Using Mind Maps to Think Through Complex Concepts

My tenth-graders are working on an essay in response to the question, “Is democracy the best form of government?” I gave them the essential question at the outset of the unit, and our class time has largely been spent discussing and making sense of evidence and arguments that the students will need to weigh when it comes time to write about their own position.

Throughout the unit, the students not only have to keep track of a lot of information from a diverse array of sources, they also have to keep track of their own thinking as they try to form an argument.

In service of teaching students how to simultaneously take in, keep track of, and reflect on information, I’m using a tool called Mindomo (you can use a version for free, and the teacher license is something like $100/year). I use regular old notebook-and-pen mind maps pretty frequently. Mind-mapping allows students to draw connections between themes and complex concepts, which in turn helps them to make sense of chronology and how things fit together. Turning a mind map into a linear outline helps the students to sort through their conclusions, connections, and ideas, and to translate abstract thoughts into a cohesive and logical argument.

Mind mapping does those things in its traditional form, but the online tool has a pretty cool functionality: I can watch the students create the mind maps and add in sources, and then I can comment on their maps in real time. Today in class, as my students were reading and annotating Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I could watch as they added in quotations and analysis, and then give them written comments. They can save those comments for later and refer back to them as they’re creating outlines. They can also link to websites we’ve read, PDFs I’ve saved to Google Docs, and videos we’ve watched. Again, teachers can obviously do this the old-fashioned way, but I like that with the digital version the students can link to all of the assigned sources, and that I can comment on what they’re doing as they’re doing it. Here’s a screenshot of what this looks like:


On the lefthand side, the student is taking notes on the Allegory. The blue bubbles are her mind map, and the righthand side shows where I’m commenting on her work.

I often find that educational technology tools take a bit more time to figure out how to integrate than they’re worth. Most of the time it seems like teachers can get the same amount of value through traditional pen-and-paper exercises. But this made a pretty solitary activity (reading and annotating) more interactive, and allowed me to watch and give feedback on their process, and it didn’t take much more effort than just setting up student accounts.



Historical Thinking is Design Thinking

img_9910I have been working on our westward expansion unit for APUSH. This is the era wherein we get to talk about cowboys and the open (and soon-to-be-closed) range, Promontory Point (in my home state!), the Chinese Exclusion Act (a surprise to many a history student), the Mormons (again, my home state!), the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the devastation wrought by (or the progress brought by, depending on your perspective) the Dawes Act. This is my favorite era to teach. It feels fun. It feels like politics aren’t necessarily at the center of the thing, and that it instead generates conversations about culture and concepts.

I’m working on the unit in conjunction with the Bourn Idea Lab, which is a really fancy maker space at our school, staffed with actual designers and engineers and equipped with things like laser cutters and 3D printers. It’s playful and fun and the people down there are excited and encouraging. I wanted to work in the Lab because I had this instinct that something about studying history fit naturally into this kind of maker space, but I also felt hesitant, because a project like this could so easily devolve into the kind of thing where the student spends way more time on figuring out how to get the ball to rotate on the wire hanger, than on actually understanding that planets rotate around the sun and how gravity works.

Separately, I’ve been working on a lesson on reading and citing scholarly work in history with my librarian friend Tasha. We decided to start the lesson with the question, “What do historians actually do?” Well what historians actually do is try to figure out answers or solutions to historical problems. Why did the American colonies revolt when they did? Why did the Civil War happen? Why did the Puritans accuse so many women of being witches, and go so far as to kill them for it? (Textbooks can be deceptive because they suggest that these historical problems are not problems at all—the answers to them are instead taken-for-granted facts.) Historians then examine the historical record, and use that record to try out various solutions to these problems. And once they’ve come up with a pretty good solution, they publish it and ask other scholars to test it out, tinker with it, and build upon it. This is how our understanding of what happened and why it matters comes into being.

Tasha likened this process to inventing new kinds of paper clips. In the proverbial beginning, we already had metal paper clips. They were an okay solution, but they couldn’t hold much paper, they tore the paper they did hold, and they rusted and were kind of annoying. So, people iterated! How about a plastic paper clip? A big binder clip? Now there are all kinds of better and better solutions to this one single paper clip problem. And in essence, that is indeed what historians do. They identify an historical problem, and they use source material and build upon the answers of other historians, in order to find a more satisfactory solution to that problem.

In the Bourn Lab, I want my students to be historians. They’ll have a central historical problem: What did the “progress” of westward expansion look like across different groups and elements? One group will have a set of source material dealing with water in the west, another with land, another with American Indians, and another with migrants. I want them to come up with an answer to that question based on the sources. The final product will be some kind of natural history museum exhibit and an accompanying plaque, which I’m hoping will engage the more kinesthetic students. I’m also hoping that it will demonstrate the connection between designing and thinking about history. If nothing else, it will get them out of the classroom as the semester winds down and finals approach.

The thing is, historical thinking on its own is design thinking. Teachers don’t need to be literal when it comes to tinkering and making. And students don’t need to literally be making things on a 3D printer (though that should be fun) in order to engage in solving complex historical problems. Design thinking is the work of the historian! I guess my point is that historians are not dusty tweed-jacket-wearing curmudgeons, and that maybe we have more in common with those guys down the road in Mountain View after all.

More to come as the project progresses!

Humanities, saving the world.


image source

My head of school sent a link to an article this morning, entitled “How Humanities Can Help Save the World.” It identifies precisely where I locate my passion for teaching my subject. And this revelation was more than welcome  first thing on a morning back from a long weekend, when I’m more likely to be worried about whether or not I made enough copies of a handout than whether or not my students understand what “systemic racism” means. The article is worth reading, certainly, but in case it falls under the tl;dr category for you, here’s a salient quote addressing how students will learn what racism and anti-semitism are, and how they might be avoided (or stamped out):

Where will they learn this? Not in their marketing, economics, or STEM courses. Highly quantified disciplines like those cannot teach about things like racial or religious prejudice. To learn what anti-Semitism and racism are, students must turn to history and sociology courses. To learn why they are evil and how to avoid them, they must turn to the humanities.

In particular, it is the humanities that teach us how not to be racists, by showing us how to open ourselves up to what is different. Whether a given humanist is a modernist, postmodernist, New Critic, Marxist, or an adherent of any of dozens of other approaches, what she does in the classroom is always the same: She takes some cultural product that seems at first strange and off-putting — a poem by some ancient Greek or Persian poet, a novel by some African or Chinese author, a statue from an indigenous culture whose true name we don’t even know — and, if she is a good teacher, makes it familiar enough to be interesting. Doing that inevitably expands the minds of the students, bringing their horizons just a little closer to the widest horizons of all — those of humanity itself.

I am struggling with this right now, as I grapple with fitting the prescribed APUSH curriculum into a school-year calendar with only 40 classroom hours per semester, and wherein every. single. day. follows a different schedule. I am struggling with balancing the required memorization of facts with fostering a deep understanding of the principles History ought to teach us:

  • That alternative ways of being, thinking, and seeing exist,
  • That social and historical forces shape individual choice and action,
  • That agency exists but is often limited,
  • That in-the-moment choices and actions have far-reaching consequences,
  • That dominant narratives reflect power structures, and that
  • Commonalities exists between and across time/space/culture, but that difference can be very important.

I am struggling with this balance, it’s an intense amount of work, and I’ve caught myself feeling too run-down lately to keep the big picture in mind. But this article really reminded me that that struggle is worth it, and that teaching History is a job worth doing well.


Sources and Stories

The other day one of the librarians at my school shared with me this story from the Smithsonian website. The article features archeologists who are working to unearth stories about fugitive slaves fighting for freedom.

She pointed me to this quote:

“By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of their methods: ‘Historians are limited to source documents. When it comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can read it in the ground.'”

The quote and the article connected beautifully to one of the things we’re focusing on in APUSH: stories that don’t get told. Dominant narratives highlight some actors and keep others in the shadows, but they also arise naturally when we focus on the written historical record. What stories come to the fore when we focus explicitly on what doesn’t get written down?

I’m grateful to have interested and interesting research librarians (at my high school!!) around to point me to this stuff!

My problem with lecturing is that I’m not sure anyone remembers what I have to say.


The first class I took about how to be a teacher started with a quick reflective exercise. The professor prompted:

Think back to a time that you actually learned something and remembered it.

I actually thought about tying knots. I had started rock climbing a couple of years prior, and remembered being taught how to tie a figure-eight knot in order to lower myself off of the top of a route. My climbing partner let me hold the rope as we were bolted in next to each other at the top of a wall, and verbally explained what to do. I crossed one strand over the other several times, tied myself in, and lowered myself down. With some coaching, I did it myself.

The professor then asked:

How were you taught to do this thing? What approach did your teacher take?

Something occurred to me just then, and in fact now forms the basis of my approach to teaching: I learned by actually interacting with the material. My climbing partner had not given me a book on tying knots, explained to me how to tie this particular knot, and then expected me to perform. Had she done so, I’m convinced I would have fallen 50 feet and really gotten hurt.

So this is why I try to avoid lecturing to my students. One, I’m not particularly interested in hearing what I have to say in this context. I’m more interested in what my students think. (And frequently, they change my mind!) And two, I’m not really convinced that my students really learn much when I talk at them. Sure, they’ll likely be able to copy down my brilliant musings and regurgitate them on a multiple-choice test. But will they really form those new neurons that you’re supposed to when you learn a new thing? I’m not sure.

I have sat through many a beautifully written and expertly delivered lecture. Lectures on theories of art history, lectures by esteemed experts on Dickens and Le Corbusier, and lectures by attorneys who regularly present arguments before the Supreme Court. At the time, I felt that I was in the presence of intellectual greatness and I truly enjoyed every moment. But do I remember much of what any of those lecturers had to say? Well…

“Avoiding the Lecture” forms part of many pedagogical approaches, including the Flipped Classroom, Project-Based Learning, and Student-Centered Teaching in general. It’s implied in constructivist ideology, which in pedagogy suggests that students should be given the opportunity to construct their own meanings and understandings. In History, it might look like asking students to interpret source material in discussion rather than dictating what sources mean, or it might look like assigning an open-ended, interpretive assessment, rather than giving a multiple choice test that assesses how well students have listened in class.

Today for example, we learned about how slavery formed part of the Constitution as ratified in 1789. Instead of explaining to my students how each of the concerned Articles formed part of the legal edifice of human bondage, I assigned an Article to each of several pair of students, and asked them to explain to me the relation of the law to slavery. Admittedly, I borrowed the lesson from the Gilder Lerhman Institute. But I did so because it squares with my understanding of how students learn.

Alright, so I’m sure folks will quibble with me on this one. You had an amazing History/Literature/Psychology/Calculus professor who expounded so expertly, so poetically, that you retained every detail and you are a better person for it. (Maybe it’s not lecturing; it’s me!) If this is you, tell me in the comments! I want to know!


What causes a revolution? And how do you write a good paragraph?


We began our unit on the American Revolution this week! I’ve been learning and re-learning American history since, er, well for a long time, and I still get excited about this stuff. Self-evident truths! All men are created equal! (Okay yeah, we’ll come back around to that one.) I know its clichéd, but what can I say, I’m a sucker for a good national narrative and/or an HBO miniseries.

So how to teach this material that everyone seems to already know everything about? Because considering causality is a primary historical thinking skill, I tend to begin units with questions of causation—why is this thing happening at this moment in time?

Which is, happily, one of the central historical problems with the American Revolution: WHY? Colonists revolted because they didn’t want taxation without representation? Okay, I guess, except that breaking from the world’s greatest colonial power was a really big deal and the colonists had been taxed for a pretty long time. Why revolt, and at that moment? To my point, I found a great quote from Duke professor/historian Edward Balleisen in the Business History Review:

Getting tens of thousands of colonials to act in concert, when they differed from one another in so many ways, when poor overland transportation dramatically limited their interactions, and when their chief point of connection was a shared identification with England, constituted no mean feat.

Yes. One of the misconceptions that students come to colonial American history with is the presumption that the colonists all thought of themselves as pre-Americans and that they were just waiting to unify as American patriots and fight the Man/mother country together. No. Actually, historians think that American colonials felt way more British than anything else: Bostonians had less in common with Charlestonians than they did with Londoners. So the historical conundrum is, why revolution, and why now? What caused the colonists to band together at that particular historical moment? 

That was my essential question for the first part of this unit. More generally, I wanted to get my students to an understanding that events and phenomenons have multiple causes, and that historians debate causality endlessly. Finally, my pre-assessment data suggested that we needed to work on paragraphs, and in particular on topic sentences and making analytical connections to a thesis statement.

So here’s what I did:

First I made two sets of three cups, labelled, respectively, GREAT AWAKENING, CONSUMERISM, and POLITICAL CULTURE. In each, I put slips of paper with facts/details about each of those broad categories, which in turn each relate to the cultural climate of the colonies leading up to the Revolution.

In class, I wrote, “The American Revolution broke out in part due to the cultural climate of the colonies during the mid-18th century,” on the board, along with the following instructions:

  1. Sit with a partner
  2. Read the evidence in your cup
  3. Write a topic sentence that reflects the evidence (and only the evidence) in the cup (and only the cup)
  4. Write 2-3 analytical sentences addressing how this evidence helps to answer today’s question
  5. Repeat for all three colored cups

For those who finished more quickly than others, I asked them to write a thesis statement encapsulating their analysis of the cups.

Not coincidentally, the cups all provide a piece of an answer to the question, “What caused the American Revolution?” Each one, the Great Awakening, consumerism, and political culture, corresponds to an actual historiographical argument—the idea is that the students are engaging with real arguments made by real historians, and then being asked to fit the factual material into that framework. This, I think, is more authentic to the discipline and also more interesting than me delivering a lecture.

One teacher whose work I’m really into has described this as allowing students to do the higher-order thinking work by doing the lower-order stuff for them. And just look at this higher-order product I got—a beautifully constructed thesis addressing the historiographical question of why the colonists chose to revolt:

A rise in consumerism, an increasingly active political culture, and the message of Great Awakening, caused a cultural shift that eventually led the American colonists to break from Great Britain.  

-One of my Brilliant Students

THAT IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! And they all came up with it on their own! Happy Friday!

Why Historical Source Analysis Skills matter to the 2016 Presidential Election (plus a pre-assessment!)


There’s obviously lots of talk these days about how the American public is under-educated, and how schools are largely failing to prepare students to be informed and productive members of society. We hear quite a bit about how American students lag behind students worldwide in math and science. And we also hear a lot about how improving STEM education in schools will better prepare students for “the jobs of tomorrow.” And maybe it will (I’m sure it will). But I want to talk about how to prepare kids to vote. Because what will prepare kids to vote is History class.

I’m not trying to downplay the importance of a strong math and science education when I say this, but the reason that so many people vote contrary to their own interests (or those of the public), is not that they aren’t good at algebra. As far as citizenship and civics are concerned, math and science aren’t the issue. The problem with American democracy, instead, is this:

We Americans are not critical consumers of information.

I haven’t done any formal studies, but I’d wager a guess that most Americans can’t really assess the reliability of a source. They weren’t taught how to assess source perspective or bias, and they wouldn’t know political propaganda from an ad for select-a-size paper towels. Maybe this isn’t true of your friends, neighbors, or coworkers. But I’ll bet you my measly teacher salary that it’s true of lots of other people. (It’s certainly true of me a lot of the time!)

While I don’t blame the American people at large for this, I do want to remind History teachers, specifically: Is it not our job to teach students how to read critically? To understand that in fact EVERY source has a bias? That EVERY source is a result of author context and purpose? That EVERY source has an agenda? That EVERYONE is trying to sell you something?

History teachers do students a disservice when we stand up in front of a class, lecture as if we are gods, and give students “A”s if and only if they repeat back to us our morsels of profound wisdom. By doing this we teach them that authority = reliability. And then we’re surprised and disappointed when they believe what they hear politicians and advertisements and talking heads telling them.

History students should be taught to be skeptics, to question the textbook, to doubt what their teachers say, and in short, to consider the source. If we were all such history students, we would be better citizens and better voters.

…so now on that note, a Common-Core-aligned pre-assessment to help you determine just how good your students are at doing just that! This pre-assessment is designed to determine how well your students understand that author origin and purpose shape source content and message. Ideally, the sources you choose would be two sources on the same topic. Since I’ll be working on unit about colonial America, my sources deal with the Pequot War. But this exercise would be equally suited for source material on immigration reform, Social Security, reproductive rights, and the list goes on. It’s available on Teachers Pay Teachers!

Okay, that’s all for now! Vote wisely, friends! Don’t trust anything anyone says! Doubt! Be skeptical! Be a good history student!

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.

Continue reading “Designing a Better History Class by Establishing Complex Learning Goals”

Starting with the End in Mind: Learning Goals and Differentiation in AP US History

An Introduction.

Summer planning! I’m starting a new teaching position this year, so my summer has so far involved slightly more prep work than it otherwise might. I have the deliciously wonderful privilege of teaching AP US History, which is the class in high school that started me down the career path I’m currently on. My academic work was also primarily focused on American history, so this also means that I get to think all day long about the one thing I think is most interesting to think about. So! all of that is to say that I’ve been mulling over how to make this class as fresh and exciting as possible and I’ve been feeling very fresh and exciting about that process.

AP US History seems to be one of those classes that everyone remembers, and that everyone either loved or hated. I have a working theory about those who fall into the latter camp. That theory is this: History is traditionally taught in such a way that only the kids who would naturally be inclined to like the subject do in fact end up liking it. History as it is traditionally taught (lecture/note/multiple choice) does nothing to hook the kid who isn’t a natural dork for history. So, most of the population ends up “hating History,” when in fact what they hate is sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture while taking notes, and then trying to pass a multiple choice test.

I’ll admit that the following is just based on anecdotal evidence, but History teaching seems especially curmudgeonly, and resistant to 21st-century-type pedagogy. Maybe this makes sense, since we historians/teachers of history spend most of our time looking backward, and it seems a contradiction in terms to teach a subject whose content is backward-looking in a manner that supports the development of forward-thinking skills. Okay so anyway, I’m trying to do that kind of teaching, in this most staid of high school courses. Here’s the first step in that attempt.

Continue reading “Starting with the End in Mind: Learning Goals and Differentiation in AP US History”