The Changing Character of American Government: A Document-Based Lesson

Source – President Lyndon Johnson signs Medicare into law

Inquiry skills are at the heart of social studies and lessons that provide students with the chance to engage with rich primary sources are unparalleled opportunities for growth. In the document-based lesson (DBL) I prepared for this course, I sought to familiarize high school-aged social studies students with the ways in which the US federal government has changed over time by asking them to engage with samples of popular discourse surrounding Social Security, Medicare, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) at various points in the programs’ respective histories.

Students are presented with arguments made by high-profile figures and various forms of public opinion data. They are then asked to use this information as well as their knowledge of the historical contexts in which these debates take place to recognize connections between these debates and themes underlying the ways that US government and politics have shifted in the last century. Students demonstrate their ability to use the documents to arrive at such conclusions in both a class discussion and a written response to the lesson.

The experience of creating this DBL will inform my approach to the development of future lessons. In particular, I feel that incorporating sources that create opportunities for less proficient readers to engage in grade-level inquiry is important. In this case, I included videos, photographs, and a graph. The diverse character of the documents ensures that barriers to participation in the lesson are minimized.

Turning the Classroom on its Head: Experimenting with the Flipped Lesson

Scene from a United States-run Ebola treatment facility in Monrovia, Liberia, during Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the facility.
Scene from a United States-run Ebola treatment facility in Monrovia, Liberia, during UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the facility.

Prompt: Students were asked to design a flipped lesson and then write a blog post that showcases their flipped lesson and reaction to designing it.

Using the lesson creation tool from TedEd and a VICE News video, I created a “flipped” lesson on the West Africa Ebola outbreak for hypothetical high school students. The video and questions are designed to quickly introduce students to some of the major obstacles that faced health workers, governments, and ordinary West Africans at the height of the epidemic. The knowledge that students would gain in the course of viewing the video would inform the next day’s in-class discussions of the crisis and the world’s response to it.

From a technical standpoint, creating a flipped lesson using TedEd was a surprisingly straightforward process. It was very easy to include the scaffolding necessary to support students’ full engagement with the selected content using the built-in questions features. Careful use of guiding questions is key to successfully directing students’ attention to the most important details of a video that they are viewing outside the classroom setting.

The most obvious potential problem with  “flipping” lessons is the possibility that students simply won’t actually view or consume the content. That is to say that there is some risk that, in attempting to “off-load” knowledge acquisition to non-class time, it becomes difficult for teachers to ensure that knowledge acquisition takes place at all. There are strategies teachers can use to try and prevent this (e.g. making student responses to the in-video questions a formal assignment), but I think that discovering the best approach to mitigating this risk may require some trial and error on my part.

I am intrigued by the notion of the flipped classroom. Instructional time is very limited and I am certain that tools like TedEd can help teachers use their time with students more productively. I also like how easily teachers can scaffold students’ experience interacting with material by pairing video content with questions; in addition to supporting students’ experience with , these questions have the potential to generate useful data for teachers in real-time. I look forward to using flipping strategies in my classroom.

Photo: Evan Schneider, UN Photo

#Education: Learning to Teach with Today’s Tools

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The percentage of New York Times articles in which the word “blogosphere” appears, by year. Created at

Prompt: Write a blog post in response to our class on digital history.

I enter the teaching profession at an interesting and tremendously exciting moment in history. Barriers are evaporating left and right and educators have access to more powerful, inexpensive resources than ever before. Last week’s class gave me an opportunity to explore some of these new tools and I really liked what I saw.

I had a great time participating in my first #engsschat on Twitter and enjoyed e-meeting my future colleagues from around the country. Twitter seems like a terrific venue for collaboration and I am excited to use it to continue a dialogue with other social studies educators. A planet’s worth of classroom innovations are just a hashtag away.

I was particularly impressed by some of the big-data tools freely available online. The New York Times’s “Chronicle” language usage visualization tool is an elegant and simple way to perform powerful analyses of discourse. Google’s Ngram Viewer is a similar resource that reveals patterns of word or phrase usage in books. However, there is no doubt that the coolest addition to my teaching toolkit was GapMinder. Gapminder empowers visitors to easily test sophisticated hypotheses using a treasure trove of datasets. The inclusion of a “time slider” is especially useful and could shed light causal relationships that aren’t otherwise obvious to students. I’m certain that this website has enormous potential to help students recognize and analyze complex social phenomena and I plan to incorporate it into future lessons.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Harnessing Classroom Technology

Prompt:  Assume you have your first full time teaching job and the principal tells you that you’ve been selected to pilot the  “1 to 1 Project.”  What are your thoughts about the opportunities and challenges that  presents?

Classroom tech of yesteryear: slate boards and chalk – typically used in 19th-century American log cabin schools

Advances in technology are fundamentally transforming the way students engage with social studies content. The widespread availability of primary documents and inexpensive applications give teachers unprecedented flexibility in creating opportunities for learning. Of course, these opportunities come with caveats. The boundlessness of the internet  requires that teachers balance student freedom with thoughtful curation of content and activities.

The dimension of the one-to-one classroom that is most exciting to me is the potential for student-directed inquiry. At its core, teaching social studies is about teaching students to investigate social phenomena and think critically. Ideally, a social studies lesson requires that student find, interpret, and synthesize data to reach conclusions. Consequently, I feel that one of my chief obligations is to prepare students to utilize the tools and resources that will be available to them throughout their lives. The one-to-one classroom gives me the ability to do exactly this. Instead of providing students with a a single question and a section from a textbook, individual students can participate in the process of finding and supporting answers on their own. Teachers can offer broad prompts and guidance regarding the evaluation of sources, but students ultimately use these activities to hone their own research and critical thinking skills. Further, the kind of student learning data potentially produced in the context of a one-to-one classroom is very rich and can inform more responsive and better-tailored teaching.

The one-to-one classroom brings with it two major challenges. First, teachers must ensure that all students in the class are equipped with the requisite tech skills to participate fully in class. In some ways, more technology makes certain kinds of scaffolding and support easier. For example, software can help ensure that linguistic or sensory differences do not limit students’ ability to participate in lessons. Conversely, students will need to be able to use search engines, word processing applications, and other kinds of applications. Some students will enter the classroom already possessing these skills but others will be new to the technology. It is imperative that teachers have a plan to provide students with everything they will need to fully engage in the one-to-one setting.

Additionally, I suspect that keeping students’ attention will require constant monitoring. The solution probably requires both support from software limiting students’ and careful observation by the teacher. Hopefully, between engaging content, frequent check-ins with individual students, and effective “locking down” of the device, distractions won’t undermine lessons.


As classrooms integrate tech infrastructure, the limitations facing teachers are changing. Access to documents or software is no longer a primary obstacle. Instead, the challenge for me will be harnessing these potent resources to maximize student learning. I hope to be fortunate enough to have the chance to explore the possibilities created by the one-to-one classroom as a professional teacher.

Sources: Photo – Doug Coldwell