Starting History Fair with a Growth Mindset

How can one teacher reasonably manage 65 different projects? Well, this week we

IMG_0159 (1)
Wasfi’s work from last year is a great example of what students bring to a 1:1 meeting (mock-up, RCF and self-assessment)

took a big step towards doing that, as I initiated our self-assessment/feedback loop with our 1:1 “Meetings with Mr. Little.” These meetings are rooted in an essential question of my own: How can I spend quality time with each of my students through the process? Inevitably, the most proactive students get a disproportionate amount of attention, while a few students struggle to find confidence in their work. They’re left frustrated and Resolving this divide was one of my most important changes in History Fair last year.

Here is the self-assessment tool we’re using as a basis for these meetings. Sure, some students will be dishonest about “mastering” certain areas but I don’t care about that. I want to recognize areas of concern and use this as a tool to start our conversation. If I have concerns about a student claiming they’ve “mastered” something, I simply ask to see it or discuss so we can evaluate that claim.

Our meetings for the week are planned out and listed above.

Charity, a student I had last year, is an excellent example of how this is beneficial. She worked diligently, hit our checkpoints and deadlines, and did a really nice job working independently. She’s a model for what this project should/could be. But she’s quiet and doesn’t seek my help. As a result of our 12-minute conversation, she walked away reassured her work was on track, with more sources to use, and confident in the vision she has for her exhibit. I meet with between 24-36 students each day, so my ability to check in on these students and provide feedback is much more powerful than it is during a typical day. It’s what makes this project powerful and meaningful.

Screenshot 2018-02-11 at 6.40.13 PM
CASEL’s Social-Emotional Learning “Wheel”

These meetings are also an excellent time to boost students’ self-management and self-awareness. The self-assessment (above) guides them on an evaluation of their work and asks for specific points to reflect on. Students sit down with me prepared and having already reflected, which is a powerful social-emotional tool. We talk quite a bit about getting through obstacles, which frustrations persist, and how I can guide them through problem-solving. This project is an excellent way for us to live the growth mindset and to provide experience managing its ups and downs.


Planning for Success: Using Mock-ups to Design a Product

I typically wait until late January or early February to begin the design process. download (1)However, I want to emphasize the design process when it comes to building a product, and give time for ambitious ideas to take shape. The only downside is that students have just begun their research, so they don’t have enough examples of primary sources or know their stories well enough yet. This is an evolving part of the process. The idea is not to make a final product NOW, but begin visualizing, let your research breathe life into it, and rethink your design as you build and learn about your topic. This is an example of the Design-Thinking Process.

  • Exhibits and Websites should be drawn out. Give your imagination life so I can see you planning for success.
  • Documentaries and Performances should have an outline or use google slides featuring a scene-by-scene outline of what your final film will feature. (this may not be possible at this point; discuss with Mr. Little)
  • Research papers should provide an outline. (this may not be possible at this point; discuss with Mr. Little)

This is a brief overview of the guidelines for each project. Please visit the HF website @  for more specific information and guidelines. Students are accountable for following all rules! Visit the NHD website to see some specific examples of how these projects could look!  I’d also suggest visiting other states, such as Minnesota’s highly successful NHD program, to view their examples.


  • Best for projects with high-quality images, primary soruces, etc.
  • Should be “museum-like,” meaning, small chunks of text accompanying visuals or artifacts.
  • Size limitations: 6 feet high X 40 inches wide X 30 inches deep. Exhibits must be free standing.
  • Be creative! Do something different, not just the standard tri-fold (though that’s okay, too!). Reimagine that space and take a chance.
  • Use between 750-1,000 words (headings not included).
  • Examples here, too:


  • Best for projects with high-quality images, videos, etc. Should be interactive, not an electronic exhibit.
  • Must use the NHD Weebly website editor at
  • Must contain no more than 1,200 words. (does not count quotes, references, & sources)
  • All media must be pre-created… in other words, students cannot produce their own photo, film, or other media to put on their project.
  • Project may not exceed 100 MB total.


  • Performance may not exceed ten minutes.
  • Dramatic performances and props/scenery must be created and performed entirely by the students registered. Costumes and a “set” are strongly recommended.
  • Students are given five minutes to set up, five minutes to take down any sets.
  • Script and lines must be memorized.


  • Best for partners and/or groups… requires a large number of photos, visuals, or videos to do well.
  • Must be 9-10 minutes long. Time begins when first image/sound appears and concludes after credits.
  • Documentaries must be researched, created, narrated, and produced by the students registered.
  • Documentaries conclude with a list of credits for major audio and visuals sources only. The simple credits do not replace an annotated bibliography.
  • Documentaries should be self-running and students must operate all equipment. No live narration is allowed. Powerpoint projects are not documentaries.

Research Paper:

  • Individuals only. No groups or partners. Best 4 will advance to the Chicago Metro Fair.
  • Papers may be 1500-2500 words in length (refers to the body of the text only–not the additional components).
  • The paper is preceded by a cover page (title and student name only), thesis statement, and outline. It concludes with an annotated bibliography which is divided by primary and secondary sources. These pages are not included in the word count.
  • Best for topics that have good information, but limited visuals. Great for students who love to write.


Tentative Calendar of History Fair Progress

Below is a calendar I use to track our work on History Fair… while it will frequently change, it should provide students and parents with an idea of what to expect and how this process is organized. I’ve also added links to blog posts which explain the subject in detail, open assignments, and/or other helpful information relevant to each post.

Social-Emotional Learning & History Fair

Today we used a version of the Myers-Briggs Test to evaluate our Personality Types. Myers-Briggs asks students to agree or disagree with questions about various feelings and situations. The science behind the test is the use of domains to identify how people’s personalities work – introverted vs. extroverted, intuitive vs. observant, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. sensing. The result is a 4 letter “personality type,” which our website used an avatar to represent each. Below is a sample.

Overview of Types
Just 8 of the 16 personality types kids can identify with.

Mr. Littles Personality Test Resulst


This test is only as good as the answers students provide. If a student is having a bad day, or answers questions how they want to be vs. how they are, or just isn’t reflective enough, then this test is invalid. However, it’s an excellent window into a child’s mind. There were tons of “this is sooooo me” when kids read their results and scrolled through the strengths and weaknesses, workplace habits, and friendship observations. This should also play a significant role in students’ social-emotional development, as self-awareness is a crucial element to their growth. We’re also stressing students shouldn’t use this survey to “label, evaluate or limit” students. Myers-Briggs is very clear about that. This is a guide towards areas of strength and to help students be cognizant of weaknesses.

As we prepare for History Fair, understanding our strengths and weaknesses is a vital component of our planning. What strengths do students bring to a group? What’s a student going to struggle with? Bringing these out now will lead to far more effective collaboration. There’s no recipe; we don’t need a certain number of personality types in a group. Instead, we want students to be conscientious of their strengths and weaknesses as they form those groups. Students working alone benefit with better self-awareness. A student who procrastinates knows they should seek help creating a timeline. Those more comfortable takings risks should think beyond the exhibit. everyone benefits from some reflection about how we work. I demonstrated this with my own results! Below is the document students used in class to guide reflection.

*This post is largely a repost of last December 8, 2017, however, was done again in class and the same benefits apply. 

Applying Problem-Based Learning to Current Events

As we concluded our Immigration Unit, it was an excellent opportunity PBL vs. Traditionalto take our first dive into problem-based learning. Problem-based learning, or PBL, is a student-centered approach to inquiry. The web is full of ways to do PBL, but I feel like they often put the cart in front of the horse. I like to use PBL to make what’s “old” relevant again. Meaning, I want to take the lessons and what we learned in class to inform us and make a decision as it applies to a real, current problem in the world. One marched right into our laps! For me, I had students work in groups and introduced the problem (sometimes students identify one on their own, though not now), identify what they need to know, learn more about the problem, and formulate a solution. It’s a real-world problem to solve which employs knowledge and skills which we learned in class. The current crisis over the Honduran migrant caravan presents a perfect opportunity to employ problem-solving skills.

First, some context. Students spent October studying immigration. Students conducted research around question they created (ex: how do immigrants today compare to those one hundred years ago?) and produced an inquiry-based project. I also lead activities to help students learn why different immigrant groups came to America, the problems they faced both at home and here, and different kinds of immigration. We also learned how immigrants come into America, earn citizenship, and sometimes run afoul of the law. icivics produces an excellent game to practice this, too!

After an assessment to measure some of what we learned, I wanted to apply our knowledge to a real-world, current problem and REALLY assess what we know. The migrant caravan is an excellent test of both putting past into the present context, and evaluating a problem to provide solutions. My students broke into groups, were introduced to the problem, and then brainstormed what they needed to know. This was essential and involved a great deal of questioning. Students then researched, shared sources, and discussed as a class what they discovered about the caravan, border safety, and immigration policy. As students brainstormed solutions, they needed to evaluate how three main groups would react: Americans, the migrants themselves, and our neighbors to the south. Sure, we can be more nuanced than that, but for the purpose of this project that was plenty of perspectives to consider. Just “letting them all in” would upset many Americans, and “saying go home” would do damage to the other two parties. We’re trying to find common ground and a solution that builds toward better conditions for us all. Just saying “no go home” doesn’t help our neighbors or prevent future migrant caravans from coming.

Here are the solutions my students came up with.

  • Work with other North and Central American nations to share the burden of immigrants and relocate them there.
  • Work with states who need workers and relocate the immigrants there.
  • Build a tent city for immigrants to stay in until we can find a home for them.
  • Secure the border with the military and jail those that cross illegally.
  • Grant asylum to anyone who qualifies, send the rest home.
  • Work with companies to provide work visas to qualified immigrants.
  • Conduct background checks and evaluate their stories.
  • Provide education and law enforcement assistance to countries like Honduras so that we can avoid future caravans.
  • Create a Great Depression-like infrastructure plan to put migrants to work and help our nation improve roads, bridges, etc.
  • Help them find jobs.
  • Create and work with advocacy groups to help them find homes.
  • Find American families to “adopt” families until they can find a destination.
  • Gradually allow immigrants into the country while holding and evaluating asylum applicants in a temporary city.
  • Bring them to Puerto Rico to help rebuild and establish their own community with the territory.
  • Many plans included a variety of points above.
  • Many plans included timelines of 90 days, 6 months, or a year.

Better than any solution was their willingness to compromise. Many classes combined ideas and were willing to bend on their positions without compromising their goal in order to bring other groups into the agreement. I’m happy to see them build great plans and it was an excellent exercise in taking what we learned and giving it a real, live purpose. History certainly comes alive in settings like this!


Problem Based Learning: the Battle of Fort Sumter

We’ve spent the last week uncovering the causes of disunion as we build towards Civil War. After the Election of 1860, 7 southern states seceded and created the Confederacy, taking with them military bases and federal resources within their boundaries. Fort Sumter was a flash point where the new Confederacy needed to prove their resolve and a new Union leader needed to make good on an inaugural promise. This was a perfect opportunity to utilize problem-based learning (PBL).

I’m working on a PBL post to explain this more thoroughly, but I like to use PBL in a few PBL1 different ways. I think there’s a litany of PBL blog posts, articles, and research, but I utilize it in a way that fits my students, curriculum, and the flow of a unit. One way I use PBL is at the culmination of a unit when students can apply historical thinking to a modern problem. For example, using what we learned from our immigration unit, how can President Trump resolve the crisis surrounding the migrant caravan? Another way I use PBL is when we study a flash point like Fort Sumter, or perhaps the Election of 1860 itself. I present a conflict or dilemma facing a particular individual or group, provide students with key facts, and have them identify a solution after evaluating the evidence with a group. This is a radically simple version of a case-study method, which is one I’d like to work up to with improved problem-solving skills.

Step 1 was to lay the ground work. I explained the key facts, places, and leaders in the situation. These were the key slides we used, as well as Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

intro slide 2intro slide 1

Step 2 was to divide the students into four major groups: Lincoln, Davis, Beauregard and Anderson.

Step 3 set the problem to solve: what should each of these men do? Outline the options your leader could take and explain the potential outcomes which could come as a result. “Potential outcomes” sometimes meant “what are the pros and cons” of each option.

Step 4 was group discussion. I moved around to discuss with each group and make sure they genuinely thought through each option. For Anderson, when a group would say “just go home there’s too many Confederates!”, we’d discuss what would happen for Anderson to retreat and give up Sumter. It provided an excellent real-world historical example to practice our historical thinking skills.


Once students felt good about their options, we brought the whole class back together for a review and then watched a film by the Civil War Trust to show the conclusion of this conflict, and discussed Lincoln’s decision to draw the Confederacy into attacking first. One student came very close to coming up with Lincoln’s eventual plan!

We wrapped up with a 50-word summary to explain how Lincoln’s problem solving at Fort Sumter would be received by his constituents in the North. Students loved this method to study Fort Sumter and it was an excellent way to blend primary sources, collaboration, problem solving and military strategy. Admittedly, it’s incomplete and I’d love to develop it more. We didn’t use enough of the communications between Beauregard and Anderson. I could use more detail in describing the problem. We could simulate Lincoln’s cabinet and the different agendas and personalities within. But it served our learning objective well today and will continue to improve as I use it in future lessons.

Why Did German Immigrants Risk Their and Their Families’ Lives to Come to America?

The following blog entry is written by 7th grade students at Lakeview as a product of their inquiry-based project on immigration. After conducting and organizing their research, they chose to write a first-person narrative in the form of a blog. Below are their entries.

Why Did German Immigrants Risk Their and Their Families’ Lives to Come to America?

By: Audrey and Maya

Mr. Little’s 7th Period Social Studies Class


Thomas Abel, a poor German farmer, tells the story of his life and family through journal entries.


September 14, 1796

Dear Journal,

I had a hard day working in the fields. Crops are failing, I barely have any food to harvest, and my wife is going to give birth in a month. I am worried. What if we do not have enough to keep the baby alive? Even if the baby does survive, he or she will have a miserable life. Constant work, not enough food, struggling to survive. Life is getting harder and harder by the day.


September 17, 1796

Dear Journal,

I got a break from working in the fields today when I went to the market to sell my crops. However, I made only a little money from the small amount of crops I sold. I made enough money to support my family for maybe a week, if food remains inexpensive. I have the feeling that it won’t.


September 24, 1796

Dear Journal,

I went to the market again today. Unfortunately, all of the money I have made from selling crops has been spent on food for my family. During this past week, I have also been storing up food for the winter. I have harvested almost all of my crops, and I still don’t think that I will

have enough food for my wife and I to survive the winter, let alone the newborn baby. Speaking of the baby, he or she is due in roughly 20 days. Anxiety has been building in my home.


September 31, 1796

Dear Journal,

Besides food issues, another problem has been steadily growing in my life. The government of the area I live in has been enforcing the official religion. I do not follow this religion, and I am told that I will be punished lest I convert. However, I have no intention of doing so – not even in the face of death. Also, the government allows nearly no one to emigrate, so I couldn’t leave the country even if I wanted to.


October 5, 1796

Dear Journal,

A ray of hope has been shined into my life. My neighbor came to my home today. He told my family and I about the foreign land of America. I had heard about America before this, but I didn’t know much about it. My neighbor told me about a colony that was in this new land – a colony that, he promised, would have religious freedom for anyone, no matter what they believed. This sounds like a very nice land, but I would rather not leave my home country of Germany unless I desperately need to, and, of course, we are not allowed to leave..  


October 10, 1796

Dear Journal,

My baby will be born any day now. Instead of this situation bringing me joy, as it should, it only brings me more anxiety. I don’t think my baby will live very long.


October 13, 1796

Dear Journal,

I briefly visited the market today, in between caring for my wife. I sold all of my crops today. I have made little money from the sale. There is no way that we will survive the winter. We have enough money to eat for a few weeks, at most. Also, a man down the street was arrested for not following the official religion. I am terrified, and I don’t know what I should do.


October 15, 1796

Dear Journal,

My baby boy was born yesterday. We named him Christian. He is thin and unhealthy. Today, I talked to my wife about the food problem. She is dead-set on traveling to America. She says that there, we will have enough food, enough money, and not be arrested for our religion. However, I do not wish to leave for America, because the chances of Christian surviving are nearly impossible. But, as my wife argues, he will die here anyways, and so will we, so we might as well take the chance to go to America. If we are going to leave, though, we need to do it soon. We cannot wait till the baby gets older, because winter is coming, and few ships will be sailing then. We cannot wait until after winter because there is no way Christian will survive the cold, hard weather. Oh, what am I to do?


October 20, 1796

Dear Journal,

Germany has eased restrictions on emigration! Our neighbors just left for America. My family and I want to come to America, but we do not have enough money. I do not want to give up, but I also do not have much hope or strength left. I think it may soon be the end for me.


October 21, 1796

Dear Journal,

Today my hope is renewed! In the market, I heard talk of the redemption system. It is a form of indentured labor. My wife and I decide to work for a man in Pennsylvania, a colony in America, for 7 years in exchange for the trip to America along with shelter, food, and warmth once we arrive there. I am overjoyed! I meet with this man tomorrow. I hope he agrees to help my family and I!


October 22, 1796

Dear Journal,

The man agreed to help my wife, baby Christian, and myself! I am so relieved. We leave for America nine days from today. I am a bit nervous about the journey. I have heard stories of shark attacks, storms, sickness, and death. I must trust that we will be alright. After all, the man helping us is a good omen. The man told me that Americans believe in “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” My family and I believe the same thing. There is hope for us after all!


In these nine days, Tomas Abel did not write. He was busy making the trip with his family from Germany to Holland, where he boarded the ship to America.


An picture of what the port looked like where most Germans left Holland from:


October 31, 1796

Dear Journal,

We are on the ship. It lurches left and right in a most unpleasant way. My wife can not stop being sick. The sea spray goes up my nose and mouth. Christian constantly wails. The other passengers are not doing much better. Already the journey to America is hard.


November 1, 1796

Dear Journal,

I wake up to see a red sky. The captain says this is not good. But red has always been my favorite color. Even though yesterday was not the best start to our journey, I cannot help but feel optimistic about today.


November 2, 1796

Dear Journal,

Red skies are bad, especially in the morning. The waves crash against the boat, thunder booms, lightning flashes, and rain pours down. Christian is not doing well. He gets smaller each day, it seems. My wife is not much better. She spends most of her time inside our tiny cabin, on our little wooden bed. I try to stay strong, because it is only our third day. I must survive. I must make it to the land of the free.


November 10, 1796

Dear Journal,

Yesterday a passenger fell overboard. He was not seen again. It was frightening. On the bright side, my wife is getting better. She has not been sick for hours. Christian is still sickly and small. He does not wail as much, though, but I would rather hear him cry then hear nothing at all.


November 15, 1796

Dear Journal,

The captain says we should be at America in 1 day. I hope he is correct. My stomach growls. My clothes are dirty. My beard has grown rough and scraggly. Christian is close to death, I can feel it. We keep him warm, and in our arms, but we are in such close proximity to all the other passengers, including the sick ones. I don’t want to lose my son. I want this journey to be over. I want to get to America.


November 17, 1796

Dear Journal,

I will be glad to work for 7 years after this journey, because anything will be better than it. The captain was wrong. We are not at America, and it has been over a day. I am worried. What if we are stuck on this sea until we die?


November 18, 1796

Dear Journal,

Today, a golden sliver of land peeked over the horizon. As soon as the crew cried, “Land ho!” there were shouts and dancing throughout the ship. We will dock at sunset. My whole family is healthy, alive, and grateful.


November 20, 1796

Dear Journal,

We are staying in a small town near the city where we dock. My wife and I start work tomorrow, and Christian is getting better each hour! We plan to move inland and start a farm after seven years of labor. America has been amazing so far, I and hope it continues to be that way.


“A New Surge of Growth.” Library of Congress. Accessed October 1st, 2018.


“The Call of Tolerance.” Library of Congress. Accessed October 3rd, 2018.


“Irish and German Immigration.” Accessed October 4, 2018.


Alchin, Linda. “German Immigration to America.” January 1, 2018. Accessed October 4th, 2018.


“German Immigration.” Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed October 11, 2018.