September 28, 2017

Strategies for Teaching History

Strategies for teaching history are ubiquitous and unlimited. Even so, I've provided a few links below that should serve as a sampling of what history teachers can do in the classroom.

APPARTS (Author / Place & Time / Prior Knowledge / Audience / Reason / The Main Idea / Significance)



Case Study

Concept Formation 

Cooperative Learning 

Cornell Notes 


Dialectical Notes 

Document Analysis

Double Exposure 

Dueling Documents 

Field Trip


Five C’s (Change Over Time / Context / Causality / Contingency / Complexity)

Gallery Walk 

Graffiti Groups 

Graphic Organizers

Guest Speaker


Interactive Notebook

Internet Assignment



KWL (Know / What / Learned)

Learning Center


Levels of Questioning (use as a guide to creating student assignments)

Mock Trial 

Moot Court

PERSIA (Politics / Economics / Religion / Social / Intellectual / Artistic)

Political Cartoons

Post It Poll 

Power Point Presentation

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) 


Research Paper

Role Playing


SOAPSTone (Speaker / Occasion / Audience / Purpose / Subject / Tone)

Socratic Seminar

SPRITE (Social / Political / Religious / Intellectual / Technological / Economic)

Stay or Stray 

Student-Created Video, PowerPoint, Sound Recording, Website, Poster, Oral Presentation, Panel Discussion, or Historical Model

Synectics (Understanding Together)

Take a Stand 


Think Pair Shares

Timelines / Change Over Time

Textbook Reading

Venn Diagrams

53 Ways to Check Understanding


© 2014 James L. Smith

September 25, 2017

Teaching Students to Think Historically

Teachers who incorporate the following eight strategies into their curriculum will be helping students develop historical thinking skills, however those skills are defined.

1. Examine primary sources.

2. Examine secondary sources (with a discussion of historiography).

3. Analyze cause and effect in history.

4. Identify patterns, themes, and recurring issues in history.

5. Categorize and compartmentalize historical information.

6. Compare and contrast two or more historical topics.

7. Place information in historical context.

8. Develop academic arguments in writing.

© 2014 James L. Smith

September 22, 2017

What is Historical Thinking?

History teachers should not only provide students with historical knowledge, they should also help students develop basic academic skills that include reading, writing, and the ability to think. Although history teachers should not be teaching students what to think, they should be teaching them how to think. For history teachers, that means teaching students to think historically.

And what is historical thinking? I can find no clear consensus for the definition, and the terminology varies from one organization to another and one scholar to another. I can, however, make two recommendations for developing a working definition of what it means to think historically: 
  • Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts is a classic in the genre of books about historical thinking. (See #13 below.)
  • The College Board provides a clear definition of the various skills involved in historical thinking and good strategies for developing those skills. (See #2 below.)
Although it's difficult to identify one definition of historical thinking, I believe we can identify four significant skills that should serve all history teachers well.
  • Chronology – Teaching students to identify and understand historical time periods, change over time, and cause and effect in history.
  • Context – Teaching students to place historical information in context.
  • Connection – Teaching students to connect time periods, as well as to synthesize historical information by connecting such topics as political and economic history to social and cultural history.
  • Questioning – Teaching students that all history begins with a question. Learning to think historically requires intellectual curiosity and the ability to ask questions.
To help history teachers create a practical definition of historical thinking that will help them create good history lessons, here's a list of websites that attempt to describe the process of thinking like a historian.

1. American Historical Association (“What Does it Mean to Think Historically?”)

2.  College Board (See “Course Descriptions” for U.S. History, European History, and World History)

3.  Common Core

4.  The Historical Thinking Project (“Historical Thinking Concepts”)

5. (“Why Historical Thinking Matters”)

6.  The Juvenile Instructor (“Thinking Historically and Why It Matters”)

7.  National Center for History in the School – UCLA (“Historical Thinking Standards”)

8. (“What to Teach: Thinking Strategies”)

9. (“What is Historical Thinking?”)

10. via YouTube (“What is Historical Thinking?“ – video)

11. Thinking Through History (“The Nine C’s of Thinking Historically”)

12. Wikipedia (“Historical Thinking”)

13. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (A classic book!)

© 2014 James L. Smith

September 19, 2017

Teaching History in Bits and Pieces

History is an “Aha!” subject that takes much patience to teach. I’m not referring to the type of patience necessary for teaching students who are unruly or slow to learn — although that certainly takes patience. I’m referring to the patience it takes to deliver the subject matter. When I am teaching a topic I understand that students might not begin to understand the topic for weeks, months, or even years after I have finished my presentation. The moment of understanding — the "Aha!" moment — is often slow in coming.

Students might not comprehend some provisions of the Constitution taught early in a U.S. history course until those provisions are applied weeks later to a significant event, such as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson or the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. They might not even understand some provisions of the Constitution until long after they have left school.

History is learned in bits and pieces, and it often takes much time for information to come together and begin to make sense. Unlike science or math teachers, whose students might need to master Chapters 1 and 2 before moving to Chapter 3, history teachers can ask students to open almost any page in the textbook to begin their study of history.

History students can jump around the textbook from one section to another, learning the subject in bits and pieces, examining a mosaic of information that will eventually begin to make sense. Over time, the more they learn, the more insight they should gain about the patterns of history.

History teachers should therefore feel free to experiment with their presentation of history. They should even try employing tools from drama and literature in their presentation of history. 

They might, for example, introduce a topic with a foreshadowing event. A history teacher can begin the Civil War with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and then jump immediately to the 1850s and 1860s to help students discover how ideas introduced in those resolutions contributed to the deaths of over 700,000 people.

A history teacher might employ flashbacks, beginning the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s with the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. A teacher might also begin a study of the Civil War with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that came at the end of the war. History can be taught like a good movie in which the ending is revealed in the first scene.

History teachers should feel the freedom to abandon the traditional chronological approach to teaching history. Rather than unraveling a year-by-year string of historical events, they can take a significant topic in history and present it as a single unit of study. In a U.S. history class, for example, a teacher can present political history as one topic, covering political developments from colonial times through the present. The teacher might then teach American foreign policy or American economic history from colonial times through the present. They might even try teaching history backwards

Whatever approach teachers take, whatever dramatic or literary device they might use, they should make sure they are always giving students a history worth learning. They should make sure that in the process of learning history, students are provided guidance in developing basic reading and writing skills. Teachers should also help history students develop their analytical thinking skills, skills that ask students to reach conclusions (not necessarily opinions) based on the historical evidence available to them.

History should be a stimulating subject for students, a subject they are still talking about when the school day has ended. History should engage students, inspiring them to learn more on their own, helping them become more knowledgeable about their world and their place in it.

If taught in bits and pieces, rather than as a laundry list of information presented chronologically, history can help students learn the patience it takes to gain insight into the human condition. Just because students have studied a significant topic in a history class does not mean their study of that topic is complete. The "Aha!" moments take time.

© 2014 James L. Smith

September 16, 2017

Covering Historical Content in the Time Available

Question: How can history teachers possibly cover everything required by the curriculum?
Answer: They can’t.

Let that answer be liberating! 

Teachers who try to cover everything will likely fail, leaving little time to help students understand the complexities of history and develop academic skills at the highest levels. Teachers must also keep in mind that the amount of material covered does not necessarily equal the amount of material students learn.

The question that began this article should be revised: How can teachers cover enough information and still leave time for students to explore significant topics in depth?

The answer to that question can be found in my six suggestions for balancing depth and breadth in a history classroom.

Suggestion #1
Rather than trying to cover everything in the textbook (the ball-of-string approach), focus on helping students develop their academic skills while exploring a few well-selected historical topics in depth. 
  • Think of the history curriculum as a series of topics that can be explored in depth and then use those topics to help students develop reading, writing, and thinking skills. 
  • Provide students with historical documents and reading assignments that prompt students to ask questions and make inferences on their own. Help students learn to be independent thinkers and learners.
  • Require students to write often. Writing assignments should require students to make assertions and then defend those assertions with specific, accurate, and relevant historical information.
Suggestion #2
Use “essential” or "big picture" questions to focus attention on significant issues and topics in history.
  • Begin each unit with a question or statement that address an essential issue for the unit. The answer to an essential question should be open to interpretation, and the question should help students focus their attention on what most matters in the unit. Throughout the unit, encourage students to link historical information to the essential question.
  • Note: Essential concepts or themes can often be taken from state or local standards and benchmarks.
Suggestion #3
Before the semester begins decide what percentage of instruction time will be devoted to specific historical time periods. Take an uncompromising approach to sticking with the plan. (Say to yourself, “By September 15, come hell or high water, I will begin my unit on the Washington Administration.")

Suggestion #4
Begin each unit with a quick overview of important people events, terms, and dates that are essential to understanding the unit. 
  • Begin each unit by providing students with a study guide containing a list of essential information for the unit. The study guide should narrow the unit down to the basic information that every history student should know. Students should then complete the study guide with information gleaned from textbooks, lectures, research, and classroom activities.
  • Cover essential information at the beginning of each unit as quickly as possible. Leave enough time during the unit to explore some topics in depth with supplemental readings and original source documents.
Suggestion #5
Avoid being overly dependent on the textbook.
  • Work toward creating a history class that uses the textbook primarily as a reference book.
  • Select readings from the textbook that prompt an in-depth study of a historical topic that will help students develop analytical thinking skills.
  • Select pictures, graphs, and original source documents from the textbook that will help students develop their analytical thinking skills.
  • Note: The suggestion to avoid being overly dependent on the textbook is much easier to achieve for experienced history teachers. New teachers are advised to use a good textbook as a guide to essential historical content.
Putting It All Together: How to Balance Depth and Breadth in a History Classroom
  • Reduce the breadth of content covered.
  • Reduce the emphasis on memorization of historical information.
  • Require a greater depth of study within a smaller number of topics.
© 2014 James L. Smith 

September 13, 2017

The Posthole Approach to Teaching History

Teachers generally have two options for teaching history: they can take the "ball-of-string" approach or the "posthole" approach.

Teachers who take the ball-of-string approach make presentations that primarily unravel a string of historical information. A U.S. history teacher might, for example, begin at 1492 by providing a historical narrative of names, terms, and dates about the European exploration of the Americas and the establishment of overseas colonies. When finished with that unit of study the teacher then unravels a string of information about the thirteen British colonies and the events that led to the American Revolution. The teacher then follows that unit with information about the United States under the Articles of Confederation and the writing of the U.S. Constitution. And so on …

By the end of the course students will have been exposed to a considerable amount of historical information and will have memorized what they can from the textbook and teacher presentations.

A second way of teaching history is to take the posthole approach and present history as a series of topics or key concepts that are explored in depth. Rather than presenting the George Washington administration as a list of names, terms, and dates that need to be defined and memorized, a teacher taking the posthole approach focuses on a selected topic, such as the formation of political parties during Washington's presidency, and then explores that topic in depth.

A teacher might, for example, dig a “posthole” by asking students to explore the intellectual debate between two of the people in Washington's cabinet — Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The teacher will ask students to examine primary and secondary source readings that explain the philosophical differences between Hamilton and Jefferson, as well as how those differences shaped historical events during the 1790s. Teachers will then ask students to generate questions about what they have read and use those questions to guide additional research. The teacher will also ask students to reach historical conclusions based upon what they have studied and defend those conclusions in writing by citing specific, accurate, and relevant information.

In the end, the posthole approach should lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the formation of political parties in the 1790s, as well as an understanding of the significance of political parties throughout the entirety of U.S. history. Rather than leaving class having simply memorized a string of information, students will have spent time using that information to develop analytical and historical thinking skills. Students will have been given an opportunity to sharpen those skills through the examination of primary and secondary source documents. Students will have also developed their writing skills by providing a written defense of the analytical conclusions they reached after a rigorous examination of the documents they examined.

The posthole approach takes time, but so does the ball-of-string approach. The difference can be found in looking at what each approach provides students. Students leave the ball-of-string approach knowing much historical information that might easily be forgotten after they leave the course. 

Students should leave lessons based on the posthole approach, however, having spent enough time developing thinking and writing skills that those skills will stay with them forever. They should learn enough information about the key concepts of history that they are able to understand the bigger picture of the course of human events rather simply knowing a list of minutiae. In my experiences, students are less likely to forget those concepts because they have explored them in depth.

If taking the posthole approach and asking students to examine Hamilton, Jefferson, and the formation of political parties in depth requires so much class time that the teacher is forced to skip some information in the textbook, so be it. If the teacher does not have enough time to cover the Residence Act of 1790, students will be okay not knowing that information. A lot of smart, well-educated, successful people have gone far in their academic studies and then led perfectly happy, fulfilled lives knowing nothing about the Residence Act of 1790. Teachers will not be sacrificing their students' future if they don't teach it. On the other hand, students will probably not go far in their academic studies without the ability to read, write, and think at the highest levels, and those skills can best be developed by adopting the posthole approach to teaching history.

I once told a man at a pub near Peterborough, England, that I taught United States history. Without skipping a beat, he dismissively asked, “What bloody history?” I can understand an Englishman asking such a question. After all, a 1000-year-old Anglican cathedral stood only a few miles away from the pub where we sat. Compared to many other parts of the world, the United States is a low mileage nation regarding the years it has racked up.

I will say, however, that the historical topic does not matter as much as the need to teach students to thinking historically. It should make little difference whether students are studying American, European, Middle Eastern, or Asian history, or whether they are studying information from 25 years ago or 2500 years ago. No matter what historical information the curriculum requires, students should be given an opportunity to develop their thinking and writing skills at the highest levels, to develop the skills that will help them in any field of academics. The posthole approach is the best way to help students achieve that goal.

© 2014 James L. Smith

September 9, 2017

Building a History Curriculum

Listed below are the questions that every history teacher must eventually confront, questions that help history teachers evaluate themselves and create better lessons for students. 

1.  Why are students taking your class?
Is it a required class? Is it an elective? Are students taking the class because they are interested in the subject? Are they taking the class because they have heard you are a good teacher?

2.  What are your curriculum priorities?
Are you primarily concerned with following administrative standards and covering the content? Are you primarily concerned with providing historical knowledge or helping students develop academic skills? Are you hoping that students simply enjoy the class and learn to love history?

3.  How will you decide what information to cover?
Will the textbook dictate content? Will state or district mandates decide what you teach? Will you be following an academic consensus about what students should learn in a history class?

4.  What approach will you take in covering historical information?
Will you take a traditional chronological approach? Will you take a topical or thematic approach? Have you thought about teaching history backwards and following historical strands that begin with the present?

5.  Which historical theme(s) will your curriculum emphasize?
Will your presentation of themes fall primarily under the category of political, economic, social, cultural, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or some other significant theme.

6.  How will you decide which topics are studied in depth?
Is political history more important than social and cultural history? Is early history more important than current history? Can you skip some topics? 

7.  Which textbook(s) will you use?

8.  What supplemental sources will you use?

9.  What primary sources will you use?

10. Will you incorporate literature, film, art, or music into the curriculum? If so, what will you use?

11. How will you deliver basic historical information?
Will students obtain information primarily from the textbook, lectures, PowerPoint presentations, or some other source?

12. What teaching strategies will you use to motivate and engage students?

13. What academic skills will you emphasize?
Will your class focus primarily on developing reading, writing, or thinking skills? Are there other skills you want to help students develop, such as computer skills or social skills? 

14. Will you incorporate technology into the curriculum? If so, how?

15. How will you handle controversial issues?

16. How will you evaluate students?
Will you evaluate students primarily through the products they create (written or constructed), their performances (role playing, oral reports, simulations), exams (multiple choice or constructed responses), or some other means of evaluation. 

17. How will you keep learning and growing as a history teacher?

18. How will you keep yourself motivated as a history teacher?

19. What is the higher purpose of what you are trying to achieve as a history teacher? What is the value of studying history?

20. What is your personal mission statement as a history teacher?

© 2004 James L. Smith

September 6, 2017

Characteristics of a Good History Teacher

  1. Conveys a knowledge of history and a love of learning history.
  2. Explains the importance of studying history. 
  3. Provides an in-depth study of selected topics and avoids teaching history as a laundry list of information.
  4. Explains the relationship between fact and conjecture.
  5. Carries significant historical themes and questions from early history to the present day.
  6. Handles controversial issues with good judgment and fairness.
  7. Offers students opportunities for active learning and questioning.
  8. Utilizes primary source materials including diaries, letters, newspapers, photos, music, clothing, works of art, and other historical artifacts.
  9. Engages students with literature, art, music, and biography.
  10. Covers course content in the time available. 
  11. Explains what has been left out of the history course and why.
  12. Helps students develop basic academic skills.
  13. Asks questions that require analytical thinking and problem solving.
  14. Utilizes diverse strategies for teaching history.
  15. Presents a study of people from diverse backgrounds and conditions, as well as an understanding of what binds all of humanity together.
© 2004 James L. Smith

September 3, 2017

Creating a Personal Mission Statement for Teaching History

A personal mission statement can serve as a manifesto that adds focus, direction, and a sense of purpose to our daily decisions.

An example of an effective personal mission statement can be found by examining the one that guided Mahatma Gandhi.

Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:
– I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
– I shall fear only God.
– I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
– I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
– I shall conquer untruth by truth. In resisting untruth, I shall endure all suffering.

Several years ago, after reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey, I created my own mission statement and found it quite useful in my teaching career. My mission statement clarified what I hoped to achieve as a history teacher and guided me toward understanding how I might improve my teaching. The mission statement served me so well that I asked the prospective history teachers in a class I was teaching at a local university to create their own statements.

Students were asked to craft a mission statement that described what they wanted to accomplish as history teachers. I asked that their mission statements declare the general principles they wanted to bring into their teaching, statements that would explain their higher purpose for teaching history. Students were asked to think of their mission statements as personal constitutions, documents that would govern their actions as history teachers.

Students were told their mission statements might be one sentence or several pages. Their mission statements might take the form of a drawing, a cartoon, or a piece of music. It didn't matter. They were personal mission statements.

I learned from reading the statements that the university students I taught possessed genuine idealism about teaching. Most seemed to be entering the teaching profession for reasons of the heart. I asked them never to lose sight of their idealism. After all, idealism is essential to staying motivated in almost any profession.

I also advised students to look at their mission statements often during their teaching careers. Although a mission statement might be revised, it should always serve as a reminder of the reasons for being a teacher.

For the record here's my personal mission statement for teaching history:

I will never abandon the belief that all students can learn.

I will encourage my students to succeed and never be made to think they cannot conquer challenging tasks. Like a coach who motivates players by telling them to “hold on to the ball” rather than “don’t fumble,” I will plant positive thoughts in the minds of my students. Student success is built on a foundation of affirmative thinking and a sense of self-worth. I must therefore do whatever I can to nurture these attributes in my students.

In pursuit of being a good teacher I will never cease to be a good student. I will continue to develop my own knowledge and skills. I will stay open to change and new ideas, especially the ideas of my students.

I will be a missionary for my subject. I will keep in mind that history can be the most humanizing of all subjects.

As a history teacher, I will commit myself to passing on humane ideas from the past, as well as the stories of inspiring achievements that show the best in human beings. I will use history to help students better understand the goodness in humanity and the unlimited potential of what they might achieve for themselves and their world.

I will use history to empower young people by encouraging them to think about important issues, to develop their own ideas, to present information in defense of their own ideas, and to use their ideas to make our world better.

I will avoid planting the seeds of negativity and cynicism in my students. In doing my part to help students grow into virtuous adults, I must keep in mind that negativity and cynicism are not virtues.

I will never forget the main reason I became a teacher — I wanted to make a difference. For me, success has always been defined by how much a person does to make the world a better place. I hope someday to say that, as a teacher, I was a success.

© 2012 James L. Smith