Planning Assignments Based on Historical Thinking Concepts

Ronald Martinello

I am currently the History/Geography head at  St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario. I teach History, Law and Civics. I am in my 26th year of teaching.

Once I started looking into historical thinking concepts I began to ask my teachers one simple question: “why are you doing that?” It was an interesting question that required the teachers to think about why certain projects were being assigned.  One particular assignment we used was in our Civics classes. As an end of term project that was meant to sum up the course, we would have students to design a trivia-style game with 50 or so questions derived from the course. After a few years of doing this, I asked the question: “why are we doing this?” I got answers like: “we’ve always done this”, “it’s a good summary of the course”, and “it’s a creative activity that the students will like”.  All these answers were fair but I wasn’t sure it actually measured anything. Besides, how do I mark a board game – colour, nice playing pieces, how easy is it to play? I guess I could have evaluated the game on the accuracy of the answers or the quality of the questions? The fact was that we were evaluating trivia. I began to question some other standard assignments like Depression era letters to Bennett or World War I journals.  Should I evaluate one student’s letter differently from another because they burned the edges to make it look more authentic? Should I evaluate the scrapbooking techniques a student used when creating their journal?  These were valid concerns especially considering the time it took some student to do the “window-dressing” on their assignments. It seemed, however, that our assignments, while creative, lacked focus. Besides a student can only create a board game so many times in a high school career.

What I have decided to do this semester is to create a series of assignments focused solely on one historical thinking concept at a time. I chose 4 because I am anticipating that these are the key historical concepts that the Ministry of Ontario will focus on in its upcoming curriculum changes. I will continue to evaluate the content of the assignment, the communication skills demonstrated in the assignment and how the assignment is formatted according to the structures I have demanded (e.g.  debate, newspaper article, letter, video or essay format).  But I can now direct my focus and the student’s focus on one specific and measurable historical concept at a time. This allows me to teach the concept in class, design activities to further understanding of the concepts studied and then evaluate the demonstrated concept through a specifically designed rubric or set of success criteria.

So this semester I have designed 4 key end of unit summatives, each with its own historical thinking focus.

A.      PERSPECTIVE – This is a Rick Mercer style rant (I got this idea from an OHASSTA conference session) where the student takes on a role of a person from the time period studied and tries to present a rant that reflects an authentic viewpoint of that time.  The rant must be representative of a person or group of people from the time period and it must avoid “present” interpretations.

B.      SIGNIFICANCE – This calls for students to design their own Historica Minute (either in storyboard format, PowerPoint format, or actual video) that tells a powerful and “revealing” story from a given episode in Canadian history.  Their story must explain why it was important to tell.

C.      CAUSE AND CONSEQUENCE – Students are to do a map study showing the changes in Europe from World War I to the end of the Cold War. Students are to identify the changes in the map, identify the cause of the changes and explain the consequences of those changes.

D.     CONTINUITY AND CHANGE – This is a comparative look at the changing nature of the teenager from the 1920s to the current age.  Students are to look at a number of factors (fashion, language, entertainment, use of technology) and explain what significantly changed and what stayed basically the same. Students are expected to explain why change did or did not occur.

As an aside, with an enriched history class, I am allowing the students to select the unit for which each summative will be evaluated. For example, one student may choose to do the rant in unit 1, while another student may choose to do the rant in unit 2. But it is understood that each concept needs to be covered once.

I’ll let you know how it turns out but it has certainly given me a specific focus when designing my assignments.