Category: 4QM Teaching

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. 


Helping Students Contextualize

A few weeks ago I wrote about the historical thinking skill of “contextualization.” Contextualization is most often employed when we’re working with a document, although the College Board also gives a point for it on their no-documents Long Essay Question, acknowledging that we can (and should) contextualize historical events, people, and ideas as well as documents. But we most often see it in the classroom with documents, and it is in that context (get the pun?) that students often commit a common error: they often don’t understand that they should contextualize before they actually read the document. Once they start reading the document they inevitably start doing other intellectual tasks related to document interpretation, such as describing the author’s point of view or purpose, and they can quickly lose sight of contextualization.


In my previous post, I described contextualization of a primary source as situating the document in the story of the unit we are telling. We ask students, “What has happened in our unit story at the time this source was created? How is the author or creator related to the story so far? What might you assume about the author given their relationship to the story?” Notice that you can answer all of these questions once you have identified and dated the source, and described its author. You don’t need to read the document to contextualize it. That’s why on our analysis sheet contextualization comes before we ask students to “summarize or paraphrase.” 

Every useful rule has exceptions, and there are certainly times when reading a primary source document allows us to identify context that is not otherwise apparent. But most of the time we can and should contextualize before we read. But students need practice to learn that skill. Here are two examples from my own classroom in the past few weeks. We’re currently studying World War One, and our first key primary source in the unit is some short excerpts from the Kaiser’s “Place in the Sun” speech of 1901. What’s the context? The Kaiser had fired long-time Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890, choosing to manage his own foreign policy. He had launched a new policy (“weltpolitik”) which aimed to gain more power and prestige for Germany on the world stage. He wanted to build up the German navy, which would be expensive and could cause conflict with England. Knowing all that before we read helps us to make sense of the document in the way that the Kaiser and his audience would have. But when I cold called a student and asked her to give the context for the speech, she immediately cast her eyes down and began scanning the text. I stopped her and reminded her that we can’t find the context for the text in the text; I was asking her to access relevant background knowledge, not to read. That turned out to be harder for her, because she actually had to remember some things, rather than just use her considerable reading and verbal skills to react to the text.

A bit later on in the unit we were studying a set of World War One propaganda posters, and some students made a similar error. I had explained that the belligerent powers had all expected a quick war, and the grinding trench warfare of the Western Front left them short of men, money, and war materiel. This is the context in which the governments produced propaganda. But several students described the context for the posters as, “they were trying to convince people to join the army,” or “they wanted people to loan money to the government.” These are both descriptions of the purpose of specific posters; the students had jumped from context to purpose without realizing it. Once again, students got ahead of themselves, and skipped over a key understanding that would have provided insight into the content that they were studying.


It’s easy to think too fast about context and then end up not thinking about it at all. As history teachers we should aim to slow our students down, and to teach them that they need to contextualize before they read. Doing so will help ensure that they can make the most of the documents when they actually read and interpret them.


Project Planning and Storytelling

I wrote a couple of times last year (on 1/6/19 and 5/19/19, to be exact) about my school’s plans to create a temporary 9th-grade academy. My department took that opportunity to revisit our 9th-grade World History course, which was badly in need of an overhaul. We call our new course WHISP, for World History: Identity, Status, and Power. Our students are now WHISPers, and we 9th-grade teachers, naturally, are WHISPerers. 

We changed everything about our old course except the time frame. We used to track students into honors and standard varieties of our pre-modern world history course. We used to teach in a fairly conventional way, with units culminating in tests or essays. And we used to pretty much go it alone as teachers, talking and sharing here and there, but rarely planning together as one big group. 

We’re still teaching about the pre-modern world, by and large. But now, all students learn together in the same room at the same time. We still give quizzes and assign plenty of writing, but our units are longer and designed to end in projects, typically involving simulation and always requiring the exercise of student choice and judgment. And our team of WHISPerers, eight of us including me, is more or less attached at the hip. We have formal planning sessions every week, and talk informally all the time. We share Google folders for everything we do, and try to mix our students up with each other when we can. We want them to think that they’re all taking the same course, and we want it to be true. Mostly, it is.

I thought at the outset that de-leveling would be a big deal. But that’s been the least of our challenges, as it turns out. Building units around projects and collaborating constantly — those have been the real tests of our teaching mettle. 

Project-Based 4QM Planning

The challenge in designing meaningful projects while retaining fidelity to historical content is figuring out how to match the two basic elements of learning: what students think about and what they do. All teachers everywhere, if they’re serious, are trying to give students things to do — read, write, talk, listen, and endless variation on those fundamentals — that will get them to think about true and important things. Projects require a BIG thing that generates lots of focused thinking on a topic. As we’ve discovered, that’s a tall order.

For our first big unit, we asked students to revise the Chinese civil service exam. That was what they had to do. What they had to think about was power. In particular, they had to think about this particular conundrum faced by all pre-modern emperors, and in some form by politicians everywhere: how do I, as leader, recruit highly competent and respectable officials to help me govern my subjects, while preventing those competent and respectable officials from getting the nasty idea that they could do my job better than I do? In other words, how does a ruler recruit capable and loyal subordinates? 

The project wasn’t perfect. Despite our requirement that students stay within the Confucian framework, lots of their exam proposals were wacky and implausible. And my group, in particular, became obsessed with catching cheaters on the exam, as though anyone who studied hard and played it straight would be trustworthy. Still, the task and the concept matched pretty well. What we asked students to do and what they thought about reinforced one another. 

The second project was less successful. We had a terrific hook for the unit, which was ostensibly about “community,” as the first was about “power.” We taught students about Ayodhya, the city in India where a Hindu nationalist mob tore down a Mughal-era mosque in 1992. The Indian Supreme Court had just issued a judgment in the case. We asked students to consider the problem of sectarian conflict. That’s what we wanted them to think about. What we asked them to do was to design a museum installation that would address and, in an ideal world, help to resolve that conflict. 

That project had two problems. First, the hook was a bit of a red herring. What we wanted students to think about was the way religions, in this case Hinduism and Islam, generated communal attachments. In other words, the real subject matter of the unit was religion, considered sociologically. The hook, however, was really about modern nationalism. Ayodhya is a compelling, ripped-from-headlines case study, but our students weren’t ready to study it. In 10th grade, when they learn something about modern Indian history, from the Raj through Independence to Modi, the whole Ayodhya debacle will make more sense. 

The second problem is that the hook was so good that it made us forget to teach our students a good, true story about the past before asking them to make a judgment. In the China unit, we taught the development of the Chinese imperial system through the Song dynasty. They knew about the problem we were asking them to address because they had learned how other real people had grappled with it. In 4QM terms, they got their answers to Questions One, Two, and Three down before they were asked to wrestle with Question Four on their own. As it should be.

The second project had no such anchor. We taught students about the tenets and basic practices of Hinduism and Islam, and briefly about the reigns of the Mughal emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb. But the judgment we asked them to make had too little narrative underpinning. If we wanted students to exercise judgment about how to resolve sectarian conflict, say, we needed to teach them a coherent story about how others grappled with it. (Contemporary Ayodhya was the inverse narrative, I suppose.) 

In the end, we improvised. Some of us asked our students to make museum installations about how Akbar and Aurangzeb dealt with communal differences. Others had students design exhibits that highlighted common elements of the two religions, Hinduism and Islam. Our students did whatever we asked them to do. No children were injured. 

What the unit needed, and what it will have next time around, is a clear historical narrative (Q1), elaborated by interpretation (Q2) and explanation (Q3), that prepares students to simulate a judgment (Q4) made by actual people under real historical conditions. If we do things that way, our students will be in better shape to make that judgment than if we just set them loose in an imaginary museum. And as collaborators, having a common story gives us two ways to coordinate, through the culminating project and in the development of the narrative. 

“Story first,” it turns out, holds for collaborative project teaching, just like every other kind. 


What Temperature is Your Classroom?

There are a bunch of ways a history lesson can go wrong. One way is deceptive, and perniciously common: students are “engaged” in an activity that they “enjoy.” I don’t mean to sound like a grouch, but so what? The money question is: what are students thinking about? Even better: what are they *learning* to think about? If those are hard questions to answer, then the lesson, however engaging and enjoyable, is a failure. The point, after all, is to teach our students how to think well about the human world. 

Good history teachers match engaging activities to meaningful questions. Great ones do so consistently and transparently, in a sequential, scaffolded, and artful way. Our 4QM project has been all about helping history teachers to identify the meaningful questions that drive great history teaching and matching those questions to engaging activities. We’ve tried to help new teachers get good and good ones to become great. 

Hot Storytelling

Though we’ve got Four Questions, we actually just have two ideas. The first is a frequent topic in this blog space: Story first! We’ve said a lot, here and elsewhere, about how to tell great stories and how to teach students to tell great stories. For what it’s worth, clients, colleagues, and our workshop visitors almost all adopt storyboards readily once they practice using them with us. I take that as evidence of the successful transmission of our first idea. 

Storytelling is fun and engaging. Framing a dramatic story to launch a unit or lesson — advice we give all the time — is a way to come in hot. When you hear (or tell) a good story, your brain will almost irresistibly try to complete the thought: What happened next? That’s why storytelling is engaging. 

But our charge is not just to engage our students. Once we’ve hooked them with a story, our job is to teach them to think about it in skillful ways. We do that by teaching them how to interrogate a story systematically. We tell a story, then we take it apart. That requires us to turn down the temperature. 

Cool Thinking

A story that fits a pattern we already know — rags-to-riches or Cinderella, heroic triumph or rise-and-fall — should raise our suspicions. For sure, we want our students not just to engage with stories, but to exercise some skillful skepticism on them. Start with some obvious interrogatives in the Question One family, like, Is this story true? Are our sources reliable? How do we know we’ve got enough of the story to see how one thing actually led to another? Is the shape of the narrative a good account of the action or a procrustean bed…? 

Asking those questions cools things down, for sure. Question Two, which asks students to dig into an actor’s thinking, is somewhere between luke and warm. Thinking like someone else, trying to plumb their motivations and unearth their assumptions, gives us contact with another mind. That’s human warmth, done well. But answering Question Two, What were they thinking?, also requires cool consideration of sources and ideas that may be quite different — even jarringly so — from our own. That’s cooler than a story. 

Question Three is cold. As we step back from the actors’ consciousness and consider the structures that conditioned their choices, we substitute “factors” for “actors.” What feels like human drama in the story can feel like icy dissection when we ask and answer, Why then and there? 

Question Four is most challenging for getting the temperature right. Judgment typically starts hot. When we ask students to make judgments about their forebears, they are typically eager to do so. In hindsight, we may see things the people we study missed. We want them to have done better. We wish they’d left us a better world. 

On the other hand, if we’ve done a good job with the first three questions, we should see our own situation with greater clarity and complexity. Complexity — understanding how our choices are conditioned by ideas and structures that we inherit rather than invent — can be an ice bath for those who first encounter it. A simpler, more Manichean world, with good people and bad people fighting it out, gets us much hotter under the collar. When we learn that very little human action reduces to that simplicity, we cool off. And judgment, the payoff, is, in the end, a dish best served cold.

Typically, our temperature goes down as we engage more regularly and proficiently in systematic thinking. We tell stories to heat the room. As you progress through the questions, and teach your students to do so, you should expect the temperature in the room to cool. That’s okay. Seeing more and thinking about it clearly is a refined pleasure. We want our students to learn to enjoy it. We want them to see that taking a story apart can be just as engaging — more, actually — than just telling it. 


Teaching “Contextualization”

In the United States the big players in the “historical thinking skills” space are the College Board and the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). Both identify “contextualization” as a key skill that history students should learn, and at 4QM Teaching, we agree. But we think we’ve got an easier way to make that thinking skill accessible to students than they do. In this blog post I’m going to argue that their definitions are needlessly complex, and give you a suggestion for a much easier way to teach kids to contextualize sources, people, events, and ideas.


If you’re a regular reader of this blog you know that I think the College Board makes their materials overly complex for no good reason (see my earlier rant here). Their definition of the historical thinking skill of contextualization is no exception: it is delightfully vague, and uses Gary’s favorite weasel word, “analyze.” Contextualization is College Board Historical Thinking Skill 4, and is defined as, “Analyze the context of historical events, developments, or processes.” They offer two sub-definitions of this skill, 4A and 4B: “Identify and describe a historical context for a specific historical development or process” and “Explain how a specific historical development or process is situated within a broader historical context” (College Board). I think these sub-definitions are synonyms: I can’t see the difference between “identifying and describing the context” for something and “explaining how it is situated within a broader context.” Definition 4A is pretty good — if they had just gone with that alone I’d have no significant complaints, but of course they can’t be that simple and direct – they’re the College Board, and must appear rigorous at all costs.

SHEG’s definition of contextualization is more straightforward: “Contextualization asks students to locate a document in time and place and to understand how those factors affect its content.” Seems pretty clear. But their “Contextualization” poster, which is meant for classroom display and thus to help students practice the skill, asks students to answer questions that are not especially helpful in contextualizing, except for the first one: “When and where was the document created?” That is followed by these three: “What was different then? What was the same? How might the circumstances in which the document was created affect its content?” (SHEG). The middle two questions are so broad as to be useless, and the last one presumes a lot of thinking skills that students may not have. I think we can do better.


When we teach history with the Four Question Method we always start with a story of the unit. So when we ask students to contextualize a document, person, event, or idea we can do it by relating it directly to the story of the unit. Our 4QM Primary Source Analysis Sheet, for example, starts by having students identify and date the source, identify the author, and then asks them to contextualize this way:

“What has happened in our unit story at the time this source was created?”

“How is the author or creator related to the story so far?”

“What might you assume about the author given their relationship to the story?”

These questions work really well because they’re straightforward and direct, and most kids can actually answer them with a little bit of effort. Take the example of an important document from American history: the Declaration of Rights and Grievances of the Stamp Act Congress. The document was created in October of 1765, by a committee of colonists meeting in New York City. Assuming your American Revolution unit starts with the Seven Years War, we know that Britain has accrued a very large debt in fighting the war, and is seeking ways to pay it off. We know that the authors of the document are related to that story in that they will be the ones who have to pay, and we might assume that they won’t like that. We might also assume that they’re going to be seeking public support for their position.

I think that our “contextualize” questions are what both the College Board and SHEG are actually after with their definitions. We all want students to be able to relate the document (or person or event or idea) to the broader historical story that it’s a part of, and we all want students to understand that sources are shaped by their creators to serve particular purposes. But by prioritizing “story first,” the Four Question Method makes is easier for teachers and students to practice and demonstrate those thinking skills. 

So don’t let the big guys push you around. If your students find the College Board’s or SHEG’s definition of “contextualization” confusing or clumsy, don’t blame them and don’t blame yourself. Ask your students how the document, person, event, or idea fits into the story of the unit instead. I bet you’ll find that more of your students can contextualize than you thought!



How To Start A Unit

How do you start your units? Do you hook them? 

Textbooks, and textbook teachers, start their units with tasks. Make a map. Copy the vocab. Memorize the main “causes.” 

Don’t do it. Start with a hook. If you’re introducing a new unit, hook the story that frames the unit. Something new and notable happened. British colonists rebelled, and started a new country. The Samurai led a modernizing revolution from above, and the imperialized became imperializers. A prophet appeared among the Arabs in Mecca, and transformed both Arabia and the world. 

In literature, stories often begin in the middle, or so an English-major friend has told me. We learn something about the main character and action from an episode drawn from the middle of the arc of the plot. Then the writer takes us back, or backward and forward, from that point and fills in the rest of the story until we see it whole.

If you’re particularly literary, that would work in History class, too. But there’s an easier and more straightforward way to hook a story: contrast the beginning and end. Everything we teach that’s worth teaching is the appearance of something new and notable in the human world. Humans did things one way, and then they ended up doing something else. Or they were minding their own business and then a plague or a scourge beset them. Something happened. 

Jon and I coach teachers in hooking stories. We use the contrast technique. If you’ve planned your unit or a lesson narrative well, then you know where it ends, what new and notable thing in the world humans have done or lived through. Start before that has happened, when it’s inchoate, brewing, on the brink. Then compare that prior condition — once upon a time! — to the outcome you’re interested in narrating. The contrast between those two states of affairs creates narrative tension. It generates curiosity and interest. It makes the story real and compelling for your students.


Hooking the story is on my mind right now because of a recent coaching experience with a new teacher, Ms. S. She’s a very bright and extraordinarily sensitive person. She’s also brand new, and so easily misled by textbooks. Textbooks often try, lamely, to hook stories using the middle-of-the-story technique. That’s what’s in those cute boxes before the main narration begins. 

But then they load up on geography and generalizations, which is meant to provide context for the story. Ms. S. is teaching the Great War, which we now know as World War One. She told me that she started with MAIN, which is the way she learned it, and the way the textbooks “teach” it. MAIN, or MANIA, is context robbed of meaning. “Militarism,” the “M” in MAIN or MANIA, means that governments in newly industrialized countries were busy building up their armies and generals were busy writing plans to use them. Alliances, imperialism, nationalism — yes, the newly rich and powerful were doing those things. (If you’re interested in why the MAIN “causes” aren’t causes at all, see Jon’s blog post of 1.11.18.)

The point is that the world looked dangerous in 1914, at least to some astute observers, and in retrospect to most of us. But MAIN sucks the drama dry. And worse, it obscures the contrast that is actually the point of the story. 

Ms. S. didn’t know what she wanted her Great War unit to be about until we talked. In conversation, she shared that she was most struck by the attitude toward war of the participants. At the outset, they seemed to think it was like a game. We talked about the evidence for that claim and conjectured about the relationship between that impression of war and the experience of imperialism, in which military service mostly meant deploying modern weapons against outmatched opponents. Not exactly sporting, but you could see how people could get the wrong impression. 

In the Great War, the deployment of modern weapons on all sides led to a very different kind of horrifying outcome. This one had the effect of transforming how participants and observers thought and felt about war in general. That, it turned out, was the story she wanted to tell. The outcome she wanted her students to know about was a transformation in cultural consciousness — a new and notable answer to Question Two! 

Before the war, for the central protagonists, war was a game and the globe a chessboard. That’s what MAIN obliquely describes — an attitude about warfare. By the end of the war, there are a range of reactions, but all of them shot through with disillusionment. As Paul Fussell argued in his classic book, the Great War turned irony into the dominant trope in literature and the arts. We still live in its shadow. (And not for nothing, the quirky war lovers among the disillusioned — the fascists — came out of the war resentful that they didn’t get enough. And they turn out to be crucial protagonists in our next unit story…) 


Once we both got clear on what the Great War story was about, Ms. S. had the tools she needed both to design a hook for the unit and to make sober, rational decisions about what exactly about the Great War her students would need to know. In other words, getting clear on the particular story she intended to tell allowed her to trim and tighten the unit, while better preparing her students to answer meaningful questions about it. 

The tipoff that a teacher hasn’t figured out what story they’re trying to tell is that they load up on context at the beginning, like textbooks do. That’s a delaying tactic, and the wrong way to think about context, in any case. Historical context is the information we use to ask and answer meaningful questions. Before students know the story they’re being asked to think about, context is meaningless. And so, trying to learn the “causes” of the Great War before you know what the Great War was is, technically speaking, ass backwards. Once you know something about what happened in the Great War, you can generate some genuine curiosity about it, curiosity that will then require adducing context. What were they thinking? Why then and there? These are the classic questions that beg for context. 

Story first, as always. It’s not as simple as it sounds, of course. It requires that you figure out what story you actually want to tell. Once you do, though, the enterprise gets lots more interesting, for teachers and students both. 


4QM and “The Writing Revolution”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or if you’ve attended one of our workshops, you know that we believe that good history teaching starts with teaching the story first, and you know that we believe that you should make time to formatively assess your students’ abilities to tell the story you taught them. We often use four-sentence stories to do that assessment: require students to tell the story of the industrial revolution, or the Meiji restoration, or whatever you’ve taught them, in only four sentences. But what if your students struggle to write good sentences? I have found myself in that situation this year, and over the winter break I started reading a book that gave me tremendous insight into and practical tools for solving that very problem. This post is a straight-up plug for The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler.


I started my teaching career at a small Catholic girls high school in the South Bronx called Saint Pius V. There were no white kids at the school, and our families were all working class or poor. When I moved back home to the Boston area I ended up taking a long detour into suburban district schools. But this year I’m back in the city, teaching tenth grade at an urban charter high school that reminds me a lot of Saint Pius. It’s been great to get back to my roots, and it’s been an intense (re-) learning experience. One of the most significant differences between my suburban students and the kids I teach now is their writing. I’ve always prided myself on teaching writing well, but this year I realized that my pride was misplaced.  In the suburbs I only had to coach writing for a few students each year, because most of my students already knew what to do when I told them to “make this sentence more clear” or “tighten this paragraph.” I just had to tell them what to do — for the most part they already knew how to do it.

My current students are different. Many of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and English is not their first language. Most of them have parents who did not go to college, and many have parents who did not complete high school. They need much more explicit instruction about how to write well in standard English. I realized right away that we needed to start with a focus on sentences, (their badly written paragraphs or essays were usually just the cumulative result of grammatical and syntactic errors at the sentence level), and I found that I already had a perfect tool for the job: The four-sentence story. I can use it to assess student learning, as I did in the suburbs, and I can also use it to teach good sentence writing. But having the right tool is no guarantee of using it well, and I have found it challenging to coach students who don’t who don’t have many models of good writing in their lives. 


Enter The Writing Revolution. I started reading it over this winter break, and I got that excited feeling you get when you read something that seems to be speaking to you directly. The authors validated my students’ struggles to write clear sentences: “Producing even a single sentence can impose major cognitive demands on students, especially if it requires them to explain, paraphrase, or summarize sophisticated content” (10). They validated my decision to coach them on writing clear sentences: “Sentences are the building blocks of all writing” (10). They validated the Four-Sentence Story as a formative assessment: “When students write, they — and their teachers — figure out what they don’t understand and what further information they need” (11). They validated the 4QM emphasis on content knowledge: “The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities” (13). 

Beyond giving me all that validation, Hochman and Wexler also gave me some specific tools for teaching writing well. The book breaks down writing instruction into explicit pieces that make it accessible to everyone. I’m already revising my coaching on how to write Four Sentence Stories, and thinking about how to integrate the book’s techniques into my coaching students to write paragraphs and essays. If your students are struggling to write good four-sentence stories, I recommend prompting them with the ten subordinating conjunctions listed on page 43. Tell them to start each sentence with one of these words: before, after, if, when, even though, although, since, while, unless, whenever. So a four-sentence story on the industrial revolution in Britain might look like this:

  1. Before 1750 most cloth was made by hand, by farmers working in their houses.
  2. Since this method was slow and inefficient, inventors created machines to do the various jobs of cloth-making and put the machines in water-powered factories.
  3. After the steam engine was perfected, factories could be built anywhere, so businessmen put them near ports and transportation hubs.
  4. Since factories needed large numbers of workers, cities quickly grew up around them, and Britain had a period of rapid urbanization in the nineteenth century.


Along with The Knowledge Gap and Reading Reconsidered, The Writing Revolution is one of a set of books that share a world-view about teaching with the Four Question Method. They believe that complex cognitive tasks like reading, writing, and thinking about history can be “x-rayed” and explained in ways that are comprehensible to everyone. They believe that content knowledge is crucial and ought to drive rigorous instruction for students of all levels. And they believe that social justice demands that low-income students be given explicit access to this knowledge and these skills. As I’ve been reminded this year, there are myriad academic skills that middle-class students seem to simply absorb, but that low-income students need to be taught in school. If you’re using  the Four Question Method you’re already explicitly teaching the four thinking skills that are at the heart of the disciplines of history and social studies. These three books can help you do that even more effectively.

J. B. 


Formatively Assessing Historical Narrative

In a post on 11/12/19, “What New Teachers Need,” I mentioned that Jon and I had created a lesson-planning playcard. For each of our Four Questions, the playcard lists teaching techniques and formative assessments. This week, we’re heading back to Newark to work with our friends at the Uncommon charter network. We’ll be unpacking and workshopping a piece of the playcard: formative assessments for Question One, What Happened? (That’s the right box in the playcard row copied below.) 

4QM Lesson Playcard: Row One

Question Learning Activities Practice and Assessments
Q1: What Happened? 


  • Narrative Lecture
  • Reading (Secondary/Tertiary)
  • Video
  • Podcast
  • Timelines and Maps
  • Close Reading of Primary Sources
  • Storyboard
  • Narrative Recitation
  • Written Narratives
  • Image/Event Sequencing
  • Roleplay Reenactment
  • Question Generation


It’s bread and butter for History teachers to teach their students a true and interesting story. It’s pretty much malpractice, though, not to check to see that they’ve actually *learned* the story. You can wait till the unit test, but that’s not giving students a chance to practice with feedback, and not giving you a chance to see how effectively you’ve communicated. Everyone’s happier when you formatively assess what your students have learned, early and often. 

Formative Assessment Is Fun!

It turns out that formatively assessing your students’ grasp of a story is one of the coolest things you can do in a classroom. There are tons of great, lively activities that will trick even the most reluctant students into taking themselves seriously as scholars of history. Jon and I typically group our formative assessments into the “individual” and “collaborative” categories. The individual ones are either writing or formal recitation exercises. A classic is the four-sentence story: boil down the narrative you just learned into four grammatical, coherent, sequential sentences. Doing that reveals a ton about what students don’t yet understand and effectively consolidates what they do. 

But the fun stuff is collaborative work on stories. For instance: I once printed out sets of images associated with the story of the American Revolution. Most of them the students had seen before, either in a slideshow accompanying a lecture or as in illustration in something they read. Some were new but referred straightforwardly to an event they knew, or should have known. In groups, I directed the students to put the images in proper historical sequence. The first group done would win a prize (unspecified, as I recall). Students called me over when they thought they’d completed the sequence. Most required revision. I’d simply look, say “not yet,” and walk away. 

If you like a quieter room — that one got pretty loud — you can try a narrative Write Around. The classic Write Around gets students to elaborate on each other’s thinking in response to a prompt. The narrative version, which formatively assesses Question One, requires them to alternative sentences, starting at the beginning of a story you specify and ending wherever you tell them to stop. No speaking, just writing. Once they finish writing, they get to read aloud what they’ve composed and revise it. 

If you want to get dramatic, you can name an event and have students act it out. If you want to practice oral presentation collaboratively, you can try a Pecha Kucha, and have a team of students hand off slides to one another. You can play the brackets game, where you pair off key terms from a story — actors, events, or ideas — and have groups of students argue out each round, saying which of the terms is more integral to the story, until you’ve got your original list of 16 terms down to a Final Four. Then they tell the story using those terms — and all the rest are taboo. 

Or, get back to 4QM basics. Teach students a story, though lecture, reading, and video, and then have them storyboard it in small groups. Storyboarding forces them to chunk the narrative, to name and date the events, and most important, to talk through the logic of events in the story. What they produce consolidates that logic and captures it in images. In fact, all of these formative assessments are designed to do the same thing: force students to think through the logic of the story. 

One more: once you’re pretty sure your students know the story, make them generate questions. Any story you really know should stimulate your curiosity. There’s so much we will have left out, of necessity. And so, if nothing else, we can always ask for *more* of the story, or more of some actor’s role in it. In any case, you know our wager: whatever questions your students generate will turn out to be one of four different types. If you’re teaching them well, they’ll know what they are and be able to identify them. And if you’ve planned your unit well, at least some of the answers to their questions will be on deck in the days to come.