Designing a Better History Class by Establishing Complex Learning Goals

FIRST, a side note: the bike pictured above has made a triumphant comeback! I got this blue beauty as a gift about four years ago, and owing to the fact that for the last three years I’ve been living in a gravel-strewn desert, I haven’t really ridden it. Well that all changes starting, er, starting REALLY SOON! I’m committing (here! publicly! on the internet!) to a 10-mile-each-way bike commute with panniers and everything. You’ll note front and rear lights and a brand-new rear rack—thanks, Stanford Campus Bike Shop! More to come—hopefully there will be little bloodshed.

So, back to APUSH. My overarching project here is to differentiate the curriculum so that it will be accessible and interesting to kids of varying readiness levels and learning styles. But the first step in that process is to figure out what exactly I’m trying to accomplish by the end of the four hours over which the unit spans.

In other words, in order to make this course interesting, I need to establish complex learning goals. I need to establish goals that kids will want to achieve, and to thereby establish intrinsic motivation. This is not a problem solved by handing a kid an iPad, this is a problem solved by figuring out what, exactly, about the human condition one better understands when one understands history, and then working on fostering that understanding. Ugh, so hard. Okay.

What I want to make sure students KNOW

There were complex and varied people in North America before the Europeans showed up,

Different groups of Europeans had different reasons for colonizing the continent, and

English colonies were culturally and economically distinct from one another.

What I want to make sure that students UNDERSTAND:

Commonalities between time, place, and people exist, but difference is also important,

Dominant narratives reflect power structures, and

Context and perspective shape the content and message of sources. Or, context shapes content.

What I want students to be able to DO:

Identify and explain source perspective (focusing on the sources’ origin and purpose), and

Compare two sources on the same topic.

So this is the seriously daunting problem of teaching. If the job were to get kids to memorize the 13 colonies, I’d be set. But really teaching History is emphatically NOT that. The job is instead that of helping kids see the world in a more nuanced way and to show them how to consume information carefully and skeptically. Hard. And interesting! (Let’s try to keep that in mind come October when all of my summer oomph has been drained and my spirit totally crushed.)

Now that I have a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to achieve in these first four hours of class, I need to devise a way of establishing where my students are at the outset in terms of meeting those goals. Some students will probably be pretty solid on many of the items above, while others may be very emergent. This means that my task for next time is to design a pre-assessment—a test (ungraded) the kids will take that should give me some data with regards to their readiness. FYI, I plan on posting the full unit (and all units developed on this blog) on Teachers Pay Teachers. Download it even if you’re not a history teacher! Take the tests for fun!

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