Start the school year with gusto!

It’s the start of the school year, and you have the ultimate opening class for your students. You begin by having students get into their seating charts so you can learn their names, then hand out a paper copy of the class syllabus and go through it word by word, making sure you don’t miss anything. You establish and reinforce the rules that will guid class, then demonstrate the proper way to utilize the textbook. You end with a quick quiz on the summer reading and then assign the first chapter of the text.

It’s a perfect opener – perfect if you want to immediately suck the life out of your class, set the stage for boredom and monotony, and open the year with a whimper. You know your students will come home to the question “How was your first day of school?” You don’t want the answer to be “Well, Mrs./Mr. So-and-so’s classes is going to be worse than dental surgery.” As teachers, we need to remember that we only have chance at a first impression, so those first days of school are incredibly important. We want to demonstrate what’s going to go on in our class, possibly highlight different aspects of our curriculum, learn about the students as individuals and as a collective group, let kids know a little bit about us, and have kids and be active right away after not being in school for a couple of months. Most importantly, we want them coming back for more – right?

There are a ton of great first day activities that people post online – Glenn Wiebe has a few here, and  Peter Pappas wrote about a mystery idea a while back,. My favorite of the last 25 years has been a back to back combination of a collaborative Breakout and an individual Pop-Up Museum. These two activities set the stage for our (Laurie Walczak an me) combined American Studies curriculum, let us know a lot about how our students interact with each other, allows us to get to know our students as individuals, writers, and presenters, opens up involvement for parents and families, and hooks kids for an exciting year-long dive into America’s story.

Our breakout is actually a break in – a launch of our curriculum, some major highlights of the years, and an introduction to us and our style of teaching. We divide students into two groups, split them into our two rooms (connected by a central door), and have the teams compete to open a box with six locks. The clues all deal with aspects of our curriculum in American studies – a historical timeline, a literary timeline, our Washington DC trip, and more. Once one of the groups has opened the locks, it leads them to another set of clues in which both groups will collaborate. Those clues continue with the American studies theme. Once the entire large class cracks the code, we celebrate and then debrief about what they learned and experienced. It’s a great way to open, as the activity gives us an idea of which students are leaders, who likes to stay on the sidelines, and a little bit about the culture of the class. Plus, it’s challenging, requires risks, and is simply fun. And … it gets loud!

Once the break in is complete and debriefed, we demonstrate our second class activity – our America’s Story Pop-Up Museum. The museum has become a staple since I first saw it presented at NCSS in 2014. It is an incredibly versatile, easy and potent experience for us as teachers and for our entire eighth grade. Students bring in artifacts that help them tell their view of America’s story – either something about them or something they feel is important about American history. The students are in combined classes with larger numbers, and we set it up as a gallery walk with student presenters in front of their work. The entire activity offers us an immediate glimpse of how each students writes, presents, interacts, and thinks, and we also get some great stories that we can refer to throughout the school year. We give parents advance notice in an email the week prior to school in order to get the ideas generated at home, but also to invite them. Opening the doors to our class so early in the year reaps great benefits!

We will post massive amounts of images and some video on Monday and Tuesday and update this post as well. Please make sure to check out @drlwalczak and @chucktaft for some snapshots of each activity!

Side note #1 – I/we do have a syllabus for our course, and I do have classroom principles (not rules) that are guidelines for behavior. Students can read the syllabus on their own, as I don’t want to insult their intelligence. If they don’t read it, it’s their loss, because it’s kind of fun! In reality, the syllabus is more for parents – students will be in class every day! As for classroom principles and rules, those are embedded within the activities that we do early in the school year. Since I’m fortunate to discuss law and government at the beginning of the year, I can throw in the difference between rules and principles pretty quickly. I’m pretty sure that no student wants to hear a lecture about classroom rules first thing after over two months “freedom”. Plus, if you treat kids with respect, they’re going to treat others with respect.

Side note #2 – We do not use a textbook … I haven’t used one for seven years, and I don’t see myself ever returning to the dark side.

Side note #3 – I do similar activities to open my methods class as well. Check out some tweets in the next few weeks for examples. College students love these experiences too!

Digital Breakouts in the SS

It’s time for some heartfelt honesty – I have an addiction … to BreakoutEDU.  I continuously try to think of or look for new clues, shop for every different lock I can find, hit craft stores for cool ways to hide information, and scour Groupon for deals to local Escape Rooms.  I love creating them and my students love solving them (Breakouts were one of the top memories in my end of the year survey). I posted about Breakouts before, and I am excited to be presenting BREAKOUT! at the annual NCSS Conference in San Francisco in November. In my first BreakoutEDU post, I mentioned my thirst for digital breakouts and insinuated a follow up post … so here it is!

Similar to the classroom version, digital breakouts involve challenging students with a series of locks that must be opened, centered around a theme and clues tied to the curriculum. Instead of having physical clues in a classroom space, digital breakouts are housed on a website, with clues available directly (or hidden) on the website and/or through various digital platforms. Kids can learn a ton about the selected content and develop specific skills if desired as they complete the breakouts.  Once participants solve the clues, they unlock a new webpage with a congratulatory message. Most importantly, students experience the thrill of the chase, leading to increased engagement!

In my mind, digital breakouts have a few advantages over the classroom counterparts. Video,  audio, and online resources can easily be used to challenge students as well as convey curricular content. Also, digital breakouts can be completed asynchronously by students. Of course, students lose some of the collaboration that is a hallmark of classroom breakouts, but the digital variety can be completed in unison through various online means like messenger and Face Time.  Digital  breakouts unfortunately lack the physical movement that I enjoy in class and with classroom breakouts, but you can’t win them all – RIGHT?.

Digital breakouts are AWESOME for social studies content. Think of the available materials online regarding the content you teach – video, audio of speeches, maps, primary sources galore, images, cartoons, current events … the possibilities are endless.  Combine that with amazing digital tools that fit perfectly with the social studies and you have an awesome method of introducing content and skills to your students.

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Want some examples?  I created a digital breakout to introduce the major themes of the 1920s, and my students enjoyed it as a class activity. I also created a homework assignment to have studnets get the basic content of the early years of the Cold War, using the spy theme to make it “Operation Crypto”.  The kids loved finding a fake spy name and posting their spy image when they cracked the code.

Amanda Sandoval (@historysandoval) is my digital breakout muse, as she blows me away with her combination of history, challenging thinking, creative clues, beautiful design, and plain old fun.  Her Suffering for Suffrage is by far my favorite BreakoutEDU  of all time – physical or digital!  It is a must try, and also one to use as a model for awesomeness.

How do you go about creating a digital breakout? My first suggestion is to try to complete one of the many digital breakouts available online. The best place to start is BreakoutEDU’s digital site, as these creators have it DOWN to a science. Besides incredible tutorials and a litany of awesome online platforms for fantastic clues, the site has multiple examples of breakouts in all curricular areas from fantastically creative educators across the globe.  From there, you can determine what you want your students to learn and develop your clues. You’re not limited by the constraints of specific physical locks, because in digital breakouts locks can have any key you desire – a series of numbers, letters, words, directions, colors, dates, you name it!

I always consider the purpose of my breakouts,  Is it an introduction? Content delivery? Skill development?  All of the above?   For my content-based digital breakouts, I have students utilize a note taking device so that they can extract and record important info and also note any questions they may have. A breakout is not a substitute for a discussion, but it offers a great base of knowledge and gets kids excited about the content.

If you have the time to tinker this summer, I suggest creating a digital breakout for your class.  It can be a great opener, or maybe an awesome activity for that area of curriculum that you find tedious and want to spice up a bit. The best way to go about it is to play play play, but I warn you … they are addicting.

Join the BreakoutEDU History Teachers Facebook group to share ideas, collaborate, and find awesome social studies Breakouts – and join the #sstlap chat at 8:00 CST on June 29 as we explore breakouts in the social studies!

#SUMMERSSPD – WHO IS WITH ME?

It’s official (for me) – summer has arrived!  Closing activities completed, comments written, an awesome Summer Spark conference in the books, Wisconsin temperatures actually in the 70s … so now it’s on to #SummerSSPD! What’s my plan? What’s your plan? Can we plan together?

In my mind, summer is the best time for personalized professional development, as I can really dig in to the topics and tools I want to examine without worrying about the next class, the after school meeting, the massive email chains, and more.  There are outstanding PD offerings available for all teachers, and the litany of possibilities for social studies is amazing.  Here’s what I hope to do – hopefully some of these ideas can offer a little inspiration and collaboration:

READ – It’s something I never have time to do during the school year – and there are so many amazing titles that we can choose from!  Anyone want to start a #summersspd book chat? I will definitely consume a few of my favorite terrorism CIA espionage guy-that-can-kill-you-with-a–spoon thrillers, but I also want to dive into some books for content and pedagogy.  I plan on opening with A History Teacher’s Toolbox by Russel Tarr (@russelltarr), then re-examining Explore Like a Pirate and Play Like a Pirate from my pals Michael Matera (@mrmatera) and Quinn Rollins (@jedikermit), coming up with additional ways to incorporate their awesome ideas into my class (they are both SS teachers, of course!) For content, I plan on digging in to American and WWI much more … which goes along with one of my later plans!

WATCH – Who has time to watch all of the awesome documentaries that are available on various channels and online? Now is the time – and since they can be streamed, I can enjoy many of them wherever I am.  My planned SSPD viewing pleasures include multiple titles from American Experience – The Race Underground, Last Days in Vietnam, The Boys of 36, and re-watching The Great War.  I’m also hoping to watch some great docs on Netflix, including 13th and Reel Injun. And I will watch a ton of 30 for 30 – my favorite kind of docs! Of course, all of this will get me ready for Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War in September – it will be epic.

LISTEN – The power of podcasts is amplified in the summer, with walking the dog, driving kids to and from activities, hanging at the pool or beach, thinking about exercising, or just relaxing on the hammock in the backyard.  Here’s what plays out of my earbuds …

  • Talking Social Studies – Four awesome educators chat about the world of social studies education, and a whole lot of other topics.
  • Civil War Talk Radio – Gerry Prokopowicz of East Carolina University hosts an interview session with leading Civil War historians every week – (pretty great, considering he is a leading CW historian himself).
  • The Pritzker Military Library has podcasts of speakers, interviews with historians, and an awesome collection of discussions with veterans.  I have been led to many invaluable books and authors simply by listening to these presentations.
  • Gilder Lehrman has an insane (in a good way) collection of audio and video casts about  pretty much everything you can think of when it comes to American history.  Leading historians, fresh faces and viewpoints, and a wide variety of topics make these a standard on my playlist.
  • Lectures … I use iTunes U a lot to search for specific content based discussions, especially in areas that I need a refresher (hello, Gilded Age).  Head to iTunes and search the iTunesU directory – there has to be something that you don’t know (or remember from college).

TRAVEL – Social studies is everywhere – that’s one of the bazillion reasons why it is such an essential topic.  There are some great sites you can visit in your own area, and it’s just a google search away.  If you are heading out of town, check out a historical site or a new musuem at your destination.  If have big plans this summer – heading to Kansas City, Belgium and France to experience American involvement in WWI.  I will share my travels online – stay tuned!

CHAT – We have so many incredible social studies teachers that are connected in an amazing PLN – and now we have more time to communicate over the next two months! Of course, the awesome #sschat on Monday nights and #sstlap chat on Thursday highs are the places to be online for social studies pros.  I hope to have a few open Google hangouts with anyone interested in a virtual SSPD chat.  Please join me!

CREATE – You know that blog you wanted to start, that classroom website you wanted to develop, those flipped videos and podcasts you wanted to produce, those cool posters and images you wanted to create, those awesome tech platforms that you wanted to experiment with, and that lesson or unit you wanted to blow up and turn into something magical?  Now is the time, because now you hopefully have time! I hope to add more to this blog as June and July progresses (but doing it outside on my patio). I plan on changing my approach to the organization and timing of our National History Day project experience, offering more guidance on checkpoints and gamifying the process to add evening more engagement.  I also hope to create a few more Breakouts for my class – live and digital!

There are multiple conferences and programs for incredible summer PD for social studies teachers, like Gilder Lehrman,  the WWII Memeorial Teachers Conference, the CWPT Teacher Institute , and some great NCSS workshops.  Many require advance application, but it never hurts to take a stab.

I’d love to have everyone share their summer social studies PD experiences using a common hashtag (#summersspd).  Please let me know if you are interested in organizing some hangouts, specific chats or slow chats, or meeting F2F!

With me? Who will come with me? Let’s get loud together this summer (and beyond)!

 

 

 

BREAKING OUT in the Social Studies!

Every teacher has been there – the dog days of March, when your class is getting a little squirrely waiting for Spring Break and struggling with the routine of school. You want to light a fire in your kids with an awesome activity that will engage the students, push their problem solving and critical thinking, strengthen their collaboration, and also present some content in a challenging way.  As you comb the Internet and get on social media, you find a bazillion ideas, but nothing seems to work perfectly for your goals and your class. You feel the need to design your own opening experience when you stumble across a very intriguing idea on your favorite social studies blog. You now know what you’re going to do – BREAKOUT!

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We’re not talking about the early Atari video game or the constellations of acne that appear on a teenager’s  face – we’re talking about Breakout EDU.  The concept of a Breakout EDU is similar to a scavenger hunt or escape chamber activity. A scenario is presented, various clues are scattered in a room or location, and participants work together to solve clues and unlock a box, a door, or a something else using a combination of numbers or letters or a secret clue. Scavenger hunts have been used by teachers far and wide, along with Amazing Race type experiences – but Breakout EDU takes these games to the next level with physical items in their creative kits and prepackaged games. 

Classroom Breakouts are incredibly engaging, especially when two groups are pitted against each other (and the clock). They involve collaboration and team building, and it’s fascinating to see how participants work together to solve problems. The commercial Breakout EDU games are fun, challenging, and easy to set up. Many of their pre-made breakouts deal with the social studies – but you do need to be a subscriber to access them.  However, you can create your own breakouts using their products and/or inexpensive store-bought materials. Physical items that you can purchase yourself include simple combination locks, key locks, and boxes with pass keys. Breakouts can be all-tech, high-tech, low-tech, or no–tech – it’s up to you and the technology available to your students. Rachel Porter has a great Smore overview of Breakout EDU – check it out!

Why do I break out in the social studies classroom? The harder question answer is “why not”? These types of experiences are perfect for social studies. You have themes and scenarios galore in every content area. It’s simple to put together a storyline for any sort of Breakout.  Code breaking in World War II, escaping an Egyptian tomb, breaking into the National Archives vault – situations that go beyond Hollywood.  It’s very easy to use a Breakout to introduce content in an engaging and interactive way. I love using breakouts as previews for a unit or an introduction into an era. It’s much more exciting for the kids then just pushing play on an overview video. It’s also simple to integrate primary sources and have students complete a close analysis of a document, speech, or artifact. Depending on the design, students will have to utilize search skills as well, something we try to develop in all of our classes. Finally, the best reason to use breakouts and the social studies is simple – they are social (and can get LOUD!) Students work together and find their own method of collaborating, recording answers, and problem-solving.  Three letters – FUN!

The best way to approach developing a classroom Breakout experience is to start with the beginning and the end – what are your curricular or content goals, and what is the ending apparatus that will eventually be opened?  From there, you can meet in the middle as you design your clues based on the content or curriculum in order to lead to the numbers or letters for the breakout. I use a planning document to organize my original breakouts.

Creativity is the key for developing the clues to a successful and challenging Breakout. Ideas for Breakout clues include …

  • Content or school based ciphers or cryptograms, hidden messages in word searches, double puzzles, and fallen phrases (easy to create at Discovery Education’s Puzzlemaker)
  • Map puzzles, with locations leading to certain locations, numbers, and letters
  • Jigsaw puzzles or block puzzles that lead to a clue when assembled
  • Remember that letters can easily be turned into numbers through a telephone keypad or any sort of cipher or code (which, of course could be another clue).
  • Rebuses, word mazes, using the first letter of a series of images, colors, timelines …
  • Examining the commercially created Breakouts and doing a quick search of Breakouts on YouTube will give you countless clue ideas as well!

While Breakouts can be no tech / low tech, I love integrating various digital platforms into the experience. Some ideas for tech integration in a Breakout include …

  • Utilizing QR codes placed in an area to lead students to text, images, audio, and video
  • Various augmented reality apps, including Aurasma and WallaMe
  • Leading students to a pre-made online document or google slide, with a shortened URL using bitly or tinyurl
  • Creating a google form that sends participants to specific pages when a certain code or series of numbers or letters are entered
  • Challenging student search skills by having them find various data or info online
  • Utilizing Google maps and Google Earth to have students search for locations
  • Using Classroom Timers to add to the engagement and excitement!
  • The INCREDIBLE crowd sourced list of digital platforms available from Breakout EDU – some of my faves are Snotes, Match the Memory, GeoGreetings, and making a Word Maze.

The debriefing aspect of the Breakout is powerful as well.  You can not only discuss the content presented in the challenge, but also ask students about their observations on collaboration, problem solving, and creative thinking.  And, you will hear them plead for you to plan another one. Better yet – have them design their own BreakoutEDU!

Breakouts can also be entirely digital – but we will save that for another post.

What are you waiting for?  Get started by going small – maybe one code or lock on a small box – and build from there.  You will love the engagement as you watch the kids work together to solve problems and get excited to be in your classroom.

 

 

Go 360° with RoundMe

VR is all the educational rage these days – and it should be, especially in the social studies.  There are multiple platforms teachers and students can use to show off the world and their learning in 360° awesomeness, and I thought I would highlight a little known  one – Roundme.  Roundme is a fun 360° platform that you can use for engagement and student creation, even if you don’t have 360° capability with cameras. By creating a panoramic image or collage or annotating one from online, students can present their understanding of the concept in a pretty cool way – and have it visible with virtual reality viewers! RoundMe has both a Web version as well as an app for iOS and Android.

Roundme has countless panoramic images already loaded from users around the world, and a simple search can take your students across the globe.  Using the platform’s world map or explore functions, you can access amazing virtual tours for free with the freemium membership. Teaching global cultures, and looking for an engaging hook? Take your studnets on a tour of the Forbidden City, Venice,  or Chichen Itza  Roundme tours have portals, or little windows that will take the viewer to a different location – super cool!

The web version of Roundme is great for creation as well. If students can find a panoramic image online, they can import it into RoundMe and add text and audio to describe a scene or present information. Even better, in my mind, students can create their own panoramic images using any image creator, including Google drawings. By offering students a template of the preferred size for a RoundMe, students can insert images and original artwork to create their own panorama. After uploading it to Roundme, they can add text and voice descriptions of their work. Imagine students being challenged to present their understanding of the Constitutional Convention, or the economic concept of supply and demand,  or a explanation of the causes and effects of the Munich Conference. Other students can jigsaw the content and access their classmates work, learning from each other in the process. As an instructor, you can make a menu of a panorama, and then link your students’ work to one central location. Why use RoundMe instead of other non VR platforms for something like this? Simple – because it would interest students, and when you put it into Google Cardboard viewers, you get a definite wow factor.

Some ideas for utilizing RoundMe include:

  • Having students take a panoramic picture in their community or some historic site and annotate it for some place-based learning
  • Students take a existing panoramic or 360° images and turn it into a virtual field trip through linking different locations
  • Students create a panoramic image on a image creator, possibly as an annotated mural of a historical era or a biographical sketch of an important individual

I created an example for the 13th Amendment and used it as an intro to the Reconstruction Era (and the Roundme platform). Make sure your audio is on!

Using the mobile app, Roundme easily splits into a virtual reality viewer format for use in Google Cardboard or any of the many available VR products.  The sound doesn’t work yet on the app, but can be utilized in the mobile browser.  The portals can be accessed by staring at them until they fill up – hands free global travel! The wow factor of the VR viewer is always cool!

If you haven’t tried out any VR yet, give Roundme a stab.  The user loaded images are awesome, and the possibility for creation (my favorite possibility) is awesome.  It’s a great option when offering choice to students for presenting their learning.

Why we do NHD – and why you should too

Every year around this time – National History Day crunch time – as I am digging through annotated bibliographies, helping eighth graders find that ultimate primary source (which should have been found months ago), and spending hours upon hours reviewing student research all while taking time away from our daily curriculum, I ask myself the same two questions – “Why do we do NHD?” and “Will the hair that I lose every year during NHD crunch time ever come back?”

The second question is easy to answer – no. The hair is gone, kaput, like the dinosaurs. But the first question requires a lot more in-depth analysis. Yes, NHD takes a great deal of time, in and out of school.  Yes, my students and I do feel some stress about the NHD project process. Yes, I do get worries from parents, anything from my child is overworked to my kid’s partners aren’t holding up their end of the bargain to my child is dreading this process. And yes, I do have to confer a grade, which is not my favorite thing in the world – more on that in a later blog post.

So why do we do NHD considering all of those challenges? I have a litany of reasons for the positive, and they far outweigh the few negative factors. Consider the following:

National History Day is challenging.

In fact, you could basically say NHD is hard – really hard –  and my students would agree with me.  I like that. I’m not trying to be an old codger or masochist, but life is hard, full of challenges, and our students need to develop that resilience and grit that is essential to succeeding in anything. If it was easy, and everybody could do it, why bother?

National History Day is as close as I can get my students to become real historians.

The process of developing an NHD project is similar to job of the professionals. Students find a topic that really interests them, making sure it is related to a theme. They read for context, develop search terms, dig for excellent primary and secondary sources, interview experts,  develop subtopics in their research, take notes and organize them into their subtopics, dig for more resources, analyze what they have found in order to develop a thesis, and combine their research into effective method of presentation.  My students have interviewed Joan Baez, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, the Captain of the 1980 Olympic hockey team, members of the Little Rock Nine, the first African-American member of the NBA, and the first test tube baby. They have talked with the makers of history, delved into archives and search through the stacks of historical societies, and run into roadblocks while finding new paths for research. Sounds like the quest of a typical historian, right? Throw in an incredibly supportive librarian (like I have) and the research process is powerful and productive.

National History Day hits many if not all of the important standards for history and social studies education.

Students develop disciplinary literacy skills as outlined in the C3 framework, along with the ability to create research questions and analyze resources for bias and relevance. They integrate the Thinking Like a Historian areas of literacy that we desire, along with 21st-century skills of communication, critical thinking, creativity, and (if they choose a partner or two) collaboration. There are many posts about how NHD aligns with the standards, and I firmly believe the process is my best assessment of my kids as young historians and overall students.

National History Day offers a framework for the rest of my curriculum.

In many ways, I can organize my survey of American history using the NHD theme in process each year. The yearly theme always provides a way to look at American history through a specific lens and help students categorize events and ideas.  We also use some common subtopics in our NHD process, and students can utilize these “buckets”  as we go through the course of American history. We look for context, causes, events, reactions, impact, and legacy in our projects, but we can also use these terms in our day-to-day discussions. In addition, student NHD projects can be referenced throughout the study of a class. I have used student websites and documentaries as resources for my classes, even in the same curricular year.

National History Day improves students’ writing.

We always want to get writing into the social studies curriculum, and NHD involves a ton of it. From crafting an excellent topic selection proposal to taking notes from resources; from developing detailed annotations in a bibliography to writing a concise yet informative process paper; and in the writing of a script, exhibit text, or a formal paper, various types of writing are involved in National History Day. Teachers have the opportunity to really get to know their students’ abilities through the writing and help them improve in that all important life skill. I’m fortunate to have my English expert (and American Studies partner) as a co-coach in our process – it makes a huge difference.   

National History Day provides rally points for students and our community.

A few years ago, we had a consultant examine our overall schedule, and she highlighted the concept of “rally points” – major events in the school year where an entire grade for school looks comes together. NHD has served as one of those not only for my eighth graders, but for the middle school and our eighth grade community. We hold an annual showcase in which our students show off their work, and we always get parents, teachers, past students, and members of the local community to attention. The regional competitions are at a local college on a Saturday, and students get to show off their stuff and also hang out together as a group outside of school. Parents are involved, and they get to see students that they may not know very well while also increasing our community connections.

National History Day offers a lot of student choice.

Many research projects that are assigned in school have a specific topic limit and defined method of presentation.  With NHD, students can research almost any topic of their choosing. While there is an annual theme that must be utilized, the themes are broad and applicable to nearly any historical topic, era, and grade level. Students can choose a project category that fits their strengths and interests. Strong writers can select a paper, while creative visual-spatial learners can go with exhibit. Tech dogs can develop a website, young Spielbergs can create a documentary, and those that love the stage and perform. In addition, students can choose to work alone or collaboratively.

 

National History Day offers great deal off support and professional development.

The support materials available in print and online online and in person for NHD rival any other academic program that I know of. The national headquarters offers a ton of PD, from webinars and podcasts to “how to” materials available online.  Every state has an affiliate organization with a  wealth of support materials as well as a professional staff dedicated to helping teachers integrate NHD into their curriculum. Plus, there is a cadre of teachers in every state that are always more than welcome to help out with ideas and materials.

Students like National History Day

To be honest, they like it after it’s done. But I do see a great deal of satisfaction when student show off their work, when they utilize feedback to improve, and especially when they present their work to people outside of school. Having students  hear their names called when it comes time for awards and get noticed for their work as young historians makes me smile.  My most recent survey of my students regarding the National History Day project demonstrate that they overall endorse to project.

Is NHD for every class? I would argue yes. It may be hard to fit into an AP curriculum that needs to cover a breadth of content. However, the skills that we try to develop in any history class of any content at any grade level can all be strengthened through National History Day. If you haven’t considered integrating NHD into your curriculum yet, contact your state NHD organization and see what they have to offer.  Also, use Twitter as a resource by following @NationalHistory and connecting with other NHD teachers. Give it a whirl – its a win win win!

MLK – The LOUD teacher!

LOUD doesn’t just mean high volume.  It also means ‘strong or emphatic in expression’ and  ‘clamorous and insistent’.  When I think of someone who was LOUD, who used his voice in order to affect change, who spoke out to (as Rep. John Lewis likes to say) “get into trouble … good trouble … necessary trouble”, I always point to Martin Luther King, Jr. – and not just on a Monday in January.  However, today gave me a great chance to look back on some of my own experiences involving Dr. King and what I (and my students) have learned from him.

As social studies teachers know, the Civil Rights Movement was more than just the famous names and sometimes isolated events that are the emphasis of most textbooks and documentaries.  Still, I feel it’s imperative that we but we must focus on King as both an icon and an example.  What are a few of the lessons I have learned … and try to teach though King?

Ordinary people can do extraordinary things, but it takes extra to make it happen.

I was fortunate to tour the south a few years ago (thanks to a generous grant from my school), and half of my focus was digging into the history of various Civil Rights sites.  Fittingly, my tour opened in Atlanta, with visits to the MLK NPS site, the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and MLK’s boyhood home.  The locations are essential to understanding of the the Civil Rights Movement, but more importantly, the life, character, and contributions of Dr. King.  I always share my experience in his boyhood home, walking through a house that was similar to a modest home in my own Milwaukee.  Seeing his humble beginnings and finding out that he liked board games and baseball (but not doing chores) brings the legend down to the average person – me.  As the NPS ranger said on my tour, “anyone can be great if you make the right choices and help others”.  That’s what we need to instill in the hearts and minds of our students – and ourselves.

To learn about the past, you need to walk in the footsteps of history.

It probably goes without saying to the social studies crowd, but there is no better way to understand the great stories of the past and how they still resonate today by visiting historical locations, monuments, and memorials.  To truly appreciate what John Lewis, MLK, and the many others did marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, you have to go there, walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, drive along the county highway that they traversed, visit their encampment, and walk the grounds of the Alabama state capitol.  Going there inspires a sense of understanding, wonder, curiosity, awe, and inspiration. The same can be said for the countless other historic sites, local, national and international, that we can try to visit and encourage our students to do the same.  If we had unlimited funding, a school year on wheels would incredible – but not feasible.  At least taking kids to a historical site, government building, or memorial location is (hopefully) a possibility for teachers, for the best classroom is often not in a school building.

Words are powerful, so use them wisely.

MLK was a master of the spoken and written word, perhaps more than any other in modern history. His words still resonate with society today, both the famous phrases or relatively unknown passages, and I always challenge my students to find the most impactful statement from Dr. King when we visit his memorial in Washington DC. We can use his mastery of the words in classes by having students examine his works, consider his word choice, his use of allusions and repetition, his cadence when he speaks, and how he is very careful with how he expresses his ideas. it’s certainly beneficial for students to listen to his speeches and read his writings, but it’s more important for them to really dig into what he says and how he says it. My American studies partner Dr. Laurie Walczak and I have done so with King’ seminal “I Have a Dream Speech, utilizing the nonfiction reading signposts presented by Probst and Beers.  Most Americans don’t know that the speech actually has two parts, in the often-overlooked prepared part of the speech really ended before King expressed his dream. A much deeper analysis of King’s most famous oration not only provide students with a deeper understanding of his message, but also about how words are incredibly important and powerful, and therefore must be chosen wisely, both in print and when spoken.  Hopefully students can use this is a lesson when they are preparing your own orations, but more importantly when they are expressing themselves in the various forms of media that they choose. Plus, they can realize that you don’t need to say “like” 20 times in a sentence to get your point across.

Leaders lead by example, not by intimidation.

We are always looking to foster leadership in all of our students, especially in the social studies, since our task is to develop civic competence in our students to set the stage for a better future for our country and globe. We often stress the importance of leading by example through positive actions and not by the strongest fist or the deepest pockets. MLK is a great case study in this key concept of leadership.  He talked the talk of nonviolence and civil disobedience, but he also walked the walk, both literally and figuratively. His experiences in Birmingham in 1963 and the subsequent efforts of thousands of Birmingham residents in Project C showed that you can effect change buy doing the right thing and leading others by your exemplary actions. Seeing a replica of his jail cell at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and walking the grounds of Kelly Ingram Park reinforced that concept for me. There are many other figures that we can use in this study on leadership, and MLK can be a central one or just the example that most students will know.  Whatever the case, the message is important, and a crucial one for our social studies classes.

I’ll close with a message that I shared are lower school students many years ago our MLK assembly. MLK was a great leader, an Incredible speaker, and an inspiration to countless people across the globe. However, I see him not just as an activist, or a preacher, or an icon – I see him as a teacher.  His words, presented on the wall of the MLK Memorial, are really the objectives to what we want to teach our kids, in school and at home. Doing the right thing the right way; respecting all people regardless of race, religion, or belief; working together to solve problems; finding a cause or passion to push for positive change–isn’t that we want to see in our kids? In the social studies, this should be the focus of all of our lessons, activities and discussions– it’s not about memorizing names and dates, but about inspiring kids to evaluate the past, understand the present, and push to make a better future. That’s what Dr. King did, and we should still use him as our example for our teaching.


I have approached the Civil Rights Movement differently the past few years, asking students to immerse themselves in various events in the movement and, instead of trying to take copious notes and memorize for a test, to figure out what lessons we all can learn from the movement. Here a few samples of what my students have developed … so far.