Great TED Talks for History Teachers

One of the most popular posts that I’ve written on this blog is Great TED Talks for English Teachers from 2010. Sure, it’s a listicle, but given the sheer number of TED talks, folks have said that the post has been helpful to them in suggesting some talks with which to start. I’m currently teaching history classes now, so I thought that a similar post focused on talks that might be used in the history or social studies classrooms could be useful. Some of the same talks from the English post would work in the history classroom, as well. For example, I use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk The Danger of a Single Story in a unit on globalization in seventh grade World History.

Since I wrote the English post, TED has created a site called TED-Ed. It abbreviates and animates TED talks (as well as talks created specifically for the TED-Ed site by educators) for use in the classroom.  The site also allows you to create your own lessons from TED talk videos. The lessons on the site vary in quality, but some, such as one on the Atlantic Slave Trade, can be useful introductions to a topic.

1. Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace.

Ebrahim, the son of one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, discusses how he chose a very different path from his father. Great starting point for a discussion about what leads people to make the choices they do in life and the role of education and experience as a young person in shaping those choices.

2. Eman Mohammed: The Courage to Tell a Hidden Story

Mohammed tells of the challenges that she has encountered as the first female photojournalist working in the Gaza Strip. She describes the ways in which what might have been a hinderance, her gender, has allowed her to take photos that her male colleagues couldn’t have. Her talk is accompanied by many of her incredible photographs.

3. Neil Macgregor: 2600 Years of History in One Object

Macgregor offers a biography of a very old thing, a cuneiform cylinder and how it impacts our understanding of the politics of the Middle East today. Because of the length and level of depth, it’s probably more appropriate for older students. I do really like the idea of constructing a biography of a thing and its impact on life today. That could be a great activity for students.

3. Sanford Biggers: An Artist’s Unflinching Look at Racial Violence

A short (6 minute) talk that blends history and art. It takes on America’s history of slavery and issues of contemporary violence directed at blacks in the US. A provocative discussion starter for high school students.

4. John Graham Cumming: The Greatest Machine that Never Was

Cumming describes the “analytical machine” designed by Charles Babbage in the 1800s but never built. He also describes the contributions of Ada Lovelace, who envisioned greater possibilities for this sort of machine. If students are interested in this TED talk, a great book follow-up is The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.


With thousands of TED Talks out there, I’m sure there are many more that could be added to the list. What are talks that you’ve seen that you’ve used or could be used in history or social studies class?

Millard Fillmore for Life!

Perhaps the biggest hit of the Forgotten Presidents mini-unit was making paper hats, inspired by this piece of McKinley campaign paraphernalia. As silly as this may seems (and there’s nothing wrong with some silliness, mind you), the neat thing was that students seemed to really latch on to the presidents they chose to make hats for. A number of students decided to wear their hats for the rest of the day, which sparked some great conversation with other students.

Students decided to make a serious face for this picture

Students decided to make a serious face for this picture

Today was the final day of the mini-unit, and we revisited the list of the reasons we/the American public remembers or forgets presidents that students brainstormed on the first day. Some of the reasons that students listed, they still thought rang true, but others seemed less true. For example, dying in office is actually more common in “forgotten” presidents, rather than remembered ones. Students discussed that maybe the things in the remember list were true, but that you needed a combination of them or to be a relatively recent president to be remembered by most Americans.


Forgotten Presidents

In the last weeks of school, the other 8th grade US history teacher and I survey students to gauge their interest in topics we’ve haven’t covered that year. We then compile their responses and the teach classes on the topics that emerge as the favorites by class. Since we teach overlapping periods for most of our students. I’ll teach some of his students for the week and he’ll teach some of mine, depending on their interests. Some of the topics are four day seminars and some are one day seminars. This always feels like a crazy short time period for the topics, but students get exposure to topics they wouldn’t otherwise and I think the variety is welcomed as the school year winds down. The topics that were chosen this year for four day seminars are the history of comedy, history of/in the movies, and forgotten presidents. The one day seminars are history of music (that we haven’t already covered), history of sports, disability and GLBT rights, and history of computers.

The forgotten presidents topic is a new one for this year. It’s challenging to decide exactly who should be on the list, but the below list represents the presidents with which I think students will be least familiar. My goal isn’t necessarily for them to learn facts about these presidents, so much as to gain some general familiarity with presidents that aren’t often taught in any depth and consider why we remember the presidents we do.

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
William H. Harrison (1841)
John Tyler (1841-1845)
James K. Polk (1841-1849)
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
James Buchanan (1857-1861)
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
James A. Garfield (1881)
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
William McKinley (1897-1901)
William H. Taft (1909-1913)
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)

Day 1

Take presidents quiz (circle names of those who have been president from a list of names, some presidents and some not), turn over and write down the names of all the presidents you can remember

Discussion in two large groups– What are the differences between these two lists? Why do we remember some presidents and not others?

Record on large sheet of paper (save for Day 4) and share with whole class

Discuss in smaller groups– What do people look for in a president? How has technology changed campaigning? Does physical appearance matter? (Heights of presidents and presidential candidates)

Day 2

Watch Animaniacs Presidents What types of facts does it highlight about each president?

Assign each student a forgotten president. Read his biography and develop a 30 second elevator pitch for that president. Cover at least the following…

*What time period in US history/what else important was going on?
*What political party did the candidate represent?
*Significant achievement/issue of presidency
*Fact people most likely to remember about this president

Have students deliver elevator pitches with the class. (Project a picture of each president from my computer as they pitch)

Day 3

Look at examples of campaign memorabilia from forgotten presidents

Van Buren Pull Card 
McKinley Paper Hat
Cleveland-Harrison Scales
Harrison Paper Lantern

Choose a forgotten president and create a campaign poster highlighting and (if time) a piece of campaign swag

Day 4

Quick 5 point quiz

Re-visit 1st day’s discussion- Have your opinions changed? What similarities do forgotten presidents have with well-remembered presidents (assassination, presidency during war time, good looks, popularity or infamy, etc.)

Watch segment of Michael Gerhardt on Morning Joe

Working with a partner- Create the ultimate (fictional) candidate. What would be the best set of characteristics/events to assure a president’s memory is preserved?

If needed for any of the four days…
Chicago Tribune Presidents Quiz 
Presidential Trivia
45 Odd Facts Video
Presidential Facts- History Channel 

Primary Sources

I received an email last night notifying me that I’d been accepted to the Library of Congress’s Summer Teacher Institute. The STI focuses on helping teachers develop lessons based on the primary sources available in the LoC’s collection. I am super-excited about the opportunity, both for the work we’ll do at the STI and the chance to spend a week in DC, one of my favorite cities, other than the amazing city where I live.

The acceptance email also reminded me of a thought-provoking post Mike wrote a few weeks ago questioning why it is that we teach primary sources (specifically text-based ones) and whether they provide the most value in instruction, especially when a video or image might be more accessible to students. Mike’s point was that, while professional historians examine these text-based sources to construct historical understanding, a video might give the same content and yet be more accessible, especially to struggling readers. He asks whether a teacher risks being a literacy snob by valuing (text-based) primary sources over other types of literacy. I appreciated Mike’s post because it questioned what seems to be a fundamental assumption from the Common Core to the Stanford University’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum.

In response to Mike’s post are a few thoughts about why I think there is value in working through text-based primary sources with students.

1. We study text-based primary sources because they are primary, that is, they were composed by those who experienced the events we are studying. To avoid exploring these sources with students suggests that we trust the interpreters more than the people who experienced an event. Certainly humans can be unreliable narrators, but I think we at least owe those who have lived the opportunity to narrate their experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to value these sources more highly than others, but I think at the least, we give them a charitable reading and value their perspective.

2. Reading primary sources helps demystify the work of historians and challenge the myth of a single story. In my experience, the best uses of primary sources are to challenge the conventional narrative of a particular event. While they may not be the best for an initial presentation of a topic or event, especially in the language in the text is complex or challenging, they can help complicate a simplistic understanding of an event. Studying them can demonstrate to students how many choices a historian has to make in his or her interpretation of them.

3. There’s value in working through difficult material, in whatever form in might take. While only a small percentage of the students that we teach will become professional historians, the skill of reading challenging texts is transferable to a number of fields. At the same time, it’s important to choose texts that challenge students, but don’t frustrate them to the point that they tune out. (Think Vygotsky’s concept of a zone of proximal development.) The use of primary sources ought to be age and skill level-appropriate. I don’t think that means that the use of primary sources should be limited to the upper grades, but it means that teachers and curriculum writers ought to chose texts that students will be able to analyze successfully with guidance.

(De)Constructing Texts

Over the next several weeks, students in my Upper School class will begin teaching the class on their self-selected topics. Teaching the class is part of the cumulative project for the class. Students have been researching their topics and interviewing an expert about the topic. One of the challenges of asking students to select topics that interest them is to help them incorporate not only current controversy and their personal opinions/experience, but also dig into the history of the topic and view it with an analytic eye.

Before students began teaching their lessons, I wanted to have a discussion about the types of topics they’ve chosen and their place within what has traditionally been thought of as material integral to history courses (aka what gets covered in textbooks). This year students’ topics include the history of…

transportation and commerce
collegiate sports
role of firearms in war
government involvement in healthcare
organization of political parties
race and sports
religion’s influence on political issues
popular literature’s reflection of culture
blood donation/supply
cancer treatment
sports and the economy
information sharing, storage and usage
advertising strategies
medical technology
race and film
(tap) dance
regulation/safety of household products

I distributed a set of US History textbooks, which provoked surprised exclamations from students, since we’ve yet to touch a textbook up until this point in the year. I asked students to use the index and skim to see how much coverage their topic was given in the textbook. Afterward, we used todaysmeet to have a conversation about how much discussion there was on their topics in the textbook and what the reasons for that might be. It led to some useful reflection on how historical importance is assigned to various topics and the point of view of textbooks. You can read a transcript of the discussion here.

When I was in high school, I so desperately wanted to keep my US History AP textbook that I reported it lost and paid for it to avoid having to return it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have plenty of access to books. We even had the internet at our house, despite it still being a bit of a novelty. But I wanted to keep my textbook because to me it represented order, 300 years of history neatly explained and bound.

My high school history textbook

My high school history textbook

Now that I teach history I struggle every day with the messiness of it. I worry that I don’t bring enough voices from the past into my classroom and that I’m not giving students enough since of the variety of perspectives. The next day I worry that I’ve overwhelmed students by not helping them develop frameworks to think critically about the variety of narratives that I’ve brought into the classroom and that they’ve explored in print and digital resources. Even though we don’t use a textbook in our class, we are constructing a text, and I think it’s just as important to be self-reflective and critical of that process as we would be of a hardbound book.

(Thanks to the Unraveling the Textbook session at EduCon for spurring me to think more about textbooks.)

Seeing the Connections


Prior to a quiz on the early and mid-1800s (primarily focused on events leading to the Civil War) in 8th grade history, I asked students to make conceptual maps of the people, places, and ideas that we had studied. I broke students into groups of three or four and gave each group a large piece of paper and markers. The only requirement was that each term had to be connected to at least two other terms. The terms didn’t have to form only one web, but some students challenged themselves to do this. The best part of this activity was that there was a lot of realization on students’ part about material that they didn’t know. If there were terms that they couldn’t connect to other terms, either because they weren’t sure what they meant or because they didn’t realize how they related to the other material, it was a good clue that they needed to review the term.

photo (3)

For Learning or Fun?

As part of our Revolutionary War unit in the 8th grade, students have a choice of different projects to give them the opportunity to explore aspects of the war we don’t cover in class. This year I added an option that asked students to play the game For Crown or Colony? and write a review of the game. I’m fairly certain that the germ of this idea came from Chad Sansing, who does amazing things with his students and gaming.

I gave students the following questions, not as a template, but to give them a sense of the kinds of things they might address:

  • What works well about the game? (consider plot/story line, characters, activities, graphics)
  • What needs to be improved?
  • How well do you feel the game teaches the history of the American Revolution?
  • How would you change and expand the game?
  • Do you think games are an effective way to teach history?

It was a very popular option and the reviews were thoughtful, both with respect to game design and value in teaching history. One student wrote:

I did realize, upon replaying part of the game, that the view of the Boston Massacre actually changes every time you play. I think that this is a clever idea, as it gives each player different perspectives to build off of when trying to determine who to side with later in the game. The game also did an excellent job of teaching vocabulary and using it in dialog, which can help clarify the meaning of some difficult words. The extras were not incentives for me, but I like the idea of having them, as it may serve as motivation for uneager learners. The graphics were decent, but they did not contribute much to the game.

While this game is one of the better educational games I’ve played, it definitely has room for improvement. I think that the storyline is realistic, presents engaging conflicts, and suffices very well in all areas. I think that the characters are all unique, let the player learn about the Revolution, and are pretty much good to stay. However, the #1 thing that irked me about this game are not the decisions themselves, but how they impact the game. I felt that at some points, the game was “fishing” for me. By “fishing”, I mean that it let me think that a decision I made would impact the game, but then inevitably would amount to the same outcome. To test this, I did a little experiment. The first time I played the game through, I did as I was told, told only the truth, and arrived at a certain outcome. The next time, however, I decided to be a total jerk. Whenever possible, I picked the rudest remark, haphazardly finished tasks, did not respect the British, and saw if something else would happen. But alas, I arrived with the same ending options. Whenever I was rude, the person would just scold me, demand respect, and then continue saying what they said in the first ending, basically defeating the purpose of having choices of what to say in the first place. I was hoping that if I, for example, was rude to a customs official, then I would face punishment and would be help captive by the British. But when I was rude to him, he just scolded me, told me why I should respect him, and walked on. No deviation. Another time, I was rude to the Edes’s whenever I had a choice, thinking that if I was, I would be kicked out and would have to choose another apprenticeship, or perhaps go home and beg my parents to let me stay. But did it give me that choice? Nope. A final example is during the testimony, I totally lied, thinking that if I did, then I would be caught lying, and something bad would happen. But, they merely accepted my contradictory answers with no complaint, and the story went on with absolutely no deviation from the plot the first time I played. The point I’m trying to make here is that if the developers made the choices have much more impact, then the game would be much more interesting. While it does give you said choices at the end, I would much prefer for that to be cut out, and instead have the fate of the protagonist be determined by the player’s actions.

(You can also open a copy of the full review in Word. I’m sharing it with the student’s permission.)

Last year, I just mentioned the game to students and gave then 10 or 15 minutes to play it in class. This year, giving students the opinion of engaging with the game to the point that they could write a serious review of it was useful for capturing the imagination of students who weren’t excited by traditional project options (create a scrapbook, write the scene of a play, write a series of journal entries, etc.).