Reflection of Lesson
Strengths of Lesson: By framing each day of the lesson as a thematic question, students were able to investigate and explore the material. On the first day of the lesson, for example, students examined the question “what is genocide?”. We began class with a Free-Write activity where students predicted the definition of the term and listed any genocides they already knew of; this prompted students to begin thinking critically about the material and it drew on their prior knowledge of the concept. Then, through a concept formation lesson and a brief lecture about a specific example of genocide—the Armenian Genocide—students learned how complex and how controversial such a topic is. The second day of the lesson, the class investigated the question “what are the implications of calling something genocide?”. They read news articles and had to pull out pros and cons of the US recognizing the 1915 events in Armenia as genocide. This prompted students to think about both sides of the argument before forming an opinion. As Bob Bain argues in his article They Thought the World Was Flat?, students might “find history engaging, relevant, and meaningful if they understood the fundamental puzzles involved” (Bain, 181). Thus, by organizing each day of the lesson around a thematic question, students did more than learn facts and dates; they investigated historical events and truly engaged with the material.
In his article Using Central Questions, Edward Caron furthers this idea of using thematic questions. Caron argues that central questions need to be debatable; that is, an effective question should be one where there is no correct answer and where students can pull together different information and opinions to create their own answers. When planning this lesson, I feared that the students would instantly claim that it is the “US’s moral obligation” to recognize the Armenian Genocide, without considering the alternative or the potential repercussions; I feared that the material we were presenting—and more importantly, how we were presenting—would leave little room for interpretation. Interestingly, however, of the 16 letters that were turned in, exactly eight of the students were in favor of recognizing the genocide while another eight were against it. This tells me that we presented the genocide in such a way that left it open to interpretation. Furthermore, it tells me that we chose thematic questions that were debatable, as suggested by Caron.
Regardless of which position they chose, the students did extremely well with the letter-writing activity. Most of the students wrote thoughtful, well-supported letters that effectively incorporated information from both the readings and the lecture we gave. By giving the students a clear, straightforward rubric that clearly outlined the expectations of the assignment, students were able to write thoughtful, well-supported letters. What impressed me the most was the students’ ability to see the complexity of the concept and to recognize the deeper implications. For example, one student wrote: “Although I believe that the tragedy…should by all means be considered a genocide, I also believe it to be in the United States’ best interest to refrain from declaring the event as such.”
Through the letter-writing assignment, we were able to make the material relevant and important to the students. The assignment was an authentic assessment, which according to Norman Gronlund and C. Keith Waugh in Assessment of Student Achievement, are those that “focus on the application of understandings and skills to real problems in ‘real world’ contextual settings” (Gronlund and Waugh, 2). By taking on the role of an “informed citizen” and writing a letter to President Obama, the students recognized the importance of this historical event, even though it happened almost 100 years ago. For the most part, the students seemed to really enjoy the lesson, and while writing their letters, they appeared very eager to form an opinion and to defend their thoughts; one student even called out “We get to argue an opinion?!” in an excited voice as Derek explained the assignment. Furthermore, students saw the lasting effects of the historical event. One student even announced to the class that PBS was showing a documentary on the Armenian Genocide that night; in response, several students chose to watch the documentary, not because they were required to, but simply because they were interested.
Challenges: However, despite the strengths of the performance assessment, students still faced many challenges. For example, during the Free-Write activity, it became clear that the students already had a preconceived idea of what genocide is. When sharing what they wrote in their Free-Write responses, several students said that genocide is “the brutal killing of an entire group of people” (which, we later discovered, is not necessarily the case). According to Bob Bain in his article They Thought the World Was Flat?, students are “[s]chooled by their culture and [are] entering the history classroom filled with specific stories about historical events we were studying”; essentially, it is important to keep in mind that the students are “hardly historical blank slates” (Bain, 191). To help students overcome the challenge of their preconceived ideas, it was important that we stressed the United Nation’s interpretation of genocide. According to the UN, genocide is much more than “killing an entire group of people”; instead, it is “any of the following acts (such as forced deportation, systematic rape, prevention of births, etc.) committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group”. By drawing attention to this definition and by explicitly pointing out the differences between the UN’s interpretation and the students’ initial predictions, students will have a better chance of properly understanding the material.
Furthermore, by having a class discussion where the students shared the pros and cons they found from the readings, we were able to assess the students’ understanding of the articles. While reading the two news articles—one from the New York Times and one from BBC News—it appears that students needed more background knowledge to fully understand the texts. For example, while the New York Times article mentions the United States’ “fear of losing Turkish cooperation over Iraq”, not a single student mentioned the War in Iraq as a possible “con” during the class discussion. Thus, it may have been important for us to point out the important background information and to point out details that may have been useful.
In the end, the lesson went extremely well, and students were faced with few (and rather minimal) challenges. One important thing to consider, however, is the skill level and maturity of the students; essentially, any mistakes we made while teaching the material or explaining the assignments, students were able to make up for. They were patient with us and asked good, thoughtful questions that helped the lesson go as smoothly as possible. So, while the lesson was far from perfect, the students helped make it an effective learning experience, both for them as students and for us as teachers.
Memo to My Future Self: Overall, my experiences in Dr. Shreiner’s class were very rewarding. I really enjoyed working with students in an honors history class, and more importantly, from a private school. More than I have seen at any other school, the students at Greenhills are conscientious, hard-working students who seem to want to learn the material. And during my time in Dr. Shreiner’s class, I learned so much about teaching and my role as a teacher
First and foremost, I learned about the value of having authentic assessments. By creating an authentic assignment, the students were able to recognize the importance and relevance of the historical event in today’s society. While the students were writing their letters, it was clear that they were passionate about the issues they were writing about; they were eager to form their own opinion and many of the students were extremely excited about the possibility of actually sending their letters to President Obama. While not all historical topics will relate to current events, it is always important to show your students “why is this important?”. In this case, giving students a role in the current Armenian Genocide debate was a good way of showing students the topic’s importance and relevance.
Similarly, I learned how to utilize backwards design in the classroom. First and foremost, we decided what thematic questions and what larger concepts the students needed to learn—in this case, the Armenian Genocide. Then, we determined that an authentic assessment in the form of having students write letters to President Obama stating their opinions would be the most effective way to assess student learning. And finally, we decided what activities and what specific material should be covered during the lesson. For me, this way of planning simply made sense; it helped organize the lesson and provided coherence to the material being taught. While I have by no means mastered the technique of backwards design, this lesson was a great opportunity to see how such planning played out in the classroom.
And finally, I learned the importance of revoicing students’ responses during classroom discussions. When I asked students to share their Free-Write responses, I found myself simply saying “good” or “that’s right” after each student’s response in Period A; while positive reinforcement is always a good thing, it would have been more beneficial for me to revoice what the students said. This would help students in a variety of different ways: first and foremost, it would help students who perhaps couldn’t hear what their classmate said, thus ensuring that everyone is on the same page; and more importantly, it helps students pull out the important information from their classmates’ answers, similar to a summary or a list of key ideas. During Period B, I worked hard to revoice students’ responses, and when I did, I found that the students were much more engaged and that the students were able to build off of what their classmates said to create a deeper, more thoughtful class discussion.
Overall, my experiences in Dr. Shreiner’s classroom taught me a lot about my own teaching. This lesson gave me an opportunity to try out new things—such as authentic assessments, thematic questions, and backwards design—as well as to improve my teaching techniques—such as revoicing students’ responses or speaking with my “teacher voice”. At this point, I feel prepared to enter student teaching, and I am very excited to have a classroom of my own.
Bain, Robert. "They Thought the World Was Flat?" “They Thought the World Was Flat?” Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History (2005): 179-214.
Caron, Edward. "What Leads to the fall of a Great Empire? Using Central Questions to Guide Issues-based History Units." The Social Studies (2005): 51-60.
Gronlund, Norman Edward, and C. Keith Waugh. Assessment of Student Achievement. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2009.