Academic Skills, Grading, Rubrics, teaching

“Gettin’ ‘Bric-y Wit It”

If this post’s title made you think of the canonical Will Smith song, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” then congratulations, you got my terrible allusion! You now likely have that song stuck in your head. As recompense for suffering that indignity, you might just find an exciting surprise if you read through this post to the end.

But Will Smith isn’t really the point of this post. Rubrics are! (That’s the cruelest bait-and-switch of all time; I’m sorry).

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“Rubrics, you say? Now I feel like this!” – via GIPHY

In my last post, I wrote about using a learning goal-based rubric as a formative assessment technique. In that case, I used a rubric focused on five writing skills to first evaluate sample essays with my students; then I used it evaluate my students’ own writing on a similar prompt.

That process worked pretty successfully, I think. Although I’ve not had a ton of follow-up conversations with students about that first assignment, those few chats that I have had focused on how the student did in terms of those specific learning goals. Furthermore, we ended those conversations with the student have clear and specific ideas about how to improve on those skills moving forward. In other words, they weren’t just “bottom line” conversations about the grade on the assignment, which is what I’d hope to achieve.

As a way to carry this momentum forward, I wanted to make a rubric for one of the types of assessments I use most frequently in my history classes: ID Terms.

 

school-name-tag-template

“…and I’m historically significant because:”

 

I remember ID terms as a central feature of my own history classes in high school and college. The guidance I received about how best to approach these terms remained pretty consistent both in my own education and I’ve carried those guidelines into my own teaching. For over a decade now, I’ve explained that good ID term responses should do two things:

  1. Explain WHAT the term is.
  2. Explain WHY that term is significant.

However, I’ve always verbally articulated those expectations to my students. After that discussion, I’ve then given students practice in writing IDs, using their sample IDs as fodder for feedback about the ways in which their responses are strong and how they could improve.

However, in the hopes of providing students with something more codified to use in the process of studying and writing ID terms, I thought I should put those general expectations into a rubric framed around what I perceive to be the main learning goals of historical ID terms.

So, below is my first draft at a rubric that captures the two key elements of ID terms, puts my expectations into (hopefully) clear language, and gives students clear guidance on what they’re striving for when writing ID terms and conducting historical analysis in general.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-9-10-50-pm

As you can perhaps tell from the screenshot, I’ve built this rubric in Canvas with the hopes of using it frequently to give students feedback on practice ID terms they write and submit digitally. As of yet, I’ve not figured out how to use multiple versions of this rubric on a single assessment, which would be helpful, for instance, if an online quiz or test included multiple ID terms.

That issue, however, is a problem for another day, so in the meantime, I’ll leave with a request for feedback and suggestions:

  • What language am I missing in this rubric?
  • How could I reframe these criteria differently or more effectively for students?
  • Are the distinctions between the various levels of mastery clear enough in the language?
  • Any other thoughts?

And now, I’ll really leave you with what you’ve been hoping to get to this whole post!

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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 Ă  gauche le socle de la statue de Louis XV dĂ©boulonnĂ©e” 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 RĂ©volutions 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:

RĂ©volutions 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 ventĂŽse 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 _RĂ©volutions de Paris_, Issue no. 185, courtesy of Dartmouth University: http://history.dartmouth.edu/sites/history/files/rev1793-4english.pdf

Screenshot of _RĂ©volutions de Paris_, Issue no. 185, courtesy of Dartmouth University: http://history.dartmouth.edu/sites/history/files/rev1793-4english.pdf

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!

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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

Purpose/Goals:

  • 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.

Rules:

  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.

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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 http://earthbuzz-msdonahue.blogspot.com/

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

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Academic Skills, Historical Thinking, teaching

Santayana Redux

I just wrapped up the first week of school and once again had some opening conversations with my classes about the purpose of studying history and what value history plays in the present. These discussions essentially followed the contours of those that I had last year; however, given that I have many of the same students, I didn’t delve as in depth into the positivist assumptions under-girded many students’ optimistic visions of historical developments.

(To get a sense of those discussions and some of my quibbles with the positivist assumptions, click here to read that post).

However, I was reminded of my conversations from this past week (and those from last year), when I came across this cartoon from the ever-witty Married to the Sea webcomic:

"Run out of Fuel," Married to the Sea - http://www.marriedtothesea.com

So, what do people think? Is the horse-riding gentleman a well-versed historian whose study of earlier civilizations’ fuel sources and consumption patterns allowed him to warn these intrepid (albeit short-sighted) Iron Horse charioteers of their descendants’ impending doom? Or might this just be good satire?

In any event, the fact that this cartoon even gets made indicates the extent to which George Santayana and his pithy “axioms” have permeated popular culture. To quote the modern parlance of hashtag afficionados: “#smh”.

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Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching

The Junk Mail Lesson Plan

Last week I wandered into the faculty mail room to discover this exciting use of cardboard and ink:


Medieval Times - Education Matinees mailing

While I’ve received these types of mailings before, I’ve never found any value in them until last week. Well, in all fairness, I did receive the value of gaining the moral satisfaction that can only come from recycling, rather than burning or thrashing, the mailer. Although I was all ready to continue my streak of responsibly discarding Medieval Times’ solicitations, for some reason I thought I’d peruse the interior of this publication before jettisoning it.

Perhaps the reason I see this type of publication as so absurd has to do with a variety of factors:
1) the closest Medieval Times is in Dallas, which seems like a real schlep, and not worthy of a field trip when there are so many other, better local attractions that would be substantively valuable;
2) the educational matinee costs $28.50/person, which makes me think someone mis-titled this program. Perhaps it should instead be called the “Extortionist Matinee;”
3) my knowledge of Medieval Times comes entirely from Jim Carrey‘s The Cable Guy. No further explanation necessary:

4) while the “Educational Matinee” might be a matinee, it most certainly is not educational, or at least not educational in the way I define the term. Judging from the artwork alone, this restaurant seems to proffer a romanticized, substance-less vision of Western Europe in the Middle Ages that reinforces simplistic understandings the past. It’d be like going to Benihana hoping to learn about the customs and techniques of Japanese Samurai.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover something of actual value when I opened the mailer and saw this inside:

Medieval Times' Matinee Menu

Once I perused the scrumptious, decadent offerings (and managed to stop drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs), I realized that I’d have to jettison that day’s lesson and shift my focus to this document and helping my students learn how to dissect and analyze it. In part my excitement stemmed from the fact that I felt I’d stumbled into the historical equivalent of what math ĂŒber-edu-blogger Dan Meyer calls “WYCDWT” (“What can you do with this”). Normally, I find it hard to identify these types of real-world history examples that I can bring into my classroom, but for some reason this just struck me as an ideal example “WYCYDT History.”

So, I’ll end this post (and create the groundwork for its follow-up) by posing a question about this image, much as I did for my students: How would you use this image pedagogically? What key historical thinking skills would you emphasize with this flier? What other comparable examples are out there that are pedagogically valuable for students?

I’ll look forward to hear your thoughts in the comments. Additionally, I’ll try to hold up my end of the bargain and post (in the not-too-distant future) a discussion of what I did with this image and how I linked it to specific historical thinking skills. Until then, I’ll leave you with this:

Let’s go Green Knight!

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Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching

“Best of…” Lists and Historical Thinking

As part of my standard morning website-browsing routine I always make my way to Pitchfork for a daily dose of erudite condescension and to learn what new music might be out there that will further burnish my hipster street cred. While the issue of whether I had any hipster street cred to burnish in the first place is a moot point for this post, I did find myself particularly intrigued by Pitchfork’s feature this past week, which focused on the Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s. I’ve always found “Best of,” “Top X,” or “The Quintessential _____ of ______”-type lists intriguing. In fact, it was reading (the now seemingly-defunct) Nude as the News‘ list of the 100 Most Compelling Albums of the 1990s that first got me really interested in indie music and reading cultural criticism. However, for some reason it was only this past week when I began to consider how these types of distillations of decades reflect an interesting strain of historical thinking.

As I read through the list I took note of how the various authors made analytical statements that reflected an awareness of the historical judgments that they used to rank albums. For instance, here’s what they had to say about what many consider the most transformative song of the 1990s:

More than any single song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” altered the face of the 90s. You’ll hear people push revisionist history saying otherwise, but it did.

Interestingly, they rank this song at #13 overall, likely cognizant of the criticism for “easy choices” that so vanguard a publication would suffer if they were to place it at #1. Nevertheless, in discussing the “revisionist history” surrounding the album, they do recognize that assessing its place in the pantheon of modern rock albums is a topic still very much under debate. Similarly, here’s what they wrote about Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” — a comment reflective of the revised (post-emo) interpretation of the Weezer’s greatest album:

History has rewritten itself as Cuomo has incrementally received more acclaim for the gut-wrenching diarism of his band’s second album, Pinkerton. The Blue Album, once the massive-selling behemoth, has lost some of its luster to Pinkerton‘s hidden gem authority.

Finally, in closing the entire list, Mark Richardson writes:

There are a lot of ways to think about the music of a decade. Sometimes when you sit down to make a list like this, you think about songs that seemed important– maybe they changed music or were emblematic of prevailing trends in culture. And then sometimes you think about songs that make you feel good whenever they come on. You hear the first few notes, remember how much the song does for you, the excitement builds, you want to sing along, and hey– they’re coming to the chorus now…

Ultimately, this conclusion is very telling about historical thinking in general, as Richardson emphasizes the very centrality of the present in understanding and reacting to the past. For something so overtly subjective as music criticism, it is somehow much easier for us to accept these judgments on the the Best Tracks of the 1990s to be shaped by current perception and trends in music. Ironically, (or perhaps not ironically, given how much import people place on history’s role in defining tenuous, ephemeral concepts like national identity), people have a lot more trouble accepting the inherent subjectivity of judgments about the past. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by the presence of historical reasoning and thinking present in this list, as my impression is that much of the staff at Pitchfork likely holds degrees in history or at least is so over-educated as to be comfortable engaging in it when writing about music.

Perhaps because creating a “Best of…” list is so accessible (e.g. anyone is able to rank and decide what is the best), creating these types of lists doesn’t initially strike most people as an act of historical thinking. Moreover, these lists are created about all sorts of banal things that are seemingly trivial and don’t carry the “heft” of what one would consider “historical.” In particular, the constant debates over the “Top 5 ____” that the characters in High Fidelity constantly engaged in captures the possible silliness (but also the contentiousness) that these types of debates can create.

However, the process of deciding how to evaluate and prioritize significance is in fact one of the most crucial components of historical argumentation. In creating these rankings one is forced to grapple with various events, develop and articulate the criteria for evaluation, and ultimately develop an argument that clearly asserts that something was the most significant or formative factor. Thinking back on my own history education in high school I distinctly remember that creating ID Terms — consisting of (any other teachers able to predict what I’m about to say?) an explanation of what the term is/means, and more importantly why that term is significant — played the central part in my studying and ultimately influenced my subsequent approach to learning and understanding history. In fact, I still pretty much adhere to this approach with my own students and emphasize that these two aspects of an ID term must be present in order to really show an understanding of the concept and how to make an argumentative claim about the past.

List of Best and Second-Best U.S. Presidents- image courtesy of Leonardo Gerard's page at Photobucket.com

Now thinking about the overlapping intellectual processes between creating “Best of…” lists and evaluating historical significance I’m trying to consider the ways in which I could harness this students’ familiarity with ranking in order to help them become more comfortable with historical thinking. Rankings shows up in all parts of students’ lives — college football hierarchies, US News and World Report‘s (absurd, yet very lucrative) list of best colleges and universities, awards ceremonies, and the like. Ultimately, I think they’re familiar with these ideas and (particularly in the case of college football in Texas) enjoy arguing about which whatever is the “best.” Additionally, reading or generating a “Top X” list seems to lend some credibility and objective authority to what is undoubtedly a really subjective process. In this sense, it seems like students’ natural familiarity and comfort with this type of argumentation could be redirected to historical issues. Moreover, with this successful redirection, I’d hope that students could also become more cognizant of how these types of lists are constructed and how many subjective judgments go into creating them.

So, I’m wondering about how successful a question like “Rank the top five achievements of ancient river valley civilizations” would be with sophomores in high school. Is this too inauthentic? Does it not move far enough away from the traditional, history test-style version of this question? Would an exercise in “ranking” hold more appeal for students than simply being asked to “write an argumentative essay assessing the three most significant achievements of the Mesopotamians”? It seems that one historical ranking question, at least, has earned some broad acceptability: the issue of Best and Worst American Presidents. This topic seems like a good one to engage students with as students can position their own ranking against those of others and also begin to think historiographically as they look at how these rankings have changed over time.

Certainly, the major point of emphasis with students when introducing this activity would be to push them to thoroughly explain and engage in an explicit discussion of the criteria they used for evaluation. These aspects often go unmentioned in their recreational debates, but are really essential to identify in historical debates. Moreover, I imagine that asking students to create rankings of “most significant” achievements, developments, etc. would naturally lend itself to discussions about the process of creating criteria for ranking and evaluating the relative importance of various developments. Additionally, given that students will inherently come up with different rankings, I can also see this activity lending itself well to student-driven debates as they would be forced to grapple with one another’s ideas and differences of opinion.

A wind-swept Niall Ferguson sits seriously in front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Image Courtest Swift Economics.

Thinking about this issue of ranking reminded me of a post that Rob MacDougall wrote about engaging students in debates about “would you rather” and how these types of prompts can encourage very sophisticated, multi-faceted historical thinking and evaluation. He notes that these types of discussion quickly turn into counterfactual-based arguments, which traditional academic history and historians (with the exception of the ever-wind-swept Niall Ferguson) tend to scorn. However, in spite of these methodological problems for academics, grappling with history in, as MacDougall says, a “playful” way, can be very engaging for students and can help them develop the important habits of mind — even if it won’t immediately get them published in the Journal of American History.

What experiences have others had with asking students to rank historical developments, phenomena, or figures? Does this question get students to dig beyond surface-level reactions and list-making to actually dealing with the underlying assumptions and criteria? Are students eager to justify their determinations? What techniques or points of emphasis have others used to make this type of activity intellectually productive? I’ll be interested to hear any and all feedback.

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