You are on page 1of 3

Thoughts and Some Departmental Policies, based on Tuesday: What are we doing here?

1. Introduction, personal successes from last year that you hope to replicate, and areas for improvement for the
upcoming year

One of the key themes of the responses here was that of the students seeing their time in history class as
having stakes. Kendall emphasized that these stakes should be lowsomething that finds support in some
ed psych literature--but between Kendalls emphasis on intra-class competition, Janies belief that students
should be given situations where theyre responsible for conveying content to and educating other students in
the community, Jenns practice of tying course content to contemporary news and new discoveries, and
Nathans desire to frame more specific histories in transnational or global contexts, something like a consensus
emerged around the notion that your past successes have, in one way or another, been a product of making
students feel as though the content and skills theyre being asked to learn have intellectual and practical
significance beyond simply doing well in the class.

Whats interesting to me, though, is the difference between how stakes are established and defined here.
Nathans appears to me to be based on an idea of students enjoying the intellectual stimulation of connecting a
specific story to a global contexttheres something that almost verges on an aesthetic argument here, about
students enjoying totality over particularity and desiring to pursue stories until totality is achieved. Jenns
involves a claim that students respond positively to histories shown to be presently relevant or presently
debated. Kendall argues that students are more engaged with material when competing with peers for
recognition or reward. Janie claims that students effort and engagement increase not only when they are given
responsibility, but when this responsibility is sociali.e. that students will want to put effort into their
performances in front of peers, either out of a desire to uplift their peers, or out of a desire to avoid the shame
of a poor performance.

To me, these different responses all speak to the successes that come when students are interested in the
material, with interest carrying both the connotation of learning for its own sake and the connotation of
personal consequences. In contemporary education literature, Paul J. Silvia is one of the more vocal authors on
the definition and importance of interestheres a quick intro to his work if youre so inclined. As we think
about how to improve over the coming year, lets think not only about how to increase student interest in their
work in history, but also how to increase student self-consciousness about their interest. The latter might be a
bit unclear, so let me reframe it. As history teachers we obviously always need to find ways to increase student
enthusiasm for learning history (i.e. getting them interested), but we also crucially need to create situations in
which students become aware of the ways in which the material we call history and/or social studies has
actual, concrete consequences for them (i.e. helping them see their personal interest in learning history).

Getting students interested is the desire most well-intentioned teachers have, and it can sometimes be
successful, but sometimes not. Sometimes we can light a student on fire through performing enthusiastically
for them, or finding that perfect article, or crafting an amazing project, but sometimes these efforts fall flat. So
we also need to create a world at ESLA where students, especially those not inclined to get interested in
history, see their interest in learning it nonetheless. Doing so should have the added benefit of creating a
system in which those students who are interested, enthusiastic, and engaged get recognized and rewarded for
being so. This involves a few fronts that come to mind at the moment, but you all can probably think of more.
Heres whats coming to my mind:

1. Structure and individual consequences

a. This might sound stodgy and punitive and 19th-century-British-boarding-school and/or George
W. Bush-era test-crazed, but it doesnt have to have those valences. We just need to remember
that were dealing with adolescents whose executive functioning is still developing, and give them
an environment in which conduct, effort, and outcome are rationally linked and the mystery of
humanities assessment is minimized, if not eliminated. Our classes need to have transparent,
easily communicated and easily referred-to structures that allow for students to receive
feedbackeither written or numericthat gives them a clear understanding of where they stand
in the course at any given time. This requires giving them meaningful, fair data on a consistent
This data needs to speak to the following:
i. Civility/Conduct
ii. Effort
iii. Mastery of Content
iv. Mastery of Skills

As for (i), Id like for the history department to have a code of conduct that we all agree on, communicate to students at
the beginning of the year, and hold students to. Im talking basic stuff hereessentially coming prepared with materials,
being polite and respectful of peers and teachers, paying attention and staying on task. To make sure students
understand their interest in meeting these expectations, Im asking that you all have weekly classroom conduct grades,
posted publicly at the end of each week, and classroom conduct should be weighted as 10% of the final grade. If they
meet the expectations, give them an A. Occasional deviations, a B. Repeated deviations, a C.

As for (ii), students need to feel as though they have an interest in putting forth consistent effort, and we as teachers
need to create a world that suggests that increased effort leads to increased mastery. To this end, effort needs to be
recognized and rewarded, and what effort is needs to be defined clearly for them. Lets work on creating a definition
of effort that we agree on and can be clearly communicated across grade levels. In the past, Ive defined effort as
following instructions, completing assignments fully, and finding solutions to problems, though Im sure you all can
enhance that definition. As for recognition and reward, ESLA does give effort numbers on report cards, but they have
no consequences for students and are thus largely disregarded, so lets think about ways in which effort can be
meaningfully recognized. I think that effort is most important and most legible in larger assignments/projects, so maybe
we can create a policy of folding an independent effort grade into overall grades of projects. Lets discuss tomorrow.

As for (iii), while civility, conduct, and effort can be seen as ends in themselves, theyre also means to content mastery in
history. Obviously, students who are able to master content should be recognized and rewarded for doing so, and
students who have not yet been able to master content need to know as much and need to know what theyre lacking.
To this end, we must have regular content assessments in all classes. Theres flexibility on how often and what
type, but there should at least be two graded, quickly handed-back assessments a month. And while there are types
of assessment that are not tests and quizzes, test and quiz are not dirty wordsdont avoid them! Regular
assessments will give students a clear understanding of where they stand, will give teachers ideas of where to intervene,
and will also acknowledge research on the long-term mastery benefits of retrieval-based assignments (for example, see
Karpicki and Grimaldi, 2012; or Rawson and Dunlosky, 2012). These assessments dont have to be high-stakes, high-
stress moments. If quizzes are given regularly, the weight of each will diminish, and furthermore quizzes can be explicitly
low-stakes relative to unit assessments or semester assessments.

As for (iv), were going to talk more about skills and skill assessment tomorrow.

In addition to structure and individual consequences, Id like briefly to mention two other means for helping students
recognize their interest in learning history:

2. Intellectual Competency in the Present World

a. This gets to what Jenn was saying about exposing students to the presentness of history, and
also gets to Janies crafting of the Current Issues course, Nathans Autocracy course, Gabes
African-American course, and Kendalls Gov & Con Law course. By this I simply mean
convincing students that they cannot understand the present world, others, or themselves
without understanding the past. This can be achieved in many waysfor example studying
conflicts that hinge upon historical grievances and different understandings of history (e.g.
Israeli/Palestinian); looking at implicit biases in the present and examining their origins; asking
questions about present differences and inequalities that can only be answered with history. In a
way, here were assuming that students want to understand the present and want their opinions
about it to be taken seriously, which are big assumptions, but theyre ones Im willing to make
here. If we can create situations in which student opinions are solicited, and those not based on
reasonable evidence and historical argumentation are corrected, while those that are based on
these things are recognized and rewarded, we might work toward reinforcing that students have a
personal interest in learning history.

3. Social Incentives
a. This is something that Janie touched on when she mentioned creating situations in which
students present their work publicly to other students, and are given a large amount of
responsibility for educating their peers. Its also something that Amanda Foushee has really
chipped away at during her time here, when she talks about wanting to create a culture in which
intellectualism and concern about content are seen as cool. Im not exactly sure how to go about
doing the latter, but it does strike me as true that we as teachers have the social as a tool in our
toolbox for helping students see their interest in learning history. Through things like
presentations, or having students teach a certain reading or lead discussions, or giving students
responsibility for educating other grade levels in Commons, or having students do peer review, or
giving a public platform to students to share particularly successful assignments, we can help
create a structured world at ESLA where getting interested in history has not only numerical and
intellectual rewards, but social ones as well.