Teaching Historical Interpretation: Interpreting Student Life Events

“Who even knows if this really happened,” one of my students declared this year. “How do you think? How does one find out about anything?” I responded wanting to discuss how history is formed – the need to find artifacts from the past, find corroboration between various sources, hypothesize what happened and why things happened, publish the results, and have other historians look at the same event to build on or refute a claim. Sadly, the Friday afternoon bell rang and the conversation was not had.

Looking back at this brief exchange, I feel a bit uneasy, as perhaps I do not do a good enough job teaching how history is formed and that history is actually studying interpretations of the past* – a past that historians often view differently.

With this exchange in mind, I have decided to these beliefs during the first week of school. The first lesson, posted below, deals with how history is formed and the second, highlighted in Next Steps, will deal with how history is not static, but an argument built on evidence.

 Student Life Events “Histories”

Set up:

Students bring in three or more items related to a single event in their lives. The artifacts could be pictures, a Facebook post, a trophy, a ribbon, a newspaper clipping, etc…

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Going Meta: Cataloguing My Past Two Years of Blogging

As my blog turned two this past week, I felt it would be a good time to look back at one of the things I have worked on in my spare time these past few years. Over the past two years I have written 50 posts and, while it took a while, it was interesting to see how I have developed in my first few years as an educator. During the spring, I plan on going back and updating a few of my earlier posts.

I drew this as I thought it would be a fun addition to my masthead...sadly, it is neither the right size nor shape.

I drew this as I thought it would be a fun addition to my masthead…sadly, it is neither the right size nor shape.

For those considering blogging, I highly recommend it. For me, blogging has always been about developing as an educator by putting my ideas “out there” and discussing ways to improve. Since I began, I have had colleagues and those I met through blogging put their own twist on some lessons I developed. Looking at various ways to do something pushes me to reflect and continue to develop. In addition to personal growth, I have also had some neat opportunities through blogging – I’ve co-written a journal article  (with Dan Krutka) for the Ohio Social Studies Review and I’ve gotten to work with other educators consulting on a US Senate simulation at the Edward M Kennedy Institute. I’m quite happy that I made the leap into it two year ago.

As my readership has grown over the past two years, I thought it would be beneficial to have a table of contents to make searching my site easier!

So without further ado…

Table of Contents

  1. A Bit About This Blog – This simply introduces the blog and explains its purpose.
  2. Macbeth Murder Mystery Party Introduction – Inspired by a murder mystery that I never attended, this post from my days as a History/English teacher was used to introduce Macbeth and get students to  make predictions.
  3. Macbeth and Agency: Rethinking the Blame Game - As I didn’t want Lady Continue reading
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The Perfect Match: Music and Primary Document Pairing

“We’re not gonna take it. No, we ain’t gonna take it. Oh, we’re not gonna take it anymoooore.”

While preparing for the upcoming school year, Twisted Sister’s epic protest song began playing as I read the Declaration of Independence. Obviously my mind drifted to imagine Thomas Jefferson and John Adams letting their hair down and dancing around the streets of Philadelphia during a break from drafting the epic document. I realized then that I serendipitously uncovered something that I could use in the classroom – pairing music to primary documents to demonstrate understanding!

I spent the rest of the afternoon matching songs with historical documents – Washington’s Farewell Address, the Monroe Doctrine, and even Andrew Jackson’s Bank of the United States veto message. I then moved on to pairing music with events and felt that if George Washington crooned Coldplay’s “I will Fix You” at the Constitutional Convention there would not be a dry eye in Independence Hall.

Clearly, if there was an essay contest of “what I did during my summer vacation,” this day alone would have put me in the running.

While the idea was fun, I had yet to figure out how to actually use it. After mentioning the concept a month or so later on Twitter,  tech-guru Greg Kulowiec, he works for EdTechTeacher, suggested the app Spreaker might allow me to play around with this concept. Spreaker is a free iPad app that allows you to mix two tracks (and a microphone). Armed with an album of historic speeches and my iTunes playlist, I went to work finding “the perfect pair.”

For the next hour I explored the functionality of Spreaker and went to work mixing one of my favorite speeches – Winston Churchill’s Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat speech – with Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia.” After an hour which included no blood, toil, tears nor sweat (it was actually quite simple), this is what I came up (second attempt)!

While I am toying with the idea of giving students the option to use this to demonstrate their understanding of primary documents, I have not yet put this into action. Currently, I have it planned for a 4th quarter assignment with my juniors. I will surely update this post when I have some student samples!

So check out Spreaker and let me know what you think! And if you have done an activity like this, let me know too! And if you have ideas for perfect musical pairs, let me know in the comments. That’s always a bit of fun!

One day I do dream of having students auto-tune historic speeches. That is not something that I have figured out yet (although I do mention it to my students, in case they can figure it out).

Related Posts ~
Absolute Monarchy’s Ultimate Playlist

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American Vision Dating Game: Hamilton, Jefferson, and the Importance of Sharing

Sometimes you put an idea out “there” and the world amazes you. That is absolutely what happened in this case.

As many know, I am involved in a historical improv show called An Improvised People’s History. In order to  learn more about the historical figures, we often play The Dating Game where as historical figures you attempt to woo a contestant. After an unsuccessful attempt at winning a date as Alexander Hamilton,  my mind wandered to how I could use this concept in the classroom.

It was the following morning when it hit me….

What if Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were on a dating game attempting to woo America?

While a bit silly, I thought it would be a fun way to get my Freshmen to understand more about their differences and why one might be on Team Jefferson or Team Hamilton. As I often do, I shared the initial concept on my tumblr site (also below) and then sent it out to the world via Twitter.

My Tumblr Post

The following week, I gave my students this homework assignment for a long weekend (after explaining the concept of the Dating Game as it was foreign to my 9th graders).

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Law and Order: French Revolution [The Importance of Using Evidence!]

Over the summer, it occurred to me that History class should be like the hit television show Law and Order.

  • Law – Investigate, Corroborate, Develop Case
  • Order – Develop Case, Create and Defend Argument

So after noticing that many of my students were not using evidence on a prior assignment (using the Declaration of the Rights of Man), I created this assignment to reinforce the necessity of using evidence in history.

(OK, I also wanted to use this in class.)

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Teaching the Constitution: Bill of Rights Marketing Campaign (an improv-inspired activity)

What happens when you mix an improv game with history? Answer – a magical long period!

This activity is based on an improv game called Ad Game. In Ad Game players invent something to market, a slogan for the item/service, a spokesperson for the product, and a jingle. It is usually done within seconds and players agree and build on the first ideas that are suggested [this concept is called "Yes And" which builds such an amazingly collaborative atmosphere that it belongs everywhere].

Having played this game quite a bit over the past year, I felt that it absolutely belonged in a classroom. However, instead of inventing something to sell, why not have people market a pre-existing idea – like the amendments in the Bill of Rights! At a practice for my historical-based improv show*, the cast did just for our collective amusement and to test out this lesson. It was awesome.

While the improvisers were only given seconds to come up with their presentation (they did not do the troublesome/important words or the print ad), my students had a long period to put their marketing campaign together. As I wanted them to have a deeper understanding of the amendments, it could not be done on the spot (although, one student after I explained where the idea came from thought it would have been a fun challenge).


My example using the Ninth Amendment that I shared with my students prior to their beginning. And by the time I repeated the jingle twice, they absolutely remembered it.

The Prompt

Congratulations! James Madison has hired our class to sell the Bill of Rights to the United States of America. With the signing of our first client, we are now in the advertising business!

As a class, we have been hired to create a marketing campaign for the amendments proposed in the Bill of Rights**. As the head of the advertising agency, I have decided to pair you off to work on one of the amendments.

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Teaching the Constitution: Superheroes and the Branches of Government

As a new teacher to both the US History I curriculum and to teaching 9th graders, I was struggling teaching students about the difference in the branches of governments. I tried a variety of ways to do this: I gave an overview of each branch, students completed a graphic organizer for the branches, students sought answers to questions using the Constitution [ex. Can Mr Milton run for President? Why/Why not?*], and I created a board game to show the arduous quest for a bill to become a law. Still, I did not feel that it connected to my students. I felt like my job of bringing the Constitution to life was not yet finished.

During a free period, I popped into a colleague’s classroom to discuss the Constitution. It was here that she said one phrase that really sparked my brain into gear. Let me preface this by explaining I have recently been thinking quite a bit about superheroes and supervillains – particularly how they carry out mundane things like grocery shopping or online dating**. My colleague said, “…powers of the branches.” Obviously, my mind immediately jumped to “superpowers of the branches” and went into overdrive. I explained the concept to her and collaboratively we came up with the Super Branches of Government!

This student focuses solely on the Commander in Chief  role of the President.

From my colleague’s classroom. This student focuses solely on the Commander in Chief role of the President.

Super Branches of Government!

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