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The challenge in designing meaningful projects while retaining fidelity to historical content is figuring out how to match the two basic elements of learning: what students think about and what they do.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.