Transcription of the episode “Why teach history? Knowing ‘why’ shapes ‘how”

Amy H-L: [00:00:00] Hi. I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Our guest today is Richard Miller. Richard retired after 28 years of teaching history in New York City middle and high school grades, including at Central Park East Secondary School, CPESS, and Beacon High School. Welcome, Richard. 

Richard M: [00:00:31] Thanks for having me.

Amy H-L: [00:00:33] You’ve taught history for 28 years. Why should schools teach history? 

Richard M: [00:00:40] Well, it’s the question I kept asking myself all during those 28 years. And my opinion about it changed a fairly good amount during my career. Initially, I had hoped to become a teacher. I actually started teaching in my late thirties with the idea that I would eventually become active in the United Federation of Teachers union because I’d come out of the labor movement from my other careers and I wanted to be a history teacher, but also be very active in the in the UFT union. And I, to be honest, I think when I started, I didn’t have a real clear view of why history should be taught. I always liked history. I was a history buff in high school. I was a history major in college. I think history is important and I always liked it, but probably, if I was totally honest, thought I would be able to convince students of my view of history and get them excited about how I saw historical patterns and historical movements and historical figures, and that’s how I started teaching. 

The first couple of years when I was at Central Park East, I was teaching middle school. I think it’s pretty easy for middle school teachers to inculcate their viewpoint into their students. They’re 13 and 14 years old, and then over time, my opinion and reasons for wanting to teach history changed. And I would say by the end of my career, two years ago when I retired, I had moved to the position that teaching history was important because it was a great way to help students learn how to use their minds well, and they could learn how to distinguish between evidence-based arguments and arguments that had little to do with real evidence. It could help them become better at making a case for something in their own lives. 

And I also think we should teach history because it’s important for students to understand the past. I mean, this is somewhat of a cliché, but I really do think it’s true that they can’t understand the world they live in without having some notion of history. And I think, and this is something that we did a lot of at Beacon, I think students want to know why the world is as it is now. They’re very curious about that. And to understand that, they need to have some background about American history, global history, and how things connect. 

Amy H-L: [00:03:20] What are the most important things you want students to know or to be able to do as a result of having taken history in high school?

Richard M: [00:03:29] Yeah. Well, my opinion about that has changed over time as well. There is a part of me that would like graduating high school students to know sort of the big picture of of history in terms of what, what’s happening, who key figures are and why, what all the isms are. You know, Jon’s son, Lev, and I used to give students a letter at the beginning of the year, which was about the 11 isms that they ought to know starting with, I guess, feudalism all the way up to communism. And I think it’s a nice thing that 12th graders might leave high school knowing some of the major events, major figures, major movements in, in all of history, and particularly in American history, at least for 11th graders, that’s the goal in New York state.

Sadly, that’s not always the case. I mean, I, there are students, the student that I’m tutoring right now, didn’t know much about the Cold War until about a week ago, and he’s a 12th grader. Um, I think that’s probably pretty true all over the country. And I think Beacon’s a very good school. CPESS was a very good school, the two schools I’ve worked at, and we ended up with lots of students who by the end of the time they left high school didn’t know that much. So I think, while I would love them to know those things. I think even more important is that they learn how to think like a historian, how to ask questions like historians do, how to, how to weigh different sources and come to some conclusion about what sources are better, how to take evidence from a primary source and evidence from a secondary source and use it to make their own arguments stronger. I think they should also be able to make that connection that we, I was talking about before, between the past and the present, that when we look at what’s happening now with the effects of the Coronavirus and the government’s response, you know, where do these ideas come from that the Republicans have and the Democrats have, and that governors have in some states. 

I would think this would be an amazing time to be teaching. I’ll have to check with my ex-colleagues and see if they agree. But it would seem to me that students are crying out for some kind of historical framework for why we’re in the situation that we’re in right now. 

Jon M: [00:06:04] I want to ask, cause you’ve talked some about what you’re hoping individual students will get from history, learning how to use their minds well, being able to distinguish arguments, understanding the world. How does this fit into the larger questions of how society functions? When you mentioned that you came into it hoping that students would sort of come to understand the world somewhat as you do, and obviously I suspect you have strong thoughts about what society could look like. What’s the connection between what individual kids learn, and is there a connection with what you or they would like to see society look like? Especially because we know. I mean, Lev has pointed out to me and I’ve read that there’s very little connection between what, if you will, the mass of people want in terms of policy and what actually becomes policy. I mean, there are certainly connections and there are ways that mass action does ultimately impact, but it’s not a simple, you know, 87% of the people think X and therefore X is going to become a law. So how does, how does that all fit together? 

Richard M: [00:07:15] Wow. Yeah, that’s a really complex and good question. I mean, first of all, I would say that by the time I stopped teaching and I, I think probably Lev and  I disagree about this a little bit. I’ll have to call him tomorrow and ask him if he agrees with my assessment that we disagree somewhat. 

Again, I think it’s important for teachers to be clear about how they see the world. And I think pretty much most of my students knew my views about things without being overly didactic and without basically saying, this is how it is, and you should follow my view of the world, or either you won’t be successful in my class or whatever. And I have seen teachers with that view, which I think is not a good way to teach. I taught lots of very conservative students. I taught lots of students who were much more radical than I am at this point in terms of their views of what should be done. But I think the role of schools, and I think particularly of history teachers, but I think it’s true for all teachers, is to try to help make students into the best informed citizens that they can be. Showing them through history that citizens, and oftentimes young citizens more than others, have played critical roles in mass movements that have changed things and made things better and sometimes made things worse temporarily. But to show them that it’s not just about them being successful in class, which I think is important, and I think all students want to be successful, but that, and again, this is sort of connects to how you structure your classroom, because you can model how students can help each other and how students can work together in ways that they could then see could work in the larger society.

That said, I was a somewhat, I think the term is teacher-centric, teacher. You know, I, I ran the classroom. There was a lot of me not lecturing, but talking and answering questions. That’s not always the most progressive modality for history teaching, and some of my colleagues I think are much better at more progressive styles of teaching. My own view is that each teacher has to figure out what’s successful for him or her. And mine was a somewhat teacher-centric. A method that that worked. And I would say one other thing that I think that is important, which is my goal was to get students excited about history. To get them to see that it’s important, that it’s, it can be fun, it can be engaging, but it matters.

And I think that’s the role of every successful, or it should be the goal of every successful history teacher is that students become more interested in the study of history, the practice of history, and convince them that it matters. Because the reality is there are a lot of students who think, God, c’mon, this is not very important and who cares about this stuff? And it’s a big task. 

Amy H-L: [00:10:42] I have a different question about goal setting. So when you were teaching a class, for example, your 11th grade American history course, would you set goals for the year? If so, how would the goals affect how you would design specific units and activities? 

Richard M: [00:11:01] Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, yes, there were, there were content goals, there were skills goals, there were classroom environment goals, in terms of building a cohesive atmosphere and working environment in class. They probably changed a little bit over the years, although by the last,  I don’t know, five, six, seven, eight years, I had pretty much figured out what I wanted to teach. I would tweak it a little bit each year in terms of the content. I was a fairly flexible teacher and again, I was extremely fortunate that the two schools that I worked in gave me tremendous autonomy in the classroom so I had a lot of room to change the goals during the year if things weren’t going well, to change course in terms of content. If students raised questions, and again, you know, the best classes were ones where I had really inquisitive students who came into class every day and said, “Well, Mr. Miller, you know, we read that thing last night and it made me think about this,” and we’d spend the whole hour not doing what I thought we were going to be doing. And then we might even go off on a tangent for a week or a month. That isn’t something that I would argue. Unfortunately, most teachers don’t have that kind of autonomy and control. Although even in schools that have to teach the Regents, in schools where it’s a more structured in environment, I think teachers can be a lot more autonomous in their classrooms and creative to follow the interest that their students are evincing in terms of both content and skills. And again, I wasn’t the most structured, but I, I wasn’t a total, just like come in and make it up every day. But I think it’s significant to start with goals for the year.

But you know, it depends also on the classroom that you have each year. And there were years that I taught two sections of 11th grade. One year I taught only 11th graders at Beacon, I had four different classes of about 34 students. And interestingly enough, each one of them was different. And so I, you know, I had to change the pace in each classroom. The focus changed. The students weren’t interested in the same things, so that meant sort of rearranging and rethinking what the goals should be as the year unfolded.

Jon M: [00:13:39] What kind of advice would you give to a new teacher who’s coming in to teach history and has to think about what they want to set up as a goal for the year, and then has to think about how they’re going to get there. What kinds of things, I mean, you obviously, you know, by the time you finished, you had so many years of experience that it would probably be almost instinctive based on just all the knowledge that you had. But for someone who’s just starting and is feeling sort of, you know, what do I do now, what would be some ways that you’d recommend that they can connect where they want to be at the end of the year and how they get there along the way?

Richard M: [00:14:27] Well, the first thing I would say is go talk to somebody that’s been doing it for a while and try to find a mentor or colleague who can talk you through it. I’m trying to think back to 1990 when I started teaching and if I had goals, who knows, and they were probably fairly unclarified at that point. So I think, you know, I think this is one of the problems. 

I’ll digress here for a second. With teacher education, I think lots of people go through these teacher programs. I went through a fairly good one at Hunter, but I don’t think much of teacher education programs.

So I think, find a mentor, ask questions, and then I think they just have to be realistic that in the first year or two or three, their goals are going to have to be fairly limited. I mean, you can’t do everything unless you’re just an exceptionally unusual first year teacher, of which I have met a few, but they’re not the norm. I think, you being realistic about what do you want to cover content wise, depending on what kind of situation you’re in. So if you’re in a Regents school, you’ve got to cover obviously a lot of breadth, but are there some units that you could go into great depth on, which I think makes for better teaching.

What are your strengths as a teacher? So do you really want to work on teaching students how to research and write? Do you want to work on having students learn better oral argumentative skills because that’s something that you’ve value? I think teachers teach best when they’re teaching to their strengths and when they’re clear about what skills they think their students should have and need. 

And so again, now I’m, I’m going to change my mind here a little bit. But you know, to some extent you can only set goals after you’ve encountered your students and you sort of know where they are. And so you can go in thinking, okay, well this year we’re doing X, Y, and Z, and you end up with a group of students with a very low skill set compared to previous years for whatever reason. And so you might have to alter your goals. And good teachers are flexible on many fronts, but goal setting would be one of them as well. 

Jon M: [00:17:02] You mentioned that one of the things you’d like is for students to learn to think how historians think, and you’ve talked about historiography. What is historiography and why is it important? Why is it something you spend time on?

Yeah. Well, historiography is the history of the history of an event. So just as an example, I, one of my favorite ones is rather than studying what caused World War I, you would say, “Okay, how have interpretations of what caused World War I changed since 1914?” Because people started writing about the cause of the war on, you know, July 28th, when it started. And there’s a very rich and deep and complex debate among historians, depending on when they wrote, their nationality, their gender, their political bias and viewpoint about who’s most responsible for the start of the war. What were the major factors that started the war? There are schools of thought about what caused the war and for most big historical questions, there are similar schools of thought and and argumentation. I think it’s an amazing thing that someone would leave high school first, knowing some of that historical material that I was talking about earlier, but secondly, knowing what the heck historiography is and why it matters. And I used to tell the students this. I never learned this until I was in graduate school. You know, in my small high school in Western Pennsylvania, it never came up. It never came up when I studied history in college, really. I mean, obviously we were looking at different interpretations, but it wasn’t a conscious, oh, let’s talk about how history changes over time. The thing is that once you accept that there are different schools of thought in history and historiographical changes, you realize history is not just a series of facts and events and people and, you know, famous people. I think those are important parts of the study of history, but that’s not the be all and end all. And I think that’s revelatory to students. I think it’s eye opening to their parents when they come in and say like, well, you know, “What do you mean we don’t know exactly what caused World War II” and “What do you mean we don’t know that much about why slavery ended in America?” And you try to get that through to them. And I think that’s empowering the students. It makes them think like, “Wow, maybe it’s not the worst thing that I don’t know everything about what caused World War II to start. But I have some sense that it’s complicated and messy and might keep changing, and it might depend if I’m listening to a Marxist historian or a neo-liberal historian or conservative historian.” So we spent a lot of time working on that at Beacon. I think we did a good job of it. It’s not something that all high school students get.

Richard M: [00:20:08] It also means you give up on some content coverage. And so my desire to have students know all the content had to take a back seat sometimes when we would spend a month on the question of what caused  World War I. That’s not a typical high school classroom. 

Amy H-L: [00:20:27] Well, it must give special meaning to the kids who see “Hamilton.” You know “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

Richard M: [00:20:35] Yeah, that’s true. “Hamilton” was a huge, you know, central point for a couple of years. During my last couple of years of teaching, kids were singing it all the time in class, and you know, a number of them, a significant number of them, were mesmerized by the story and the musical, and so it was quite good. Yeah, I used it a lot in my 11th grade history class, as a matter of fact. 

Jon M: [00:21:00] And it’s interesting because at the same time that it was super, super exciting, in many ways, it was presenting a fairly standard version. You know, all the characters in history who were white or most of them, even though in fact, you know the people playing them on Broadway, you know, were not, and you know, it was based on Ron Chernow’s book, which is obviously a fairly conservative historian’s view of things, so that it goes to show also, how can be telling a story and the way you in which you tell the story is in fact a version of historiography. 

Richard M: [00:21:38] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think I had a number of students who ended up writing their final papers on aspects of Hamilton in the last couple of years. One of the big questions was how much of an abolitionist was Hamilton? Truly, it’s a complex question. I don’t really even still know my own view of it, but it’s a great question and Chernow clearly presents him in a very positive light on that question. And I, you know, some students came away thinking like, well, I like the musical, but I’m not sure that it’s really accurate history, at least on that question. And a couple of students got  interested in the Whiskey Rebellion and Hamilton’s role in suppressing that.

Jon M: [00:22:23] And then of course, that can lead you to literature. You know, um, I’m blanking on his name, but, um, who wrote a novel about the Whiskey Rebellion?

Richard M: [00:22:36] David Liss. Lev loves the book.

Jon M: [00:22:37] I do too! 

Richard M: [00:22:38] well, OK, we have different historical literary tastes, but he’s quite good. I liked his other books. I did not like The Whiskey Rebellion. 

Jon M: [00:22:49] Well, that can be the topic of another episode. 

Richard M: [00:22:54] I think one of the things that I think is great for students, and I wish I had done more of it, but yeah, we did some, is getting students to read historical fiction. It’s a great way of looking at what is true and what’s not true in history. I taught a 12th grade class at Beacon for a number of years on how well movies can teach history, and we would pick a historical movie, watch it together and then try to figure out. Is It accurate? Does it matter that it’s accurate? You know, how much artistic license should people have in making historical movies? And that was a very popular class, in part because students thought all we were going to do was watch movies. And it turned out that they had to do a lot of reading and writing as well. But it was still a fun class to teach. 

Amy H-L: [00:23:44] Richard, you’ve mentioned that schools have an ethical obligation to teach writing. Why is writing so important and what makes it an ethical issue? 

Richard M: [00:23:54] Yeah, that’s a great question. Also, I think because so much of our world involves writing. I mean obviously most of the people I taught are not going to become historians or history teachers, but they’re going to be involved in endeavors that will require being persuasive writers. So I think it’s important that students learn the craft of persuasive writing. And so whether it’s in history class, one of my very good colleagues at Beacon who’s an English teacher, you know, spent a lot of time teaching nonfiction persuasive writing and what makes good writing.

So I just think it’s important for citizens to be able to write effectively. And the other side of good writing is being able to read and understand and analyze and critique persuasive writing. And I think this has  obviously become  critical, critical, critical under President Trump and the current attack on truth and historical truth, but it’s true for all of the discussions around climate  and any other issues where there is a notion of truth and evidence-based argumentation. And how do you figure out in an increasingly complicated world with students and then adults as well being bombarded with arguments, written and oral, and how do you begin to decipher what’s true quote unquote, or what’s closer to the truth or what’s clearly not true, I think is probably, this is back to “why teach history,” the most important skill a student could leave high school with right now. Not to mention all of us older types as well need the skill. So I think reading really good historical writing is a way to help students understand that you build an argument by making an assertion and then finding and presenting the best possible evidence in a logical, coherent, structured kind of way. And I think writing is one way to do it. Clearly speaking is another way, but it’s the same thing. You have to be able to make a case and you have to be able to address evidence that that makes sense. 

I mean, one of the biggest challenges that we had teaching historical writing, I would say, was students would be quite good at making assertions. And, and they had read enough historical material, I think to know how to do it, but then they would, you know, find a piece of evidence that seemed to be related to the assertion they were making and just stick it in their writing. And they just didn’t see that what they had said was not supported by the evidence that they were using to support it. And I think, I mean, some of that comes from not reading as carefully as they should. Some of it comes just from being young people in being not willing to work as hard as they needed to sometimes, but also you have to read a lot of those kinds of structured arguments to see that there’s a sequence to the argument and that things have to relate to each other. And I think if students are gonna leave high school and go on, whether they go to college or not, and participate as meaningful citizens, they’re going to have to be able to read and listen critically to things that are being told to them. In a way, that has always been true. But you know, when I graduated from high school in 1971, there were a lot fewer news sources that were bombarding me. Of the major news sources, they were a lot closer in ideological perspective and it was somewhat easier to kind of figure out, okay, well, what’s totally crazy out there, like the National Enquirer, and what’s, you know, somewhat in the ballpark of meaningful argument. I think that’s a lot harder to do right now. 

At the end, frankly, I think it’s just getting harder. I mean, with the amount of sources that students have available to them, you know, written sources, audio sources, video sources is a huge thing. So one of the things I was just doing with the student that I’m tutoring was looking at a review of six books about the historical figure that we’re looking at. All the books came out in the early 1980s. And the review was trying to figure out, you know, which one of these books has the best evidence, which has the best argument, who are the historians who published the books? And those are things that I think are just sort of part of historical literacy that students need to get.

And the ethical part on top of it, just trying to be a good citizen, is it’s not fair that some kids are going to some schools and graduating with that skill. And others are coming out of high school without having grappled with that kind of complexity and they don’t have the skills to even begin to try to decipher what’s more accurate than another source, which I think is a terrible injustice to those students in those schools where they don’t get that skill.

Jon M: [00:29:32] Following from that, you also had students read the New York Times every day or the front page of the Times. I’m not sure exactly what you had them read. Why was this important?

Richard M: [00:29:42] I don’t own any stock in the New York Times, so we weren’t trying to get the students to necessarily read the Times. The Times was our source because as Lev said, it’s the paper of record for lots of people all around the world. So we had them read the front page every day. It was a major struggle on top of all their other work. But you know, my reason for doing it, and again, I think this was Lev’s idea, so I’m not, I want to give him full credit because he often accuses me of not giving him enough credit for that. But, you know, I think we, we thought, and I, I certainly always believed this, that it’s helpful for students to connect the past and the present. And you know, everybody always says, well, you know, you can’t understand the present without understanding the past. Well, if they don’t read the New York Times, they don’t even know what the hell is going on in the present. And so trying to get them to see historical patterns or how things connect is … We can do that.  but if you don’t know what’s going on in the world today at all, and you can’t locate Serbia on a map or you don’t know where Yemen is, or you’ve never even heard of Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic, uh, it’s hard to then say, well, look, this is why the Munich Crisis of 1938 kind of makes sense and cetera, et cetera. So that’s one.

Secondly, I think students ultimately really do want to know. I think I might’ve said this earlier, why the world they live in is the way it is. I think that’s the overarching question for high school students. Like why are some people so rich and some people are so poor? And why are some countries seemingly more successful and others are not?

And why are people treated anyway? All these questions that high school kids always want to know cause they would, they’re all about fairness and why is this this way? So I think by reading the Times and getting them to think about their world, it then got them more excited about the path. And I do think that was one of the reasons why we were successful at getting students at Beacon to be excited about history because they could see that it actually did make some difference and that all this stuff we were teaching them either about the distant past in ninth grade or more recent past in 10th grade global or in 11th grade US history. It actually made some sense that it connected to their lives. I think this is particularly true for kids in New York City, students of color, immigrant students. There’s a lot of stuff in American history that if you don’t know anything about it, you have a hard time understanding the present. But if you don’t know what’s going on in the present, you might never ask the questions about the past. And so, you know, again, it was, it meant taking time out of the curriculum. It meant not covering some of the core stuff that I would have taught earlier, but I think it was important. So yeah, it doesn’t have to be the New York Times, but I think students need to keep up on what’s happening in their world.

And if you don’t give them an incentive or some kind of reason to do it, you know they’ve got a lot of other things to do in their lives. I recognize that that’s not going to be their default. Oh, let me get up and see what happened in the Times today. 

Amy H-L: [00:33:17] Speaking of incentives, assessment has a big impact on what happens in the classroom. How do you use assessments? 

Richard M: [00:33:25] Yeah, I mean, I used it. Again, this changed a lot over my teaching career, but by the end, I used it for a couple of reasons and ways of helping my teaching. One, I mean, to be fair, I taught at Beacon for the last, I guess, 14 or 15 years of my career. Beacon’s a very competitive high school. The students are going off to ever better and better, elite, well-functioning, good colleges, whatever the correct terminology is. And so there was increasing interest, if not pressure, from students and their parents and I would say the faculty, to some extent, that we be able to differentiate among students so that the whole college process, it could function. I’m not saying these in order of importance, but that was clearly part of that was driving the train by the time I retired from Beacon. We used to just have ABCD, no credit. Then we went to a plus minus system. And that was largely driven by the college office saying, you know, we need to be able to differentiate among all these wonderful Beacon students. And their families want it, the students want it. I was opposed to it when the change was made, but that was the change and we all had to accept it. I mean, my own view of assessment, of why it’s helpful, is it sort of goes back to what we talked about earlier with goals. It can help you to see, okay, if I really want students to become better at research and writing, which I think are always coupled in history in high school, uh, you’ve got to have some way of measuring that.

And so I became more adept at giving smaller writing assignments so that students got more practice at writing. I could give them clear goals of this is what I want you to do on this, and I could turn the essays around fast enough that I could get them back the students. So they got meaningful feedback. I thought it was meaningful, at least. So that by the time I got to the next essay, they knew, oh, well, I got to do this differently and I should try to change that. This is a huge task for history teachers, particularly at a place like Beacon, where we’re teaching 130 students or so. They’re writing multi-page papers. Theyre  sometimes writing multiple drafts of the paper. My colleagues who had young children at home, I never quite understood how they were able to do that and grade all the papers. And a lot of us were coaches as well. It’s extremely labor intensive, time consuming, sometimes really tough. If you’ve given a bad assignment and students have done a bad job on your bad assignment, it can really be tough for them to write the paper and then almost impossible for you to grade all of them. So in terms of the writing, that’s why I think assessments are great. 

You can see back to the goal part, well, geez, this is a year that we really have to work on this skill or this content area. I also use tests and quizzes limitedly but, uh, I think strategically to find out did students get what I was trying to get across to them, whether it was a big theory or… By the time I retired, I would often do a three or four day just like, here’s the facts about World War I.  This is sort of what you need to know. This Austrian Hungarian guy gets shot and the Serbian group wants independence and there are these alliances and I would basically be, again, very teacher-centric and give them the information in a, hopefully entertaining and engaging way, and then I’d give them a test. Then again, this is something that Lev has done a lot of as well. They studied darn hard for those tests because they wanted to do well, but it was very clear what they were going to be asked. I don’t think tests are the be all and end all of assessments, but I think they can be used quite effectively to target students in their learning. And then for you as a teacher to find out, like, is anybody listening? Like, all that homework that they’re doing. Are they actually incorporating any of it? We did lots of oral presentations in class. I did a little bit less of this than my colleagues. I was talking about this with Jon the other day, but you know, there’s a lot of other ways, particularly for students that are not great writers, to engage them, give them a chance to demonstrate their knowledge, their skill ability.

I gave students a lot of extra credit opportunities that they were good artists to do, artistic renderings that would show the historical understanding. So, you know, it’s a much larger question in terms of what’s the purpose of assessment in the larger educational system. And I, that’s something that, again, I was relatively fortunate to not have to deal with fully. We didn’t give the Regents at Beacon. And it’s interesting just now watching all of the, uh, talk about getting rid of the SAT and the ACT totally because of the coronavirus issues. More and more schools going to test optional, which I think if that happens, will filter down and have an impact on high schools in terms of what the way they assess students and they ask students to demonstrate their knowledge.

Jon M: [00:39:11] Both Beacon and CPESS use, in CPESS’s case used, project-based assessments. What’s your sense of those? And how do they compare to other forms of assessment? 

Richard M: [00:39:25] I think for final cumulative assessments, they’re very effective. I think they’re much better than the obvious alternative, which is some kind of final test or the Regents. And  in history, you know, at different grade levels, you can have different kinds of project based assessments. At Beacon, we basically used ninth and 10th grades to help students learn how to make an oral presentation about what they have learned. And then the one that really counted was 11th grade, where they would do a major research paper and then come in and make an oral presentation of three to five to 10 minutes. We increasingly had them doing it in groups by the time they were done. So let’s say the three of us all wrote our papers on, let’s say, some interesting figure like John Brown, but we all had slightly different takes on either what motivated Brown or his significance or his importance. And so the three of us would make a presentation to the teacher and one other teacher where we would be talking to each other, questioning each other, showing both our understanding of what made Brown significant and also the different historical takes on Brown, how the historiography of Brown has changed a great deal. And that was, you know, an extremely, I think, meaningful and wonderful way to end a year of working with students because you got a real chance to talk with them. Students that had been extremely quiet all year long had no choice but to kinda step up and talk because they were engaged in this process, whether by themselves, if they had researched some very esoteric topic, or in a group. And I really believed and still believe that it’s much more meaningful than taking some kind of standardized history test.

You know, we used those during the course of the year, depending on what the topic was.

Usually, obviously smaller projects only just because of the time, but you know, whether it’s a group presentation or some kind of historical reenactment, I think they’re, they have a really big place to play. Again, I may be a little bit more traditional in the sense, I think tests and quizzes, have a role to play as well in terms of the things that we were talking about before, in terms of making sure students are staying on track with things, actually able to understand and explain back what they’ve learned, and it doesn’t have to be a regurgitated test, but you can make up really good tests if you’re creative and good at it. That’s another skill that people get better at. 

Jon M: [00:42:18] Thank you, Richard Miller. 

Richard M: [00:42:19] Thank you both. 

Amy H-L: [00:42:22] Thank you, listeners. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops and classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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