in Colombia, and whether people cross the border into Venezuela to get cheaper gas the same way people who live in NC near the Virginia border cross into Virginia to avoid the higher state tax on gas in NC.

If you listen to the NPR piece (which you really should — here’s the link again — slow down and take four minutes — this blog post will still be here) it said that you can fill up a tank of gas in Venezuela for a penny — or at least you could before the current crisis…

Okay — so where the heck did this story take place?

Here’s what I think is the correct location — “La Villa de Rosario” in Venezuela
(thanks, Google Maps!)

venez map

Okay, now I know where I am. If we zoom in, we can figure out how the reporter got there…

La Villa

I’m guessing the reporter probably flew into Maracaibo and drove over on highway 6.

So Venezuela has 300 billion barrels of oil underneath it — how big is a barrel of oil?

That was easy — thanks, Wikipedia:

The barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) is a unit of energy based on the approximate energy released by burning one barrel (42 U.S. gallons or 158.9873 litres) of crude oil.


So what is a “proven reserve”?

A reserve is considered a proven reserve if it is probable that 90% or more of the resource is recoverable while being economically profitable. These terms relate to common fossil fuel reserves such as oil reservesnatural gas reserves, or coal reserves.


Okay, so where is Venezuela’s oil located? Is some of it off shore?

Here’s a great map I just found:

venez oil

It actually lists the oil reserves of the Top 10 countries — check it out:

How did I find that? What elaborate search did I run?

oil search

The tricky part is slowing down to think — once you come up with questions, it’s pretty easy to find information. The trick is then to do something with the information.

After I listened to that NPR piece, I had lots of questions:

Who are Venezuela’s allies? Why doesn’t someone invade Venezuela to take its oil? Is Venezuela’s government stable? (I know it’s not — but what are the details of the instability?) What is it like to live in Venezuela? The NPR piece said, at the 3-minute mark, that black marketeers are charging $5 to fill up a tank with gas. It also said that $5 represents a month’s salary! Woah — what is inflation like in Venezuela?

This is how learning works — you get some basic information and then you slow down and you ask lots of questions — then you do some research and write down what you learned (like I’m doing in this blog). Then you think — and you ask more questions and conduct more research.

When I teach in the fall, I will ask my students to learn about U.S. History this way — I will have them keep track of their learning in their notes (maybe some of them will be inspired to blog?)

Your notes should have images. We learned about this story in Venezuela from a 4-minute NPR radio report, but if we wanted a picture or two of the gas lines in Venezuela, could we find them? I mean, if people are standing in line for five days at a time, I’m guessing that’s being covered by the media…

Yep — an image search for “gas lines Venezuela” on June 19, 2019, yielded this result:

gas lines venez

And that’s what learning looks like.

Take some time to slow down — think; ask questions; conduct research; learn; think more; ask more questions; conduct more research; learn more (rinse and repeat).

P.S. — I also heard a piece on the BBC this morning saying that South Korea is providing 50,000 tons of rice to help North Korea because North Korea’s rice crop was bad this year and people are starving. I wonder what 50,000 tons of rice looks like…

I can’t find a link to the BBC story, but there are lots of news agencies covering this story — here’s one from the Japan Times:

I wonder what relations are like between North and South Korea… I wonder, I wonder, I wonder…

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MLK or Malcolm X — whose views would you follow?

I just taught Letter from Birmingham Jail to my students over the past week, and I’m feeling good — it’s one of my favorite things to teach and my students did a great job following along, even though it’s the end of the school year.

We’re a laptop school, but those can be distracting, so I printed the whole thing out and we read through it on paper.

It’s a difficult text to get through, but we read it slowly (and actually watched a lot of it being performed by this fantastic reading of the letter done by a group of civic leaders and educators in Ohio). We took our time and we unpacked each of the first 24 paragraphs.

To put the letter in context, we actually started by reading the advertisement that King is responding to — written by a group of Birmingham’s clergymen (four bishops, three reverends, and a rabbi)

These are the points they make in their advertisement:

  • We can solve this problem ourselves — don’t break the law — do what the judge says
  • We don’t need outsiders coming in to Birmingham
  • Outsiders are inciting violence with their “peaceful” protests
  • We don’t need extreme measures
  • The police are doing a great job at keeping order

My students can now (I hope) both explain who Dr. King is addressing his letter to, and explain how Dr. King’s Letter refutes each point made by that advertisement. They can also articulate the four steps in a non-violent direct action campaign —

  • collect evidence to make sure there is injustice before you act
  • negotiate to solve the problem
  • self-purification
  • direct action

[And they get to hear my favorite sentence in the English language — where Dr. King strings together a series of images using semicolons to paint a picture of the injustice faced by blacks in the U.S. in 1963 — I’m pasting it at the end of this blog post because it’s so good and if you have not read it before you really should read it]

To further prepare for this unit, we started by watching one of the most powerful examples of “direct action” in practice from 1935 in India — it’s the four-minute scene from the 1982 movie Gandhi, where Gandhi has been arrested the night before by British forces, but his followers march one after the other into beatings from British forces protecting the salt works. Gandhi’s people are non-violently breaking the law that the British have a monopoly on salt production — they are trying to take the salt that they claim is theirs by right. They accept the beatings to call the world’s attention to the injustice of continued British occupation of India.

We also talked about how this kind of direct action only works if there’s freedom of the press and an opponent who is moral. It would not work against Hitler’s Nazis, for example.

It was a pretty cool week of learning.

At the end of the section of King’s Letter that we read, there’s a part where King draws a dichotomy between his position and that of the black Muslims and Malcolm X. King writes that his path of non-violent direct action is a middle path between doing nothing and advocating violence. Here’s how he characterizes the position of black Muslims:

The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.

But why let Dr. King be the one who gets to depict black Muslims? Is there a way to bring to life the other side’s views? After all, King’s letter is from April of 1963; four months later, in August of 1963, King helped lead the March on Washington (where he delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech).

But that march was an event that Malcolm X derided as the Farce on Washington, because the white man controlled every aspect of the event. In Malcolm X’s words: “The marchers had been instructed to bring no signs–signs were provided. They had been told to sing one song: ‘We Shall Overcome.’ They had been told how to arrive, whenwhere to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. First aid stations were strategically located–even where to faint!”

But it’s the end of the school year and students can only get so much from reading Malcolm X’s words — is there a way to capture Malcolm X’s argument more forcefully?

Well, as providence would have it, my good friend Rey Smith, a retired teacher from Washington DC, just posted this 12-minute video on Facebook — it’s of Malcolm X giving a speech at Oxford University in 1964. He’s so articulate, and so much of what he says is still relevant to today’s world (#BlackLivesMatter).

If you want to read along (as my students will do in class on Monday), the text for Malcolm X’s speech is available here.

So rather than just leave things with “So you now understand Dr. King’s position — let’s move on” we can now have a spirited debate about who my students would follow if they were teenagers in 1964 — would they join the forces of MLK and non-violent direct action or would they join the forces of Malcolm X, which will use whatever force is necessary? Or would they be bystanders? It’s not so simple. History, as we’ve been saying all year, is complicated.

I’ll follow up in this blog with highlights from our debate, which we’ll have in class in the next few days, after my students read this blog post and watch Malcolm X’s speech.

And now, as promised, here’s that loooong and powerful sentence from MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail —

Here’s the line just before the long sentence for context:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

And here’s the sentence:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.


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Wait, what? A 37-year-old is running for President?

I am writing this blog entry for my students to show them how much you can learn in a concentrated 40-minute period of time. While I’m hoping most of them will get my Wait, what? reference in the first question of the title of this blog post, I’m betting most of them have not heard of this person who I just learned about, and who’s running for President in 2020:

Pete Buttigieg

Well, he’s quite a compelling figure. Here’s what Wikipedia says (as we’ve noted, Wikipedia is a fine starting place to learn about a topic):

wiki pete

We will talk about Pete Buttigieg (and about the rest of this blog post) when I get back from Washington, DC.

But first — how do you even say his name?

As with the woman from Nigeria who gave the compelling TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, I think it’s important to pronounce people’s names correctly. So to review, she’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Chee – ma – mahn – dah;  N – go – zee;  Ah – dee – chay) — and here’s a 25-second video of how to pronounce her name.

Pete Buttigieg wrote this in December 2016 about how to pronounce his name:

Most people have trouble pronouncing my name, so they just call me “Mayor Pete.” My surname, Buttigieg (Boot-edge-edge), is very common in my father’s country of origin, the tiny island of Malta, and nowhere else. Dad came to America in the 1970s and became a citizen; he married my mother, an Army brat and umpteenth-generation Hoosier, and the two of them settled in South Bend, Indiana, shortly before I was born thirty-five years ago.


How did I learn about him? Well, my friend James Kessler just posted on Facebook, and I decided to watch — here’s James’ post:


For my students’ benefit, a “Hoosier” is someone from Indiana, and my friend James is from Indiana (though he now teaches internationally — he’s now at a school in Beirut, Lebanon). James and I both taught with my other friend, Ken Okoth, who’s from Kenya and now represents Kibera in Kenya’s parliament (you can Google Ken on your own).

Anyway, I was intrigued, and I like Colbert, so I watched Pete Buttigieg’s 7-minute appearance on the Late Show with Steven Colbert. Please click the link below and watch – be sure to take notes as you watch. Buttigieg has some interesting responses when Colbert asks him about what constitutes a “national emergency.”

After watching that video, I got curious about the timing of Mayor Pete’s coming out announcement. At the five minute mark of the Colbert appearance, Buttigieg said that he wanted to come out, but that “inconveniently, I was in the middle of a re-election campaign.”

I found this two minute video from June of 2015 where he came out as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (please watch it and take notes):

And then I found the 800-word essay Mayor Pete wrote to announce that he is gay (please click the link below and read and take notes on his essay)

For context, I wondered who else is running for president so far, and I found this interactive listing of Presidential candidates from the New York Times:

What I found interesting was that Mayor Pete’s brief write-up did not mention that he’s gay — and that makes sense, because why should that matter?

In the “making connections” department, I found it interesting that he made his “coming out” announcement just before the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2015 Obergefell case, which, in the words of Wikipedia, “ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

A further connection I know of, from reading Michelle Obama’s recent book, is that the same day that the Obergefell case was decided, President Obama was in Charleston, SC, to deliver the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Michelle Obama writes about how she and her daughter wanted to get outside the White House for a moment so they could see it lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate the decision:

White House Rainbow

I did a bit more research about Pete Buttigieg, and I found this compelling column by Frank Bruni in the New York Times in 2016. Bruni said that Mayor Pete is someone to keep your eyes on (looks like Bruni was right — since Buttigieg is running for President)

Click the picture below to read the article. This is an optional article — my students don’t have to read the whole thing… but you should read a little of it.

Bruni is a master of writing using hyperlinks, and that’s a skill I want my students to develop. I followed several of the hyperlinks in his column. Please read his column and follow a few hyper-links — record which one(s) you follow in your notes.

I read around a bit more, and that led me to Mayor Pete’s website, where there’s an initial 2-minute video he made announcing his candidacy for president. In this video (please watch it) he makes the case for looking forward rather than looking back:

So in about 40 minutes of concentrated learning on Saturday morning, I got to know a great deal about Pete Buttigieg; I also got a better sense of other candidates running for President (there’s another 37-year-old running — she’s from Hawaii); and I got to model the sort of learning I want to see my students doing on a regular basis.

And that’s why my blog is called “What I Learned Today” 🙂

See y’all when I get back from Washington, DC, where I plan to be blogging about our special Supreme Court meeting with Brett Kavanaugh (I suspect there will be a few blog posts — both about how we prepared for that meeting and about the meeting itself).

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#EduCon learning mode

I have not physically left Durham, NC, yet — my flight leaves later today — but mentally, I’m already in full-on EduCon learning mode. I’m looking over the #EduCon Tweets and getting excited. I especially like a phrase I just saw on Twitter — it talked about a “pre #EduCon Thursday”


I teach high school students in Durham, NC, about U.S. History — but I am also a voracious learner. As a learner, I am SO excited to attend EduCon — a phenomenal conference hosted annually by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia on the weekend before the Super Bowl.

On Thursday (yesterday), I finally had a chance during a study hall to look over the EduCon program, and my learning got kick-started. And while I’m not leading a conversation this year, I signed up to deliver a “lightning talk” (20 slides in 5 minutes) at lunch on Saturday, and the preparation for that talk is forcing me to refine my thinking as only looming deadlines can do 🙂

EduCon invigorates me during the winter. It’s a crazy-cool collection of amazing learners from all over the country and all over the world who come together during a cold three-day weekend to learn from one another. At EduCon, the learning is not limited to the conference sessions — a lot of the best learning happens in impromptu conversations in person and on Twitter. And almost all of the sessions are video recorded and archived, so if I hear that I “missed” a great session, I can watch it later.

The sort of deep “I want to learn more” learning that happens at EduCon is the sort of learning I model for my students. Not all of them are following my lead, but it’s only January — I’ll keep trying.

It just occurred to me that when a 90-year old Holocaust survivor named Abe Piasek came to speak at my school in November, I got into a sort of pre #EduCon Thursday mentality. Once I learned his name and a few details about him, I decided to learn like I was at EduCon…

I watched hours of YouTube video of Abe’s talks about his experience in the Holocaust. I also researched him online and found a great 88-page PDF document about the Holocaust (Abe’s story starts on page 52). I shared what I learned with my school community, and then my principal asked me if I wanted to introduce Abe when he spoke, seeing as I’d done all that work to prepare.

After he spoke, Abe said I could call him to follow up with more questions. That led to my visiting Abe at his house in Raleigh where we talked for nearly two hours. I’m actually meeting Abe again at his house next weekend (after EduCon), and some of my students and I are hoping to take him to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC (he’s never been).

I’m delivering a 5-minute “lightning talk” over lunch on Saturday at EduCon, and I’m actually hoping to use that as a way to crowd-source questions I should ask Abe when I see him next weekend in early February. Here’s the 5-page summary I sent out to my school community to prepare for Abe’s visit. I modified it for EduCon…

So let the learning begin. Bring on #EduCon 2019!

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“Show yourself as a learner to your students”

[updated Sept 2, 2018]

“Show yourself as a learner to your students” is sound advice from Milton Chen, one of the panelists from the opening “creativity” panel discussion at EduCon, a phenomenal conference I attended in Philadelphia the weekend before the Super Bowl in 2018. Here’s a link to the video of Friday night’s panel discussion, which was phenomenal. It’s seriously worth an hour and a half (or at least 45 minutes — you can watch at double-speed).

Here’s the moment when Milton Chen (far right) said that teachers need to “show yourself as a learner to your students” — it’s at the 1:53:10 mark of the video (the video looks like it’s 2 hours long, but the program starts 27 minutes into the video, when a student welcomes the audience).

show self as learner

Given that the name of my blog is “What I Learned Today,” I could not agree more. The opening panel resonated with me and inspired me to blog about my teaching and how I try to both show myself as a learner to my students and give my students agency in what they learn about in my high school US History class.

Every day to prepare for my U.S. history class, I do work in a Google Document that typically has 5-6 pages of notes for each day we meet (sometimes more — I like learning). Those are my shared notes for the class. In class, we don’t get through all of the pages of my notes — the conversation often goes other places — but the notes are there so that students see me modeling the sort of inquiry I want to see from them. My notes are a record of the learning I do every day to prepare for class (and in class — I often add to my notes as we go, based on questions students ask). A bonus of this approach is that if a student misses class for any reason, they don’t have to ask “what did we do in class?” because it’s all in the shared Google Doc.

Students come into class, open my notes, open their notes, and copy relevant sections of my notes into their notes. As class goes on, they add to their notes to show what they’re learning in class.

[Note: I teach at a 1:1 school, with a policy of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) — and a few students have computers that load slowly — the computers literally take 5-6 minutes to load. This makes it harder for them to experience the class in the way that I intend.]

In a recent class, we learned about James Meredith, because MLK mentions James Meredith in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.

In class, I asked my students if they knew who James Meredith was — most did not. But the modus operandi in my class is: “if you don’t know, look it up.”

So here’s what Wikipedia says:

James Howard Meredith (born June 25, 1933) is a Civil Rights Movement figure, writer, political adviser and Air Force veteran. In 1962, he became the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi,[1] after the intervention of the federal government, an event that was a flashpoint in the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy‘s inaugural address, Meredith decided to exercise his constitutional rights and apply to the University of Mississippi.

I mentioned that JFK’s inaugural address must have been a good one if it in fact inspired James Meredith to decide to apply to the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s — we will listen to that inaugural address in a few weeks (it’s just 15 minutes long — you can find it easily on YouTube).


I scrolled down the Wikipedia article to show my students this picture (see right) of federal troops making sure James Meredith could attend classes:

Then something very cool happened — one of my students observed that “it must have been really hard for him to be the only black student at the University of Mississippi — I wonder how the other students treated him.” And that phenomenal question led us to look further into the Wikipedia article, where we learned these telling details:


Many students harassed Meredith during his two semesters on campus,[19] but others accepted him. According to first-person accounts, students living in Meredith’s dorm bounced basketballs on the floor just above his room through all hours of the night. Other students ostracized him: when Meredith walked into the cafeteria for meals, the students eating would turn their backs. If Meredith sat at a table with other students, all of whom were white, the students would immediately get up and go to another table.[20]

Those are powerful images — bouncing basketballs above a dorm room at 2 a.m. and people standing up and making James Meredith eat alone in the cafeteria. Students who are paying attention in class will not forget those images. And that deeper learning happened thanks to taking a student question seriously. I’ve updated my notes to show — wait for it — what I learned today (see? that’s the title of my blog) — and students in my other classes can theoretically learn from the student who made that observation about James Meredith.

I also don’t give tests (this should probably be a separate blog entry, but I’m going to write a bunch now and refine later). At my school, we use a learning management system called the PLP, which is part of the Summit Schools learning platform. Students take short multiple choice tests on their own at their own pace to make sure they know the basic information. That counts as 30 percent of their grade. The other 70 percent of the grade comes from projects where students show what cognitive skills they have learned.

The main project in my class is the Big Final Project (abbreviated as BFP). To prepare for that final project, students complete a few short research projects called an MIT — it stands for “Most Interesting Thing.” Students are supposed to think about the time period we’re learning about and choose one person or event to dive in deep and learn about. When I wrote this blog post, my students were studying the time period from 1945-1975, with a focus on the Civil Rights Movement. I let my students choose topics that will help them better understand that time period and make connections. They propose a few possible topics, and I approve one. Then they conduct their own research (I help if they need help) and write a short paper that talks not just about what they learned, but what they still want to learn.

It’s always seemed odd to me that we ask students to write a conclusion at the end of a paper when they have only studied a topic for a few weeks. How can you have a conclusion when you’re just scratching the surface? Instead, I ask each student to end the MIT with five further questions that show the student understands and appreciates how complex the topic is — all of history (indeed all of life) is wonderfully complex and interesting, if you ask the right questions.

I recently asked my students to write three sentences about their topic and list their top three questions that they hope to answer by doing research. They should actually come up with 10 questions in their notes — but they were supposed to share their top three questions with me. That paring down from 10 to three requires my students to exercise some judgment by curating the questions. Here’s what a few students are writing about. These are juniors in high school:

My topic for MIT #3 is the Loving vs. Virginia case that went to the Supreme Court in 1967. This case was about an interracial couple who were denied the right to get married to one another, because at the time, people of different races were prohibited from getting married to one another. This case was a very important milestone in achieving equality and fundamental rights. Also, I want to learn more about this case because it had a big impact on the relationships between citizens of different races and it was a step into eliminating segregation.

Top three questions:
1. Did this case overturn any previous ruling or case?
2. What were the consequences for marrying people of a different race, when it was prohibited?
3. Back then (in the late 1960s), did the majority of whites agree with the law to prohibit marriage of different races, or was the majority against it?

I am currently planning to do MIT #3 on the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits one person from being elected president for more than two terms. The reason for this is that I have, in recent years, developed a personal interest in term limits for public officials, which arose as I learned of the extraordinarily long amounts of time for which some Senators and Congressmen had held their seats. While the amendment does not affect Congress, and, as I understand it, was more a direct reaction to Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times in a row, it is one of the few official legal measures (that I know of, at least) which have ever been taken in the United States to limit an individual’s time in government (I remember being rather surprised when I first learned that Supreme Court justices could serve for the remainder of their lives if they wished), so I became curious as to the details of its passing.

1.) While Congress was in the process of drafting the amendment, was there any discussion of extending the same or a similar rule to other government officials? Was there any public demand for this?
2.) Was this the only example of term limit laws in the US? Is it still? Are there any individual states/cities that place limits on how many years and/or terms an individual can hold public office?
3.) Was there any opposition to the amendment? What was their argument? What was the final vote in Congress to pass it? How many states ratified it?

The topic I choose was NATO, from when it was first created (1949), to the end of our time period. I wanted to do this topic because of the fact that I’ve heard about it a lot, but I still don’t quite know what it is, or what it does specifically. I also think it would be interesting to know why it was created. THREE QUESTIONS: What was the original purpose of NATO, and did the purpose change? What were people’s response to NATO’s creation? How was it created, was it just made by political leaders of the countries, or by some other means?
In 1965 MLK led a group of protesters on a March in Selma to fight for voting rights. If African Americans were trying to vote they would be attacked by the KKK so it was a major fear to see black people have any type of power to try to take the “White mans” perspective of a good country. With all the hate MLK wanted to use peaceful protest and he was very inspired by the works of Mahatma Gandhi. Even with his house bombed he told people not to take arms.
1. How much money was MLK making yearly to provide for his family?
2. If King was such a problem how was he able to get out of jail time and time again?
3.Where there good African American lawyers available to help people who got arrested?

And that’s how an MIT in my class works — at least the start of one…

My students this year will be writing one or two MITs, just to get down the idea of writing a coherent paragraph that starts with a topic sentence and that integrates information from multiple sources (and cites information properly).

I want them to focus more of their energy on the BFP. The idea behind all of these projects is that I let students pick their own topic that they find interesting. This emphasizes the importance of student choice in learning, which was one of the major themes of EduCon in 2018.

By modeling for students how I learn, I hope to encourage them to do some learning of their own. I’m going to be out of school for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and I’m going to ask students to read my blog post about Booker Spicely, which I think does a good job of what this post purports to be about — showing yourself as a learner to your students.

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Reading books is good for you

The internet is an amazing resource. But if you do online research right, you should end up with some books on the topic you’re learning about. Yes, there’s a wealth of information online, and you can get lots of great information and even some keen analysis from online sources. But a typical book represents a year (or more) of work, and will deepen your learning about a topic that you get interested in. A book goes through multiple drafts and is worked on by editors. It’s usually a great resource. And thanks to libraries, books are free!

[for high school students reading this post, “books” are rectangular paper objects filled with words and pictures; they don’t even need batteries!]

Here’s an example of how online research led me to a book… well, actually, several books…

I was doing some research about the Iraq War, because as a high school US History teacher I’m going to be teaching about it this coming school year. I found a great NPR program from 2013 with a panel that included Ted Koppel, among others, talking about the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I’m going to have my students listen to the first 12 minutes of the program — it’s excellent.

That NPR piece led me to another program titled:

What Lessons Should Americans Draw From Iraq War?

Here’s the Ugly URL (there will be a link coming to explain what an “Ugly URL” means and why I want my students to cite sources the ugly way).

One of the callers to this NPR program did four tours of duty in Iraq. He described one of the speakers’ books, Fiasco, as “one of the best books” about the Iraq War.

Here’s the transcript from NPR:

I was [in Iraq] in ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08 with the 101st Airborne. I just want to briefly mention that Tom Ricks mentions us, our unit, at the end of his book “Fiasco,” and I want to thank him for doing a great service, for writing one of the best books about the war

I was impressed with what the speaker, Tom Ricks, had to say in the NPR segment (he was on the 10th anniversary program as well), and so I decided to check out his book.

I looked the book up on the Durham library’s website (that was easy!)


And I saw that two copies were available — one at the branch I usually visit. So I decided to visit the library. I went into the library armed with a simple book title and its call number:


And before I knew it, I had lots more context about the Iraq War that I can use with my students next year. Here’s one example — in teaching about the Iraq War that started in 2003, I tell my students they need to start with the Gulf War in 1990-91. I had been teaching that that war was a success — it met its objectives of driving Saddam out of Kuwait and the world community backed those efforts.

While that’s true, I now have more context and another take on that war — this is from pages 5 and 6 of the book Fisaco:


That’s a powerful sentence at the start of that last paragraph:

“Having incited a rebellion against Saddam Hussein, the U.S. government stood by while the rebels were slaughtered.” I will be sure to share these paragraphs with my students when we learn about the Iraq War in the 4th quarter of the year.

So that’s what book learning looks like. And there are more than 400 additional pages I can learn about the Iraq War from Thomas Ricks (here’s his bio from Wikipedia)

Thomas Edwin “Tom” Ricks (born September 25, 1955)[5] is an American journalist and author who specializes in the military and national security issues. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting as part of teams from the Wall Street Journal (2000) and Washington Post (2002). He has reported on military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He currently writes a blog for Foreign Policy[6] and is a member of the Center for a New American Security,[7] a defense policy think tank.

Ricks lectures widely to the military and is a member of Harvard University‘s Senior Advisory Council on the Project on U.S. Civil-Military Relations.

But here’s the problem with me and libraries… I am the kind of person who loves learning, so while I was in the library, I looked around on the shelves…

And I came home with this selection of books:


Now before you think I’m crazy, let me explain my thinking:

The book about comic books looked interesting — and I’m guessing some of my students will be more graphically-minded. It would be good for me to understand comics better. The Monterrey Pop festival is something I learned about from some of my students last year, and I’d like to see some footage from that event in 1967. The CD was on display, so I picked it up.

The “Open Leadership” book — also on display in the “New Books” section — speaks to how I want to run my classes — giving students more autonomy about what topics we learn about and how we learn about history in general. Learning about best practices from the business world seems like a good idea.

“Trump’s War” is a book that I never would have picked up if it had not been not on display in the library. It’s written by Michael Savage, who I know as a conservative radio host. I just looked him up on Wikipedia:

Savage has summarized his political philosophy in three words: borders, language, and culture. Savage has characterized his views as conservative nationalism,[9] while critics have characterized them as “fostering extremism.”[10] He opposes illegal immigration to the United States, supports the English-only movement and argues that liberalism and progressivism are degrading American culture. Although his radio delivery is mainly characterized as politically themed, he also often covers topics such as medicine, nutrition, music, literature, history, theology, philosophy, sports, business, economics, and culture, and tells personal anecdotes.

Since 2009, Savage has been barred from entering the United Kingdom, for “seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred.”[14]



I want my students to consider multiple view points, and as I seek to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump, I think it would be good for me to read a book that explains what kind of “war” Trump supporters see him fighting.

Fiasco is the book I came for.

The North Korea book was on display above it, and my son had been asking questions about life in North Korea recently. I skimmed the book and it  looked interesting — and I don’t know much about North Korea. Learning about it from one of the women who escaped from the country seems like a good idea.

Finally, the “For Love of Country” book was not on display — but it was located on the shelf near the Fiasco book I came for (I love open shelves in libraries). This book explores a topic I’ve been interested in for some time — ever since we got rid of the draft at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 there has been a huge gulf between the military (1%) and the civilian population (the other 99%). What can we learn from the military?

Because it’s summer and I don’t have to teach, I’ll actually get to read these books (maybe not all of them — but certainly big parts of them) over the next few weeks. And I’ll follow up on my blog about the most interesting parts of each book.

Indeed, a key skill I want my students to learn this year is how to curate information (that verb will be described in more detail in another blog post), so it makes sense for me to do the same for them with my summer reading/learning.

Update: I just came across Bill Gates’ summer reading list. He curates his list, explaining why each book made the list.

While I was writing about my learning experience at the library, it occurred to me that I want my students to emulate my behavior pattern of visiting the library on a regular basis. In fact, at some point this year — ideally before December — I want each of my students to identify a book that is relevant to his/her final project (I’ll explain the final project in another blog post and link to it here), and I want the students read the book by the end of January.

It’s actually better for me if they read their books at different times, because that will mean that I won’t have to read all of their summaries of their books at the same time. But if I know high school juniors, most of the books will get read at the last minute…

But at least they’ll get read — and reading books is good for you.

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