History Lessons a Year Apart (Part 1)

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.



Filed under how teachers teach

15 responses to “History Lessons a Year Apart (Part 1)

  1. art

    The use of documents is a great way to teach high school history, pioneered by Ted Fenton [and Larry!] in the 1960s. There does need to be context, either in class or as homework and I imagine that Mr. Colglazier does that in his classes.
    Following is a set of questions to ask about a document, which I used for many years. I think it comes from a series on critical thinking in US History, by a Massachusetts teacher – ____ Riley, can’t remember his first name ;-(] Using this P.R.O.P. Analysis always provoked good discussions, as individual assignments, in small groups, or in whole-class discussions

    “Primary or Secondary [Is it a primary (eyewitness) or secondary (not an eyewitness) source?]
    Reason to Distort [If the source is a person, does he or she have any reason to distort the evidence?]
    Other Evidence [Are there other witnesses, statements, recordings, or evidence which reports the same data, information, or knowledge?]
    Public or Private [Is it a public or private statement?]”

  2. I was taught that way a fair bit in England in the late 80s, although the sources were all collected in textbooks.

    It wasn’t very good. Despite the impression given above, reading old sources is not usually more interesting than being taught directly by somebody who knows their subject, and could answer our questions. Thinking back, what I discussed with teachers is far more memorable than the sources I read in books.

  3. My mother often told me, when I described how boring I thought History was, that I hadn’t had any good teachers who made history into stories.
    I finally had such a teacher in college. My mother was right.
    A teacher can use ‘original documents’ and still be dry and infertile as the Dust Bolw…

  4. JMK

    Just today, my kids read John Quincy Adams diary entries on a conversation he had with John Calhoun on the Missouri Compromise. JQA had a fundamental shift in philosophy as he realized, through Calhoun’s comments, that Southern plantation owners had a contemptuous attitude towards manual labor and a shocking attitude towards blacks. Moreover, the union itself, which JQA considered paramount, was pretty unimportant to Calhoun, who was ready to colonize with Britain if needed.

    They read it quietly for 10 minutes, then I translated any part with questions, summarized the key points, and talked about the transition era that this represented.

    So I’m a fan of primary sources. But I’m not so much a fan of the “what do you think” form of history that Sam Wineburg espouses. I don’t think asking kids to decide “who is more believable” or “which side is responsible” is a useful way to teach history. I’m not creating historians. I’m teaching history and–hopefully–showing kids that history isn’t just a case of “what happened”.

    Yesterday, I gave them a map of the states broken up by acquisition (original US, Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Session, Oregon Territory), and on the flip a list of states in order of joining (up through the Civil War. They were to simply put the date of statehood and “F” or “S” (free or slave) on each state. The point (which worked) see the pattern of joining–one slave, one free, and when that pattern broke.

    So one kid, who is severely ADHD to the point that I have to stand over him to convince him to work, crinkled his brow, and asked “So what if a slave escapes to a free state? Is he then free?” .A couple minutes later, one of my top kids said “Hey, is this date for California a typo? It’s way out of whack. How did it become a state so much earlier than Nevada?”

    Both great questions, unforced, solid lead-ins, and much more authentic than when given as part of an assignment to “think critically”. I’d rather teach a more authoritative version of history and let these arise naturally from genuine interest.

    “Has this way of teaching history occurred before? Should history be taught primarily for content or skills?”

    As you know, I believe strongly in teaching content while also teaching skills–particularly reading. And despite the occasional problems, the reading is going very well. I hope they remember the content, but I know they are spending more time actually reading.

    Sorry for the long response!

    • larrycuban

      Michele, thanks very much for posing the issue of content vs. skills, a conflict in the teaching of most academic subjects and, in this case, history.Obviously, it is neither one or the other, it is where the center of gravity is going to be in teaching both content and skills. Every history teacher I have observed and in my experience has wrestled with the tension between the two. In the two history lessons described in the post, the center of gravity is obviously on skills with content being the vehicle for teaching skills that historians use. You got me thinking about the next post on content and skills and how I have altered my teaching of history as I have tossed and turned, year after year,lesson after lesson on where I should land.

    • EB

      I agree with your approach. Having been a history major, and having taught various adult ed topics that are history-based, I’m hugely aware that the skills are not much good if they’re not backed by a LOT of content. I recently read a new book, Collaborators for Emancipation, that follows, in detail, the way in which Cong. Owen Lovejoy prodded his friend, President Abraham Lincoln, to dare to push harder for emancipation during the Civil War. In the course of reading this fascinating account, I realized that I had never known how much active support for the Union there was in the seceded states, and active support for the Confederacy in the northern states. Why did I not know that for lo these many years? It just never got covered in the courses that I took. If I had known of those visible contrarian views, it would have made other events fall into much clearer focus.

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