Mistakes and questions lead to authentic learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1860 census

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article on sharecropping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s hard to learn from multiple choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native Diversity

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On slavery…

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From the Space Shuttle to the Civil War

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

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


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

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

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

heat shields

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

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

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

That’s a lot of people dying.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Who is Kailash Satyarthi?

The folks in Norway just announced the winners of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize — and I want to focus on the winner who’s not pictured on the front page of the New York Times (at least not on the digital edition that just came out):


I have blogged several times about Malala Yousafzai — the first time was nearly two years ago, shortly after she was shot by members of the Taliban because she was speaking out on her blog about how women in Pakistan deserve an education.  Malala seems quite deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.  She’s incredibly courageous.

But I want to focus on the other winner.  And I am ashamed to admit that before a few minutes ago, I’d never heard of Kailash Satyarthi — a man who has dedicated his life to children’s rights in India.

Here are several pictures of Kailash Satyarthi:

kailash images

He works on behalf of the millions of children in India who are enslaved.  Here’s a blurb from a PBS piece about Kailash Satyarthi:

Kailash Satyarthi has saved tens of thousands of lives. At the age of 26 he gave up a promising career as an electrical engineer and dedicated his life to helping the millions of children in India who are forced into slavery by powerful and corrupt business- and land-owners. His original idea was daring and dangerous. He decided to mount raids on factories — factories frequently manned by armed guards — where children and often entire families were held captive as bonded workers.

When I read that he mounted raids on factories, I understood why the first group of pictures that came up on my Google Image Search included a bloody picture.  At first, I was reluctant to include the picture in the center below —

bloody Kailash

As I learn more about his work, I understand why he would be beaten by owners of businesses who were not happy that he exposed their child labor practices.  I think the bloody picture above came from a raid Kailash Satyarthi conducted in 2004 on a circus in India.

As I looked for videos about Kailash Satyarthi (whose name I’ve now learned to spell), I came across this powerful 4-minute video clip of a monologue written by Kailash Satyarthi and performed by actor Dylan Bruno.

The monologue tells the story about Satyarthi’s first day of school when he was 5 or 6 years old.  He wondered why he was going to school when, right outside his school, a young boy his age was working as a shoe cobbler.  Watch the clip:

I am glad that he won the Nobel Prize, and I look forward to learning more about him over the weekend.  Click here to watch a 20-minute PBS video about Kailash Satyarthi.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The English landed at Jamestown in 1607… but first, they stopped in Puerto Rico

The English arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

Well, everyone knows that, right?  Let’s move on.

Hold on, I told my students.  History is all about asking questions.  

Don’t you have any questions?  

Nope.  We’re good.

In an effort to get my students thinking, I asked them two very basic questions about that seemingly simple sentence.

How many ships did the English colonists have with them?  And what was the weather like when they took their trip?  Did they leave in June or January?

These seem like trivial questions, but they led my U.S. History students on a cool journey of discovery and empathy.

One of my students did some quick in-class research, and found this Wikipedia article about the History of Jamestown, which answered my question — there were three ships.  And if you look at the start of the second paragraph, it says they landed in April, so it must have been lovely weather.  Case closed.  Let’s move on…

three ships

But wait a second — if we take a moment to read the second paragraph beyond the names of the three ships, we learn that these ships crossed the Atlantic and arrived not at Jamestown, but at the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico, where they apparently stopped to get provisions before venturing north.  Take a second look:


This stop in Puerto Rico is significant because it reminds us that the Spanish were all over the “new world” long before the English entered the picture.  Thanks to this information about the stop in Puerto Rico I now have a different mental picture of what the English colonists’ route looked like.

Before, I pictured something like this:


But now, armed with new information about the stop in Puerto Rico (how long did they stop for?  Did the English have a Spanish translator on their boats?  Did some kids growing up in England take Spanish as a second language?), I now picture this route:

PR included(the first stop to the south, by the way, would be the Canary Islands — also the stopping point for Christopher Columbus back in 1492.)

columbus 1492

I have since learned that the reason for this seemingly roundabout route (down, left, back up) had everything to do with ocean currents.  Here’s a map showing the initial sailing routes between England and Virginia:

traditional route

And here’s more detail, from a website dedicated to colonial shipping routes:

The National Park Service describes the typical 1500’s transatlantic sail from England as follows:

Following the clockwise flow of winds and currents, the expeditions sailed south from England, past Spain and Portugal, and stopped over at the Canaries, Madeiras, or Cape Verdes for food and water before attempting the long Atlantic crossing. In the absence of major obstacles, such as foul weather or pirates, this leg of the voyage usually took ten to fourteen days.
Then, with the northeasterly trade winds and the Equatorial Current at their backs, the voyagers made for the West Indies, sailing as a later generation of English square-rig sailors would say “south ’til the butter melts, then west.” An uneventful crossing usually required four or five weeks.
After replenishing supplies once again, the fleet picked up the Florida Current (precursor of the Gulf Stream) and followed it northeast from around the Strait of Florida to the latitude of Roanoke – a trip of another ten days to two weeks.
For the return trip to England, ships usually took the Gulf Stream and its extension, the North Atlantic Drift, back to Europe, perhaps with a stop in the Azores for provisions and prize ships. Being more direct, the homeward voyage usually took much less time.

So now, if we look back at the two paragraphs from the History of Jamestown Wikipedia article, we have more context for understanding just how unusual it would be for a trip across the Atlantic to take more than four months:

4 months

The people on that boat must have been sick of sailing!

So when did they leave London?  In order to arrive in Virginia in April of 1607, the people on these three ships must have left London in December of 1606.  And in fact, that’s just what happened, according to this website about Jamestown from the National Park Service:

On December 6, 1606, the journey to Virginia began on three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. In 1607, 104 English men and boys arrived in North America to start a settlement. On May 13 they picked Jamestown, Virginia for their settlement, which was named after their King, James I. The settlement became the first permanent English settlement in North America.

The site for Jamestown was picked for several reasons, all of which met criteria the Virginia Company, who funded the settlement, said to follow in picking a spot for the settlement. The site was surrounded by water on three sides (it was not fully an island yet) and was far inland; both meant it was easily defensible against possible Spanish attacks. The water was also deep enough that the English could tie their ships at the shoreline – good parking! The site was also not inhabited by the Native population.

Because we were not satisfied with the simple sentence that so many students memorize — The English arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 — and because we consulted multiple sources, we started to empathize with the people on those boats.  We thought about sea currents and weather and language barriers.

It matters how many boats there were — and it matters what time of year it was.  It also matters that there were no women on the boats.  It all matters.  And the more you can stop to empathize, the more history comes to life and becomes more than just a flashcard to remember.

And for the record, it turns out there’s a quicker way to find out how many ships went on the journey — just look on the back of the state quarter for Virginia:


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Doing Flips — Flipped Attendance and a Flipped Test

I teach at a public charter school in North Carolina dedicated to doing things differently (I’m paraphrasing the mission statement a bit).

Students bring their own electronic devices — mainly laptops, but it’s BYOD, so we get a mix — and we’re committed to the “flipped classroom” model.  

Accordingly, I’ve already made some videos to help my students learn such things as:

how to annotate a reading 


how to be an active and engaged learner.  

I will make more videos as the year goes on, and I plan to have students make videos as well — to teach their classmates about the things they learn.

But I’m not stopping at flipped lessons — I’m also “flipping” other things in my classroom.

For example, I’m taking flipped attendance.  Instead of taking attendance by calling out students’ names, I have students visit a shared Google Spreadsheet where they answer a brief question at the start of class.  This technique has a few purposes — it gets everyone’s voice out there, and it makes sure their machines are ready to go so we can do research or collaborate or even take notes.

Here’s a fun example of the results when I asked “what did you have for breakfast?”

(student names would appear at the left, but I clipped off their names to preserve anonymity).



The fourth line is blank because that student was absent.  That’s how I take attendance.  A blank line means a student is absent (or is having trouble getting online, which is useful to know as well).

I love the third one from the bottom — “I don’t even remember what I had for lunch.”  This was in a class just one period after lunch.  I now know that student has a good sense of humor 🙂

“Flipped attendance” can also be more serious.  For example, I might ask them about the day’s reading — here’s an example of from a day when I asked students to record what they learned about Harriet Tubman from watching a video I made:


Taking “flipped attendance” allows me to learn not only who’s absent, but also which details from a video or reading my students found most interesting.  It also tells me which students did not do the homework (I appreciate the honesty of the student who fessed up, highlighted above).

This Friday, I’m trying my first-ever flipped test.  Instead of the traditional test, where I would have to read the same responses from all 100+ of the students I teach (five sections of about 20 students each), I’ve asked each of them to write me a one-page paper telling me the most interesting things they have learned thus far in our class.

Some students have started writing already, and it’s neat to follow along as they write in a shared Google Doc.  I can even provide feedback and ask questions as they progress in the writing process.  They take notes in shared docs as well — in a future post I’ll show some of the ways I can provide feedback and help them improve their notes.

Ideally, the notes will serve as the rough draft for the “flipped test” and students will choose to write about the most significant things they have learned.

Here’s a working draft from one of my students, who gave me permission to quote this work-in-progress:

So far in class, I’ve learned a lot.  We started off by talking about history itself.  “History” comes from the word “historia,” which means, “to learn by asking questions.”  We discussed what characteristics an ideal student has and the expected respect levels in the class.  We also talked about Andrew Jackson very early on, and I learned some interesting things about him.  My favorite thing that I learned about him was about his temper.  He once got in a duel (a real duel, guns and everything!) with a man who insulted his wife, who had died before he became president.  Jackson was shot twice and carried those bullets inside of him for the rest of his life.  We discussed the Michael Brown case, and shared our opinions on whether his death (or possibly murder) was justified.  In order to make comparisons, some people, myself included, also researched the Trayvon Martin case.  I enjoyed getting to know what people, including George Zimmerman, Martin’s attacker, said had happened in that case.  Supposedly, it was self defense, but I’m not really sure if I believe that.  


I look forward to reading the rest of that “flipped test” (and the 100+ other tests I’ll receive tomorrow).

Based on the work I have seen from my students thus far, and on the general culture at the school, I have a feeling that this is going to be a great year. 

This is my 20th year teaching, and I feel like doing flips.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Reaching out to the world (in this case, to Madagascar)

It’s 2 a.m. and I am wide awake because I am excited about teaching U.S. History this year at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC.

I want my students to engage with history in ways that are meaningful, and I thought a compelling introductory topic would be to debate whether Andrew Jackson belongs on the $20 bill.  We see Jackson all the time:

20 bill

But what do most people know about President Jackson?

As I started to research the topic, I came across a compelling piece in Slate, titled Kick Andrew Jackson Off the $20 Bill!  The sub-heading is “The seventh president engineered genocide. He should be vilified, not honored.”

The piece is written by Jillian Keenan, who describes herself on her website as “a writer, journalist, and Shakespeare geek in New York City.”

I emailed Jillian to see if she would be willing to Skype with my students after they read her piece in Slate.

Because it’s 2 a.m., I did not expect to hear back from her for a while.

Surprisingly, she emailed me back in less than five minutes.  From Madagascar!

Here’s what she wrote:

Hi Steve,

Very cool! I myself had an amazing history teacher who encouraged me to think critically about things I’d otherwise take for granted, and he legitimately helped shape the person I am today. Teachers are the best.

But I digress! Let me think–I’m in the middle of a long reporting trip with the United Nations (I’m Madagascar right now, flying to Niger tomorrow) but I should be able to Skype on … hmm. Would Tuesday, August 19th work?

Like I said, I’m traveling, often in areas with no Internet access, so if I’m slow to respond to any subsequent emails, bear with me. I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.

Thanks, Steve! This sounds fun.


This email exchange at 2 a.m. with a writer in Madagascar reinforces a few ideas for me that I want to share with my students:

First, the world really is global.  When it’s 2 a.m. in the Triangle, it’s 9 a.m. in Madagascar, and someone might respond to your email right away.

To put Jillian’s trip in perspective, I used Google Earth and discovered that Niger — Jillian’s next stop on her reporting trip — is more than 3500 miles away from Madagascar.


Second, I love being a teacher — people want to help you help your students learn.  Even when they are in Madagascar, heading for Niger. And they are excited to work with students — here’s a Tweet Jillian sent out just seconds after I emailed her:


Third, we live in an age when students, armed with internet access, can reach out to the world and learn on their own.  I’m modeling that behavior for my students by reaching out to the author of a piece in Slate about Andrew Jackson.  I am doing so because I found the piece compelling and think it’s fun to talk with experts.  I also think that a Skype conversation with a published author will inspire my students to learn more about Andrew Jackson.

But I am also hoping that my students will come to realize that they don’t have to wait for me — they can write their own emails (as long as they do so respectfully) as they reach out to learn from people all over the world.

One of my former students, John Guerra, now a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, noted that the most valuable thing he learned from me is how to take the initiative to learn on his own. He can (and does) use his computer to conduct research, find reputable information, learn about the world, and reach out to experts.  John’s eloquent 6-minute testimonial about my teaching is available here.

As John recalls in that testimonial, a question came up in class that I could not answer, so John decided to Google “Roman History Expert” and then email a professor of Roman History to see if that professor could help us out.

John sent this email at 11:46 a.m. —


One minute later, John got this response —



That’s the world we live in today — students who take time to be thoughtful and come up with good questions can now get their questions answered by experts from around the world, if they reach out in a respectful way.

What an exciting time to be learning!

And now I need to get to sleep 🙂

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments