Constructing Narratives in The History Classroom

This article was originally published in “Digital Learning” Magazine.  It was co-wrtitten by my friend and colleague Tom Driscoll. 

As history teachers, we strive for a few key outcomes. We want our students to learn the history of world civilizations and appreciate their culture and heritage. We seek to help students develop critical thinking skills, locate and evaluate sources, construct arguments and form new connections and ideas. Once developed, we strive to have students communicate their understanding and viewpoints.

While the goals of the history classroom have remained, for the most part, consistent over time, what has changed dramatically in recent years is our ability to access an abundance of resources and tools that can make the process of learning and the expression of that learning come alive for the students in our classrooms.

In this article, we will highlight ways that teachers can leverage technology to advance these goals. From online discussion forums to virtual tours around the world, there are countless ways that we can amplify history teaching with technology.

Here is a link to the full article.

DL01_p36-47_Constructing Narratives in the History Classroom

Here is a link to the Digital Learning Magazine



5 Tools to Help Evaluate Sources in a World of Fake News


5 Tools to Help Evaluate Sources in a World of Fake News

This post was originally published on  Daily Genius you can check it out by following the link above.

Whether you call it “fake news”, “misinformation” or the more innocuous “spin,” and whether you see this as an entirely new problem or the continuation of an already existing problem (think “War of the Worlds,” “Yellow Journalism” and “Dewey Defeats Truman”), one thing is clear: there is a powerful and pressing need to prepare our youth to make sense of the constant flow of media information that they consume everyday.

As teachers, we need to be aware of how students are consuming their information.  Recent studies have shown that 69% of Americans get their news from Facebook, while other research suggests that social media such as Snapchat and Twitter are how millennials are staying up to date with current events.  Yet a study from Stanford University suggests that a majority of young Americans cannot accurately identify what content on a web page is news and what is advertising or paid content.

Have we as teachers moved to adjust how we instruct our students to evaluate information as the sources for that information have changed? This isn’t always easy, especially since the trends in social media are fluid and changing.   While there is no one silver bullet website that can resolve this issue, many helpful resources exist. Here are a few to help you get started in constructing your curriculum.

5 Tools to Help Evaluate Sources in a World of Fake News

The Stanford History Group: The Stanford History Group is well known to history teachers. Recently, they published an executive summary entitled EVALUATING INFORMATION: THE CORNERSTONE OF CIVIC ONLINE REASONING.  It provides a summary of the research they conducted in 2015-16 and includes samples activities geared towards middle and high school students designed to teach students to evaluate articles, comment sections, News on Social media, and website reliability.  It is a must read for teachers at any level.  The sample activities will have you thinking.

Allsides:  Allsides allows readers to evaluate the bias of news articles collected from across online news sites. The site also features the ability for readers rate news sources and individual articles as LEFT or RIGHT leaning. Students can explore the overall ratings of sites or choose articles specifically from one perspective or another.  The site is great for making comparisons of topics from several sites.


Politifact:  Politifact is the Pulitzer prize winning fact checking website created by the Tampa Bay Times.  It uses a “Truth-O-Meter” to rate the accuracy of politicians and parties.  During last year’s election, Politifact live tweeted during debates, quickly evaluating statements and statistics.  It was a helpful tool for class discussions. The site allows you to search for topics or individual politicians.  For each rating, the site offers an explanation of how they arrived at their conclusion.

 screenshot-2017-01-21-12-23-22 is a project from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.  In addition to evaluating the truthfulness of political statements, Factcheck has a viral spiral feature that addresses internet rumors, a SciCheck page that evaluates scientific claims, and an “Ask Us” feature that allows questions to be submitted for fact checking.


Google Custom Search: If you can’t find the tools that work best for you, you can make your own.  Google Custom search allows you to select and curate websites that will be searched by your students.  Classes can create a standard for what sites they will use for a lesson or for research assignments and then add them to their custom search if it is determined that they meet the standard. This allows the class to be active and engaged in building a collection of trusted sources.   Individual students can construct a search engine for their projects, allowing them to go back and search sources again as their research evolves.   Teachers can save a variety of different searches which can be shared with students or embedded in websites.

It should be noted that is missing from the list above. The site has been evaluating online news, stories, and urban legends since the 1990’s. I omitted it not because it lacks any value but because while it is useful, it is so compelling that when I take students there they can sometimes get lost down the rabbit hole.

However you are preparing your students, one thing is clear — it is critical that we, as educators, consider how our students are accessing the news and information and how we can help them actively process all that is pushed to them through social media throughout the day.

eSchool News Top 14 Trailblazing Educators on Twitter

I am proud to have been named to the eSchool News Top 14 Trailblazing Educators on Twitter.  In reflecting on my years on Twitter, I can’t help but think of all the passionate educators that I have met along the way while sharing our learning. Years of rethinking education have shown me that while there is much to do, the schools of America are full of the best kind of people.

eSchool News Top 5 EdTech Twitter Accounts

eSchool News Top 5 EdTech Twitter Accounts

In general I tweet what interests me and what I need to improve as a teacher.  It makes for an eclectic mix of technology, teaching and history.  Much like my blog, it represents the skills I am trying to grow and the struggles that are currently before me.  I believe that you either grow or you die. In the sense that I am proud of my work to become a better educator and teacher, I am proud to be included on this list.

What is #sschat? I’m glad you asked.

Since I have been a part of #sschat I am frequently asked “What is it that you do?” or “How does this group work?” I love the opportunity to answer these questions because I am so proud of our little “can do” group. The short version of my answer is “We help teachers to get what they need and to make their lives easier.”The long version goes more like this: “#sschat is a collaborative group of social studies teachers who work together to create materials, discuss teaching, integrate technology and problem solve. We learn together and talk about the direction that education is moving, talk to experts, crowdsource materials and share our best lessons. In the last two years a culture of sharing has developed. Imagine if some of the most passionate teachers you know were to get together and share the best materials they have. That’s #sschat.We meet on Twitter every Monday night at 7 pm est. If you would like to join us just follow the hashtag #sschat. New participants are welcome to join the conversation. Some people feel more comfortable just following along with the conversation but that isn’t necessary. Each #sschat is dedicated to a particular topic. and all participants share their thoughts on the topic, relevant links and their experiences. If you would like to get an idea of the topics we discuss, we keep our archives here, on the #sschat Ning website.

We have become well known for our crowdsourcing. Members vote electronically on a specific topic and then during the chat share all of their best resources and methods for teaching that topic. The end result is an incredible compilation of materials. These online crowdsourcing documents are better than any google search because they are teacher tested and honed over years before they are shared. I have heard many times from #sschat participants that before they worried about finding materials to use. Now they struggle with which of the amazing lessons that are shared best meets their needs. Here are are a few examples of crowdsourced topics:Cold War Crowdsource
World War II Crowdsource
Best Tools for Social Studies Teachers

What is truly amazing about #sschat though is the support that is offered on a daily basis. It has grown into a community that goes far beyond our simple one hour chat. It is a constantly available source of answers and advice. There is always a conversation happening. Whether you are a new teacher creating new materials or a master teacher looking to try something new, #sschat can help.

Being apart of this organization has taken my learning to new places. It is the most powerful professional development I have ever experienced.

Fact Checking our Textbook- Source Analysis and Critical Thinking

When I think back to how I used to use worksheets and textbooks in class I am a little embarrassed.  I hand them the book, they move info from the book to a sheet, then I collect the sheet. Awesome, now we are all smarter and I have a pile of grading to do.  How could I have ever thought that was ok?

In the last few months I have focused on creating frameworks that create opportunities for critical analysis in class.  I want them to be generic enough to be applied to different content. I’d like to have several but have the students repeat each of them enough that the students can become efficient in each process.

When I arrived at my Chinese Revolution Unit in early May, I decided to try a Textbook Fact Check.  At this point we had already studied several revolutions. I felt comfortable letting the students gather and process the facts of this unit.  I wanted them to use those facts to evaluate how history is written.  I began this Fact Check assignment by asking the students if the person telling the story matters?  I talked about some current events and how political parties have different views about the same facts.  Students brought up examples of competing perspectives on facts. Some of the things they mentioned were Holocaust deniers, groups in the Middle East, different religious views about the truth, and people testifying in court.  Once we had talked about these competing perspectives I asked so “What is the textbook’s perspective?”

Then we looked up who wrote each chapter and briefly searched their background.  Then students were grouped and assigned sections of the textbook to fact check.  I gave them this guide for what they should look for:

Bias- either positive or negative.
Errors- anything that could be shown to be false or is presented in a misleading way.
Omissions- Things that were left out (but explain why it might have been left out.)

The students were to collaborate, create a presentation of their findings via Google docs which they would share with that class.

Here are some examples of the final products they produced:

Example 1
Example 2
Example 3

These aren’t necessarily the best but represent a variety of ways the students went about the assignment.

I was very pleased with this assignment because it made clear which students were thinking critically for themselves and which students were simply repeating information from the book.  The class discussion was full of unanswered questions and avenues for further learning. There was debate about the conclusions that were made.  Students did a lot of in depth reading and had the freedom pursue avenues of thought that interested them.  I did not lecture. We had long discussions about our sources and which ones were trustworthy.  The lesson took us to places we hadn’t been that the textbook hadn’t taken us before.

I still have a lot to do in order to put the students in charge of their learning.  I realize I will have to work more on evaluating sources and more activities on identifying perspective but this was a step in the right direction.

A helpful book in this process has been “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham.  It discusses the cognitive processes involves in learning and memory. It will get you thinking about the work that you assign and how you structure your lessons.  

Thoughts on #EdCampMke

Two days after attending #EdCampMKE I am experiencing what I like to call the #EdcampBump. For a period of time after any EdCamp my mind races and I start to see old lessons and the challenges that I face very differently.  The materials that I produce after an Edcamp have a very different feel to them.  Even more powerful is that the materials and content that my students produce in the weeks after I attend and #EdCamp are very different too.


One of the things that I like about the Edcamp model is that there is no institutional inertia holding them in place. They are driven by the ideas and interests, problems and concerns of the people who attend them.  There is no set philosophy that they must adhere to and no agenda that must be followed.  If the schedule does not meet your needs it is not the fault of the planners, it is on you to speak up and fix it.  For this reason I believe that in 10 years the Edcamp model will be just as relevant as it is today since it will not have to shed a previously embrace set of institutional policies and values.

Case in point was the impromptu Smackdown session that was run in the café’ late on Saturday.  It was thought up and made real.  While I was participating I was following several Google docs from the sessions that I was interested in but chose not to attend.  The Smackdown was a priority for me because of our upcoming 1:1 pilot.

Overall it is a day that I get to plan.  I set my priorities for learning. I seek out further knowledge when necessary.  It is as learning should be.  Mostly, I knew what I needed and I set out to get it but several times people in sessions made it clear to me that there where new places that I could grow.

Edcamps are a growth medium where ideas germinate and spread, where a first year teacher has as much right to share ideas and sessions as a 20 year veteran.  Edcamps foster sharing like no other PD experience I have ever attended.  Edcmaps foster a sense of community among the teachers that attend them that I have never seen replicated in another format.  Teachers helping teachers, giving everything they have to offer and sharing their passions, what could be better than that.

I could say so much more here but rather than go on and on I wanted to list some of the moments at #edcampmke that have stuck with me and mean the most.

  1. The session “What has your Attention?”  Just talking about what we were passionate about.  I have a list of things to read. I left and my soul felt good.
  2. Listening to Wisconsin teachers who have been through a lot and are facing some hardships put it all aside and discuss how to best serve their students with fewer resources.
  3. Watching my sister-in-law experience an #Edcamp for the first time and talking about running one herself.
  4. Discussing how to manage your public face and digital life on twitter and in blogs without losing who you are or the honesty of what you are saying.
  5.  Talking to others from 1:1 schools about the concerns of the community and the “Why?” Behind such programs.
  6. Explaining twitter to someone who had no idea it could be used for education. I remember thinking the same thing just a few short years ago.
  7. And soo many more.

So thank you to the organizers of EdCamp Milwaukee for a very well run day. Thank you to all of you who shared your thoughts and passions and contributed to my growth.  Growth is life.

The Least Objectionable Path

Two roads diverged in a wood…

We all pretty much know how this story goes but I think that its implications go beyond doing something different.  I think it often means doing something that is not easy.

The more I move my classroom in the direction of student created content the more I realize that the objections I hear from others about doing so involve a fear of the risk involved.  Recently the “What if” challenges that I get focus on things like: “What if the students create controversial content”, “What if the students arrive at conclusions that you don’t agree with?”  Or even “How can you maintain control in an environment like that?”

I have started giving them this answer, “I don’t know, but I think it is worth the risk.”

In my mind I have reduced these concerns to a sense of fear.  Not the kind of fear that a person should be ashamed of, but the kind of fear that we have when we are doing something effective and we are afraid that if we change what we do, won’t continue to be effective. That is a pretty serious risk.  Part of this fear I think, is the general mood of criticism that teachers and schools face in our country right now.  I think it is hard to take risks when we are under such critical scrutiny. We tend to avoid such criticism.

But I believe that we HAVE to. If we don’t we are failing our kids, our community and ourselves.  If we simply do what we have done or if we do things that avoid taking risks, we are not choosing what is best for our students, we are choosing what is easiest for us. I refer to this as THE LEAST OBJECTIONABLE PATH.

If all we do is follow the least objectionable path to learning, we are not really learning.  If all we do is follow the least objectionable path we are not innovating.  If all we do is follow the least objectionable path we do not expose people to ideas that expand their understanding of the world.  If all we do is follow the least objectionable path we do not teach our students to have a civil discussion with people whom we may disagree with at deep and personal level.  Most critically in my mind, if all we do is follow the least objectionable path we do not GROW.  This is the worst thing we can do, because the opposite of growth is death.

Take risks. Grow.  It’s worth it.


This picture below is one of my favorite quotes.  I have been a collector of quotes ever since the first time I saw that giving the right one to a student could lift them up and help them focus.  I think it has something to do with the fact that quotes can make a personal connection with a person from the past, who just might understand.

I have heard people criticize quote lovers as pseudo-intellectuals incapable of their own original thoughts.  Whatever.  I am a history teacher and we deal with the collective knowledge of the past.  In a pinch I like to offer it up.  It’s that simple

But one side effect of this hobby is that very often, more often than you would like to believe, the quotes are just wrong.  They are misquoted, paraphrased, taken out of context or attributed to the wrong people.  So a while back I started to check, really check, my favorites to see if they are accurate.  It can be an interesting process, but it can also be disheartening.


It turns out that this quote isn’t by Nietzsche at all but rather by Rudyard Kipling. The idea is still the same.  I guess I am just disappointed because Nietzsche seems like exactly the rebellious bad ass to say such a thing.   The fact that Kipling said it makes it no less powerful.  It just demonstrates the internet’s ability to amplify a mistake to levels almost in-correctable.  If you google search “Nietzsche Quote” this is one of the top returns.

Be careful.  Check your facts.

Reflection on EdCampss

I am fresh back from #edcamppss in Philadelphia.  I am a bit tired, a lot proud, and really energized to make what I have learned tangible in my classroom.    It’s satisfying it was to meet people who are working hard to make their classrooms a better place.  It was surreal to see an event so long in the making become real and to get the other organizers again.

I wish that I had more time to talk to all of the other attendees.  That is the downside to organizing.  You miss many of the chances to stop, chat and know the people beyond a 140 character limit.  This is my one regret from the day.

I must offer my thanks to @nesticos @dontworryteach @becky_ellis_ @irishteach @gregkulowiec and @ron_peck for all they did to make the day happen.  They inspire me beyond what they know.

I want to thank so many of the others who attended, too many to list , for sharing their work and ideas so freely.  Together we make a difference.

I really want to thank @mseideman who was for me the #edcampss rock star.  Her clearly articulated and well thought out ideas were exactly why I go to #edcamp’s .  I will follow here more closely on twitter and I really think she should moderate an #sschat in the future.

I also want to thank @jharaz for sharing a story that makes the working on #sschat and sharing on twitter worthwhile.