History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Author: mas17@brown.edu

2012 Leadership Institute

Choices just completed its 2012 Summer Leadership Institute, which centered around the Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy unit.  We welcomed twenty-three exceptional teachers from across the country.  These new Choices Teaching Fellows are now planning outreach activities in their schools and at many state conferences.  Visit our Upcoming Workshops page to see if a Choices workshop will be held at an event near you. We hope to receive your application for our 2013 Summer Leadership Institute! Details will be available in January.


Choices Teaching Fellows

2012 Choices Teaching Fellows


Choices Teaching Fellows met with students from 14 countries in the Middle East and North Africa to talk together about Arab Spring.



The U.S. in Afghanistan unit in a Comparative Philosophy of War Class

By Guest Blogger Lisa Carter
Choices Teaching Fellow, Housatonic Valley Regional High School, NY

We have just completed the Afghanistan unit in an honors level seniors course, “The Comparative Philosophy of War”. We spent the semester studying attitudes about fighting wars throughout history and ended the course with an in-depth look at the war in Afghanistan. My students LOVED the unit. We began our study with a field trip to NYC where we visited the 9/11 memorial and then the United Nations where we had a special briefing on Afghanistan by Kieran Dwyer, a member of the Peacekeeping staff.

We followed the unit as is written and used the supplemental materials as well as the Scholars Online videos. The “Looking at Afghanistan” lesson was extremely successful in terms of identifying students’ impressions about Afghanistan. There was a lot of great discussion and they realized just how much they had to learn about the details of the country before they could begin to really understand the situation there. My students did not have any difficulty with the reading materials and there was much animated class discussion throughout the unit.

We watched the films Human Terrain, Restrepo and clips of Charlie Wilson’s War. I plan to include Afghan Star next year. The films, along with the Scholars Online videos, were extremely important in helping students understand different aspects of the war as well as the Afghan culture.

I took about three weeks to complete the unit in a modified block schedule. This is a ten-day rotation where I see the students for seven meetings. Four meetings are 48 minutes long and three are 72 minutes long. The 72-minute blocks were the most interesting as we could combine film and discussion in a comfortable amount of time.

The role play was excellent. The students were so well prepared and had become so curious about the details of the war and life in Afghanistan that many began to follow the war more closely in the media and they conducted some of their own research about Afghanistan and the war. They could speak to the complexity of the political, geopolitical, cultural and economic aspects of each option. Those students who were the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked great questions as well.

I give a survey to students at the end of this course and nearly every student cited the Choices units as the best part of the class. (We also used Responding to Terrorism in September). I look forward to teaching this unit again next year!

Using Choices in the Middle School Classroom

By guest blogger Caitlin Moore, Excel Academy Charter School

I just finished teaching a unit on foreign policy for an 8th grade government class at a high performing urban charter school in East Boston, Massachusetts. It serves 210 middle school students from primarily East Boston and Chelsea. Approximately 72% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and approximately 55% speak a language other than English at home.

My students and I had a fantastic time learning about the tools of foreign policy and how U.S. foreign policy has changed over time. One major benefits of this unit was that it provided middle school students with a memorable broad overview of U.S. history that should provide a better foundation for the many details in their high school classes. In addition this provided a fantastic introduction to key vocabulary that will help in any future social studies class as well as in understanding current events in the world today (isolate, neutral, deterrence, terrorism, aid, sanction, treaty, negotiation, compromise).

At the core of this three-week unit were modified Choices materials. We completed two modified options role plays – one on the Challenge to the New Republic: the War of 1812 and one on The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons. Below is a description of few ways that I used ideas, texts and activities provided by Choices to create this experience. I hope that some of them are useful to other middle school teachers.

1. Teaching about Values and Interests: I spent two class periods at the beginning of the government course exploring the idea and interest. The pay off was huge – students would refer to this idea throughout the course and it provided an easy yet rich framework for them to analyze political decisions. Below are a few middle school specific tricks.

a. Explicitly teach the concept of Values and Interests and their characteristics. While the values themselves have multiple meanings, I found it helpful to define the difference between values and interests. I used the short definitions below as well as listed explicitly the characteristics of values and interests (for example, people sometimes believe opposing values; interests are often easier to identify; people often justify their actions using values).

Values – What is important to a group of people
Interests – What will benefit a group of people (you can attach a price tag to interests)
Laws – The rules of a country, what is allowed and forbidden.
Morals – What a group of people considers to be right

In addition to providing explicit notes I also created a mini-scenario in which a person has to choose between spending $5 dollars at Burger King or donating the money to save the environment. We played around with this idea using different values and practicing the vocabulary.

b. Play with the concept of values often. My students really enjoyed using their value cards to play the simple card game ‘War.’ One student would place a Values card down. They would then try to convince each other which value was more important. Whoever ‘won’ each round got to keep the cards. Whoever had the most cards at the end of time — 2 -8 min seemed to work– won the game. In their desire to win, students practiced using the language of values in a context free environment. This made it easier to evaluate the same values when discussing subjects like the War of 1812 or nuclear weapons. When disagreements got heated it was fun to have a pair present their argument and have the whole class vote on which was more convincing).

2. Using the Options Role Play. The options role play is what makes Choices so fantastic – especially with middle school students who love to discuss and perform. The assigned role-play positions are extremely helpful because it makes middle schoolers feel like they are engaged in a doable challenge. Instead of trying to develop their own position, they can devote their energy to finding specific evidence, making their argument understandable to their peers, and building on each others’ points (three major middle school skills). Below are a few tricks that worked for me:

a. Making positions accessible. The language in the positions is challenging and does require small modifications so that all students can access it. At the 8th grade level, I photocopied the ‘options in brief’ for students and had them analyze this small piece of text in terms of values, interests, key points, and summary of position. I found sentence starters/frames such as the following to be very helpful:

A person who believes this position values _____________________ because____.

A person who believes this position would be willing to sacrifice that value of _______________ for ____________.

A person who believes this position would never allow____________________.

A person who believes this position is afraid of/that___________________________.

A person who believes this position would be will to negotiate or compromise on the topic of __________________________.

A person who believes this position thinks it is necessary for ________________________ to happen or else __________.

Then for homework I gave students the full option summary as well as the beliefs and arguments. The accompanying questions required students to do a fair amount of summarizing in their own words as well as evaluate their strongest arguments by circling them and reading them out loud (signature required) in a convincing way. The time investment to help students understand, articulate, and ‘own’ their positions definitely paid off in the role play.

b. Setting students up with background knowledge. For me, this was the most intimidating step of using Choices. There was so much fantastic information in the units, but I felt overwhelmed (at first) in trying to figure out what I needed to communicate with students so they would have a successful options role play. In addition, the text font size and layout is geared to high school students. Below are some strategies that allowed my students to access the ideas in the text:

  • Read the options roles first, and then backwards plan the important information. After reading the options in brief I summarized the discussion for myself in 1 to 2 sentences. Then I went back through the information and only used sections that most directly related to the discussion.
  • Use the primary source quotations throughout the text. These were so well chosen that I was always able to create mini-synthesis activities around them. They are so easy to find in the text (bold, large, italics) that I could easily find and then recopy them into my own worksheet. In addition, students were able to weave them into the debate which helped reinforce the need for high quality quotations in all types of discussion/writing (not just for English class).
  • Use the Scholars Online. These short videos were well organized and students felt so smart listening to experts talk about each topic. We enjoyed watching them together as a class. There was a huge added benefit in the fact that we could re-watch the most complicated ones and work together to take notes. It allowed me to coach their listening and note taking skills much more easily than when I am delivering notes at the front of the room.

c. The Options Role Play itself. I think that any format that you use for the role play (Socratic Seminar, Harkness Discussion, Model Congress/Model United Nations, Debate) will work. I chose to use the parliamentary procedure of Model UN because that is what I felt most comfortable with. One of my colleagues always uses debates when doing a modified options role play with her 6th grade students. With clear positions and an arsenal of high quality evidence and quotations, it’s hard to go wrong. I think that any format that your students are already used to will work.

Values and Public Policy: Helping Students Make the Connection

An examination of the values that motivated historical actors is an important part of understanding history. I think one of the most effective elements of Choices materials is the role play that calls on students to first observe the values of historical actors, and then to articulate the values that underlie their proposed option for a contested international issue.

I use the values activity in the Shifting Sands: Balancing U.S. Interests in the Middle East unit in my semester long International Relations class. I first elicit from students (10th-12th graders) the values that they subscribe to and that they think should ideally underlie their own policy option for how the U.S. should interact with the Middle East.

After we discuss the concept of values and identify the values inherent in the four policy options that students are assigned to role play, they are ready to articulate the values that they would draw on to create their own U.S. policy towards the Middle East. In creating their own option, they must demonstrate their understanding of the history of U.S. relations with countries in the Middle East. This year students wrote a U.S. policy towards Libya, just as the U.S. was deciding on its level of involvement in this new regional flare up.

With all of the Choices units I’ve used, students have always commented that they learn more when they have to defend an option they normally wouldn’t support. This makes students more aware of the notion of competing perspectives and points of view in creating policy.

In sum, Choices materials help cultivate a habit of value-based decision making that’s based on a reflection of the values of historical actors, but also forces students’ self reflection on their own values.

How do you use the Values Activity found in many Choices units? What do your students say about the activity?

Posted by guest blogger Kevin Conlon, Francis Parker School, Chicago

Maine Teachers Use “Protests, Revolutions, and Democratic Change” TWTN Lesson for Innovative Project

Media coverage of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world – collectively known as the Arab Spring – has captured the world’s attention. Amy Sanders (Social Studies teacher) and Cathy Wolinsky (Instructional Technology Integrator) at Yarmouth High School in Yarmouth, Maine, seek classroom partners for a collaborative study of the Arab Spring. The project, modeled after the Flat Classroom Project, will begin in early October and last approximately one month. Utilizing the CHOICES Teaching with the News lesson, “Protests, Revolutions, and Democratic Change,” the project envisions students working in international collaborative teams to learn more about the protest movements in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Students also will be asked to reflect on what they have learned and connect this to their experiences with democracy. If you would like to join the project or would like more information, please visit: http://arabspring.wikispaces.com/ or contact Amy Sanders at amy_sanders@yarmouthschools.org.

The Teaching Profession in 2030

The Teacher Leaders Network (TLN) is a network of highly accomplished teacher leaders from across the nation who are dedicated to student success and the transformation of teaching into a true profession.

Not to be missed on their website is a 5 minute, quirky video A Look at TEACHING 2030. A Look at TEACHING 2030 is visually attractive, innovative and offers several new ideas such as “teacherpreneurs.” What do you think about the ideas presented here? What should the teaching profession look like in the 2030?

More Resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan

As Choices prepares for our Summer Institute on Afghanistan, and as Afghanistan and Pakistan take center stage in the news again, here are some additional resources that teachers may find useful.
  1. A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009) – This book contains all of the facts found in a textbook, paired with the human stories, side notes and interesting tidbits that make history fascinating. If you like this book by Afghan-American writer and commentator Tamim Ansary, you may enjoy his site on Afghanistan, where he offers his thoughts and a weekly summary of the news from Afghanistan.
  2. Homeland Afghanistan – This is a comprehensive, impressive website that explores the geopolitical and cultural heritage of Afghanistan.  Teachers can search by themes, eras or highlights.   It includes time lines, videos and primary source documents.
  3. Afghanistan: A Short History of its Peoples and Politics by Martin Ewans.  (2002)  I find this book to contain just enough background to understand the people and history of the region, yet not so detailed that one is overwhelmed.
  4. An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot (1999)  and The Places in Between by Rory Stewart (2006)  are two wonderfully written travelogues. Each one does an excellent job of providing students  with a sense of the physical and human landscape of Afghanistan.   Through their writings, the difficulties faced by the average person and the challenges the country faces as a whole become vivid and real to the reader.  Literature and social studies teachers could pair excerpts from either book with the photo collection found at Afghanistan: A Year in Photos for a visually rich introduction to Afghanistan.
  5. A Crisis Guide to Pakistan – Produced by the Council on Foreign Relations, this site includes an overview, timeline, Five Possible Futures and a list of additional resources.  An excellent resource.

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