Uncomfortable hiStory 101

Uncomfortable hiStory 101

Let’s get a few things out in the open as this blog begins.  I attended a catholic elementary school until second grade.  There were zero black students enrolled.  I completed the rest of my schooling at a suburban school district southwest of Pittsburgh. The student population of black students in my grade was around 3%.  I did not have a black teacher until my sophomore year, when, for about one week, we were instructed by a black man who was a student teacher. I then continued to a university in downtown Pittsburgh to become a teacher.  Scholarship money and the university’s mission led made it be best fit for me as an 18 year old.  I do not believe that I had a single black student in any of my education classes, nor did I take a single class taught by a black professor.  So, I’ll put it out there: I am uncomfortable writing this.  Very uncomfortable.  But that’s good; I am in a position where I need to start to feel uncomfortable.  We all need to start to get a little uncomfortable. Now, do not take this as a complaint in any fashion; I have had many opportunities, wonderful teachers and professors, and interactions with educators around the nation and the world. I am simply stating my background that led me to this point in my thought process.

A few years ago, I decided to open each school year with a lesson asking students to draw an image of what they feel represents American History.  They can draw anything they want. Many of my colleagues have seen the result. Most draw George Washington in military regalia or in other heroic fashion. Some draw Abraham Lincoln and a few draw the American flag.  This year, two students depicted a person of color. Two.  And it was the same person, Rosa Parks.  While this leads to great opening conversation about how we are going to study American History in a way that challenges defining it only as the story of white men, it also serves as a pathway to reflect.  How did this happen?  And how do you stop it from happening?

Year after year, students enter my American History 8 class with a rosy view of our nation’s past. Good memories, if you will. It’s comfortable.   But that’s not history.  When we teach our students history, what stories are we leaving out?  More importantly, whyare we leaving stories out?  A textbook company’s fault? Meh, I don’t buy that. Somebody bought those books. Somebody decided to assign readings from those books.  Not enough resources? Not a chance.  We are uncomfortable having these conversations with students, with the discussions that these may generate in class, with the potential of going against the typical American History class that may even result in a few parents being upset because “it’s not how my history class was taught?”  Yes. Exactly.  We fear the uncomfortable and we avoid it.

When we teach history as rainbows and butterflies, we leave out emotion, we leave out connection, we leave out empathy, and we leave out history.  We create learners and then adults that base news events solely on interpretation rather than fact. History and civics classes often have standards that are aged, or in some cases, decades old. Some others are even based on highlighting the principles of essential American documents.  Teach American History as it links back to the goals of the Constitution.  Sounds clean. Sounds informative. Sounds…comfortable.  Look at where that got us, in the same situation where we lack so much understanding of our nation’s past, of each other as Americans, or ideas like America’s racial issues ended at some specific date, whether it is the end of the Civil War, the passage of the 13th-15thAmendments, or the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  Do you believe that? No, I didn’t think so, but you probably know several people who do.  And, as funding cuts to history education loom large across America, as decades of policy that prop up the importance of standardized testing in subjects outside of the humanities, this is a problem.

So it’s time for some Uncomfortable hiStory to be taught in American schools.  Topics that spur questions.  Narratives that inspire conversation.  Images that make you feel uneasy. And let’s not wait until students are in 8thgrade to have that feeling.  I’ll be honest, I have been guilty of this.  My daughter is in 1st grade and loves to read.  When she was in preschool, she expressed interest in space and astronauts so we bought her a book about Mae Jemison.  She likes to perform, so we purchased additional books about Lin Manuel Miranda and Misty Copeland.  You know what I did two years ago when we were reading about Misty being discriminated against? I skipped the pages.  I avoided the conversation with my then 5-year-old.  It would have been uncomfortable and would have stomped on her view of the world being full of all good people. So, we just read the “happy memories” parts. Boy, was that the wrong decision. At the start of my daughter’s 1st grade year, we read the whole book. And we talked.  She asked questions. We learned together, and yes, there were uncomfortable questions that led to her asking more questions.  Do we talk about everything that falls under that umbrella? No, but it opened the door instead of leaving it shut throughout elementary school. It led to her wanting to read other books about people who faced discrimination. See: Roberto Clemente.  It led to her wanting to read about people who contribute to America: she read an abbreviated version of Hidden Figures tonight.

But, the most important product of this is the uncomfortable dialogue that it spurs. Uncomfortable for her? No.  Me? Yes.  How do you make it “age-appropriate”?  Can you really discuss everything with a now 7 year old? No way, and I’m not advocating for that.  But can we start to peel back a layer if infallibility? Yes. A dad-daughter talk about the idea that America has great memories throughout its past, has had periods of being an ethical and moral compass for the world, while at the same time, having ethical and moral breakdowns embedded in our DNA as a nation.

Every school, every history department, every teacher of social studies should be using the events of the past week as an opportunity to enact change where they can: their classroom, the resources they select, and the conversations that they ignite in their classroom.  What if we taught our nation’s past starting with the stories of marginalized groups of society? Why should students wait until high school or college to engage in this dialogue.  Why should “covering” items on a standardized test seemingly matter more as more funding and time is devoted to learning which bubbles to fill in? Next year, if I continued the norm, I would begin the year by teaching the French and Indian War and moving forward.  No, that can’t happen anymore.  We’re starting with Reconstruction first before jumping back to how we got here. We’re studying the Native American perspective of the French and Indian War.  We’re discussing why Crispus Attucks’ facial color was changed when Revere’s engraving was distributed. We’re devoting time to the conversations that need to occur around Jim Crow laws. We’re studying history, not memory.  Because it is time.  It’s time to get uncomfortable.




Students, Parents, and Teachers: It’s Okay to use the “Survival Shuffle” in this Marathon

For millions of students and teachers around the nation, the news has become official. We will not be returning to our home away from home. Our school. Our classroom. Our students. With that news, we are now immersed in this system of crisis teaching and learning for the long run. For six weeks, we have been able to show the world what makes teachers great. We don’t make excuses. We adapt for our students and families. We solve problems for our students. We connect with our students. We support each other. We counsel. We advocate. And we are not afraid to learn new skills.

I have recently heard politicians, doctors, and media members repeatedly refer to the response to Covid-19 with a similar term: a marathon. Terms like steady, pacing, and one step at a time have been tossed out into the public discourse, too, when discussing how the world will overcome this latest obstacle. Marathon terms.

Now, it’s been 8 years since I ran my first full marathon. It was May 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be exact. And when you are training for your first marathon, there are tedious times, times of joy, times of pain, times of frustration, times when you are alone for long periods, and undoubtedly, times of mental and physical exhaustion. You think you can do it. You know you can do it. Then, you think you just can’t run another mile, another half mile, or another step. You run the full gauntlet of emotions before you even get to the starting line for such a race. But you get to that starting line.

Ironically it was on the treadmill when a piece of advice came back into my mind. And it is advice that is there for the teachers out there who are trying their best day in day out to be there for their students, the parents and guardians who are trying to maintain a safe and supportive environment while being pulled in a plethora of directions, and the students who are coping with a loss of all sense of normalcy in this world. The survivor shuffle.

It was on my first “20 miler” when I heard this advice. The survivor shuffle? An experienced runner shared that there will be times when you need to use the survivor shuffle, times when you drop your pacing goals, trust what your body and mind is telling you, and just do your best to keep your feet moving forward. The survivor shuffle, huh? You set out to finish what you started for all the reasons you signed up to start it. It may not look like what you planned, what you envisioned, what you dreamed about, but you survive. You take a quick rest, you get a drink, and you get back in the race when you are ready. One foot in front of the other, and you get there.

But no, I did not want to hear about the survivor shuffle. I would not need it; I went into my first marathon overconfident. Then, everything changed. For me, it was hot, humid morning that came out nowhere. This was not the race I was prepared to run. However, I started to run it as if it was under the exact same conditions that I trained for. And I broke down physically.

Now let’s fast forward to 2020. We had field trips planned. Traditions to carry on. Moments and students to celebrate. Colleagues to rejoice with as they entered into well-deserved retirements. Then March 13th came. We did not prepare for this sort of race. This was not our training as a teacher, as a parent, or as a student. Personally, I started into this race trying to maintain the same pace that I had before everything changed. As a parent, as a teacher, and quite frankly, I even had a desire for my children to do the same as students. Not surprisingly, I had the same result as my first marathon. I was insistent on “winning that race” in the first mile.

But you can’t. You shouldn’t. And here is the part that was the most difficult thing for me to understand and accept: nobody expects you maintain the same pace you had before. What is going to save me as a teacher? The survivor shuffle. As a parent? The survivor shuffle. And I hope students around the nation recognize that it is perfectly okay to “run your own race” at this time and trust what your body, your mind, and your heart are telling you to do.

Conditions have changed. Take a rest when you need to. Look to others for encouragement and support when you think you just can’t do it. There will be more obstacles ahead for each of us. It’s okay to save a little in the tank for when you need it. In a marathon, you find things out about yourself that you never knew you could do. You deal with setbacks, both within and outside of your control. You push the limits of what you thought your mind and your body could handle. But you just never know when you are going to need that survival shuffle to slow the pace, reassess what is most important, and to get help when you need it. There is no shame in using it.

Students, parents, and teachers: It’s okay to just do what you can do, at the pace that you can go in that moment. It really is. Just get back into this race when you’re ready.

The Students Not on My Roster: Balancing My Teacher Guilt and Parent Guilt in a Virtual World

“Dad.” “Dad.” “Dad.” “Dad.”….”Dad.” “Dad.” …”Daddy.” “Dad.”  (There were a few more Dads in there, but, you get the idea.)  This past weekend, my preschool-aged son, Noah, was trying to get my attention.  He had to have called out my name at least a dozen times before I even acknowledged him. Sure, I was sitting with him on our back porch, pretending to pay close attention to him as he played with PlayDoh and I typed an e-mail back to a parent on Saturday afternoon to solve an issue her child was having in the new virtual learning world.

Then, it hit me.  That wave of parent guilt that many teachers feel on a regular basis during the school year.  Perhaps it is when we are staying after school to get caught up, or when we attend weekend activities with our students and miss a family function, or, quite frankly, when we are spending more time with other people’s children than our own.  But, there’s no way that can happen in a virtual learning environment, right? Wrong. There is no sidewalk to walk out of school now, no time to reflect and change gears on the car ride home, no bells or goodbyes to signal a change.

This year, I have 109 students on my roster.  109 students with different interests, family lives, abilities, needs, personalities, and talents. But, it is the 110thand 111thstudents on my roster that are often being ignored as a result of attempting to be fully available and committed to students 1 to 109, as well as their parents, during this crisis.

Enter my preschooler and 1st grader.  They see me on Zoom meetings with my students, laughing, smiling, and teaching. I’m sure that they hear me telling them “wait one minute, buddy” or “hold on, my dude” in exchange for not having to have one of my students wait at all for an e-mail reply.  When they think back to this crisis 5 years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, are they doing to think back to this period and remember that “daddy did not spend much time with us”?  That keeps me up at night.

My children are younger, and love attention from their parents.  But for those teachers with older children, I am sure, even if they do not admit it or are masking it, are craving your connection during this crisis. But, this leads to the ultimate choice of having to knowingly or unknowingly select teacher guilt or parent guilt.  So how do you balance these two?  Honestly, that is something that has always been an area of potential growth for me and an area that I am struggling with now.  For me, the easy choice over the past three weeks has been selecting parent guilt. Because I think, “oh, there will be more time for me to be with my children after this e-mail, after I make this screencast video, afterI do this demo video for an administrator, or after I talk a colleague through something on the phone instead of sitting down to read a story one on one to my child.”

So, teacher guilt vs. parent guilt, what’s the solution to feel neither and to make yourself fully committed to both in a virtual environment?  Being a realist, I do not think I will be able to discover the solution to this in my blog entry.  In fact, I think, to a large degree, that merging both lives enables me to be a better teacher, connect with analogies and lessons from my own life, and to let my guard down for students to see the real me. But, in this virtual setting, I am finding a whole new ballgame and I am going to implement a few changes that I feel may help.

1. Set a more clearly defined schedule, write it down, and schedule your children in there.

I have been guilty of keeping my agenda for office hours, meetings, and every different type of Zoom meeting on my computer.  What is not on my calendar is any type of defined time for my own children or time with my wife.  That is going to change, and, I feel that if I “see” it on a schedule, I will be better equipped to follow that commitment.

2. Build that sidewalk away from school in your mind.

Let’s be honest with each other.  We enjoy teaching, so we find excuses in our minds to always be looking to bring our own lives into our lessons or vice versa.  But, in this virtual world, there has to be a limit of a boundary.  I am going to allow myself to work at night, however, will have to put some time restraints on myself to cap that. Can this wait until the morning? Will not responding right now cause emotional stress for that student?

3. Learn from Oklahoma! character Ado Annie.

I grew up as a musical theater boy.  In fact, in 8thgrade, I got to be part of our high school’s production of Oklahoma!(we had a small school and boys in grades 7-8 were needed as townspeople…)  But, I remember a song in there that I am now using out of context, but, it is titled I Cain’t Say No.  So, when we hear that phrase, “Hey, can you do me a favor?” or “Hey, it would be great if somebody…”, we gravitate towards filling that need.  We can’t say no, we want to help.  But, I need to remind myself, that it is indeed okay to say no, because, that will better enable me to say yes to my children.

4. When you hear a colleague say “I’m bored”, let it go.

Bored? Bored?!?!? Just this week, I heard another colleague, a good friend, say that he was bored.  This is the complete opposite of what I had been feeling.  I feel like I am playing a game of whack-a-mole.  So, I think, “What in the world am I doing wrong that I am not feeling this bored feeling?  I had a to-do list of things I would like to get done during this and I have not touched one of them. I must be the worst parent in the world if I am having trouble spending time with my own children, let alone crossing items of my to-do list.”  So my takeaway: everyone is dealing with this crisis in their own way and has their own situation and responsibilities.

I look forward to making this a focus of mine to work on in the coming days, weeks, and months ahead. I also welcome any advice, tips, or strategies that have been working for you in your own situations. We’re off to check out the Pink Super Moon as a family!

Groundhog Day and Quicksand: Overwhelmed After Two Weeks of Distance Learning

As some teachers are about to officially begin their continuity of education plans and some of us about about to enter into our third week of distance learning, or some name thereof, I feel that the emotion that I have battled most for two weeks was the feeling of being overwhelmed.

For me, the most stressful time of the school year had been the first weeks of school.  There would be level of wanting everything to be just perfect, long hours each day trying to learn about your new students, setting up locker tags to make students feel comfortable, answering questions, and never really knowing where the next meeting invite would come from.

After experiencing two weeks of virtual learning, the emotions that I personally have experienced have been very similar.  You think that you have a handle on what the next day is going to look like and you may even have a task list ready to go.  But, here comes the next Zoom invite.  Here comes the next e-mail that will “just take a few seconds to respond to”, so you go to it and put down what you had been working on.  Here comes that time when you sit down to relax and a student reaches out with an email.  This has been the new first two weeks of school, when hours of when teaching time ends and when family time begins. 

My own lists have gotten continually longer each day, and no matter what I complete, I replace a task with two more.  It is a mix of the movie Groundhog Day and the feeling of running in quicksand. Having two children of my own learning at home has certainly compounded this, but, the first thing to be crossed off my list to manage tasks has been diet and exercise.  Although essential to mental health, it is just too easy to say “I’ll deal with that later.”

So how have I started to manage this feeling of being overwhelmed:

  • Get outside and exercise.  Even it is raining.  Write it down on your list. Do it.
  • This weekend, I decided to put my phone away for the day.  Let that e-mail go.  Let that text go for a little bit.  It will be there when you get back.  Find some time to do something you enjoy.
  • Make lists.  This is easy, right?  But, visually, this has been important to me to actually see that I’ve been making progress on getting things done.
  • Attempt to set up a virtual meeting with your students.  That single hour that I spent doing that this week was an hour of normalcy and routine that I missed.  Students laughed.  I laughed.  It was great.  If you can set these up, go for it.

What’s on for this week?

We will be starting our full-time flexible instruction for the next few weeks, and I’m sure some new challenges will present themselves.  And, if you are just getting started in your own distance learning program, I hope you have a great start.


The New Normal: Focusing on Teacher Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19

When I remember walking into my first classroom with my first class 13 years ago, I was assigned a mentor teacher, had colleagues that had offered advice on the challenges that I may soon face, and there seemed to be a “playbook” with how approach those early teaching experiences.

With the onset of the new normal in teaching created by the COVID-19 Pandemic and with so many educators shifting to some kind of distance or virtual learning, our students, families, and schools are trying to quickly adjust.  But, I think it is also important to recognize that we as educators are also going to have to work through some things that have nothing to do with the content that we teach.  Inherently, I think what drives us to be teachers are forming those personal connections with our students and our colleagues, to support each other, and to overcome challenges for the betterment of others.  But, just like we faced down some insecurity and anxiousness during those very first days and weeks of our teaching career, we again are going to have to do it all over again.  I have already heard from so many about the level of worry and stress increasing, so I wanted to focus on teacher mental health and share some unfiltered, “real” experiences that I am facing in the hopes that others know that these feelings are normal and there are some tools to overcoming them.  So, here we go into this unknown, but, I am going to be journaling my experiences each week, sharing what challenges I’m facing, but also what experiences there are to overcome them to maintain some degree of mental health normalcy in our minds.

I look forward to sharing what I am experiencing and I hope you will share as well!


Presenting at AMLE Annual Conference

This past week, I had the pleasure of presenting the story of how my students connected with our community, and, although it sounds like a cliche’, with the world to compile a series of researched multi-touch books.  Within the pages of these books, students interviewed friends, family, neighbors, politicians, and more to answer a simple question, “How do historical events impact individuals?”  Each interviewee was able to share their oral history of how a historical event  direct shaped who they are, and vice versa.  This served as a launching point for students to dig into primary source archives now available and accessible from their iPads and to intertwine this research with their interview.  In the end, I was able to team teach with my grade’s English teacher to put students in a position to publish their individual section or chapter within one of four volumes of these oral histories.  Each chapter included a primary source photo, the archived interview audio, and a student research paper, truly combining both “old school” and “new school.”

We were thrilled to be recognized as the Association for Middle Level Education Community Engagement Award Winner for 2017, and even more excited that were invited to Philadelphia to present our project and process at their national conference.  I am even more excited that we were granted the funds necessary to further our collaboration with the community, by bringing students to our local library and history center.

It was invigorating to share our students’ work with an international audience.

Here is a sample of one of the books: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1224973543



“What Did You Use to Make That?!?” – Keynote, History, Shapes, & Magic Move

We’ve all been there.  You spend hours and hours working on a lesson hoping that it is a hit with your students and inspires them to want to dive deeper into content, to feed off of your enthusiasm as they take an initial question or problem and use creative approaches to go their own ways to be creators and collaborators themselves.


Rewinding to the ADE Academy 2017, I felt like a student watching Ben Mountz work wonders with Keynote’s shapes and magic move.  As a history teacher, this had so much potential to be used to tell a story, but moreover, to put my students in a position to tell a story.

After my students used stop motion to tell the story of Jamestown, it was now time to tell the story of some of the best rising action that you can experience in school, the build up to the American Revolution.  But, how to inspire them again to be digital storytellers?  I purposely would leave my projector on in the morning, during homeroom, and during the day as students watched me make my first attempts of using Keynote’s Magic Move.  What makes this tool even better is the ability to not only use Keynote’s shapes, but also to be able to edit those shapes and create your own.  My goal was to eventually be able to create all of my own graphics and shapes. So, I got started.  I began by using historical images and Magic Move and moving them around to create animated scenes.  But, I wanted to take it to the next level.  It was time to make my own shapes.

“What is he doing?”  was a common question as students would come into my first period, watching and questioning to each other.  Admittedly, some of my first attempts were not the greatest.  In fact, my attempt to draw my own head as the head of a colonist and then fill in the rest with shapes looks, at best, extremely goofy.  But, I decided to leave it in to show that it was a work in progress.  What I ended up with was hours of work for a 30 minute discussion, however, it was a discussion with lots of “What do you think might happen next?”  “What should happen next?”  “How could you show what might happen next?” In the back of my mind, I was hoping that students would be “hooked” just from seeing some of the possibilities of Keynote, shapes, and Magic Move.  They were.

“What did you use to make that?” This quote actually came from another teacher who happened to view some of the animation possibilities in Keynote, not believing that this was even possible within the application.

A 2:00 Minute version of the story of the rising action of Britain and the American Colonies is available here.

No lie, but students began asking, “can we make one of these?”  Several students in my afternoon classes asked if this could be a class at North Hills.  Not only am I hooked on using Magic Move, but, I was glad to pass on the inspiration of Ben Mountz to my students.  We already have some great ideas that I look forward to sharing in the very near future.


Powerful, Seamless Classroom Tool for the iPad Environment: Apple’s Classroom App

As my school enters our seventh month of our 1:1 initiative, more and more teachers in my building are starting to utilize Apple’s Classroom app.  This app, which, within seconds of using it, will prove to be extremely easy and intuitive to use for any teacher or administrator.  Classroom enables teachers to maintain a pulse of student iPad use in their classes, while also using tools like AirPlay and Screen View to make it a more collaborative one all at the same time.  As such, I create a brief video to introduce Apple’s Classroom app and some of its capabilities for our teachers:



A Clear Lens to Personalize Learning: Digital Storytelling with Primary Sources & Stop Motion – PBS Webinar Coming Soon!

Imagine this as if you were a student:

Documents that are over two hundred years old are sitting in front of you.  Great.  More fancy “old English” words that you just don’t understand.  From what you can gather, the person that wrote it isn’t like you at all.  Your teacher says that you need to summarize the document by the end of class but don’t even know where to begin nor do you have any motivation to do so.

Now, imagine this:

A journal or poem from a soldier and war statistics are laying on your desk.  Once again, your teacher asks you to summarize the documents.  You perk up a little, just enough to complete the summary and get on your way to your next class.

And now, this:

You are watching a movie.  Forrest Gump. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Shawshank Redemption, or binge watching the Wonder Years.  You can’t turn it off.  You want to see what happens to the struggling man from Alabama, or the high school troublemaker, or the criminal Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, or even the young boy Kevin Arnold.  You are hooked in by the story of somebody that is completely unlike yourself.  You can see qualities in people with whom  you thought you had very few similarities, if any.

What’s the difference?  Visuals? Maybe.  A catchy theme song? Okay, maybe.  A great soundtrack?  Alright, that makes sense, too.  But the biggest thing?  A personal connection to the story.   You can see yourself as that person.  You are rooting for them.  You can insert yourself into their experience.

Hollywood does a fantastic job of doing this for us when we lose ourselves in a character.

How do we do it for our students?

This brings me to the story of Lin Manuel Miranda, who, as it can be seen on the PBS LearningMedia website, turned his personal reading of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, into what he personalized in his mind when reading it: an energetic hip-hop/rap song (and consequently, a hit Broadway musical).

Again: How do we do this for our students? 

I hope that you can join me in March as I share how I have done this in my classroom by employing quality (and free!) primary resources to allow students to answer a larger question while interpreting a story using their own materials and through their own lens using a simple, yet effective technique: stop motion animation.  (Think Rudolph!)

As Lin Manuel Miranda brought American History and hip-hop together, you and your students can bring together two things that may not immediately “jive” together in your mind: Primary Sources and Stop Motion.  In doing so, you will see a level of personal connection, creativity, and interest that you may not have experienced in your social studies, ELA, elementary, and/or library classes, as students latch on to tell a story through their own eyes.  Even neater, students will start to express stories while displaying their own interests, just as these students did, while answering the larger question of “Why did Jamestown struggle to survive?”


Disney?  No?  Pixar? Not quite?  Authentic learning for a real audience? Absolutely.  Join me in March to learn about the basics of putting your students in positions to do this as well as tips, strategies, and needed materials. and let’s get started with interpreting primary sources with digital storytelling tools such as stop motion on multiple platforms.


An Interview with Gram: How Students Archived Community Oral Histories by Creating Multi-Touch Books

It hit me.  This past summer, I panicked.  I had never stopped to interview my 95-year old grandmother, Sara Whalen, who has had experienced so much during her life.  From the time I was born until I moved out of my parents’ home in 2008, my grandmother had lived in the same house as me.  However, I had never sat down with her to interview her about her life.  I immediately worried that it was going to be too late.

Using the framework from the Veteran’s History Project, I focused my attention in August of 2016 on interviewing grandma.  I prepared interview questions, researched the Women’s Army Corp and its contributions during World War II, read over handwritten letters and records of my grandma, and viewed numerous artifacts andimg_1915 photos from her life.  I sat down across from her, with my iPad recording, and had a conversation about her life.  I heard about her early life in an orphanage, her relationship with her step-father that led her to join the service, experiences in the WAC, and life after the war.  Sadly, she would show her age at times, repeating stories that she had just told me.  Sometimes, she would use vocabulary that may not be considered “PC” today.  Still, I had it.  I had her story to share with the VHP.  This process, though, left me kicking myself.  Why had I not done this earlier in my life and in hers?  Surely, her story would have been more vivid, details more sharp in her mind.  If I had only done this when I was in middle school in the late 1990s, I would have a more polished and authentic piece of history.  If only…

This led me to realize how powerful an experience this would have been if I did this years earlier.  During that conversation with grandma, I learned things I had never known. I felt more connected to her (and my) past by simply having a conversation.  I had to share her story.

My students HAD to have this opportunity.  But, how would it “fit”?  Thankfully, I have an incredible English teacher on my team in my building, who was more than willing to amend and augment the annual our 8th grade research paper to revolutionize it to be something more meaningful.  Over the course of an iMessage conversation this summer, we moved from a 5 paragraph essay on a westward expansion figure, to a project that had a few basic principles and goals:

  1. Connect our students with the community and/or a family member
  2. Conduct primary source research using archived newspapers and magazines to promote historical thinking skills
  3. Employ the services of our library/media specialist to teach database research skills
  4. Organize research into focus areas and develop a thesis that encompasses both the oral history and student research from legitimate primary & secondary sources
  5. Author a 5 paragraph essay that intertwines research with the oral history
  6. Create an multi-touch interactive iBook chapter per student that archives an image, the full audio interview of the student, and the student work.
  7. Design and release 5 volumes of multi-touch interactive iBooks available to the community (and the world!) to highlight student learning by the Spring of 2017

This project was a team effort on all angles.  Prior to the holiday break in December, students learned of the project and used the break to make connections to relatives to figure out what significant event they would want to research and who they would want to interview.  After the break, students watched my grandma’s interview as a guide and began to write their interview questions in English class.  With the assistance of our library/media specialist, our English teacher did a fantastic job in explaining how to locate primary sources using Google News Archive in addition to utilizing databases that our school has access to this year.  Moreover, she introduced NoodleTools, a web-based tool to cite sources, create focus areas, and create note cards, before seamlessly moving thoughts into an outline.


Many students went above and beyond.  Several students elected to interview grandparents and great grandparents on the topic of the Great Depression and World War II.  The Vietnam War was one of the more prominent topics as well.  Still, some students reached out to relatives around the world, with one student interviewing a relative about the first post-apartheid election in South Africa while another interviewed her grandfather about living under Mao during many of his reforms.  Some topics included significant personal tragedies, including a Holocaust survivor now living in Washington state, Kosovo under Slobadan Milosevic, a NYC emergency call center employee on 9/11, and a Washington, D.C. Air Traffic controller on 9/11, to name a few.  Some topics were very local, including the closing of a local theme park that was part of the community, a major blizzard in the city, the decline of the steel industry, and how flooding impacted the region at various times.

No matter the topic, students reported an underlying theme: they became more connected to those they interviewed and took a greater interest in their topics. The community undoubtedly stepped up as well to contribute to student learning, which was simply awesome.  I have the utmost respect for the English teacher that led the note-taking, focus area, thesis development, editing, and writing of the papers.  As mentioned, our librarian and special education staff jumped right in as well. Many members of our teaching staff volunteered to be interviewed as well.

My role in this project was that of a guide of historical research, oralscreen-shot-2017-02-13-at-8-22-47-pm history, and, on the educational technology side, developing and releasing our class iBooks, which will be released on the Apple iTunes Store in late March or early April.  Students certainly took ownership of their own learning, while being guided by our English teacher and supported by the community.  It will come full circle when the students “give back” to the community members that assisted them as we are working on creating a book that archives such astounding stories and personal contributions to our local, national, and world history.  A bridge was truly built using oral history and primary source research, and I have so many to thank for it, notably the English teacher on my team that was so willing to not only adapt to the oral history idea, but to completely redesign her research guides and templates and instruct students how to intertwine oral histories, primary, and secondary sources to make it happen.

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