Beg, Borrow, & Steal
After ten years, I still remember my first mentor telling me that “The teachers who beg, borrow, and steal good techniques are teachers whose students will achieve.”
Like all newbies, when I first started teaching US History, I reached out everywhere to find quality instructional resources.
Keeping the end in mind, I latched on to our APUSH teachers for guidance. I have always been fortunate to be surrounded by craft-masters in my district.
Far from what my HST 400 class taught me in undergrad, I knew that just A) lecturing and B) having my social studies students read the textbook were not enough to prepare them for the literacy demands of college, career, and citizenship (i.e. some long-term life domination skills).
I made it my goal to do some “vertical teaming” and prepare my non-Advanced Placement, sophomore US History students to rock their junior/senior year by scoring high on the AP US History (APUSH) exam.
Equity & Access
When I first heard about the College Board’s belief in equity and access—giving all students who are willing and academically prepared the opportunity to participate—I was all about it, but I was especially geeked for my low-income, At-Risk, often would-be-first-generation-college-bound students.
Sadly, “As many as 1 in 3 first-year students won’t make it back for sophomore year. The reasons run the gamut from family problems and loneliness to academic struggles and a lack of money” . There are major repercussions for dropping out so early, including the ridiculous amount of student debt kids acquire. Unfortunately, that number shifts dramatically for kids like mine: “Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school” . I can’t honestly be pleased if my students simply get accepted into college. If they drop out soon after enrolling, what does that say about their high school preparation?
Giving my students that foot-in-the-door to college that AP classes can offer makes that transition one that could actually stick.
Where it Began
Those first few years navigating my students towards APUSH, I was filled with good intentions,—like all teachers are—but looking back I feel like went about preparing my students for that next challenge in such a round-about way.
I’m not saying that I have it mastered today, but I feel like maybe I’m on a clearer path.
Back then, I began by simply dropping my kids into the deep end of the swimming pool, exposing them to the Document-Based Question (DBQ) essay. This is the portion of the test where students have to answer a question based on 8 to 12 primary source documents provided. It’s quite similiar to the new SAT essay that Michigan high schoolers will now take on in their junior year.
“DBQs are hard!” I thought, “I’ve got to bring those bad boys down to my course, so kids have lots of time to experience tackling them before the big test day.” A bit of Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hours to mastery” rule couldn’t hurt, right?
After reviewing the format from some of the formerly released tests, I gathered my own charts, maps, political cartoons, speech excerpts, etc. and made three or four of my own DBQs. Yes, now I realize there are so many already-created-DBQs out there for teachers to use, but I was just plugging away at the time without this knowledge.
And I’ll tell you what, I was pleased with the work my students were doing. They were doing some heavy cognitive lifting, and isn’t that what we want for our students? At the end of each trimester, kids were analyzing six to eight difficult primary source documents, close reading the heck out of them, and attempting to write some mega argument all in a two-hour block.
The Early Results
At the end of the year, I was psyched (or maybe a little delusional) that all of these students would go on to take APUSH the following year and come back with high scores, but—sad face—in the end that’s not what happened.
With such kindness in his heart, the APUSH teacher shared with me that while the exposure to DBQs was somewhat helpful, our students were getting wrecked by their lack of content knowledge. It was the multiple choice section that hurt kids the most.
Multiple choice! Bubble-answers! No.
This news wrecked me.
I invested so much time into making sure my students were strong readers and writers. I hadn’t considered the idea that their content knowledge would be missing.
We were “doing” some tough AP-style stuff. Take multiple draft readings of the “Rugged Individualism” speech: My kids weren’t just analyzing a rigorous text, they were straight-up owning the “up-by-the-bootstraps” philosophy Hoover talks about.
But while that’s a killer read for sophomores, there was still a gap nevertheless.
The APUSH test requires students to use the documents AND combine it with their knowledge of the subject (i.e. outside information, including historical facts and ideas that are relevant to the question but not mentioned in the test). How were my students going to do that if they couldn’t carry the content from one grade level to the next, let alone from one unit to another?
They may be able to shred the meaning of one isolated text, but that didn’t mean that they could place that document in context, see how it works, and get it to stick there.
If you read my last post, Seven Essential Strategies to Increase Content Retention and Make It Stick, you understand how I’m going to start addressing this problem of “forgetfulness” across the content areas: I want to continue teaching my students how learning works, specifically addressing research-based methods of studying and debunking those “feel good but don’t really work” styles of learning. I’m also going to keep building in desirable difficulties into my classes, from “grit rehearsals” to frequent quizzing, in order to beef up their stamina and understanding of neuroplasticity.
Thinking more specifically about my goal of prepping kids for APUSH, there are some other strategies that I’m going to refocus on doing and some new ones I’ll start experimenting with come the start of school, which for us Michiganders is just after Labor Day! (Hooray for the longest summers in years!)
What I’m Going to Continue Doing
1. Article of the Week
Like Kelly Gallagher, I use the AoW to fill in the “gaping gaps about the world that [my students] are soon to inherit.”
Just about every Monday, my students receive a one-page article, often on some current event. Sometimes, the article connects thematically to our current unit in US History but not always. If I have time, I create a vocabulary box at the top of the article to address language that might impede their core understanding of the text; other times I let them tackle their word-level confusion on their own. From there, students are set up with two tasks:
First, closely read the text. This doesn’t mean mark it up with every thought that pops into their minds. Instead, they should use annotations to address some deeper understandings. Normally, kids focus on the questions: What does the text say? (i.e. translate the confusing parts) What does it mean? or Why does this matter?
Secondly, using the understandings that they pull from the text, student then write a one-page response to the AoW. I plan to continue using the two-paragraph model from Graff’s Clueless in Academe as a scaffold towards more complex writing tasks.
2. Essay ReWrites
Last year, recognizing the need to increase and improve writing in our discipline, the Social Studies PLC, grades 7-12, added common essays to each course’s unit test. The essays are worth 25% of the assessment grade, and per our department goal each student was required to pass the essay with an 80% mastery score.
This was tough work for all us, especially just getting some students to actually write the essay in the first place let alone adjusting instruction to help students achieve that high of a mastery score. As one would expect, ReWrites are essential here. Not just because we’re practicing growth-mindset or some kind of standards-based grading, but it just takes some kids multiple go-rounds before they really understand writing in the social studies discipline.
The cool thing is, according to Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, when we give “tests that require the learner to supply the answer, like an essay or short-answer test, [this appears] to be more effective than simple recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false tests” because students have to stimulate retrieval and reflection, which deepens their long-term content retention. Plus, “when more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results.” #writetolearn #dohardthings
On top of that, “studies show that giving feedback strengthens retention more than testing alone does.” So, that means after my students’ content retention has already benefited from the simple act of writing, I can beef it up by providing corrective feedback and allowing them to rewrite. When kids have to rebuild their knowledge structures, they strengthen those foundations of learning. Let’s say one of my students misunderstood the Zimmerman Telegram when addressing the causes of our involvement in WWII: allowing that kid to see the error and go back to fix it locks that correct content knowledge into their brain.
Furthermore,—and here’s the kicker—“interestingly, some evidence shows that delaying the feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.” Hallelujah! That means I don’t need to beat myself up for not having the essays graded and returned the day after the test! I know I’m not the only history teacher out that there considers not assigning writing tasks simply because grading them feels to daunting. Yet allowing time for purposeful forgetting (yeah, cuz that’s what I’m doing when I’m swamped with 100 essays to grade overnight) is all part of that rebuilding process of content retention. It’s a major benefit for student learning.
3. Big Picture History Pack: Memorize Presidents & Main Events
When our APUSH teacher shared the news about the low scores and students’ difficulty to contextualize the facts, I starting playing around with the idea of weaving themes and trends into an already secure tapestry of US History facts. In order to build the core of this structure, I’d have to build in some rote memorization. I figured what better way to build a framework than the already created sequence of US Presidents.
Last year was my first experiment doing this, and how it worked was simple. As we moved through each unit, we snowballed an ongoing study connecting the Presidential terms to major events/policies. Generally, we added four Presidents every couple weeks to our frequent quizzes. I’m already drafting a more detailed post to dig into this, so if you’re interested be on the look-out for that one.
4. Thesis Starters
If we want kids to do the important work of writing about history, we have to consider where the heavy cognitive lifting takes place. For most sophomores, this kind of work is a combination of key content knowledge and cognitive strategies. Before even composing the essay, students need to identify their claim, strategically sort facts, terms, and concepts, and construct a clear thesis statement.
Yes, the scrawling of the actual essay is important, but most of the work is done in the early stages: brainstorming, organization, and thesis-writing. If we want kids to practice this facet of literacy with great frequency and if we want to give them immediate feedback, we cannot ask students to write extended argumentative and informational essays all the time. Composition takes time both in class and out (I don’t know about you, but grading always feels like it takes me a long time).
Our APUSH teacher introduced me to this idea two years: Instead of having students always write out a whole full-feature-length essay—Yes, I still have them do this at least 3x each semester—, give them the prompt (and maybe the accompanying documents, if you’re practicing a DBQ). Then, ask them to catalogue their content knowledge and craft a thesis statement answering the prompt. Sometimes, I ask students to write the first paragraph + thesis in order to get a bigger picture of where the essay might be going; however, in all other cases, the reader should have a definite understanding of the essay’s direction based solely on the thesis statement. This strategy is great as a formative assessment because I can evaluate students’ familiarity with both my US History standards and the Common Core anchor standards around writing, for which all teachers are responsible.
5. Themes + Trends (Longitudinal Study)
Since I began teaching my course, I’ve been framing my units around thematic driving questions, which—I believe—comes from Understanding By Design. This type of unit design easily builds inquiry and argument into our units of study. And because I have all of my sophomores for both US History and English 10, I pair the DQs between the two Humanities courses. Here are a couple of my DQs:
- Is the United States still a ‘Land of Opportunity?’ —-> Industrial & Progressive Eras + The Other Wes Moore and Outliers
- Is it okay to intervene in other people’s business? —-> Imperialism & WWI + Othello
In addition to our thematic study, we also study trends related to race, gender, class, and sexuality over time. This summer, I attended the APUSH teacher training to learn how to further scaffold my kids onward and upward. I learned the College Board‘s language for this historical thinking skill: We’re analyzing Continuity & Change Over Time (CCOT) in longitudinal studies.
Instead of further marginalizing these minority groups, we weave our longitudinal studies with the other units, highlighting them throughout the year.
What I’m Trying New This Year
6. Cornell Notes
All the master history teachers I know keep talking about having their students use Cornell notes. I’ve found a couple resources that I’m going to share with my students this year to teach them how to initiate this practice, but it’s all new to me, so leave me some suggestions below.
As I said earlier, I kind of pushed my kids into the deep end of historiography with some intense DBQ essays when we should have been refining our strokes for a while in the shallow end.
At the APUSH training, I saw the benefits of having students do more regular practice with the Short-Answer Questions (SAQs).
Unlike the longer essays, students don’t need a thesis. Instead, they have to answer three parts to a question, A, B, and C, framed under a specific historical thinking skill.
Our trainer Kyle Vanderwall, from Grandville High School, has his APUSH students frequently writing SAQs as their “bell ringer” activity, and his sophomores rock the exam each May! He said he’s able to quickly grade and return these short writing pieces to give students immediate and specific feedback.
8. Frequent Quizzing
My last post explores all the content retention perks of frequent quizzing. Without totally revisiting my summary of Make It Stick, I want to build a habit of retrieval practice into my US History class and help students embrace desirable difficulties. Some of these quizzes will focus on our Big Picture History Pack—which I mentioned in #4—while others will be cumulative for entire course of study.
This year, our high school is shifting to a BYOD policy. This is exciting because even my non-Tech 21 Academy (i.e. non-1:1 Chromebooks) students will be able to participate in immediate online quizzing, like Kahoots.
Once again, the research from Make It Stick is pushing me to build in more opportunities for my students to do some “brain dumps” and write about what they know and still want to know about our content. I do have my students do Quick Writes, but I want to be more intentional and explicit about how these written reflections act as a strategy for content retention. I’m still exploring what this is going to look like exactly.
10. Abridged Textbook
Finally, for the last few years our World History teachers have been experimenting with some of the work from The Big History Project. In particular, they use something they call the “Student’s Friend,” an abbreviated history of the world in about 50 pages. Students keep this printed mini-“textbook” in their binders to read, annotate, and reference.
Generally, my students are acquiring content knowledge from primary/secondary sources and interactive lectures, so I hate to have my US History students lug around our 20lbs textbook every day when we only reference it a few times a semester.
This year, I’m going to experiment using excerpts from the “content review” section of the Princeton Review’s Cracking the APUSH Exam study guide. It’s concise, readable, and generally unbiased. I hope that I can support students build their Cornell note-taking habits using a shorter and less rigorous texts. (Remember lower the text complexity if the thinking skill is challenging, or vice versa.)
Like all teacher researchers, we have to hypothesize, experiment, observe, and refine our practice from year to year, especially with those strategies that we beg, borrow, and steal from others. We have to figure out how to make them fit with our unique population of students.
At this point, who knows how all of these are going to work out? Maybe I’ll find that I need to tweak some of these practices mid-semester, or maybe I won’t.
Ultimately, I’ve got to keep learning and growing if I want my students to do the same.