Experience is Learning

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Reflection on the process of creating DBQs for social studies: by Erik Nelson

My grandfather used to tell me stories of climbing Mt. Rainier in his youth. I loved his stories.  My imagination tried to relive those events, longing to know what that challenge was like. Growing up in Western Washington Rainier dominated our views on clear days; a monster of snow, ice and rock beckoning me. The challenge awaited, I needed to experience it for myself. No old person could tell me how or why, I needed to do it for myself.

As a young teacher, I am re-learning lessons I should have understood from my own past. Learning happens through experience. As a teacher, I need to focus on creating opportunities for my students to experience history and social studies for themselves so that they can draw their own conclusions. In the same way my grandfather’s stories enticed me to the mountain but could not tell me how or why, I can present opportunities for my students to develop their own hows and whys about social studies.

Creating my first DBQ has been an experience for me to learn as a teacher. It is very difficult for me to stay in the mindset of thinking how students might approach a document, let alone a series of documents. It is very easy for me to know how and why I am studying history, but not so easy for me to think how students might encounter the same sources. I am committed to treating my students as capable and independent learners, and DBQs like the ones we are creating in class can harness student independence and focus it into learning. As I curate source material and create accompanying questions to guide students I need to always keep the perspective of how they will approach the document in mind. This will allow me to give ownership of the creation of meaning and understanding to the students.

Going through this process has helped remind me that the learning found in experience can be truly rich, and should be the type of learning I am committed to regularly making available to my students. They will need to experience for themselves the lessons, and not simply be told an answer from this old guy. My own experiences on Mt. Rainier mean so much more to me that my grand father’s stories, but I might not have my own experiences if he had not presented the ideas and possibilities for me to explore on my own.

As a teacher, I hope I can always create opportunities for my students to learn through experience, and well crafted DBQs are a tool to facilitate that process. The irony is that I need to experience making more to make them well crafted. Further proof that the experiential process reveals the rich learning.

(This DBQ will be published in iBooks in Dec. 2014. Check back for the link and free download!)

Image Credit: Mazamas hiking trip to Mt. Rainier. Original Collection: Gerald W. Williams Collection. Item Number: WilliamsG:Mazamas_Ranier1905. Link.

Blame the Loser


A DBQ design Process by Erik Nelson

The DBQ design process has already proved an enlightening process for me. I have been painfully learning to shift from a gatekeeper of information to an architect of a learning experience for students. At first approaching this project I wanted to pick an interesting topic for students to cover. My original topic did not lead to enough possible student questioning, so I needed to expand the question that would drive the DBQ (and consequently expand the topic being covered).

The essential question of this unit will be: How should the losing side of a war be treated? Though I don’t know if students will find this interesting, I certainly think it is an important question to deal with. This question will use the Treaty of Versailles and post-WWI Germany as the topic for this question. I wanted to choose content material that teachers would find probably want to include in a high school course, while also designing a process that would engage students in asking questions about the documents.

There are tons of documents available on the Treaty of Versailles, and more importantly how Germany was impacted in that process. There are letters, newspaper articles, political cartoons, even some video clips, though I am not totally sure how to access those in the public domain.

In talking with my classmate Sam Kimerling, we decided to parallel our DBQs to create easily accessible teaching materials for teachers. As we discussed our projects we were struck by how different the decisions made towards Germany were after WWI and WWII. Because those two topics are popular in history classes, we thought creating DBQs that teachers could use that connected both the Treaty of Versailles and the Marshall Plan, having students ask the same questions of both topics, and potentially drawing larger scale conclusions in the process.

Through this process it is likely that students will be challenged in their thinking about resolving international conflicts. Students will be asked to focus centrally on the impacts of the strict reparations Germany was forced to pay, as well as issues like the guilt clause while questioning ideas of guilt in international war. One thing I will want to address is how much background knowledge students bring into the DBQ as they work to create interpretations of the source material.

Questions for the project will be:

  • Do the victors in war have responsibility to the losers?
  • Can one side in war be blamed more than another side?
  • How does national debt hurt economic development?
  • Why might national pride influence national policy?

Moving forward from this point, I will need to narrow the documents I want to use, and also narrow the scope of some of my ideas. At this point I need to focus on what questions I want students to ask, and how to best guide them through a series of documents.

Damming the Nation

Image: Albert Bierstadt: "Hetch Hetchy Valley from Road", oil, undated c.1870. Link Here.
Image: Albert Bierstadt: “Hetch Hetchy Valley from Road”, oil, undated c.1870. Link Here.

A Historical Assessment Lesson by Erik Nelson
Adapted from SHEG’s Beyond the Bubble assessments site.

Historical Content: Hetch Hetchy Dam Controversy: 1908-1914
Historical Skills: Corroboration, Sourcing

Image Credit: John Muir. Photographer unknown. Library of Congress. Link Here.
Image Credit: John Muir. Photographer unknown. Library of Congress. Link Here.

Intended Grades: 9-12
Directions: Use the excerpt to answer the questions that follow.

Source Background: In 1906 a massive earthquake and subsequent fires devastated the city of San Francisco. Debate arose between political and business leaders who called for a dam to be built to supply water to the city and the environmental advocates. In his book The Yosemite (1912), John Muir joined the debate.

Source Text: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Question 1: Explain why a historian might not believe that Muir’s view alone provides enough evidence to understand the debate surrounding the dam.

Question 2: Three documents are described below. Explain whether each document could be used to support John Muir’s view, or why the document could not be used to support his position.

Image: pg. 489 of “Review of reviews and world’s work (1890). Link Here.
Image: pg. 489 of “Review of reviews and world’s work (1890). Link Here.
  1. Testimony before the House Committee on Public Lands by former San Francisco Mayor James Phelan about the utilitarian needs of San Francisco’s citizens.
  2. A letter from Robert Underwood Johnson to the Chairman of the House Committee on the Public Lands explaining the need of the country “to uphold its best ideals and its truest welfare against shortsighted opportunism and purely commercial and local interests.”
  3. A letter from the San Francisco Fire Department Widows and Orphans and Mutual Aid Associations, Inc, asking for the right to use the much needed water that would be supplied by the dam.

About the Assessment: This assessment asks students to source and corroborate a document. Students evaluate an excerpt of a 1912 book arguing against damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley in the Sierra. Question 1 asks students to evaluate whether the excerpt provides enough evidence to draw conclusions about the dam debate as a whole. To answer this question, students must source the document to determine whether the account can be thought of as conclusive evidence. Question 2 asks students to evaluate whether additional documents could be used to corroborate the argument.

Source Credits:

John Muir. The Yosemite. From the Sierra Club Web archive. Link Here.

Phelan Testimony and Johnson Letter: From American Social History Production, Inc. Link Here.

San Francisco Fire Department Letter: From the US National Archives Online. Link Here.

Lesson Reflection: As an aspiring architect of social studies classes that engage students in activities to promote historical thinking, it is often hard to brainstorm lessons or activities that address specific ways of thinking as a historian. I relied heavily (entirely) on the model created by Stanford History Education Group to build this lesson. It was very helpful to reverse engineer their assessment model, and I am grateful for the horizons they have opened for me in terms of assessment possibilities. I am also grateful to my Ed. Methods classmates for their help in editing this lesson. Their guidance again helped me to see that my first draft in crafting questions for high school students is never fully comprehensible. Our group worked collaboratively through Google Slides to build these lessons, which was a first big step in content generation. I also realize that reading my questions aloud, and having them read back to me in person, helped me to consider this lesson from a potential student’s point of view. Heavy revision and redirection was needed for clarity.

Looking Into 7th Grade Social Media


An introductory technology lesson by: Erik Nelson

Content: Recently our school district decided to purchase iPads for all students, from K-12. Students will be using the devices in the classroom, and also taking them home. In the social sciences, internet connected devices can be used to harness the collaborative and exploratory power of social media and internet resources while allowing students to create content in relevant ways. In this lesson students will begin to think about the types of social media used by classmates to gain a baseline of information about their social media experiences. Students will use this information to begin framing the conversation of transparency, digital citizenship, and proper use of social media for the 21st century. This lesson will begin setting the foundation for discussions with students around proper use of technology in the classroom and in their personal lives as the school year progresses.


Part One: Class Technology Survey

  • Step 1: As a group we will discuss and define “social media” and “regular use”. Table groups create combined lists of social media they regularly use.
  • Step 2: Students will create 2 sided labels for every social media app used in class. These labels will be posted on our classroom “window wall” that opens to the hallway.
  • Step 3: Students will take turns marking a dot on the window with dry erase marker next to every app they personally use. At the end, all the classes will contribute information to our “window chart.” (See photo above, you could use the classroom windows for the same purpose)

Part Two: Transparency Discussion

  • Discuss and record answers to:
  • What does our class use social media for?
  • Why did we put the class chart on the glass wall?
  • Why is social media transparent?
  • How is transparency positive and negative?

Part Three: Create a Manifesto

Create personal “social media manifestos” that students can “post” on their sites. (Each student will write a paragraph defining their personal declaration about how they will act using social media in a transparent world. Consider self, family, peers, school, world.)

Product: All the classes will combine to create a visual chart of how many individuals use each social media app. Reflections will be written in class notebooks to questions written after discussion. Written “Social Media Manifestos” can be either collected by teacher (for students who do not use social media but are around it daily) or posted by students with link for teacher to access.

Evaluation: This lesson is intended to be a starting place for all future discussions of social media use in the classroom and in personal life. Students will mark their use of social media on the “window wall,” and the metaphor of “transparency” will be used throughout the school year to reference social media use. Students will write answers to discussion questions in their class journals. Finally, students will create a short written declaration of how they intend to act using social media, hopefully posting it to their social media sites for the world to see their stance of proper use of transparent digital media.

What kind of thinking will the students need to do to participate in the lesson?

This lesson requires students to use lower order thinking to label and list social media they use. Then students will be asked to use higher order thinking to place their use of social media into the larger world.

To what extend to students have options or choices regarding these lesson components?

Much of this lesson is teacher driven, especially at the middle school level. It is imperative that students connect their use of social media to the idea of transparency, and the teacher may need to direct them to that connection. Once transparency and safety have been discussed, students have choice in how they will create their own declaration of social media usage. From the conversation students will have opportunities to take varying degrees of stances towards using social media.

My reflection on this lesson: Creating a lesson for seventh graders about social media use was new to me, as I am used to high school students. I have been struggling with creating lessons that balance structure and direction with organic student engagement. I am indebted to Kristi and Christy for their help in directing me to focus on the end product that students can create. The “social media manifesto” came to life in these discussions, and has the power to be shaped and used in any classroom with a high degree of student choice. It is hard to know the long term impact this lesson may have, but certainly there are opportunities to revisit the transparency metaphor as needed throughout the school year.


Image Credit: Erik Nelson 2014