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, 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 Proposals, Historical Thinking, Research

Churning out new assignments!: “Introduction to Historical Research and Presentations”

There are two major exciting things about this post. Firstly, I’ve actually written something new! In order to accomplish this lofty goal, I thought I’d return to my approach of sharing new assignments that I’ve developed. Secondly, I figured out how to embed a Google Doc in WordPress! Hopefully this embedded document will show up for everyone whether viewing it on or through an RSS Reader.

This most recent assignment, which I’m discussing with my students tomorrow, has the ever-so-pithy title of “Introductory Historical Research and Presentation Assignment: Rome and the Middle Ages.” This assignment shares some commonalities with others I’ve posted before, most notably my “Crap Detection” assignment, as it aims to get students thinking critically about their sources and evaluating the authorship to understand how that aspect inherently shapes the nature of the content.

However, this assignment’s emphases are slightly different as I’m hoping that it will help students to explore research databases, begin to understand and use Chicago Style citations and bibliographies, and gain an understanding of historiography and how historians can approach the exact same topic from a variety of perspectives. Moreover, I hope that by giving students freedom to choose their topics within the broader time period of Rome and the Middle Ages that they’ll have a greater investment in their topics, which will make researching and presenting on them more compelling.

So, let’s see if the second exciting element of this post works. Below, you should see the embedded Google Doc of the assignment.


Any suggestions or thoughts on how I could revise or add to this assignment to better emphasize the skills I’m working to have my students develop? I haven’t yet made photocopies, so I can certainly incorporate any expedited feedback! (However, I probably will have made the copied by the time you read this, so if you have suggestions along this line I’ll gladly take them nevertheless and incorporate them for the future).

Academic Skills, Historical Thinking, Pedagogy

Going Medieval on Medieval Times’ Matinee Menu

Ages ago I wrote about my spontaneously developed “Junk Mail” lesson plan, which came to me courtesy of Medieval Times’ “educational division.”

For a long time I’d planned to write a dissection of the menu as a reflection of the medieval era, and also as a reflection of contemporary thinking about the historical past. However, I fortunately received two comments on the original post, which more or less addressed both of those topics and relieved me of the duty of spinning those points out of whole cloth.

Conveniently, the comments on that original post arrived in that topical order, so I’ll deal with them as they arrived: first, the issue of dissecting the menu and the historical issues it raises, and second, what the menu reflects about contemporary perspectives on the past.

The first comment reads as follows (to save you the arduous task of clicking on the link and the returning here, I’ve included the entirety of the comment here):

That menu is a study in anachronism: Most of the items on it are from the New World, for a start. To a medieval European, maize, potatoes, and chocolate would have seemed as alien as moon rocks, and prob. about as appetizing. I hardly need mention the Pepsi.

Don’t know the history of garlic, but my guess is that it would have been all but unknown to English, Norman, Frankish, or German knights, and certainly not as something to smear on toasted buttered bread. And white is a strange color for bread; are you sure this stuff’s edible?

The only item on the menu that seems appropriate to the era (even the “pure filtered water” seems out of place) is the roasted chicken, but the advertised “herbs” should have been pungent spices, capable of overpowering the less pleasant flavors of days-old meat.

Then there are the anachronistic utensils. If the organizers really wanted to “enhance the experience,” they’d have obliged their guests to eat with their hands, like all Christian folk.

In essence, the commenter nailed all the essential problems of technological and botanical anachronism that I raised with my students when I presented this menu for the first time. (While I just recently discovered this online, I suppose a more nitpicky dissection of the menu could take place with this document of the ingredients list that Medieval Times provides). Certainly, the dissection of the menu is a terrific way to present the concept of the Columbian Exchange and highlight the centrality of Columbus to historical developments unleashed by humans but primarily driven by biological and botanical forces.

Chart of the Columbian Exchange, Image courtesy of

With this emphasis, students get a real sense of just how different (and deeply impoverished, actually), pre-contact Europe was in comparison to pre-contact Meso-America. I like to follow this discussion of the matinee menu with a reading of excerpts from David Stannard’s American Holocaust, which, while sensationalistic in tone, do provide a striking descriptive juxtaposition of these two Atlantic civilizations before they interacted with one another.

(As an aside, the Stannard reading is also a really nice text to discuss the impact of the present and contemporary concerns on our thinking about the past. In the case of Stannard’s text, published in 1992, his reevaluation of Columbus came in the context of the five hundred year anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, and worked to overturn the incredibly celebratory commemmoration of Columbus that took place one hundred years earlier. See: 1893 World’s Fair).

In short, the Matinee Menu opened up a lot of nice topical discussion about the Columbian Exchange that can then segue into the historiographical issue of how we contemporarily remember Columbus. One of the big take-aways from this discussion is that it gets students thinking about how one of the “Great Men” of history has changed over time, thereby revealing the dynamic nature of how we understand the past.

The second comment, which in some respects is more interesting because it took issue with my tone and perspective on the menu, is also presented below in its entirety:

I realize this is an old post. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment though. I seriously doubt that the promoters of Medieval Times would even try to argue whether their menu is historically accurate. The point of this type of exhibition for students is to put them within the context, not to recreate history in pure detail. Your students would likely enjoy going to ‘MT’ and would then truly understand how ridiculous it would be to serve Pepsi at a Medieval feast. Perhaps they would actually add the word ‘anachronistic’ to their vocabularies.

There is nothing wrong with allowing students to make a relationship with history and then to contextualize and argue over details, etc. I would hope that the point would be to bring it off of the page for them, even if it is with dinner and a show. BTW, I think they actually eat with their fingers, but since they are wearing deodorant and tennis shoes, I guess it doesn’t matter. Relax. They might have fun and learn at the same time while you bring it all together for them.

At the core of this critique, seems to be the idea that the only way for history to be interesting is for it to be “fun,” which in this case relies on re-enactment and theatricality. While I don’t think the people who developed Medieval Times Educational Matinee actually claim that their program is a faithful rendition of the past, I do think that it is fair to look at their presentation of the past (and, more broadly, all presentations of the past) with a critical eye to understand what shapes their decisions about how to deliver ostensibly educational content to students.

I entirely agree with the commenter’s claim that it is vital for students “to make a relationship with history and then to contextualize and argue over details, etc.” However, I’d contend that it is having a critical eye toward representations of the past and being able to identify how those presentations reflect concerns or motivations of the present that constitutes an essential skill of historical thinking.

My concern about re-created events like the Educational Matinee is that they leave students feeling like they have experienced the “truth” of the past, yet my goal is for them to grasp the bigger truth that all presentations of the past are shaped as much by the author who describes those events as they are by the details and documents from the events themselves.

And in this case, it is vital to understand that while it is primarily a restaurant, Medieval Times also moonlights as a historian when it gets into the business of putting on programs targeted at school groups. Understanding Medieval Times as an author then forces us to think about their audience (school groups, and more centrally, students) and consider what their motivations are for putting on a program like this ($28.50 a head, anyone?). In essence, Medieval Times’ educational programming seems to me more about  making an impact on a young, impressionable audience of the 21st century (“we also do birthday parties!), thereby helping the financial bottom line, than it is about helping students think critically about the medieval past.

Finally, I would contend that this type of analysis, which helps students develop the skills to dissect the world around them critically, is fun. Perhaps not fun in the traditional sense, but recognizing that we shouldn’t take the world (either the present or the past) at face value and then having the skill set to dig beneath the surface presentation is a very empowering and intellectually exciting thing to be able to do. And if I cost the Yellow Knight a member or two of his incredibly dedicated fanbase through this pedagogical emphasis, I guess I’ll have to live with it.

What do others think? Is dissecting this type of document taking all the fun out of history? Am I merely being skeptical killjoy who needs to “relax”? Is it possible that Medieval Times won’t win a Pulitzer Prize in history because of my examination of their Matinee Menu?

Perhaps the only way for me to alleviate this existential angst is to get into period garb and enjoy a freshly roasted turkey leg.

Ye Olde Enjoyment of a Freshly Roasted Turkey Leg (eaten by someone who appears to be a poor man’s Jack Sparrow). Image courtesy of Business Insider

Historical Thinking, history, teaching

The fruits of my inefficient time usage: A Reconstruction Timeline!

Today with my U.S. History students we’re moving into a discussion of Reconstruction as a follow-up to our in-depth reading about Lincoln, race, slavery, and the historiographical debate over “who freed the slaves?” (Though this will have to be a separate post, the resources at Trinity School history teacher Michael Berkowitz’s website are amazing. That’s where I found the articles I used for this seminar discussion over the historiographical debate about “who freed the slaves?”)

As a way to lead into this discussion, and as a way to reinforce some of the historiographical discussion we’ve had in the past few days, I’m planning on talking about the historiography of Reconstruction before delving into the details of the era in question. Perhaps it’s a result of having taken two classes with Eric Foner in college, but I’m particularly struck by the obviousness with which the moment that historians studied and wrote about Reconstruction so clearly shaped their attitudes toward this twelve-year period. For instance, here’s a particularly telling clip from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation:

Also, I’ve still got my (impressively) thorough (if I may say so!) notes from those classes, which provides a nice basis on which to build and lead this discussion.

In preparing for this, and as a way to help make the students’ notetaking more structured, I creating two timelines related to Reconstruction — one designed to trace the historiography and one to trace the history of the era itself.

I ended up spending way more time than I should have fine tuning the location of lines and text boxes in Microsoft Word, and I’m sure there’s a more efficient way to create what I’ve generated here, but in any event, this is what I was able to figure out, so this is what I’ve made. In short, my poor use of time is, perhaps, your gain!

NB: (If anyone has suggestions for nice tools that create clean-looking blank timelines in a relatively short amount of time, please let me know).

Academic Skills, Geography, Historical Thinking, history, teaching

Backlog Post #1: The Market Revolution, Atlantic Context, and Information Reorganization

While my last post ostensibly was going to open the flood-gates of a number of new posts dealing with what I’ve been working on in my classes, that plan fell through (read: baby + grad school + teaching = neglect in this venue).

Nevertheless, as a way to prompt myself into wrapping up one of this week’s grad school assignments, I thought I’d post a recent assignment I worked through with my U.S. History class.

We’ve been looking at the early nineteenth century and examining some of the traditional narratives about presidents, political parties, and other developments of this era from a variety of historians’ perspectives. Keeping in this trend, we read an article by Seth Rockman about the significance of slavery in the Market Revolution. As the article (link included below) highlighted some of the important transatlantic connections that characterized the Market Revolution and situated the U.S. in a broader context (the leitmotif of my graduate studies at UT-Arlington), I thought I’d challenge my students to explore how Rockman makes these connections in his article by visually representing the phenomena he discusses on a blank map of the Atlantic basin.

Map of the North Atlantic - courtesy of

Not only did this assignment fall into one of my favorite pedagogical strategies of information reorganization, but it also provided an impetus to push the students to read the text more closely before we had our discussion on the reading. Now, before I end up rewriting the assignment in prose, I’ll go ahead and post it below:

Constructing Meaning in the Market Revolution, 1793-1860

Purpose and Learning Objectives:
The goal of this assignment is to get you to practice the skills of identifying arguments, assessing the type of evidence and method a historian uses, and to take that information and reorganize it in a meaningful manner. In particular, this assignment will get you thinking about interconnections and linkages and how those played out in the space of the North Atlantic during the first half of the nineteenth century.


  1. Actively read the Seth Rockman article, “Liberty is Land and Slaves: The Great Contradiction.”
  2. As you read, focus on the author’s a) argument; b) type and use of evidence; and, c) the way in which the author discusses the interconnections and linkages between the different parts of the Atlantic World that developed during the Market Revolution (esp. the years 1793-1860).
  3. Using the included outline map of the North Atlantic world, work to creatively reorganize the information presented in the article onto the map. Use the list of categories below to get yourself thinking about what type of information to include.

Elements/Categories to illustrate visually:

  • Movement of people (slaves, Indians, migrants — internal and external)
  • Movement of goods (manufactured, raw materials, food crops)
  • Transportation networks
  • Important natural features (e.g. rivers, canals, mountains, etc.)
  • Demographic information and links to social hierarchy
  • Important dates marking key developments

CONSIDER: How will you visually distinguish these elements?

There you have it! Fairly short, sweet, and straight-forward. What other strategies or approaches have people used to challenge their students to engage with a text in a more in-depth or different way? What suggestions or ideas do people have about ways to refine or improve an assignment like this?

Historical Thinking, Pedagogy, teaching

Learning Styles, Shmearning Shmyles?

Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882...

Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York City, 1882 - Image via Wikipedia

It’s Labor Day, so I shouldn’t really be writing too much here (given that I’m a unionized historian/teacher blogger), but I did just come across this interesting story about learning styles and the scientific veracity (or lack thereof) to support that concept. Have a listen:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

It’s nice to know that many of my observations and approaches, which I’ve really developed simply based on experience and anecdotal observations, seem to be supported here by the scientific research. For instance, I’m a big fan of changing things up (ergo, my borderline irrational vitriol targeted toward PowerPoint Presentations with words), and I’m a major advocate of getting people to learn the same concept in more than one way, which I see being something that students can successfully accomplish be reorganizing information in meaningful ways.

In any event, enjoy the rest of the long weekend, and I hope that reading this and listening to the story isn’t so taxing as to violate the spirit of the holiday.