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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Creating Citizens’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 10, 2018 7 min read
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Sarah Cooper agreed to answer a few questions about her book, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events In The History Classroom.

Sarah teaches 8th grade U.S. history, advises 7th and 9th graders, and is Dean of Studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. Sarah speaks at conferences about literacy across disciplines and writes for MiddleWeb, Zocalo Public Square, Independent School and other publications.

LF: You write about teaching history as a chronology versus teaching it thematically. Can you elaborate on both, and why you choose a thematic focus?

Sarah Cooper:

A MiddleWeb column I wrote on this topic hit a nerve with social studies teachers, with some commenters privileging chronology’s cause-and-effect relationships and others highlighting the skills and cognitive connections that can develop through thematic teaching.

For my first nine years of history teaching, both world and U.S., I taught chronologically, partly because my school’s standards required it and partly because the drumbeat of history sounded more distinct when one event led to another. I understand history myself through dates, even though many of my students find them hard to remember. On tests now I still ask students to put a small list of events in order, even if they don’t give the exact dates, because chronological order is so important to understand.

Yet when I had the chance to return to the eighth-grade U.S. history curriculum five years ago, at an independent school where I don’t have to hew to the state standards, I took the opportunity to experiment. My students generally get early American history in fifth grade and all of American history in eleventh grade. What if in eighth grade we sampled U.S. history through highlights, with a focus on skills?

Now I teach mostly thematically, with more traditional units on the Revolution and Constitution and more thematic units on federalism, social reform movements and total war, all laced with a major dose of current events. Although I still miss some of the straight chronological narrative, I love seeing the critical thinking skills and curiosity that thematic connections encourage.

LF:"Layering” is an intriguing concept you discuss. Can you explain what is, why you do it, and give some practical examples?

Sarah Cooper:

“Layering” comes when we study a series of sources - primary and secondary, current and historical, written and audio and video - and anticipate that, by the end of our efforts, the sum will be much greater than the parts. I like layering because it builds in review automatically, establishes thematic connections and lends itself to rich culminating reflections such as flow maps.

Until the AP History exams became slightly more streamlined in 2017-18, students were required to include synthesis on their essays and DBQs, a concept similar to layering. As the College Board described in its AP US History exam description from 2015, “Historical thinking involves the ability to develop understanding of the past by making meaningful and persuasive historical and/or cross-disciplinary connections between
a given historical issue and other historical contexts, periods, themes, or disciplines.” As an example, my eighth-grade U.S. history students recently linked the women’s movements of the 1840s, 1910s and 1960s through a concept map.

One of my favorite ways to layer is to take a current event that reflects themes we’ve been discussing in class, such as an LA Times article about California’s suing the U.S. government over the inclusion of a new citizenship question on the 2020 census, and relate it to the past. I teach in California, and our state’s many disagreements with today’s federal government echo other federalism divides in U.S. history, such as the events that led to the Civil War.

LF: Teachers are all too familiar with the challenge of introducing “controversial” topics. You cover that in your book. What are some key pieces of advice would you offer educators?

Sarah Cooper:

In Creating Citizens, I reflect on when it’s hard to for me to be nonpartisan: when discussing infringements on free speech, interruptions of constitutional expectations or due process, federal-state conflicts in which the national government seems to be taking too heavy a hand, or controversial actions that appear to violate our school’s honor code, which focuses on kindness, honesty, generosity and respect.

If educators like to present both sides of most issues, I think it’s helpful for them to imagine ahead of time their own kinds of non-negotiables, moments when they might need to acknowledge strong feelings that might sway how they present an issue in class.

Our political climate has become even more polarized than it was during the last presidential election, a season that inspired Routledge editor Lauren Davis to ask me in November 2016 to pitch a book about current events in the history classroom. Some days I walk out of class replaying everything I could have said differently in a discussion about the news.

My best advice might be to acknowledge that we’re only human, and our students know that and respect it. If we inadvertently offend someone, we can apologize and use our classrooms as a model for the respectful discourse we don’t always see in the media.

LF: You have a chapter on writing in the book. What are a couple of your favorite ways to integrate writing in Social Sciences classes?

Sarah Cooper:

The longer I teach, the more I realize that writing is thinking made visible. Some days I choose less language-intensive ways to engage with material, such as an illustrated timeline or a jigsaw presentation. When I want students to remember a point for a long time, however, I usually ask them to think on the page. Even seven or eight minutes of writing in, say, Abraham Lincoln’s voice on how he felt on the day of his first inauguration in March 1861 can cement an emotional connection to history.

For a more analytical writing exercise, I like to take an article we just read, such as a piece on total war from a military history journal, and brainstorm together to create a class topic sentence or thesis statement on a key question the article raises. The phrases and ideas students invent often dazzle us all. Then, in groups, students list pieces of evidence from the article to prove the argument we’ve created.

What matters is not so much what students are writing, but that we are giving them substantial time, ideally in class, to make connections on paper.

LF: You discuss students developing “community impact projects.” There is never any shortage of issues outside the classroom affecting their lives, including racism and gun violence. What would you encourage teachers to keep in mind when they are thinking about these activities?

Sarah Cooper:

This project, launched nearly a decade ago by Hilary Thomas and Laura Kaufman, science teachers at my school, has become a cornerstone of our eighth-grade curriculum. Seventh graders see students’ Community Impact Project (CIP) poster boards at our annual STEAM and Service Fair in February and begin imagining what they might do the next year.

One of the most important elements is encouraging students to find a topic about which they are truly passionate. Whether it is hosting a panel to better understand how Syrian refugees incorporate themselves into Los Angeles society, organizing a sports camp for the local Boys & Girls Club, or asking for the donation of thousands of feminine products to help women who can’t afford them, students choose a cause that speaks to them. Often their parents, clergy or Scout leaders inspire them to take a particular direction.

Another factor is that the impact must be measurable, which can mean counting the number of toiletries collected in a drive, conducting a survey after a concert at a senior home, or devising more complicated ways to evaluate success.

Teachers who have questions can feel free to read more about our CIPs in the last chapter of Creating Citizens and to contact Hilary Thomas (hthomas@flintridgeprep.org), who has said she is glad to answer questions and help spread impact.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Sarah Cooper:

History teachers stand on the front lines of shaping civil discourse in our society, now more than ever. That’s a responsibility we need to take seriously. If not us, then who?

LF: Thanks, Sarah!

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