Getting loud about the 4th … and closing the gap

It’s been a while since I have posted – amazing, since it seems I have more time than ever – but I have been pushing myself to take advantage of as much of the great free online PD as possible this summer – more on that later… However, the 4th of July is always a huge day for me, and as I reflect on what it means – actually, what I personally think it should mean to everyone – I feel this July 4th may be as important as any I can remember.

I’m that guy that noses into 4th of July conversations and asks people what happened on July 4, 1776 – and I rarely get the accurate response. I usually hear that independence was proposed (nope, that’s June 7, by Richard Henry Lee), or the Declaration of Independence was written (Jefferson did that between the 7th and June 30, with some help from Adams and Franklin), or that the vote for independence took place (July 2, actually, in a 12-0 vote that Adams felt would be celebrated by Americans for years to come), or the signing of the Declaration (The Secret Journals of the Second Continental Congress notes that on August 2, “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” 

We don’t have celebrations on June 7, parades on July 2, or barbecues on August 2. So what’s with July 4? 

July 4, 1776  is the date that the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence as the statement for WHY “these United colonies are and of right ought to be free and Independent states.” To me, it’s the document — and the concepts behind it — that needs to be examined every 4th of July. We definitely need to celebrate our independence, but in my mind, there’s much more to it.  The ideas / ideals put forward in the document are, in my argument,  the heart of our democracy, what it means to be an American, and what it means to be America. 

The key to the document is the political philosophy that is set out in the well known (but overlooked, I feel) words of the second paragraph.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,

Those are the core concepts of the Declaration, the core concepts of the nation’s push for independence, and, I argue, the core concepts of what it means to be an American.


Our natural and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

That we create governments to protect our rights, and the government gets its power from the governed – from We, the People.

And, when a government doesn’t protect our rights, we have the right (if not the duty) to institute a new government, or at least to express our grievances.

Those core concepts make America … America.  And honoring, supporting, defending, and living those concepts are acts of patriotism.

I use the Declaration of Independence to start my study of America’s story with my students. We read the document and I tell them the story (and a few more fun details) at the very start of the year. But I also include a quote about the Declaration of Independence that has come to really be the big idea as we progress through America’s story and a goal that we need to strive to today. In the 1990s a group of Hollywood actors did a reading of the Declaration of Independence in Independence Hall (in the real room where it happened). The reading was introduced by Morgan Freema, who provides what I have used as the real importance of the Declaration of Independence and, in my mind, July 4.

The “true glory of the Declaration of Independence is our nation’s epic struggle to close the gap between the ideals of this beautiful document and the sometimes painful realities of our existence.” This closing the gap is the theme for my entire study of America story. I see it as America’s growth mindset.  It’s a mindset that is as important, or more, now than any time in our history. And I feel that is what we should discuss at are 4th of July gatherings. What can WE do, at home, in class, in our community, as a society, you name it – to close the many gaps still existing.

The United States is always moving forward, not fixed in its ways. Our country hasn’t always been trying to close the gap, to make the ideals or equality and democracy a reality, but we can point to patriots who have endeavored to do so. In my mind, using the right to rebel was the core of the American Revolution as George Washington and all the signers of the Declaration felt the British government was not living up to the social contract, and the framers of the Constitution wanted to institute a new government because the original one under the Articles of Confederation wasn’t closing the gap. The Bill of Rights helped to secure our rights from government interference – and that’s all in the first two decades of the United States. 

We have always had individuals and groups that pushed to make sure that ideal of equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was (and is) a reality. In 1776, Abigail Adams asked her husband John to remember the ladies and start closing the gap. Horace Mann and Dorthea Dix led reform movements to try to close the gap in education and support for mental health in the early 1800s. Frederick Douglass wrote that he could not celebrate the Fourth of July because for African Americans, the gap wasn’t even close to being closed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention, Susan B Anthony voted illegally and Alice Paul picketed the White House in order to close the gap.  Members of the progressive movement, such as WEB Du Bois,  Ida Wells Barnett, Teddy Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, all pushed to make the ideals of the Declaration or reality, even if that was not their expressed intention. In my state of Wisconsin, Carrie Chapman Catt, Robert LaFollette, Gaylord Nelson, Vel Phillips, and many others pushed to close the gap at home and beyond. The entire civil rights movement was about freedom, but that freedom was really about having an equal opportunity – an ideal in the Declaration.  

In my mind are men and women in uniform serve our country and, at times, pay the ultimate price, all to close the gap. Those that slugged through the trenches in France in World War I, those that stormed the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima in World War II,  those that have fought in global conflicts since and those that still serve today are all pushing to help the United States grow towards making the ideals of the Declaration of Independence of reality.

Now we come to today – a time in which the Black Lives Matter movement is using the right to rebel to express the grievances of centuries of systemic racism, the #MeToo movement is still working to eliminate gender discrimination and inequality, the Supreme Court decision to extend civil rights protection to the LGBT community offers some hope but still faces a long road, and income, education, and technological inequity are hurting many of our younger population – the ideals of the Declaration of Independence are more important than ever before. We need to learn as much as we can as a society in order to grow together to make those ideals a reality, to close the many gaps we still have, and to truly make America great. That should be what we think of and talk about when we celebrate the 4th of July … and push for it every other day of the year.

Get Original! Using Etymology in the Social Studies

What’s possibly the nerdiest statement that I can make today? Here it is – I love word origins. Yup, etymology is something that just makes me smile. I always preach to my students about the power of words, and I feel it’s important to know where words come from. How can we use word origins in our social studies classrooms?  Here are a few ideas …

Word origins are an awesome hook for many social studies topics, as they can serve as the introduction to a discipline and help students personalize and gain a deeper understanding into the social studies.  When I begin our study of history every year in eighth grade, I asked students to define the word ‘history’ and then to predict the origin or root meaning of the word. Inevitably, students predict that the origin must have something to do with the past, time, or telling a story.

Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 12.23.36 PMWhile story, chronicle, and past are all parts of the history of ‘history‘, the deeper origin sets the stage for my entire class.  Going all the way back to the Greek, history means “learning by inquiry”, “wise”, and “see”.   Want to see?  Want to be wise?  Then you have to ask questions (and study history)! Our class is based on inquiry – essential questions, compelling questions, lower and higher level questions, you name it – it’s all about questions. The root sets up the thrill of the chase involved in our class as well.

You can use this easy concept for any of your disciplines, whether it is economics (household management), government (steer or direct), politics (citizen of city) geography or sociology (companion). The root of etymology is “true, real, actual”, so using word origins can lead to a discussion or debate about if the concept truly represents the meaning of the word.

I also like to use word origins and meanings when it comes to names. I always start with student names, asking if they know what their names mean. Do we match the meaning of our name? I like to share mine – I am Martin (warrior) Charles (man) Taft (a building site), which leads to a great pose early in the year.  You take it to the next step by looking at some famous people past and present and discuss if they match the meaning of their name. This can be an interesting writing prompt or discussion starters.

Do the names and actions match? Could be a wrtiting prompt or class starter!

Using the etymology in word roots also helps students build vocabulary in and out of the social studies. We have a great opportunity to help students understand Latin roots such as geo-, trans-, chrono-, -graphy, – ocracy, demo-  – tons of opportunities! Look at the word pandemic  – how is it different than epidemic and why? Hook up with a Latin teacher for some cross curricular activity.

The origins of place names are also interesting for teachers and students to investigate.  For example, the origin of my home of Wisconsin is an English spelling of a French translation of a Miami term for “river running through a red place“.  Think about what the name says about the Wisconsin – the geography of the red sandstone bluffs of the central part of the state, the native history of the state, the exploration of the French and Jacques Marquette, and the British soldiers and American miners that came to the territory before statehood. Wow – that’s a lot of info in one word origin!  Try it with your town, city, county, or state. Of course, we all know the origin of my city of Milwaukee – thanks Alice Cooper.

Some words that we come across and use in social studies classes have very interesting roots.  Ballot comes from putting balls in jars has a method of voting; sabotage comes from the French word for wooden shoes, which industrial workers wore; boycott derives its meaning from Charles Boycott, who was shunned by English land tenants due to his unfair policies. These tidbits seem trivial, but they help students gain greater insight into words, and maybe win some money on Jeopardy!

By the way, loud comes from the Greek root for “to hear”.  Hopefully you “heard” some ideas that you can incorporate into your class!

The Tribe Has Spoken – OUT LOUD!

Looking for a fun, collaborative, and engaging way to present and discuss concepts in your class? Have your students join tribes,  argue their case, make alliances, compete in immunity challenges, search for immunity tokens, and face Tribal Council in Social Studies Survivor!

The concept is fairly straightforward.  Students are divided into groups as part of one large tribe.  Each group represents a topic or concept from a certain curricular area of socials studies, and the goal of each group is to be voted the sole survivor of the island.  You can do this with any subject – Progressive leaders, forms of government, Chinese dynasties, economic systems … whatever you can think of! My favorite is the Bill of Rights – here’s the story of Survivor – Bill of Rights Island!

Students come to class with background from an overview video of Amendments 2-9 (we have already examined the First Amendment).  I divide them into nine groups for each of the amendments when they come into class. After introducing the Survivor concept (most kids still get the idea), I explained that we are trying to find out which Amendment should be the sole survivor on the Bill of Rights Island.  The group task is to write a one minute speech arguing why their amendment should stay on the island. They can also use the time to make any alliances if they wish.

After each statement is read in class, I debrief about the amendment for a few minutes, reinforcing the rights that are protected and limited and answering any questions. After the nine statements have been read, I also offer groups 30 seconds to say which amendment should be voted off the island.

For voting, I have done two formats. I used a simple poll on Poll Everywhere.  Each student (not each amendment) received a vote – but I could easily do it with each amendment getting a vote.  If two tie for the top spot, I kick them both off to save time. Any team that is voted off the island will be on the jury, determining the winner from the final three. Recently, I went to representatives from each amendment coming up and writing down their team decisions, placing them into a Bill of Rights mug, and then reading them like Jeff Probst.  That’s way more fun … especially when I snuff out their fake LED candles! (I have always wanted to be the teacher version of Jeff Probst – what a guy!)

After the first round of voting, I open the floor for another two minutes of discussion about who should stay or go and alliance making. Some kids make decisions based on the amendments, while others will do a popularity contest.  I like both, because students will question each other’s rationale based on their understanding of the amendment. I can also offer observations.

I use the immunity concept as well.  Quick trivia questions are great for giving immunity, as is a quick five question quiz or contest for the groups. I also hide a hidden immunity idol (or slip of paper) somewhere in my room or online.

Once you get to the top three, each individual has the opportunity to vote for the final one, the Sole Survivor of Bill of Rights Island. It’s usually Amendment 9! I don’t include Amendment 1 because it may easily win, but why not have one more?

The activity offers a fun way to look at the amendments, gets kids to make quick impromptu speeches, fosters collaboration and communication in small and large groups, and engages them with some popular culture.  Good times – especially on a Friday!

You can use the ideas with civilizations, leaders, inventions, you name it – and if the rightful one doesn’t win, then it’s just like an actual season of Survivor.

Could this activity be done through distance learning? Possibly!  Students can be divided into virtual groups and make their statements in Flipgrid, on a Google Meet meeting, or in a monitored chat room – and voting could be done using an online voting system like Poll Everyhwere.

Give it a try – kids love it, and it’s fun to be the host.  Let our #PLN know how it goes!

HEY HISTORY COACH! Double Goal Coaching and Teaching In and Out of the Classroom

One of the highlights of my trip to ISTE this summer was running into Jim Lobdell, the cofounder of History Alive and an overall awesome educator (and an even better person). I lost contact with him over the past decade years, and in chatting with him in Chicago, I found that he is busy with a few education related ventures, including publishing for the Positive Coaching Alliance. I never heard of the organization, so Jim sent me a couple of their books about developing winners in sports and life. Being a coach myself, I dug into these books from the athletic lens, but it quickly became apparent that all of the suggestions and ideas fit perfectly for a classroom teacher.

In addition, I consider myself as more of a history coach than a history teacher lately. I rely less on lecture and more on working with students to try to ask great questions, find and make sense of information, come to conclusions, and present their ideas effectively.  I’m coaching them in analyzing the past to understand the present and help make a better future, just without a whistle. (Although I sometimes do use a whistle for a tension breaker – It’s always worth good laugh.)

PowerOfDGCAs I read PCA’s The Power of Double Goal Coaching by Jim Thompson, I came across the following observations that I feel fit perfectly in the classroom as well as on the court, the diamond, infield, on the rink, and wherever else we traditionally coach. I encourage you to give it a read – it’s short, enjoyable, and I think you will find yourself nodding your head … a lot.

  • Thompson starts with talking about your legacy as a coach and how important it is to help young people realize their potential as people as well as athletes. We can use our classes like sports to teach life lessons and character especially when we as teachers do things the right way. Social studies teachers have the perfect content to do this, right? We need to leave a legacy as teachers – it’s our higher calling.
  • The power of positivity is overwhelming with kids. Positive gets results.  Negative makes things worse. A coach or teacher who establishes a positive team/class culture will help young people develop a passion for the discipline or game and will be remembered by students long after the class is ended. What great thoughts as we enter the new school year!
  • Thompson uses the term “double-goal coach”.   This may be a new moniker, but it’s a long standing concept. As he said, we have the unique opportunity to use sports (and our classes and curriculum) to teach important aspects of life such as hard work, fairness, team play, resilience, delayed gratification (I love that one) and how to compete fiercely and with class. We can be the teachers that go beyond the classroom with our impact, the ones that students come back and say I learned a lot in your class, but I learn more about becoming a better person and a better student. We can be the DOUBLE-GOAL TEACHER.
  • The concept of coaching and teaching for mastery as opposed to winning is one that we can use as a guide. It’s not the score on the scoreboard, the test, or the essay that really matters (although winning in the scorebook and gradebook does have some importance.) Improving in a certain discipline or as an overall student and developing the skills and habits necessary to succeed well after the class is over is the mastery part of learning that we should use as our focus.
  • I love Thompson’s concept of the ELM tree of mastery, which fits perfectly in any sport and any discipline in school – and, for us as professionals. With consistent Effort, a goal of Learning and improvement, and bouncing back from Mistakes, mastery (and positivity)  it easier to attain. By creating a mastery climate,  students enjoy the discipline more, show more progress, any keep up their effort more. He also references the importance of the growth mindset. That ELM tree of mastery needs to be discussed with students and recognized, especially when students bounce back from mistakes. We also need to share our commitment to mastery with our students by discussing our professional development and learning and give examples of when we have bounced back from mistakes.

    Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 12.33.47 PM
    By Harvey Ellenberger, @HarleyBerger
  • I have adopted a mistake ritual in coaching and I want to bring into the classroom as well. When somebody makes an error in the field, we hold a hand in a fist and open it as if letting go of a balloon. We are not ignoring a mistake, but letting it go in order to have another chance as success.  Why not do this in school?
  • We all know the importance of filling the emotional tanks of students, yet it sometimes slips are when the school year progresses (especially in the dog says of February – ugh). The analogy to a gas tank is simple – if the gas tank isn’t full, the car wont travel very far. It’s very similar to the emotional tanks of our young learners.
  • Praise must be truthful and specific rather than a generic good job. Thompson references that the optimal ratio of praise to criticism is 5 to 1, what is known as the “magic ratio”. He also encourages that we get our students to learn about the emotional tank and how to fill it for themselves and for others. He has great talking points to do this, including “if we all become tank fillers, we’ll have more fun and be a better team”. Isn’t that perfect for classrooms as well?
  • Kid friendly criticism is important because it provides our students with usable information to improve while minimizing tank draining. Waiting for emotion to dissipate, making sure criticism is done privately, and even asking students for permission to give them some feedback are all ways to make criticism more kid friendly.
  • Thompson’s case studies are awesome, because they offer perfect examples of situations that can happen in coaching and teaching. Kids being nervous about a big game for a big test, disruptive kids at practice or in class, having a wide range of abilities in a classroom, making parents an asset, even teaching or coaching your own kid (which I do on the field and court but not in the classroom) are situations that teachers face every year. The specific advice given as great food for thought.

So, as I approach this new school year, I’m going to go into it with the explicit mindset of being a double-goal teacher. I’m not only trying to have my young historians become better readers and writers and communicators and overall students, but also to help them develop habits and skills and learn life lessons that will take him far beyond my classroom when they leave in June. I might even have them call me “Coach” – and if I can get away with wearing sweats and a hat, it’s a bonus! Thanks, Jim and Jim, for the inspiration to push to be a DOUBLE-GOAL TEACHER.

SSOL Whistle
Getting ready to blow the whistle and begin the best year in the classroom!

So What? My Driving Question in the Social Studies

I’ve been itching to write this post for quite some time.  After 25 years in the classroom, I have seen major changes in the approach to teaching social studies, particularly in the area of American history and civics. It took me a while, but I have embraced the change, fight for the change, preach the change, and question those who refuse the change.  We don’t all like the change, and some parent have issues with the change … as do most textbook and curriculum software companies. I don’t want to go back to my first years of teaching.  As Mr. Kotter said, teaching to memorize is the pits.



What is this change that I cryptically elude to here? It revolves around a simple question …

So what?

I  was always a pretty big content guy when it came to the social studies, especially American history. Maybe it was the trivia guy in me, or the lover of stories, or the fact that I learned about history through heavy content. When I got into “the business”, I transferred that content load into my classroom, making sure that I hit all of the major topics in America’s story and giving students a very broad (yet not so deep) dig into our country’s past. The textbook and timeline was my guide, and if I missed a small sector of content, I felt that I was doing my students a disservice. I did the same when I taught world cultures, making sure that we hit every part of the globe superficially and followed the lead of my text (since I knew very little about the world outside of the Midwest).

However, I’ve changed drastically since my first days in the classroom. I now approach the content and skills for my students with one simple question. Why are we doing this? There can be offshoot questions from that, like why does this matter, how is this relevant, why do the need to learn/do this? Or, simply, so what? Any one of these powerful queries works in my frame of thinking.

I don’t want any student to sit back in my class (or any class) and say “I’m never gonna use this information” (which often is what happens when it comes to social studies) or “why are we doing this” (which is what a middle school student will say about practically anything). I know I preach to the choir, but the goal of the social studies classroom is for students to be able to develop the skills necessary for them to succeed in academic and civic life, along with grasping the content essential to truly understand our local, national, and global society as it is today. That’s not what I had in my social studies classes growing up, that’s not what the typical textbook curriculum offers, and (for the most part), that’s not what many of the past state and local standards expected. So, when I think of the content I am helping my students digest, the connections I want them to make, the skills I am helping them to develop, or the assignments and assessments I use to gauge their progress, I now ask “So what?” – and I challenge my students to do the same.

What is the “what” in the“So what?” Actually, I believe in a few interconnecting “whats” …

What should social studies students be able to DO (not just tell)? As I mentioned, I was always a content guy, but have really evolved to a skills guy when it comes to social studies – and thankfully the national and local social studies communities are doing the same. The C3 Framework is heavy on skills, including inquiry resource acquisition and analysis, literacy assigned to different disciplines, and the communication of a claim, and taking action. As a history teacher, I LOVE the five areas of historical thinking espoused by Bobbie Malone and Nikki Mandel, and I refer to them ad nauseum in and out of class.  My home of Wisconsin recently developed new state standards that focus on skill rather than content. More states have done the same, pushing to develop the ability and action of students instead of filling up their short term memory. Does this mean that I am opposed to a content driven course that focuses on tests to assess what students know? In short – YES. To me, it’s about thinking, arguing, claiming, collaborating, connecting, presenting … not spitting out facts. Don’t get me wrong, content is important … but not the driving factor. It’s all about the skills (or skillz, to be cool). Of course, these skills can be developed and practiced with any content.  So that really begs the question …

What is essential content? In my American history class, I have pushed myself to trim a lot of the traditional material covered in a typical textbook and try to focus on what students really need to know to make sense of the present, regionally, nationally, and somewhat globally.  Students have access to the full picture in a variety of other ways and will have future American history classes. I also recognize that we have a time crunch over the course of a school year, and we can’t hit every topic in America’s story from the Constitution to the Cold War. What falls out of the picture?  As hard as it is for me to do so, the first half of the 19th century gets little attention in class, except for the impact of slavery and growing divisions in antebellum US. We also hit westward expansion in a flyby, just to set the stage for the 20th century. My beloved War of 1812 gets little mention, early reform movements are light, and my former unit on the growth of the West is limited to a digital breakout.  However, I feel (as do my students) that our focus on specific content topics is more beneficial, especially considering the question …

What is relevant today?  I recently posted about a simple yet powerful phrase for all teachers, especially social studies educators – The world is handing us our curriculum – are we taking it? Over the past five years, this concept of current relevance has been the driving factor in determining what actually is essential content.  Since our class is required, shouldn’t students learn about content that is needed to understand and appreciate their world today? I don’t think any 8th grader (or student of any age) is busting at the seams to learn about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era – but if you open a newspaper in the past decade, you can identify countless connections to those critical years in America’s story. The growth of business, the rise of technological innovation, massive waves of immigration, urban populations soaring, challenges to democracy, and the reaction of the people and the government to all of the change all connects to our current society. This relevance makes the content come alive and also encourages student engagement and appreciation for the past.   Simply stated, if they can’t see a connection from the past to the present, then why are we studying it? Or, possibly more importantly, if they can’t see a connection to themselves, which leads to …

What personal lessons can students learn? Dave Burgess calls them LCL’s – Life Changing Lessons – and history is full of them.  These lessons aren’t just the George Santayana “doomed to repeat the past” lessons, but more the lessons that kids can apply to their lives and make a difference for themselves, their family, their friends, their community, and ideally, their world.  The Civil Rights Movement is certainly as relevant today as it ever was, and we can look at the major individuals, groups, and events of the movement to understand what happened and how it impacts the present. But what about how the stories of the past impact them as individuals?  Students have connected with the movement by posting their own lessons, and what they can do with these lessons to improve society. Their responses include the importance of perseverance to fight for what you believe in, how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, taking stand and being part of your community can effect change, get pushed out of your comfort zone and accept that challenge, and more.  If we can get students to use the past to inspire themselves to grow as people and take action to improve society, we have done our job (and then some).

These are the “whats” that drive my planning, my teaching, my inspirational push to students, and my own interaction with history, civics, geography, and economics. Hopefully these questions drive you as well, and not  also drive you. Our role has changed dramatically since they days when I (and you) were in the classroom, and we really need to make the social studies relevant to our kids, our schools, and our society. 


Whatcha Readin’ This Summer?


Finally – time to kick back, relax, and take in a good book (or six+)!  What’s on your social studies shelf this summer?  If you are looking for a quick read that can help transform your social studies classroom, maybe check out … img_4263.jpg

Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst – It’s true – we are all reading teachers, especially in the social studies.  The printed word (paper or digital) continues to be the primary form of transmitting information to students in the social studies, and we often make assumptions that our students can simply read any words we put in front of them.   Consider the various types of text your students read – textbook entries, news articles, speeches, primary source documents, captions on graphs, words within political cartoons … the list is endless.  Keep in mind, as well, that this is usually nonfiction text that students do not want to read – no wizards, no dragons, no vampires, no video game environments. Beers and Probst explain a series of signposts to help students digest the text and serve as a topic of discussion about both what was written and how it was written.  I have used the signposts for major primary sources, including the Declaration of Independence and “I Have a Dream”, and the process works great in partner settings.  The book also offers some great strategies for nonfiction reading, including a beefed up KWL and genre reformulation. Diving into Reading Nonfiction will not only open your eyes to the importance of reading instruction in the social studies, but also gives hands on examples to help students connect with text.

A History Teaching Toolbox by Russel Tar – Looking for some creative ideas for teaching and assessment – and not just in the history classroom?  Russel Tar has what you need in his fun read about practical classroom strategies for social studies teachers, veteran and newby. You may know Russel from his incredible websites, Active History and Classroom Tools. He brings a ton of his awesome ideas to the page in the Toolbox, providing snapshots of countless activities to get students thinking about the content. He has creative assessments (designing wedding invitations), awesome collaborative experiences (such as The Apprentice), cool methods for comparison (I like Linkage Bingo), and much more. One approach to the book – think of an area in your curriculum that you want to improve and look at Russel’s ideas through that lens – you will have something fresh and new come school time!

Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer? by Bruce Lesh – I see Bruce’s book as a play in two parts – why we need to change the way we teach history, and tons of examples how to make this change in our history class. Bruce pushes his students to think like historians, read text, subtext, and context, and analyzing sources in making an argument. His examples are all for American history, but the process can be used for any historical content. Bruce presented  his work at the WCSS Conference in March to rave reviews.  If you ever get a chance to see him (or to bring him to your school, district, or council), don’t miss him!

Instant Relevance by Denis Sheeran – Even though Denis is a math teacher, his message of using our experience and the relevant real world to teach our kids is perfect or the social studies.  I mentioned n a recent post that “the world is handing us our curriculum”, and it more prevalent in our discipline than any other – but it’s  not just the headlines that can be used for relevance. This quick read will give you some inspiration to search your everyday life for ways to connect to your content and engage kids.

Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera and Play Like a Pirate by Quinn Rollins – I have to begin with a disclaimer – I teach with Michael, and I have known Quinn for a quite a few years, so I am quite biased.  But it’s a good bias, because these two books will give you ideas that you can integrate into a lesson, unit, or entire curriculum.  Both guys are social studies savants, so their experience and examples play right into our hands. Plus, the two books go together like (fill in any go together pair here – mine is peanut butter and jelly). Michael talks about utilizing game mechanics in class to increase engagement, and Quinn offers countless ideas for adding good old fashioned play in the classroom.  They also have awesome websites to support their books and ideas  – check out Explore Like a Pirate and Play Like a Pirate online!

What’s on my own list for the summer?  Rebooting Social Studies by Greg Milo is my social studies read for the next few weeks, and I am also planning on checking out some general ed books as well, including Dive Into Inquiry by Trevor Mackenzie, Time to Teach, Time to Reach from Nat Damon (uncle to one of my young historians), and Spark Learning from Ramsey Musallam.  I have a couple of coaching books that I will digest and see how they can apply to the classroom as well as the diamond and court. And, of course, my personal penchant for espionage / counter terrorism / cloak and dagger thrillers will lead me into adventures far and wide … but that’s a whole other discussion!

Have any additional ideas?  I’d love to hear them!

Getting Loud About ISTE 18

As a content teacher, it was challenging to manage all of the offerings at ISTE18 in Chicago. For a tech coach, STEAM teacher, or maker space guru, the place is true nirvana. For social studies guy like me , I had to investigate a little more and be careful picking and choosing. However, it’s fun to try to look at the technological platforms and hardware from a content lens, trying to figure out what would work best in social studies classes and for my students. Here are my top social studies take aways from my time at ISTE1 18.
The world is handing us our curriculum – are we taking it? Kristen Ziemke gave me this beautiful phrase, influenced by Smokey Daniels, and it reinforces how I have changed my focus in the content I teach in American studies. I will have a deeper post on that in the near future, but to put it simple – if what I’m teaching does not connect to today, I’m I’m making a mistake. In addition,  if I’m not teaching about today, I am making an even bigger mistake.
Google has it all – for any content area, any learner, really anything you want to do in this world. A fantastic presentation about the updated Google Earth platform gave me a simple message – GE is insanely awesome and must be integrated into any social studies classroom. It’s awesome not only for instructional purposes, but it is much  easier to have students create content and interact with the world. Google keeps rolling out additional tools for their educational suite, and there were so many presentations about these tools that is nearly impossible to keep up. Check out An Epic Smackdown of G Suite Tools and Teaching Tips for starters.
AR and VR are the wave of the future – but how do ride this wave? I presented on the concept at WCSS 2017, but the change is dramatic and nearly exponential.The amount of AR and VR hardware and software I encountered was overwhelming. The application for social studies teachers is immense, from having students go on virtual field trips to interacting with the seven wonders of the world to investigating current events through the New York Times.  It seems the price of virtual reality is scaling down, with awesome platforms like the Oculus Go being much more manageable than first presented. In conversations I had with some other teachers, however, the question is about student creation. Is VR and AR just consumption platforms, or will it be viable to use for students to create and utilize as learning tools?
We need to make sure we focus on the ed and not on the tech. The exhibit hall at ISTE is a huge toy store, with incredible learning platforms, software, and hands-on materials.  I couldn’t count the number of bots and coding platforms.  However, I still wonder about the true educational value of many of these. It’s important to integrate technology into the core curriculum and not have it as a standalone course. That’s real world, isn’t it? However, we can’t just throw technology into any class because we have these shiny new toys or awesome platforms. Is there a rationale for using bots or Lego mind storms in the social studies classroom? What about they AR and VR? Is it just bells and whistles, or can we move  past engagement to get students thinking critically, communicating, collaborating, and creating? Are the flashy online social studies content textbooks just simply the 21st-century version of a worksheet? We don’t want to fall into the problematic “cool, right?” rabbit hole that Wes Kieshnick describes (not at ISTE, but I love it). We need to keep the “ed” first and foremost, because we do not want a computer telling (not teaching) our social studies students.
Relationships make it all happen. Seeing Joy Kirr talk about shifting the culture in a classroom was an eye opener.  She challenged the crowd (and it was a big crowd) to develop relationships with kids in a variety of ways, and gave food for thought in a conference dominated by technology becoming more of a medium between teachers and students.  I am reading a recent publication by Nat Damon and had a few examples in my own practice that reinforce this concept even more. In addition,  relationships amongst educational professionals are just as important.  The conversations at ISTE were the true value of the conference, and meeting educators from all across the globe instilled me with even more desire to connectate (as we say at Summer Spark) with the best of the best.  However, it also brought to mind that the most important professional relationships we can make for the success of our studnets are the ones within our district, school, grade level, and department. Deepening these connections will be one of my goals for the upcoming school year.
Would I suggest that content teachers go to an ISTE conference?  Absolutely – if you go with a plan.  The schedule is presented well ahead of time, and it’s essential to make choices and sign up for the ticketed events in advance. Check out the poster sessions too, because that’s where conversations start.  It’s also important to find and connect with similar teachers in advance and seek them out at the conference.  Finally, expect long lines (at everything), an immense exhibit hall, and a ton of social possibilities. I’ll possibly see you in Philly in 2019,!

The Power of Choice in Assessment

Who doesn’t like the ability to choose?  We love the huge multiplexes that offer us myriad options for seeing a movie; we frequent restaurants with the most diverse and broad selection of items; and we love browsing at major bookstores with volume upon volume of great reads. Isn’t the lack of choice one of our biggest complaints about high-priced cable systems, when they choose the stations for you in charge and arm and a leg?

As teachers, we lobby for more personalization and choice in our professional development. The personalized PD movement is growing like wildfire, and I can’t think of any teacher I know that doesn’t want to have a voice in their professional growth. Personalized learning is becoming more popular as well, offering students the ability to charge their own path in their educational environment. How can we implement the power of choice into the social studies (or any content) – especially in the area of assessment?

In our content based classes, there are definitely specific topics that we want all students to master for cultural literacy, civic participation, and an ability to understand our society.  With the emergence of unlimited content at the palm of student’s hands and at their fingertips, it’s not as essential to drill the facts, dates, people, and places. The days of tell, test, and forget are (or should be) history – pun intended.  Instead, we need to push students to think critically, collaborate successfully, communicate in an effective manner, and create impressive original work. That’s where choice can become very powerful.

How can we do this, with choice? Simple – by designing learning targets that not only assess the content knowledge of students, but also their aptitude in the 4 Cs.  Targets should be shared at the beginning of a content area or unit, allowing students to use them as the progress through historical, geographical, economic, and political information in whatever the manner it is presented and discussed.  As a subject or unit progresses,  students can develop their end assessment progressively (although some will wait until the end, of course). While suggestions can be given, students should determine their possible medium or platform to demonstrate their learning, possibly submitting it as a checkpoint.  The rubric should have the specific areas of assessment, both with content and communication.  For me, the rubric is a guideline for their creation, not a step by step recipe to follow to the letter.  This isn’t rocket science from a teaching perspective – but it does force teacher to give up some control, which is tough to do – especially for me!

Why change? For multiple reasons.  When students choose their path, there is much more personal investment into both the content material and the eventual product that is created. Choice involves failing forward for some students, as the struggle to come up with a topic or medium but keep pushing to design something that works for them.  Anyone can succeed in the choice assessments, allowing for instant differentiation by ability and interest.  And, in my mind, it is much more real world for students, as they will face more projects than tests  in life.

Another reason to change?  Selfishness on my part! The evaluation and feedback aspect of the assessment becomes less laborious and actually more enjoyable (although it still takes time).  A few years ago I had an assessment of the turning points of the Civil War, in which each student (alone or with a partner) plotted the turning points of the Civil War on Google maps, came up with a creative title, described and evaluated the turning point, and included images and a hyperlink to source.  It was a great way to have the kids geographically represent the war, and they all did a great job following my formula.  However, they were a bear to assess, because it became monotonous (I don’t know how AP graders can do it).  Also, it was not my original intention to teach Google maps to kids.  Is that a necessary skill?  Just like we don’t have to teach kids Slides, or Power Point, or any tool, right? Now, that same Civil War Turning Points assessment is offered, and Google maps is a choice.  They still have to hit the same targets!

I have even allowed a traditional test as part of a choice.  The targets are the same, and the feedback for the content is similar in the record book.  On the test, I do not offer feedback for communication, mechanics, creativity, and the like.  Interestingly, some students choose to create a test (with an answer key) as their form or presentation.

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Click to check out some examples of student choice projects  / target displays

My two favorite choice assessments have been The Legacy of WWI and Federal Project Number One. I think each of the projects was powerful and beneficial due to the deep dive into a content area, the challenge of the project, and authenticity of the student works.  For the Legacy of WWI, students have to design a method of conveying the involvement, importance, and impact of America and the Great War, based on the centennial of the war. The New Deal project gives studnets a choice of creatively portraying some aspect of the New Deal based on actual New Deal era creative works.  I haven’t used that one since I moved to targets, but I plan to do it in the spring.

Some other examples of choice assessments I have used include …

Is this anything new to a typical educator?  No – and many have posted about the power of choice, including Cassie Shoemaker, who refers to choice as “the fifth C” .  There are multiple choice boards utilized and available online as well. My point is the substitute for the big assessment – the traditional test – and trying to align the content with the actual project, pushing for some authenticity.  Hopefully this will give you the impetus to offer more student choice in both topic and method of communication.  Some students struggle with the open concept and just want to be told what to do.  When that happens, I hand them the spoon that sits on my desk and instruct them to “feed themselves”.  I like the challenge – and for the most part, the kids do as well!



Here are a few of my favorite … clues!

Last week, I was crunching out some copies in the faculty workroom when Michael Matera (yeah, I get to hang with him in at out of school – pretty awesome).  He asked if I had ever posted my preferred ideas and platforms for original BreakoutEDU / Quest / scavenger hunt clues, and I responded with a “not yet”.  Thanks for the inspiration, Mikey (I have said that many times in the past) – here are a few of my faves!

Timelines are usable for social studies geeks, right?  Have students determine the years of a series of events and put them in order. They can add one color and subtract the other to get a numerical clue, or have each event in one of four colors and use colors on a directional lock. It’s a great way to preview or review some of essential events – plus, it makes kids use their quick Google skills! Here’s a basic example – easy and effective!

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The old children’s dot to dot puzzle can become very versatile when you us use it as a clue!  Create your own dot to dot puzzle at by uploading an image.  Think of the social studies possibilities – the outline of a famous landmark, geographic borders, a picture of something hidden in your room .. you name it! Pre-made ones can be purchased, like Extreme Dot to Dot US History – wow!

Text mazes are awesome ways to hide instructions for finding aclocation, clue, or code.  They serve as effective roadblocks and are also great for larger scavenger hunts.  How easy are they to make?  Thanks to Festisite, it’s a matter of typing in your text and clicking “download”! Here’s one I recently used …

The first time I saw Snotes in use, I grinned from ear to ear.  It is a super simple web based code maker that can be used bit digitally and in print.  All you need to to do is type in your words, choose some colors and a background theme, and let your code breakers go from there! Here’s a Snotes message to you!

I love using Match the Memory.  It’s like the old game of concentration, but you can create your own matching pairs and infuse content as part of your clues.  Once students have matched them all, a message appears for the next clue.  Easy peasy! I have used it for the Roaring 20s – content and fun!

I almost lost my mind when I saw Mystery Piano used in a Breakout.  It is about as cool of clue as I can think of – you program a tune inthe platform, save and share it, and create a clue for the music.  You don’t have to be super musically inclined.  I thought of my tune and searched for the notes – it took about a minute! Click my alter ego below for an example.indiana_jones.0

Remember “Salvation lies within” in The Shawshank Redemption (in of my five fave movies of all time)? The hiding space in the Bible was an awesome gotcha in the movie – and a perfect place for a BreakoutEDU clue! Obviously, you can use a book for a clue about numbers or letters, but you can also conceal a physical object – a flashlight, laser pointer, film canister, invisible ink pens … you name it!

Fake receipts are awesome to use as clues.  A few receipts scattered around a room can lead to numerical or word clues.  They are simple to make using a few different platforms, including Express Expense and FakeReceipt – but don’t use these to fudge an expense report!

Integrating some augmented reality is also one of my favorite Breakout tools.  WallaMe allows you to hide numbers, letter, words, and images on your own walls in your classroom.  Aurasma lets you take the AR a step further (with a few more wrinkles) by allowing audio, video, and links to appear over an image.  The sight of kids when the see the AR work is well worth the effort – and it makes for a great clue!

I’ve been to a few Escape Rooms in the Milwaukee area, and I love grabbing ideas from those awesome  experiences.  So far, I have incorporated physical jigsaw pieces with a message and a laser pointer that bounces off a mirror and points to a number – very cool.  I am still looking for a way to use a clue frozen in a ice cube and a mini-drone – but I’m working on it!

It’s a starting list – there are so many more! I’ll try to add some in a future post. As most of you know, many digital tools are available on the old BreakoutEDU “Build Your Own” site.  Do you have any other awesome ideas?  Please comment, tweet them, share them on the awesome BreakoutEDu facebook groups, and most most importantly … keep challenging and engaging your kids with awesome Breakouts!


Time to think about summer PD – even in the winter!

One of the most powerful professional development experiences of my educational career was participating in the second Teach Vietnam Teachers Network summer conference in 2004.  Hosted by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the five day conference included presentations from authors and historians, interaction with peers from across the United States, and a once in a lifetime tour of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by the founder of the Wall, Jan Scruggs.  The conference truly crystalized my personal and professional commitment to teaching about, honoring, and supporting military service in history and veterans’ issues today. From developing a curriculum for Milwaukee teachers to helping host a Teach Vietnam conference in Milwaukee to presenting “Teaching Vietnam in the Middle School Classroom” at NCSS to organizing fundraisers over the past decade to support local and national veterans, this one week of my life made all the difference.

Why do I bring this up, well over a decade past my attendance? (It was so long ago, there is very little online archived material about the conference!)  Simple – the Teach Vietnam Teachers Network conference was an example of the incredible, vast, diverse, and often unknown professional development offerings that are available for social studies teachers every summer. Social studies teachers love to travel, meet with others, dig into content and pedagogy, and chat with others. These institutes, conferences, and fellowships have grown in number, and each provides an amazing opportunity, to learn, grow, connect, and contribute to our ultimate goal of becoming better social studies educators that help young people become inspired citizens in our local, national, and global communities. Ask the awesome Rhonda Watton – she attends two or three each summer!

Many of the conferences are my favorite flavor – free – or offer grants and scholarships to defray the cost of attendance. It’s time for me to consider my summer plans, as these conferences have application deadlines and can fill up rather quickly. Anyone interested?

Here is a list of many of the conferences I know of or found through a simple (and not exhaustive) web search. I’m sure I missed a few – so hopefully more will share what they find on twitter!  I hope to attend one or two this summer. – and hope to meet even more awesome teachers from across the country. Whatever the experience, I know it will be rewarding professionally and personally, and only help me be a better social studies instructor.

NCSS has a list of Conferences and Workshops that will undoubtedly grow over the next few months, so keep checking for updates!