Monday, August 25, 2014

Teaching History through Different Perspectives and Lenses

I recently read a blog post by Chris Lehmann titled “American History — American Story” (  I appreciated Chris’s reflection on his conversation with Matt Baird, Science Leadership Academy 11th grade American history teacher, about making history more than just “dusty dates of history, but about their lives – our lives – our country today.”  The idea is extremely powerful and worth pursuing, but I really focused in on one line in the blog:

“What if we asked students to examine present day society through several intersecting lenses such as the political lens, the demographic lens, the economic lens and the geo-political lens.”

As a former social studies teacher, this is an area that I am extremely passionate about.  In order to make history an engaging experience for our students, there has to be a connection to their lives.  So, the question becomes, how can we make history relevant and meaningful to our students?  Being that the Science Leadership Academy’s 11th grade American history course consists of the 1900s-present, starting with a current look at the U.S. and World today would provide a reference point throughout the school year with an underlying theme of; "how did we get here?"  What a great way to start the school year.

I love the idea of studying history through lenses.  I taught 8th grade U.S. history (First Inhabitants (i.e. Native Americans) through the Civil War).  I started the school year with a definition and discussion of Eurocentrism and ethnocentrism and how history (i.e. textbooks) was/is often written from the white European point of view.  I challenged the students to find examples in their text books, which we found numerous.  I would then teach portions of some events from a different lens and perspective.  For example, I taught the Christopher Columbus story from the Native American perspective.  The students were shocked at this perspective, because for so many years, elementary school teachers taught the "Columbus is a hero and discovered America" version of history.  It certainly provided an opportunity for all students to think critically about history and what they read.  We looked at the Constitutional Convention from non white male European perspectives such as women (Abigail Adams "remember the ladies") and slaves (3/5's compromise).  By the time we reached the end of the school year, students were well-versed in critically thinking about history and understanding the story through multiple perspectives.  A good starting point for history teachers to question history textbooks and consider history through various lenses and perspectives is the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.  The book certainly make one pause and question the way history is taught and has been taught for so many years.

I think it is our role, as history teachers, to allow students to learn the multiple perspectives of history and not just take the written word in a textbook as the only factual perspective of an event.  We must allow our students to challenge what is written and discover multiple ways of understanding historical events in history.  History teachers should be creating “hands-on” experiences and inquiry/problem/project-based learning opportunities for our students.  Less time needs to be spent on covering names, dates, events, and places that can be “googled,” and more time on in-depth critical thinking and analysis.  It’s time to shake the stereotype of history being boring, to one which students make meaningful connections to the past in order to embrace and be prepared for THEIR future.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dear Tyler (advice to my nephew, a first year teacher)

(This blog post is a letter to my nephew Tyler who will be starting his career as an elementary school educator this month.  It is somewhat based on my letter to him when he graduated from college in May that included some advice from my perspective and experience.)

Dear Tyler,

Congratulations!  The long journey and hard work to get to graduation is done.  But, now the MOST IMPORTANT WORK lies in front of you.  The position of an educator is far from just a job; it’s a calling.  What you do each day can make a huge, life impacting change on a student’s life and future.  I am proud that you chose a career in education and proud of YOU.  Here a just a few thoughts as you assume your first teaching position:

Here is where it all begins for successful teachers.  I firmly believe that students don’t always care how much you know until they know how much you care.  When I was a student teacher, my cooperating teacher probably gave me the best advice; “make positive connections with your students by learning something unique about each one and talk to them about their interests."  Know your students.  Treat all students as if they were your own kids.  You might be the only one in a student’s life that cares about them.  If you’ve established good relationships with your students, the need to discipline will be minimal. But, if you do need to discipline a student, be sure to use your caring-concern-disappointed voice and not a voice and demeanor of anger.

An engaged student is rarely a discipline problem (Dave Burgess), so the best classroom management strategy is an engaging curriculum or lesson.  This takes some work because not all lessons are going to be perfect the first time.  But, you can control your enthusiasm, passion, interest, and willingness to learn along with your students.   Be sure your learning environment allows students to experience joy and a sense of awe (Dean Shareski).  Always strive for Better.  Be open to learning how your students learn best.  Just ask the students.  The input that I solicited from my students in my early years of teaching did more for my quest for “better” than any principal evaluation and Master’s level coursework.

When you have the passion and mindset to be the best you can be, your effort will naturally be at the appropriate level. Keep in mind, “Provide an uncommon experience for your students and they will reward you with an uncommon effort and attitude” (Dave Burgess).  Have high expectations for yourself and for all of your students.  Believe in them.  Tell your students often; “You are a genius and the world needs your contribution” (Angela Maiers).  In everything you do, “give to the world the best you have and the best will come back to you” (Anonymous).

Photo credit Angela Maiers 2011,

Taking care of your physical and mental health are extremely important to being on top of your “teaching” game.  Sound mind, sound body (Asics).  You are going to make mistakes, learn from them and move on.  Have a few “rocks” in your life who you can share your frustrations with and boost you up when times are tough.  The sun will rise the next morning and your students will need you.  No matter what, there is always better.  Never stop learning.  Read, take a class, and learn from others.  Twitter has connected me with some amazing educators across the world.  My Personal Learning Network has probably done more for my professional learning than many of my college courses.  Finally, laugh often, have some fun, and enjoy the ride.  

Best wishes on a successful start to what will be an amazing teaching career for you.  If there is ever anything I can do to help, please let me know.

Uncle Joel

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Focusing on the right ONE in 1:1; the STUDENT!

Last week, I had an amazing 3 days of learning at the 1:1 Summer Symposium.  Leyden High School is doing some wonderful things with teaching and learning in a 1:1 Chromebook environment.  I appreciate their willingness to share what they have learned, both successes and challenges, and desire to continually improve.  Whenever I attend a conference, I compare what others are doing to what we are doing in Grand Forks Public Schools.  After attending the conference, I can say we are doing some good things as student learn with technology in a blended environment, but acknowledge we are still “work in progress” and have much to learn and improve upon. There were several quotes and themes that resonated with me which led to my takeaways, reminders, and questions to consider based on the following 3 themes.

The key component in creating an innovative and engaging learning environment is leadership with leaders needing to be “all in.”  The conference opened with an overview of Leyden’s 1:1 journey.  I recall Bryan Weinert’s recap of the board president’s thoughts on 1:1 after visiting Mooresville, NC: "How can we afford NOT to go 1:1.”  It was obvious that the administrative team is on the same page.  Additional leadership perspectives were provided by Jimmy Casas who asked the question; “What are you doing right now in your building to disrupt your routine?”  Some additional insights from Jimmy were to surround yourself with excellent people who inspire you in order to achieve excellence and don’t make decisions based on the small percentage of “what ifs.”  The theme of better also resonated with me.  Jimmy stated; leaders must continue to challenge the status quo and never use the word CAN’T.  Always believe that our school/district is the best of the best while always striving for better.  Jason Markey reinforced the never-ending quest for better with the reminder that “we are still in beta, we haven’t got there yet, which gives us permission to struggle.”  Jason focuses on the teacher and student experience while using Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” What-How-Why model.  Mikkel Storaasli’s session highlighted the importance of keeping the mission and vision at the forefront of all decisions, including 1:1.  He also noted the important role principals play in the success of going 1:1.  Finally, Jason Markey asked the question; “Who is telling your story?” and the importance of using social media to allow our community to know the positive things happening in our school/districts.  As leaders, do we have a laser-like focus on our mission and vision in all the decisions we make, including 1:1?  Are we telling our story and highlighting the positive things happening in our district or are we allowing the media to do so?

The classroom teacher plays such an important role in creating engaging learning opportunities in a 1:1 environment.  Dean Shareski opened the conference with the question; Are our schools places of joy?  “Schools need to be places of wonder. Teachers have a responsibility to awe and ensure an interesting learning experience.”  "What if each day your students left school with a great question?”  Excellent thoughts and more importantly, a call to action.  As teachers learn more about the nuances of a 1:1 environment, Jennie Magiera reminded us that “compliance does not equal engagement.”  Jennie also stressed that “creation apps are better than content apps” and the importance of trying new things.  After all, “we all fail, but what do we do after we fail?”  Ideally, we all learn and get better.  Finally, with or without technology, the classroom teacher (i.e. pedagogy) is instrumental in student learning.  Bryan Weinert provided a hint; “...those teachers that say 1:1 is a distraction, consider their lesson plans” (i.e. are students engaged?).  How do we ensure all teachers continue to strive for a more student-centered and engaging learning environment?  We can all get better and our students deserve it.

The importance of a student centered culture was certainly a theme of the conference or as Jason Markey put it; be sure to focus on the right ONE in 1:1; the STUDENT!  I admire the way Jason (et al.) has established a "student first" culture at Leyden (i.e. Student Agency) in a connected and innovative environment.  When students have a voice, they become part of Innovation. Jason reminded everyone, “’s not about 1:1 devices, it is more about empowering students and teachers.”   Jennie Magiera agrees; “We don't ask our students enough how they learn and for their opinion.  We need to allow students to have an authentic audience and a powerful voice."  Finally, the “student first” theme was further enhanced through Angela Maiers’s keynote.  Do we provide reasons for our students, teachers, and staff to RUN to school everyday?  Our students and staff are geniuses and the world needs their contribution.  Listening to the student panel at the end of the conference provided affirmation for me that 1:1 learning with Chromebooks, in concert with a student-centered culture, has been implemented extremely well at Leyden.  One student reminded teachers to “...take risks and be open minded.”  What a great message.  All educators need to continually ask; Do we honestly make all decisions based on our most important clients, our students?  Do we take the time to listen and engage our students with important decisions?

My takeaways and questions will be embedded in my goals and in my work as the district technology director throughout this school year and beyond.  I am sincerely grateful for all the work Leyden dedicates to make the 1:1 Summer Symposium a success and I certainly left with some #leydenpride.