Category: 4QM Teaching

The Pandemic and the 1950s

When I was a young student of American history and American popular culture, the 1950s were described as a time of conformity. The 1950 sociological analysis The Lonely Crowd and the 1953 novel The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit described a numbing popular culture that valued consumerism and going along with the majority point of view. It was the McCarthy era and the start of the cold war. Middle class women were pushed out of the workforce and into traditional roles as wives and mothers, and toxic masculinity was the norm for boys and men.

This understanding of the 1950s is of course more of a caricature than reality, but it has lived with me for decades as a kind of historian’s shorthand in my head: “Roaring ‘20s, Great Depression, WWII, Age of Conformity, The Sixties.” The pandemic of 2020 has led me to rethink my understanding of the 1950s, and the Four Question Method has shaped my thinking.


I started thinking about the 1950s because I was thinking about what it’s going to be like for us when the pandemic is over. We will have been through a trauma, both as individuals who have lost family members, jobs, apartments and the like, and as a society that has seen economic and social disruption on a massive scale. I was wondering if maybe we’ll all be more cautious when this is over: Will we save more money? Advise our children to take the safe and secure job? Put off purchases that require larger loans? And that got me thinking about my “Age of Conformity” shorthand. Maybe people in the 1950s were more conformist because they had a visceral knowledge that bad things happen. They knew first hand that sometimes very bad things happen, like depressions in which people starve and wars in which civilians are slaughtered. Were young people being told to play it safe because their parents had been through trauma and didn’t want their children to risk experiencing the same thing? It’s easy to advise a child to “find your own path” if you’re confident that most paths lead to good places. What if you’re not at all confident of that? What if you invested your life savings in a restaurant that opened in February of 2020? Would that change the way you see risk?


To check my theory about what people were thinking in the 1950s I’d have to read the sorts of sources that get me into individuals’ heads: diaries, letters, memoirs and the like. But I could also test my “social trauma leads to social conformity” hypothesis using Question Three methodology. Did we see similar social conformity after the Civil War? After the economic crises of the 1890s? In order to make these comparisons I’d need to establish some standards for measuring social trauma and social conformity, then I’d have to measure to see if I’ve identified a recurring phenomenon or not. Under what conditions does social trauma lead to social conformity? When we phrase the question that way we can immediately see that an alternative hypothesis seems plausible: perhaps social traume tends to lead to social upheaval instead. After all, the “Roaring ‘20s” followed World War One and the flu pandemic of 1918-19. Maybe my hypothesis about the reasons for 1950s conformity is entirely wrong – or maybe if I developed good measurements and applied them faithfully I would find that the “Roaring 20s” were not so roaring, and/or the “Age of Conformity” was not so conformist. No matter what, I’d have a better understanding of the country’s past than my historian’s shorthand implies.


“The Age of Conformity” is a pejorative label. I imagine that for most of us who came of age after the dramatic changes that we summarize as “The ‘60s,” the 1950s are easy to look down on: Leave It To Beaver, Ike’s golfing, Levittowns, and so on. I find myself much more sympathetic to the people who called out that world’s hypocrisy, especially on matters of race, than to the people who built and celebrated that world. But the pandemic has changed my thinking a little bit. After this is over, what do I think I’m going to want for myself and my children? A secure job, a house or apartment that won’t disappear with one economic crisis, social stability. I’m a little more sympathetic to the depression-scarred WWII vet who doesn’t want to rock the boat at the office so he can keep making payments on his Levittown cottage on Long Island. 

Of course the structural problem with the society built by those depression-scarred WWII veterans was that it was designed so that only white people could address their anxieties. Levittown was segregated, black women often worked raising white people’s children because their husbands’ wages were depressed by racism, and “social stability” was created through Jim Crow laws and customs. While the pandemic makes me a bit more sympathetic to the people who made the 1950s an age of conformity, the murder of George Floyd makes me a lot more sympathetic to those who made the 1960s a time of great tumult. 



Why Live Teaching Matters

Remote teaching and learning is boring. I don’t get to see much of my students, and some of them I don’t see at all. We teachers plan together as a 9th-grade team, and our “lessons” — defined now as “tasks” — are pretty clear and accessible. Students read, watch, write, reflect. Occasionally we post a video lecture, with cues to pause and write at manageable intervals. We keep it simple because we have to. Students need to be able to complete our tasks independently. Real-time formative assessment is an erstwhile dream. 

Several teachers have complained to me that what’s left of school is the worst part: the homework. Personally, what I miss most is the opportunity to sell a story. All the real-time theatrics and interaction are gone. Our instructions and videos convey as much enthusiasm as we can muster, but they are, in the end, literally and figuratively flat. My worst nightmare feels true: History class is boring. Again. 

I Was Bored With High School History

This is where I started with History as a subject. I have no recollection of it earlier than 10th grade, in the first of my two high schools. (We moved during the summer between my sophomore and junior years.) I had a commanding teacher for US History that year. He required us to stand every time he mentioned the name Alexander Hamilton, which was often enough. My friend Joe refused to do it one time. Nothing happened to him. In fact, I think the teacher praised him. The rest of us continued to obey, as best I can recall. 

Despite his intensity and charisma, I didn’t really get much from that teacher’s class. I have vague recollections of trying to write an essay on the Mayflower Compact, but I didn’t see the point and, unsurprisingly, didn’t do very well on it. Interestingly, I can’t remember the teacher’s name. I enjoyed math and liked science well enough, to the extent I liked anything academic in high school. Mr. Krivitsky’s Geometry class involved real thinking. That I remember, along with his name. 

The argument between me and Jon that led to the Four Question Method started when I kept asking what our courses were really about. He kept telling me that they consisted of true and important stories about what people did. That, and “ideas.” I was sold on the ideas part. By age 39, when Jon hired me, I’d decided that history (but not History) was interesting after all. I’d gotten a degree in political theory and taught ideas about politics and society to university students. So ideas, for sure. Stories? Not so much. It seemed to me that our courses, configured as stories, were just one damned thing after another. Why not just go right for the concepts? 

Puzzles About People

It turns out that there are several good responses to that question, which I have since learned. The most persuasive one is the same as for serious questions about teaching: relationships first. Stories are accounts of the crazy, exotic, heroic, befuddling, and always surprising things people did in the past and continue to do all around us. What’s interesting about *any* class is a puzzle that we have enough tools to solve. What’s gripping about history — History, done well — is that it’s a set of puzzles about people with whom we can engage, to whom we are in some way related. They, like us, are a bit crazy, exotic, heroic, befuddling — and always surprising. Ideas? That’s an answer to the second question, once we know the story: What were they thinking…?

So Jon was right. History is fundamentally the discipline (actually, a set of disciplines) devoted to unraveling puzzles about people. And we start work on those puzzles by learning a story about what those people did, a story that is itself the resolution of a puzzle: How did *that* happen…? Once you know a story, you can ask and answer a whole series of animating questions that will deepen your relationship with the people you’re studying, that will make them more flesh-and-blood for you — and more puzzling! 

Through years of practice, I’d gotten pretty good at selling a story to students. Jon and I taught ourselves how to stem-wind a narrative puzzle. Jon and I teach that stem-winding technique to teachers in workshops now. We contrast the outcome, the world after the puzzling action, with the world before it. We introduce the protagonists who move the action, their ambitions and the obstacles they face, and we then launch a tailored Question One. Framing a new and notable outcome is a way to generate a puzzle about a person. That’s the kind of puzzle a young person can get excited about. I know. I’ve seen it happen, over and over. 

Not so much these days, though. Every so often a student reflection — we include one in every weekly assignment — will show traces of genuine curiosity or enthusiasm. Some of my students may be getting to the point where their native curiosity and acquired skills can sustain them. Our aspiration as History teachers is ultimately for all of our students to have the capacity to learn independently. With good training, we hope that their activated curiosity will lead to skillful inquiry. That’s what the Four Question Method is meant to accomplish.  

But right now, most of my 9th graders are just doing their homework. They are still in training. And they have plenty to distract them, too. Who doesn’t these days? The fact is, my students still need a teacher to connect them to the people in the stories they’re learning. They can get the basic narrative without me there to sell it, but in my absence I can see that they are both cognitively and emotionally hazy who did what and why it matters. For sure, in order to get to the animating ideas in the story, they still need a teacher to model passionate inquiry and careful reading. They still need me in the room to help them to both see and feel, say, Luther’s anxiety and rage when he discovered Tetzel selling Indulgences with a promise of immediate salvation. Ultimately, they still need the Platonic eros of teaching and learning: they watch me engage and see how much fun I’m having. That makes them want to try it, too.

On the other hand, I suppose a virtual story with glimpses of real ideas is better than the usual options: serial facts — one damned thing after another — or an “engaging” activity that arrives from nowhere and then returns there. Much better still would be teachers and students in the room together. I miss it.

G. S.

AP Exams, 2020: Redefining Rigor

This year the College Board is being forced to rethink its definition of “rigor.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, AP exams will be given online for students to take at home, and they will be forty-five minute open note tests. The history exams will be a single document-based question (DBQ), and a shortened one at that. On the full World History AP exam, the DBQ takes sixty minutes and counts for 25% of the test; a typical question has seven documents. This year’s DBQ will have five documents (to account for the forty-five minute time frame) and will be 100% of the test. 

So Why’d We Do All That Stuff, Anyway?

The College Board has made a tremendous push to reassure teachers and students that this year’s exam will be worthy of their efforts. They’ve got an impressive list of colleges and universities to commit to granting credit for this year’s results just as they have in the past, when students took the full exam. All of which causes me to ask: if a forty-five minute DBQ is really just as good as the three hour and fifteen minute full exam, why were we doing all that other stuff in the first place? 

Two Reasons

I think there are two answers to this question. The first answer is that the forty-five minute DBQ is not as good as the full exam at finding out what students can narrate, interpret, explain, and judge in world history. There’s no way a five document DBQ can give students the opportunity to demonstrate breadth of knowledge across the times and places covered in the AP World History course (or even the ⅔ of it that will be tested this year). Some students will succeed on this short DBQ while knowing a lot of world history that they won’t be tested on, some students will succeed on this short DBQ without knowing much more world history than what the documents reveal, and doubtless some students who know quite a bit of world history will not succeed on this DBQ. I think the College Board is doing the right thing here — I support their decision to test this year and to test in this manner — but I don’t believe that this exam will provide the same evaluation of an individual student’s learning of world history as a full exam would. 

The second answer to the question is that the College Board has always had to present its Advanced Placement courses as especially rigorous, and one way to do that is by giving tests that require students to remember a lot of stuff. In our own teaching and in our work with 4QM clients Gary and I think a lot about “rigor.” Everyone agrees that history lessons should have “rigor,” and that classes should be “rigorous.” AP classes typically assign many pages of textbook reading, provide long lists of “IDs” or “key terms,” and test students on all of it. That’s one kind of rigor, and we’re sympathetic to it. You can’t think about history that you don’t know, which is why the Four Question Method starts with Question One, “What Happened?” Students have to know that before they can explore any of the other questions responsibly. Content matters, and pretending that students can practice their thinking skills without a solid grounding in historical facts is progressivist piffle. 

Balanced 4QM Rigor

But I’m not confident that the full AP world history exam is a balanced test of historical knowledge and historical thinking. I’ve complained in a previous post about the College Board’s ambiguous free response questions, and I think there’s a case to be made that the exam as a whole does not ask students to narrate, interpret, explain, and judge in an optimal ratio. I’m not opposed to a rigorous course with a rigorous external exam to validate it. I’d just like to see “rigor” defined more carefully, and tested in a more balanced way.



For Simplicity

The Four Question Method is a kind of simplicity. There are a million different things you could teach in a History class, and thousands of different ways of teaching them. Jon and I, through patient observation and years of mutual haranguing, came up with the simplicity of the 4QM. Start with a story that reveals something new and notable (Q1). Plan your unit around that story. Identify the main actors and create opportunities to explore what they were thinking (Q2). Once your students can say what happened — who did what to whom — and what the main actors were thinking, help them to step back and figure out how the context shaped the interactions and ideas that drove the story (Q3). After that, you’re ready to draw conclusions: what do we learn about being people in the world, and more, citizens in custody of a rickety but venerable democratic republic? What do we think about all that (Q4)?

Two weeks ago I shared the correspondence below with colleagues at my high school about a different kind of simplicity. This one is fully compatible, for History teachers, with the simplicity of the 4QM. In fact, 4QM-ing your remote lessons is, we think, a terrific idea. If you’re teaching new content, start with a simple story. Then proceed transparently and methodically through the questions. 

Whatever you do, please remember that the disruption we and our students are experiencing now calls for a kind of pedagogical modesty. We know so little and control so little about our current educational circumstances. 


Dear Colleagues: 

Please be simple. I’ve heard this from students, and from the many adults who are working at a near-frantic pace to keep students organized and engaged in remote learning. Consider the problem: all of the typical cues students rely on to make sense of us and our world are missing. Students walk into your class. They know the location, the people around them, your voice, what you write and post on the walls and board. They know what time it is by schedule, location, and proximity. When we tell them something that doesn’t quite make sense to them, they turn to the student next to them and look: what’s this kid doing…? 

All of that is gone, and we can’t replace it. This is true whatever grade, level, or subject you teach. I hope you won’t think me excessively vain if I tell you that I was a very good student. I could do almost everything teachers asked me to do in school without a terrific amount of effort. (Granted, high school was easier in the 19th century.) On the other hand, I learned to work independently in my 30s. Before then, I was hopeless trying to manage my time or energy. Left to my own devices, I accomplished very little. You teach honors or AP? Assume I, too, age 17, am in your class. My teenage self is begging you: be simple.

In particular, I ask that you consider adopting the following practices for the duration of remote learning: 

  1. Put all of your weekly assignments into a single document. Collect student work entirely within that single document. That way, I receive one thing from you and return one thing to you. Simple.

  2. Make your tasks, the items in your document, simple and clear. If your instructions take many sentences to describe, or many actions to complete, then they are too complicated. Ask me a clear question or give me a straightforward thing to calculate, describe, explain, or react to. Simplify.

  3. Reading and writing are good, simple activities. Watching is fine, especially if your voice is in the soundtrack. (Your voice is familiar and predictable. And I miss it.) Many things we do in real classrooms are no longer viable activities: collaborative projects, simulations, materials-rich production, complex interaction, deep and thoughtful conversation, laboratory experiments. We love these activities and, when they’re done well, our students love them, too. We can’t do them now. We can read, watch, and write. 

Our students now have six, seven, or eight independent projects running concurrently. They need predictability and simplicity. Be clearer than you are creative. Be simpler than you’d like to be. We will be very grateful. 


Pandemic Questions Two & Three

Since our school buildings closed in March, Gary and I have gone through several stages in thinking about “History Questions,” the 4QM Teaching blog. Now that Massachusetts schools are officially closed for the rest of the year, the current situation feels less like a temporary accommodation to crisis and more like a new normal. Given that, we’re going to try to blog more or less regularly through mid-June. So here’s our first entry in the “new reality” pandemic series of blog posts.

Historiography and Questions 2 & 3

Reflecting on my own feelings at this time, I find myself making analogies to other historical crises, like World War Two or the Great Depression. Like the people who lived through those tragedies, I feel myself being swept along by a huge historical event over which I have no individual control. My choices are constrained by decisions being made by powerful people who are themselves constrained by events beyond their control. But because my history teacher brain never shuts off, this train of thought brings me to ruminations on historiography and the tension between Questions Two and Three. 

Historiography, because I think of the arguments between historians who focus on the role of particular individuals in making the world, and those who focus on the role of large forces of economic, social, or political change. Did the Mongols create the world’s largest land empire because Genghis Khan was a political genius who figured out how to unify the Mongol tribes? Or did the empire rise because the Song Dynasty and the Abbasid Caliphate were in decline at the same time that a change in climate reduced the yield of the traditional Mongol pasturelands?

Of course the Four Question Method is designed to acknowledge both explanations (it’s the Four Question method after all, not the One Question method). Genghis Khan was a political genius whose success was enabled by a particular context. Question Two (What were they thinking?) recognizes his genius, while Question Three (Why then and there?) recognizes the context that made that genius more likely to succeed so spectacularly in thirteenth century Asia. 

A historic crisis like the current pandemic throws the power of huge forces that change the world, outside of any individual’s control, into high relief. We are powerless in the midst of the pandemic, and when it is over our world will be changed in myriad ways. We will all think and act differently than we did a few months ago, because the economic and social context for our individual lives will be dramatically changed by a pathogen, not by a person. 

But at the same time, the crisis highlights the importance of individuals in positions of responsibility and power. While it may be historiographically fashionable in some circles to  dismiss the study of powerful leaders as irrelevant “Great Man” history, the current crisis makes it impossible to argue that leaders don’t matter. Just consider the different decisions made by Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, for instance. Both are national chief executives operating in the same historical context, but their performances have inspired very different responses. 

Before March of 2020, I enjoyed historiographical debates about the relative importance of Question Two and Question Three in an abstract and intellectual sense (How much credit should Lincoln get for the North’s victory in the Civil War?). But now I feel the urgency of both questions in a visceral way. On days when I’m obsessively checking Massachusetts infection rates it can feel like historical context is the only thing that matters. But every state and national press conference reminds me that individual leaders matter too, and maybe today as much as ever.

Good historians ask and answer all four questions, and good history teachers coach their students to do the same thing. I’m looking forward to getting back that as soon as we possibly can.



Community In Adversity

We, Jon and Gary, typically alternate writing blog posts every Sunday. We each have our take on things, and we take seriously the idea that ongoing dialogue is the best way to generate ideas. The Four Question Method really is the result of a decade of our arguing about the best way to teach history. Besides, taking turns gives each of us a weekend off. 

But this week’s blog post is a joint product. We’re not arguing right now. We’re talking together and thinking together and writing together, because right now we want to talk about what we share, and what we hope we share with you. 

Things aren’t normal right now. The health consequences of the current pandemic are frightening. In the developed world, medical care is on a knife’s edge. If we “flatten the curve,” we might avoid massive mortality due to shortages of skilled care and equipment. In the developing world, the consequences are likely to be far worse. That bitter truth applies doubly to the consequences of freezing the global economy. In the developed world, inequalities are already being exacerbated. In the developing world, mass starvation is a real possibility. The political and cultural consequences of this pandemic are uncertain, but frightening enough. Everything from the handshake greeting to voting needs to be reimagined. 

The news is not all awful. Shared adversity can bring out the best in people. For sure, it makes many of us appreciate what we share beyond adversity: our common interests, values, projects, and humanity. 

Our aspiration with 4QM Teaching has always been to help foster a community of like-minded people: fanatics about history teaching. If you’re dedicated to the challenge of teaching young people to know and think about how people in other times and places have lived, you’re our kind of people. If you’ve been reading our blog, thank you for sharing virtually in our community. We have always wanted to build that community and make it real. Enforced separation makes us want that even more. 

G.S.  J.B.

Rewriting An AP Essay Question

Right before my school was shut down two weeks ago I assigned my AP World History students to write the 2015 World History AP exam DBQ, which is about the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. (At the time the coronavirus was still just a major current events story, not a full blown global crisis.) As I’ve been working with them (virtually) on it, I’ve had more time than ever to reflect on the problematic nature of many College Board free response questions. Too many AP exam questions are unclear about what they want students to do, intellectually. The College Board knows they want students to demonstrate historical thinking, but like most history teachers (including Gary and me before we argued our way to the Four Question Method), they’re not clear in their own minds about precisely what that looks like. Because they lack good epistemological categories for their questions, the questions are often unclear. The result is that students have two intellectual tasks to complete if they are to score well: first they have to figure out what the question is asking them to do, then they have to succeed at doing it. I think that students, teachers, and exam graders would all be better off with clearer questions — then everyone involved could teach, practice, and assess historical thinking directly. Let me use the 2015 DBQ to show you what I mean.

“Analyze” Means “Identify”

The 2015 prompt tells students to use nine documents to “analyze responses to the spread of influenza in the early twentieth century.” What does “analyze” mean in this context? At our workshops we tell teachers that if you’re not sure what question you’re asking, take a look at an exemplar answer. If a good answer is a narrative, you’re asking a Question One; if a good answer is describing someone’s thinking, you’re asking a Question Two, and so on. Because the verb “analyze” itself doesn’t give us any guidance about what kind of historical thinking this prompt requires of students, we need to turn to the exemplars provided in the scoring guide to see what the question is really asking. The first exemplar earned a perfect score, in part because “The thesis of this essay is found in consecutive sentences in the introduction where the student identifies three responses [to the flu pandemic]” (emphasis added). This tells us that the College Board is asking a Question One. Students need to read all nine documents, then identify different responses to the flu pandemic that appear in the documents. This may seem prosaic, but in fact answering Question One well requires considerable skill at reading and categorizing, which the scorers acknowledge: this student gets points for understanding all nine documents, using evidence from all nine documents, and effectively grouping the documents into three categories of responses in three separate paragraphs identified with clear topic sentences. All of these points are awarded for a narrative intellectual task: reading the documents to tell us “What Happened?” during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919.

 “Analyze” Means “Interpret”

The top-scoring exemplar essay also gets points for doing more than identifying responses to the pandemic. The student earned points for noting the different points of view of the authors of two of the documents, suggesting that they might not be entirely accurate, and for noting that one document is a recollection of events from fifty years earlier. This is not terribly deep thinking, but it does go beyond the surface meaning of the documents and shades over into what we at 4QM call interpretation, or Question Two thinking. In this case, “analyze responses to the spread of influenza” means, “interpret some of these documents about responses to the spread of influenza.”

Re-Writing The Prompt

There is a missed opportunity here: if the prompt were re-written to clearly define the two types of historical thinking demonstrated in the exemplar, more test-takers would have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills as historians. I’d revise the 2015 DBQ to be a straight up Question One, Question Two essay, like this:

“Use the documents below to describe at least two different responses to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 [Q1]. For each response you describe, interpret at least two documents to show what the people who took those responses were thinking when they did so [Q2]. Essays that are well organized and well written will earn top marks.”

Gary likes to say that the verb “analyze” is usually a sign that the question writer doesn’t know what they mean to ask, and this prompt is a perfect example. In the context of the AP exam students faced with “analyze” need to first solve the mystery of what the question is asking before they can work on their answers. I’m in favor of taking the mystery out of exam questions. Too much College Board “rigor” is obtained by forcing students to guess at what will actually be graded. Let’s make the questions clear so that we can grade students’ history skills instead. 


Approaching Crisis

My departmental colleagues and I spent the past week scrambling to put together online learning activities for our students. We decided to approach the task by grade-level course. For our 9th-grade team, that was light lifting. We’ve been planning together the whole year. For 10th-grade Modern World History and 11th-grade US History, we decided that, for the next two weeks, while the world is turned upside down, we’d design activities that approach the crisis, but from a distance. 

For many of us, our initial impulse was to stop everything and focus on COVID-19 and its consequences. Those consequences certainly merit attention. The implications of this viral pandemic for public health are enormous. Many people will become sick, and many will die. The consequences of our global response to the pandemic are in many ways even more alarming. Our governments are shutting down the global economy. That’s not unreasonable. On the contrary, the alternative is unsustainable: deaths in the millions. On the other hand, inducing a global depression will also have mortal consequences for many, many people. There is very little good news here. 

Our students should know what’s happening. But after we Zoomed for a bit, each team came to the conclusion that full-on study of *this* crisis was likely to overwhelm and alarm too many of them. Our students need basic facts about timely public health measures and the reasons for adhering to them. Beyond that, they need safety at home, connection with us, and as much as possible, a way to stay in academic rhythm and routines. Most of all, they need perspective.

So we decided that we would approach our current crisis from a distance. We would learn about crises in general and how the global community and the American government have attempted to cope with them. A clever member of our 11th-grade team suggested that we do a comparative study of Presidents. After some deliberation, we agreed to these case studies: 

  • Lincoln and the Civil War (2nd Inaugural)
  • FDR and Pearl Harbor 
  • JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Carter and the Energy Crisis
  • Bush, Jr. and 9/11
  • Obama and the Great Recession

For each crisis, we paired simple background readings (Story First!) and a famous Presidential speech that addressed the crisis. We prepared a Question Two template to guide students’ interpretation of the speech, which they will both read and either hear or watch. When they’ve completed the case studies, we’ll ask them to make some inferences (Q3) and judgments (Q4) about how Presidents do and should speak to the country about a national crisis. 

In Modern World History, our approach was to ask, How does the global community address a crisis? We’re starting this week with the United Nations. We’ve always wanted to teach more about the UN and global institutions generally than we typically have time for. Now we’re making time, and for good reason. After this week, we’ll study a UN response to a previous crisis and then do our best to run a remote Model UN on another one. 

It is our responsibility to teach our students what’s going on in their world and how to think about it. We’re training philosopher-citizens, after all. Studying current events is important, especially when you’re living them day to day. On the other hand, we often overlook how much background knowledge it takes to make sense of unfiltered news. My brilliant Econ teacher identified something new and notable about our current predicament: for the first time, the global economy is experiencing a supply shock and a demand shock at the same time. Other literate friends and colleagues have made apt comparisons to the kinds of crises we’re introducing our students to with our new remote learning units. That’s what we want for our students: not to drink from the firehose of daily occurrence, but to figure out how to get their bearings in a world turned upside down. 

And, for what it’s worth, they need some basis for rational hope. The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 will get worse before it gets better, at least in the US. People who don’t know anything about the past have only their fear and anxiety to guide them. People who don’t know that humans have faced crises before and somehow managed to muddle through them have to console themselves with fantasies, some of which might get them (and us) into trouble. We’re wagering that broadening the lens and approaching our current crisis from a distance will save our students from all that. 


“Because, But, So” Sentences

In January I posted about how I’m using The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler to help me teach writing. I often use 4-sentence stories as formative assessments to see if my students have understood the story that is at the heart of a unit, and this week I want to share another technique from The Writing Revolution that has helped me to do a better job of that: “Because,” “But,” and “So” sentences.

Common Conjunctions

“Because, but, so” sentences are built around these three common conjunctions. The sentences start with a phrase before the conjunction, and students need to complete the sentence. As Hochman and Wexler explain, “because” sentences explain why something happened, “but” sentences have a contrast with the first phrase of the sentence, and “so” sentences describe a result of the first phrase of the sentence. The authors recommend having students use the same sentence stem for each type, but I modified the practice to fit the narrative four-sentence story form I use as a formative assessment. (See how “but” worked in that sentence just now?) I have been giving students four different sentence stems, using at least one of each sentence type, and they need to complete the sentence in a way that tells the story accurately and in correct academic English. Each sentence gets scored out of two points: one for accurate content, and one if the sentence is correct with no errors. You can see how I format that on the examples attached here: the content point goes in the left margin, and the sentence point goes in the right margin. So students know immediately what sort of error they need to be looking to fix if they’ve lost a point. 

The sentence point has turned out to be a great teaching tool. It’s a binary score: if your sentence has no errors you get the point, and if it has even one you don’t get the point. I then allow revisions up to full credit, so students get practice noticing their common errors and correcting them. The most common errors are tense, subject-verb agreement, and missing small words. Focusing on single sentences has been tremendously powerful, because when students submit longer writing assignments their teachers (me included) don’t bother to correct most of these mistakes because there are so many of them. We tend to look past the writing errors and grade student thinking, which is often quite good. By contrast, the focus on four sentences allows students to get targeted feedback and repeated practice on important writing skills. It also turns out that students actually enjoy fixing their sentences. Once they know that they have to pay attention to the difference between “where” and “were” (a common confusion among my ELL students), for example, they start to do so and feel a real sense of pride when they catch and correct their own errors. I have one student from an immigrant family who was so thrilled the first time she completed a four-sentence story with no mistakes that she told me, “Mr. Bassett, this is going on the fridge!”

Another great teaching aspect of this exercise is that students cannot effectively complete the different sentence types unless they really know the story. It turns out that “but” sentences are especially challenging in this regard: students need to recognize that the first phrase of the sentence establishes something meaningful, and then they need to know something that qualifies or contradicts that something. In the examples posted here there are two “but” sentences: one requires students to know about the Russian civil war, and the other calls for knowledge of the cost of Stalin’s modernization program. Gary says that this activity should really be called “because, so, but” sentences, since “but” are the hardest ones — he’s right, of course, but it sounds better as “because, but, so.”

So once again, The Writing Revolution saves the day. Try it out, and let us know how it goes!

Trust Your Story

In my first year of high school History teaching, Jon, now my partner in 4QM Teaching, was my supervisor. One of the first pieces of feedback he ever gave me was that I was committing an error called “lecto-scussion.” A lecto-scussion is a mix of lecture and discussion. That means that you, the teacher, talk for a few minutes, telling students true and interesting things (we hope), and then stop and ask questions of students. Then you continue talking, and asking, and so on. 

I didn’t really see the problem. Students mostly sat quietly while I talked and some responded when I asked questions. It was, to be fair, not what I’d done the year before, when I taught college classes. There, I would frequently talk to large groups for long stretches. I would still ask questions occasionally, and sometimes attempt to run something like a discussion, though in a decidedly Socratic style. That’s the best that a lecture hall with more than a hundred students would permit. (I hadn’t yet heard of this thing called a “turn-and-talk.” And no students had smartphones!)

There was another thing I didn’t get, either: narrative. At the time, it seemed to me that our purpose as teachers of Social Studies was to teach our students to make coherent, reasonable arguments about the human world. That’s what I thought I was doing when I lectured in a college classroom, and that’s what I aspired to do in the high school classroom. And so, I argued a bit, then I discussed arguments a bit with students, and so on. Lecto-scussion. 

The problem is that narrative doesn’t work that way. Our first generative argument, Jon and I, was about the importance of narrative, which has now become the basis for the Four Question Method. Story first! Once Jon won that argument — his first and most significant achievement in educating me — I began to see why lecto-scussion is a problem. 

Stories require continuity. They engage and are therefore memorable precisely because they encourage the auditor to make running predictions from the point of view of actors in the story. What will happen next? How will they get out of that jam? How will the victim of that heinous action respond? This works, it turns out, even when you know how the story ends, so long as you share enough information for the audience to make plausible identifications and predictions, but not so much as to flood (and bore) them with details. If you constantly interrupt your story to have a conversation, you lose the narrative drive that engages the audience. 

That’s deeply ironic in the case of lecto-scussion. In the past week, I saw two otherwise excellent young teachers make the same error I did. They cashiered narrative drive in order to “engage” students with questions. Some were low-level questions of fact, others thoughtful and open ended. Makes no difference. They all suspended the story and squandered what makes it engaging to an audience. And they did so for the best of all possible reasons: to keep in touch with their student audience.

Seeing this problem in others reminded me of the real problem I faced as a first-year high school teacher. It’s true that I believed in argument, and still do. (That’s how we respond to Questions Two through Four.) But what was far more salient in driving my choices as a new teacher of high school students was their god-awful faces. When adults listen to a speaker, they look attentive. They make eye contact, nod occasionally, and try not to look like they’re suffering. Teenagers under compulsion — schoolchildren, that is — have neither the skills nor motivation to conjure such faces. What you get, instead, is typically a mask of indifference, or worse. I’ve had students come up to me at the end of the year and tell me that they enjoyed the class. I’ve been tempted to respond: no, you didn’t. I saw your face every day. You were miserable. 

So you never know with teenagers. And, of course, it’s our job to know. We need to check for understanding constantly. We need to keep them attentive and engaged. Don’t we have to ask them a question every two or three minutes in order to do so? 

The answer, of course, is absolutely not. What we need to do is, first and foremost, is to learn the stories we want them to know, and to know them ourselves well enough to tell them in a coherent and appropriately challenging way. Then we need to trust the story to engage our students. That means we need to tell it straight through, the way any good storyteller would. Then, and only then, once we’ve told our story, we need to check for understanding. For real. Not by asking a question that one or two students answer, and that signals the other students that the story is now suspended, which means it’s a good time to sneak a peek at Snapchat. We need to check the story by having them tell it themselves.

We’ve written before about formative assessment for stories. There are a million ways. But first, get the storytelling right. As Jon was coaching me back then, he would point out that lecturing is an extremely unnatural act, and therefore makes new teachers nervous. The idea of holding forth for an extended period while others sit and listen sounds like bad manners or narcissism. Doing so without skill or purpose is indeed an imposition and ordeal. But when we’ve got a good, important story to tell, we need to tell it, with authority. That means that we need to learn to trust it, too.