Review of teachinghistory.org

Spaghetti thrown against a wall.  That’s how my brain experienced the Center for History and New Media’s teachinghistory.org website.  After spending some time with all of its various pages, though, I concluded that said pasta was high in quality if not well-plated.  In fact, I am sure I will use many of the site’s materials when I become a high school history teacher.  There’s a lot to teachinghistory.org, so I can imagine it wasn’t an easy site to organize.  This post documents shares my long visit with the site and covers who made it, who it’s for, what it’s supposed to do and whether I think it succeeds in its mission.

Genesis

In 2007, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University received a $7.5 million contract from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History (TAH) program to create a “National History Education Clearinghouse,” which was named “teachinghistory.org.”  The purpose is to improve K-12 history education and student achievement by providing teachers with resources and materials for the classroom.  This includes linking to existing materials and providing new materials.  The site has incorporated lessons learned from over 1,000 projects under TAH.  The site has a database of materials, along with a blog and other blog-like features.  It attracts close to 2 million visitors from around the world every year.

Three GMU historians were I the site’s original directors: Roy Rosenzweig (founder of CHNM), Kelly Schrum and Sharon Leon.  Partners include Stanford University’s History Education Group and the American Historical Association.  On the technical side, developers and programmers on staff at GMU’s CHNM built the site with help from Apsara, which lead the graphic design effort.  Several experts in the fields of history, education and digital media, mostly drawn from academia, contributed to the site.  Throughout the site, one finds profiles of such individuals, lending credibility to the content.  Overall, CHNM claims authorship of the site.

Design

Let’s get this part out of the way, because it was the element I found most frustrating.  The look of teachinghistory.org is modern and attractive.  There are a ton of images that keep it from being a wall of text.  It is inviting like a magazine – lots of features presented in blocks around the page that don’t look dull.  However, taken as a whole, I have no idea where to start and can easily feel like I fell down a rabbit hole once I click on a link.  I am afraid, I would prefer Jakob Neilson’s more useable approach to web design (and studies show I’m not alone preferring this style, generally).  I noticed that Apsara, the design company, has made some very attractive designs for print items – magazines, brochures and posters.  Unfortunately, those design approaches don’t work as well online, which is what I felt they were trying to do.

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There are too many images, as much as I like images.  On each of the main sections, there is a large window at the top of the screen (“above the fold” in newspaper-speak) with a slide show of images for featured pages on each sub-section.  The purpose seems to be to lure the user to bounce around the website, looking at all sorts of its great offerings.  Randomly wandering around the site might be fun, but I would guess that most teachers (the target audience) would prefer a site more practically organized.  Further, on pages where there are lists of items, like lesson plans, there are thumbnail images next to the items.  This looks great, but is ultimately distracting and means lists cannot be scanned easily because they take up a lot of room and get spread across multiple pages.  Teachers live in a hectic world requiring a very orderly output of highly proscribed content on a daily basis.  I suspect most of them would prefer a catalog approach, despite the hip travel magazine feel of this site.  I was relieved to find the “site at a glance” bar, hiding in the top right corner.  Perhaps just one page in the site could feature a changing sampling of items for the wandering visitor.

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Teaching Materials

Teachinghistory.org has a great collection of lesson plans and teaching guides.  There is a great focus on quality, which is helped by a smart rubric they have devised to evaluate lesson plans.  It is great to not only be able to find a set of useable lessons, as a teacher, but also to see how well they are designed from an objective lens.  Inadvertently, I would imagine this rubric has influenced scores of teachers to improve the quality of their own lesson plans.  Many of these plans were produced outside the project and users are taken to those sites via links, which has the side benefit of helping the user to discover other useful websites.

The worst thing about the materials are their organization.  They are listed alphabetically by plan title.  Again, a busy teacher would likely benefit from being able to look at a list of plans by topic in chronological order.  Other sites have a set of checkboxes for users to be able to filter their searches to particular geographic, topical, chronological and other elements.  The search box is not too bad, but a stronger ordering would really help to make sense of their collection.  The “Lesson Plan Gateway” is a weird feature that lets a user search for an even greater number of plans; however, when I tried using that feature, it wasn’t too different from using google.  What was the added value?

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Three other elements are missing that would increase the practical utility of the lesson plans.  For plans not developed by CHNM, these should be standard categories added to a lesson plan template.  For plans made by other entities, these items could appear in the reviews.  First, learning standards covered would be very helpful since we’re in the age of measurement.  These could include the national Common Core standards and National Council on Social Studies themes and Virginia’s Standards of Learning (because CHNM is based in Virginia and GMU is producing a lot of Virginia teachers).  Second, differentiation in learning is not considered in many lessons, but is critical given the inclusion of students with learning differences in most schools and the growing number of English language learners (ELL).  Fortunately, the site as a whole small section on ELL’s and a few blog posts on differentiation.  Third, reviews by teachers who have used the lesson plans could be helpful.  How did a particularly creative or thought-provoking activity go in a variety of settings?  Did some teachers make modifications that would help other users?  Very few of the pages on the site have any comments, despite the option for users to leave comments everywhere.  It seems the site needs some help with outreach to get better participation in this feature from teachers.

Beyond Clearinghouse

What is especially strong about this site is the quality of history education it promotes.  “Clearinghouse” doesn’t really capture what this site is to me.  Clearinghouse suggests a dumping grounds for all matter of existing materials.  The site does a great job promoting historical thinking skills and provides lots of great tools.  This is not a site for teachers who think of history as memorization of facts and snippets.  The site provides a great video on thinking historically (on the main page) as well as a poster that can be ordered for classroom walls.  There are some great examples of lessons that ask students to think historically.  There are two excellent pages that address textbooks.  The first takes on a bunch of topics that contrasts what textbooks often say about a topic, what historians say and what the sources say.  This encourages teachers to show that history is a dynamic process and that history is not a finished product.  A weakness here is that textbooks are referred to rather generically.  To model scholarly skills, it would help for these pages to mention excerpts from specific textbooks and to give the years in which they written.  The second is under the Best Practices section, there are eight solid items that teach students how to use textbooks more critically.  These are great skills that are examples of how history education can have benefits beyond the field.  These skills can help individuals to become critically-minded citizens and consumers, for example.

Smart Warm-Up Activities

There are some great original features in the website that do not come with guidance on usage in the classroom, but struck me immediately as great “warm-up” activities to get a class started or as an energizer when a change-up of activities, break or bridge is needed.  The quizzes are great learning tools.  One example is a question asking the user to choose which image of Hirohito and which of McArthur ended up in a newspaper photograph of the two men at the end of World War II.  After choosing, correct and incorrect answers are explained.  This is a great activity touching on content about the war, the use of photographs in history as evidence and historical thinking skills.  The strange, but very fixable element of this feature is that the quizzes are not printer-friendly.  It seems obvious these questions could be given to students as activities, but they aren’t formatted as ready-to-use.

“Ask a Historian” and “Examples of Historical Thinking” are other great warm-up or kick-off resources.  “Ask a Historian” looks like blog posts and could be printed.  Students could read these short articles as they came into class as a way to stir their thinking on a question that was posed and answered by trained historians.  “Examples of Historical Thinking” features historians giving video interviews on a topic like Jane Addams and women’s suffrage.  The historian shares how they used historical thinking to analyze a particular source or set of sources to arrive at an interpretation of history.  Images are spliced into the video and some sound editing is done to sharpen up the quality, concision and pacing.  Though, some of these clips may still be a bit too dry or detailed for high school audiences.

Digital Resources and Ideas

I learned many new things on the “Digital Classroom” pages.  I learned some very practical tips on existing websites like [link]“printable.com” which allows you to plug in a URL to get a printable page that removes all images and links to make shorter, simpler handouts for students, for example.  I also watched a video made by a teacher who explains how to teach students to make a “choose your own adventure” styled history video that was interactive itself.  Some links, as was the case in various places on the site were broken.  I was disappointed not to learn how twitter is being used in large classrooms, for example.  The site could use some updating as links can go cold quickly in internet-land.  “Ask a Digital Historian” is another great resource page full of questions teachers have asked and digital experts have answered, such as what the parameters are around using copyrighted materials in the classroom.

People Resources

The “Ask a…” features are a clever way to bring in useful perspectives of current practitioners of the relevant fields.  In addition to “Ask a Historian” and “Ask a Digital Historian” there is “Ask a Master Teacher.”  The site doesn’t feel like an active dialogue is currently happening, but the past posts are still useful and interesting, nonetheless.  Similarly, there is a “Teaching in Action” page that shows you how teachers and students are doing lessons together.  Sometimes it is incredibly helpful as an educator to see an idea in action and not just to have the written instructions on how to make it happen.

Links Plus

The site does a decent job of also turning teachers onto existing national government institution’s websites that have useful materials for educators – lesson plans, primary source documents and so forth.  Rather than just giving links, the site provides a brief description of sites.  The broken links issue is a problem with many of these pages, unfortunately.  The links to state standards seems like an underdeveloped area of the site as it simply lists states’ standards.  Surely one can google this.  Perhaps there were ideas about how to connect the standards to the materials in the future?

Conclusion

Teachinghistory.org is a treasure trove of good ideas and practical materials for teaching history in a powerful way.  It promises to sharpen the skills and equip history teachers with some well-made resources and creative ideas.  I wonder if the site covers a bit too much.  For example, I haven’t even touched on a section of reviews and roundtables on education policy matters or the lessons learned from the TAH grantees.  Whether the site were broken up into smaller ones or not, though, a more minimal design approach that is cleaner and easier to read and follow would help teachers find items most relevant to their needs and not get overwhelmed.

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