Up until last Friday, the rhythm of my units worked like this: opening days are for Question One: What happened? Story first! Then, maybe a couple of days in, when we get to an interesting interpretive puzzle, we dig in and answer Question Two: What were they thinking? Then, after some close reading, back to the story. And so we go, toggling back and forth between narration and interpretation. Near the end of the unit, typically after a couple of weeks, we step back and answer Questions Three (Why then and there?) and Four (What do *we* think about that?). Then, a summative assessment — plenty of formative assessment along the way, of course — and that’s a unit.

That’s a great structure if you want your year chunked into three or four-week segments. But there are other ways to teach 4QM-style. A veteran teacher in my department likes a two-day model. He gives his 9th graders a daily lesson and a homework assignment with guided reading. On Day Two, he puts them in groups and tells them: “4QM the Crusades.” And they do! They use the Four Questions to make sense of what they’ve read and learned. Groups write answers to all four questions and compare the results.

A Meeting of Minds

What I learned last Friday was that the midrange between the three or four-week unit and the two-day activity might be the best of all: the Killer Week of 4QM History Lessons.

Jon and I went to Newark, NJ, to work with a team of middle and high school curriculum writers for the Uncommon Schools charter network. These are some serious folks. Most of them are full-time classroom teachers who, in addition to driving hard every day with their students, sit down every week and plan lessons for their colleagues. Besides working hard, they’re ridiculously well educated and thoughtful about what they teach.

The Uncommon folks plan units, naturally. But they define cycles within units. They want their students to practice a range of literacy and historical thinking skills regularly and frequently. So they plan cycles that work students through a sequence of lesson types that exercise those skills. A unit could last a few weeks. A cycle is about one week, four to six lessons.

Uncommon planners think that students need to know some history before they can think productively or skillfully about it. They’re “Story First!” people, too. What they call a Build Knowledge lesson, which is always Day One of an Uncommon cycle, is for us a day dedicated to Question One. But they want their students working on documents early and often. So what follows a Build Knowledge lesson for them is a short series of inquiry and skills lessons.

We had a productive meeting of the minds. Our storyboards? A perfect template for the Build Knowledge lesson. A framing lecture needs narrative structure. The storyboard forces you to make that explicit, in a way that’s easy to share with students. Then, the questions we 4QM types generate from our stories — the interpretive, explanatory, and judgment puzzles that drive our other questions — become the prompts for inquiry in the succeeding lessons of the cycle.

My Killer Week

Our conversation got me thinking about my own teaching. My students could use more inquiry and skills practice, too. And shorter, front-loaded stories might be easier for them to track. I’ll have to funnel and spiral a lot — help them to connect earlier parts of the story to later ones — but that’s always the case anyway.

So I came home and planned this, my Killer Week of 4QM Lessons:

Day One:In 1850, Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas brokered a legislative compromise over slavery, the latest in a series dating back to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. By 1860, a candidate from a new political party, dedicated to exclusion of slavery from all western territories, won the Presidential Election, and seven Southern states had seceded by his Inauguration. What happened? My “Road to Civil War” storyboard is my lecture template. I tell a lean story, with images to mark each major event. Homework readings before and after anticipate and reinforce.

Day Two: What were they thinking? There are lots of puzzling actors and decisions in this cycle, but I definitely want politicians on center stage: Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Both are complicated, in good ways. Stephen Douglas claimed that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would ease tensions over slavery. What was he thinking!?! And Lincoln is susceptible to mythologizing. Students need to hear his voice, in all its ambiguity. We’ll read excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates and from Lincoln’s speech to the Republican Convention (the “house divided” section), with a brief introductory lecture on context. For homework, students will write from their markups and responses to text questions.

Day Three: 1787, 1820, and 1850: three times the US negotiated political compromises over slavery. And if you add the VA and KY Resolutions and the Nullification Crisis, the early republic managed to survive the threat of permanent rupture repeatedly until 1860. Why then and there? What was different about the US by 1860? I’ll give students data on economic and demographic changes: production charts by sector and immigration and population statistics. Maps will show territorial changes over time, including the inexorably diminishing political prospects for slave states. (After California enters as a free state in 1850, it looks pretty clear that, without more of Mexico or Cuba, the Southern “slave-ocracy” will become a permanent minority in the Senate.) This is a DBQ day. For homework, we read about the Election of 1860.

Day Four: Regional parties. A polarized electorate. What do we think about that? I’ll operationalize Question Four by asking my students to justify a vote in the 1860 Election. The choice: Do you vote for Lincoln or not? My students will fancy themselves Abolitionists, naturally. But the choice in 1860 is both about the morality of slavery — not an interesting question for us — and the fate of the union — a very interesting one, indeed. Douglas represents the tradition of compromise over slavery — sidestepping the issue for the sake of stable politics. The Republicans are something new: a party that puts slavery, or at least its extension, at the center of its platform. We’ll debate, vote, debrief, and then write.

This cycle generates some mark-ups and writing samples, and I could probably squeeze in a multiple choice quiz, too. Or maybe I’ll wait and test after one more cycle. In any case, this quick series of lessons feels like a complete thought. Next cycle, we’ll practice these skills again. Repetition at close range will let students act on feedback and watch their own progress.

When we first talked to the Uncommon planners about their cycles, I was concerned that the story would go by too quickly for my students. But in addition to daily retrieval practice to start each lesson, I think that the 4QM version of inquiry lessons will reinforce the story effectively. Each day’s inquiry question will force students back to the story and require them to use it in a new way. For the practicum in judgment at the end, they’ll use the story as a resource to justify a choice. That should bring the story home for them and make it personal. And at pace, my weekly stories will link and resonate, so long as I build them right.

At any rate, I now see a new, modular way to plan using 4QM, one that I can’t wait to try. I think it will be killer.