Chris Kelly teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history at Summit Prep (for description of Summit, see here). He has been at the school for eight years, coming from Oakland Unified School District where he taught history and social studies for just over three years at Skyline High School.
The classroom is a small one with 23 students who, as they enter along with Kelly, take down chairs sitting atop the tables to organize them into rows facing the front with four student sitting at each table, two facing the other two. The 90-minute class I observed on March 1, 2016 was the first day of a project on the Civil Rights movement.
Music is playing as students enter (a student tells me that the artist changes every week) and pull out their Chromebooks from backpacks. At 8:15, Kelly greets students with “good morning” and then tells students in a gentle but firm tone to turn off their cell phones. The lesson begins with a “warm up.” Kelly clicks a key on his laptop and a slide appears on the screen in the front of the room.
The photo shows a group of men wearing cone-shaped hats and wearing white robes in a room.* To get students to discuss the photo, Kelly chose from a cup holding popsicle sticks with each stick bearing the name of a student. He asks those students what they see in the photo. After a number of responses, he then asks different students to make a “conjecture” about what the photo is showing. Most of the students who respond say it is a Ku Klux Klan meeting. Kelly parries the responses and asks follow-up questions: what is the evidence of the KKK? Where in the U.S. is the meeting taking place, etc. Student answers mirror a background knowledge of the organization as they guess about location and add information about the Klan.
Then, Kelly says, “OK, let’s get the facts on this photo.” He points to it and says that these men in white coned hats and robes are members of “La Paz” (or Peace) a Catholic brotherhood recently meeting in Seville, Spain, during Holy Week to do their penance. There is quiet in the room as many students saw that they had jumped to a conclusion that the men were in KKK–their group “conjecture”–because of the white robes and coned hats. It was a group assumption that no student questioned. “why did I show the photo?,” he asks. A few students respond.
“Whole idea,” he says, “is taking things out of context, in fact you cannot make sense of [of photo] without taking in the idea of the context.” Kelly explains how common it is to take things “out of context” and err in drawing conclusions. He spoke for a few minutes about the importance of context. Knowing the setting in which an event occurs, the situation in which people live, he said, is crucial to understanding the past. And he makes the connection to the central task of the project: for each student to write a concluding essay on the Civil Rights movement that makes a claim drawn from the provided readings and other sources and then support that claim in accompanying paragraphs.
Kelly now turns to agenda for the day’s lesson–slide is on screen at front of room:
–“PLP (Personal Learning Plan–see here)) reflection and tellbacks….
–Understand today’s task and how it connects to your movement on the ‘Argumentative Claim and Introduction’ cog skills (e.g., critical thinking, communication skills,etc.)
–Choose which learning experience will be most helpful to you
For first activity, Kelly asks class to hit link in their Chromebook and go to PLP readings and videos on Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and President Lyndon Johnson. All students look to be on task–eight students put in earbuds as they read online. After about 15 minutes, he asks class to pair up and tell partner what they read and what they learned. He gives students five minutes for “tellbacks.” Teacher then calls on students to report on “tellbacks” in their groups.
Connecting this activity to the project essay leads Kelly to ask students to self-assess their “action plan” on making a claim about the Civil Rights movement that they can support in writing. He does this by asking students to review their earlier self-assessments in making an argumentative claim in previous units and then recording where they are now at the very beginning of this project. Kelly walks around the room holding his laptop and checking with individual students. Kelly pointed out to me that many (but not all) students do the self-assessment and other tasks online (those that do press SUBMIT button), Kelly can then respond with a comment through email in real time.
Then the teachers requests that students write an Argumentative Claim and Introduction for the project. For those students, he says, who want the experience of a timed Advanced Placement Challenge, they will have 15 minutes to write out the claim and introduction. He asks: “any clarifying questions?” It appeared to me that about half of the students chose the AP Challenge; I saw two students using a pen and notebook. Everyone engaged as I scan the room. Periodically, Kelly would say that those doing the challenge have nine minutes left and then six,and then two. When time was up for the AP Challenge, Kelly asks students to turn in their handwritten work or SUBMIT what they wrote online.
The teacher then moves the entire class into a circle for the Socratic Mini-Seminar.** Students bring their Chromebooks with them. In the circle, Kelly asks students: “What did you learn today about the Civil rights movement?” Different students respond about the influence of Johnson, what role President Kennedy played, the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools, and other comments. Some students build on their peers by adding further information that they had not known. When a student mentioned the Supreme Court decision, Kelly asks: “Could the Court desegregate the schools?” One student mentioned President Eisenhower sending troops to Little Rock (ARK) to enforce desegregation. “Anything else you want to share or questions you have?” Kelly asks. One student asked who was behind the assassination of Malcolm X. Another asks about the split in the Civil Rights movement between supporters of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. To these and other questions, Kelly would answer or bounce it back to the student or the entire group.
Kelly brings the discussion to a close and asks students to take an an “Exit Survey” that he constructed about this opening lesson on the Civil Rights movement and the next steps student will take on their project. As students enter their answers on the survey, the class ends a few minutes later.
For a 90-minute lesson, the teacher orchestrated every step, carefully moving the class from the Warm Up photo of white clad men in cone-shaped hats to illustrate the importance of knowing the context of historical events through a series of tasks where student absorbed content, discussed what they learned about the Civil Rights movement at their tables and in a mini-seminar, while also self-assessing their progress in thinking about a culminating essay for the project.
*Kelly did a similar “warm up” a year earlier and the segment was videoed. To see above photo, his opening question, and student responses then, see here.
**For what a Socratic Seminar led by Kelly looks like, see an earlier one he did in 2016 on the drug trade here.