Take them outside

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If you’re teaching students to read maps and coordinates, this may be of interest. It’s a mix of the children’s board game “Guess Who” and a poor man’s CSI, with a light dose of absurdity.

Students, after hearing of criminal activity on the school grounds must travel to several locations within the school property in order to gather information from witnesses to the crime. At each station, they will be given a new clue about the suspect, such as eye color, hair color, build, height, etc… Using their suspect pool, they engage in a process of elimination until they have collected enough clues to confidently arrest a suspect.


I have provided blank templates, as you will need to head to GoogleMaps to capture a map of your school’s property when you deliver this lesson to students. But don’t worry, I’ll guide you through that process too!

Above is a set of checkpoints that you can place in different locations within the schoolground. Each checkpoint features a witness who provides one clue about our suspect. Students use the information from each witness to, through a process of elimination, determine the prime suspect.

The location of these checkpoint stations is at your discretion.


Now, let’s say you live in Vancouver, BC and you are teaching at Ecole Jules Quesnel Elementary.

Step 1: Type up the school in google maps and you’ll get something that looks like this:Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 2.53.30 PM

Step 2: On the bottom left hand corner of the screen, select the box that says “Earth”, and you will receive a transformed map with many features that students will be able to recognize, as seen below:

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Step 3: If using a Mac Computer, hold down the command, shift and 4 keys, and take a screen shot of your schoolground. This will save a picture of your map to your desktop. The above picture is simply a screenshot taken from google maps.

If you are running on a Windows desktop, click the Windows logo key Windows logo key+PrtScn.

Step 4:  Insert your screenshot into your CSI Template:

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Step 5: As you can see above, the picture is on top of the grid, so that it would be difficult to track the coordinate grid. In the format Picture tab, select the option for the picture to be “Behind Text”. Then move the image into place. The finished product should look something like this:

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Awesome. You now have a map that is set upon a grid of coordinates that students can use to locate many familiar features. You’re almost there. You’ll need to place checkpoint papers in several locations on the school property, and document their grid co-ordinates so you can pass them along to students when they begin their investigation.


When delivering this activity for the first time, I created small cue cards with co-ordinates for each station. Pairs of students would be given the co-ordinates for one checkpoint, and sent of to locate it with the help of their map. The next pair of students would be given a different set of checkpoint coordinates to prevent the grouping of students in a few locations. After collecting the witness information from the checkpoint, students would return to “HeadQuarters” to receive a new set of co-ordinates. This would continue until they had enough information to confidently arrest a suspect based upon witness testimony.

Final Thoughts:

With 30 students in pairs racing across a schoolground, it was easy for students to get a general idea of where checkpoints might be hidden. A quick look across the field to see a group of 4 students huddled around a baseball dugout is enough of a suggestion.

Other options include dividing the class into half, with half completing the CSI investigation and the other working indoors on a separate activity, and then switching. Another option I have considered (within an elementary classroom) is sending out pairs one or two at a time throughout the day, and timing their speed in gathering information to determine “top detectives”.

Soundtrack to a 3rd Year

Teachers love their computers. We rely on word processors, presentation tools, resource websites so much that pens, libraries, and real life peers barely make an appearance as we plan for our lessons. Sweet melodies don’t make an appearance either, but that’s just because sound waves are invisible. iTunes hums constantly, and during my third year of teaching, this is what it hummed:


Ilmar Lapinsch & Mostar Symphony Orchestra – Adagio in G Minor

It makes me feel sophisticated. While working in China, teachers shared office spaces. The large, tiled and concrete walled rooms were terrible for teaching in, but wonderful for listening. And I took great satisfaction when a fellow teacher came into the room when this was wafting over the office.

“This man is an intelligent, sophisticated educator”.

“Yes, I am”.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen


While I like an energetic classroom, sliding back into a room with focused students with some meloncholic ambience being pumped into the room is a real treat. It too makes me feel sophisticated. And as you know, that’s what I am going for in life.


Delta Spirit – California


Trashcan was my introduction. California is the crowning glory. A wonderful build. Faded in, the second verse growing with a pulsating keyboard line. Ah, it makes me want to hop in the car and drive. Not necessarily to California. But not necessarily not.

Dr. Dog – Be the Void

Dr Dog

Let’s compare Dr. Dog with Dawes. While one band has become more bland with passing years, Dr. Dog has reimagined themselves, while maintaining a tidy strand of musical cleverness.  Highlights: “Old Black Hole” and “Do The Trick”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will the Circle Be Unbroken


I like this. In a non-religious way. No, a vaguely religious way. I don’t like reccomending a band called the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band”. I don’t like “Fishing in the Dark”. Highlights: “Will the Circle be Unbroken” “I Saw the Light”.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange


This surprised me. Love it. Very smooth. I didn’t know I liked things this smooth. That’s what happens when you turn 28. Highlight: “Thinkin Bout You”

Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz



Is this an underrated album? It’s few fans favourite, but it has a weight to it that makes his Christmas albums seem, well, kind of stupid. Highlights: “Too Much” “I Walked”

A Day in the Life: We’re Going on a Squeegee Hunt


“We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong there.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

It’s a fine line between an excited and engaged classroom and one of pure chaos. Like Johnny Cash, I walk the line.

It’s Wednesday and I am working as a substitute elementary music teacher in the Langley School District. It is now the afternoon, and I receive another batch of grade 1/2 students to teach. They file into the classroom and take a seat on the carpet.

I have a few lessons that I use when subbing in elementary music classrooms. I have performed them countless times, and they are now nearly entirely scripted.

First on the docket? Try to convince the students that I am their actual teacher, who decided to grow a beard and moustache. This informs the student that I am silly.

“I’m looking for the best criss-cross applesauce this side of the Fraser River.”

Students snap smart. I am silly and serious.

“If you are the first person that I tap on the head, you will stand behind me. If you are the second person that I tap, you will stand behind the person who is standing behind me. If you are the third person that I tap, you will stand behind the person who is standing behind the person, who is standing behind me. If you are the fourth person that I tap, you will stand behind the person who is standing behind the person who is standing behind the person who is standing behind the person who is standing behind me. If you are the fifth person that I tap…” Nevermind, he’s a complete idiot.

Students form into a train and I inform them that “This is a repeat after me song!” while cupping my ear. Some students will get it.

“Are you ready?”
“Are you ready?”


“I’m the teacher!”
“I’m the teacher!”

“No you’re not!”
“No you’re not!”

“Yes I am!”
“Yes I am!”



“There’s only one teacher!”
“There’s only one teacher!”



This continues in similar veins for another minute and serves to confirm that yes, their impressions are correct. Our substitute is pretty dumb. Then…

“We’re goin’ on a squeegee hunt!”
“We’re goin’ on a squeegee hunt!”

“We’re gonna catch a big one!”
“We’re gonna catch a big one!”

“And I’m not afraid…”
“And I’m not afraid…”

On this Wednesday, as we march through the classroom doors onto the field, through the “long wavy grass”, through the “swamp”, through the “brown, hairy mushrooms”, it is clear that I have an imaginative bunch. Students are getting stuck in mud, getting sick from mushrooms, and are generally marching with great fervour.

We finally get to the cave (the corner of the field) and encounter “fierce yellow eyes!” (“fierce yellow eyes!”), “razor sharp claws!” (“razor sharp claws!”), and “ten inch fangs” (“ten inch fangs!).

“IT’S A SQUEEGEE!!!!!!” yells one of the students.

Pure chaos. The class tears back across the field. “Through the mushrooms!…Through the swamp!…Through the grass!” I shuttle the hysterical students through the outside door and towards the classroom. I look out onto the field. Oh man. Some are way into this. The field is spotted with straggling students. Nick is dragging himself through the “swamp” by his elbows, while Ethan is sprawled out dead weight being pulled along by two would-be heroes who cannot bear him to be taken by the squeegee. I have no idea what is happening in my classroom.

“Let’s go! He’s right behind you!”

A few give up and race across the field. Nick is still really into this.

“Nick, let’s go!”

He continues to slither on his belly.

“NICK! Come on!”

Now he’s crawling.


He finally gets up and jogs through the doors.

By the time I join the rest of the students in our music room, most are wide-eyed, hidden underneath tables and chairs, bookshelves and instruments.

“Whoa.That was a close one. I’ve never seen a squeegee that close…some say that squeegees can be pretty dangerous, but I have also heard that there are friendly ones as well. I wonder which type that one was.”

“Unfriendly!” the students chorus.

A knock comes from the door. Students, bug-eyed, look at one another. Could it be?

I ignore the calls of “Don’t open it!” and slowly make my way to the door. I look down in surprise. “It’s the squeegee! And it’s a friendly one!” I say as I pick up the imaginary creature.

I slowly walk into the classroom. The denouement has arrived and order will be restored with a friendly imaginary creature.

“IT BIT MY LEG!!!!” Howls Emma. She emits an ear-piercing scream which is joyfully taken up by all the other students. Some, who had tentatively emerged from their hiding places, are now running around in circles and throwing themselves on the ground. Pure chaos. I hang my head. The walls are thin.

“Ok! Ok! A little quieter! Back to the carpet! Criss-cross applesauce!”

After a bit of authoritative buzz-killing, they have made their way to the carpet. Apparently squeegees have babies really quickly and they might be able to take home their own squeegee baby by the end of the class.

This settles things down. As students line up, they hold out their hands to receive a squeegee baby which eats, alternatively, “grass”, “mostly vegetables”, or “survives on being played with”.

Elementary music class.

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Historical Thinking Off the Beaten Path – What really happened the night Sam Cooke died?

“I was in Los Angeles with Sam Cooke the night he was shot. We were out at that club together … Later that night at my hotel, my friend calls and tells me Sam’s been shot. I thought he was joking. ‘Sam wasn’t shot, man. I just left him.’ It was no joke.” – Solomon Burke

The night that Sam Cooke died was just a little darker than other nights. Just a little murkier. I was introduced to Cooke in my early twenties and fell in love with the silk-voiced, smooth-operating crooner who sang simple love ditties with such aplomb. Sam made a career singing innocence:

“Don’t know much geography Don’t know much trigonometry Don’t know much about algebra Don’t know what a slide rule is for But I know that one and one is two And if this one could be with you What a wonderful this would be”

Only years later did someone tip me off on the fact that Sam’s death was, well, rather unlike his music. The high-rolling singer, clothed only in a topcoat, was shot dead in a $3/night motel. Allegations swirled, and explanations seemed, and perhaps still seem inadequate.

In the previous post, I spoke about how not all historical investigations are equal in their potential to engage. Some are filled with mystery, drama, and gossip, while others can be characterized for there lack there-off. Investigating the death of Sam Cooke falls in the former category. It is all gossip, drama, and mystery.

I have been unable to track down actual witness testimony presented in the police investigation that followed, however below are several sources that certainly have the potential to engage students not only with the story of how Sam Cooke died, but also engage students in grappling with the problematic nature of evidence and interpretation.  (If you can help in this regard, that would be wonderful!)

As with any investigation, I heartily recommend that prior to completing this exercise, students be introduced to the historical thinking benchmark of evidence/interpretation (as articulated in Teaching About Historical Thinking / The Big Six / The Historical Thinking Project).

Not All Historical Investigations Are Created Equal

Or perhaps more accurately, not all are historical investigations have the same potential to engage learners.

Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout | http://goo.gl/WGmL0B

Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout | http://goo.gl/WGmL0B

I approach the teaching of history from a historical thinking approach. I do so because I believe that the skills practiced and  developed through such an approach are valuable and necessary to create thoughtful and reasonable humans. But I also use this approach because I feel that it is an approach that has greater potential to engage student’s imaginations than what is traditionally trotted out in the history classroom.

However not all historical thinking challenges have this same potential.

Admittedly, the framing of a question is so very important as an entrance point for students. “Should the Halifax Explosion be considered a significant event” has an almost conspiratorial, vaguely confrontational tone, as though we were being given a challenge…”Prove it.” And that’s good. Certainly better than, “What makes the Halifax Explosion a historically significant event?” Comparing two events and asking which is more significant can also be fruitful, particularly when connected to a real world situation such as arguing for the topic’s inclusion in a museum exhibit, a commemorative stamp, or allocation of funds for centennial celebration.

Tim Lomas suggested that the historical thinking challenges with the best potential to engage learners combine the best elements of a soap opera and a detective stories. These tend to engage the imagination in ways that others do not. In my mind, “Identify the continuities and changes in the types of employment engaged in by Chinese Canadians from 1875 to 1910, and 1910 to 1947,” Does not feature those qualities, and will fail to engage my student’s imagination (and most certainly mine).”Who should be held responsible for causing the Regina Riot in 1935?”, does. And while the former investigation will provide rich information and valuable practice, it is unlikely that I will choose to feature that investigation in my class.

In the examples that I have provided, you may notice that not all of my preferred historical investigations are soap operas and whodunits. Others perhaps could best be described as simply controversial, and requiring a fairly weighty judgment. When we can’t find the soap opera in the history, perhaps we can create it in our classroom in the form of a fiery debate!

As well, I admit that the above argument also relies heavily on my own topical preferences when studying history. For those who have eyes, show me what I am missing in the historical challenges I avoid!

What historical investigations have you found particularly engaging for your students? Why do you think they had such pull?

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What truly is “active” learning?

“Who on earth could be against active, meaningful learning and in favour of passive, meaningless learning?” – Kieren Egan, Getting it Wrong from the Beginning

We misuse words. All the time. Several years ago, Grant Wiggins illustrated this when he investigated the conflating of strategies/tactics/skills within literacy education. I, like Grant, enjoy clarity of language. And in education, well, clarity is sometimes rare (another favourite?  Problem-based learning, inquiry learning, and project-based learning are often used interchangeably, or even simultaneously, ie. “I am really excited about project-based learning, and so my Social Studies 10 class is engaging in problem-based inquiry learning challenges.”)

Another problematic set of terms was brought to my attention when reading Kieren Egan’s book Getting it Wrong from the Beginning.  His illumination of how teachers understand active learning as opposed to passive learning was particularly striking:

“What does it mean to distinguish forms of learning as active and passive? Well, at one level we all know: they are terms used to distinguish lifeless, inert, boring practices from their opposite. But why “active” and “passive”?” (66)

What teachers typically understand as active is more simply, physically active learning in the classroom. That is, ‘hands-on’, bodily kinesthaetic focused activities: hands-on, bodily kinesthetic focused activities: manipulating cubes, tableaux/skits, model building, laboratory work.

And this is understandable. Egan notes that “we can see physical engagement better than intellectual, there is a tendency to move increasingly in that direction.”  And while “active” still carries connotations of constructive, imagination-triggering, and meaning-making activity, the label often only gets placed on learning activities in which we can see physical activity. And because the alternative is passive learning, and by that we mean, rote, transmissive, boring, lifeless, etc… a classroom filled with physically active students is necessarily a superior learning environment.

However this is problematic on several levels. “Is that child sitting and reading active or passive? Is the child imaginatively transported by a story the teacher is telling active or passive?” (66) The students don’t seem be visibly doing much at all.  For another example, imagine students investigating primary sources related to the cancelling of the Avro Arrow. They read around the document, assess perspective, corroborate sources, build historical hypotheses and conclusions, support them with evidence. Visibly students seem far more “passive” than those creating skits, model-building, manipulating cubes…In fact an observer may be disappointed to see students sitting in rows, studying silently but for the rustle of papers. Yet I would argue that these students, even in the still quiet are engaged in exemplary active learning. Hands-on does not necessarily mean minds-on (Wiggins doing some heavy lifting in this post), and minds-on does not necessarily mean hands-on.

Moreover, an “active” classroom can hide truly “passive” activities. In guiding students in their reviewing for upcoming summative assessments I often use what many call “Person Bingo”. In this activity, students have a 4×4 chart filled with various questions. Students move about the room, asking their peers if they can provide an answer to one of the questions. Each of the question squares must be answered by a different student in the class.

When an observer views the classroom, it is active.  Students are milling around the room, some with eager energy, while some congregate in large groups sharing their answers. The atmosphere is often loud, and filled with on-topic conversation. But this is not truly active learning. In fact, it is profoundly passive and transmissive.

We need to dig a little deeper past what is easily observed, and assess the actual activity being performed. While the questions could be higher order questions, for the most part when I lead this type of activity, the questions are simply questions of memorization; inert facts that they are not used for any greater purpose than passing the Social Studies 11 Final Exam! Students are not engaging in any higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. But. It looks active.

We should be looking past mere appearances to assess whether or not an activity is meaningful, imagination triggering, and, well, truly active.

A boring book which does not activate the mind…

An engrossing book which activates the mind with questions, connections, emotions of hopes and fears…

An unimaginative lecture, dry, and dull lecture…

An engaging lecture which activates the mind with new insights, connections and questions…

Even the activities with great potential for truly active learning (not like the activity that I described previously) can go awry. Egan points out that even John Dewey noted that “mere activity does not constitute experience” and that the “educative value of manual activities and laboratory exercises, as well as play, depends upon the extent in which they aid in bringing about a sense of meaning of what is going on” (67).

Caution before we praise, and caution before we criticize. Appearances can be deceiving.

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Teachers love their computers. We rely on word processors, presentation tools, resource websites so much that pens, libraries, and real life peers barely make an appearance as we plan for our lessons. Sweet melodies don’t make an appearance either, but that’s just because sound waves are invisible. iTunes hums constantly, and during my second year of teaching, this is what it hummed:

DAWES | Stories Don’t End







Having been hooked on Nothing is Wrong like an IV in my first year of teaching, it comes as no surprise that Stories Don’t End held my attention with similar power. Perhaps a little more rock’n’roll than Americana now, Dawes still produces wonderfully crafted stories that do not fail to pull me in through their lyrical quality. Typically the words being sung are a second concern. With Dawes, Musicality and lyricism sit together on the same bar. And that bar is a very high one.

Highlights: From A Window Seat, Hey Lover, Bear Witness

DOUG PAISLEY | Constant Companion / Strong Feelings / Doug Paisley

When I began listening heavily to Doug Paisley this year, I felt it to be a watershed moment. I was turning into country music fan, and Doug was my gateway drug. A wonderful light drawl, enough pop sensibility to keep me hooked, and some lo-fi production to remind of my K Records obsessions. How could I be expected to resist.

Highlights: No One But You, Broken in Two, Radio Girl

JOHN PRINE | In Spite of Ourselves / Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings

John Prine writes Dease Lake. Or any other tiny town. When you live in a town with a population of 400 “In a Town This Size” resonates.

“In a town this size there is no place to hide,
everywhere you go you meet someone you know,
you can’t steal a kiss in a place like this,
how the rumours do fly, in a town this size.”

More generally, he sings with a firmly placed tongue in his cheek, with a sly  sense of humor willing to take on getting caught smelling a partner’s underwear, and how convict movies make that same partner particularly horny. That only flies in, well, a town this size.

Highlights: Same Thing Happened To Me / In Spite of Ourselves / In A Town This Size

BOB DYLAN | The Essential Bob Dylan

At this point, I feel no shame in buying “Best of” or “Essential” albums. The time has come and gone for me to have been relevant, and while I know some evangelist will assail me with warnings of how I am missing out on the truly essential deep cuts, I’ll just take the cream at the top with everybody else. I didn’t grow up with Dylan, and I scoffed as a teenager at Rosanne Baartman for loving the nasally singer, but I humble myself now, and listen to the voice of a generation often. As curated by, well, I don’t know who curates these things.

I should also mention that after suffering through High Fidelity, I immediately downloaded “Most of the Time” from Dylan’s Oh Mercy album. Daniel Lanois’ fingerprints are all over it. And that’s a good thing.

Highlights: Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright / Lay Lady Lay / Maggie’s Farm


I lost this album weeks after I purchased it. That was about 5 years ago, and so plugged in through the internet and iTunes I purchased the album once again. It is truly a remarkable album. John Darnielle recounts stories from his childhood and youth, with special honesty, painting a harrowing, and yet hopeful picture.

Highlights: Broom People, This Year, Love Love Love

Honorable Mentions:

ARCADE FIRE | Reflektor
DAMIEN JURADO | Saint Bartlett
THE STAVES | The Motherlode

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[The writing below is based upon exhaustive research gathered from the first four instalments of the Harry Potter series. These books include Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.]

In my previous post assessing the teaching of Professor Cuthbert Binns (Professor of History at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry), I focused mostly on the classroom climate and the dominant method of teaching which Proffessor Binns employs. In this second and last installment I will turn towards the work assigned to students in the History of Magic classroom, as well as Professor Binns understanding of historiography.


The work that Professor Binns assigns to his students is only marginally more engaging than his regular lessons, more harangue than anything else. It is not surprising that in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ron Weasley measures his assignment not on thoughtfulness or insight but on how long it is. “Professor Binns had asked for a three foot long composition on ‘The Medieval Assembly of European Wizards.’” Modelled after Binns’ approach to the lecture, Ron plans to gut it out, talk for long enough until the bell rings, or the parchment reaches 3 feet long, and stop.  Mr. Binns, with all due respect, this is one of the worst type of research question you could ask. It is not asking for original thought, but simply asking for students to search through the conclusions of other historians, cobbling together a mess of regurgitated information that reaches longer than 3 feet. Even with my limited knowledge of medieval wizarding assemblies, the assignment could easily be transformed into a more meaning and thoughtful assignment by asking instead:

“What was the most important contribution of The Medieval Assembly of European Wizards?” Or “To what extent did The Medieval Assembly of European contribute to peace in the wizarding world?” Both of these would at least require students to take a position, and do their best to defend that position with sound evidence. With this approach, inert facts become enlivened with purpose, as the different outcomes of each Medieval Assembly can be used to either support or undermine a position.

However educators should also be somewhat concerned at the lack of support and scaffolding Binns offers his students. At the outset of Harry Potter Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry labors over an essay assigned to him by Professor Binns. “Witch-Burning in the Fourteenth Century was Completely Useless – discuss”

The question is actually a marked improvement from previous History of Magic work which Harry, Ron, and Hermione have been tasked to complete. It is a statement that requires evaluating, and must be answered in the affirmative or negative, and we would assume, backed up through the use of historical evidence. It is, in this sense, a critical thinking, or historical thinking question. I am happy to see Binns looking for evidence based conclusions rather than the typical mechanistic recall questions typically given to students. 

But of course, think of how much more profound and rich such an investigation could be if Binns had provided students with appropriate steps and scaffolding to structure their inquiry. Primary sources from both the Muggle and Wizard world could have been provided for students (surely the Daily Prophet would have reported such attacks on wizards…was the printing press invented in the wizard-world by then?) along with an appropriate Blackline Master which could assist students in organizing sources. Certainly excellent lessons in dealing with conflicting evidence, corroborating sources (between both worlds) are ripe for presentation at this juncture. Instead, Harry heads to his Adalbert Waffling authored copy of A History of Magic and reads up on Wendelin the Weird, who delighted in being burned at the stake so much that she “allowed herself to be caught no fewer than forty-seven times in various disguises” (a Flame-Freezing charm allowed her to cheat death each time, if you are curious). 


In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Binns experiences one of his most attentive audiences. This attentiveness however, is not a result of his careful planning and teaching.

In this instance, Hermione Granger asks our professor about the Chamber of Secrets. Everyone wakes up, but Binns does not bite. “My subject is History of Magic…I deal with facts, Miss Granger, not myths and legends.”

Granger, insightful student that she is, queries Binns on myths and legends, and how most have some basis in factual events. Binns concedes, but ever entrenched, states “the legend of which you speak is such a very sensational, even ludicrous tale…” 

At this point, it is noted that the entire class is entranced, displaying a focus which Binns is entirely thrown out of sorts by. He eventually tells what he knows of the factual evidence of a rift between Helga Hufflepuff, Godric Gryffindor, Rowena Ravenclaw and Salazar Slytherin, but is keen to differentiate when the evidential trail, well, trails off. The students, keen conspiracy-theorists, point out some gaps, but Binns puts the kibosh on the discussion with an emphatic, “I regret telling you such a foolish story! We will return, if you please, to history, to solid, believable, verifiable fact…” within five minutes, the class had sunk back into its “usual torpor.” [original emphasis]

In regards to his approach to historical evidence, Binns receives a mixed grade. Through the discussion, he does make an effort to distinguish between myth and history, the latter being founded upon evidence based research, and he should be commended for this. His skepticism in the face of gripping and enticing stories is also commendable. While our conspiracy students are proven right in the end of the book, Binns desire for verifiable evidence in the face of wild conjecture is admirable, and where a historian’s heart (and mind) should be.  

At the same time, his portrayal of history being “solid, believable, verifiable fact” is particularly limited and leaves something to be desired. At no time does Binns make use of the word interpretation, a word just as central to the study of history as his “facts”. The creation of history is the process of interpretation, weighting, and valuing of evidence. It is just as much picking and choosing facts to support conclusions, as it is about the facts themselves. 

It’s a shame that such an engaging subject as history is so often subjected to an approach which robs it of its educational power. Binns’ classes are the gold standard for boredom (repeated in each book), his assignments are lacking in purpose and engaging pull, and his limited understanding of historiography limits his ability to enliven his classroom. Ironically, the Chamber of Secrets is proven to be a verifiable fact at the conclusion of the second book in the Potter series. Poor Binns.

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[The writing below is based upon exhaustive research gathered from the first four instalments of the Harry Potter series. These books include Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.]

Art imitates life. Even in a fictional story of a boy wizard at magic school, the history classroom is the least inspiring in all of Hogwarts.


JK Rowling, speaking omnisciently describes the Hogwarts student’s opinions of their history class and teacher in the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone: “Easily the most boring lesson was History of Magic, which was the only class taught by a ghost…[Professor] Binns droned on and on while they scribbled down names and dates and got Emeric the Evil and Uric the Oddball mixed up.” (99 Philosophers Stone) 

Not content to let this introduction be the only evidence of the class’ dull character, she continues to pile on in the second instalment of the 7-book series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

“History of Magic was the dullest subject on their timetable. Professor Binns, who taught it, was their only ghost teacher, and the most exciting thing that ever happened in his classes was his entering the room through the blackboard. Ancient and shrivelled, many people said he hadn’t noticed he was dead…

Today was as boring as ever. Professor Binns opened his notes and began to read in a flat drone like an old vacuum cleaner until nearly everyone in the class was in a deep stupor, occasionally coming round long enough to copy down a name or date, then falling asleep again. He had been speaking for half an hour when something happened that had never happened before. Hermione put up her hand…” 

At the hand raise, Binns, who had been in the middle of a “deadly dull lecture on the International Warlock Convention of 1289,” is said to look genuinely “amazed.”

The history classroom even in a magical wizarding world is as dry and unappealing as a Hagrid-baked rock cake. Binns, as a teacher is responsible for the level of engagement in his classroom. The most exciting subject can, in the wrong hands, become a plodding hike, and the seemingly dull and dry can be enlivened into a gripping bit of learning. Binns’ approach to education (based upon the anecdotal evidence offered by our books heroes) is one-dimensional, and his one dimension is an approach that tends to relegate student interest and engagement to the sidelines.

Binns relies heavily, if not entirely  upon a transmission approach to education. It is an approach heavy on narration, and in Professor Binns case, heavy with first-order historical knowledge. Concrete, and factual. In his second chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire lays a heavy critique upon this approach. He states:

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient listening objects (the students). The contents…tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness.

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable…His task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration — contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance…

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teachers she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

And yet the lecture can be an important pillar in the history classroom. Historical Thinking and second-order concepts in history are not antithetical to first-order information in a history education. They support one another. One pillar without the other leaves students somewhat crippled in their ability to “do” good history. A lack of first order knowledge prevents any real depth in second order thinking, and strong first order knowledge without second-order thinking leaves students naive to what history truly is. The lecture, when presented in a clear and engaging manner, is a very efficient means of communicating information needed to backdrop student’s historical thinking investigations.

Binns’ heavy reliance on a single pedagogical tool  limits his ability to create a stimulating, and ultimately meaningful classroom. His delivery of first-order content through lecture limits students understanding of the past, myth, and history, and prevents them from developing the crucial skills of interpreting, analyzing and using information about past events. With a membership to Toastmasters, and a few Historical Thinking Summer Institutes, perhaps Binns could reinvent his classroom into one that rivals Transfiguration in popularity.

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Using GoogleNews To Find Primary Sources

Creating primary source based historical thinking challenges can be challenging. Finding an appropriate number of grade-appropriate sources that are meaningfully connected (and can be meaningfully connected by students) is a difficult task. I have listed previously a selection of primary source readers for Canadian history here, and documented some useful primary source databases here, however I wanted to direct your attention to a very useful (and free) service that exists just under our noses, that often goes unnoticed.

Google News Archive was once a very easy to use service. However in the spring of 2011, Google began to slowly bury the archive side project, making it more challenging to access newspapers from the past.

Once upon a time you could simply head to Google.com, enter your search term, and select “News” in the search categories bar, and select a date range for your results, quickly sorting through thousands of newspaper articles to focus on date appropriate newspapers that featured your selected keywords.

For instance you might enter the search term “Robert Borden+Versailles” in the search bar, select “News” from the search categories bar, and select a date range from October 1918 – July 1919. Any newspaper from this date range which featured the desired keywords would be displayed. It was quick, easy and intuitive.

The adaptations made by Google were frustrating, as the archives were once a tidy portrait of the last centuries, quickly accessed with a key search term and keen use of search tools. However, it still exists, and can be used with just a little more effort, and is still an exceptionally useful for the historian and history teacher.


Let’s imagine that we want to create a historical thinking challenge on the subject of the Avro Arrow. We may originally want to ask students to determine what the most significant reasons were for its dissolution, or perhaps go further and ask them whether or not the project should have been cancelled.

With GoogleNews Archive’s new format, you now need to head to a more specific location:



Once there you will need to select a specific newspaper to peruse. For example, I have used the Find Command (⌘F – On Mac) to select the Ottawa Citizen, always a beacon of journalistic integrity, no?

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After selecting the Ottawa Citizen, I will need to sort through near 16,000 issues archived. Fortunately, users can choose to research by decade, and then further by year, and month (see example below). I know that the Arrow project was cancelled in February of 1959, so I am going to make my way towards that period to see what kind of coverage the Citizen gave to the cancellation.


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Month / Day:

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On the final screenshot, it is easy to zone in on the cover stories for February 19th and 20th, days in which the cancelling of the Arrow project was announced. A simple click will bring you to each of those editions, seen below:

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From here, it is a matter of reading these sources and determining whether they will be relevant for your purposes.

What was once a simple search has turned into a somewhat more complicated process, however the end result of useful primary sources for your classroom is still available. There are many considerations at play when presenting primary sources to students. I reccomend using books such as Teaching About Historical Thinking, The Big Six, or the lesser known Teaching and Assessing Historical Thinking to guide your use of primary sources in the classroom.