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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What happens when a speaker cancels?

Or: “Why it’s a good idea to keep track of current events that connect to your history class.”

It’s 8:40 a.m. Class starts at 9. I just learned that the speaker I’d set up for my two morning classes can’t make it. I have nothing else planned.

This really happened to me this morning. And it actually worked out extremely well.

If you’ve ever taught (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably have — or still do — that’s my audience), you can relate to all the work that goes into setting up a speaker. Call — propose a date; work with the speaker’s schedule… I took class time to have my students prepare quality questions a few days ago. I even got bottled water for my speaker and tidied the front of the room.

This is a speaker who actually had already visited our class earlier in the year, so I knew he would be good. In fact, when he visited our class back in September, he was superb. My students and I were excited to dive deeper into some of the Civil Rights stories he told us about earlier in the year.

Our speaker grew up in Durham, NC (where I teach), and went to Brevard College. While there, he had a fight with — and then befriended — a white student named Billy. Billy’s father was active in the KKK. Despite that, our speaker and Billy became such good friends that our speaker was best man at Billy’s wedding. That meant, though, that Billy’s father chose not to attend his own son’s wedding.

When our speaker told us this story (and several others about picking tobacco in the late 60s and early 70s), we hadn’t yet studied the Civil Rights Movement (CRM).

And he was still compelling. During the course of this school year, we have often referred to our speaker’s stories. It’s like he’s an honorary part of our class. The class, for context, is a US History survey from 1877 to today.

Now, it’s February, and we’ve been studying the CRM for nearly two months. We have quite a bit more context, and we are ready to ask all sorts of excellent questions… but it’s hard to ask questions of someone who’s not there.

It wasn’t my speaker’s fault. He had a work-related crisis that caused him to cancel at the last minute… He diligently emailed me at 7:40 a.m., soon after he learned of his crisis… but I was busy tidying my classroom and getting bottled water… so I did not see his email until 8:40, when I finally checked my phone. I was standing at the entrance to our school, wondering where my speaker might be…

So what should I do?

I had nothing prepared. Zero. Zilch. I’d even left the quizzes my students took the previous day (and that I’d already graded) on my kitchen table at home. I mean why would I need those? We would be engaging with a superb speaker all class long, right?

As it turned out, I had just come across two great resources that I wanted to share with my students — though I wasn’t sure when we’d have time for them. I’d stored those resources in the shared notes for our class under “items we might get to later.”

In the minutes before class started, I decided that “later” would be “today” 🙂

One resource was a broadcast I heard just two days ago — it was an interview with the Dean of NCCU’s law school, Phyliss Craig-Taylor on NPR’s “The State of Things.”

Dean Craig-Taylor was, to quote NPR, “part of the first wave of black students to integrate public schools in Alabama. She started attending an integrated school in third grade, and it was a challenging and formative experience. White children taunted her and threw projectiles at her, and she collected each item in a cigar box. These objects later served as evidence in a lawsuit to push for stronger integration of public schools.”

She grew up as the youngest of 12 students, and her mother signed up to have Phyliss integrate their local school as a 3rd grader (along with her brother, a fifth grader, and her older sister, who was in high school).

This was perfect timing, because my students had just seen video footage of the Little Rock Nine (the first nine blacks to attend Little Rock High School in September of 1957) from the “Eyes on the Prize” video series. We could compare the struggles in 1957 Arkansas with the struggles in 1964 Alabama.

I was worried my students would need visuals, but they did a great job listening to the first 11 minutes of the NPR broadcast. They asked excellent questions and empathized with Dean Craig-Taylor.

After that, we watched the first 7 minutes of a book talk by Tim Tyson. Tim had spoken at the Regulator Bookshop back on February 1, 2017 (if you click the link, which I highly recommend, Tim starts talking at the 4:30 mark).

Tim’s talk was remarkable — I was there at the time. But I was sitting way in the back (or rather, standing — it was standing room only — I’ve never seen the Regulator Bookshop so packed), and I could not record much of the audio with my cell phone. Thankfully, CSPAN recorded the event, and that recording finally came online about a week ago. So we watched. And Tim Tyson is one heck of a compelling speaker.


In fact, after class, I found myself compelled to watched more of Tim’s talk.

My students don’t know this yet, but what we’re going to do tomorrow is watch the next 15-20 minutes of Tim’s talk, which makes salient connections between the topic of his book — The Blood of Emmett Till — and politics today. It also makes a good case for why it’s important to study history.

My students and I left off at the 11:00 mark of the video, when Tim says “I’m 57 years old — I didn’t expect to be fighting for Brown v. Board of Education and the damn Voting Rights Act [applause]. I had another thing or two in mind.”

That’s a compelling place to pick up tomorrow.

I suppose that the lesson here, if there is one, is that it pays to follow current events and keep track of your resources.

It’s also probably not a bad idea to have a back-up plan just in case a speaker cancels unexpectedly.

And a final bit of good news is that our speaker is coming next week. When he arrives, we will be even more ready to engage with him.


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Teaching about Donald Trump

I try to make my classes relevant. Donald Trump is helping me do that this year big time.

Today we made an unusual connection to President Trump’s now famous (infamous?) executive order about immigration. The one that’s all over world news? Yeah that one. We connected that executive order to the Dred Scott decision from 1857.

Yes, really — read on 🙂

Today in class we watched the video of the hearing conducted last Friday by a Federal Judge in Washington. This is a relevant hearing to watch because this is the judge who granted the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against President Trump’s immigration ban. This the TRO that President Trump says is endangering national security (but many experts say the opposite — that the travel ban itself is endangering national security) (welcome to 2017).

In the video clip, the judge in Washington asked the parties about something called “standing.”

I asked my students to write down the word “standing” in their learning journals, and I told them that  “standing” in a legal sense basically means the right to sue because you have been harmed.

The state of WA was not directly harmed by this travel ban, so the Trump administration claims that WA lacks standing.

There’s a doctrine called “parens patriae” that says WA can take care of its citizens and sue on their behalf, thus giving the state standing to sue.

The state of WA also argued that its state universities are being harmed because they are losing tuition money because students from the seven countries mentioned in the travel ban now can’t come to the US to study. 

So now my students know about “standing,” which is kind of an abstract concept — but I’m glad they have heard of it.

But then it occurred to me during my second period class that we actually HAVE learned about standing before. And this is what makes studying history cool. It helps you make connections and better understand your world.

In fact, we learned about standing last year, when we talked about the Dred Scott case.

Cliff’s Notes version of the case:

Dred Scott said “I should be free because my master took me to free territory and I lived there for a while.”

The Supreme Court said “not only are you not free, but you can’t even bring a lawsuit. You have no standing because you are not a citizen. And you can’t be a citizen because you are black.”

Check Wikipedia if you don’t believe me:

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), also known simply as the Dred Scott case, was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court on US labor law and constitutional law. It held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves”,[2][3] whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court…

That’s specifically why the 14th Amendment was ratified — to overturn Dred Scott and make it clear that anyone born in the US (or later naturalized) is a citizen.

So here’s another interesting part — and this is a question the judge asked during the hearing and that I asked my students to write down — Do refugees or visa holders that have never physically entered the country have equal protection rights under the Constitution?”

This is a big deal question.

Let’s do a close textual analysis of the 14th Amendment (which seems pretty relevant these days):

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

So if I am a refugee, am I “within the jurisdiction” of the US? If I have secured a visa to come to the US, or have at least started the vetting process, does that make me “within the jurisdiction” of the US?

If not, then I can’t make an equal protection claim.

By contrast, the “due process” part applies to any person — it does not say “within its jurisdiction” — so would that cover refugees?

This is an interesting question. Many of my students followed this discussion especially closely because this is a real-life issue that is changing the lives of refugees and people coming to the US from the seven previously banned countries.

And we will see soon (likely later today or tomorrow) what the Ninth Circuit says about these questions — or at least, as a preliminary matter, whether the travel ban can come back into effect (that executive order is currently “on hold” thanks to the TRO from Washington state).

It doesn’t get much more relevant than that!

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Booker Spicely — revisited

Note: I blogged about Booker Spicely in 2015, but I am updating my blog post a bit so that it works better for teaching this material in 2016:

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, age 35, apparently did not sit where he was supposed to sit on the bus, and words were exchanged between Private Spicely and the bus driver, Herman Lee Council. 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, Council, got back on his bus and finished his route before turning himself in. But he was not in jail for long. “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? It seems like it should be a big deal in the Triangle.

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 of graduate students from Duke drove over to play the black varsity team at 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.

Here’s a summary I just found online:

On a Sunday morning in March 1944, most of Durham, North Carolina, was in church. That’s the way basketball coach John McLendon wanted it when his all-black college team from North Carolina Central University (then the North Carolina College for Negroes) faced off against an all-white team from Duke University’s medical school.

The game would be the first interracial college basketball game in the Jim Crow South, and it had to be kept a secret. McLendon even locked the doors behind the teams after they entered the gymnasium.

– Source

The book, as you can imagine, is about far more than a basketball game. It talks about life before 1944 in Durham, and traces the lives of many of the players involved in the game.

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 that describe it.

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.

So that you have some geographic context, I made this map showing roughly where Camp Butner was located, relative to the school where I teach, Research Triangle High School.

World War II was at its height, and the famous D-Day invasion (which my students will learn about in 3rd quarter)  had just happened on June 6, 1944. Up to that time (and when the “Secret Game happened in March of 1944), Hitler’s Germany controlled pretty much all of France.

With that context, let’s get into the story as it unfolded on July 8, 1944:

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 the details — so I am not sure 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 a Saturday night in Durham, four days after the 4th of July.

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



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 2016 (though with all the shootings this summer, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’s sadly easier for me to imagine). I would like to think that a jury today would at least deliberate for more than 28 minutes (see below). Council, the driver, claimed he was acting in 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”:


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 as we start thinking about race in American history. There are lots of quality questions we can ask so that we can empathize with this moment.

As I have told my students this year, I care more about asking great questions than I do about the answers (though I do want us to develop strong research skills as well).

I am not sure it’s possible to piece together what actually happened in 1944 in Durham. But here are some questions I have:

Where, exactly, 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?

So let’s think about sources — if we wanted to do a deep dive on this topic, where could we get information?

Here’s one quality source that could help us get started. I wonder if we could 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. That person would be a primary source, just as Anthony Timberlake, our guest speaker next week in a few weeks (he had to reschedule) will be a primary source for growing up in Durham in the 1960s and 1970s, and living in the US as a black man.

I also want my students to think about why they have never heard this story before. By contrast, I’m betting that nearly all of them will know something about Rosa Parks and the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that followed her arrest.

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 that account 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 fact, in December of 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 for quite some time. It was not a random event that happened because she was “tired.” See the Wikipedia article about Rosa Parks for more details.

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

Spicely Wiki

I’m assuming many 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.

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? I get that it’s a big country and we can’t include everything in the history books — 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 — why is that?]

I did some basic research, and learned that 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. In 2015, I asked my students to consider cases such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Sadly, that list has expanded to include many shootings during the summer of 2016, including Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (July 5 and 6).

Here’s a resource listing nine high-profile police shootings of African Americans.

Here’s some troubling context on police shootings nationally, compiled by the Washington Post.

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.”


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 was amazed that 3,500 buildings were constructed in six months! And it surprised me to learn that Axis prisoners of war were actually 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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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:

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)



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.


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):


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:


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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