Living History Project: Student Excerpts Week 1

After two weeks of basically running around like a chicken with its head cut off, I can finally breathe because the weekend is here. I now have time to indulge myself by reading a good book and relaxing on the couch.

But first, I wanted to share an update on the Living History Project.

This week, I have been busy reading and commenting on the Living History Journal entries from my students. While I don’t have 100% participation, I am pleased with the number of students who have been able to adjust to this new style of learning from home. Hey, I’ll take my victories as I can get them.

My goal with this project, besides capturing the thoughts and feelings of my students, was also to find a way to help my students develop self-management and self-awareness skills (see CASEL). While developing historical empathy has been a focus of mine for years, I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to foster the development of social and emotional learning skills in the various tasks and activities I create for my students. Hence the Living History Project.

I wanted to share a few excerpts from the Living History Journals. Some of the posts were humorous, others displayed a sense of fear or worry…and then there were quite few that evoked frustration.

Excerpts on the lighter side…

  • Today, I woke up and realized there was PE homework. Like are you kidding me?
  • My second thought was that I was correct yesterday, we’re all going to die
  • One thing is that people are buying toilet paper, why do you need to buy toilet paper? It’s not going to save you from the COVID-19
From a student journal…

Excerpts that show my kids are dealing with real-life (adult?) issues…

  • What would happen if my mom wasn’t able to work anymore? How would we make money to support the family? What would happen if everyone wasn’t allowed work…?
  • My mom showed me a paper of where in case the police ever stops her from going anywhere she just shows them that paper. That scared me even more my mom works in a medical needs place so she isnt gonna stop working.
  • Yet, on the other point of view, people who have the coronavirus are still seriously on the edge of life or dead. I’m worried for my friends. I don’t keep contact of all of them, but are they sick? Are some of them being contaminated right now away from everybody? The thought of it scares me, even makes my heart thump faster…
  • The fact that my brother and I only have a limited amount of food and water  is scary to me, because if we run out we can possibly die.

Excerpts that reveal remote or distance learning is not their cup of tea…

  • I am super stressed with all of the homework my teachers are sending in. I hope it will get easier but only time can tell. At this point I wish I was in school.
  • I woke up and i head a bunch of messages on cell phone i was starting to hate the online homework because the teachers are spamming messages over and over.

Excerpts of how my kiddoes are trying to cope with the situation and find the brighter side of things…

  • As my anxious self continues to wander around I decided to ignore my anxiety as I baked goods for my family
  • This has changed my daily routine because now I do not go to school, can not hang out with my friends, and online schooling is difficult for me, because it is new to me. My parents are helping me navigate through my classes and i am doing my best

I was apprehensive, at first, about assigning the Living History Project. Part of me was thinking that we should just continue with what we were learning in class (for continuity)…but then I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to capture real-time experiences and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their journal entries make me laugh, cringe, and sometimes tear up. Their honesty is part of their DNA. Middle schoolers don’t typically use a filter so I’m able to capture their raw emotions, thoughts, and feelings. They may not understanding at the moment why I’m asking them to put their hearts down on paper (or in this case a Google Doc)…but as a historian…I know that future generations will appreciate having a primary source from children who lived during this trying time.

I am so proud of my middle schoolers.

Something to Consider

A friend of mine sent the following gif to describe her current situation…and I think most of us have felt like that dog at some point within the past couple of weeks.

As my district enters the second week of remote or distance learning, I feel compelled to share something that I recently mentioned to several colleagues. In my discussions about how to help transition fully face-to-face or blended courses to completely online, teachers, students, and parents have shared their frustrations, fears, and concerns.

To begin, teachers who were not ready to use technology (as in they had not jumped onto that wagon) were suddenly thrust into a situation in which they had to not only quickly set up an online platform (Google Classroom being the easiest), but they also had to figure out how to upload assignments that students could conceivably complete at home. Teachers who used technology here and there had a bit of an easier transition since they had some working knowledge of what technology tools would best support the learning objectives. Then there are the teachers who use technology on a regular basis with their students, BUT they always had the opportunity to provide and receive real-time, face-to-face assistance when technology issues reared its ugly head.

Make no mistake, students use technology. They have their phones and gaming systems. They know how to use those. But those tools are typically for entertainment. Not school work. While some students used technology in their classes, as previously stated, they also had the real-time, in-person support of their teachers.

And then there’s parents. Most parents use some type of technology every day. It could be their phones to check email or social media, a computer to do their work, and even online gaming systems to entertain themselves.

So…teachers, students, and parents have some type of working knowledge of technology and how they use it in their daily lives.

But when the schools closed, suddenly all learning was transitioned online to be done at home without training and in-person support. Teachers, students, and parents were forced to figure things out basically on their own. And it hasn’t been an easy process. And that’s without taking into consideration the stress of this pandemic, running out of food and water, being forced into isolation, not knowing what the future holds…etc. [see gif at the top].

And I wanted to just say…no one* signed up for online learning.

  • My students didn’t sign up to take fully online courses
  • My colleagues didn’t sign up to design and teach fully online courses
  • The parents of my students didn’t sign up to homeschool their child for fully online courses

So, everyone just needs to take a GIGANTIC breath or two or three. I believe that everyone–teachers, students, and parents–is doing the very best they can considering everything else that is going on.

To my colleagues…I want to say, you’re doing a great job. I see you working overtime to figure out how to provide some type of continuity for your students. I see you trying to figure out how to create assignments that students can do with minimal direct instruction. I see you trying to balance work, family, five different Zoom session for your own kids, and your sanity. I see you.

To my students…you are doing an amazing job. I see you working late into the night trying to complete assignments or tasks. I see you trying to maintain your composure when you see that the food supplies are low at your house. I see you stepping up to help your little brothers and sisters with their suddenly online courses while trying to maintain the workload you have for your own classes. I see you trying to be brave for your parents who are worried that they may lose their jobs. I see you.

To the parents of my students…you are doing an outstanding job. I see you reaching out to teachers asking questions about technology. I see you patiently sitting down with your child trying to help them understand algebra while also running a Zoom meeting for your elementary aged child. I see your concern about your job and whether you’ll have enough money for food and utilities. I see you balancing more than you ever thought you could. I see you.

We may not have signed up for the fully online learning situation…but we can certainly get through this if we put compassion and empathy first. And that my friends begins by first showing compassion and empathy to ourselves…so that we can then BE that to others.

air hugs


*I have taught fully online courses…that is totally in my wheelhouse. But that didn’t make it any less stressful when I had one day to transition my entire course to be fully online.

Who’s Out There?

The sudden closure of our school meant that I spent the better part of last weekend scrambling for how I could continue to provide engaging and meaningful learning activities for my students. I believe I have a good start with the Living History Project. But the problem is how to tell my students about it…

So I posted announcements in our LMS and pushed them out via ParentSquare (messaging system). According to our dashboard, all parents are connected to and set up to receive notifications/message except for one. While I find that hard to believe…I’m going to go with the known data that 99% of parents/students are receiving my messages.

Bitmoji Image

So how does that explain that I haven’t heard from or seen any online activity from 25% of my students? Three parents reached out privately in response to my ParentSquare message about picking up a hard copy of the assignments, so I’m not counting those parents/students among the 25%.

So I decided to take one of the assignments I posted–a Google Form soliciting which type of Living History Project they were going to do…paper versus digital–and I made that a five point summative assessment grade in Aeries. Students who did not complete the Google Form received a zero. Those who did earned five points.

And then I waited…

Before long, I had students emailing me and completing the Google Form. In fact, this was my favorite email:

The student didn’t write anything in the email. They just sent me a screenshot of their grade in Aeries…to which I replied:

“I am so glad you checked in with me! I have been posting announcements in PowerSchool and ParentSquare/StudentSquare about assignments that you need to be working on. We are taking a break from the unit test and digital notebook and you are working on the Living History Project instead. The missing assignment is the Google Form that you need to fill out. Go to PowerSchool > Living History Project.”

And then 30 minutes later, the same student sent me a screenshot of the completed GoogleForm.

Mind you, I am not counting the GoogleForm as a summative assessment. But I needed to figure out a way to reach those students who have been silent since last Friday. I know many of them check their grades…so that was my way to get their attention.

I suspect that over the next day or two more students will come out of the woodwork as they and their parents adjust to a new normal. I know they need to catch their breath. I know that they have other priorities to worry about…but my goal was to see who has online access…who was out there with me. We were not given the opportunity to gather this information before school was closed which would have been more helpful than the data from ParentSquare that listed only one household as having not contact information.

If anyone has other creative ways to get students to respond…my ears are open. In this day and age, we need to band together to share best practices and innovative ways to stay in touch with our students.


Living History Project

Bitmoji Image

This past weekend I started to put together an independent project for my students (inspired by a Twitter post from another middle school history teacher – see below). At the time, all I knew is that my district made the decision to close our schools until April 13, which meant that I needed to get creative.

The history of the Middle Ages isn’t inherently interesting to most people, let alone middle schoolers. Having said that, I can make history interesting for my kiddoes, but that involves a lot of interaction (face-to-face)–there are stories to be told, simulations to do, and real-time back and forth banter. Going virtual is another story…so I opted to pause our current unit of study and take a broader approach to learning world history while making connections to current events and social-emotional learning.

I decided to do a Living History Project with my 7th graders. The following tweet inspired me, and the Google Doc that Deirdre O’Connor shared was a great starting point:

What is the Living History Project, you ask?

Great question!

The Living History Project is the essence of student-centered learning. Students are creating a primary source (through daily journal posts) about their experience living during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also one task that they have to complete each day that connects history/social science content, current events, and literacy skills. Students need to complete the task and add that to their daily journal entries. The tasks are organized by day/week on the Daily Menu (P.S. This is still very much under construction).

And because I believe in #studentchoice, students have a variety of options for this project:

  • Paper or digital
  • Writing, drawing + writing, video

Students can keep a hard copy journal or they can go completely digital. Some digital options: Google Slides (which I prepared and pushed out), vlogs, or blogs (e.g., Weebly, Wix). All entries will eventually need to be uploaded to the Google Slides for posterity’s sake. NOTE: If you’re wondering what I’m doing for students without Internet access or devices…I left a hard copy of the project and daily menu for parents to pick up from the front office.

I created a Google Form to collect information on how my students planned to record their daily journal entries. I also let them know that I expect them to send me photos or a link to what they’ve been working on by the end of each week. While I don’t want to micro-manage my students, I know that middle schoolers like to err on the side of procrastination, so I’m planning to make sure that they don’t procrastinate themselves out of this project.

Because I also like blogging, I plan to do the Living History Project along side of them. Then when we finally reconvene (anticipated student/teacher return date is April 13), we can share our experiences with each other.

If you are planning to do something similar, please let me know! I would love to see the end products and/or learn about how the process evolved for you and your students.

Something to Consider…

Schools and the Coronavirus — Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Close the schools, an anxious neighbor says on Nextdoor (a local online bulletin board), when a parent of two school children in the community in which I live came in contact with someone who was infected with the coronavirus (see comment below: a careful reader noted that the source I used said the parent was […]

Schools and the Coronavirus — Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

If you’ve been following my blog or Twitter feed, then you know I am a huge fan of Larry Cuban. His post could not have come at a more opportune time as school closures have become a reality, both in the U.S. and abroad.

As a classroom teacher, I have been thinking about the impact of school closures on the students from my district. I work at a Title I school which means that the majority of my students come from low-SES households. As Larry points out, school closures disproportionately affect the poor. For some parents missing work means losing pay; while for others it means scrambling to find someone who can take care of their child while they go to work. We also provide breakfast and lunch for many students. Concurring with Larry, if my school closes, those students would have to find a different means of getting food. Closing the schools would create an economic hardship for those parents. For parents of middle school children (like the ones I teach), I suppose they could stay home unsupervised, but for children in elementary school…well, that’s another story.

I was thinking about the online learning option that several schools have chosen to do. But then again, the online option assumes that students have access to a device and the Internet which is not the reality for all students at my school, let alone my district.

So what is a school to do? How can we keep the learning going?

To be clear, I’m not worried about making sure that my students acquire the content information or skills to pass the state or district exams. That is not my concern. My concern is to ensure that my students do not fall behind in content and skills acquisition, in general. My secondary concern is to provide for my students some semblance of normalcy in a confusing and scary time. Students often look to schools as a safe-haven because it’s something they know–it’s something they are used to going to five days a week. The events of 9/11 clearly showed that.

How can I support my students when being physically present at school is not a possibility? What can I do for those who do not have access to reliable Internet connectivity?

I don’t have an answer to any of those questions. But I am currently working through some viable options for my students. I hope you are, too.

What Makes PD Worthwhile?

I’ve written about professional development (PD) several times over the course of the years as I’ve held both the role of presenter and audience member. Most of the PD I’ve experienced in my 25 years of teaching has followed the one-shot, sit-and-get model which research (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Dede, Ketelhut, Whitehouse, Breit, & McCloskey, 2008; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001) suggests to be one of the most ineffective ways to provide PD. The reasons behind the one-shot PD as an ineffective mode of professional growth is the lack of coherence, relevance, and sustainability. In addition, PD that happens to teachers as in they are talked at for the hour or so is not effective either (Appova & Arbaugh, 2017; Macià & García, 2016). This is why my dissertation study focused on examining the influence of PD that included the following:

Conceptual Map of Best Practices of Teacher Professional Development
(Desimone & Garet, 2015)

Disclaimer: While Desimone and Garet (2015) and by extension me (via the findings of my research study) believe that this PD model works, this is by far not the only model of best practices for teacher professional development.

The PD I attended this past Thursday was hosted by the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) under the leadership of Marika Manos, Coordinator of History/Social Science. This PD was designed around a community of practices model in which educators from all levels (e.g., K12, higher education) came together to learn from other educators (collective participation). There were four sessions planned throughout the school year (sustained duration) with the theme of Environmental Principles and Concepts and application of these ideas to the History/Social Science content (coherence, content focus).

I was unable to attend the first three sessions, so I cannot speak to the level of active learning that occurred on those days. But I can attest to the level of active learning during the fourth session in which the esteemed Bob Bain presented on Surfacing & Engaging Students’ Thinking When Teaching History and the Social Sciences.

To begin, what I appreciated was the fact that he not only asked us our names and what we taught…he wrote those down so that he could speak to us on a personal level by using our names. Bob also started his session by sharing that when he teaches or presents, he asks his audience to think about three things as they reflect on their learning:

  • What supported your thinking?
  • What extended your thinking?
  • What challenged your thinking?

I loved this.

By setting us up with questions that he was going to ask us to address by the end of the day, Bob ensured that we would be actively engaged in the learning.

Throughout the day, Bob presented research, shared student examples, personal anecdotes, and asked educators to share their questions, thinking, and understanding. To anyone who walked by the room, it might have seemed as if we were all passively learning as much of the time we were listening and viewing Bob’s presentation. But that takes me back to the blog post by Blake Harvard titled The Myth of Passive Learning. For years, I erroneously believed that if learners were not physically active during the learning process, then the learning could only be categorized as passive. However, Blake points out that while the body may be physically passive, when the mind is engaged in focused cognition, the person is actively learning. But I also think that just because one is physically active does not equate to learning. I’ll expound on this in another blog post.

And that takes me back to Desimone and Garet’s (2015) conceptual model of PD. Everything about the presentation on Thursday engaged me on a cognitive level. All cylinders were firing–I could barely keep up with the amazing amount of information being presented. So yes, the PD definitely fulfilled the notion of active learning.

But here’s the most important take-away about this PD…I wanted to be there. I made the choice to go because I was interested in meeting Bob and the learning about what he had to share. This is the part of PD that I think is one of the most under-rated: participant interest.

It’s an easy hook…and one that (in my opinion) is often overlooked. This is why I love EdCamps and my network of peers. We talk about what interests us and what we know would interest others. We come together to learn from each other. Our discussions are typically content-based, aligned with what we’ve been discussing in the past, sustained over time, actively engaging, collectively participatory…but more importantly…it is of interest to us.

In closing, here is my reflection of the PD from this past Thursday:

  • The information Bob shared about historical thinking and the gaps between experts (teachers) and novices (students) supported my efforts both as a classroom teacher and professional developer. It’s important to be cognizant of the in/coherence problem. But it’s more than awareness, I need to find ways to narrow the gap.
  • My thinking was extended in that I need to provide more scaffolds for my English language learners. I need to spend more time gaining a better understanding of their comprehension of the content so that I can clear up any misconceptions. In other words, I need to make the hidden visible. NOTE: This is something I am currently working on with the brain dumps.
  • I left the day challenged to be a better educator, not only for my students, but also for the people who attend my PD sessions and who are part of my PLN. I need to not make assumptions about what I think they know. I need to be better at addressing the gaps between expert and novice…teacher/student and teacher/teacher.

I can and will do better.


Appova, A., & Arbaugh, F. (2017). Teachers’ motivation to learn: Implications for supporting professional growth. Professional Development in Education, 7, 1–17. doi:10.1080/19415257.2017.1280524

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (with Espinoza, D.). (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

Darling-Hammond, L., & McLaughlin, M. W. (1995). Policies that support professional development in an era of reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 92, 81–92. doi:10.1177/003172171109200622

Dede, C., Ketelhut, D. J., Whitehouse, P., Breit, L., & McCloskey, E. M. (2008). A research agenda for online teacher professional development. Journal of Teacher Education, 60, 8–19. doi:10.1177/0022487108327554

Desimone, L. M., & Garet, M. S. (2015). Best practices in teacher’s professional development in the United States. Psychology, Society, & Education, 7, 252–263. doi:10.25115/psye.v7i3.515

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 915–945. doi:10.3102/00028312038004915

Macià, M., & García, I. (2016). Informal online communities and networks as a source of teacher professional development: A review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 291–307. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2016.01.021

Empathy: A Necessary Skill (Part 1)

I recently wrote an article for the Social Studies Review about two types of assignments I have my students complete that help them understand and hopefully develop empathy for various historical figures. One of the assignments focused on the use of emojis to encourage students to connect emotions to certain key events in the life of a historical figure.

Because I am always looking for ways to improve my instructional practices, I combined the Developing Historical Empathy emoji assignment (from the article) with an Open Mind template. My goal was to narrow the focus to emotions at pivotal times in the story of Muhammad and the origin of Islam.

To begin, I had students brainstorm emotions (in general).

Interestingly (and completely off-topic), I sensed a theme of emotions as relayed by my students from all six periods of world history. I was thankful that some students shared positive emotions to help lighten the mood.

From there, I explained that they were now going to step into the shoes of Muhammad and imagine the various emotions he went through from his tough childhood, revelations from the angel Gabriel, being run-out of town, and eventually returning to his hometown, Makkah.

The assignment was to come up with a minimum of four emotions (thoughts and feelings), draw/label the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain how the textual evidence supports their thinking or understanding.

As Muhammad left no written records, what the students come up with is purely conjecture. But that’s okay…because the goal is for students to learn how to empathize with the plight of others.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another”

Alfred Adler

Because I believe in student choice, I like to give them several options for assignments. In this case, I suggested that students use the emojis from the iPad keyboard as a starting place as they reread the various sources on Muhammad’s life. Students could draw those emoji, name the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain the connection.

The other option was to use simple drawings that used body-language to convey emotions. Students still need to name the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain the connection.

For the artists in the room (and I have some phenomenal artists!), I stressed that they do not have to feel constrained with choosing from the emoji keyboard or simple drawings of body language.

What I noticed today (Day 1) was that students who could identify with certain emotions had an easier time connecting the emotion to the textual evidence. Now, this is completely anecdotal, and I should have more concrete evidence on Monday when the Open Mind is due, but I’m thinking that students who have lost a parent or loved one will be able to better empathize with Muhammad’s upbringing as an orphan. I also suspect that students who have experienced bullying may be able to personally identify with Muhammad when he and his followers were run out of Makkah.

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that  happen.  Empathy is a quality of character that can  change the world.”

Barack Obama

However, even if students have not experienced personal loss or threatening behavior, they can certainly empathize with the various hardships in the life of Muhammad. My students have quickly learned that talking with their peers is a good support system, and I suspect that they will be able to help each other gain a better understanding of Muhammad’s life by walking in his shoes.

The newest layer to this assignment is for students to add a personal connection by reflecting on their life in comparison to Muhammad’s and how what they learned may impact them in the future. This written reflection will hopefully provide insight on whether this type of assignment has the potential to help students develop empathy (or not) and whether empathy is a skill that can be transferred to other situations.

Stay tuned.