Engaging All Students

Authentic Writing Tasks continued.

The next step in my We the Students essay contest assignment was to increase my students’ awareness of contemporary problems in the US and their links to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. I divided the students into groups and gave each group a short article or reading about an issue. They had a day with laptops to research topics on their own, but there were many technical problems and that time was not used wisely.  Groups found short articles on:  (1) Ferguson or other militarized police actions; (2) Marriage equality; (3) Marijuana legalization/decriminalization; (4) Edward Snowden and government surveillance of electronics; (5) Immigration laws; (6) Death penalty; (7) Restrictions on voter IDs; and (8) Obamacare requirements that everyone purchase health insurance. Presenting the Dec

After that, we had class discussions where students argued whether current government actions were in or out of line with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. A chart was put up on Google Drive, so that students could do more research at home. The purpose of the chart was to help students connect the issue back to the exact wording in the Declaration. After each issue was summarized, students asked a few questions. Extensive modeling was done in showing how issues were tied back to the Declaration.

Students created a T-chart depicting which ideals we were moving closer to and which we were moving further from. Students struggled with this higher level thinking activity. They were required to take notes on each topic, so they all had multiple issues that could be related back to ideals of Declaration.

Declaration House


Next, they had a day to research events that had happened in the US during their lifetime. I was surprised how many students selected events were totally irrelevant and did not happen in the US. I don’t think these students are used to a teacher who reads things and they probably think that as long as they write something down, they will get credit. Boy, are they in the wrong class! I asked them to collect 7-10 events from their life time and relate them to the ideals/grievances. Then they had to pick 3-5 events and explain whether they suggested we were moving toward, or away from the Declaration.

Lastly, students took a political typology quiz to determine where their views on social issues put them on the political spectrum. After finishing these prewriting activities, the students were ready to attack the prompt and write a draft as an in-class timed essay. When I charted all of the first drafts, we would move on to a peer review activity and then the revision process.  More on the results soon.

Authentic Writing Tasks

As a 9th and 10th grade World History teacher, sometimes I struggle with making history relevant to my students.  This year, thanks to the Bill of Rights Institute’s We the Students Scholarship Contest, I didn’t have to, the $5,000 top prize was more than enough to motivate my students. They were eager to struggle with questions like: What are the ideals in the Declaration of Independence? What are the ideals of America? What are some of your personal ideals? The vast majority of my students wrote two hand-written drafts before typing three pages double-spaced to meet the early bird deadline of November 15.

BOR Inst

The essay prompt: In 800 words or fewer, please answer the following question: “Since you were born, has America moved closer to or further away from the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. Strojny helped me brainstorm some prewriting tasks that would make this assignment easier for students. First, what are the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence? For this class activity students were split into 13 groups of three or four where they had to close read the Declaration and translate what it actually said. Each group then brought their “translation” up to the document camera, projected it to the class and explained it. Then we compared them to a simplified list of grievances. The students copied the 22 grievances into their binders before leaving class.

For homework, I asked the students do a 15 minute quick write about which ideals, or grievances they thought would be most important, or easy to relate to issues today.  We had a quick discussion that went like this:  Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – they have all heard about this —but don’t  know what it means? Examples to think about: Right to Life: Death penalty, abortion rights/right to life, food assistance for poor families, access to healthcare aka Obamacare.

Liberty:  Civil rights, such as right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, freedom of movement and freedom from government surveillance (think about Edward Snowden, the internet), incarceration rates and three-strikes laws for non-violent offenders such as drug users, freedom to vote and new voter ID laws.

Right to Happiness: What does it mean to be happy? Access to employment, secure jobs, student loans, drug laws, expansion of marriage laws to same-sex couples.

Writing the Dec

That government derives its powers from the just consent of the governed: Do our voter turnout numbers suggest that we consent to being governed by today’s leaders? What about Scotland’s recent referendum? What would happen if people in the U.S. wanted to secede, like the anti-Obama secession petitions in Texas?

Do students understand that the framers were morally compelled to violent revolution because all men have the moral duty—the OBLIGATION– to rebel against governments that do not fulfill these natural laws—the Occupy movement, School Walkouts in CO, acts of civil disobedience.  Do we have a moral duty to rebel against bad laws? What does it mean when we don’t vote? When we don’t attend protests? Etc. Do young people today feel this obligation?

It was an exhilarating assignment. Could I keep the excitement going through numerous drafts?  More in my next post.

History Assessments of Thinking

Joel Breakstone wrote that two of the most readily available test item types, multiple-choice questions and document-based questions (DBQs), are poorly suited for formative assessment. Breakstone and his colleagues at SHEG have designed History Assessments of Thinking (HATs) that measure both content knowledge and historical thinking skills. HATs measure disciplinary skills through engagement with primary sources. Teachers using HATs must interpret student responses and enact curricular revisions using their pedagogical content knowledge, something that may prove difficult with new, or poorly-trained teachers.


To use HATs, teachers must understand the question, be familiar with the historical content, evaluate student responses, diagnose student mistakes, develop remediation, and implement the intervention. Teachers must possess an understanding of what makes learning easy or difficult and ways of formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others. In designing HATs, Breakstone sought to collect data on cognitive validity, or the relationship between the constructs targeted by the assessments and the cognitive processes students use to answer them. This would help teachers interpret student responses and use that information to make curricular changes. Formative assessments in history depend on teachers being able to quickly diagnose student understanding. Assessments based on historical thinking represent a huge shift from the norm in history classrooms. For formative assessment to become routine, teachers will need extensive professional development and numerous other supports.

Sipress & Voelker (2011) write eloquently about the rise and fall of the coverage model in history instruction. This tension has been revitalized as educators eagerly anticipate which testing methodologies will be used for the “fewer, deeper” Common Core assessments and what I call the “Marv Alkin overkill method” of using at least four items to assess each content standard. This results in end of year history assessments that are 80 questions or more. Breadth vs. depth arguments have existed forever in education, Jay Mathews illustrates this by asking if teachers should focus on a few topics so students have time to absorb and comprehend the inner workings of the subject? Or should teachers cover every topic so students get a sense of the whole and can later pursue those parts that interest them most?

Something that may settle this debate is one of the more interesting developments in ed tech. The nexus of machine learning and student writing is a controversial and competitive market. Turnitin recently demonstrated that it is looking to move beyond plagiarism detection and into the automated writing feedback market with a recent acquisition. If my wife allowed me to gamble, I would bet that one of the testing consortiums, either Smarter Balanced or PARCC, will soon strike a deal with one of the eight automated essay grading vendors to grade open-ended questions on their standardized tests. Lightside Labs will pilot test their product with the Gates Foundation in 2015 and get it to market in 2016, just a little too late to be included in the first wave of Common Core assessments. I wonder if HAT assessments would be able to incorporate some automated scoring technology and settle the depth versus breadth debate in assessing history?