Archive for the ‘Lesson Ideas’ Category

Dred Scott Dossier

June 29, 2010

In high school I only got a very basic summary of the Dred Scott case, but in a Constitutional Law class at Boston College I really got to dig deeper into it.  Teaching a summer African American Experience this summer, I wanted to use case studies for each unit to give students a chance to really look at something in depth and do college level work.  The result was this assignment which breaks the case into several parts and gives students a chance to make their own legal decisions and assess Justice Taney’s.

Dred Scott Dossier

American law is based on precedent, meaning that each decision is based on not only the written law, but also previous legal decisions.  That is why lawyers must spend so much time studying law and why there are extensive legal libraries.  In this activity, you will examine a historical legal case and make your own legal decision based on the facts.  Read the documents carefully, and render your decision at the end.



Learning Stations: Crisis in the Weimar Republic

May 14, 2010

Last year my co-teacher and I were a little crunched for time when teaching the interwar years in Europe.  We wanted to get across the economic and social problems that Europeans faced and how it influenced the choices they made, so I designed these learning stations to allow students to use primary and secondary sources to discover these facts for themselves.

We set up the classroom with the documents (printed from the PowerPoint, attached below) for each station taped to the walls around the room in clusters.  Students worked with a partner to complete the questions on their worksheet (included below).   The questions included reading graphs, analyzing political cartoons, and using photographs and quotes to find facts and make judgments about what was happening to the German people in the 1930s.  The PowerPoint and worksheet can be downloaded here:

The PowerPoints: learning stations_weimar republic

Worksheet: weimar_worksheet

At the end of the activity, we read excerpts from two speeches from major politicians in Weimar Germany* (the last two slides on the PowerPoint, above).  They were read without the candidate’s name.  The class then voted on which candidate they thought would best solve Germany’s problems.  The majority of students chose candidate #1, who they were then told was Adolf Hitler.  (The other candidate was Heinrich Bruenning.)  Students were generally shocked, and we had good discussions about what lead to our choices and how it must have happened in 1930s Germany.

Most of all I wanted students to think about how terrible things, such as the election of a dictator, happen.  I believe that people usually do what they think is right, as German voters did in the 1930s (and many other people at many other times in history).  Thinking that those people were unusually stupid, naive or sinister is dangerous, because it obscures the fact that it could happen here or anywhere else if people do not do their homework, read between the lines, and think for themselves.

*Note: I selected the speeches and translated them from Germany personally because I am sometimes a little wary of translations of Hitler that can be found online.

Cold War Learning Stations

May 14, 2010

One lesson format I use again and again for my high school classes is “learning stations.”  In groups of 2-4, depending on the class, students work with primary and secondary sources to answer questions.  I usually structure it so they can go to the stations in any order.  I never do it on the first day of a unit to introduce a topic, but rather on the third or fourth day, so they can use what the prerequisite knowledge they’ve learned to interpret the documents.

I am including the learning station documents as a PowerPoint.

Sputnik and the Space Race Learning Stations

This set of learning stations was designed for an 11th grade US History II class.  It includes oral history, photographs and newspaper excerpts about the Space Race and how it impacted ordinary Americans.  The PowerPoint slides were printed out and stapled into packets for students to use at each cluster of tables.  For some classes, I have given each group all the stations at once, but for most classes it’s nice for them to move a little bit and have a change of scenery.  I am including the student worksheet questions below.


Westward Expansion for Summer School

April 26, 2010

I had the pleasure of teaching a summer school history course for high school students who hadn’t been successful in the other summer school class.  It was suggested I had the students read the book and I would check their answers to the questions in the book and write tests, but they weren’t motivated to do that and neither was I.  I ended up writing packets for the last two topics in the class (westward expansion and causes of the Civil War) including pictures, primary sources, questions interspersed within the reading and most importantly questions worthy of able young minds, not just defining key vocabulary in one sentence, which would end up being copied out of the book word for word. They had to complete the packet and any questions that were incomplete or wrong had to be redone until they were complete.  Each student worked at their own pace.  When they were done with the questions, we discussed it together, they completed a review sheet, and when that was perfect they were allowed to take the test.

Here is the packet I used to replace the textbook for Westward Expansion with the questions, as well as the unit test at the end.  I did not want to make the test too difficult, but I wanted students to have to read in order to pass it.  One of my students in particular was so used to the rhythms and techniques of textbook tests that he could spot the right answer without having done the reading.  I wanted to challenge that young man, and the other students, to take their reading seriously and answer reasoning questions rather than just recall– although there is certainly some recall of major facts and ideas.

Westward Expansion

Part I: The West before Europeans

When Lewis & Clark explored the Louisiana Territory in 1803, there were already millions of people living there, mostly Native Americans.  Many historians estimate that there were over 400 different tribes each with their own unique language and culture.  Northern tribes such as the Ojibwa and Ottawa relied on hunting, fishing and farming to get through the harsh winters.  Tribes such as the Sioux Nation on the Great Plains became dependent on hunting a single species: the Bison.  Tribes traveled seasonally, following the bison herds.  They supplemented their diet with fruits and vegetables they gathered, as well as some farming.  Other tribes such as the Haida of the Pacific Northwest had a plentiful diet of fish and plants to readily available, which freed up their people to concentrate on religion, the arts, and social matters.  Still other tribes, such as the Powhatan in New England, had by the 1800s been mostly destroyed by white settlement.  Some tribes were peaceful and lived in harmony with their neighbors, while some tribes practiced warfare as a way of life.  The tribes of North America are so diverse that the only trait that they all share is that they lived in America long before Europeans arrived.


Cold War Assessments

March 29, 2010

Not everyone is good at expressing what they know through a timed test.  Everybody knows that, but most classes still rely on tests.  I designed these assessments for my 11th grade US History II classes, both honors and standard level.  The results were mostly quite good, especially the oral history assignments.  I did have students complete an open-notes pop quiz (they were warned in advance, but did not know the exact date) to hold them accountable for their notes and classwork.

Positives: Students had a choice, and some students absolutely threw themselves into their work.  One student in my honors class brought in a diary twice as long as the minimum requirement with detailed descriptions of her character’s family and personal life, in addition to the required historical elements.  Another very shy boy in the standard-level class brought in an excellent oral history paper based on an interview with a Korean War veteran he worked with.  A few students interviewed their grandparents, several watched “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” although by far the diary was the most popular option.

Negatives: As I began teaching halfway through the year with these students, this was the first non-traditional assessment I did with them.  A handful of students did not complete the assignment and had various excuses, many of which did not hold water.  I had cautioned students that the film paper was not actually the “easiest” assignment but many students chose that, thinking it would be easy.  Two students said they could not find any of the films or any other suitable ones, and another said that the film was too boring to watch all the way through.  One student copied a synopsis of the film from Wikipedia.  These were exceptions, but I wish I had done more to support them so they could have completed the assignment as planned.

The Assignment: I am including the text of the assignment sheet I gave to students.  Feel free to modify this and use it for your own classes.  I am also including the text of a “tips” sheet that gives extra guidance and suggestions, as well as a template of the film paper.


1992: Presidential Campaign Songs

March 26, 2010

The first election I really paid attention to was the 1992 presidential election.  To this day when I hear “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, I can see Bill Clinton and Al Gore triumphantly waving amidst star spangled balloons.  Today presidential campaigns don’t use one monolithic song the way they did for generations, which saddens me a little.  I wrote this brief, lighthearted lesson to introduce the Clinton administration as well as to get students thinking about the way media is used to shape political image.

Positives: It’s short, sweet and to-the-point.  With a group of juniors, this took less than half a class period and produced some good discussion.  It also got kids asking good questions about current political campaigns.

Negatives: It doesn’t cover any particular state standards, but at the end of the year when students are in a frenzy to study for finals, a little relaxation isn’t a bad thing.


-CD or MP3s of “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie (or any other folk singer), “Crazy” by Patsy Cline.  This can all be easily obtained on iTunes or inexpensively.

-Printout of lyrics for students (could be done with a partner)


Memorials – What do they mean?

March 3, 2010

I have not taught this lesson yet, but I think it could be an appropriate warm-up activity for the Vietnam War, the Abolition Movement, or really any unit about a war, social movement, or several prominent individuals (the presidents, space travel, etc).  I want to get students thinking about how/why we remember people and how our actions in the modern world can affect how people are remembered.

Pairs of students can choose one of a small group of photographs of two or three famous memorials.  (You might also give each pair one in particular, if you are not worried about anyone getting stuck or frustrated by lack of choice.)  Students will then answer the following questions:

1) What do I see in this picture?

2) What person/event might this be commemorating?  What information do I get from this picture about that person/event?

3) What emotions would a person feel if they went to this place?

4) What is important about this person/event?

Here are some photos I have taken of famous memorials.  Older students or students with more knowledge of history might be given the more obscure ones.  Younger students or students with less knowledge of US/world history might be given the more obvious or narrative photos.  You also might decide whether you want to label the photos to give students a clue, or leave them without explanation and allow them to make guesses themselves.

(Holocaust Memorial, Berlin)


Choose your own Adventure: Weimar Germany

February 17, 2010

A colleague of mine at FHS had used a Choose Your Own Adventure style story to explore the Russian Revolution and the choices people made that led them to join the Bolsheviks or not.  I was inspired to write my own Choose Your Own Adventure about 1930s Germany, an era that I love studying and teaching.

I wanted to show how different elements in people’s lives (economics, social pressure, family pressure, etc) could cause people to become involved with the National Socialists and how it seemed pretty harmless at first.  Many of the elements of the story are inspired by Gisela Heidenreich’s “Das Endlose Jahr” which tells her life story and explains her mother’s involvement with the Nazis.  Other elements are based on works of fiction from that era such as “Trummlerbub unter’m Hakenkreuz” which dramatized the Hitler Youth, and “Das kunstseidene Maedchen” which described a young woman living in the city in the 1920s.

Feel free to use this story with students.  I printed out class copies for students to read and then return to me rather than printing out 100+ copies for each students to keep one.  If you use this with your students, please credit my authorship.  Thanks.  :-)

Choose your own Adventure: Weimar Germany, 1933

By Whitney Nielsen

You are Gisela Schneider, a 17 year-old girl living in Munich, a city in southern Germany.  You live with your parents and two younger sisters, but times are tough.  Your father has been fired from his job as a train conductor and has been looking for a job for months.  Your mother has been washing other people’s laundry to earn money for the family, but it is barely enough to pay the rent and buy bread.

You want to graduate from high school and get a modern job, perhaps being a stenographer or a typist, but your family cannot afford to pay for the abitur, the test you need to take to earn your diploma.

You decide to try to get a part-time job to help support your family, and maybe pay for the abitur exam.  You spend all afternoon walking from shop to shop, applying for jobs.  You have to walk because you cannot afford to ride the streetcar.  No one seems to be hiring.  You return home, desperate.

Your uncle comes to visit your family.  He suggests that you apply for a job as a part-time secretary at the military academy he teaches at, which is run by the National Socialist Party.  He says you can work after school and on the weekends, typing and keeping records for the school.  You’re not sure you want to work at a military academy—let alone run by the Nazis—but you don’t seem to have many other options.  Will you take the job?

If you will take the job, turn to page 2.

If you don’t want the job, turn to page 3.


Creative Warm-Up: the Industrial Revolution

February 12, 2010

After a few days of studying the Industrial Revolution, I gave students a warm-up activity to get them using primary sources creatively and putting themselves into that time period.

In this activity, students were given a sheet containing two primary sources.  There were several different sheets, and students could trade with their neighbors if they didn’t like the one they received.  They contained photographs, quotes or maps from the period.  They were then asked to write between a half a page and a page in the first person about what life would be like for the people the photo, quote or map describe.  They were encouraged to combine the information from the two sources they received.  After they were given time to write, students shared their answers.

Positives: It was a short activity which gave students an opportunity to get into character for the rest of the lesson.  Some students enjoyed a chance to express their outrage and have it supported by their peers.  Others wrote very poignant, sad descriptions of child laborers and their families.

Negatives: It can be difficult for students who aren’t used to that kind of assignment.  Some sources are also more difficult than others, particularly the map.  Choosing different sources specifically for struggling students or providing an exemplar might help focus students.

Here are the sources I used:

Source A:


Presidential Facebooks – Ford and Carter

February 9, 2010

Toward the end of US History II, things get a little rushed. It seems like Ford and Carter get crammed into a week or less to make enough room for Reagan. So how does one assess students on two brief presidents? Surely there’s not enough time for an essay or a class presentation. How about Facebook?

Here is an assignment I used for two 11th grade US II classes. Students completed the assignment with a partner or alone during one class period (about 30 minutes) and then shared their work with the class. The atmosphere was light and many students produced interesting Facebook profiles for their president. It was a good way to show their depth of understanding: students who knew more had more to say, and students who had only read enough to know that Jimmy Carter had something to do with peanuts had much less to say, which was reflected in their grade.

I used the following template for a “blank” Facebook profile. Unfortunately, Facebook changes its appearance every few months, so Facebook doesn’t look quite like that anymore. Taking a screenshot of a more current Facebook and editing out the photos/text in paint or Photoshop would be a good solution.