Essential Question: Who is the Teacher in Your Classroom?

Over the last few weeks I've been guiding teams of teachers on reflective classroom walkthroughs. During the course of one of our "hallway discussions" I asked a social studies teacher, "who's the historian in your classroom?" After a bit of give and take, we concluded that in the traditional classroom, the students get to watch (and listen) to the teacher be historian. 

That's certainly what you would have seen early in my teaching career. I was the one doing most of the reading, reflecting and synthesizing of historic material. I thought my job was to distill it all and simplify for consumption by my students. It took me a few years to realize my job was to get the students to be the historians (and economists, anthropologists, etc). 

De Bry Here's a sample lesson that I developed to demonstrate how historic material could be scaffolded so that all students could participate in doing the work of historians –  What Did Europeans "See" When They Looked at the New World and the Native Americans? Seems appropriate with US Thanksgiving nearly here.

It examines European views of Native American and the New World in the Age of Exploration. While it is a rather one-sided account, the documents reveal a great deal about the cultural "lenses" that the Europeans "looked" though. It is designed around an essential question that will engage students in reflection about how Europeans allowed prejudice to color their perceptions. That, of course, invites thinking about how we may be looking at other peoples and cultures today.

The source material contains twenty-five documents in text and image formats – including journal entries, letters, maps, and illustrations. I modernized historic accounts at two reading levels – 5th and 8th grade. (Each contains the same twenty five documents). I selected images which could be “decoded” by students with a minimum of background knowledge so that all students could practice their content reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. A series of six exercises accompanies the lesson to guide students through the process of extracting information from the documents and constructing their own answers to the essential question.

While this lesson is historical, the same perspective applies to lessons across the curriculum – who's the scientist, engineer, artist, nutritionist, mathematician, literary critic, and musician – in your classroom? Teachers are no longer simply “education dispensers” gathering, distilling and delivering information to students. (There are too many other sources that do a great job of delivering information 24/7.) Instead teachers can thrive as “educational architects” who design classrooms where students do the work of constructing meaning. 

Source documents – 5th grade reading level

Source documents – 8th grade reading level

Six activity worksheets

11 Replies to “Essential Question: Who is the Teacher in Your Classroom?”

  1. Your excellent resources and creative assessments would appear to lack a middle layer to the scaffold. It has been my experience working with middle schoolers of all levels that comprehension and analysis require a teacher’s guidance before they are fully comfortable synthesizing information in the ways you propose.

    Those times when I have skipped these middle steps the finished products were never as good as when I included them.

  2. Mr. Harris,

    Thanks for reminding us that you can never have too much scaffolding – especially for middle schoolers. You might like another lesson that I developed that does include the supports you advocate – many more “stop and thinks” to assist the student. Please let me know what you think. Homefront America, A World War II Document Based Question

  3. I am the historian in my classroom. Occasionally, I let a student be my assistant, but I do not relinquish control!

    Thank you for the lesson. I think it will make it easier for me to make the transition knowing that I have a template to follow for the first time that will guide me in creating my own “student as historian” lesson.

  4. Sarah, Glad you liked the post. I’m not quite sure my post is a template – but hopefully it serves as a reflective catalyst for teachers to think about shifting the responsibility for learning to their students. Best of luck!

  5. Peter, is the WWII Homefront document sheet for sale? or how can I get those in a hard copy format? Love your work…really an inspiration for a young teacher (3 years) like myself. Thanks.

  6. Today is our department meeting and we have to share a lesson (we do this once or twice…a year ;)). I am always a bit nervous because really what people are looking for is what did I do in a single period–what did I teach. When you build units that are more essential question/inquiry/PBL based you often don’t have tidy little day-by-day lessons which are teacher driven. Many folks think a lesson plan that lets the students be the historian in the classroom will not work because students have to be told how to “construct meaning” so they will be “right.”
    Great post–thanks.

  7. Students construct meaning all the time – unfortunately they’ve learned to do it outside of school. Educators will need to give them that opportunity in class or school will become increasingly irrelevant to kids (except as a social gathering point). Student-centered learning takes time – worksheets are much quicker. Time to choose!

  8. I like learning architect. I having also been using executive produce but I may have just been cow towing to the hip hollywood scene by doing that. It’s probably best to start fresh and as far as I know I have not heard learning architect being used. If it catches fire I will be sure you get some “street cred”.

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