U.S. History teacher Melinda Tower wrote the following reflection after a faculty professional development session around pedagogical and technological strategies for hybrid teaching (that is, when some students are present in the classroom and others are remote). In the session, faculty across disciplines workshopped a traditional introductory lesson from her U.S. History course, and collaborated on ways the lesson could be adapted or adjusted for hybrid teaching.
When teaching U.S. History, we must never assume that students have a background in the topics we cover. It is so very easy to forget this, but important to consistently force ourselves to remember. Thus, we must approach any lesson—whether we have taught it for 10 years or for the first time this year—with fresh new eyes. This lesson was a great reminder of this for me. Thanks to Emily Pressman, Matt Edmonds, and the U.S. History teaching team, and knowing that this year would present unique challenges, we realigned our thinking of how to best introduce this course to our students. The first two units of the course address skill over content; while there is room for both, addressing skill puts everyone at a more equal starting point.
For this lesson, my goal was to continue to promote what it means to think “historically” (a term and an action that is, of course, nuanced and layered). Previous lessons lend themselves beautifully to this moment (using the "5 Cs of historical thinking" as our guide—change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity). For this particular lesson, students begin with a homework assignment that addressed the danger of a single story by watching a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Typically, I would start class with students sharing their observations on the talk. If they get stuck, I might pull a quote from the talk and ask them to reflect. For example:
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
And/or I might ask students the following:
“What are the single stories you believe about people? And how did you come to these conclusions?” (Students will pair share if time allows.)
When working through this lesson with colleagues outside of my department on Tuesday, I quickly realized that this would be an easy asynchronous activity for remote learners. As Matt Westman suggested in our open faculty meeting, a silent written reflection at the start of class (whether remote or in person) helps solidify a students’ understanding of an assignment, or becomes a clear indicator to the instructor that further instruction is needed. Remote students could pin their reflection in a discussion board posted on Canvas and other students could respond at a later time, or remote students could simply submit their reflection to me for initial feedback.
I will add that I personally think there is a huge value to offering early and even more detailed narrative feedback to remote learners. Typically, without the buzz of campus life, they tend to submit their work early. While not physically present in our classrooms, it is important for them to know that they are seen, valued and just as much a part of class as any other. I have found early and detailed feedback is an easy way to express this.
Next, I share an image of the Jamestown settlement and give some very basic background information (I will return to this information in a week’s time when they do a more detailed read on Jamestown). As we continue to practice "thinking historically," I ask students to be careful in jumping to conclusions based on what they see or think they understand. Instead, I ask them to practice “I notice” observations first and then, after several minutes, we try our hand at “I wonder” observations. This reinforces previous conversations about how historians frame questions, what they need to continue their inquiry, and why. Again, this is something that students could do asynchronously, and again, I love the discussion board option on Canvas for these reflections. You can, of course, make it so that once a student has submitted to the discussion, they can see and offer feedback to others' points in the same discussion thread. In this way, remote students have the ability to interact and learn with and from their peers.
In working through this lesson plan with colleagues on Tuesday, it became clear to me that the next step in the lesson plan—viewing three images of Pocahontas—was the most critical “takeaway moment.” In the past, I had used only two of these images so I thank Matt Edmonds for sharing the idea to use the third. Collaboration is truly key and so worthwhile! Students explore the images and note changes from one image to the next. They return to this idea/question: why does history change over time? In short, this would/should be the moment I record on camera or on Zoom—not the full 50/60 minute class. This can be an opportunity to capture a rich and deep 10 to 15 minute student-centered discussion, which is when students typically have their best “Aha!” moments not prompted by me. I should note that I did not do this the day before when I actually taught the lesson—I was still intent on using Zoom and making sure everyone was engaged, muted, unmuted, turning volume up, turning volume down, sharing, listening, visible, etc. What I learned when I reflected on this on Tuesday was that I was far too distracted by the technology to be as fully present as I needed to be and wanted to be in the discussion. To include all (and I must say I wrestled with this as they are all new III Formers and do not yet understand, fully, the wonder of the classroom experience at St. Andrew’s) meant sacrificing the very essence of what makes it so special to start our journey as a class together. And while I have not completely come to terms with this, I understand that I must reckon with this realization, and adjust accordingly. Recording a portion or part of the discussion allows the remote learner to see the power of the open share. They, in turn, can record their insights. But, we must then be sure that we share their observations with the class to make the learning circular—them from me, me from them, them from each other.
I have been teaching for well over 20 years now—and always U.S. History. I am fairly certain that I know and understand important moments in my subject matter: when to pause, when to move on, when to go deeper, and how to pivot when things go awry. However, these are extraordinary times that mirror no other. Our meeting on Tuesday reminded me of the value of talking through complex and complicated situations. Terence Gilheany, a fellow humanities teacher, was just as insightful as Erin Ferguson, Dave Myers and Harvey Johnson. I can’t remember much of my studies of calculus and I can only conjugate agricola, but I can be a receptive listener and thinker outside of my discipline. I appreciated their candor, their uncertainty, and the power of walking through it together. I ended my lesson plan with two quotes:
“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place (or person), we regain a kind of paradise.” (This is a quote from their TED Talk assignment.)
“We often hear charges of 'revisionism' when a familiar history seems to be challenged or changed. But revisiting and often revising earlier interpretations is actually at the very core of what historians do. And that’s because the present is continually changing.” (From the National Council of Public History.)
The present IS, as we can all attest, continually changing. There are no obvious answers, no rule books, no directions, no master blueprints. Instead, we should use our support networks to revisit, to revise, and to re-engage.