Studying Perspectives of Pre-Civil War Disunion w/Student-made Time Capsules

Friday marked the culmination of our study about what caused the Civil War. After a brief quiz, students were able to explore the time capsules which their classmates curated. Well this was largely designed to address learning styles (kinesthetic, interpersonal, naturalistic), we also hit some important learning targets:

  1. SS.H.2.6-8.MC. Analyze how people’s perspectives influenced what information is available in the historical sources they created.
  2. Research skills such as corroboration, validation, and interpretation.
  3. Collaboration and Social Work skills.
  4. SS.IS.1.6-8. Create essential questions to help guide inquiry about a topic.

Essential to this lesson is being able to understand how a nation become frayed over its political disagreements. Conflict like this can be avoided when students learn to listen. The Civil War was far more complicated than slave owners vs. abolitionists. Diverse perspectives and the inability to compromise led to disunion. Being able to explore these perspectives goes a long way to building students’ capacity to empathize and problem solve. This is a crucial element to social studies and one we’ll build upon as we choose the “next” President in 1860. Who can save a country with such diverse and polarizing opinions on how to shape the country’s future?

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Growth Mindset at Work: Spartan Historians @ 2017 Chicago History Fair


2017 Lakeview Spartan Historians – photo credit to Mrs. Gasmen. Mr. Little grumpy face courtesy of slow Potbelly delivery. 


Students will find out next week which projects advance to be 2017 Illinois History Day competition next month in Springfield. But today was a special day, one to celebrate the success of these student historians. Of the 125 students which display their work at the Spartan Showcase, these 24 projects advanced to our regional NHD competition, the Chicago History Fair. Lakeview students are creating increasingly complex and competitive projects, so advancing to this fair is impressive accomplishments of its own.

Every year our students raise the bar. Nearly all of our students revised their projects. All three exhibits completely rebuilt their boards. Both performances rewrote their scripts entirely. Our documentary added four minutes. Two websites excellent website even combined to create an exceptional one. These kids spent their lunch breaks working in my room, sought constant feedback on their own, and independently signed up for sessions to work with me and improve. Parents, though, had to put up with the constant runs to the library and Michael’s, the tears when students are frustrated and confused, and the tons of time the students work on this. I appreciate their support as much as I appreciate the student’s enthusiasm. Can’t happen without them.

Whatever happens with judging is an afterthought – our students created some remarkable memories and raised the bar for our next group of student historians. Glad to have these kids represent Lakeview on behalf of the superb students who couldn’t be here.

Curating Civil War Time Capsules

Our objective today was two-fold:

  1. Ensure students that we heard them with a lesson design which reflects their current needs: collaborative, hands-on, research, and to get out of their seats.
  2. Continue developing an understanding of how disagreements between different social, political, economic and cultural groups festered into Disunion, then Civil War

Our instructional activity was to design a Civil War Time Capsule. Students are broken into groups representing different interests at the peak of Disunion:

  1. Slaves
  2. Slave Owners
  3. Southern Poor
  4. Midwestern Working Class
  5. Wealthy New Yorkers
  6. Native Americans

Each interest group represents a critical component of the Civil War and its causes. Students work together to research and learn about these groups and identify 5-8 different artifacts they need for their time capsule. This chart documents our progress:

Screenshot 2017-04-18 at 4.26.53 PM

Students did a nice job with this activity today. Sustaining our positive mindsets and embracing hard work, together, is the next challenge. Excited to see what students bring to their groups tomorrow, and even more impressed with their continued use of quality research skills. Good start to re-engaging our student historians.

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Stressed Out 7th Graders: Adjusting Instruction and Support


The weeks following History Fair have been tumultuous and jam-packed. While I think my classroom has been well-suited to engaged learning, the reality of a PARCC testing schedule, spring sports, cabin fever and high expectations have masked some important clues we need to read. Our kids are stressed. Even our social worker says she hasn’t seen this many kids seek her services. I think the lessons I design are standards-based and rigorous, but that probably doesn’t matter. At a time when we should be starting to reflect and celebrate a successful year, “school” is too stressful and too difficult; our kids want nothing to do with it. Combine this with a growing sense of student anxiety everywhere around us, and it’s clear we need to do something drastic.

On Friday I asked students to honestly share their thoughts. My colleagues and I had grown frustrated that our lessons hadn’t brought the high-level of engagement and enthusiasm they once had. So this survey was designed to recalibrate and design lessons to correct that. The first question alone brought some heartbreaking responses:

This wasn’t typical “middle school stuff.” The overwhelming vibe of student results: fear, frustration, and anxiety. My colleagues and I take this all very seriously, if not personally. A few of our takeaways:

  1. We have a “crisis” list and will immediately reach out to students who represented a concern about a potentially dangerous or harmful situation.
  2. Homework probably needs to be revisited. If we can’t avoid it, we need students to understand the rationale. (Alas, homework and students will never be a perfect marriage).
  3. In general, kids like group work, research, to be challenged, to move around, and to feel safe at school. Not shocking, but clearly we’ve had tunnel vision, especially around PARCC time.

Short term solution: Our instructional strategies might be rigorous and difficult but we’ve missed the boat on learning styles by not varying our activities. I’ll be changing that immediately.

Long term solution: There’s a LOT of drama with these 7th graders. The impact is distracting and students associate school with bullying, anxiety, or the otherwise awful consequences of the “drama.” This suggests we’re not hitting on Maslow’s most basic needs of a Physiological secure and Safe environment. This is a huge one that can’t be solved tomorrow.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs: While some references are not developmentally appropriate for middle school students, his research is fundamental to understanding student needs. Students cannot learn, let alone function maturely, without their most basic needs met.

While it’s silly to think Lakeview isn’t safe, the perception of a student is important. Issues such as bullying, low self-esteem, fear of punitive punishments, and so on all contribute to a feeling of insecurity. With this, a school can feel like a place that students are always looking over their shoulder. While we’ve done a number of things as a team to solve that issue, we’re not there yet. And, our kids are gassed. They’re overworked in sports, school, and activities, and have devices which distract them until late hours. They are physically and cognitively exhausted, then throw in the social-emotional impact of the safety issues… it’s easy to see how students are a mess right now. We can’t learn the causes of the Civil War, no matter what the instructional style, with these issues.

The 7th grade team has a long-term solution to address this and will roll it out soon. We only have 7 weeks left, so I admire my colleagues for trying to solve this problem in our most ambitious and creative way yet. We have a lot to finalize but spent two hours planning today and will immediately reconvene tomorrow morning. We can’t fix this issue in one day or with one change, but we need kids to know we hear them. Our plan will, over time, build their capacity to both see the positive things we’ve done, and equip them to build a positive environment to learn in.

Research Road Map for Student Historians

A colleague asked me for the research expectations I give students during History Fair. I created this map to cover the very broad and long process. My instruction includes a plethora of smaller lessons and strategies throughout History Fair, but this is the “big picture” of what we do.

I’ll consider this a first draft. I’m sure I’ve missed something and will update it. Feel free to comment with suggestions for improvement! Below is a PDF to download and access links within the document.

Student Historian Research Journey