Los Angeles schools embrace different vision of history, with lessons from Stanford group

A Graduate School of Education team is coaching hundreds of L.A. teachers to encourage students to think like a historian.

Jackeline Contreras L.A. teacher Brandon Cabezas

Brandon Cabezas, a Los Angeles high school teacher, is using new lessons from Stanford in his U.S. history class.

When it came time this fall for Brandon Cabezas to teach his students about the Battle of Lexington, the veteran Los Angeles public school teacher didn't reach for the 11th grade history textbook. Instead he visited a website, hosted by Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, called Reading Like a Historian. There he found a free, ready-to-go lesson plan, complete with two abridged but still-challenging primary source documents:  an excerpt from the diary of a British army officer who blamed the Americans for starting the skirmish and a sworn statement by 34 Minutemen who insisted that the British had fired first.

In addition to learning the basics about the American Revolution, Cabezas' students were asked to analyze the source documents critically and then used the evidence to write their own opinions about who started the battle – the very skills they'll be asked to demonstrate on California's looming Common Core English/Language Arts tests. "It felt like I was killing two birds with one stone," said Cabezas, who teaches at the Ramón C. Cortines School for the Visual and Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles.

Cabezas is participating in a new arrangement between the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest district, and the Stanford History Education Group. The aim is for Stanford to provide expert professional support in helping the L.A. teachers to adopt a novel curriculum that will better prepare students for the new Common Core standards being rolled out in California and nationwide. Under the 18-month contract, signed in May, social studies and history teachers throughout the district will be prepared to devote several days a month to this approach, and both Stanford and LAUSD leaders hope to expand its use even more in the coming years.

So far, about 400 social studies instructors at LAUSD middle and high schools have attended Stanford-led workshops on how to teach history using the new approach. "Our June session filled up with 155 teachers in the first 90 minutes that it was available for registration online," marveled Joel Breakstone, the frequent-flying director of the Stanford History Education Group, which runs sessions for schools nationwide. During the rest of the school year, the Stanford History Education Group will provide ongoing professional development to 120 of these teachers whom the district is calling History/Social Science Common Core Fellows. This will include classroom observations and professional development workshops.

 Reading Like a Historian grew out of research conducted by Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford, while he was a doctoral student in the 1980s. His award-winning 2001 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, proposed that if youngsters really are to "get" history, they must be taught how to question it:  Who wrote this document and why? What were the timeframe and context in which it was written? Why or why not might it be reliable? Do other texts agree with it, or refute it?

Today the Reading Like a Historian website offers more than a hundred free lesson plans covering ancient to modern times. In each unit, students examine the accompanying source documents critically, just as historians would, in order to answer intriguing questions: Did Cleopatra really die from a self-inflicted snakebite? Did Pocahontas really save the life of Captain John Smith, as depicted in the Disney film? Was Abraham Lincoln racist or was the Great Emancipator more progressive than his contemporaries?

The approach not only presents material in a more interactive and engaging way –  students discuss the source documentation in small groups with each other before explaining their thinking to the entire class – but it also offers an alternative to traditional standardized multiple choice tests. Wineburg and his colleagues have developed a new website, "Beyond the Bubble," that provides teachers with a new generation of history assessments that pose questions that require students to source, corroborate, contextualize and use evidence to craft their answers. "We offer easy-to-use assessments that capture students' knowledge in action rather than their recall of discrete facts," sayid Wineburg of the more than 65 History Assessments of Thinking developed at Stanford.

The entire program represents a dramatic departure from the standard history and social studies classes, a departure that is starting to go viral. Since Reading Like a Historian was launched in 2009, the free lesson plans have been downloaded nearly 1.7 million times from the Stanford website. Dozens of school districts – from New York City and Chicago to Carmel, Calif. – have asked the Stanford team for assistance with professional development.

The group's contract to work with LAUSD has turned out to be the closest and biggest collaboration yet.  "We work with hundreds of teachers around the country," said Brad Fogo, SHEG's director of digital curriculum, "but I think we're really establishing a unique relationship with teachers in LA Unified." Wineburg added with a smile, "We have to pinch ourselves that a curriculum project that began as a modest website with some lesson plans that we posted has now become an essential part of the curriculum for the second largest school district in the country."

Los Angeles school administrators say the best thing about Reading Like a Historian is how well it meshes with California's new Common Core standards for English language arts and literacy. Susan Tandberg, LAUSD's director of K-12 instruction, noted that many Los Angeles history teachers were worried about how they were going to weave the new standards into their daily routine. But with this new approach, she said, "Our teachers can see for themselves that the Common Core does not negate their content; it's complementary."

An award-winning study published two years ago in the Cognition and Instruction journal found that students whose classes featured Reading Like a Historian lessons gained significantly in historical thinking, factual knowledge and reading comprehension as compared with similar students in classes that were taught in a traditional manner. "When you look at the goals of the Common Core – particularly the ability to analyze nonfiction texts [and] make judgments about their trustworthiness – these are capabilities and goals that are at the center of our approach," Wineburg said.

For Kieley Jackson, a history and social science coordinator for LA Unified's secondary schools, it was the lesson on Lincoln and racism, including excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates and an 1841 Lincoln letter, that really sealed the deal.  When he presented a version of the lesson to his colleagues at district headquarters, he recalled, "I watched folks with master's degrees and PhDs and EdDs do intellectual somersaults. I realized we were absolutely onto something." Eventually, he added, "we hope to have it spread out to every secondary teacher in the district." Elaina Garza, the district's other secondary history/social science coordinator, nods in agreement. "This," she said, "is the full embodiment of what we would like teachers to do."

Besides running workshops showing teachers how to use the online resources, the Stanford History Education Group is providing extra support – including classroom observation time –  for the history/social science fellows who have volunteered to be mentors for the program in their own schools.

The Stanford team also is helping about 30 teachers write their own lesson plans, based on the Reading Like a Historian model, to be shared with their peers online.

In a September meeting on the second-floor of LAUSD's downtown headquarters, two of the teachers from predominately Latino middle schools, Arturo Salazar and Rosalda Gama, worked  on a lesson that contrasts sanguine excerpts from Columbus' diaries with darker accounts by the 16th-century friar Bartolomé de las Casas.  "The biggest challenge in these documents is the vocabulary, especially for our limited English speakers," Salazar said, "but the key thing that I've learned through this program is that I can modify the documents without taking away the essence." With growing numbers of English-language learners participating in English-speaking classrooms, the Stanford lessons offer a valuable way to teach critical thinking and historical analysis to this group, he said.

Cabezas, the teacher who led the lesson on the Battle of Lexington, is collecting online evidence to demonstrate how visual artists, musicians and playwrights responded to the Great Depression. Others are building lesson plans around the invention of gunpowder, the Magna Carta, Japanese Bushido and the 1973 rise of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Michael Corley, who has used ready-made RLH lessons half a dozen times so far at Francis Polytechnic Senior High in the San Fernando Valley, is working on a new lesson contrasting the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato. He  said he appreciates Reading Like a Historian's format, as well as the energy it brings to his classroom.  "Occasionally you'll have a B student," he noted, "and all of a sudden they take a leadership role in this type of thing, because they enjoy the argumentation. When you hand students pieces of paper with opposing viewpoints, all of a sudden it opens the floodgates."

Michael Tarango said the same holds true for his younger history students at Stephen White Middle School, just off the 110 freeway in Carson. "For so long we've been stuck focusing on rote memorization for standardized tests," Tarango said. "This new approach really spoke to us."

Theresa Johnston is a writer who contributes frequently to Stanford Graduate School of Education websites and other publications.

Brooke Donald, Graduate School of Education: (650) 721-1402, brooke.donald@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu