Into the Unknown: Lessons learned so far

Like most every other educator in America, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our method of teaching. Practically overnight, we have been forced to become tech-savvy gurus. Having received training from Harper College and taught online classes there, I was in a bit of a better position when it came time for distance learning with my high school students. After reflecting on the first two weeks, I have made a short set of slides of my best practices. I hope this will help you all.

NCSS Annual Conference: An incredible opportunity for inspiration and information

Along with thousands of other social studies educators and professionals, I went to the 2018 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Annual Conference in Chicago. Like ICSS Conferences, NCSS brought together experts in the social studies and history to lead sessions for educators. The big difference is the size and, as a result, the number of options.

“Even Clarence agreed with me.”

– Anthony Ray Hinton, discussing the unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn his wrongful conviction for murder.

After arriving bright and early on Friday morning, I headed to a discussion by Anthony Ray Hinton. For those of you unfamiliar with Hinton, he was falsely imprisoned and sentences to death row. Only after a successful appeal to the Supreme Court were his charges dropped. Obviously, the speech addressed the many wrongs by society that left him sentenced to death for a crime that he had nothing to do with. However, even more thought provoking were his efforts to humanize his fellow inmates in a most inhumane setting – a book club which gave death row inmates far more exposure to literature than many had received in school where most dropped out by the 8th grade. Speaking of book clubs, Hinton’s autobiography recently hit the jackpot when it was selected by Oprah as a must read.  That evening I read the copy of his autobiography that I got signed, “The Sun Does Shine” and found that I agreed with Oprah. It was inspiring and Hinton’s humor brought an unexpected amount of joy into a tale that seems at first to be simply a downer. Make sure to find it your local library or buy it using this link.

Later on, I joined other educators interested in US-Canadian History at “Pathways of Change: Natives and French in the Great Lakes” by Professor José António Brandão of Western Michigan University. He addressed the French influence and domination of eastern Illinois and other parts of the “pays d’en haut” into the mid-1700s. Through the use of maps both from the time and contemporary, we witnessed the growth of New France from a few thousand Europeans around Montreal to a fur trading empire that stretched far west through the largely (but not always) friendly trades with Native Americans for their furs. He emphasized the experiences of these Native Americans through much of the lecture which was great since it showed that France’s century of success was largely a result of the agency of these indigenous nations. I had never known so much about this history, but it inspired to research it further and found some great information on local history associated with this period on the Evanston History Center website

Finally, I attended a series of other amazing lectures both later that afternoon and the next day. From NPR host Peter Sagal‘s discussion of what he felt is a very dark time in presidential history and his core beliefs

This I Believe:

  1. Conversations Convert
  2. Power does not listen
  3. Fart Jokes Heal
  4. Democracy is a Religion
  5. Everything is Evitable

-Peter Sagal

to a data analysis heavy explanation of where the economy is 10 years after the Great Recession by Federal Reserve analysts. Along the way, I was given ten tools to help promote literacy in the classroom by an organizer of National History Day and shown methods to engage all learned including those with disabilities. 

My experience here was amazing, and I encourage other social studies educator to look out for future opportunities to attend NCSS conference. In the meantime, consider attending ICSS’s local conference this spring. It will feature many great resources to build your teaching skills and it is practically free in comparison to NCSS!

ar west

Presenting at the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies

Sorry for the radio silence. Since I last wrote, I have moved to Wisconsin and now teach at Starbuck Middle School in Racine. Here I teach geography and world cultures. My job is exceptionally important as I am the first social teacher that most of these students have ever had. What hasn’t changed are my efforts to promote student engagement. Whether its Breakout Boxes or social studies museums, it is all about making students lead their own learning by giving them a “voice and choice”.

This weekend I’ll presenting an updated presentation on social science museums.  The skills: project-based learning, ‘voice and choice’, and research and analysis remain the same. If you happen to be in Madison try to stop by or at least visit my website next week for a look at my presentation.

Creating “Museums” to Promote Student Research & Analysis Skills

I have the privilege of speaking at tomorrow’s conference of the Illinois Council for the Social Studies (ICSS). The topic is the (Social) Science Fair. Growing up, we almost all took part in at least one science fair. You choose a question and then you research the subject and determine an answer to it based on your evidence. My thought was that my US History classes could apply many of the same concepts. After all, science fairs are just a way in science of applying the larger pedagogy of project-based learning. Thus, I created quarterly “Museums.”

They museums address specific major topics in history and allow the students to dig deeper into a specific topic of particular interest to them individually. Not only does this allow them a voice and a choice in what they research, but also it provides great opportunities for them to perfect their research and analysis skills.  The end result are displays that allow students ask questions and learn from each other’s expertise.

If you are heading out to the Quad Cities for the conference, please consider attending my interactive talk at 8:30am in B-2118. I will guide you through lesson planning and make suggestions from my experiences. If you can’t make the conference, then please check out my museum worksheets and a checklist for teachers. As always, please let me know your thoughts of my work.

Finally, I wanted to thank Willowbrook High School”s Social Studies Department for their tremendous support.

Creating Engaged Citizens at Willowbrook

Embed from Getty Images

Since August, I have been teaching at Willowbrook High School in the Western suburbs. It is a dream job. Not only do I get to teach US History, Economics, and US Government at a great school, but also I get to teach these subjects at the third most diverse school district in the entire state. This diversity presents many opportunities to engage the classroom and work in varied points of view. It also encourages bringing in historical perspectives of underrepresented groups – a part of the new Illinois Learning Standards for the Social Studies. Every day, I wake up excited to help my students become more knowledgeable citizen scholars.

Outside the classroom, I am the sponsor for Interact (the high school branch for Rotary International). This has been a great experience – it has allowed me to reconnect with Rotary. The students have led several projects so far, including a book drive for a library in Africa, a video game tournament that raised nearly $300 for fighting polio, and an outreach campaign against domestic violence. If you are available please stop by Chipotle on March 15th and mention our club. Fifty percent of all proceeds will go towards a refugee and displaced migrants charity that the students chose.

Mais, Oui: Adding French to My License

new-map-francophone_worldI am excited to announce the addition of French to my teaching license, which means I am now able to teach the language in the state of Illinois. Along with my social studies, math, and special education endorsements, I am now fully prepared to engage students with their world.

Readers of the blog make sure to pass on any leads to help me find my “boulot” for the upcoming school year! My email address can be found under “About”.

Celebrating Deaf Culture and Civil Rights

As the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) reaches its 25th anniversary, my group in special education read “No Pity” by Joseph Shapiro. The book charts the course of the Disability Civil Rights movement at its height. It also inspired us to create a series of important projects that we would like to share with the general public. While no replacement for the book, it is a great resource. Below is a Deaf Culture and Civil Right Webquest that any Civics teachers is welcome to use in their classroom. For a pdf version, just email me.


Deaf Culture & Civil Rights History Webquest

Designed by Andrew Levin,


The 1988 protest by deaf students at Gallaudet University was defining moment for the disability rights movement. It was the closest the movement has come to having a touchstone event, a Selma or a Stonewall…The Gallaudet campus takeover… was a made-for-television solidarity phenomenon, thick with drama. Cameras feasted on the sea of hundreds of outstretched arms signing “Deaf President Now,” over and over, in a rhythmic choreography. A school that prided itself on preparing deaf students for the hearing world had decreed a deaf person not ready to lead a deaf university.

-Joseph Shapiro, “No Pity”, page 74


As Mr. Shapiro points out, the student protests that successfully led to the first deaf president of Gallaudet were an extremely important step for Americans with disabilities. It emphasized a positive culture of disability and increased support for what would become the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In this Webquest, we will learn some background on deaf Americans and about the event itself.



As hard as it might be to believe today, the first school for the deaf Americans did not open until 1817. What did deaf Americans do prior to this? What drove Mason Fitch Cogswell and Sylvester Gilbert to form the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb People? Would any words used in the school name be considered outdated or even offensive today?







  1. Alexander Graham Bell was a famous inventor in the 1800s. He was also hard of hearing. Take a look at primary documents from Bell’s life. What links can you find between his inventions and deaf culture?








Helen Keller was both deaf and blind. Despite these conditions, she became a well-known and well-liked advocate for Americans with Disabilities. How did she learn to communicate? What were greatest achievements?






This timeline of the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest give details of what happened each day during that week. In just eight days, students and their supporters changed Gallaudet University fundamentally. Read through the timeline, how did deaf American embrace their culture? How did they involve politics?







Continuing especially the epilogue. Which reasons seem most likely to be why this protest was so successful, so quickly?








Watch this local high school’s newscast. At 1:38, there is a segment called the “Sign of the Week”. Watch the clip and then decide whether such segments are a positive development of deaf Americans. Cite evidence for your answer.






Deaf Culture & Civil Rights History Webquest Exit Slip

How would you define Deaf Culture?







How would describe the Deaf Americans Civil Rights Movement to a friend?




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