Friday, December 20, 2013

Critical Thinking: The Heart of Social Studies

      When I started teaching, I set out on a professional journey to always try and answer, "What is true learning? What is true learning in every content area?"  As an individual, two of my core values are authenticity and competence.  There is something at the soul of learning, a little energy that spins inside of all people (big people AND little people) and it's my job to cause that nebulous of energy to grow.
     I believe one of the most important aspects of learning is honest reflection and self-evaluation.  For teachers, stepping back and taking an honest look at instruction is the impetus for change.  It's difficult because it requires honesty.  It's difficult because it can mean that we have to be critical of ourselves.  It's difficult because sometimes we don't know what we don't know.  But when we do it, the change that we feel creates joy and satisfaction.
I believe thisWe MUST challenge each other to reflect on social studies instruction and embrace more substantial critical thinking in social studies. We can move in this direction if we, as teachers, more effectively seek personal understanding and ownership of the question, "Why is social studies important?"

As teachers of young historians, we must ask ourselves, "Isn't it time that we stop asking students to just learn information and facts? What does it look like for a student to be a historian? How do historians use sources to construct their understanding of the past? What processes and skills does a historian use to think critically about people, events, and ideas? Are we happy with everyone knowing the exact same facts, or are we going to embrace classroom experiences that allow students to bring their ideas and thinking to the table? How do the people, events, and ideas of the past connect to the people, events, and ideas of the present?"

As teachers of young geographers, we must ask ourselves, "Haven't we asked students to color enough maps, or given enough grades for coloring well and making sure labels are legible? What does it look like for a geographer to think about maps and sources that communicate geographic information? If a geographer looks at a source with geographic information, what processes does the geographer use to think about and understand the information? What is the difference between human geography and physical geography...and how are they connected? How does a geographer look at the world?"

As teachers of young economists, we must ask ourselves, "Isn't it time that we expand our view of economics beyond money and invite students to embrace the economic way of thinking? How might we embrace the concepts of scarcity or cost and choice so students can think critically about the multitude of decisions that they will make for the rest of their lives? How might we elevate the concepts of scarcity or cost and choice to understand the decisions made by people and societies in the past and present?"

As teachers of young engaged and informed citizens, we must ask ourselves, "Do we embrace democratic experiences that invite debate and multiple perspectives about issues? Do we develop opportunities where students become aware of how they can be involved in society?  Do we help students to see that the people in every time and place impact change by being involved and informed? Why is civics important?"

I believe we can embrace better social studies instruction if we reflect on what we're doing and start to have honest conversations with each other about GOOD social studies. I also believe that the thinking we ask students to do in reading is the exact same thinking that we should ask students to do in any subject. After all, READING is THINKING!  Critical thinking begins with letting go of tradition -  letting go of the focus on learning facts to regurgitate facts. Embrace thinking. Look at student work to see the thinking that's evident. Listen to the classroom conversation to see if you're creating a classroom where thinking takes place.

I believe that everyone can regularly incorporate two key strategies, and they'll start to illuminate the potential for critical thinking in social studies.

Questioning: Invite students to ask questions often.  Even if those questions are not answered, the questions reveal critical thinking.  Ask questions as a class.  Ask questions in small groups.  Ask questions independently.  Ask questions before you start learning about content.  Ask questions as you are learning about content.  Ask questions as part of the analysis process for maps, primary source, and any other source you're exploring with students.  And when the opportunity presents itself, take a question and turn it back on the students saying, "What do YOU think?"  

Make Connections: Invite students to make connections.  How is this event similar to events today? How does this person's actions help you to understand people of today? How is this place the same and different than where you live? How does this person's choice help you to think about choices you might need to make in life?

Your challenge: Take the time to have a 30 minute conversation with a colleague to answer the question, "What is good social studies instruction that is engaging, creates relevance, and invites students to THINK?"

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Constructing History: Gathering Evidence from Multiple Sources

   As students construct history, they are building deep understanding of people, events, ideas, interactions, and eras.  This idea of constructing history might seem elusive until you see how it's used in real life.

Imagine this scenario:  Your grandparents have passed on and you've been given control of a box that contains a variety of artifacts from their life.  There is a collection of letters with their correspondence during World War II, pictures from a variety of key moments in their lives, and some trinkets that were kept for one reason or another.  You are the "keeper of the artifacts."

In 4th grade, your son comes to you and says, "I need to do a report about my grandparents.  In my report, I have some questions that I need to answer.  Who were they? What was their life like? What were some of their accomplishments in life?"  At this point, you have a choice related to what and how your want your son to learn.

  1. Do you tell your son everything about your grandparents so he can learn about their life? OR
  2. Do you tell your son bits and pieces about your grandparents and analyze the box of artifacts to see if you can infer a little bit about their lives?
My belief is that you'd choose the second option, for a variety of reasons.  It's more interesting. It allows you to explore and think about the artifacts with your son. It allows you to see what your son does (or does not) understand about the past. And, it involves a conversation that is determined by the analysis of artifacts (versus you sharing information).

The same thing happens when teachers design learning experiences that ask students to construct history. As teachers we are the "keepers of the artifacts." As we gather and curate our collection of primary sources, we are developing a collection of artifacts that we want students to examine and analyze.

We ask students to construct the history of people, events, ideas, interactions and eras.  We use an inquiry approach to the learning, which involves creating questions with students or providing some key guiding questions.  We guide students to use secondary sources to gather ideas and evidence that will support answering these questions.  Most importantly, we involve students in the critical thinking process of analyzing a variety of primary sources connected to the learning.  We involve students in analyzing the artifacts. Through the process of analysis, students gather additional evidence about people, events, ideas, interactions and eras.  In this way, students are using multiple sources (primary AND secondary) to construct history.

For further investigation, you might consider reading a few other blog posts of mine:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Colorado and U.S. History - How are people, events, and eras connected?

In all states, students typically learn about their state's history in 4th grade.  A significant component of these historical state studies students learning deeply about the people, events, eras, and ideas connected to the state over time.  As someone who loves history, it's fantastic to see teachers abandoning old ways of history instruction (read the book, complete the worksheet) to embrace the historical process (using multiple primary and secondary sources to ask questions, gather historical evidence, and draw historical conclusions). Embracing the historical process is at the heart of a thinking classroom where the teacher places the cognitive load on students and facilitates rich learning experiences.

As students learn about state history, we will always use one of the most important tools of a historian...the timeline.  In the study of state history, standards throughout the nation ask students to recognize the connection between state history and U.S. history.  This connection is crucial because it creates historical context for young students.  U.S. history is presented to students in a way where they begin to be exposed to events and eras, but not necessarily expected to remember them with great complexity.  When we expose students to the events and eras of U.S. history, the timeline becomes a crucial tool to begin seeing these relationships between state and U.S. history.  Below, I hope teachers see how they might construct a timeline with students throughout the course of a state's historical study.  Colorado is the state example that's used.  Teachers are encouraged to consider how this timeline is constructed with students (and by students) over the course of multiple weeks.

NOTE: This timeline is based on these potential connections between Colorado's history and U.S. history.

Step 1: I might create a timeline that represents the range of years for the state's history.  My Colorado example goes from the Pre-Columbian era (before Christopher Columbus) to the present.
Step 1: Create a timeline (or pair of timelines) to show events in your state's history and events in U.S. history.

Step 2: I might establish historical context based on some of the first people or events we are going to study. We are going to begin our study of Colorado with the early people, Ancestral Puebloans, Utes, and Great Plains Indians.  Because of the people and events we're going to study, to the timeline I'd add the following eras for North America and the United States: 1) the pre-Columbian era, 2) the era of European exploration, 3) the era of new European colonies and settlements in the Western hemisphere, and 4) the era when native cultures of the Western Hemisphere interact with the Europeans who have migrated. On the timeline, we'll add these early eras.  I might use shading so students begin to sense the difference between an era and an event.  It's important to note that eras might overlap, as shown on the timeline, and dates don't have to be exact.  We are providing events and eras of the United States to provide historical context.  In class, we might read a few picture books together, look at a few primary source images, and maybe watch brief videos to build this historical context for students.
Step 2: Adding early eras to the timeline.

Step 3: Be creative in adding the time for "long, long ago." In this case, I might add a notecard because it's easily folded when students store their timelines.  I added enough to the timeline to account for the earliest state history that students study.  In Colorado, students examine Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) who lived in the Four Corners region.  
Step 3: Consider the earliest group/events/era you'll study for your state's history, and lengthen your timeline.

Step 4: Start studying some of the early people, events, or eras of the state.  Embrace the historical process (using multiple primary and secondary sources to ask questions, gather historical evidence, and draw historical conclusions). Here, I've added the people, events, and eras that we've examined. On the timeline, you see I've added an era (Ancestral Puebloans) and events (when Utes moved to the region, when Cheyenne and Arapaho moved into the Great Plains).  To the timeline ONLY, I've also added when Colorado becomes a state to provide additional historical context.  I want students to begin building their sense of time.
Step 4: Use the historical process to study the state's early people, events, and eras.
Add these to the timeline on the upper half.

Step 5: As we shift into the next portion of our study, I know we're going to examine the explorers in Colorado. Some early explorers came with the Europeans, and later explorers came after the Louisiana Purchase when people came to specifically explore the state.  Knowing this, I've added a few key events to provide context. (Jamestown and Plymouth as the first English colonies, the Declaration of Independence, and the Louisiana Purchas).  Again, we might read about these events as a class, look at a few picture books, examine a few primary sources, or watch a brief video.  The focus is not on the details of the event, but helping students to build historical context by getting the big ideas for any era or event.
Step 5: Add the next key events or eras in U.S. history.

Step 6: Study some of  the different explorers and exploration eras using the historical process (using multiple primary and secondary sources to ask questions, gather historical evidence, and draw historical conclusions). Add them to your timeline.
Step 6: The addition of explorers and exploration eras to the timeline. 

Step 7: New U.S. events and eras were added.  Look at the image to notice the events and eras that I've added.  You'll notice the addition of Westward Expansion.  While historians would argue with my approach, I've added it because I want students to understand that the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Homestead Act (1862), and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad (1863-1869) caused two big waves of people to move west AND into Colorado.  We'll be studying the first wave to hit Colorado (trappers, traders, and mountain men) and the second wave to hit Colorado (miners, ranchers, and farmers).  Notice how I've also added the era of Native American removal.  I've added this because I want students to have a better sense of the interactions that take place between new people in Colorado and those who were inhabitants of the land for centuries. This picture shows the new events and eras for the United States and for Colorado.  
Step 7: Adding new events and eras from U.S. history. 

Step 8: Last, I've added key eras and events for U.S. and Colorado history in the 20th century.  To me, the most significant events or eras in the United States are Women's Suffrage (era), passage of the 19th Amendment (event), the Great Depression (era), and World War II (era/event). In Colorado, we are connected because we gave women the right to vote in 1893, prior to passage of the 19th Amendment. We experienced the Dust Bowl, which is connected to the Great Depression.  We also built and moved Japanese to an internment camp at Amache, which is connected to World War II.  
Step 8: Colorado and the United States in the 20th century.

Below, the finished product.  It's an incredible tool to help students keep track of people, events and eras.  The timeline can be used as a tool for inquiry into the question, "How is the history of Colorado related to the history of North America and the United States?" It can be used to have discussions with students so they see how we are connected to the past...the opportunity to see continuity and change over time.  Plus, IT'S PRETTY COOL!  The experience of making this timeline and using it with your students will change the way you look at history forever.  Good luck!
The Final Product!

If you're creating digital timelines, it's tough to get this creative. I encourage you to consider LINE.DO and the one from Red, Write, Think