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A Few More Questions for the National History Teacher of the Year

By Rick Hess — October 26, 2017 4 min read
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Last week, I spoke with 2017 National History Teacher of the Year Sara Ziemnik. Our conversation generated quite a bit of feedback and follow-up, including a number of practical queries from practitioners that I didn’t think to ask. When I mentioned that to Ziemnik, she kindly agreed to offer some additional thoughts. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: Sara, thanks for agreeing to a round 2. Let’s get down to some of these questions that folks had. First, how much writing do you assign to your students, and what kinds of assignments do you find work best?

Sara Ziemnik: I typically assign more reflective writing for my freshmen—usually about 2-3 times per quarter. I’ll ask them to summarize a historical event, and then place it within the framework of a larger time period or perhaps make a connection to another event. We just compared and contrasted the American and French Revolutions, and talked about which one was “more effective.” Developing an argument with evidence is a key skill we’re trying to develop. For my sophomore AP students, we write quite a bit. Their document-based essays are very difficult and time-consuming, so we do one in the fall and one in the spring. Other than that, we do a lot of outlining so they can continue to work on incorporating evidence into their argument. We also do some short-answer writing about once a week to practice analyzing primary sources.

RH: Do you assign a major term paper for any of your classes?

SZ: I don’t assign any major term papers. I throw a great deal of trust in our fabulous English department, as they make my job a lot easier. Instead, I focus on teaching kids how to incorporate content into their essays.

RH: What about any major history research projects?

SZ: I have a final AP U.S. History project that involves research but also gives students a great deal of choice. I want them to take ownership of their project, so I let them have quite a bit of freedom in choosing their topics. The main focus is I want them to show change over time in U.S. history, and be able to make connections from the past to the present in whichever topic they choose to focus on.

RH: Are there primary documents that you find particularly useful?

SZ: I try to find documents that are relatively easy to read (especially in the earlier eras) and will elicit a strong opinion or reaction. Two of my favorites are Abigail Adams’ “Remember the Ladies” letter, and Benjamin Banneker’s letter to Thomas Jefferson regarding slavery. Both have a lot of connections that can be made to later eras.

RH: Do you have a preferred history textbook for U.S. history?

SZ: I have been using The American Pageant for 3 years now by David Kennedy and feel it’s a good textbook for my AP U.S. History students.

RH: What’s an especially good source for lesson ideas and exercises?

SZ: I often go to the Gilder Lehrman Teacher Resource Page, the Stanford History Education Group, and Facing History and Ourselves when I need ideas for lessons, activities, and primary sources.

RH: Is there any classroom tech that you find especially helpful for teaching history?

SZ: I use the Cleveland Historical app quite a bit as we get into the Gilded Age and beyond. It’s a great way to make local connections to the larger narrative of U.S. history. In terms of tools, we use iPads that I received through the Rocky River Education Foundation, our school Chromebooks, and—if they have them—their phones. I also utilize Google Classroom as a home base for all of my classes.

RH: As far as formative assessments, how much do you use multiple choice versus open response? And how often do you quiz students?

SZ: My tests have both multiple choice and open response. I would say I emphasize them almost equally for my AP students, as the national test is 60% essay and 40% multiple choice. For my world history students, their test has more matching and multiple choice, but will always have an essay that requires them to make an argument or connections in history. I don’t expect as many details from them, but I do expect higher-order thinking, and they rise to the challenge. I usually am on a two week rotation for assessment, depending on the content and the needs of the students.

RH: One less cut-and-dried query: how do you strike the balance between making history relevant without slighting or simplifying the content?

SZ: I don’t believe this is an either/or question. History is relevant. I am simply pulling modern day events into our discussion so that kids can see the things happening around them—conversations and arguments in the U.N., Supreme Court cases being debated, events in Ferguson and elsewhere, the Election of 2016—all have roots in historical events and issues. This is not the first time we’ve faced significant challenges as a nation, and I think it’s important to draw that parallel as often as we can.

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