Transcript of the episode “Inquiry and interpretation: Learning US history from primary sources”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Lee Schere. Lee is the Director of Teaching and Learning at the Office of K-16 Initiatives of CUNY, the City University of New York. Our focus today is the “Debating US History” Program. Welcome, Lee. 

[00:00:34] Lee S: Thanks, Jon and Amy. It’s great to be here. 

[00:00:37] Amy H-L: What is “Debating US History”? 

[00:00:38] Lee S: ” Debating US History” is a curriculum and a teacher learning program for the New York City public schools, although it’s available to everyone, and we have people sign up from all over the country. 

It’s designed to do a whole bunch of things. One is to help teachers shift the teaching of US history from presentational mode to inquiry mode. And this is for the required 11th grade US history class in New York State. So that’s the big pivot that we’re trying to do with teachers. And we have all the materials to help them do this. By inquiry we mean starting with real live questions that historians have about American history, and having students engage with those questions by using primary documents to answer the question themselves. So they’re learning to interpret the past, and we present a very clear framework on how to do this.

We support the disciplinary literacy of what does a historian do when they read a document, and model these really clear steps and repeat them throughout so that they can on their own look at the past and the present with a critical lens. 

 We have some other goals as well, trying to expand the kinds of stories that you read about in US History, and include ones that are typically left out of a traditional course. And so it becomes a culturally relevant curriculum. 

We also convene teachers from around the city. Often teachers teach in smaller schools where they’re the only US history teachers, so they get to work with their peers from across the city and share different techniques of modifying the material for their classrooms to make sure that all students have access and can succeed in the class. That’s “Debating US History” in a nutshell. 

[00:02:42] Jon M: We’re definitely going to have some follow up questions about some of that. But from CUNY’s perspective, why was it important to develop a high school history course? 

[00:02:51] Lee S: This came out of our work. Our unit in general works on transition from secondary to post-secondary learning, and we had worked with some 12th grade curriculum to try to prepare students for the challenge of college academics, and we had worked with a English language arts curriculum specifically to help students become exempt from remediation before they started CUNY. Since then, CUNY has gotten rid of remediation and now only works with co-requisite courses and things like that. But the idea was to better align high school and college curricula, so we worked with a 12th grade course. We had gotten some funding and the funder observed, “12th grade seems quite late.” Couldn’t we go in earlier and work on aligning curriculum and give students the opportunity to potentially take a college credit course in their senior year? We already have a large dual enrollment program. So that’s how the work with the 11th grade course got started.

And the idea is to be very explicit about skills development and make the thinking skills visible and practiced throughout the curriculum so that students are working on developing college level skills. So we worked backwards from the 12th grade initiative and ended up with working with this 11th grade US history course, which also has a state- required exam.

So it’s also a bit of a demonstration project in that there’s often resistance if there’s a state exam. There’s pressure to teach to the test. And in this inquiry curriculum, we are demonstrating that you don’t have to teach to the test, that inquiry develops skills and that higher order thinking and inquiry and debate does develop student skills. And they, in developing these, they can perform well on whatever standardized tests is required. 

[00:04:58] Amy H-L: Lee, how is this a more ethical way to teach history than the way the US history is traditionally taught? 

[00:05:06] Lee S: I think in a bunch of different dimensions. For one, the focus on skills development and student-centered learning is higher quality teaching than a presentational mode, and so engages more students and allows more students to perform better and to have access to this important material. So that, that’s one dimension of it, I think. 

Related is the ways in which it brings in less told stories and so allows more students to relate to US history. It’s not just the founders emphasized. Students get to recognize themselves in the stories of the past in this country.

 Those are the two ways. Although it’s not just stories. We also go out of our way to present a framework for understanding race and racism and in general how power works in US history and in the present so that students can understand themselves as actors in US history and understand how power works so that they’re not seeing themselves as deficient but the power structures that might have marginalized their communities and limited their choices. That’s our ethical framework for the course. 

[00:06:32] Jon M: What are some examples of inquiry-based learning in the context of the course?

[00:06:37] Lee S: Well, most of our lessons are inquiry based, and it’s a survey course. We have many inquiries. They’re going to go from one to another pretty quickly, and then ask teachers to decide where they’re going to slow down and, and where they’re going to go faster. 

 An easy example is: We ask students, “Was Lincoln a racist?” We start with that provocative question and then go to primary sources, also giving them a sense of the context, right. Lincoln’s views changed over time and they themselves grapple with these primary documents and answer, debate, have cumulative evidence. You might start with one quote from Lincoln and draw a conclusion based on that talk in conversation with their peers. And then add some more evidence and come to another hypothesis. And again, return in a academic controversy framework. And that’s one approach that we have. We might do an inquiry about, how should a particular event be remembered, whether it’s the bombing of Hiroshima and looking at multiple perspectives on this, including from some of the victims’ population, looking at representations in different textbooks from different countries, for example, and asking students to interpret on their own. So it’s not a foregone conclusion what happened in the past or how it should be represented, but you’re looking at a whole bunch of different perspectives in trying to determine for yourself, using the evidence, what is the most accurate representation of of events.

[00:08:23] Jon M: Students obviously come with a variety of reading levels. What are some of the strategies that the teachers are using to help students who may have a lower reading level deal with primary documents? 

[00:08:36] Lee S: Yeah, there are a whole bunch of different strategies, usually referred to under the banner of differentiation. You can differentiate the text itself, and that might be having different levels of the same text. So you start with a complex primary document and cut it down for size. You’re looking at three or four different documents in one 40 minute class; you’ll want to take the heart of it, even if it’s only three or four sentences, and you might have a few different levels of that same document for different students.

It is a science. This is something that we go into in depth in our training sessions of what do you want to make sure to leave in a document like that and provide supports. We provide glossaries. We have a whole approach to vocabulary that’s based on the science that says you need multiple exposures to a word to understand it. And so you don’t just tell students oh, go look that up. But you can provide them a glossary so it’s not trying to make them work really hard for the meaning, but give them multiple supports. So we would start with a simple matching exercise, a glossary below the text, and then afterwards, another simple vocabulary, really easy, two minute vocabulary exercise at the end as well. So pre, during, and post vocabulary support, different levels of simplification of the text. You’re paying close attention to making sure you’re challenging students and not simplifying it too much. We also encourage teachers to model the reading process so that they’ll do a think aloud where they’ll put a document on the screen and talk through how a novice reader might approach it. So what are the thought processes that you have as an expert reader that are automatic? And as a teacher, you articulate them step by step to model a piece of the reading and then ask students to do the same. So that’s another strategy.

We also try to engage the text in multiple ways. So if a student gets different things out of reading the same text, but then you’ll provide some context and supports for understanding the ideas in there and have the small group and class conversation. So even if they didn’t get it all reading it on their own, they get some support from the class and understanding the ideas and can go from there. So we encourage teachers and we practice this in the community to provide a whole bunch of different supports. Hopefully teachers, many of the teachers, have have a team teacher as well. So they’ll engage in some small group work, extra vocabulary support with students who need it and things like that. 

There’s an ongoing theme in our training. We’ll have like multiple sessions, some that will go into other supports like recorded audio read-alouds for some of the texts as a potential support for some students, if that works. And we have some short videos that help introduce the context before going into the inquiry, which is the big challenge of a history course. To understand primary sources, you really have to have some sense of the context. And so you have to present some context in a mini lesson before delving into inquiry. So we use video and visuals a lot for that and even start a unit with simple visuals to give them some sense of what we’ll be talking about in this unit.

[00:12:28] Amy H-L: What are the key skills and strategies that students take from the course?

[00:12:34] Lee S: Probably the most important set of skills and strategies are the ways to read a historical document. We’re inspired by the Stanford History Education Group, which has standardized those steps. The first one is to pay attention to the source of the text and that’s really what distinguishes a historian reading something. They’ll go right to that kind of information. Who was the author, when was it written, do you knw anything about their background, and what then might you predict this person would say? And what text is it, who are they responding to, et cetera. Do you think that might make it biased in one way or another? And these are the historical thinking skills that actually the, the Regents is starting to test, paying attention to the source, where a text comes from, then what implications that has for its meaning is super important and helps students also. Helps us all to look at whatever we’re consuming with some skepticism and figuring out the reliability of the source.

So I’d say the skills as they laid out, as SHEG [Stanford History Education Group] lays them out are sourcing, contextualization, close reading, which is the same reading that you do in an English class, of looking, paying really close attention to the text and then corroboration. So it’s not just one text that you need to look at in order to understand the past, but looking at things from multiple perspectives and trying to put them together as a puzzle to understand the events. So yeah, sourcing, contextualization, close reading, and corroboration. I think the historical thinking skills are probably the most important. And being able to assess reliability, which is related. 

[00:14:23] Jon M: It seems that one of the really interesting things about historiography is that it becomes clear that a lot of times there aren’t definite answers, even on factual questions of what actually happened. Do you find that students come to feel comfortable with the idea that history isn’t just one set of very agreed-on events that happened one after another linearly, but that there’s a lot of uncertainty about it and that historians are still figuring things out even a couple of centuries later. I don’t know if I’m asking that very well, but I’m just really thinking about the idea of students shifting from the idea that everything is known to the idea that lot of things aren’t known. 

[00:15:22] Lee S: Yeah, that’s, it’s a big shift and it can be a struggle. It’s one of the main goals of our course and we have some assessments along the way to see how well students are grasping that concept.

I think students do often seek the right answer. And I think that’s really detrimental to learning if you’re always looking for the answer that your teacher wants you to spout, and students do seek that. I think it’s partly depends on their educational background, but I think there is a lot of teaching that does seek this right answer rather than allowing students explore the complexity behind whether it’s history or whatever subject they’re studying. But we try to dig deep on that. And from the very beginning. The very first lesson is when does American history start? And they look at different points. So they have a whole list of potential starting points for US history and get into a debate over which is the right date, right? 1619? 1776? When people– humans–cross the Bering Sraits? Where would you start the story and what are the implications of that? It really tries on the very first day to engage them in the concept that history is contested. And there’s a lot at stake in what the answers are and what the story says. And they have a stake in how the story is told as well. So that’s, that’s hammered on again and again in the curriculum. There is some resistance to it, and it can be a little discouraging. That is part of the shift to college level understanding is that the world is very complex, and even historians, as they explain things, they write a monograph. It takes a whole book sometimes to explain the complexities of one event that might take up a line or two in a high school history textbook.

[00:17:41] Jon M: Amy asked before about the relationship to ethics. And it seems, and you were talking about, why this is in fact a more ethical way of teaching. And it seems that students would also find themselves grappling with ethical questions as an integral part of the conversations. Is that something that teachers talk about when you get together in your professional development programs? 

[00:18:09] Lee S: Yeah, we see them in some of the short debates. Often there’s like a spectrum. Do you agree or disagree? There is even, in thinking about like industrialization and treatment of workers, we do get into the big questions of history, right, of what are some of the costs of progress and what are different perspectives on the responsibilities of government. Those are all ethical questions there, how FDR’s perspective on government versus Hoover’s perspective on government and how that is a eternal question in US history of what the role of government is and should it be concerned with the wellbeing of its people, in maintaining infrastructure [unintelligible] now be perceived, so I think those are the questions that engage students and that’s where we try to hit in these universal ethical dilemmas that are woven throughout US history. 

[00:19:20] Amy H-L: Let’s talk about some of the logistics of the program. How many teachers in high schools are involved?

[00:19:27] Lee S: Right now we have, I think about 20 high schools and about. 45 teachers, something like that. And yeah, we gather usually 20 something teachers about six or seven times a year in all day trainings. And, we have the opportunity to look at student work and see how students are interpreting the assignments and what might be the next good idea for a next teaching step based on work? We go deep on the core strategies in the curriculum so that teachers are comfortable with them, and give them an opportunity to practice somewhere in a supportive environment. We lay out the framework for understanding race and racism, which, as I mentioned, is core to the program and needs some explaining. And teachers get an opportunity to really learn from each other. They sit at tables and we have opportunities for them to share some of their strategies. We usually feature a teacher presenting something to their peers, modeling new lesson material or new strategy. So yeah, we come together about seven times a year for a full day trainings, and then we visit their classrooms as well.

[00:20:53] Amy H-L: I read that you encourage history teachers in the program to collaborate with English language arts teachers. What does this collaboration look like? 

[00:21:04] Lee S: We got our start in that collaboration when we were working with both English teachers and social studies teachers, and did a lot of work to integrate literacy strategies into the curriculum. And we encourage teachers to collaborate with their colleagues in the English departments, in part on the literacy strategies and the more universal, across the school, literacy strategies are, the more effective they are. So we have integrated a whole bunch of strategies from The Writing Revolution, which is an approach to reading and to writing, starting with the basics, and in moving through essay writing that many of our schools had already adopted.

So we encourage them to, we present specific strategies around some things, but we encourage them to, to check with their ELA colleagues to make sure they’re not asking their students to learn a new annotation strategy, for example, in every classroom or a new outline structure for an essay if they’ve already adopted one.

And we also encourage them, if possible, to collaborate with the same grade ELA instructor. They can support by including literature from the era, usually in 11th grade, it’s a US literature class, and we definitely encourage them to work with them on supporting contextual understanding by using some of the literature and vice versa. They’ll have some contextual understanding for their English class if they’re from their social studies class as well. And this year we’ve been encouraging working on project-based learning with social studies teachers, and as I mentioned before, choosing the spots in the curriculum to go a little bit deeper. So in that vein, we really encourage them to work on the projects with their English department colleagues as well. 

[00:23:03] Jon M: So how do schools become part of the project?

[00:23:07] Lee S: They can contact us from our website and sign up for the year ahead. Often we’ll hear from teachers who have discovered the curriculum online and, and ask how to become part of the professional learning community. And then we’ll ask them to contact their admin to see if they could sign up. There’s a modest fee for the six professional learning sessions, and we also offer some materials to go along with that if needed. So we contract with schools about now, May or June, for the coming year. And they just sign up with us. And again, teachers can use the curriculum for free and sign up on our website to download the materials. But if they want to participate in the professional learning community, it’s fee for service and they sign up directly with us.

[00:24:00] Amy H-L: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d like to add? 

[00:24:07] Lee S: I don’t know if you’ve heard there’s a brand new Regents exam. They’ve revised the US History course and tried to make it a little bit more performance based, or at least skills-oriented rather than one big Trivial Pursuit exam. And this is a highly anticipated exam because it’s never been seen. It was supposed to roll out four years ago or three years ago. Then Covid hit, but then last year they canceled the exam because they said there was some question on it that they feared would traumatize the students who had just experienced the shooting in Buffalo. They never revealed what the question was. They just canceled the exam, which was really a shocker. It’s never been done before. So we’ve yet to see this new exam. And everyone’s dying to know what that question was. I don’t know if we’ll ever know. I think the Daily News filed a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Our approach to the curriculum is that teachers have so much work to do in their classrooms to customize everything, to reach every student, and they have many different levels of students in their classroom to do all the grading. They have so much work to do in the classroom that this curriculum attempts to relieve the burden of also designing your own curriculum and writing your own curriculum from your back. We encourage students, teachers to modify, but to start with a high quality curriculum with great materials, multiple perspectives, inquiry, built in that also actually prepares students for this new exam that finally asks students to flex some of these skills on historical thinking and think about reliability and things like that. So we’re trying to also show that even if you have a standardized test, you can design a class that is a rich learning experience, that’s student centered, that’s collaborative, and that’s inquiry-based. 

[00:26:14] Jon M: Thank you, Lee Schere , at the City University of New York. Thank you very much. 

[00:26:19] Lee S: Thank you, Jon. Thanks, Amy.

[00:26:21] Amy H-L: And thank you. listeners. Check out our new video series, “What Would YOU Do?”, a collaboration with Dr. Meira Levinson at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click “Video.” In the first case study, a teacher using action civic faces pushback from a parent. The goal of this series is not to provide right answers, but rather to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints. 

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