Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hamilton: Pick Up a Pen and Start Writing....

I’m obsessed with Hamilton The Musical. I finally downloaded the soundtrack a couple of weeks ago (thanks, VM!). It’s hip-hop-heavy, hilarious, and I sound GREAT (to myself) when I sing/rap along in my car (with the windows up, of course).

How have I lived my whole life without Lin Manuel Miranda and his incredibly talented cast? (Tracy fun fact: I once toured with a children’s theater company for a few months. Yes, I was Humpty Dumpty as well as Andrew Jackson’s mother....Thank goodness no photos survive from that pre-social media time!)

Musical theater PLUS history? With that combo, I’m helpless.....

So as I obsess over the songs, the story, the parts I know (the Federalist Papers and the 10-dolla’ founding fatha’) and the parts I didn’t know (founded the Coast Guard and the New York Post? Personal romance and affairs?), I do what we all do in 2016.

I look it all up.

God bless the internet! Someone, somewhere has annotated all the lyrics to the musical. There are references to the real history, quotes from the historian whose book the musical is based on, and even explanations of the pop culture (Destiny’s Child homages, Biggie quotes, Rent references, Eminem moments. I’m so 90s...).


Warning: Despite the obvious education connection, some of the lyrics are NSFW (Not Suitable For Work). Maybe they’re NSFS. (Not Suitable For School). Depends on how good you are with the censor “beep” sound. Or the mute button.

I mean, in additional to Continental Army bombs, there are f-bombs.

It occurs to me, in between singing along and being non-stop that annotation is a powerful skill that our kids don’t use enough. (Or I didn’t have my kids use it enough. Maybe your kids use it more).

AnNOTation is simply a skill of making a NOTE or comment to a text, illustration, or book.

It’s a fancy, historian way of describing text-marking where the NOTE-WRITER is doing the thinking, making an explanation, summary, or other markup related to a particular part of the document.

It’s also a way of CLOSE READING.  Alexander Hamilton has over 60,000 pages of primary sources on the Gilder Lehrman Institute. You can’t get through even one without slowing down and annotating.

(And You can’t annotate what you don’t dig into)

Annotation is a NOTE made DURING reading, such as:
·         Important things/key ideas
·         Clarifying questions/answers
·         Defining tricky words
·         “I Wonder” questions
·         Opinions.
What we’re really talking about is aligning our reading with a purpose. Kids should learn HOW to annotate, of course, but they need a reason to annotate. WHY would they bother to add notes to a document?
There has to be a task coming to make it worthwhile. A wait-for-it-wait-for-it-wait-for-it  “Big Question” for which they need evidence.
Like a DBQ, if you can ask your kids “What Makes Hamilton a ‘Founding Father’?” or (more timely this week) “Does Hamilton Deserve to Stay on the $10 Bill”? Or “If You were in Congress, Would You Vote For Hamilton’s Financial Plan?
Then, have your kids annotate the parts that will help them answer the big question.

You can annotate anything.
Try the Preamble:

Annotate a map:(Preferably with a little more than one word.)

Really, with sticky notes, write-and-wipes , ISNs, and the occasional (gasp!) write-on-student-copy, there are numerous ways to make this work, work, work.

Plus, When students MAKE notes (instead of taking notes) they MAKE their own conclusions, their own questions, and their own learning. It should help you see their minds at work, to make their thinking visible. They’re engaging with the text.

It’s not owned by the teacher.  The kids are making the meaning. That’s powerful. That would be enough.

Do you do this? I’d love to hear about it ... or be in the room where it happens. Let me know about teaching annotation and how you find it’s most effective in your classroom. Email me

Your obedient servant, (that phrase might be my new “bless your heart”)

Tracy Newman
Reading-in-Social Studies Coach

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thirty Seconds

Sometimes I feel like my day is so full, I can’t possibly fit in another thing. I am literally writing this Tuesday night at 9:30 at night because I haven’t had a spare minute in I-don’t-know-how-long. I text at stoplights. I listen to books in the car so I actually have time to read. I read the newspaper on my phone while I walk from one room to another. I clean things while waiting for the microwave to ding.  

Thirty Seconds. That’s all you need.

Here are ten things you can do in Thirty Seconds:

  1. Stretch
  2. Thank someone for doing something nice or well-done.
  3. Take your attendance in Portal/Focus
  4. Give your students a turn and Talk break
  5. Text your mom (between classes, I hope!)
  6. Compliment one more student (“good job today!”)
  7. Eat half a granola bar.
  8. Drink some water.
  9. Take a deep breath (before you say something you probably shouldn’t)
  10. Ask a kid for EVIDENCE for whatever answer he or she just gave.

I want to add one more thing to your 30-second list:

Examine art.

(Tracy, isn’t that a little ridiculous? Shouldn't we give real art TIME to study it well?)

Stay with me. We’ll get there. I promise.

There is a wonderful strategy for looking at art that helps students develop observational and critical thinking skills.  It’s called “Thirty-Second Look”. It is obviously brief. But it’s solid!

Full disclosure: Despite the name, there is some work to do on the FRONT END of those 30 seconds and on the BACK END and therefore the strategy actually takes a couple minutes. (Hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t name the strategy! :))

Here’s how it works.

  1. Find a work of art. It may be in your textbook. It may be from somewhere online. It may be in a museum. Don’t give your kids background knowledge (or not more than the name of the piece and the artist and date, if necessary. I prefer going at it cold.)
  2. Ask kids how much time most people spend looking at a work of art (hint: the answer is 30 seconds or less). Ask them if they think that is enough time.
  3. Direct students to look at that work of art for thirty seconds. Use a timer. At the end of the thirty seconds, turn it off.
  4. Once the image is gone, ask students to use their memories to answer several questions you direct. Make ones that will work for you. Some ideas may include:
    1. How many objects/people are in the piece?
    2. How would you describe them?
    3. How are they dressed?
    4. What kind of setting is depicted?
    5. What time of day is it depicting?
    6. What is the subject?

   5. Chart the words they come up with to make a word bank -- or put their words in categories.
   6. Now that your students are curious, put the artwork back up and allow the kids to answer all the questions that they couldn’t answer from memory. See if their answers are different the second time around. Ask if there is anything on the list that isn’t actually in the work of art.
  7. Encourage students to really thoughtfully hypothesize about  the artist’s message (or point).  Ask them to explain how their second (more careful) observation allowed them to better grasp the author’s message.
  8. To have them wrap it up, have them do a brief check for understanding or quickwrite or ticket-out-the-door where they explain what THEY believe the artist’s point is (claim) and give evidence from the artwork.

As an added bonus, I used to feel that my kids were burned out during testing weeks and didn’t want to dig into any text. But PICTURES, they would tell me, weren’t REAL work. You don’t have to READ them or THINK or anything HARD like that...

Ha. Silly kids. I tricked ‘em again with this art-IS-real-thinking stuff!

Try it with an image in your textbook or one from online. A slightly complicated one is good. An overly complicated image may make this too confusing.  (The School of Athens, at right, is a bit much). But the photo of Lincoln with Gen McClellen (above) or the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta (below) are PERFECT!

Try it today. Nothing like a test-week to try something different! Try the Thirty Second Look and let me know how it goes. How can you use the terms generated by the observation to teach vocab? How can this teach content AND claim/evidence?

It’s an awesome strategy, one that takes little time and less prep time.

Let me know how it goes! Drop me an email at


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

C is for Cookie ... and Context and Civil War

When I was a little kid, I was a HUGE Sesame Street fan. Sesame Street was still new at that time and it was kind of a big deal. My mom will tell anyone how obsessed I was with Bert and “Nernie”. I can still sing “Rubber Duckie” with glee, despite the fact that my own children are not particularly into Sesame Street.
(Don’t mock me. You know you love the Rainbow Connection...)

So Cookie Monster sings “C is for Cookie”. In my household, “C” stands for LOTS of things. Cookies. Chicken. Cement Mixers. Chair. Cooler. Crib.

At work, C is for Curriculum Guides, Course Progression, Civics, Competency-Based Learning, Civil War, and ... Confederacy?

6Cs.pngThere are a lot of things in my world that start with “C” and there are a lot of different ways to analyze a historical document.

I want to give you one more tool for your document analysis “toolbox”.

And I want to use the letter “C”, I want you to try out the “SIX Cs” of document analysis:


The History Project out of University of California, Irvine, has their own “spin” on document analysis and I kind of line it. It asks kids to look at the Six C of any primary source document. Let’s take a look.

  1. Content: What does the document say? What is the main idea of it?
  2. Citation: Who wrote it? When? Why?
  3. Context: What was going on at the time it was written?
  4. Connections: Link this document to any prior knowledge you may have.
  5. Communications: What is the author’s point of view or bias? How reliable is it?
  6. Conclusions: How does this document contribute to our understanding of history?

Let’s practice -- with one of the few historical arguments most Americans know -- the C-is-for-Cause of the C-is-for-Civil War

Here’s the document: a letter from Stephen Fowler Hale, Alabama’s commissioner to Kentucky to Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin on December 27, 1860 (a week after South Carolina’s secession) to “consult in reference to the momentous issues now pending between the Northern and Southern states of this confederacy”

“Will the people of the North cease to make war upon the institution of slavery and award to it the protection guaranteed by the Constitution? Will the South give up the institution of slavery and consent that her citizens be stripped of their property, her civilization destroyed, the whole land laid waste by fire and sword? It is impossible. She cannot; she will not. ... Shall we wait until abolition judges are on the Supreme Court, abolition collectors at every port, and abolition postmasters in every town? No, verily. And she must earnestly but respectfully invites her sister sovereign state, Kentucky to consider these grave and vital questions, hoping that she may concur with the State of Alabama in the conclusions to which she has been driven by the impending dangers that surround the Southern States...”

Hale, Stephen F. Letter to Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky. 27 Dec. 1860. Apostles of Disunion. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2001. 90-103. Print.

  1. Content: The letter describes the arguments of a secessionist Alabamian to the governor of Kentucky. He says that the North is making war on Slavery, letting abolitionists take over the country, stripping the South of “her civilization” -- and that Kentucky should succeed with Alabama.
  2. Citation: Written by Stephen F. Hale, an Alabama commissioner (an appointed ambassador-like person) whose job was to persuade other states to join the Confederacy a month after the historic election of 1860 and a week after South Carolina seceded.
  3. Context: Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president of the United States -- by 40% of the popular vote and not carrying a single Southern state. South Carolina had just seceded. And the Southern States thinking about seceding didn’t want to do it alone.  
  4. Connections: We know that people say that the Civil War was about slavery or states rights. We know that the Southern states were leaving the union with Lincoln’s election as the spark that set it off.We know that the slave states and free states had been bargaining for decades to sort out the issue of slavery between them.
  5. Communications: The author is very pro-slavery and anti-abolitionist and anti-Lincoln. He wants Kentucky to secede along with Alabama. He is probably a pretty good representative of the loud secessionists of the South.
  6. Conclusions: According to this document, the south Seceded because of slavery.  That’s what Hale says. We can also conclude that Kentucky didn’t secede partly because Hale’s argument didn’t work.

I know many of you have many strategies to analyze a document. But there’s always room for one more cookie. And one more document analysis strategy. Give it a try as you sing the Rainbow Connection softly to yourself. And as always, let me know how it goes!