The [Epic Rap] Battle of Teaching History written by @WilliamABerry11  

 June 26, 2014

Seeing as the US History teachers at my school are about to move into their World War I unit, I’ve been looking into specific resources and interesting media for this particular topic. It’s been an opportune time to search for these materials, as Michael Gove’s recent comments about the Great War and the public controversy and the discussion that has followed has been very interesting to read.

I majored in History in college, and although we did not have to formally choose a concentration area, I took a large number of courses in World War I. This event has piqued my interest in learning history like no other topic. Growing up, I’d always been interested in learning about wars and battles as my family’s vacations and weekend trips often focused on visiting the Civil War battlefields in and around Richmond, Virginia, but learning about World War I was different. What made it so different was that for the first time in my educational career, my teachers used art, fiction, movies, and pop culture to help teach historical content. Granted, reading Sassoon, Owens, Graves,Remarque and watching Paths of Glory does not provide a full picture or unbiased explanation of the war. But, to balance these sources, we ready plenty of textbooks with dissenting opinions, and analyzed a number of first hand accounts and other primary documents. World War I is the reason I became a history teacher. The use of fiction, art, and pop culture made the war “real” to me and encouraged me to go out question, explore, and find new information on my own. These experiences have shaped the way that I teach– personally, I believe that fiction has an important place in a history classroom and can engage and engross students in a way that the majority of non-fiction cannot accomplish.

So here’s where I’m going with this…I think there needs to be a showdown between Michael Gove and “The War Poets.” And what better showdown format than “EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY!” I think the showdown should not only focus on the Gove controversy (Of course, any good rap battle is going to use whatever it takes to win), but the ultimate “conversation” should focus on art, pop culture, and fiction’s role in a history classroom.

I think it would be great for the students complete some research of their own for this topic, but I think you could provide them with a variety of documents/sources as a starting point.

Here’s a short list:

  • Michael Gove’s original comments.

  • BBC News video on the Gove controvery and fiction’s role in history.

  • Textbook accounts of a World War I. When I say textbook, I’m not just talking about a class text, but instead something like John Keegan’s “The First World War” or Gary Sheffield’s “The Chief” (which I have not yet read, but stumbled upon thanks to reading about this whole Gove controversy.

  • Newsreel/original footage from the battlefield.

  • War poems and stories from Owen, Sassoon, and others.

  • Excerpts from Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (or clips from the film version).

  • First hand accounts of the war from individuals who weren’t necessarily artists: (Database 1, Database 2).

Possible Unit/Lesson Structure:

1. Explain to your students that the culmination assignment for this lesson/unit will involve their opinion on how fiction, art, and pop culture should be used in a history classroom. They should think carefully about the type of documents they encounter throughout the unit, and the effect that these different types of documents have on their understanding of history.  Before watching the following video, discuss the following with your students:

  • Is it possible to learn history through art/fiction/pop culture?

    • What are some examples of history that you learned through art/fiction/pop culture?

    • Are art, fiction, and pop culture an effective method of teaching history? Why or why not?

After watching the video, discuss the following with your students:

  • What are some arguments for using art/fiction/pop culture to teach and learn history?

    • What are some arguments against using art/fiction/pop culture to teach and learn history?

    • What role do you believe art, pop culture, and fiction play in a history classroom? Why?

2. Introduce the causes of World War I through several different historian’s takes on the backdrop of World War I and the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand.

3. Explain America’s entry into the war by providing them with first hand-accounts of the Lusitania sinking, and the full text of the Zimmerman Telegram.

4. Discuss trench warfare and new technology of World War I through real film footage, movie footage, and fictional accounts and poems.

5. Discuss end of the war and America’s 14 points through an analysis of the original documents (14 Points, Treaty of Versailles) and several historians accounts of the war’s end.

6. Introduce the Gove controversy. Explain the “Rap Battle” concept by playing a clip or two. It’s hard to find a completely clean “Epic Rap Battle,”  but this one is relatively school appropriate and you could cut the best clean clips using this tool.

7. Watch the students have fun and discuss history in a way that they never have before.

This post orginally appeared on:

William Berry is currently an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher in Henrico County, Va. Former US History Teacher (6th and 7th grade) “My work habit ain’t no habit, I do it on purpose. I push myself to the limit so my talent will surface.” Follow him @WilliamABerry11


Kids Are Capable of More Than You Think by @AnnieWhitlock

June 19, 2014

I have spent a lot of time lately researching and writing about some pretty complex topics–  social entrepreneurship, microfinance loans in developing countries, and international human rights documents. What surprises most people when I discuss my work is that I research teaching these topics to elementary students.

I taught middle school social studies for several years and have had other classroom experiences working with elementary students as young as Kindergarten. I also spent many years consulting with elementary teachers about social studies instruction. In my work, I came across lots of people that doubted what young students could do regarding social studies–so much so that they were hesitant to teach the subject at all. I heard so many comments like “These students can’t work in groups”, or “No way will these students understand [fill in the blank historical event” or “My students can’t….”

You get the idea. In my opinion, some of these statements were a bit unfounded. Sure, a lot of the students in these classrooms had very little experience with social studies but that shouldn’t be a reason to NEVER give them that experience. I’ll never forget one teacher saying that she couldn’t teach social studies in Kindergarten because her students had no background knowledge. They’ve only been on the earth for 5 years! Of course they have very little background knowledge! Instead of the attitude of “I need to give these students the background knowledge and experience”, she used their inexperience as a reason to avoid social studies. In these teachers’ defenses, however, many of them have had very little experience learning social studies themselves. When it requires some work, knowledge, and guidance to help your students learn social studies and you are out of your comfort zone providing this, it makes sense that this becomes a very scary endeavor.

But let’s not project this discomfort on students when making claims about what they can or can’t do. I came across this quote from Sheldon Berman last year as I was writing my dissertation:

“Our conception of the child as egocentric, morally immature, uninterested in the social and political world, and unable to understand it has effectively deprived young people of the kind of contact they need to make society and politics salient. Young people’s distance from politics and their lack of interest may be the effect of our misconceptions, our ignorance of their potential, and our protectiveness (Berman, 1997, p. 193).”

Berman understood that sometimes young children’s perceived or actual inabilities are because of our own projections of what they can do. In my work, I set out to show teachers and students that are doing amazing work to highlight what students CAN do, and I am continually impressed but not surprised when young students rise to the challenge.

Most recently, I worked with a group of 5th grade students at Lanley Elementary. I engaged these students in a project-based unit centered around economics, but also integrating math and literacy as well. The students learned about entrepreneurs and what they need to start and run successful businesses through concepts of revenue, cost, profit, loans, interest, and price. They also learned about how some entrepreneurs start social businesses that address community needs and that some people in developing countries need small loans to get these businesses off the ground.

In teams, the students started social businesses that addressed a community need that they chose– helping raise awareness of child abuse victims. The students received a loan to create and sell products like homemade calendars with inspirational messages, and a variety of children’s toys that were royal blue, the color of child abuse victims awareness. Together, we found an organization working to build a homeless shelter specifically for children and teenagers. Because we had learned about human rights, the students made the connection between homelessness and child welfare. By the end of the project, the students had more than $700 to donate to this shelter. They created a final presentation that they gave to the entire school that described their work and presented the shelter with their profit money.

I faced the same problems as many teachers do when I began the project: the students had trouble working together in groups and they had little to no background knowledge on economic concepts. But we kept at it, and yes, even though this project took a while and was very challenging at times, the students rose to the occasion. That paragraph above doesn’t do justice to all that they learned about economic concepts and math concepts. It doesn’t do justice to all of the amazing literature they read through the unit and the practice they had reading complex informational text, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More importantly, in my opinion, the project gave the students experience making a positive impact in their community. After one successful experience making a difference; whose to say that they won’t be inspired to do more now that they have done it once before?

Since I now am responsible for working with pre-service teachers, I need to somehow get it across to them not to underestimate their future students either. This will involve me getting them more comfortable with teaching elementary social studies to break this cycle. It’ll be a lot of hard work and effort on my part, but I’m pretty sure pre-service teachers are more capable than one would think as well.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead

Written by: Annie Whitlock is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at the University of Michigan-Flint. She teaches elementary social studies and writing methods. @AnnieWhitlock

The Enlightenment Meets Social Media

June 17, 2014

Original Blog Post Written by Michael Milton

Full Published Article in the Ohio Social Studies Review Written by Daniel Krutka and  Michael Milton

What better way to make the Enlightenment come alive than to have my World History students create Blogger sites and set up a conversation on Twitter!

In our activity, students were hired by a consulting firm to bring the ideas of the Enlightenment to a modern “tech-savvy” audience. In small groups, they assumed the identities of various philosophers (Voltaire, the Baron De Montesquieu, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Jean Jacques Rousseau) and wrote a blog post to reintroduce themselves to the world and to discuss how their ideas were incorporated into the United States of America. The posts were then shared under a common hashtag and students, as the philosophers, began interacting with one another.

For the next step, I wanted students to extrapolate the ideas of their philosophers into other historical situations. For instance, a question for Rousseau might be, “What are your views on communism and how it worked in Russia during the reign of Stalin?” To answer this question, students not only have to research communism, specifically communism under Stalin, but they also have to figure out how Rousseau would view both. Now, I could have simply asked the questions myself, but I felt that my students would get more excited to do this research if they were answering to a larger audience. I shared this assignment with my colleagues and my PLN (who then shared it with their PLN’s).

My students really got into the activity, particularly when they realized that they were playing for a larger audience. For 83 minutes (a long block) my students were in research and publication mode. Engaging with those outside of the classroom, as well as each other. I played the role of the facilitator ensuring that all students were engaged.

Overall, my students were able to form a deeper understanding of the philosophers of the Enlightenment and were introduced to both Twitter and Blogger.

Lesson Plan


Students will be able to:

  • articulate the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and reflect upon their modern day relevance
  • conduct targeted research to answer questions about modern society
  • extrapolate the ideas of philosophers into other modern situations
Common Core State Standards
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
 Instructional Materials and Resources

  • iPad/Computer
  • Primary Documents
  • Blogger/Blogging Site
  • Twitter

Instructional activities and tasks


“You have been recently been hired by a consultant firm to bring the ideas of the Enlightenment to reach the modern “tech savvy” audience of the 21st century. While this is a rather large job, you have been put on a team to complete this task. Your job is to create a blog for a specific Enlightenment thinker and enter into a discussion via Blogger and Twitter with other Enlightenment thinkers educate the public on the views of the Enlightenment. While this technological aspect may be new or seem daunting, you will not be alone ~ you will be guided by Mr Milton throughout the process.”

Part I: The Initial Blog Post and Twitter After familiarizing yourself with Twitter and Blogger, you are first tasked with creating an initial blog post written from the perspective of your philosopher. First start with some background – where you are from, when you lived, major works that you have composed, and notable life events. Then outline your beliefs and how they came to be. Finally, write about how your views have impacted the modern world. Make sure to provide sources for all of your information!

Your group will also be required to create a Twitter account for the Enlightenment Thinker. Please personalize it. Send out some introductory posts using our #MrMHWH hashtag! Tell everyone who you are and how you feel about the world today.

Once this is complete, share your blog post on Twitter using the hashtag #MrMHWH. This should be posted by the end of the first day.

Part II: The Discussion Go ahead and read the profiles of the other Enlightenment thinkers. Agree with someone, respond to their post! Disagree with someone, do the same. You should respond to at least three posts.

Now we are going to expand the walls a bit! You will begin to field questions from other teachers and historians not only from our school, but around the US (and potentially the world). People will ask you specific questions about how your philosopher would feel about recent world events. For instance, Voltaire may be asked about hate speech, or Rousseau may be asked about Communism under Stalin. To answer these questions, you must do research on the questions premise (and learn more about your Enlightenment thinker.  After a question is asked (via the Twitter hashtag #MrMHWH) you will write a response on your blog (sharing your post via Twitter). Each group will respond to at least two questions. You will then read and respond to the other philosophers at least two of the other philosophers (either as a response on their blog or directly through Twitter). As this is an intensive activity, we may spend a few classes in this discussion.

Part III: The Reflection Following this discussion, you will write a one page reflection discussing what you have learned about your Enlightenment thinker, the other “participants”, as well as how their ideas are or are not present today.


15 Points – Initial Blog Post (the post should be free of spelling/punctuation errors and address the prompts fully and clearly)

25 Points – The Discussion (posts and response tweets should be well thought out and accurately reflect the ideals of your Enlightenment thinker. You are required to use at least two sources per question answered.)

10 Points – The Reflection (should be free of spelling/punctuation errors and address the prompts fully and clearly).

50 Points – Total

About the Author:  Michael K. Milton teaches social studies at Burlington High School in Burlington, Massachusetts. In the classroom, he strives to make learning relevant and to further develop his students’ critical thinking  skills. He serves on the Content Committee at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute creating opportunities for students to experience the US Senate. Prior to teaching, Michael managed AmeriCorps members and remodeled the training program for City Year Rhode Island. He can be contacted on Twitter @42thinkdeep.

“Learning to Look with the National Portrait Gallery” Summer Teacher Institute

June 17, 2014

Integrating portraiture into the classroom provides exciting opportunities to connect students with history, biography, visual art, and many other subjects. The National Portrait Gallery collection presents the wonderful diversity of individuals who have left—and are leaving—their mark on our country and our culture. The museum portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story. The Summer Teacher Institute will take a broad look at the Portrait Gallery’s collection. During the institute, the museum’s curators and historians will provide in-gallery content lectures, introducing the collection. Utilizing an interactive approach, NPG educators will model a variety of “learning to look” strategies—unique ways to hook and engage students when they look closely at portraits. Participants will learn how to “read” portraiture and use the art as a springboard into a more in-depth discussion about biography and history. Teachers in grades kindergarten–12 may apply as individuals or as part of a team. Priority will be given to social studies, English/language arts, and visual arts teachers.

The institute will be held twice during summer 2014:
July 7–9
July 28–30

Institute participants will:
• Gain expertise from museum educators, curators, and historians through gallery talks, discussions, and hands-on activities
• Learn to use portraiture in the classroom, identifying and analyzing key components of a portrait and relating visual elements to relevant historical context and significance
• Make interdisciplinary connections among portraiture, social studies, and English/language arts
• Develop and share lesson ideas with colleagues

To ensure participation, a nonrefundable program fee of $100 per person is due upon acceptance into the teacher institute. Participants are responsible for travel and lodging costs. Each participant will receive a stipend of $200 at the conclusion of the workshop.

Visit to apply.

Please direct queries to or 202-633-8503.

Application deadline is April 15, 2014.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

June 17, 2014

This summer marks the centennial of the First World War, what historian Fritz Stern called, “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.” In The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012), Christopher Clark, professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge, analyzes the political and diplomatic events that led to the July crisis and subsequent declarations of war. He presents a complex story where decision-makers acted on their perceptions of the state’s interests, often in the context of imperfect information, mistrust, and fear. No one person or country is to blame for war’s outbreak, Clark argues. His purpose is not to find the “smoking gun.” Instead, he says, there were many smoking guns held by many people. Additionally, Clark makes it clear that war was not the inevitable outcome of forces beyond human control. War resulted from chains of decisions made by people who knew what they were doing, but who may not have grasped the full implications of their decisions. Thus, the decision-makers were sleepwalkers, “watchful but unseeing.”

Clark’s book has many strengths. You come away with a good understanding of the instability and tension of the pre-war international scene, despite the Great Powers attempts to manage things by forming alliances. Ironically, these alliances did not lessen pre-war tension; they heightened it, but of course this is obvious only in hindsight. Part II of Clark’s book, “One Continent Divided,” details the political and diplomatic polarization of Europe between 1887 and 1907, and the subsequent series of pre-war incidents that both tested and reinforced the alliance system. These incidents included the First and Second Moroccan crises (1905, 1911), Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1908), the Liman von Sanders affair (1913), and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Clark details how each one of these incidents provoked a climate of fear and mistrust between the alliances and also within them. Incidents like these caused subtle policy realignments, like Russia shifting support from Bulgaria to Serbia in the Balkans, that later had serious consequences. In each of these political realignments and international incidents, decision-makers acted in what they believed to be their country’s best interests given their military, diplomatic, and imperial goals. They tried to advance their own country’s power while hedging against risks created by aggrandizement. Clark shows that this international system became increasingly unstable, particularly as actors found it difficult to gather accurate information about what other actors were doing.

Another strength of Clark’s book is his analysis of the fluidity of power within the executive departments of each country, particularly the five Great Powers. For example, we think of Russia, a highly centralized autocracy, as having been under the firm control of an all-powerful tsar. Clark shows that this was not the case. Monarchs wielded less influence over foreign and military policy than might be imagined. Foreign ministers, ambassadors, undersecretaries, and military chiefs-of-staff did as much or more to shape and communicate policy than their heads of state. For example, Russia’s tsar Nicholas II headed an executive department divided between warmongers like Krivoshein, the minister of agriculture, and diplomats like Sazonov, the foreign minister who eventually embraced mobilization. Intrigue within the tsar’s cabinet, the departure and arrival of new members, changing attitudes in response to international developments, clashing personalities, competing visions of the national interest and different strategies to attain it were all aspects of what Clark calls “the fluidity of power.” Who had influence, how much influence did they have, and at what moments did they exert their influence? The answer to all of these questions: it depends. Similar dynamics existed in the other European capitals. These contingencies made it difficult for governments to make decisions, and doubly difficult for other countries to understand what their rivals, and sometimes even their allies, were doing. Clark’s favorite word to describe this decision-making environment is “opacity.” This, he shows, heightened fears and created tension, further destabilizing the international system. Adding to the confusion was slow communication in the era of the telegram. This turned out to be an important factor as leaders set deadlines or relayed decisions to foreign capitals. In short, opaque decision-making and the cumbersome communications infrastructure of pre-war Europe did not keep pace with the fluidity of rapidly developing events, making it even more difficult for actors to assess reality and risk. Is today’s world any different?

A third strength of Clark’s book is the skillful way he portrays the central role of the Balkans in the lead-up to war. He does this in Part I of the book, “Roads to Sarajevo.” Control of the Balkans in the pre-war period was a three-way chess game between the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, each trying to protect its imperial interests. Yet the smaller Balkan states, particularly Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania had interests of their own that often conflicted with those of the Great Powers as well as with each other. Clark portrays Serbia as neither a villain nor a victim. Instead, Serbia comes across as having legitimate interests in the region, like gaining access to the Adriatic Sea and unifying the southern Slav peoples, yet endorsing or remaining indifferent to (the sources are not clear) pan-Slavic terror cells and engaging in atrocities against Albanian civilians during the First Balkan War of 1912. Because Clark does such a masterful job explaining the intricacies of balance-of-power relations in the Balkans, you understand why Austria-Hungary responded to Archduke Ferdinand’s and wife Sophie’s assassination with a declaration of war on Serbia. From Austria-Hungary’s point-of-view, the assassination of the relatively unpopular heir and his equally unpopular wife was the latest of a series of provocations attributed to Serbia. It demanded a strong response, or so thought most Austro-Hungarian leaders with strong German encouragement, in line with Austria-Hungary’s imperial interests in the Balkans. How this triggered a wider European war is the focus of Part III, “Crisis.”

If you like diplomatic history and don’t mind the tedium of keeping track of who is speaking to whom, when, and in what context, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is a terrific summer read. You will gain better understanding not only of the international scene in the pre-World War One period, but also of how diplomacy works, how states develop and articulate their interests, and how actors often use subterfuge (“mendacity” is Clark’s favorite word), even within their own governments, to advance their perceptions of the state’s interests. The book leads you to think beyond the pre-World War One period to consider how similarly diplomacy must work throughout time, even today. To what extent does the fluidity of power continue to vex diplomats trying to solve complex problems? How are today’s misunderstandings, mendacities, and miscommunications affecting international developments? To what extent are foreign policy decisions in today’s capital cities true reflections of a state’s interests aligning with reality? To what extent are they only the perception of state interests by certain actors in government operating on assumptions that may be outdated or on information that is imperfect, even erroneous? How much information can governments know, and how much do they need to know, to make accurate assessments of reality and risk? Are today’s decision-makers sleepwalking toward any calamities?