Critical Thinking: Our Greatest Tool During Distance Learning

Whether it is a text message, email, video lecture, or website post, students during distance learning are primarily interacting with information– not people. In today’s world, students have endless amounts of information available at their fingertips. They can recall facts from the internet with lightning speed. This has been exacerbated by the shift towards distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which students need to be on their devices to even attend class. While we are incredibly lucky to have technology as a means to keep us safe and connected while the Coronavirus continues to run rampant throughout our country, online learning also presents an entirely new set of complex challenges that have forcibly shifted the paradigm of commonly accepted teaching practices.

As a history teacher, I have been asked the question, “Why does learning dates and facts in history matter if I could just Google the answer?” Well, facts are an important cornerstone on which to develop historical knowledge. However, teaching our students to simply remember and regurgitate historical facts is not enough. What truly matters in both my classroom and the real world is the development of critical thinking skills: examining sources, analyzing their meaning, and forming a judgment.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Image Source

“Remembering” is the lowest-order level of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy, and while it is obviously important in everyday life, encouraging students to simply “remember” facts puts them at a severe disadvantage in a world that grows increasingly complicated every day. Students need higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation. These skills familiarize students with deriving information from text in order to adapt to this online environment. If students can understand the interconnections between people, ideas, and events in the past, they will also be equipped to use their critical thinking skills to maintain human connections today.

Featured Lessons:

In response, my lessons seek to foster critical thinking in my students. Each one requires students to (1) examine and analyze primary source documents through scaffolded questioning, (2) evaluate the source’s significance, and (3) form a factually based judgement about the source.

First, my “Good Friends Fight Together” lesson scaffolds primary source analysis regarding the various alliances at the beginning of World War I. I could simply tell my students which countries fought on each side of the war, but it is far more important for them to think about the relationships between each country. This lesson gives students the opportunity to analyze primary sources (either written documents or political cartoons) that illustrate the relationships between countries at the start of the war. They will discover for themselves who was on what side and why they chose to fight the way they did. Understanding the series of causes and effects based on global relationships leading up to WWI is far more relevant to my students in 2020 than simply remembering what the alliances were.

Next, my lesson entitled “You Know Your Rights. Right?” guides students in analyzing primary sources centered around the Federalist vs. Anti-federalist debate on the Bill of Rights. This lesson teaches students about the many opinions and rationales behind what rights are guaranteed in the United States. It might also challenge preconceptions by demonstrating that a Bill of Rights was not considered obvious, and some founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton actually believed its inclusion to be dangerous. After completion of this lesson, students will be able to explain the logic behind each position, an incredibly important skill in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

Third, my “Investigating Imperialism Mystery Activity” lesson allows students to act as detectives to uncover the definition and significance of imperialism. Students could easily Google the definition of imperialism and move on in their day; however, this lesson leads students through the process problem solving through investigating patterns. The goal of this activity is for students to think critically about the features of a larger concept, a skill that they could apply to other convoluted situations in today’s society, such as how a virus spreads or causes of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Good Friends Fight Together: Alliances of WWI

Featured Image: Source

Introduction of this Document-Based Lesson:

Historical Context:

Alliances between various European nations leading up to 1914 was one of the leading causes of World War 1. After the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, Europe was thrust into chaos, and each country had call upon their alliances and decide which side of the war to join.

Classroom Context:

This lesson is designed for a 9th grade Modern World History class during Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL). This class just finished a unit about European imperialism in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, which thematically and chronologically leads into this new unit about WWI. This activity introduces the causes of WWI and can be delivered synchronously or asynchronously during CDL on the first day of the unit.

Essential Questions:

How did European alliances prior to WWI shape the course of the war?

How do relationships between individual nations affect larger global events?

In this lesson, students will examine various primary source documents to determine each country’s alliances and rationale for picking their side in this Great War. They will build historical thinking skills of chronological thinking (cause and effect), specifically examining the role of alliances in the escalation of the conflict from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to various countries declaring war.

Next Steps: This lesson will prepare students for the following class, which will cover the events and battles immediately following the outbreak of war in 1914. Knowledge of the key actors and alliances gained during this lesson will be vital in understanding the interactions between the two sides of the war.

Google Forms Activity:

This lesson is delivered via a differentiated Google Form. This allows students to “choose their own adventure” by determining the order in which they progress through the countries; however, students will examine all 7 documents before submitting the form. They will first begin by reading a page of context about the state of Europe and the assignation of Franz Ferdinand, then they will decide whether to begin with Serbia or with Austria-Hungary. Depending on their choice, the Google Form will progress as follows:

Track 1: Serbia –> Russia –> France –> Great Britain –> Track 2


Track 2: Austria-Hungary –> Germany –> Italy –> Track 1

Each page includes a primary source document (image, political cartoon, treaty, etc.) describing that country’s alliances and motivations. Students will examine each source and then answer 2-3 scaffolding analysis questions. When they finish which the questions, they will advance onto the next country’s page.

For ease of access, each country’s context, primary source, and questions are also included on this page below.

Country 1: Serbia

Context: The Balkans (where Serbia is) has been an area of particular instability. The decline of the Ottoman Empire and the increasing power of Austria-Hungary have led to battle to control the region. In 1908-09 your neighboring Slavic country, Bosnia, was taken over by Austria-Hungary. You fear and hate Austria-Hungary as a threat to your national identity. You know that any day now there is going to be an almighty fight. As you are small and weak country, you rely on your connections to Russia to protect you. After Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on your soil, Austria-Hungary sent you an ultimatum (a final demand).

Primary Source: “The Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum to Serbia– English Translation,” sent to Serbia on July 23, 1914

Vienna, July 22, 1914

Your Excellency will present the following note to the Royal Government on the afternoon of Thursday, July 23: On the 31st of March, 1909, the Royal Serbian Minister at the Court of Vienna made, in the name of his Government, the following declaration to the Imperial and Royal Government:


The results brought out by the inquiry no longer permit the Imperial and Royal Government to maintain the attitude of patient tolerance which it has observed for years toward those agitations which center at Belgrade and are spread thence into the territories of the Monarchy. Instead, these results impose upon the Imperial and Royal Government the obligation to put an end to those intrigues, which constitute a standing menace to the peace of the Monarchy.

In order to attain this end, the Imperial and Royal Government finds itself compelled to demand that the Serbian Government give official assurance that it will condemn the propaganda directed against Austria-Hungary, that is to say, the whole body of the efforts whose ultimate object it is to separate from the Monarchy territories that belong to it; and that it will obligate itself to suppress with all the means at its command this criminal and terroristic propaganda. In order to give these assurances a character of solemnity, the Royal Serbian Government will publish on the first page of its official organ of July 26/13, the following declaration:

“The Royal Serbian Government condemns the propaganda directed against Austria-Hungary, that is to say, the whole body of the efforts whose ultimate object it is to separate from the Austro- Hungarian Monarchy territories that belong to it, and it most sincerely regrets the dreadful consequences of these criminal transactions.

“The Royal Serbian Government regrets that Serbian officers and officials should have taken part in the above-mentioned propaganda and thus have endangered the friendly and neighborly relations, to the cultivation of which the Royal Government had most solemnly pledged itself by its declarations of March 31, 1909.

“The Royal Government, which disapproves and repels every idea and every attempt to interfere in the destinies of the population of whatever portion of Austria-Hungary, regards it as its duty most expressly to call attention of the officers, officials, and the whole population of the kingdom to the fact that for the future it will proceed with the utmost rigor against any persons who shall become guilty of any such activities, activities to prevent and to suppress which, the Government will bend every effort.”


Analysis Questions:

  1. What is the Austrian government’s purpose in creating this document? (Why are they writing this?)
  2. What are the 3 main things that Austria-Hungary demands that Serbia do?
  3. Serbia ended up rejecting this ultimatum. Based on this document, how do you predict Austria-Hungary reaction to this rejection?

Country 2: Russia

Context: Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many countries have been expanding their empires, in order to increase their wealth. The newly formed Germany, and their central European neighbor, Austria-Hungary, appear to be growing close and this could potentially threaten your western borders. You also feel a responsibility to Serbia, who looks up to you as a powerful Slavic nation.

Primary Source: “Telegram from Alexander, Prince Regent of Serbia to the Tsar of Russia, “Source Records of the Great War, Vol. I, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923. Source

Belgrade, July 24, 1914

The Austro-Hungarian Government yesterday evening handed to the Serbian Government a note concerning the “attentat” of Serajevo.

Conscious of its international duties, Serbia from the first days of the horrible crime declared that she condemned it, and that she was ready to open an inquiry on her territory if the complicity of certain of her subjects were proved in the investigation begun by the Austro-Hungarian authorities.

However, the demands contained in the Austro-Hungarian note are unnecessarily humiliating for Serbia and incompatible with her dignity as an independent State.

Thus we are called upon in peremptory tones for a declaration of the Government in the “Official journal,” and an order from the Sovereign to the army wherein we should repress the spirit of hostility against Austria by reproaching ourselves for criminal weakness in regard to our perfidious actions.

Then we have to admit Austro-Hungarian functionaries into Serbia to participate with our own in the investigation and to superintend the execution of the other conditions indicated in the note.

We have received a time-limit of forty-eight hours to accept everything, in default of which the legation of Austria-Hungary will leave Belgrade.  We are ready to accept the Austro-Hungarian conditions which are compatible with the position of an independent State as well as those whose acceptance shall be advised us by your Majesty.

All persons whose participation in the “attentat” shall be proved will be severely punished by us.  Certain of these demands cannot be carried out without changes in our legislation, which require time.  We have been given too short a limit.  We can be attacked after the expiration of the time-limit by the Austro-Hungarian Army which is concentrating on our frontier.

It is impossible for us to defend ourselves, and we supplicate your Majesty to give us your aid as soon as possible.  The highly prized good will of your Majesty, which has so often shown itself toward us, makes us hope firmly that this time again our appeal will be heard by his generous Slav heart.

In these difficult moments I voice the sentiments of the Serbian people, who supplicate your Majesty to interest himself in the lot of the Kingdom of Serbia.


Analysis Questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this document?
  2. How does this document relate to the document you read under the “Serbia” page? (The Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum to Serbia)
  3. Considering Russia’s views of both Austria-Hungary and Serbia, how do you think Russia responded to this message?

Country 3: France

Context: Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many countries have been expanding their empires, in order to increase their wealth. You have a large empire in Africa but feel threatened by the growing power of your neighbor Germany. You lost the territory Alsace-Lorraine to them in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and still resent this. Angry at Germany seizing your land, you entered into an alliance with Russia.

Primary Source: “The Franco-Russian Alliance,” Le Petit Journal 1897

Analysis Questions:

  1. What event is this political cartoon describing?
  2. What is the perspective of this cartoon regarding the alliance of France and Russia? Does it view the union positively or negatively?
  3. Considering Russia’s involvement with Serbia, how might this alliance affect France’s involvement in the war?

Country 4: Great Britain

Context: Britain’s empire is the largest in the world, covering around a quarter of the globe. Your power and prestige are tied to maintaining this empire and to do this you also have huge naval fleet. You have viewed Germany’s attempt to build up its own navy with huge suspicion! You know that any day now there is going to be an almighty fight, and you have standing treaties of support with both Russia and France.

Primary Source: “A Threatening Situation” first pictured in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1912 Source

Analysis Questions:

  1. Describe what is happening in this political cartoon. (Who is depicted? What are they doing?)
  2. How might have Great Britain’s standing alliances influenced its decision to join the war?

Country 5: Austria-Hungary

Context: Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many countries have been expanding their empires, in order to increase their wealth. Your own empire expanded when you took over Bosnia in 1908-09. Now other countries in the Balkans are wary of your intentions. About one month after Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, you sent an ultimatum to Serbia. The ultimatum demanded that Serbia allow Austria-Hungary to investigate the assassination and Serbia must suppress anti-Austrian propaganda and terrorist groups or Austria-Hungary would respond with military force. Serbia rejected the ultimatum.

Primary Source: “Serbia Must Die” Propaganda: First circulated after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 Source

Analysis Questions:

  1. How are Serbians depicted in this political cartoon?
  2. Why are Serbians depicted this way? (aka why is Austria so angry?)
  3. Why would this aggression towards Serbia raise overall tensions in Europe?

Country 6: Germany

Context: Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many countries have been expanding their empires, in order to increase their wealth. Because you didn’t exist as a unified country until 1871 (after the German state of Prussia had defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War), you ‘missed out’ on developing your own empire and now hate to feel inferior. You first made an alliance with Austria-Hungary and then extended it to include Italy as well.

Primary Source: “Abridged Text of the Triple Alliance,” First signed in 1881 and renewed in 1902, Source

ARTICLE 1: The High Contracting Parties [of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy” mutually promise peace and friendship, and will enter into no alliance or engagement directed against any one of their States. They engage to proceed to an exchange of ideas on political and economic questions of a general nature which may arise, and they further promise one another mutual support within the limits of their own interests.

ARTICLE 2. In case Italy, without direct provocation on her part, should be attacked by France for any reason whatsoever, the two other Contracting Parties shall be bound to lend help and assistance with all their forces to the Party attacked. This same obligation shall devolve upon Italy in case of any aggression without direct provocation by France against Germany.

ARTICLE 3. If one, or two, of the High Contracting Parties, without direct provocation on their part, should chance to be attacked and to be engaged in a war with two or more Great Powers non-signatory to the present Treaty, the casus foederis will arise simultaneously for all the High Contracting Parties. […]

ARTICLE 5. If the peace of any of the High Contracting Parties should chance to be threatened under the circumstances foreseen by the preceding Articles, the High Contracting Parties shall take counsel together in ample time as to the military measures to be taken with a view to eventual cooperation.

They engage henceforward, in all cases of common participation in a war, to conclude neither armistice, nor peace, nor treaty, except by common agreement among themselves […]

Analysis Questions:

  1. What does this treaty state each country must do if one of the others is threatened?
  2. Given that Austria-Hungary came into conflict with Serbia and was then threatened by Russia, how was Germany obligated to act?

Country 7: Italy


You are a relatively “young” country only becoming unified in 1871 (before that you were a group of separate states). You are quite weak and your government is not respected. Your position at the heart of the Mediterranean means that most countries want you to side with them. This opportunity for power came in the form of an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Primary Source: “The Triple Alliance” 1891 Political Cartoon depicting Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary (from left to right) Source

Analysis Questions:

  1. What is happening in this cartoon? How is Italy different from the other two members?
  2. What does this cartoon suggest about Italy’s power in comparison to Germany and Austria-Hungary?

Summary of Alliance

Image Source

On the last page of the Google Form, students are presented with the above chart. As they discover through analyzing the various primary sources, this chart summarizes relationships between countries at the start of WWI. Knowledge of the alliances on both sides of the war is vital for students to understand before delving into the first events and battles of the war in the next lesson.

In The Slums of Italian Town

My Family’s Story:

From left to right: My grandmother, Margherita. My great-grandmother, Maria. And my great-aunt, Antonina. Taken circa 1960.

While my grandparents did not move from Italy to the United States until the 1950s, the area in San Jose, CA that they moved to was already red-lined and marked as “hazardous” by 1940.

From anecdotal stories passed down from my grandparents, this area was run down and overcrowded. The people there struggled to make end’s meet, often working long hours for little pay. My own grandmother worked as a laborer in a cannery nearby, which according to the site, was a popular employer of this community.

Mapping Inequality Representation of San Jose, CA. Area D11 is highlighted in red. Source

Area D11: An Italian Slum

According to the Mapping Inequality website, area D11 (represented in red by the map above) was a “Zoned multi-family residential, industrial and business. This is one ‘Italian Town’ and contains the slum section of San Jose.” 75% of the residents of this area were foreign-born Italians, like my family.

Close up of area D11. The Coronato residence at the intersection of Grant and Locust Streets is marked with a star.

The Coronato Family’s Example

Below is the 1940 census data representing the intersection of Grant and Locust streets, located in area D11 (see star on map above.)

Because I do not have the exact address that my family lived at in this area, I chose a family from the 1940 census that resembled my family’s background: the Coronato family.

Section of 1940 census data above, cropped to depict the Coronato family’s information

The Coronato family lived at the intersection between Grant and Locust street, marked with a star in the map above. All four family members were born in Italy, just like my grandmother’s family. The father, Joe, was a laborer who worked hard to provide for his family, without taking a single week off the entire year. The mother, Catherane, took care of the household. Both parents were 42 years old. Their 21-year-old son, Peter, worked as a cook in a restaurant. The 19-year-old daughter, Rosa, was a worker at the cannery, the same place my own grandmother worked.

The family made a combine annual income of $1700, on par with the average income of families living in this area.

The example of the Coronato family gives valuable insight into the realities of people living in this “slum,” which are similar to the experiences of my own family. While my grandparents were able to eventually move out of this “hazardous” area, they have told me of their difficulty in receiving a home mortgage because of the immigrant status and current residence in a red-lined area. It took them until the 1970s to be able to leave area D11. This demonstrates the lasting impacts of red-lining policies on the people who lived there in the past, and its continued effects in the modern day.

Featured Image Source: Festa in Little Italy. New York, 1908. Photograph. Note: This photograph is not of San Jose, but it does represent what a “Little Italy” slum looked like in a different part of the country.

Dropping the Bomb: An Alternate History

Amidst the throws of World War II, the US lost its strongest leader and commander in chief. Had Franklin Delano Roosevelt been able to see the war through until its end, there may have been several key differences in history, most notably whether or not FDR would have decided to drop the atomic bombs on Japan as President Truman did.

This event was clearly a historical turning point, not only in the hundreds of thousand of Japanese lives that were lost but also when considering the larger impacts that using weapons of mass destruction had on the growing Cold War tensions between the US and USSR following WWII. The decision not to use the nuclear bomb would have had huge, long-lasting impacts on the trajectory of Twentieth Century history. What would have happened if FDR had not died in his fourth term as president?

Direct Link to Google Slideshow