Tuesdays – Review Day – YIKES!

Today is Review Tuesday. According to my poll TV and movie reviews were much more popular with my voters than books.  Since today is the first day of my Tuesday schedule I thought I ‘d start out by showing you my page on Book Reviews because many people don’t click on pages, but some of you have commented on my organization.  I’m an organized mess – not a Hot Mess, Ralph!  Though not a professional reviewer, I was an elementary teacher then an instructional consultant so I’ve read lots and lots of books, and I continue to read when I’m not writing.  I taught reading and writing to both students and adults for over 25 years.  Currently I post reviews on Amazon as well as on my blog.  If you hate reviews, just stop here and press like, or comment on something else!  hahaha  (I haven’t lost my sense of humor!)

I apologize ahead of time – I approach most books, TV and movies from the standpoint of how they would work either for students or teachers, especially in this era of Common Core Standards.  Fun books I usually read for fun, not review.  Regarding books by blogging friends, I do make an exceptions sometimes often. So if you are a writer/blogger and want me to review your book, feel free to email me at tchistorygal@gmail.com.

It’s my hope that you’ll enjoy my reviews, and they will encourage you or your friends to read the book or see the movie or show.  I am also working on a Resource Page since there are many fine bloggers, whom I love, who also review books, movies – etc.  My slant will be mostly educational, so if you know teachers, please refer them here.



Most books I read I don’t review.  I don’t know many people who do.  I never used to even keep track of all the books I’d read.  Then I went on an interview once and one of the questions was, “What books have you read this year?”  I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head even though I had read tons.  As a result I started asking people with whom I associated and admired what books they read.   Sometimes it started a great conversation.  Sometimes, they admitted that they didn’t like to read.  If you are a blogger, then you MUST like to read a little.  So this page is for you.

Book Reviews

Book on Kindle

Jillian Hoffman suggested revealing our shelves to other bloggers.  I haven’t taken pictures of my shelves filled up before, and it is difficult to do because my room is small. Here are a few of my shelves.  I do love them.  I have them organized loosely into groups like local history, Civil War, how to teach, dictionaries, general history, and quilting and other stuff.

Civil War Shelf

We have two other book cases in other rooms, one of which belonged to my great-grandmother.


I joined Good Reads finally.  It can keep track of what I’m reading, as well as what everyone else who belongs is reading.  I have to admit that I haven’t kept it up.  I also removed it from my site because my blog loaded slower because of it.  I also joined Amazon affiliates so that if you see a book you’d like to order, you can do it directly here without leaving and opening another window, and I receive a small commission on each sale.

Book Review: Entertaining an Elephant

Thank you and congratulations to Larry Otter, the 30th “LIKE” on my new Facebook page, GOLD STAR!  Thanks to the many others that also pressed “LIKE”

Many of you are teachers, and many more of you have children, grandchildren, or at some point in time are expecting to have them.  A few months ago I went to a Common Core Conference, at which Dr. Bill McBride presented strategies to help teachers implement Common Core Standards.  His presentation style was just as interactive and fun as any I have attended.  I also purchased the book , If They Can Argue Well, They Can Write Well, a step-by step instruction manual on teaching students how to develop an argument. 

Entertaining an Elephant, on the other hand is a fictitious book about education, and I warn the reader to have a Kleenex or two nearby.  (That was clever, I wasn’t sure about how to pluralize Kleenex.  Putting es on the end, just didn’t look right, and ‘s did, but ‘s indicates belonging, so just a simple rewording solved my problem.  YEAH!)

by William McBride
by William McBride

Written by William McBride, Entertaining an Elephant documents the metamorphosis of a seasoned, but jaded teacher who encounters a new janitor that changes his life.

“Reaf wasn’t allowed to leave for a half hour, and he decided not to let the janitor run him out.” p. 7

His tired attitude helps you dislike this teacher right from the start.  He thought he knew what the kids needed, and I can just hear his gruff voice speaking to the peon janitor.

“You see, I’ve been in the business for a long time, and even though these kids have had a lot of schooling, they still don’t have the basics.  I don’t know what those teachers are doing at the lower levels, but these kids can’t tell a participle from a noun.  So I take it upon myself to make sure they understand grammar.  None of the other English teachers spend that much time with it, so it’s up to me to hammer it in.”

If that wouldn’t make a student want to take his class, I don’t know what would!  I’m sure the other teachers loved him just about as much as the kids did.  Every teacher loves to think their teaching taught the kids all they were expected to learn that year plus a little more.  They NEVER like to hear that the kids FORGOT any some of it – or worse, they never had time to teach it, or worse still, they taught it, but NOBODY got it.

The janitor was a wise, wily fellow, though, with some tricks up his sleeve.

“Unfortunately, most of them don’t use the grammar.  That’s why they’re going to be failures, which proves my point.  But that’s between you and I.”

“Me,” the janitor said.

“Yes, you.”

Who else would I be talking to, thought Reaf.  …then suddenly (he) realized the janitor had corrected him.  It is between you and me. … the teacher threw the grammar book he had been holding …

I have to admit that, as a teacher, I want to make sure my kids learn grammar, but I’ve also made MY share of grammar errors as an adult with lots of education.   In fact I’ve made the very SAME mistake that Reaf made.  It was embarrassing the first time I made it, sitting at a dinner table with a movie star, no less – and corrected by HIM.  It was worse the third time I said it.  And I was the EDUCATOR, but the star seemed like a Reaf to me, and he didn’t earn a fan that night.

So where did Reaf throw the grammar book?  What did the janitor do to cause the teacher to change?  What made the teacher so irritatingly uninteresting in the first place?  Why would you want to find out?

I’ll answer the last question for you.  Reaf learns and practices some new teaching and relationship strategies as the book progresses which change his life, but most of all HE changes, and the story is heartwarming.  Common sense strategies are easily employed by anyone, teachers or non-teachers, who want to see improved relationships and motivate others to learn.

The real question is, will YOU cry at the end?

Featured Blog

You must read and enjoy Sierra Foothill Garden if you want to learn more about the plant life in my neck of the woods.  This blog is more focused than my streaming thoughts site.  We really do get snow in the mountains and higher in the foothills than I am.  Sue has a handy list of California bloggers in her sidebar, which I am going to find helpful.  If you want to get more familiar with California, this is one place to start.

If you have already read the book Entertaining an Elephant, how did your react?

  • I threw the book across the room.
  • I cried.
  • I planted the book to see if I could get it to grow.
  • I gave it away at a White Elephant Christmas party.
  • Other responses

Widow of the South and the Common Core

Attention English teachers!!!  Revel in teaching literature for informational text  and argument writing assignments  using the genre of historical fiction.  History teachers – join forces and use the same literature as background materials to introduce topics.

Widow of the South addresses California history-social studies standards in 8th grade about the Civil War.  It also addresses several Common Core standards noted in the body of the text.   It has many primary source documents, like diary entries, woven into the text.

A sample student performance task from Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, Appendix B p. 89 modified for this book:  Students explain how Robert Hicks, in his novel,  Widow of the South,  uses choice of words  to develop point of view of the three main characters in this historical fiction, a Confederate soldier, a Union Lieutenant, and a slave-owning middle-aged mother, Mrs. McGavock, living on her plantation, Carnton.

Robert Hicks includes  pictures and notes of Franklin, TN and Carrie McGavock, the widow, in the back of Widow of the South.

A Look at Perspectives:  Consider this quote.

“But hell, the Yankees had thrown away more than we’d laid our eyes on in months, maybe years. …The thing I kept thinking about (as we were marching up the pike) was the nightshirts and the pots of jam, lying there on the roadside (left by the Yankees).  They made me wonder whether we’d been fighting the same war”   Sergeant Zachariah Cashwell, 24th Arkansas. p. 25.

In Cashwell’s quote, ia student of the Civil War learns one of the major reasons that General Lee soon surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.   Using this quote students practice “Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text Common Core English Language Arts Standard RL1.”   Teachers guide students to “detect the different historical points of view on historical events and find the context in which the historical statements were made (the questions asked, sources used, author’s perspectives) California History Social Science Analysis Skills Research Evidence and Point of View #5”

As the reader gets to know these characters, they vicariously experience the nuances of life and come to realize how normal situations are even more complicated by war.  Read the quote below.

“Dear Mrs. M,

I cannot raise this boy.  I am tore up… I got to get away, to start something new.  I want to change…  I will send for the boy when I’m right.”

“He didn’t bother to sign it, and I never heard from him again.  I never asked John if we could take the boy in as our own son.”  Carrie McGavock p. 299.

The author’s choice of words, “I never heard from him again.” lets the students realize how desperate times were when a parent would write a note, and leave it with a child on someone’s doorstep.  “I never asked John…” allows students to glimpse a time when asking was ordinary, but these times were extraordinary.

There are plots and subplots, elements of complexity, that will draw even the most reluctant teen-aged girl into this story.  Teen, Becky Griffin, for example, “had wanted to grow large quickly so that she would have to spend the spring and the summer answering the questions.  I loved a boy and a boy loved me, she planned to say…”  Teen aged pregnancy is not uncommon today, and would be a rich field for developing a homework assignment to develop an argument.  Students could research the difficulties that Becky Griffin faced with the difficulties faced by young teen-aged mothers today.

Using the next quote teachers could build an homework informational writing assignment.

“She sat down heavily on the stool I had assumed had been meant for me.  …  She had been silent for days.  …  Were we strangers?  Impossible, and yet what did I know of her, really? … she had been mine…”

‘Do you want to leave?  Leave here?  Carnton!’

Me is what I meant. (Carrie’s self talk)


‘You can if you’d like.’ …

‘Don’t have anywhere else to go. …  Ain’t nothing to be done about it.  I’m too old to be running from crackers with ropes. …’” p. 394

How did slaves feel about being freed?  Students might compare the way different slaves felt about their new freedom, and the ramifications of that freedom.  There is primary source evidence in the form of oral histories recorded before the last of the slave generation passed away on websites online in the National Archives.  How does this slave compare to other oral histories?  How might her responses be compared to Steven Oates, Fires of Jubilee, the story of the South Hampton slave revolt?

The toughest boy in class will have to work hard not to be touched by the grim glories of war. as he reads the point of view of the Union soldier.

“I was proud that such an army, a vibrating mass of butternut gray and sharp metal, screeching that strange wail of theirs, was arrayed against me and my men.  I was proud that we were worthy of that.  …  Why did they keep coming?  By the second hour of fighting… when a rebel appeared on top of our entrenchment waving a flag or a rifle around, we’d yank him down and make him a prisoner rather than shoot him. …  The dead and dying were packed so tightly that the men were charging right over them, shattering legs, arms and ribs.  It was the sound of bones snapping.”  Lieutenant Nathan Stiles, 104th Ohio p. 85.

What did the Union soldier mean when he said, “I was proud that we were worthy of that”?  Why did he “yank him down and make him a prisoner?”

On Wednesday, November 30, 1864, the townspeople of Franklin, TN, a population of 2,500, had to contend with 2,500 Union and 6,700 Confederate casualties from that 5 hour battle.  “The body of Co.F.S.S. Stafford, of the 31st Tennessee, was found dead standing upright, wedged up to his waist in corpses.”  p. 407Research becomes a natural by-product of reading this novel for the student and teacher who has never been to Franklin, TN, or seen the trenches of a Civil War battlefield.  Even unfamiliarity with Civil War artillery or the structure of the military might spark curiosity easily satisfied at the click of a mouse in order to “Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration Common Core ELA Standard W7.”The Civil War changed the United States forever.   Textbooks make blanket statements that students take for gospel without examining them for their veracity.  Historical fiction puts heart into sterile statements, and engraves those opinions into the hearts of the students.

To read the entire novel, The Widow of the South, would take a long time for eighth graders who are just starting to read complex, full-length texts.  BUT that being said, it is so compelling that many of them might want to read it.  I would recommend this as background reading for both history and language arts teachers to build your own perspective on the Civil War.

Common Core FAQs Relative to History-Social Studies

Today our San Joaquin Valley Council for the Social Studies had their big planning meeting.  One thing that came out of that was the need for a one page FAQ sheet for the Common Core Standards for Social Studies teachers in particular – to quell their fears of the unknown.  This is all I got done this afternoon.  See what you think of it, and tell me what else you thing should be on it.KNOWN ASSESSMENT FAQs

• Common Core Assessments for ELA and Mathematics begin field testing in spring 2014.
• Common Core Assessments for ELA and Mathematics begin testing in spring 2015.
• There will be History-Social Studies reading and writing tasks included in the test for language arts.
• These assessment tasks will NOT be aligned to the California History Standards, but the reading complexity, or lexile levels, will be appropriate for the grade level of the student.
• The CST for ELA, mathematics, history-social science, and science will be given until 2014 when it will sunset.
• There are sample test items on both the Smarter Balanced and the PARC websites.

• We don’t know what will replace the CST tests for History-Social Science and Science

• We know a consortium has been working on Common State Standards for History-Social Studies.
• We know the standards will be presented at the National Council for the Social Studies Conference, November 16-18 in Seattle, WA
• We know that the one of the primary developers will present these standards at the California Council for the Social Studies, March 6-8, 2013 in Burlingame, CACome and join us if your on the left coast this year.  We are going to have a major Common Core Conference within our regular California Council for the Social Studies Conference – 8 hours of intensive training in the Common Core Standards and how they pertain to teams of History-Social Studies/English Language Arts teachers.

Here is a FAQ sheet from Sacramento County Office of Education  http://www.scoe.net/castandards/multimedia/common_core_faq.pdf

The Source, Journal of the California History Project which published an article of mine. http://www.ccss.org/Resources/Documents/CommonCore_Source.pdf

“Preparing Students for College, Career and CITIZENSHIP:
A California Guide to Align Civic Education and the Common Core State
Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies,
Science and Technical Subjects”, a white paper by Dr. Michelle Herczog, Los Angeles County Office of Education —http://www.ccss.org/Resources/Documents/Herczog-CCSSNCSS%20Journal%20Article%20for%20Matrix.pdf

How Committees Work Well

Social describes the social studies community of California Council for the Social Studies (CCSS).  The first CCSS.History-Social Studies people can be controversial and argumentative, or they can cooperate, and accomplish a lot.  Usually it’s a little of both.There’s a lot of persuading and synergy going on in California Council for the Social Studies these days.Committees do the work of the organization.  They set goals, review the organization’s position statements, gain new information, and network.  Their needs, and the needs of the social studies teachers they serve and represent drive changes, and keep the 51-year-old organization growing and thriving.Committee members concentrate, using the time to research on the internet.Others are planning, working out the details.Some committees are more social than others.  The Membership Committee wants to attract new members while retaining current ones to keep the organization viable and healthy.Other committees are more pensive and academic as they determine what should go into future issues of the organizations scholarly journal, “Social Studies Review”.At the end of the day all six committees had written motions describing what they wanted to accomplish by the conference, “Social Studies on the March” in March, 2013.  They knew who was responsible to carry out the tasks, and how much it would cost.  Each gave a short report as they finished up the paperwork to document the decisions that had been made.And best of all, nobody killed anybody!

Putting Your Field Trips on Steroids – Legally!


One of the best experiences of my teaching career was the Teacher Institute in Colonial Williamsburg.  I wanted to bottle it up and bring it home, and recreate and refashion it so that we could produce similar experiences for people on the West Coast.

Organizers packed the week with themes of experiences, most of them reproducible except for the location.

Before we arrived we had to read a couple of books about Colonial Williamsburg, and the PEOPLE who lived there.  Whenever you spend the time and money to take kids on vacations or field trips, you should prepare them in some way.  That’s half the fun of going. Assigning your students books or articles to read, watching videos together, then having them discuss and write about what they are learning will put the steroids into the field trip – without making it illegal!!  Students will be constantly comparing what they read with what they learn when they visit.  They will be able to ask questions.

Once we arrived in Colonial Williamsburg, we received a new identity.  That first evening as we got an overview of the town, we were always looking around the corner to find out about our special person.

I was Clementina Rind, whom I wrote about earlier in my blog.  The interesting thing about doing that SIMPLE activity is that you never forget THAT PERSON.  You might forget tons of other factoids, but that person lives in you forever.

Students don’t even have to dress up to take on their identity  One teacher assigned her students the identity of children of the Holocaust.

They they invited a guest speaker who survived the Holocaust.

The strategy of assigning alternative identities is applicable anywhere about any period in history.  Most teachers can’t dredge up re-enactors, or even guest speakers, but I’ve seen teachers dress up themselves,

or have their students dress up and play a part in a readers’ theater that they write themselves using primary source documents.

These fifth grade students became re-enactors for the Civil War Time Time Travelers Student Event.  (Another story coming soon.)

 Colonial Williamsburg is spectacular, but the lessons learned in that setting can spruce up field trips and family vacations anywhere.


Mission Inn, Riverside, California

Romantic, historic, and definitely NOT obstreperous – even with 1,000 fourth through twelfth grade students and their parents and teachers meandering through the labyrinth corridors.

May was definitely the right month to stay here.  The weather was a perfect 80 degrees.  We were Walking in Sunshine, and it felt GOOD!

You may wonder how come everything was calm and quiet with hundreds of students going in and out the buildings.  The fact was that these students, far from being obstreperous, were model students.  Serious state contenders came to compete in National History DayCalifornia.

There were lots of wide open spaces for students to congregate, and most were busy studying or talking quietly together while they waited for their turn to present their projects to a panel of three judges.

Many of them took pictures, like I did of  all the photographic locations around Mission Inn.

So if you every get to Riverside, California, stay at the Mission Inn.  Even obstreperous middle and high school students are miraculously calmed by the majestic ambiance.



Authentic Assessments for History-Social Science


Multiple-choice, true false, short answer, matching, and other types of standardized tests target only factual knowledge at a recall level, and often do more to measure how well students take a test than what they actually know.  Common Core standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments indicate that education is trying to move away from total dependence on that one type of assessment.  Since the traditional summative tests don’t always measure what is important to measure, in some schools students won’t have the opportunity to learn higher level skills such as analysis, problem solving, and application.  According to cooperative learning experts, Spencer and Miguel Kagan, tests don’t measure how well a student can revise and edit an essay, or create or interpret texts and artistic expressions.  Authentic assessments are trying to remedy that flaw by creating multiple measures by which student progress in important skills can be measured. Authentic assessments are best scored by the use of rubrics. They can be scored by different aged students, peers, or themselves as well as the teacher. One of the most important features of authentic assessment is the student’s reflection, not only at the end of the project, but along the way. However, teachers need to note one that in order for authentic assessments to work, students may work collaboratively, but they are scored individually.

Authentic Assessments that work well for history-social science:

Building Models

Students who build models or museum exhibits practice many skills.  They debate, share ideas, make decisions, reach consensus, and present findings in a physical form. One program that makes use of this authentic type of assessment is the History Day Program. One of the categories of the competition is Exhibits.  These projects can be about many topics, but align to a yearly theme. One of the advantages to participation in History Day is that student projects are judged by adults outside the classroom setting.  Students explain or show their project and participate in an interview after the presentation.

Classroom Discussion

Classroom discussion explores issues and faces misconceptions, and biases.  Teachers begin by setting the context using text, lecture, video or power point. Students also need direct instruction in skill building such as: civil discourse when there are differing viewpoints, understanding bias, determination of purpose and audience, evaluating sources of information, and questioning strategies. To scaffold for English learners it helps to have ground rules, specific language, and academic language sentence starters that students are required to use as they respond to one another.

A Slam Debate is a short version of debate in which students group themselves using a strategy called Four Corners (Strongly agree to strongly disagree) on an issue. They pick an opening person to persuade the audience that the group has a valid stand based on reason, but using an emotional appeal. Each team has one minute to present their argument. Person Two has two minutes to deliver the meat of the argument using reasoning skills and evidence. Finally, person 3 has the responsibility in 30 seconds to bring the position to an emotional conclusion. Then students vote with their feet, and reflect on why they chose to move or stay. In a formal debate the opening statement, rebuttal, and closing argument is similar to legal formats and gives students an opportunity to present what they know while avoiding hostility, direct antagonism by modestly trying to persuade others in a dispassionate, objective political-type arena.

Document-Based Questions (DBQs)

The DBQ Project is a product that engages students with both American and World History primary and secondary source  documents.  DBQ tasks and activities reinforce practically every area of the Common Core Standards. Students analyze the information within historical documents to draw out evidence, facts and reasons for their own thesis i which answers a meaningful driving or focus question.  From that thesis statement they write a persuasive essay.

Economic Simulations

Simulations are imitations of real world activities over time.  Economic simulations and activities allow students to play with the stock market, or international trade or supply and demand in a setting that seems real, but no real money is invested.  Sometimes students are given a set amount of “money” to invest or trade, and they follow their choices in real-time for a period of time.  At the end of the simulation, they take stock of how well they have done. When I taught 4th grade fifteen years ago our students played the Oregon Trail in which their character had choices to make in order to travel safely from St. Louis to Sacramento with some money left at the end of the journey to buy mining supplies.  Students kept a journal and kept records of how much they earned or lost each day.  Computer simulations have come a long ways in 15 years, but simulations are still engaging and teach critical thinking skills as well as reading and writing skills. Project Citizen is a program that teaches students to make public policy, which always has an economic as well as a social issue component. California Council for Economic Education has some interactive simulation games as does the Federal Reserve.

Environmental Education Initiative

This curriculum meets standards for history, science and environmental studies in units that can replace the textbook for the specific standards they address.  Available through CDE at no cost, the Environmental Education Initiative  materials offer high quality modules for grades K-12.  Teacher can download the material at http://www.CaliforniaEEI.org after they fill in a form because the materials are password protected.

Interactive Mapping

National Geographic Society’s website, is just one of many online resources that have maps and activities.  Interactive means that students can make choices.  They start by choosing a region to study, then a smaller area, such as a state.  Next they choose physical, human or environmental systems.  With each choice the map changes or a text boxes pop out giving students information.   Google Earth is another online resource that has many uses.   Students can practically walk the streets virtually.  If they are studying a novel there are units already developed using maps and pictures.  They can connect their own pictures and maps to create their own virtual itineraries as well.  The California Geographic Alliance also has interactive maps.  Spatial thinking is one of the history analysis skills that integrates will with reading literature as well as reading for information because all stories have settings.

Little Women

Mock Trials and Simulated Hearings

Both a mock trial event and a simulated hearing require students to formulate and present an argument for or against an issue. These activities assess students both in social studies and civic education content as well as addressing many Common Core standards. Students write an argument based on evidence, facts and reasoning ahead of the hearing or trial. However, during the course of the presentation the student presenting their argument may be interrupted by questions or objections, from a student attorney or even an actual judge who is trying the case, or and attorney who is judging a simulated hearing. Students are then forced to defend their viewpoint based on evidence. For example, We the People publishes simulated congressional hearings. Constitutional Rights Foundation publishes mock trial cases. Researching online teachers can also find famous court cases appropriate to use with students. Students don’t know the outcome of the case, and they received primary sources and make the judgments for themselves before they read what the Supreme Court actually decided. Many local and state Councils for the Social Studies have resource links on their websites. Our local Council for the Social Studies,SJVCSS  http://valleysocialstudies.com/resources/teaching-resources/, which is affiliated with California Council for the Social Studies has a very complete page or useful links thanks to the work of Dr. Peg Hill from the Inland Empire Council for the Social Studies.

Problem-Based Inquiry and Project-Based Learning

Based on a driving question, using an effective hook to start the inquiry, project or problem-based learning allows the students’ natural curiosity  to motivate them to learn content.  In addition students solve problems at the same time.   In order to complete the project students must research, question, creatively problem solve, and present their product – preferably to an evaluator outside of the classroom. Brown University and Buck Institute for Education both have excellent materials. Bruce Lesh’s book, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers.” also has several complete lesson examples.

Service Learning

Service learning can be more than planting a community garden, picking up trash in the local park, or singing at a retirement center.  California Department of Education defines service learning as an “instructional strategy whereby students learn academic content standards by participating in organized service that addresses community needs and fosters civic responsibility.” While all the above activities foster civic responsibility and address a need, the teacher needs to insure that there is an academic part of the activity.  For example, students that research about the plants, take part in an economic simulation as they decide which seeds to purchase,  or consider whether to buy genetically engineered or heirloom seeds are integrating social studies with the activity of planting a garden.  Constitutional Rights Foundation and  Center for Civic Education both have excellent materials and lesson plans for service learning projects.

Skits, Readers Theaters, and Performances

Students who create their own performances learn content and language arts at a high level. They have to make iessential decisions about what facts and details are most important to portray in order to make a compelling story. National History Day offers students this opportunity in the Performance category. Shy students can use technology and do somewhat same thing, filming their presentation out of the classroom and presenting a Documentary.  NHD-California has many useful research tools for teachers and students as well.  Below is a student who is presenting at an event called Civil War Time Travelers in Fresno, California.  She and her classmates wrote a readers’ theater using diaries of children from the Civil War.  They presented the readers’ theater to thousands of 5th and 8th grade students from Tulare, Kings, Fresno, and Madera Counties that participated in this event.  Participating students went from learning station to learning station taking pictures, interviewing actors, taking notes.  After the event they wrote a time period newspaper and submitted it for judgement to the Fresno County Historical Society.  In this way both the presenters and the participants took part in an academic activity that met both Common Core standards for English Language arts and History-Social Science.

There are many forms of authentic assessments that work for history-social studies. .  The students in the picture below are presenting their state History Day Performance at a Tulare County Historical Society Board of Directors’ meeting.

Adding just a few of the types of assessments listed above will add spice and life to the history-social science classroom. Students remember what they do for years. They will also remember the teacher that allowed them voice and choice and a chance to be creative.  Enjoy authentic assessments.

Six Shifts in ELA: More Informational Text

Bill and Melinda Gates want our students reading more informational texts.  Actually, that’s what we do primarily as adults, so much so that many people don’t have left over time to read for the pure pleasure of it.

For those of us who teach history-social studies this shift is a godsend.  When it comes to Social Studies, there are two questions to answer about this shift.

  • What non-fiction or informational text should my students read?
  • How should I support the language arts teacher in teaching the students to read in my content area of history-social science.

What to Read:  Recommending Informational Texts

First of all there are many recommended and interesting non-fiction items  that are as pleasurable to read as fiction.  In the Implementation Toolkit published by Tulare County Office of Education aligning the ELA Common Core Standards and the History-Social Science Analysis Skills, there is a list of books recommended in the standards and the California State Framework for History-Social Science.  Two types of informational materials are examined in subsequent paragraphs.

Cover designed by Laura Malmquist

Reading Biographies 

One of the easiest and most engaging informational texts for students to read are biographies.  Suggested biographies are listed for each grade levels.   Biographies  bring history to life because they put faces on the people that played in the drama of history.  Students  typically start out thinking that  “people in the past were stupid”  (Levstick & Barton. 2011. p. 134).  Biographies put people and their environments into perspective, and answer big questions about why they made the choices they made.

Student Activities to Make Biographies Relevant

  • participating in readers’ theaters
  • reading silently using graphic organizers to process information
  • practicing choral-reading interspersed with solo readers to stress:  timing, vocal emphasis and pronunciation
  • writing biographical poems
  • creating an advertisement for the biographical character using propaganda techniques
  • taking notes from different sources about the target historical character
  • making comments on a blog about the biography

Reading Primary Sources

  •  Diaries
  •  Memos
  •  Letters
  •  Photographs
  •  Cartoons
  •  Paintings
  •  Billboards
  •  Statues
  •  Autobiographies
  •  Charts
  •  Maps
  •  Political documents
  •  Military records
  •  Vital records
  •  Census records

Two Tools to Analyze Primary Sources:

One of the most important differences between analyzing sources from a language arts perspective and a history-social studies perspective is the critical, analytic eye with which historians look at the source.  Bruce Lesh, author of “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” instructs his students to look beyond the text to the context and the subtext of the source.  The context is what was going on in the world during the time the source was created, and the subtext is reading between the lines to find out what is known about the author and the intended audience of the source.  Students are taught to ask, “What was the reason this source was produced when it was?”  Lesh. p. 39  this kind of questions jolt students out of their complacent history comfort zone into a place where they are forced to examine history as it was.

Using primary sources and biographies of both famous and ordinary folks that lived during particular periods of history allow students to create their own understanding of the context of history and draw conclusions in the same way that professional historians do when they are “doing” the work  of historians.  Students who read more informational texts and spend time analyzing them will develop critical thinking skills they need to be effective citizens of the 21st century.

The Importance of Writing in the History-Social Science Class

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.” Benjamin Franklin.

Both California’s Common Core State Standards (CCCSS) and the History/Social Science (HSS) Framework and Standards recommend writing as an essential tool for teaching the discipline of history/ social science because writing develops analytic and critical thinking skills.  History classes should include both informal and formal writing.

 Informal Writing

A history class should practice  informal writing “routinely over extended time frames for a range of tasks, purposes and audiences (CCCSS Range of Writing 10, Grade 3)”.

  • Students must learn how to take notes.  They should always record their source of information whether from a lecture, an online source, book, or article.
  • A double-sided journal works well for this activity.  On one side of the paper the students record important facts from reading the text or primary source materials, lectures, student reports, and videos.  On the other side they record their own thinking, beliefs, questions, and ideas to analyze as they learn.
  • learning logs
  • outlines
  • doodles
  • lists,
  • graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams and concept maps.
  • Digital notes:  Evernote is a free online product that allows students to record and insert pictures into their notes.

After they take notes, they should analyze their notes to decide the main idea, the author’s or speaker’s opinions or point of view, and find the credibility of the information source.  Informal writing is most effective when it is shared with one or two peers.  Typically these written works are not edited by the students or teacher for errors, but they may be expanded and modified after being shared with a classmate.  Writing informally to learn is one of the first steps students use when preparing to write a formal history/ social science essay.

 Formal Writing

Formal writing in history/social science answers a question and includes:  arguments, informational texts and narration of historical events in both short and sustained research projects.  All three of these writing types consist of answering question and presenting facts and examples to persuade a reader to accept the student’s interpretation of history.  The teacher’s responsibility is to begin a writing project with a question prompt about a significant issue within a larger historical context that will stimulate student thinking.

Writing programs differ only slightly in describing five steps in writing a formal historical essay from pre-writing to a published document.  The steps are:  pre-writing, draft, revising, editing, and publishing.  Students do best when teachers clearly communicate what they expect by showing examples of similar papers at each stage of the process about other topics in which students have written successfully to a prompt.  It is also helpful to demonstrate to students what is not successful, but teachers must always end by showing the successful model.

  • Pre-writing
    • Students must understand and analyze the prompt, place it in the proper context, and develop a thesis statement in which they state their opinion about the topic.
    • Students need to know the purpose and audience for which and to whom they are writing,
    •  Pre-writing also includes collecting and sorting information.  Students may need direct instruction on how to use the Internet to research, how to tell secondary from primary resources and understand why both are important.  In addition to gathering information, students will discard unimportant details, and keep only those that support the claim they make in their thesis statements.
    • Finally in the pre-writing stage students need experience with academic vocabulary.  Teachers need to be clear in their instructions as to which words students are required to use in their final product.
  • Draft
    • Starting with a hook like a quotation or interesting fact students will turn their outlines or graphic organizers into an essay with an introduction, body and conclusion.  The thesis, stated somewhere in the introductory paragraph, controls the argument and answers the historical question in one sentence.  It states the author’s opinion authoritatively using the verbs “to have” or “to be” rather than using specific opinion words.  The thesis statement should be followed by persuasive words such as “This is historically important because…” or “This shows that…”
    • Each paragraph also has a main idea, general and specific details, and a transition or conclusion.
    • In the body of the essay, students should start with the weakest argument (Scarcella, 2003; Schleppegrell, 2004.).  Students should aim to include 3-4 factual details to prove each argument or concept.
    • Rather than offering a simple summary, the formal historical essay concludes by restating the thesis and applying the analysis to a broader context to show its significance in history.
  • Revising
    • Word sorting activities, using word banks or thesauruses they make edits to revise and improve their reports.
    • They read each other’s work and “question the author” to make sure that the message they have is clear.
    • They allow time to distance themselves from their work so they can be objective as they make deep cuts and edits to their original draft.
  • Editing
    • Proofreading and editing still needs to take place to perfect the product.  They need to check for punctuation, complete sentences, capitals, grammar.
    • Finally they should include text features such as: font sizes, bold and italicized print, charts, maps and pictures.
  • Publishing
    • Finally the works is ready to be published.  This may be in the form of a paper, book, brochure, or a digital production such as a blog or photo story.  There are many other forms of publications each with their own requirements.

Writing about history is often controversial, and cannot be understood unless writers imagine themselves in a different period of history, in a different place and culture.  They must garner facts and evidence to take up a new identity and make sense of the events of history.  Tom Clancy states, “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  Often history doesn’t make sense, and student historians have the opportunity to investigate and produce their slant on what really happened in history”.  Writing helps students learn from and make sense of history, and develops their critical and analytic thinking.  Write on, historians.



Academic Vocabulary is one of the six major shifts in language arts standards as states are moving to implement the Common Core Standards.  Teaching academic vocabulary is going to be ubiquitous.  Every content area teacher ia already responsible for teaching vocabulary.  All content teachers teach the vocabulary that is unique to their content.  Where, but in a history class, would you learn the word Senate?  The shift in academic vocabulary instruction due to the implementation of the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts is that all content area teachers will  become responsible for teaching Tier 2 words, words that are ubiquitous across all content areas.


The word ubiquitous is ubiquitous.  While  this is an accurate and true statement it is the perfect example of why having students use vocabulary or spelling words in a sentence is not an effective learning strategy.  However, the question is whether or not the word ubiquitous rises to the level of being classified as academic vocabulary that should be taught by direct instruction by content area teachers.  I would argue that it does not.

Granted when you meet a person and he or she uses the word ubiquitous in general conversation, your first impression is that the person is well-educated.  I know that because it happened to me.  I remember exactly where I was when I when I first heard the word ubiquitous.  My husband and I were eating lunch at Hometown Emporium in Exeter, California, when a friend approached him and said, “My friend, you are ubiquitous.”  I was impressed with this friend, and we spent the next five minutes discussing his choice vocabulary word – and that was my introduction both to the word and the friend.


Only Tier 2 words are targeted for direct instruction by all content area teachers.  Is ubiquitous merely a showy, ostentatious Tier 3 word, or is it truly an academic necessity Tier 2 word? Based on the work of Isabel Beck, who categorizes academic words as Tier 1,2 or 3 level, I would classify ubiquitous as a Tier 3 word.  It is not a common or Tier 1 word like pencil or high use word like the.  It does not have different meanings in different content areas like Tier 2 words:  table, key, or expression.


To give you an example of a ubiquitous Tier 2 word, let’s put the word table on the table.  To do that I’ll create a table to demonstrate how it is used in different content areas.


Even though Common Core standards are only adopted nation-wide for language arts and mathematics, language arts standards are particularly ubiquitous.  To make a point, I would argue that Common Core standards in English Language Arts are even MORE CORE, more ubiquitous, if you were,  than in mathematics because students have to read, write, speak, and listen even to master the core mathematics standards.

Common Core standards are ubiquitous in the United States.  Again, I would argue that the major shift of teaching academic vocabulary may be the most ubiquitous of the six major shifts in language arts standards.  Words are important.  They represent the expression of all we think and do.  Words are ubiquitous.