Searching for Connections by Lauren Hurlbutt

As a History teacher, I clearly see connections between the curriculum in my classroom and the contemporary issues in the news.  My students, on the other hand, often struggle to see the reasons why they need to know about the issues faced by people that came before them.  At Oakland Technical High School, I teach California History and 9th grade English to a group of 9th grade students that truly represents the social, racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity of the city.  While many of my students are highly motivated to do well, there are others who sometimes lack that motivation.  Therefore, engagement is key to creating a classroom where all students can be successful.  These contemporary connections not only provide an opportunity for students to engage in the classroom, but to use the things they learn inside the walls of school outside in their communities.

In order to make these connections more clear this year, myself and two other California Studies teachers involved in the EDDA project developed a thinking protocol to see each of our historical units through the lens of Civic Engagement and Action.  It was based on the three components of the project — Analyzing Issues, Acting, and Reflecting.  We also developed the beginnings of mini-projects for each of our 9 units with the intention of making this a key part of our curriculum.  These generally required some outside research or engagement with the community to answer a question.  For example, for the first unit, we asked students to research diversity in their neighborhoods.  Students were able to find any type of diversity they wanted.  They created posters about food, age, music, and many other aspects of diversity.  The problem that arose here is that students did not have the skills to appropriately execute this project.  By November, we were all burned out.  The thinking protocol was long and complicated.  The mini-projects took up a lot of time.  They also felt disconnected since they attempted to cover very different aspects of civic engagement and were generally uneven in quality. They were also teacher-directed, which removed the students’ voices almost entirely. By December, my partner teacher and I had abandoned this idea entirely. We were stuck. How could we find a process that encouraged these historical connections, but actually worked with our curriculum? How could we do it while still having enough time to teach the history content well? How could we encourage high quality student thought and civic action?


Caption: A project that didn’t quite work.

New Ideas from a Familiar Process

The beginning of a solution came from a simple routine that we were already using inconsistently in our English classes.  Inspired by research being done by another teacher in the EDDA program, we had begun using Leveled Questions in order to encourage higher level textual analysis in our English classes. (Leveled Questions refers to the process of asking students to develop different types of questions about a text.  Level 1 questions are surface-level, comprehension questions. Level 2 are inference questions.  Level 3 questions ask students to draw connection to something outside of the text.)  We decided to see what would happen if we utilized this process more consistently in our history classes — particularly focusing on Level 3 questions.  Since it was so simple, we were able to do it multiple times a unit — a far cry from our mini-projects.  We began slowly, asking students to write level 3 question for readings that we felt held particular contemporary connections.  While I received some interesting questions almost immediately, many of the early questions were inconsistent and also seemed to be focused on personal feelings.  For example, one question I received on an early attempt to connect the issue of Chinese Exclusion to contemporary California read, “How would you feel if you were Chinese in the 1880s?”   While I was impressed by the historical empathy expressed by the student, I knew that I needed to adjust my instructions slightly in order to make sure that students were truly working to see why history mattered to contemporary society.  By March, students were explicitly told to write questions making connections to contemporary or historical issues.  This drastically improved the quality of the questions.  On a later article about the working conditions for women and minorities in the WWII Shipyards, I was consistently getting questions making interesting and engaging connections to modern or historical issues.  Students also generally reported that writing these questions was allowing them to more easily see the connections between our curriculum and contemporary issues. In a survey given in early May, they also overwhelmingly reported that California history had some relevance to their lives.  They also wrote level 3 questions about the year-long class in this survey.  Many of these questions were sophisticated, thoughtful questions on par with something I may have come up with. Here was a simple, relatively quick, routine that was helping students make authentic and provocative connections.

Growth in Level 3 Questions (Random Class Samples)

Questions From January — Write a level 3 question about the article.

  1. How were the experiences of Chinese and African Americans similar?
  2. What would have happened if the Chinese had never come?
  3. What does the treatment of the Chinese show about the Gold Rush?
  4. How was the treatment of Chinese immigrants similar to the current treatment of Mexican immigrants?
  5. What is legislation?
  6. Is this an example of discrimination in the world?
  7. Is it similar to “Wan Lee, the Pagan” [a fictional story we read in English by Bret Harte]?


Questions from March — Write a level 3 question connecting the reading to another historical or contemporary event.

  1. Why do people distrust others who don’t look like them?
  2. How has the perception of women in the workplace changed since WWII? What hasn’t changed?
  3. Why did the social standing of Native Americans change so drastically between the Gold Rush and WWII?
  4. Have workplaces become more equal in terms of race since WWII?  Explain.
  5. How are the perceptions of Jewish workers in California shipyards similar or different from the perceptions of Nazi Germany?

Questions from May — Write a level 3 question connecting this class to your world/our lives today.

  1. How has the way kids are taught about California changed over time? Why?
  2. What does the evolution of the California Dream throughout California History reflect about the values of California Society?
  3. How has the continuous racial turmoil in California’s history determined our comparatively progressive and good racial climate today and the effect that citizens have on leadership?
  4. How has racism changed in California from the 20th to the 21st century?
  5. How will teachers in the future describe the world today?
  6. How can studying California’s past affect present day solutions to social problems?

Ideal Next Steps

Once the class was writing quality level 3 questions that showed an understanding of historical connections, these questions seemed like a great foundation for a student-initiated civic action.  At the time of this writing, students have not yet completed the project, but I can explain the process and what I hope to see from it.  For our final unit, students will create presentations on the social movements of the 1960 and 1970s.  As a reflection on this project, students will be asked to individually craft a high-quality level 3 question connecting their movement to a contemporary issue.  For a student presenting on the Feminist Movement, an example might be “How has society changed its views on women’s role in the home since the 1960s?” Once the question is crafted and approved, students must find two online resources that help answer this question and share them with me.  They must also research a community group doing some kind of work related to their question.  Students will then be responsible for a 1-2 minute presentation on the group they found and how the group’s work connects to their question.  In terms of the questions, I will choose the strongest 6-7 and, with student input, will create groups around each question.  Students will then be responsible for reading the provided sources and preparing for a sustained discussion on this question. I hope to see that students can not only create level 3 questions, but can begin to thoughtfully and critically respond to them.  I also hope to find that these student-created questions will, again, allow them to more authentically see how our history curriculum matters to the world at large and provide some frameworks on how contemporary issues can be approached productively by individuals and the public.

While I feel that I’ve found a successful strategy to support students in making connections and leveraging those connections into civic action, I also feel that there are a lot more things to put in place to make civic engagement and action a more integral part of my curriculum.  Changing tactics halfway through the year left me with not as much time to implement civic actions and reflections.  Therefore, most of our time was spent on naming and analyzing issues.  To solve this, I would like to start earlier next year.  I would also like to include more cyclical and regular reflections and uses for these leveled questions.  Academic discussions and paragraph responses will likely be the best format for this.

Students’ Final Thoughts

I also saw that the leveled questions worked for most students, but there are a few important exceptions.  Some advanced students found them a bit too simple. One student called them “obnoxious,” another said they didn’t help him make connections because “I would have already made [the connections] and then re-worded them into a question.”  Hopefully, thoughtful use of the questions will show these students the importance and value of crafting these questions. A number a lower-skilled students had difficulty writing level 3 questions throughout the year. Many students also thoughtfully noted that “it depends on the quality of the question.” I think that more modeling throughout the year will go a long way in alleviating this. Finally, an issue that I saw arise over and over again was well articulated by two students. One responded, “writing level 3 questions somewhat helped me make connections.  When I write level 3 questions, I think about California events a bit, but mainly understanding history and its impacts have helped me make those connections.”  Another noted, “writing level 3 questions doesn’t help if there isn’t much to connect to.”   Students have a wide variety of historical background knowledge and interest. Some require no additional information in order to make thoughtful connections. Others simply know less about the kinds of contemporary issues I want to see them connect with. Finding a quick way to insert some information about contemporary issues could be helpful. I think there is also a lot of potential in research activities and curating online resources for students.

Still, overall students reported finding the questions helpful in making connections. A selection of their final reflections show a variety of reasons why level 3 questions are a worthwhile tool in creating Civic Engagement:

  • “Writing level 3 questions helped me see connections because it helped me see it from different perspectives.”

  • “Some level 3 questions allowed me to view new ideas and others allowed me to understand the topic.”

  • “It forced me … to explain what the connections are.”

  • “It makes me think and analyze how things are different and how much the world has progressed.”

  • “You have to wonder how they connect to write a question.”

  • “Without them, I think I would have been less aware.”

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