As I mentioned in my recent post about rote memorization, I want my students to grasp the “big picture” of US History: What do we need to hold on to twenty years from now that will make us informed global citizens?
Last year was my first experiment playing with intentional memorization in Social Studies as I try to scaffold them towards success in APUSH. To create a memory framework, I chose to use the already secure tapestry and sequence of US Presidents. From there, I wove in major events, themes, and trends.
1. I start by introducing four/five presidents at a time.
The presidents are attached to a handful of corresponding major events which occurred during their time in office. Sometimes the president had nothing to do with these events (e.g. Edison lights up NYC during Chester Arthur’s time in office. Arthur falls under the Era of “Forgotten Presidents” cuz dude didn’t really do anything.)
These events and presidents are always introduced hand-in-hand with our normal unit of study (e.g. Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, and Hayes show up during our brief review of the Civil War and Reconstruction).
2. Then, I snowball the list
To build the comprehensive skills needed for the final exam, we spend a couple weeks deeply packing the first set of presidents into our long-term memory before I add on four more presidents and four more and so on. The long-term memory bank blooms from there.
- Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes
- Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland
- McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson
- Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt
- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson
- Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan
- Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama
3. Students take notes in a simple graphic organizer.
When I introduce each set of new presidents, students jot notes on a simple table to. This is a slight twenty-minute sidestep from our normal lesson; that’s why they’re not writing them in their normal notebooks.
Of course, we still discuss the corresponding major events in great detail during our normal study; however, I do keep a separate teacher presentation of the “Big Picture” info for students to reference for their comprehensive “Big Picture” study.
4. As the list snowballs, the recall practice quizzes evolve as well.
The first RPs start off on “level easy” with matching and fill-in-the-blank style questions.
As I snow ball new presidents to the master list, the early sets shift to “level hard,” where students have to generate the information on their own, and the new presidents enter with “easy” matching and fill-in-the-blank questions.
The RP process continues like this until students have a big, blank grid to fill in at the end of the year.
5. I provide partially-made flashcards for the students to complete and use on their own time.
After reading about all of the benefits of self-quizzing, I realized that this would take me ten minutes to whip up but ages for my students, so the likelihood of them actually making them was slim. We use the flashcards in class from time to time. I model good self-quizzing habits by doing card sort activities (e.g. “Using your flashcards, show me the three laissez faire presidents before WW2.” “Sequence the three presidents who had major interaction with Native Americans.”)
At the end of the year, students can recall and sequence the eras and presidents Lincoln through Obama (my class starts with the Reconstruction Era). From there, they recall and describe major social, political, economic, and military events. For example:
- Social: The Standard Oil trust is formed, NAACP is formed, etc.
- Political: Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights Act, etc.
- Economic: The New Deal, The Great Society, etc.
- Military: Spanish-American War, WW2, War on Terror, etc.
By mid-year, I started to hear some amazing thinking from my students:
“Oh, that’s right. The Berlin Wall wasn’t built until Kennedy was in office. The Iron Curtain was still symbolic when the Cold War began with Truman.”
I noticed from this type of dialogue that the further we got into this experiment the higher Bloom’s skills and more complex historical thinking began to emerge among my students. They were “doing” causation, comparison, and contextualization on their own. Hooray! Objective met.
Expand the Conversation
History teachers: How do you get your students to hold on to your content? What do your recall activities look like?
But wait–there’s more!
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