China and CCS Videos Part 5: The Videos!

Read from the beginning: Setting the Stage

Go to part 6: Student Responses

For a variety of reasons, I am unable to post the videos from the first year of the project (Feb. 2015). However, here are the videos from the second year!

Tiananmen Square


Human Rights



U.S. – China Relations

Hong Kong


Go to part 6: Student Responses


Which topic would you have picked? What topics should I add to the list for next time? Tell me about it in a comment!

China and CCS Videos Part 4: Rehearsal and Filming

Read from the beginning: Setting the Stage

Go to part 5: The Videos!

Ha….so full disclosure… for a variety of reasons I was not able to finish this blog series in “real time”. In fact, I am returning to this post a full year later. As you might imagine, by this point in time I cannot recall the granular details of the the last phases of the project.

So rather than continue in a mode of action research reporting, I will just summarize my key takeaways from rehearsal and filming. As one of my professors was fond of saying, “Done is better than perfect.”


Rehearsal and Setup Tips

  • If possible, have a “shooting stage” set up in advance. The day my students came in to see the camera in place, they definitely “upped” their game. It had become real.
  • It is very important to allow time for rehearsals, including full dress rehearsals on the stage. The stage hands need to organize the pictures, and need multiple repetitions to get up to speed.
  • Screen testing is useful to check light levels and allow students to make adjustments to their pictures (e.g., proper scale, bright bold colors, etc.). In my experience students tend to create pictures that are too small and too detailed until they can see how it really looks on screen. Unless you have a lot of windows in your room, you will probably need a few spot lights to properly adjust the light levels.
  • Check to make sure that you are comfortable making adjustments to your tripod, camera and lights. Do a few test runs to make sure you can import the videos from your camera to your computer. Make sure you have extra batteries and memory cards available.





Lights, Camera, Action!

  • Prep a shooting schedule in advance. Which groups are ready to go, and which groups could use more time? A group that goes at the end of the line can get two or three more repetitions in before they are up.
  • With setup and transition time, I have found that I can easily film four or five groups in a 40 minute period. If things are running smoothly, plan on 5-10 minutes set up at the beginning, and 5-6 minutes per group for filming.
  • Set up behavior expectations for the students that are in the room during filming. Students should be quiet and respectful during shooting. I told students that their group would need to go twice if they botched a take for another group by being distracting or disruptive. Perhaps a bit harsh (and I am incredibly thankful that I didn’t need to enforce it), but needless to say I did not have ANY behavior issues while filming.
  • Post a guard at the door to prevent non-emergency walk-ins. Incidentally, this is a great task for students that have completed filming and have trouble sitting still in the audience.
  • JUST KEEP GOING! I remind students that they need to film in one take, and that I am the only one that can call cut. I have had students stutter, forget their lines, miss pictures, get the giggles, bump the camera…you name it. But they kept going. Done is better than perfect. This is a big reason why I basically don’t grade the video. All students get full credit for shooting a video regardless of the quality.
  • Congratulate your students when they are done! As someone who spends his time professionally “on stage” in front of a classroom, it is easy for me to forget how stressful it can be for many people. Just because the students are engaged and excited about the project, doesn’t mean that they aren’t nervous (or even terrified…) on filming day. Make sure to give them props for a job well done.


Go to part 5: The Videos!


Have you ever had students do a group performance in class? What tips could you add to this list? What could I do better next time? Tell me about it in a comment!


China and CCS Videos Part 3: Developing a Script

Read from the beginning: Setting the Stage

Go to part 4: Rehearsal and Filming

Once individual research was complete, it was time for the groups to start drafting a script and developing images. First, I created a guideline for scripting and shooting to share with each student. Then, I asked each group to create a new shared Google document to develop their script.

I wanted the groups to have as much class time as possible to focus on their work, so I tried to limit the amount of whole group instruction to just 3-5 minutes at the beginning of class.  In general, this was my daily checklist:

  • Remind students about the overall project deadline – “We are filming on February 25th. You need to be ready to go walking in the door on the 25th. The deadline will not be extended!”
  • Remind students to use the script and video guidelines as a checklist. If I remembered, I would make sure to post the guidelines on the projector…but I probably only remember to do this about 50% of the time.
  • Give students a benchmark goal – “Make sure your scripts are done by Friday so that you can start rehearsal on Monday.”
  • General advice or cautionary tales – “It is really helpful to make a list of pictures you want to create BEFORE you start making pictures.”


Drafting the Script:

During the class period, my goal was to actively check in two times with each group. I soon discovered that it was necessary for me to ask specific questions like, “What exactly are you working on now? What is your goal before the end of the class? What can I do to help?” Questions like these almost always elicited a detailed response. Whereas if I just asked “Are you guys OK?”, the answer was inevitably “Yes.” Other than these check-ins, I basically just tried to stay out of their way and let them work. Every now and then I found it necessary to address the entire class in the middle of the period to clarify a particular point, but I tried to minimize that as it was always a bit disruptive to get them out of “the zone” long enough to listen to the announcement.

By far the biggest concern of the students was drafting a script that would fit within the 2-3 minute length requirement. As each group was ready with a rough draft, I had them do a timed reading. The majority of groups came in over the time limit on their first reading. Despite repeated requests to extend the video length, I held firm and coached them on how to revise and pare down their scripts. This was initially very challenging for students because they had to prioritize the information from their research. However, I realized that the larger issue was not so much their ability to do so, but rather I needed to reassure them that they would not be penalized for “leaving something out”.

On a related note, the students grappled with how to turn their list of facts into a viable script. I found that each topic presented its own challenges.

  • Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong, U.S. China Relations – These were, in some ways, the easiest to script because they focused on concrete events that could be presented in a clear linear fashion. I encouraged these groups to provide enough context to get the “big picture”.
  • Human Rights, Technology, Environment– These topics are too big to discuss everything, so it was important to find a unifying theme. I encouraged students to dig deep on one idea rather than try to address a broad range of issues. For example, environment scripts could focus on air or water pollution. The human rights groups generally decided to spotlight one or two major corporations as case studies.
  • Culture – In my opinion, this was by far the most challenging topic to address. Invariably, each person within a culture group picked a distinct topic (e.g., food, sports, fashion, etc.) based on their interest. This made it very challenging for students to develop a unifying theme, so instead I felt that it was most important to provide a clear organization of their ideas. For example, try to present their ideas in a logical order, and use title cards to show transitions from one topic to the next.

The last major element of developing the script was incorporating the images. This was essentially a parallel work stream for the students. They had to develop a list of images that would complement/enhance the script, produce the images, and include stage directions within the script on how the images would be incorporated. To streamline the process, many groups opted to focus on general images that could be reused several times within the context of their narrative, for example, a Chinese flag or outline maps of countries.

While students were workshopping their scripts, I had my own responsibilities as well. My daily homework assignment was to provide feedback to group on how to edit/revise their script. Outside of class I coordinated with the art department to ensure sufficient supplies and  I consulted with my tech support to finalize any software/hardware issues. Also, I had to set up the studio in the classroom and make sure everything worked properly.


I was initially quite anxious about this phase of the project because so much hinged on how well the groups could collaborate. By and large though, my fears were happily unrealized. Most of the groups were focused and productive during class time with minimal coaching or encouragement from me. However, there were a few groups that experienced ongoing challenges that significantly impacted their productivity, and the quality of their final product.

  • Three groups had significant issues due to poor focus in class, disorganization, failure to complete homework and/or poor leadership. Two of these groups ultimately needed to shoot their video twice because the first take had significant deficiencies. The third group managed to produce an acceptable video on their first take, but they fell short of the required minimum length.
  • Another group suffered from an extreme personality conflict between two of its members. They were eventually able to put aside their differences with a lot of coaching and direct oversight by me, but all of the group members reported afterward that the situation had negatively impacted their experience with the project.


Go to part 4: Rehearsal and Filming


Have you ever had students write film scripts in class? What could I do better next time? Tell me about it in a comment!


China and CCS Videos Part 2: Research and Data Collection

Read from the beginning: Setting the Stage

Go to part 3: Developing a Script

Before students could create their videos, they had to conduct research into their topic. I don’t have a core text for this unit, so all of their information will come from internet resources. However, I know better than to just let them start Googling without a plan. My first consideration was to determine how much support I would give them during this phase. It occurred to me that the most challenging part of research is actually developing a robust list of search terms. Rather than have the students brainstorm options in a group, I decided that this would be the best place for me to provide some direct instruction.

My biggest challenge was to demonstrate to the students that taking the time to develop a list of search terms in advance would be clearly more effective than simply Googling their research question and hoping for the best…the default strategy of the majority of middle school students.

Before students came in for the day, I created a list of key words for each of the research questions. In addition, a created a general list of key words (e.g., timeline, trends, cause, effect, etc.) to use for any topic.


Preparing for Research:

Students use their key word list to make a series of search terms. A search term is comprised of three or more words from the list. Ideally a search term will have words from both the left column (topic specific) and the right column (general relationships). Also, they should generally also include “China” as one of their terms.

I modeled this idea with a sample list for a China topic that was not in use by any group, in this case “What are the pros and cons of the Three Gorges Dam”

  • I passed out copies of the Three Gorges key terms and asked students to give make up a random search term by picking a few words from either column on the list. My computer was projected onto the main view screen for the class. As students called out search terms, I just put them into to Google to see what would come up.

   Sample search terms:

    • Three Gorges Dam, Geography, Yangtze River, Controversy
    • China, Three Gorges Dam, Key People
    • Three Gorges Dam, Culture, Change Over Time
    • Three Gorges Dam, Trends, Map
  • The results? There were a few websites that appeared on multiple searches, but by and large each search term came back with different hits. There were easily two or three viable websites from the first page of each search term, and quite often Wikipedia was NOT the first website on the list.

Because this is was a group project, I asked students to take a few minutes to consult with their group to make sure that each person had a unique list of search terms. This way they would be less likely to “step on each others toes” when compiling their results.

Students were not allowed to open their laptops until everyone in their group completed their search term list.

The last preparatory step was to create a collaborative workspace. I asked one student in each group to create a Google document to share with myself and each member of the group.


Gathering resources:

Students were given three days to complete the individual research component of their project.

  • They each needed to create a list of 5-6 high quality websites for their topic. Of those, they would then select a top three to compile into a group bibliography of 10-12 websites.
  • Finally, they had to develop a list of ten facts from their top three websites. A “fact” was defined as “A high quality, 3-5 sentence statement WRITTEN IN YOUR OWN WORDS including concepts like “most important” “cause-effect” “change over time” “compare-contrast”, etc.”

After reviewing the pages from the first session, I quickly realized that I need to create a sample page to help students organize their work. I posted the link to this page on the top of their group page so they could reference as needed. However, even with a direct model, some groups needed a lot of daily guidance on how to keep their page organized.



This phase went quite smoothly. I think the structure that I provided at the front end really helped the groups to conduct productive and fairly efficient internet research.  In general, the groups worked well together. My key role was to help students organize their group page, and clarify their requirements. As I was circulating, it was really cool to eavesdrop on their conversations as they delved deeper into their topics.  There were about five students that needed extra time to complete their individual research. It won’t necessarily impact the grade on the quality of their research, but it is likely that they will get some negative feedback on their peer evaluations at the end of the project.


Go to part 3: Developing a Script


How do you structure research projects for your class? Tell me about it in a comment!


China and CCS Videos Part 1: Setting the Stage

Go to part 2: Research and Data Collection

My students have been responsible for a ton of writing this year. We have focused on annotation style note-taking for day to day assignments, and all assessments have been open-ended writing. That’s great, but exhausting. The students needs a change. I need a change. The back end of the year for us is actually well suited for project-based assignments because we are looking at broad topics such as “China”, “India” and “Africa”.

However, it took a few days for me to figure out an angle. I have been so focused on writing-intensive strategies for the past couple of years that I was stumped at first…I couldn’t see past my go-to instructional and assessment strategy. Luckily, I remembered an inspiring blog post I read last year.

Making Common Craft Style Videos by Paul Bogush

(Note: Mr. Bogush has an amazing blog – You should read it.)

This is a Common Craft style video made by Mr. Bogush’s students.


This is a behind-the-scenes look at the same project.


The first step was to give students a context for modern day issues and relationships about China. I prepared two documents: a survey of Chinese culture and a modern era timeline.

I have found that timelines are great, but students needs a little more structure to pull them apart and see different relationships, so I also assigned this graphic organizer to go along with the timeline.

All told, we spent about three days of class time on this part. As our discussion progressed, it was evident that the students were starting to gravitate toward certain topics or issues.

On our last day of introductory discussion, I introduced the project guidelines (I used the two videos above to model the final product for them) and gave them an opportunity to pick topics they would like to explore. Based on their topic selections, I divided the students into three or four person groups. (Note: It would be very hard to create the video with less than three students. I was originally going to create groups of 5-6, but on second thought that seemed too unwieldy.)


Key criteria:

  • Students are individually responsible for a research component related to their group’s research question. The quality of their research is the biggest variable impact on their final grade.
  • Students are collaboratively responsible for creating a Common Craft Style video to answer their group’s research question. Since this is the first time around for everyone, myself included, I will not evaluate the videos for a grade. They get completion credit for getting it done.
  • After creating the video, students will complete an individual project reflection and a peer evaluation of the other members of their group. The reflection will be graded for completion. The peer evaluation will count toward an individual participation grade.


These are the various research groups across all of my classes:

  • What are key features of Chinese culture? (3 groups)
  • What are key environmental concerns caused by Chinese industrial growth? (2 groups)
  • What are key human rights concerns caused by Chinese industrial growth? (3 groups)
  • What are key issues in U.S. – China relations? (2 groups)
  • What was Tiananmen Square Massacre? (4 groups)
  • What is the relationship between China and Hong Kong? (1 group)
  • What are China’s key scientific and technological achievements in the modern era? (3 groups)



I think everyone is excited to get going on this one. I feel like I did a good job of baiting the hook to get them interested in learning more. There is a diverse range of topics across the groups, and in general I think the group composition will work out OK. There are only two groups overall that I predict will need a little extra attention.


Go to part 2: Research and Data Collection


Have you done a project like this before? Tell me about it in a comment!


Teaching Toolkit: The Warm Up

Ah the warm up. It’s a simple but powerful concept. Have the students do something when they enter the room.

I don’t know why, but it took me years…literally several years of teaching…to “get” warm ups. Are they supposed to look at a picture? Review their homework? Talk about something? Is there a difference between a warm up a hook and a set? How do find time to include a warm up? Do I check them? If so, do they count for credit? Do I need to do one every day? Etc.

After much trial and error, this is what works for me. (Full disclosure: Getting back to using warm ups was one of my New Year teacher resolutions. I don’t know what happened…one day I just realized I wasn’t using them anymore. Back on the wagon.)

The goal of a warm up

For me, the primary goal of a warm up is simply to get kids settled in, thinking about the content, and ready to work. Or in another sense, I simply want to prevent the loss of instructional time at the beginning of class. That’s it. Everything else is optional.

  • It doesn’t need to be exciting or innovative. To me, this is the key difference between a “set” or “hook” and a warm up. A set gets the students interested in the next lesson or topic, usually by getting them excited, agitated, or confused. For example, an interesting picture, a riddle or brain teaser, a map, playing music, etc. These are great and necessary components of good unit planning, but I don’t think they are effective warm ups. They get students wound up instead of them settled and focused. I prefer to use a set after the warm up.
  • It doesn’t need to provide a seamless transition between topics. If this happens, great. If not, no problem. Again, the primary goal is to get students settled and focused.
  • It doesn’t need to happen everyday. However, it should happen most days. Students should come in expecting to do the warm up. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter if I have a big flashy sign that says “WARM UP!!!” on the board…they aren’t looking at the board…they’re talking to their friends or reading a book. (Trust me…I tried that). My experience is that everyone gets into a groove if I have formal warm ups three days a week on average.


The first rule of warm ups 

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.

At least they have never worked for me. Don’t misunderstand me, I love small group discussion. I use “turn and talk strategies” every single day. But it doesn’t work as a warm up. The students aren’t tuned in yet.

Discuss your homework? Nope.

Hey, check out this picture, what do you think? Nope.

Read this section in the textbook? Nope.

Chat with your partner, what did we do yesterday? Nope.

Sadly, I have to keep re-learning this every year. Whenever I forget it, I find myself spending 5 (or 10…) minutes circulating around the classroom putting out fires and trying to get kids to pretend more effectively that they are actually reading or talking about the warm up topic. I waste as much time, or even more, than I was trying to save by doing the warm up to begin with!

The second rule of warm ups

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.


The ingredients of an effective warm up

The students need to produce something.

They need to take notes, draw a picture, write a journal, or write down the answer to a question. Here’s the trick though, it should be something that takes a few minutes of actual concentration or reflection on their part. Remember, the goal is to get the students settled down and focused. So in my opinion, simple questions (e.g., yes/no, fill in the blank, etc.) aren’t effective as warm ups, unless used in a list.

Bonus points:

    • If using a writing prompt, it is important to give length guidelines. My experience is that a 3-5 sentence response is the perfect amount for a warm up. 
    • I also like to have a mix of fact and opinion prompts.

Examples from my most recent unit:

Describe Sharia Law in 3 sentences.

Describe an example of how Sharia law impacts women in Saudi Arabia in 3-5 sentences.

What do you think is the most restrictive rule women face in Saudi Arabia? Why do you think so? (3-5 sentences)


Students should have a set place where they keep their warm up responses for a unit. Just have them reserve space in a physical notebook, or create a dedicated electronic document. This saves time AND makes the warm up more valuable for the students because they can serve as review notes.

Time management

The warm up is only useful if it doesn’t become a time sink. Remember, that is one of the problems I am trying to solve. As the students arrive, I direct their attention to the warm up and ask them to get started. Once the bell rings (i.e., a concrete start point), I start a timer and tell them how much time they have. I usually allot 3 minutes for writing, and give them a countdown update every minute. This might not seem like enough time. It is…if…they actually get started right away. Sure, once in awhile I might fudge it a little bit if they really need a few more seconds, but my recommendation is to stick to the timer as a rule.


A short follow up discussion is the glue that holds it all together.  It reinforces the concepts through multiple modes of communication. It provides an opportunity for me to address questions for clarification. At the very least, students do the warm up because they don’t want to be unprepared when I call on them. However, I don’t check warm ups for points, and it is OK if the student doesn’t finish the warm up. The goal was to get them settled and focused.

Bonus points:

    • If the warm up is a writing prompt or reflection, I ask students to read what they have written OR ask a question for clarification.
    • If the warm up is copying notes, I ask students to restate the concepts in their own words OR ask a question for clarification.
    • This is the perfect time to use a random selection method to call on students. If anyone is a potential target, everyone does the warm up.
    • Watch out for scope creep if the warm up is a review question or reflection. It is very easy for the discussion to turn take up too much time. I pick three students, take one to three additional volunteers, and then move on. The entire warm up process can be done in less than ten minutes once you get comfortable with it.


But I don’t have time for warm ups!

Yes you do.

If you don’t have a warm up system, you are losing time every class period anyway…probably more time than you think.

If you don’t devote time to review of concepts, then you are fooling yourself if you think they actually remember what happened last class.

If you are really jammed up for today’s lesson, skip it. Warm ups don’t have to happen every day…just most days.


So what does it look like in practice?

First bell rings…students begin to trickle into the classroom.

The warm up is posted on the board. What is sharia law? (3 sentences)

Me: “The warm up is on the board. Make sure to put it in your “Middle East Warm Ups” document. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

Second bell rings to start the class. At this point, students should actually be writing or rereading their notes. (Side note: I used to think that the warm up should be completed by the bell to start class. However, under no circumstances has that ever worked for me. I have come to terms with the fact that students actually need a few minutes to transition from class to class, no matter how stressed I might personally feel about time.)

Me: “Ok, you have three minutes, then we’ll discuss. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

John calls out: “I have a question about the next test.” (It’s a trap! If I answer John’s question I am signaling that I don’t really care about this warm up nonsense. Rest assured, three more students will immediately call out with their own questions…then a few side conversations…then everybody is just hanging out and talking like it’s lunch or something.)

Me: “I’ll answer that after the warm up.”

Me: “Two minutes.”

During this time I am circulating the class, taking attendance, etc.

Me: “One minute.”

Me: “Thirty seconds.”

Once the time is elapsed, I give any administrative announcements for the day. I know that they can hear me because everyone is settled and focused. Some students are still writing, but that’s OK. The announcements are also a way to surreptitiously buy some time for them.

Me: “OK, chat with your partners about what you wrote.”

This is an important step because it gives students a chance to clarify their answers before sharing with the whole group. However, this should only go for a minute or so.

During this time I use my random selection method (e.g., I use numbered popsicle sticks in a big coffee can) to pre-select students for discussion. If it is a student that struggles a bit, I can let them know in advance that I will call on them.

Me: “Ok Ryan, what is sharia law?” If he isn’t done, or doesn’t feel confident in his answer, I just ask him to read what he has written so far.

Me: “Ok Helen, can you add to that or say it another way?”

Repeat this step for any pre-selected students. I usually restate what each student said so everyone can hear.

Me: “Anyone else…is there something important we missed?”

I take a few volunteers (i.e., one to three max) then move on to the topic of the day. No worries if there are no volunteers to continue discussion, the warm up has done it’s job.



Comments and feedback welcome!

What do warm ups look like in YOUR class?



Israel – Palestine 101

I am incredibly happy to be teaching a course where I can focus on contemporary issues. The content stays fresh. Students are generally interested and engaged. Everybody wins.

Still… every now and then it can be a little intimidating. Say for example if you are doing a unit on the Middle East and you want to help 8th graders understand about Israel and Palestine.

My fears:

  • This is one of the biggest hot button issues in the world, it is a virtual certainty that some students (and families) will have strong opinions and/or personal experiences. I don’t want to step into an land mines…or more accurately  I don’t want to get caught off guard if I do. I made sure to talk to my administrator first to “get his blessing” for this one.
  • My own learning curve – Let’s face it…it’s a complicated issue. Of course, this is not an uncommon occurrence as a teacher, but in this case I was more nervous than usual about “getting it right”.

My goals:

  • Students will develop a general understanding of the key people, events and locations concerning Israeli-Palestinian relations.
  • Be honest and willing to have discussion about challenging issues that don’t necessarily have an easy of painless solution…including being willing to say “I don’t know” AND giving my own personal opinion when appropriate. (Note –  I think I said, “Well…it’s complicated…” at least once a day during this unit).
  • Present as balanced a view as possible. I don’t want to be an apologist for acts of terror by groups like Hamas…however, Israel has not been a completely blameless actor in all of this either.

Key questions:

  • What are the key people, events and locations of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?
  • What are the key points of disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians?
  • Why is it so challenging for everyone to come to an agreement?

Let’s face it, there are a lot of places to potentially get bogged down in those three simple questions. To me, the clearest way forward felt like keeping a tight focus on the question of territorial disputes. It is impossible to ignore the powerful motivation of religious beliefs or the cumulative effects of generational violence, but at its core the dispute is, and has always been, about who controls what pieces of land.


Setting the stage

First things first. We needed to get a sense of how Israel fits within the complex puzzle that is the Middle East.

To start, I gave a short introductory lecture on the Ottoman Empire, and how its collapse after WWI created a vacuum in the region, which led to brand new states being created over the next few decades. I find it is usually a bit of cognitive dissonance for students to grapple with the idea that national borders can change over time. However, in the case of Israel, the idea of shifting borders is absolutely critical to understanding the conflict.

Then, we spent some time examining a timeline of the region. Since this was the beginning of a broader Middle East unit, not just a focus on Israel/Palestine, students were given this graphic organizer to help them unpack the various “relationships” on their timeline.

Afterward, we took a whole class period to discuss the key events on the organizer, with the bulk of the time going to key events for Israel. This was primarily just an informal KWL session to prime the pump and begin to generate a framework.

Frequently Asked “Want to Know”  Questions about Israel/Palestine

    • What is Palestine? Is it a state? Who controls it?
    • Why did the U.N. create Israel? What was there before?
    • Why did the Arabs attack Israel in 1948?
    • What is the difference between Hamas and the PLO?
    • What is the difference between the West Bank and Gaza Strip?
    • The Gaza Strip is so small…why are they fighting over it?

Once we identified some of the key people, events and locations it was time to give a little more structure. One of the first things to understand is that the relationships between Israel and surrounding Arab states, and Israel and Palestine, are closely related but should be considered separately. Based on key events from the timeline, we developed this T-chart and I provided an timeline map series.

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 3.28.13 PM

*BLUE highlights are key events that had significant effect for both columns.

*GREEN highlights are key peace negotiations.

Timeline Map Series: 1948 – 1967 – 1979 – 1995

Untitled  Israel 1967 Israel 1978 Israel 1995

Key takeaways: There was a fundamental disagreement about the partition land to create the state of Israel. During the resulting Arab – Israeli War (1948), hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were displaced from their homes. Many would resettle in the areas of Gaza and West Bank, which were controlled by the Arab states of Egypt and Jordan respectively. The situation escalated when Israel annexed Gaza and West Bank during the Six Day War (1967). Although the Palestinians were given some autonomy as a result of the Oslo Accords (1995), several key issues (e.g., partitioning of the West Bank and Jerusalem) have never been fully resolved.

Then I presented a series of short videos to explore some of the key locations and disagreements. These videos also provide some context for a lot of information that students will see again in their note taking assignment.

Why are Israel and Palestine Fighting? – Provides an introduction to the land disputes that pre-dated the formal creation of the state of Israel.

Understanding the Situation in the Gaza Strip – Historical context of the development of Gaza Strip as an exclusively Palestinian controlled territory, and the details of the current blockade and standoff between Hamas and Israel.

Why Jerusalem Matters To Israel and Palestine – It’s still about land…but this also the one place where the clash of religions is at its most powerful.

Digging Deeper

Now that students had a framework for understanding, it was time to have them examine the issues in greater detail. There are a number of great text resources to available online, but these are my two favorites.

Palestine, Israel and the Arab Conflict: A Primer – This is published by the Middle East Research Project and is probably more appropriate for high school or college students. It is downloadable as a pdf though, so might be a more flexible option for most classrooms.

What are Israel and Palestine? Why are they fighting? – This is published by Vox. It has great organization as it presents each main idea as a “card”. There are tons of links to external articles and even internal links betwen topic cards. However, this is only available in digital format (unless you cut/paste the content yourself – probably more trouble than it’s worth if you ask me). I am lucky enough to work in a 1-1 iPad school, so this is the resource we used.

Students were given two days in class, plus an additional week outside of class to complete this list of summary questions. We’ve done this before so they were already familiar with the basics of the assignment. I basically just grade this for completion – it’s basically just a long term homework. The best part about these types of assignments is that they create a natural framework for student-driven discussion.


It is very important to keep a human face on this conflict – it can’t just be about “Israel” and “Palestine”, so I collected a series of videos to try and show how people’s lives are impacted on both sides.

15 seconds – This is part of a series of videos  created by the Israel Foreign Affairs Ministry. I think it serves as a pretty good hook for the students.

Israel – Gaza Conflict: Rockets and Airstrikes – A “man on the street” type video by the New York Times with both Palestineans and Israelis. This might be a little too graphic (i.e. visible blood) for some classrooms, so use your best judgement.

The Current Israel – Gaza Conflict Explained – This dovetails nicely with the previous video. Basically the New York Times video is closer to “raw” footage, while this one is commentary.

Six Israelis Share Their Fears About Hamas Rockets – Hand camera candids, very personal.

First Day of School: Gaza  – Profiles a single family living in a shelter in Gaza. They lost their house during the July 2014 Israeli ground offensive.

 Discussion questions:

    • What are fears/concerns of the Israeli’s living near Gaza Strip?
    • What are fears/concerns of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip?
    • How are Israeli and Palestinian fears similar and different?


Class Discussion:

By this point, I think the most important thing is to just give students time to talk throught their ideas, and ask questions they’ve developed over the previous week or so of gathering information. The summary question assignment (from the Digging Deeper section) is the core framework for class discussion, but I think it is important to let students take the lead a bit as well, as long as it stays relatively on topic.

A lot of students ask me, “Who is right?” or “Is (fill in the blank) the real ‘bad guy’?”. This is probably the biggest land mine for me as a teacher. The best I can do is simply help them to understand the facts on the ground, and let them make their own decision. But I tremendously appreciate that they are taking it seriously. They really want to figure this out.

Even more students simply express frustration.

Why don’t they just stop fighting? Can’t they see they’re just making it worse?

Yes they are.’s complicated.

We’re not going to find the answers in our classroom, but it is vitally important that we at least try to understand the problem.


Exit Summary:

  1. Make a timeline of five key Israel/Palestine events between 1914 and 2014. Why did you include each event? (i.e., Why is it important to understanding the current conflict?)
  2. What are the key points of disagreement between Israelis and the Palestinians?
  3. Why do you think it is challenging for everyone to come to an agreement?


Comments and feedback welcome!


Setting the Stage with Movies: Cold War

To me, one of the coolest aspects of teaching a contemporary history course is the abundance of media available to aid instruction.

This year one of my goals is to explore options for incorporating popular culture movies, both as an engaging way to “hook” students, and just as important, a means to help them develop insight on, and empathy with people in the past. In particular, movies can reveal the prevailing fears or concerns of society in certain time or place.

As I am learning…picking the right movie clip can be challenging. It needs to be the right length (3-10 minutes-ish) and readily available – preferably free (YouTube is your friend). It should be fun and engaging. Of course it needs to be appropriate in terms of content and language. And finally, students should be able to “get it” with a minimum of context about the movie or the related historical events.

Of course, when considering a topic like the Cold War, it is always useful to consider such classics as Duck and Cover and Atomic Alert. The main problem though, is that they are too campy and preachy (and boring…). Admit it, we really only show them to get a laugh out of the students. They are important artifacts, but they aren’t hooks…don’t lead with them.

Here are some clips that I’ve found that I think can do a much better job.


The Second Red Scare  – The Enemy Within

The second Red Scare refers to the period in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (the first one was in the 1920’s after the Russian Revolution). There were legitimate reasons to be afraid. The Communist threat abroad was tangible. The Iron Curtain had descended upon Europe, China went Red, and the Russkies got the bomb all in just a few years. But what about Communism here? In America? Who could we trust…more importantly who couldn’t we trust?

The hook: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Aliens secretly land on Earth and kidnap people while they are sleeping. The victims are cloned in giant pods (hence the term pod people) and are transformed into something else.  They look and sound exactly the same, but they are no longer human.

Questions for discussion:

1. What is he trying to tell everyone?

2. Why doesn’t anyone believe him?

3. How can this clip represent people’s fears about the Communism during the Red Scare?


Nuclear Weapons – Mutually Assured Destruction

We cannot consider the Cold War without examining the politics of nuclear weapons. The name Cold War itself refers to the idea that, at all costs, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had to avoid a direct engagement for fear of literally ending the world in a nuclear holocaust. Soviet spies acquired the secrets of nuclear technology as early as 1949, and from that point the competition was on to build bigger and better stockpiles of weapons. For example, the space race was, in many ways, simply about demonstrating our technical prowess in rocketry…to be able to deliver nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. Eventually the powers that be settled on the insanely pragmatic policy of mutually assured destruction. That is, we actually needed to increase nuclear proliferation to ensure that no country could use a nuclear weapon with guaranteeing their own immediate destruction.

The hook: War Games (1983) Matthew Broderick is a precoscious teenage computer hacker who bites off more than he can chew when he starts playing a nuclear war simulation with the Department of Defense mainframe. Hilarity ensures when the computer program doesn’t tell the Army that it’s just playing a game. Even better…the computer doesn’t think it’s playing a game.


Questions for discussion:

1. Why can’t the computer win?

2. How can this clip represent people’s feelings about nuclear weapons?


Winning Hearts and Minds – The Propaganda War

The Cold War was also about prestige and morale. If we couldn’t fight the Russians directly with bombs and bullets, then we had to fight them any other way we could. It wasn’t just about being the best, it was about being perceived as being the best.

The Hook: Rocky IV (1985) Rocky fights a seemingly indestructible Russian foe (Spoiler alert: Rocky wins).


The fight is great on it’s own, but Rocky’s speech afterward is the icing on the cake.


Questions for discussion:

1. As the viewer, how are you supposed to feel about Rocky? Ivan Drago? Did your perceptions of Rocky or Ivan change over time? Why?

2. Why do you think the crowd started to cheer for Rocky? How do you think you are supposed to feel when the crowd cheers for Rocky?

3. How can this clip represent people’s feelings about the Cold War?


That’s all I have so far, but if you have any other suggestions….please please please leave them in the comments.

Prompts for reading, speaking, and thinking

I have spent a lot of time over the past few years experimenting with different prompts to help aid discussion, writing and higher-level thinking. What I have found to be the most interesting/challenging aspect is the close relationship between those three modes.

  • Students need frequent dedicated time in the classroom to practice speaking and writing at the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to help them develop a habit of insightful and reflective thinking.
  • Speaking and writing are strongly interrelated. The prompts below can easily be used for either mode of communication. However, students need dedicated time to practice both. Reflective writing does not automatically transfer to deep and meaningful conversation…and vice versa.
  • My experience has been that verbal discussion is the hardest of the three modes to facilitate, even when students are writing and thinking at a high level. It is particularly challenging to get students to truly listen and respond to each other, rather than just wait in line to share their own thoughts. Authentic student-centered discussion that does not bottleneck through me is the gold standard. I have only had it happen a few times in as many years…but it is wonderful when it does happen.


Learning Log Prompts – These prompts are intended for students to summarize the daily lesson as an exit ticket. My experience is that students need at least five minutes to answer two prompts, so I generally do not have time to do this activity every day. However, even two or three times a week can generate great results. I have students maintain their learning logs in a seperate journal that stays in the classroom. It is especially useful to give students time once a month or quarter to look back over their journals and reflect on what they’ve learned, or any patterns they see.

Learning Log Prompts


Pick a Strategy – This is my favorite way to introduce the idea of talking to the text. Students particularly like the opportunity to draw and share illustrations.

Pick a Strategy


Text Annotation Prompts – This past year I had my first attempt at close reading, and I wish that I would have had this list of prompts for that activity!

Text Annotation

Modified from: ‏@KyleneBeers When to annotate a text


Conversation Prompts – I have used similar prompts in the past to facilitate written dialogue on Edmodo, but I have not yet used them formally in verbal discussions. That is definitely a goal for next year though.

Conversation Stems

Modified from: ‏Teach Thought – 26 Sentence Stems for Higher-Level Conversation in the Classroom

Comments and feedback welcome!

Super Simple Maps

One of my goals for this year was to use more maps. I also wanted to explore different ways to represent information on maps. These are some of the ideas I came up with.


Middle Ages World Trade Map

This was my first effort at a super simple map. I was pretty happy with this because, regardless of prior knowledge, I feel like pretty much anyone can look at this and immediately “get” all the important information.

Questions to consider:

  • Why do you think Europe is a “frowny face”?
  • What do you think are the most important areas on this map? Why?
  • How do you think the Black Death travelled from China to Europe?
  • What do you think was better, sea trade or the Silk Road? Why?
  • What surprised you most about this map?





This was my first timeline map series. My students’ unprompted reactions to these maps was exactly what I had hoped for. They immediately began asking questions and making comments, even with little or no prior knowledge.

  • “Why did the red break up into other colors?”
  • “Why did the yellow start taking over the blue?”
  • “What happened to the Vikings?”
  • “What’s the Holy Roman Empire, is that like the Roman Empire?”
  • “Why did Spain and England just appear on the last map?”
  • “Did anyone live in the blank spaces?”


Boston Map

Philly Full Map

South Full Map


My crowning achievement in cartography…super simple timeline maps! The American Revolution is a great war to teach students about strategy, because it played out over three distinct phases with easily identifiable turning points. In particular, the importance of physical features (e.g., the Hudson River Valley) can be clearly demonstrated. I like this map because if feels a little more interactive and tactile as it changes over time, and is always ready as a backdrop for lecture or class discussion.


Super Simple Saratoga Map


I haven’t yet used this in class, but I think it will be effective at demonstrating the importance of a single battle on the overall war. Also, I could build an entire lesson around this. For example, why was Albany so important? Why did the British want to cut off New England?Why did Howe decide to attack Philadelphia? How did Burgoyne defeat Fort Ticonderoga? How did Benedict Arnold trick St. Lemis? What happened to the Iroquois after St. Lemis retreated? Who surrounded Burgoyne? What happened after the battle?

Question to consider:

  • Each of the British commanders made a mistake in this battle…but who do you think made the biggest mistake? Why?
  • WHAT IF the British had won this battle?



Comments and feedback welcome.