Over a year ago, I posted a journalist’s description of a history teacher at Aragon High School. She watched him teach a lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression in the 1930s that drove farmers off their Midwestern farms. Here are a few paragraphs of that journalist’s account.
In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that’s history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.
Now take a seat inside Will Colglazier’s classroom at Aragon High School in San Mateo. The student population here is fairly typical for the Bay Area: about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Asian and 40 percent white. The subject matter is standard 11th grade stuff: What caused the Great American Dust Bowl?
Tapping on his laptop, Colglazier shows the class striking black-and-white images of the choking storms that consumed the Plains states in the 1930s. Then he does something unusual. Instead of following a lesson plan out of the textbook, he passes out copies of a 1935 letter, written by one Caroline Henderson to the then-U.S. secretary of agriculture, poignantly describing the plight of her neighbors in the Oklahoma panhandle. He follows that with another compelling document: a confidential high-level government report, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decrying the region’s misguided homesteading policies.
Colglazier clearly is a gifted and well-trained educator, a history/economics major and 2006 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. But what sets this class apart from Ferris Bueller’s is more than the man; it’s his method—an approach developed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education that’s rapidly gaining adherents across the country….
Sitting back at his desk after the bell rings, Colglazier says he can’t imagine teaching history any other way. “It’s so powerful to give these skills to students at a young age,” he explains. “I easily could have told them in one minute that the Dust Bowl was the result of overgrazing and over-farming and World War I overproduction, combined with droughts that had been plaguing that area forever, but they wouldn’t remember it.” By reading these challenging documents and discovering history for themselves, he says, “not only will they remember the content, they’ll develop skills for life.”
The journalist had visited Colglazier’s class in early 2013. Last week, I sat in his college prep U.S. history class and watched him teach a lesson to 38 students on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) using two primary source documents. The strike led to violence when private security hired by the company to permit strikebreakers safe entry to the plant clashed with striking workers causing ten deaths on both sides.
The first document was a memoir written thirty years after the strike by Emma Goldman, a a pro-union activist. She described what happened during the strike. The second document was a newspaper interview with Henry Frick, the chairman of U.S. Steel, describing what happened a few days after the violence.
Colglazier asked the class: “Whose fault was it that people died during the strike?
To answer the question, he began the lesson with two skills that students had learned earlier in the semester: sourcing and close reading of a document. On a LCD projector, Colglazier went through Emma Goldman’s account projected on a screen and marked it up as he did a Q & A with the class on each sentence to get at the credibility of the source and bias (e.g., a memoir written three decades after the event), and close reading—examining each sentence and underlining those words that were emotionally loaded, slanted, etc.–to get at the degree of confidence each student would have in what Goldman wrote.
After completing the Goldman document, he then asked students to closely read the interview between Henry Frick and a reporter a few days after the ten men were killed. Colglazier asked students to work individually and then pair up with neighbor to go over each one’s analysis. As students worked at their desks, the teacher walked up and down the aisles checking to see how each pair was doing and answering student questions. I scanned the classroom and saw no students off-task
He then moved back to LCD projector and asked students to parse each sentence of the Frick interview. He called on students whose hands were not raised and called on students who waved their arms to answer.
With a few minutes left in the period, Colglazier asked: “Whose description of the strike is more believable?” Again the teacher mixed cold-calling with responding to arm-waving students. After each student answered he asked for evidence drawn from the documents. No consensus emerged from discussion other than both accounts were flawed for different reasons. The buzzer sounded ending the lesson.
When Colglazier first came to Aragon eight years ago (see video clips of his teaching here and here) he began used this approach to teaching history from lessons developed by the Stanford History Education Group on “Historical Thinking” and “Reading Like a Historian.” Watching Colglazier teach U.S. history raises questions—Has this way of teaching history occurred before? Should history be taught primarily for content or skills?–that I want to address in subsequent posts.