Academic Skills, Presentations

A Foray into “Flipped” Tutorials: Writing an AP European History FRQ

This week is a busy one for a variety of reasons, but part of that busy-ness involves missing school on a day before the first test I’m giving in my AP European History classes. While much of the review activity is material my substitute can help cover, I have planned a discussion about how to approach and pre-write Free Response Questions that will be hard to do in my absence.

Given these circumstances, I thought I’d revive a tactic I’d used previously in case of absence: making a tutorial video!

I find these types of videos, where I’m focused on explaining a skill or intellectual strategy, to be more compelling to make (though perhaps not to view…you’ll all have to be the judges of that) than ones that focus on conveying content. I make that assertion largely based on the fact that I’ve only ever been compelled to make “flipped”-style tutorial videos for skills like these and not for content-heavy lectures.

Given that AP European History has a variety of skill sets, writing strategies, and essay approaches that are unique to the exam, I think this genre of video might be one that I’ll continue working on (though given the changes coming to the exam next year, that effort might be in vain).

I’ve posted my video below and would welcome any feedback! If I find more energy and time to continue adding to this series, I’ll pass them along here (and thereby avoid having this blog turn into a 1990s-Angelfire-esque wasteland of disused internet).


Navel-Gazing Quantitative Analysis

In prepping to put together my final exam I was browsing Rob MacDougall’s website for ideas about “playful” historical thinking and came across a pingback to one of my own posts. So, for the first time in many weeks, I logged into WordPress to check my stats and found a surprising aberration:

Screenshot 2014-05-26 09.28.43

What is this! Why did I experience a surge in popularity two weeks ago and then went back to my middling day-to-day results? Now, let’s take a closer look to see what drove this unexpected spike in site traffic:

Screenshot 2014-05-26 09.28.59

Hmmmm…it seems that almost 85% of that day’s traffic came from a post on one of my oft-discussed topics – reorganizing information in meaningful ways. But this wasn’t just a garden variety version of an info-reorganization post, it was one about political party timelines. And what might account for this unexpected (and then quickly vanished) interest on May 13 in particular?

And I think we have an answer:

Screenshot 2014-05-26 09.41.19

Of course, the AP US History test. Thanks, College Board, for the unexpected traffic boost!


Any Google Spreadsheet wizards out there?

One of the things I’ve been paying more attention to this year for my AP students has been their multiple choice performance on our in-class drills, quizzes, tests, and final exams. I’m collecting this data as a way to trace each student’s improvement over the year and see if I can spot any patterns in their performance and offer suggestions for improvement.

To track this, I set up a Google Spreadsheet for each class period (I have two this year) and then within each spreadsheet created a separate sheet for each assessments, noting the type of assessment, date, and results. The upside of this arrangement is that I can include a lot of data within each spreadsheet, tracking not only multiple choice result, but also performance on the written sections, and any extra credit earned. I could also have extra columns to re-weight the sections of an assignment if need be. The other perk was that this arrangement interfaced nicely with Socrative and Google Forms assessments, allowing me to easily port that data into a new sheet for each new assessment.

As I’ve gotten deeper into the year, however, I realize that tracing change over time for individual students is a bit of a nuisance. I chatted with a student the other day about her performance on essay writing, and while I was able to hunt down that info by clicking from sheet to sheet, it was a cumbersome process that didn’t give me a quick sense of her performance over the course of the year.

I also realized that I’ve entered data is a somewhat haphazard way, not always putting students names in the same order or in the same cells, and sometime entering students as “FirstName LastName” and other times entering students as “LastName, FirstName.” All of which goes to highlight the fact that I greatly enjoy digital humanities work, but I’m stronger on the “humanities” side of all this stuff than I am at the “digital” in some cases. Sigh.

Here’s a sense of what things look like (with both delightfully alliterative randomized names and randomized data):

An example of my structure for tracking student performance on a Google Spreadsheet – with random names and data.

An example of my structure for tracking student performance on a Google Spreadsheet – with random names and data. The struggle for winner of the “fun name of the class” award in this section is a two-way race between “Denisha Dandy” and “Alpha Almond.”

So, I’m now realizing that it would be incredibly helpful to have a single sheet that traced each student’s performance on all these assessments over the course of the year. It would be super ideal is that sheet could then get auto-populated with new data each time I created a new sheet and entered new data about student performance.

I’m sure there’s a way to set this up, but I don’t know if there’s a pre-programmed script that will let me port data associated with each student into a new spreadsheet, or if there are a set of formulae that I need to enter in a new sheet to have this material carry over.

Potentially (though there are likely much better ways to set this up; I’m very open to suggestions) that type of page might look like this:

Potential arrangement of synoptic performance sheet.

Potential arrangement of synoptic performance sheet. The undoubted winner of best name in this class is “Buena Brocato.”

In my semi-useful natural language searching around the web I found a few Google forum discussions that seemed useful, but in attempted to enter the formulae, I didn’t have much success. Are any of these actually useful?

So, if anyone has suggestions about how I might go about accomplishing this, or if there is a great plug-in script to help me port this data from a bunch of separate sheets to one single sheet, I’d greatly appreciate the insight!

Pedagogy, teaching

The Pedagogical Brilliance of John Hodgman

I enjoy a number of the podcasts on the podcasting network a great deal. One of those that I listen to on a weekly basis is Judge John Hodgman, which is characteristically dry, funny, and thought-provoking. If you don’t recognize this fake Internet judge’s name, you’ll likely recognize him from his most famous role in a bunch of old Apple ads:

On his most recent episode, “Strictly Courtroom,” Judge Hodgman had a brilliant nugget of wisdom about the process of learning that I felt compelled to transcribe and share with you here:

Your argument that why not have fun while learning is undermined by the fact that you know learning is not fun. Learning is painful. Learning is awkward. Learning is essentially admitting that you don’t know something that you’re embarrassed not to know. That is the hard part of learning. And sometimes learning means chanting various body parts over and over and over again until the embarrassment of not knowing, or the embarrassment of not being good at something, or the embarrassment of not being sophisticated, or the embarrassment of not being a grown person, or whatever the embarrassment of not knowing is, gets beaten out of you until you can finally learn.

I realize that out of context that point about “body parts” must seem very strange, but give the whole episode a listen and you’ll have a sense of why that apparently bizarre comment shows up in this pithy observation about learning.

I particularly love the fact that Judge Hodgman is willing to directly challenge what seems to be the ever-growing chorus of “let’s make learning fun” with the hard truth that learning isn’t “fun,” per se, but can certainly be rewarding and fulfilling, which happens precisely because learning is challenging.

And now that I’ve got that great quote typed up, I can include it on all my future syllabi

Academic Skills, Historical Thinking, teaching

Teaching Mind Mapping

As I’ve written about before, (many-a-time, in fact. See: this, this, and this), I believe that really gaining a clear understanding of historical concepts, events, sequence, themes, etc. comes from actively reshaping the information in some manner. History lends itself well to this because it forces one to think chronologically (timelines), comparatively (comparison charts or Venn diagrams, for those who like to write in tiny oblong spaces), or thematically (color coding major categories).

Personally, I’m a big fan of mind mapping, as the process of putting down terms, events, places, etc. and then linking them up and figuring out why they’re important can be a really effective way to understand the material in terms that resonate personally. Moreover, this approach doesn’t require a set formula, end result, or appearance; instead, it can go wherever a student wants to take it. And perhaps most importantly, it helps students understand that history isn’t a memorization challenge – one simply cannot do the analytical work necessary of a historian (or anything that requires critical thinking, for that matter) if rote memory is the lone approach to understanding the material.

In fact, I used this technique a fair amount early in my teaching career to help me figure out how to sequence material within a unit, what major themes I wanted to emphasize, and how I could make effective transitions between the content. But I had first learned about mind mapping during my own sophomore year of high school and found it to be a really valuable way of making sense of the material we were studying. When I was early in my teaching career I scoured through my old high school papers (what I aspirationally like to call the “Presidential Archives”), and discovered this mind mapping artifact from my past:

Mind Map – 19th c. Ideas


I’ve redacted both my name and the grade, but I’ll let you all know that it was quite well received.

This past week I introduced the concept and approach of mind mapping to some of my classes and thought I’d pass along my general guidelines here:

Mind Mapping Guidelines


  • Reorganize information → breaking from pure memorization.

  • Articulate and understand connections between key terms in your own words.

  • Identify the dominant themes and patterns in the material we’re studying.


  1. Start with a list of ID terms and pick any one of them to begin and put it on your sheet of notebook paper.

  2. Add other terms (one at a time) that connect to that initial term and link them with arrows.

  3. **On the lines of the arrow EXPLAIN the connection between these terms by writing a description of that link ON THE LINE.** ← This is the most important part of mind mapping and is vital in terms of accomplishing the above goals.

  4. OPTIONAL – you can add colors/highlighting to indicate major categories of information (e.g. Social, Political, Religious, Intellectual, Technological, Economic).

These are (as with all things posted here) a continual work in progress, so if anyone has suggestions about how they introduce this concept or present other ways of getting students to meaningfully reorganize information, I’d be thrilled to hear about those in the comments.

Academic Skills, Research, teaching

New Assignment Alert: Wikipedia Historiography Paper

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...

This trimester I’m teaching a senior elective entitled, “Slavery in the Atlantic World.” We’re using a class blog extensively to conduct a discussion prior to meeting in person to them follow up on the readings. In designing the course, I drew extensively (and with great gratitude) from Ben Wright at Rice University, who generously offered lots of advice and ideas about how to structure and conduct this type of course (which he ran in the Spring of 2013) effectively.

One of these cribbed ideas was a “Wikipedia Historiography Paper” assignment that asked students to do the following:

Using the “View History” function of Wikipedia, students will write an 800–1000 word historiography of a Wikipedia page relevant to their subtopic. We will spend time in class discussing how to think about and trace the historiography of a topic, what to look for within this “View History” page, and collaboratively decide how this assignment should be evaluated.

In asking Ben about this assignment, he explained that he didn’t have a formal instruction sheet as his class spent a lot of time discussing it face-to-face before they embarked on the research and writing process. As I noted to my students in my follow-up post about this assignment, however, our meeting constraints don’t allow for this type of extended discussion, so instead I wrote up an assignment sheet that I hope will be of use.

So, below the line I’ve reproduced my post to my students. I’m passing it along here to get any feedback, suggestions, reactions, etc. that people may have so I can refine it for future classes (or improve it for this current one).

As a reminder, historiography is essentially the study of how writing history changes over time. As historians develop and embrace new approaches, encounter new sources, and perceive the world in new ways given their present circumstances, the way they analyze the causes of past events change significantly. Wikipedia (what a shocking source to draw on here, I know!) has a nice encapsulation of how these changes have been seen in the historical profession in the past 40 or so years:

So, in order to assess these types of interpretive changes for a Wikipedia page, here’s a list of questions to consider as you read through the “View History” tab of your selected topic.

  • Who created the page and when? Who are the major contributors?
    • What can you find out about these people and their educational or professional backgrounds
    • What other pages or types of edits have they made on Wikipedia? Do they seem to have an academic or topical specialty? Do they tend to make particular types of edits on all the Wikipedia pages to which they contribute?
    • What sources do these editors cite? What can you tell about the quality of their research and the sources on which they draw?
  • What are the major sources of disagreement about the page? Where do the Wikipedia contributors seem to go back-and-forth the most?
  • What images have users added to the page and how do these contribute to its usefulness and/or the argument that it conveys?
In terms of then structuring your paper after you’ve done a close and thorough reading of the “View History” tab, you might consider the following framework (though it is not set in stone):
  • Intro ¶
    • Brief overview of topic and its origin on Wikipedia
    • Structural thesis statement (e.g. clear argumentative claim and a roadmap/blueprint for your body paragraphs) establishing the most significantareas of interpretive controversy or debate AND/OR the most significantcontributions to the page.
  • Body ¶s
    • Elaborate on each of the points from your thesis and provide evidence from the page about the interpretive debates AND/OR contributions.
  • Conclusion ¶
    • Evaluation of the page’s value/trustworthiness as an introductory source on this topic.
    • A consideration of how the page’s transformation fits into some of the major trends about historical interpretations and arguments about transatlantic slavery that we’ve read about thus far in class.
NOTE: Please use footnotes in your paper. If you’d like to use full Chicago Style citations for all URLs you may, but you can also just footnote the URL by itself.
I hope this set of questions and potential structure prove useful in guiding your research and helping you organize the evidence you encounter. Please post any questions you have in the comments so that your peers, who may have the same concerns, can also see my response or provide feedback and guidance of their own.

And for good measure, I’ll include my favorite historiography-related cartoon below (because there are sooooooo many to choose from):