From Questions to Actions: Civic Engagement in a 9th Grade History Classroom by Jah-Yee Woo

When I’m asked what I teach, and I respond, “California History,” the responses from fellow teachers and parents are often excitement and curiosity.  However, the responses from 9th grade students in my California Studies classes at Oakland Technical High are much different.  They range from groans accompanied by “We’ve done that…” to nonchalance to eagerness.  The students’ assumptions are that since they learned about California History in elementary school, they’ve already learned all there is to know about the subject.  Moreover, I strongly suspect that as teachers we are fighting a culture of learning in which learning is acquiring a discrete set of facts, then moving onto the next set.  So, the challenge from Day One is to make our study of California History relevant and exciting in order to establish a foundation for their World, U.S. History, and Government classes, and beyond as they become active and engaged community members of Oakland.  As part of the Civic Engagement and Education Initiative in Oakland Unified School District, I want to explore how to infuse and integrate the skills and experiences of analyzing issues, taking action, and reflection into an existing curriculum so that students have an explicit process by which they become active members of our community..

Initially, my co-teachers and I developed a detailed, project-based plan in which each historical unit connected to a contemporary issue in which they would identify and analyze an issue and take action.  For example, at the end of the World War II in California unit during which students learned about the experiences of Japanese Americans, students were going to analyze the issue of scapegoating in our society today. The actions students were supposed to take were to find a contemporary image that depicted scapegoating and to interview 3-5 people about this issue.  After finding this image and conducting community interviews, we would engage in discussions on the status of scapegoating today and what the community interviews revealed to them. We wanted students to reflect on the question, “What do the community interviews reveal about the actions we can take?” after which students would create an action plan to present to the class.  However, we found it hard to sustain an extensive project for each of our nine curriculum units as the year progressed, especially as students started to see the projects as yet another thing to do rather than as meaningful action they could take in their community.  We also were running into the issue of time since this cycle of analyzing an issue, taking action, and reflecting upon the action was taking more time to implement that we had actually anticipated.

So, mid-year, we switched gears.  With the encouragement of our inquiry group leader, Shelly Weintraub, we took a step back and decided to look at a thinking routine that we consistently do in our classes – the use of Levels of Questions whenever looking at sources and texts.  Our logic was that by supporting students in asking authentic, meaningful questions inspired by the sources we studied in history, they would be driven to search for answers to these questions and to take action based on the answers they found.  Once students master the asking of Level 3 questions, then they could actually pursue the answers, take action, and reflect upon that action.  Following this path,students would make history relevant to themselves and their lives.  The noticeable shift is in who leads this process of asking questions, taking action, and reflection.  Rather than us as teachers determining the actions, students are now determining the actions with their question-asking.  This shift is significant as it is step towards empowering students.

Since we had only five months remaining in the school year, we decided to move the step of taking action to the last unit of the year, so that we could devote the necessary time to really focus on the practice and mastery of asking Level 3 questions with our students and establish the scaffolds to guide students in taking meaningful action.

Below is a sample selection of Level 3 questions that I gathered from my students when we first began to examine this thinking routine.

Early January 2014


Write a Level 3 question (any question that connects the reading to something else or to us today).


“Chinese Initially Welcome” by Ronald Takaki

Student-Generated Questions

  • How were the experiences of Chinese and African Americans similar?

  • What would have happened if the Chinese had never come?

  • What does the treatment of the Chinese show about the Gold Rush?

  • How was the treatment of Chinese immigrants similar to the current treatment of Mexican immigrants?

  • What is legislation?

  • Is this an example of discrimination in the world?

  • Is it similar to “Wan Lee, the Pagan” [a fictional story we read in English by Bret Harte]?

The kinds of questions students asked ranged from Level 1 questions to attempts at Level 3 questions that compared the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century to other racial and ethnic groups (bolded in the chart).  I saw these attempts at asking Level 3 questions as students’ first steps in trying to make a connection between the past and present, but they weren’t at the level of authenticity that I was hoping for.  The questions fulfilled the expectations I had laid out – write any question that connects the reading to something else or to us today.  But, seeing these questions clarified additional criteria for Level 3 questions.  I want questions that make personal connections, where student voices are clear and/or questions that students actually care to find the answers to.  The more authentic the question, then the more authentic their action could be in the last unit.

Knowing that asking questions can put high school students in a vulnerable place, I tried different ways to make their questions public in non-threatening or high-risk situations from January to May.  I established early on that I was not expecting them to have their own answer to their Level 3 question.  So, the focus was solely on asking the question.  I provided exemplars of Level 3 questions and shared think-alouds of asking Level 3 questions as a form of teacher modeling.  I also had students share their questions with their desk partners, and charted on poster paper so that we had a collection of Level 3 questions.  As they became more comfortable seeing and hearing them, I started to put a few underneath the document camera and project it to the class.

Four months later, during which students developed Level 3 questions based on history sources we read on a weekly basis, students were beginning to ask these questions on their own for homework.  Below is a sample of questions.

Mid May 2014


Write a Level 3 question (any question that connects the reading to something else or to us today).


“What We Want, What We Believe”, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense

Student-Generated Questions

  • Are there any Black Panther Party-esque “clubs” modern day?

  • Would people support the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Plan today?

  • If you existed in that generation would you support the Black Panthers? Why?

  • How did the actions of the Black Panther Party change society today?

  • Have these requests been made today?

Looking at this sample, I found questions closer to reaching my more recent criteria of meaningfulness and authenticity.  This gave me hope that as we move towards the last unit, the action that students would take based on their Level 3 question would be meaningful.

With less than four weeks remaining in the school year, students will complete a research project on a social movement of the 1960s and 70s.  They will ask a Level 3 question inspired by their social movement, and identify contemporary sources and community organizations that can help them answer this question at the end of the semester.  The action they will take is to become aware of the issues in our community and identifying the people and organizations that are doing work around those issues.  For 9th grade students, the nature of this action is very much about empowering themselves and their peers through the asking of questions, finding of information, and raising awareness.

After five months of using Levels of Questions and when asked to reflect on our use of Level 3 questions in History class, students reported the following:

  • Level 3 questions help us see that there are connections between history and our lives when usually everyone hates history because it doesn’t like there is any connections to our lives.  We’ve learned about the repatriation programs and how the government let some people become citizens and my family was a part of that.

  • The purpose of a Level 3 question is to use information and things that are happening today to answer that question.  I see that history keeps repeating itself and we are learning off our mistakes, however they’re some cases that we repeat our mistakes.

  • The purpose is to get you to find correlations between what is on the paper and real life. I see connections every time we learn there are direct connections the history we learn about is the cause of our lives today, who we are and why. Why I can go get free food for breakfast, why I study next to those of other races, and why and how we have advanced to where we are today as a society.

  • To see how the person thinks or what they think. Our history directly influences our daily lives. Without the civil rights movement I wouldn’t be sitting in a mixed race class. Without the wars, California may not have as much money as it does.

  • A level 3 question is asked so people can see the connections between life now and life in history.  It can make history more interesting.  I, as a female Mexican American, can empathize with what these oppressed people went through and it makes me want to stop the vicious cycle that repeats itself through history.

The first two responses are from students who consistently perform well in California History class. They complete assignments, and participated consistently. The last three responses are from students who struggled in class due to some aspect – they felt disengaged, bored, or history wasn’t a priority in their academic, social, or personal lives. Reflecting upon these responses, I can see that students clearly understand the purpose of Level 3 questions.  They also are naming connections that they see between California History and our lives today. Furthermore, they are saying that history has relevance to their lives. The routine and practice of asking Level 3 questions helped to address my initial questions and the challenge of engaging students in history.  Yet, what stands out the most from each of their reflections is that four of the five responses were able to concretely name a connection between the past and their own lives.  History became personal to them.

The second sample response also raises the question of how can I support students in seeing patterns in history?  When the student says, “…history keeps repeating himself…”, I wonder what this student means.  What historical moments or patterns is he thinking about?  What can I do to help him consider patterns such as scapegoating in times of economic crisis, which comes up often in California History?

Furthermore, in each of their responses, I can see the original intent of civic education and engagement.  In the last sample, when the student says that “I, as a female Mexican American, can empathize with what these oppressed people went through…”, I can see that she is already naming an issue that she cares about.  When she says, “…and it makes me want to stop the vicious cycle that repeats itself through history…”, I can see that she wants to take action on an issue that she is beginning to characterize as a “vicious cycle.”

While Levels of Questions are one part of my classroom instruction, I’ve learned that it is a critical part in helping to make historical issues relevant to students’ lives and to set the stage to take meaningful action.  The questions serve as a bridge between analyzing issues and taking action in 9th grade.  Having only instituted this thinking routine consistently for less than one semester, my goal is to start at the beginning of each year with explicit criteria for Level 3 questions.  I also anticipate modeling the asking of Level 3 questions frequently and the need to create a scaffolding plan in which students can internalize the asking of questions so that they can do so independently over the course of the school year (Keeping in mind that there is the need to establish the classroom culture of safety and respect first, so that the asking of questions which puts them in a vulnerable place is “cool”).  As mentioned before, my focus in the past five months was solely on asking the questions, and not answering them.  However, for next year, I would like to consider how to facilitate students’ answering of Level 3 questions which are very complex and have a variety of possible answers.  How do we sustain the asking of questions over the course of the year in a meaningful way if the taking of action occurs at the end of the year?  Potentially, starting sooner will allow more opportunities to explore, through research and discussion, the contemporary issues that we continue to face in our world today.  Through this process, students will have a tool to make history personal, moving themselves from the “groans” at the beginning of the school year, to taking action on issues that our community faces because these issues resonate powerfully with them at the end of the school year.

Author: Jah-Yee Woo teaches a 9th grade English and California History class at Oakland Technical High in which the history part of class is a chronological survey of California History from Native California to the social movements of the 1960s and 70s.


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