Academic Skills, Historical Thinking

Making SHEG HATs a bit more bespoke

Dave Salmanson, over at his blog, has just written a post serving notice to Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group about their omission of recent historiography in many of their historical thinking activities, particularly their most recent one about Columbus Day.

I’ve used (and extensively adapted) materials from Wineburg and SHEG over the years and like the ways that many of their “Reading Like a Historian” lesson plans emphasize the conflicting narratives of the past, thereby pushing the student to act as the historian and give shape to the messy reality of the past. Many of these lesson plans subtly push students to prioritize paying attention to a source’s attribution and then keeping those external details in mind as they then make sense of the source and understand its content in relation to its author, audience, historical context, etc. These lessons also push students to synthesize multiple sources and integrate those into an argument, so I’m all for the historical thinking skills underlying these lesson plans. Wineburg deals with a lot of these concepts and how to foster them in his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, which I’ve read and enjoyed.

SHEG also has another project called “Beyond the Bubble,” which offers shorter assessments focused on analyzing one primary source and addressing some question about its sourcing. SHEG calls these activities “Historical Assessments of Thinking,” or HATs for short — therein lies the title of this post.

For me, these are less substantive activities, not only because they only address one source, but also because they often lack substantive attributions that would, for example, allow a teacher to foster a class discussion about authorial background and its influence, or consider the role of print publications over the course of the nineteenth century. As a result, I’ve used infrequently and rarely check the site to see what new materials they’ve posted.

So after reading Dave’s post tonight, I was reminded of an incident last year where I sought to adapt a HAT about the execution of Louis XVI for my Western Civilization classes and gained some insight into the sloppy and (ironically) poorly sourced lesson plan material that actually made meaningful historical analysis less possible as a result of the assignment’s structure.

In checking back on the Beyond the Bubble site tonight, it looks as if SHEG has since removed the HAT in question, but I fortunately downloaded the assessment, so below is a screenshot of the image and the prompt:

"Death of Louis XVI" HAT, screenshot of SHEG "Beyond the Bubble" Activity

“Death of Louis XVI” HAT, screenshot of SHEG “Beyond the Bubble” Activity

So, not to ruin the surprise or anything, but the HAT wants students to focus on the chronological gap between the event presented by the image and the date of publication. Ideally, this prompt pushes students to consider issues of historical context and whether the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century context of this image shaped the presentation of this event and, if so, in what ways.

I was, however, bothered by the fact that this activity had no author listed. So, I decided to do a little digging and see if I could flesh out this attribution to help my students offer a more nuanced analysis of this source.

Finding another version of this image proved to be pretty easy. Simply searching for the title took me to the Library of Congress page for this image, which is clearly where SHEG drew its attribution info.

“Mort de Louis XVI, le 21 janvier 1793 Place de la Concorde – on voit à gauche le socle de la statue de Louis XV déboulonnée” courtesy of the Library of Congress

While these images seem essentially identical, I quickly noticed that the SHEG version of the image cropped out the original title, caption, and parenthetical reference to its original source. So, it turns out that this image does have an author (or at least a place of publication) — a newspaper called Révolutions de Paris. That piece of information seems like some pretty low-hanging fruit that would have been helpful to include in the HAT’s attribution.

A quick search for the name of the newspaper yielded a link to Dartmouth’s digitization project for that publication, which revealed some useful context about the newspaper, its dates of publication, and its context:

Révolutions de Paris was a weekly newspaper published and edited by Louis-Marie Prudhomme. It began publication July 18, 1789; its final issue is dated 10 ventôse Year 2, i.e., 28 February 1794. This run of over four and a half years, a total of 225 issues, makes it one of the longest running Revolutionary newspapers.

And because we know the date of the event depicted in the image, we can then check out the publication from that week and see what they published the week Louis XVI was executed. Lo and behold, look what Révolutions de Paris ran in Issue no. 185:

Screenshot of _Révolutions de Paris_, Issue no. 185, courtesy of Dartmouth University:

Screenshot of _Révolutions de Paris_, Issue no. 185, courtesy of Dartmouth University:

Unsurprisingly, discovering the context of this newspaper provides students with much richer material for analyzing this image. Furthermore, considering (or even including) details about Prudhomme would enable students to grapple with the complex array of conflicts and agendas that shaped the various stages of the French Revolution. It might even be possible to make something of the fact that this image did get republished over one hundred years after its original publication, but that analysis can’t happen meaningfully without the original contextual details.

While I still think that many of the SHEG assignments have value in the classroom or as quick assessments, teachers need to be really on guard about how these primary sources get presented and what details SHEG includes or omits. And if nothing else, working to clean up the (in this case quite sloppy) attribution details helps teachers keep their own historical research and thinking skills sharp!

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.