Monday, October 22, 2012

Teaching students to read...

I'm currently teaching an upper-division course on post-Civil War American history, on the various contestations over American national identity since 1865.  It's called, "Who are we?"

We debate "the melting pot" versus "multiculturalism," we explore Malcolm X versus MLK, we examine how things like the Great Depression and World War II and the Vietnam War transformed the way the nation thought of itself, and the way it was looked at by the world.  Women, gays and lesbians, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities all make an appearance.

We read lots of articles but also a few big history books, some of the kind that were once (and read like they were once) dissertations.  Which leads to a question: how do you teach students to read?

When they get the big books (remember, it is an upper-division course), I have to pick a handful of chapters, trying to be true to the narrative structure, and also to make sure the important arguments shine through.  After hearing students complain about the length and density and difficulty a number of times, I decided I needed to teach them how to read a big, academic book.  I've come up with a few rules:

1. pay attention to titles, both of the book and of each chapters, and even subsections.  Most authors really want to be understood, and they use their titles to enhance clarity.  How can we make sense of the title?  If you can't answer that, you've missed something big.

2. read Introductions and Conclusions carefully, for the same reason you pay attention to titles.

3. start slowly.  I tell them that, for me, it takes as long to read the first third of a book as it does the last two-thirds.  I bother to hear the tone coming from the pages, try to follow the narrative arc of the story, and learn who the key characters are going to be.

4. then speed up.  Here, I have to differentiate between "skimming" and reading actively, which to me is reading all topic sentences carefully, learning when to slow down and when to speed up, underlining like crazy, with tons of marginalia, and being sure you follow the narrative.

5. When you finish, see if you can tell yourself the story, and, of course, make sense of the title.

The idea is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good, and to take seriously the idea that sometimes our students get bogged down in details and miss the vital arc. 

What else should I be doing?  What have you done?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Mid-Term Paper

I have previously written about the little SkillBuilder papers I use in my survey course. In addition to exams and quizzes, I also have students create two projects. One, a paper, falls about midterm (due next week) and the other, called "History in Our Time," is due at the end of the term so I'll write about it near the end of the semester.

My mid-term assignment has students select two primary sources from an edited volume, develop a question for historical investigation and use the two sources as evidence to build a historical argument in five pages.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Teaching the Debate

The AHA is having a series of round table discussions after the debates. Here is a preview from eminent historian Daniel Rodgers: The “j” word, jobs, was the dominant term in the evening’s debate:  how best to encourage their growth and keep them at home.  But the more striking word, from the historian’s perspective, was “I.”  It was everywhere in the debates.  “I know how to make jobs happen,” Romney repeated insistently; and he worked hard to leave the impression that, by force of will, he would do it.  There were more references to “we” in Obama’s remarks, but the big “We” of 2008, with its social movement overtones, was nowhere to be found.  Structures of politics, economy, and society loomed behind every one of the answers these two figures offered, standing alone with their microphones.  But except for brief interruptive movements, you would barely know it, and in the modern personalization of politics both men did their best to make sure you didn’t notice.

For more, go here: AHA debate

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What Books Are You Considering?

Does anyone have a book they would like to feature here at TUSH.0 or discuss? For instance, I just received an email from Harper about "a riveting narrative history that explores the role of the Sons of Liberty in the American Revolution: DESPERATE SONS: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War by Les Standiford (on sale: Nov. 6th).

In this groundbreaking historical account, Standiford tells the behind-the-scenes story of how a group of American citizens who called themselves the Sons of Liberty—Samuel Adams, his cousin John Adams, Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, and John Hancock among them—formed cells of a secret, radical society committed to imposing forcible change in their government. Patriots in their own eyes, and in the eyes of most Americans to this day, the Sons of Liberty were viewed as terrorists by the British, who thought they deserved to pay with their lives for the things they had done. Desperate Sons is the courageous story of how they helped form a revolution, from murmurings of a vague injustice to focused operations of resistance led by men whose names are now legend nearly two hundred and fifty years later.

Early praise for Desperate Sons:

“This is popular history in its most vital and accessible form. Standiford has recovered the mentality of America’s first group of young radicals, the Sons of Liberty, and tells their story with flair and grace.”
   — Joseph J. Ellis, author of Pulitzer Prize winner Founding Brothers

Anybody want to review it (I have a review copy)? Anybody want to write short bits for other books? Just email me at eblum (at) mail (dot)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What Caused the American Revolution? Was it Justin Bieber?

Today's Post comes from FOB (friend of blog) Matt Moore and his blog: Teaching Beyond the Textbook

Teaching the Causes of the American Revolution (as a parent/child fight)

A few years ago, I was reading two books at the same time, Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Both books were fascinating to read and offered insights that helped me improve my skills as an educator. In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers emphasized the importance of using metaphors and analogies to help people remember complex topics. This was not a revolutionary idea at the time, but it still made me reflect on how I structure activities in my social studies classes. Gordon Wood’s history of the American Revolution opened my eyes to many different interpretations of the past. Dr. Wood pointed out that many of the arguments between the colonists and their British counterparts were compared to a parent-child relationship.  For example, British officials would tell the colonists that they should respect the monarchy just like a child should respect their parents. As I read both books, I thought there was a good opportunity to create a fun and engaging lesson that would help students make connections to the causes of the American Revolution.

(read more)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Something for Nothing

Back when I was planning for this semester, I got enthused about a free/paperless online textbook option. Maybe you’re wondering how that’s working out for me.

76% of my students decided to spend nothing and just read the textbook online. Another 17% of them purchased the “access pass” which allows them to download all or part of the book as PDF or ePub + various online study aids. That makes over 95%. And exactly one student purchased her own copy of the book as a printed paperback from the get-go. So as far as “ease of adoption,” the free & online versions get it hands down.

A couple of weeks into class, I asked for a short minute of writing on what’s going well this term, and what’s not going so well. I teach at 8:30 am (yup!), so naturally a lot of the comments talked about that (ranging from “I have a hard time waking up” and I think I might have written that one myself, to “I’m surprised to find I like this as a class time”). But a few touched on issues related to book format, and almost universally those students don’t like reading a textbook online. I don’t blame them. It’s no reflection on the specific publisher, which actually has a better user interface than most. Reading textbooks online or on a tablet/iPad is definitely different and takes some getting used to. Despite publishers’ attempts to add these features, highlighting, note-taking, tapeflagging and so on are just awkward or impossible with an ebook. But purchasing the printed book instead seems a cost none of them are willing to absorb. They’d rather get it free *and* complain about how hard it is to use. Interesting.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Segregation Object Lesson

Anyone teaching US race, segregation, or special needs history ... check out this story of Minnesota teacher segregating African American and special needs students.