Creative Tips for Using Teaching Strategies | Facing History & Ourselves
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Creative Tips for Using Teaching Strategies

Learn how Facing History teachers have adapted our teaching strategies for their classrooms.

One of the most valuable things about the Facing History network is the opportunity to continuously learn from each other about best practices for the classroom. Every classroom is different, every student is unique, and our teaching strategies are designed to be customized to meet the needs of your students. As you prepare for the new school year, check out what other Facing History teachers have to say about how they’ve used our teaching strategies in their classrooms.


Contracting is a staple at Facing History. Engaging in this practice early can set the tone for the rest of the school year by creating a reflective classroom community where explicit rules and established norms protect everyone’s right to speak; where differing perspectives can be heard and valued; where members take responsibility for themselves, each other, and the group as a whole; and where each member has a stake and a voice in collective decisions.

Facing History teacher John Dee uses contracting to help students see that teachers and classmates are equal partners in the learning experience. “I want students to really feel that it’s a community,” Dee says. “I’m not just their leader. Certainly I’ll be the educator leading them through lessons, but I want them to feel that I'm part of the class too [...] It’s important for me to follow the same expectations.”

I think the lesson went really well. Heard from a lot of different students. It wasn't just one person dominating, which is kind of the whole idea of having a class contract-- that we can develop that reflective classroom.

I was really pleased that when students were turning and talking, I think more people seemed engaged. Which is sort of natural that students would feel more comfortable. And they were reflecting on that even in their journals that they feel more comfortable in smaller groups than in a larger setting.

The contracts for each class that I did today, there's some similar language in classes that students used. I think that students really seemed to buy into that idea that this is going to help make our class more effective and productive. They might not use those words, but I hope it may be more interesting for them throughout the whole year.

And I think tomorrow they're going to come to class and their contracts will be written. And we'll sign them and we'll go through that whole process which we talked about-- what does a contract mean in the period today. Overall, I was really pleased that most students really seemed to literally buy into the idea.

Great. There were a couple of moments that really stuck out to us.

Sure. I think earlier on in the year, students are always looking to the teacher. And I noticed that, even just in the first couple of days before this lesson, that all eyes seemed to be on me-- which I think is natural. We've all been in classrooms.

But I want students to really feel that it's a community, and I'm not just their leader. Certainly I'll be the educator leading us through different lessons. But I wanted them to feel that I'm part of the class, too.

I've had open discussions already with students that I'm not always going to know the right answer, and that's not what we're here for. This isn't math class. The answers will vary from class to class. I wanted students to know that I'm there with them. It's important for me to follow these same expectations.

I was able to help students recognize that where some of them, when they were coming up with their own expectations or rules for the contract, a lot of them would have language like, "listen to the teacher." And I was able to stop and talk with them and say, who else should be listened to? And some of them knew that they all belonged in that, but were sort of nervous because I was looming over them.

We were able to get out of them, either in those small discussions or in the larger group discussion, that everyone's opinions matter. Everyone's opinions should be valued, not just the teacher. And I really think that if we follow that contract, that will lead to that more reflective classroom.

Big Paper

Big Paper is another classic strategy that has stood the test of time. It works well in physical classrooms as well as online learning environments. By using writing and silence as tools to explore a topic in depth, students have the opportunity to slow down their thinking and engage with other points of view. Big Paper offers an entry point for students who are more comfortable on paper or who might want or need to be quiet on a given day. It’s also a great way to archive student thoughts and questions so you can revisit them at a later date. 

Some teachers have paired this strategy with technology, using QR codes to provide additional material for students to engage with:

History teacher Kevin Toro uses this strategy to help students personally connect with the material. “Some students won’t want to raise their hands, some students won’t want to talk. But in that private sphere of looking over that paper while it is attached to the poster, and being in stations reading it and being able to write on it – that gives them a connection to the history itself. They are dealing with primary sources, but it almost feels personal in a way.”

A hand writes on a wall.

Today we're doing the silent Big Paper. We have five stations, a big paper on each. And so the students are going to be going through with each of those stations marking up the papers, annotating the readings as much as they want as well as commenting, and having conversations, checking off, or contradicting, challenging, supporting other students' claims as we go through all five stations. At the end of the station, they will end up picking highlights from everything that has gone around annotations and showing that to the class as a whole.

And we have the students use that as a drawing board. And that really, I think, brings out student comments and creativity in a way that if we're just sitting and we go over it in class doesn't necessarily engage a lot of students because some of them won't want to raise their hands. Some of them won't want to talk.

But in that sort of private sphere of looking over that paper while it is attached to the poster and being in stations, reading it, and then being able to sort of write on it, it also gives them a connection to the history itself. They are dealing with primary sources, but it almost feels personal in a way.

What we're going to do is we're going to split up, and we've done Big Paper before. Big Paper are these stations. We've done this activity. I'm going to split you up into groups, or you're going to split yourselves up into groups based off numbering.

This time around, what I would like you to do is we're adding steps to it. Last time we went around to each station, and you annotated the reading itself. And then you left comments. You tagged onto other people's comments.

So this time, what I would like for you all to do is stay silent the entire time. In doing that, I'm hoping that it's going to force you all-- this is the reasoning behind you all being silent, I'm not just asking you to be silent because I'm mean-spirited. I'm hoping that you all will-- any sort of comment, any sort of thought that you all get, will write it on there instead of saying it out loud.

There are three guiding questions that I want you all to think about as you're going through all of this. How do the sources show the resiliency of newly freed enslaved peoples? What are the perspectives of the newly acquired freedom of former enslaved peoples that these sources give us? And what do people need in order to sustain and protect their freedom?

It will be up here if you need it. We'll go over it again. Think about these quickly before we start. Have them in mind and then we'll talk again. You'll have some time to re-collect your thoughts.

I'll give you five minutes on the first one. I'll tell you to shuffle. Remember that I asked you to add this new rule of staying quiet, right, Leo? Five minutes.

I do like how I'm seeing people already having that silent conversation on the paper.

So we're going to start off with our first station.

So our document was called the Freedmen's Bureau Outlines the Duties of Freed People. And it really just outlines how to be a successful free citizen in America. It talks about how you should-- seek education and how you should just because you're free doesn't mean you shouldn't work. You should work really hard.

It also talks about, which I thought was interesting, in the way that you have to prove that you deserve your freedom, have good behavior and then maybe other white people in the South will recognize, oh, they can handle freedom, and they deserve to be free people.

Yeah, it's almost kind of tragic in a sense. They're saying we have to act-- we have to be better, twice as good if we're going to be treated the same. Any of the comments that stick out?

Yeah. We said one of the most shocking things we saw was in the first sentence. It said you have been declared forever free. But just like someone commented, that there was still the Black Codes, the Jim Crow laws, and systematic racism throughout the history of the U.S.

Oh, man.

So, I have to say, maybe it didn't stand up to time.

Yeah, absolutely. We know from hindsight, you can imagine these people have such excitement about this. And important-wise? You've already summed up everything but if--

We saw the quote that says no people can be truly great or free without education, which is kind of surprising but also makes sense because you can't really get anywhere in this country without an education. You need an education to get a good job and make money.

As well as run a democracy. Everyone needs to participate in a democracy. It's run by the people. That's the whole point. And in order to do that, we need an education.

The process with Big Paper today in class I think worked really well with the kids. We added that extra layer of basically the silent conversation, which we're adding more and more rules as we go in. It worked really well in order to get them acquainted with the sources themselves and reacquainted with the idea that the people that we're talking about have voices.

And I think they could really wrestle with it because you have the actual source in the middle of this huge paper, and I'm telling them, it's yours. There's a little bit of the personableness that you get with a journal on these big papers where they can mark it up, they can annotate it on their own, as well as write all over it, which I think gives people ownership, and it worked really well.

Concentric Circles

Using the concentric circles strategy helps engage all students in discussion – especially those who tend to shy away from public speaking. This strategy prompts students to respond to a question in a paired discussion. Michelle Livas, who refers to this strategy as a “line dance,” finds this particularly helpful in providing comfortable ways for her quieter students to engage. “As a discussion strategy, students are one-on-one. There is eye contact, but it’s brief. If they can collaborate, [...] it’s terrific. If students aren’t comfortable, they’ll know they can move in a minute and talk to someone else.”

Facing History educator Michelle Livas speaks.

All right, can you please make a line on either side of the aisle?


So I need you to face a person. It doesn't matter who it is, because you're going to move around.

In today's lesson, I'm going to use a strategy that I call the line dance. And in some professional development materials it's called concentric circles. But the idea is that students are lined up or they're in a circular formation where they're speaking to just one person at a time.

Look at your person across the way and say, hey, how's it going?




We're going to do a line dance. What this means is for three minutes, you're going to discuss three questions.

And then when the allotted time is up, they will move and move on to a new partner for another brief discussion period.

So we're going to go this way. So somebody over there is going to come around to the other end. And you're going to shift so you're talking to a different person. And we're going to do question number 2 line dance. And then we're going to talk for three minutes, and you're going to talk about a different question.

Whether it's a line or a circle, it offers them a chance to share their opinions and ideas with at least two or three other people.

All right, the first question, if you guys can look up here, how does Adichie describe herself at the beginning of her talk? What words and phrases might she put on a chart? If she did that chart for herself, what might she say about herself? And let's-- hang on one second, because she's just going to grab her paper. 3, 2, 1, go!

Some people would be like, oh, my god, I'm really something. But she's basically being humble about her situation because she's like, oh, I made friends.

In terms of a discussion strategy, what I like is that students are one on one and there is a bit of eye contact, but not too much, and it's brief.

She's open-minded.

Yeah, she doesn't really-- I mean, she cares about herself.

While three minutes can feel like a very long time when you're uncomfortable, it's also not excruciatingly painful. And so if they can collaborate and come to some kind of a connection conversation, it's terrific. And if they're a student that isn't that comfortable speaking, they can make their way through it, and they know that, oh, cool, I can move in a minute and talk about something else.

--only portrayed as a border-crosser, this and that. And then she goes to Mexico, and now she sees these hardworking people that are fun like me. I'm just kidding. [GIGGLES]

And then as the teacher, they kind of forget about me after a while. So they're not thinking that I'm just there, looking at them and evaluating. I'm just kind of walking around. And they do usually forget that I'm there.

All right, we're going to do question two. So let's have you guys go that way. And you guys move down one. So now Amy's across from Mauricio, right? So, Daniel, who's your partner?


Yes, good. So make sure you are across from a new person, right? Let's do number 2. And the question is, later in the story, we learn how other people view her, Adichie. How do these views differ from how she describes herself? OK, go.

Just like how she thought of that other village, but-- yeah, that.

I feel like it kind of gives students opportunities to develop speaking skills without speaking in front of the entire class. So you and I just had a goofy conversation, but you're the only one that heard it. My teacher didn't even hear me.

OK, for her, her childhood and how she grew up is normal for her because she grew up with it. It's like if we grew up like, for example, here, around this neighborhood, and the way that we grew up, we view it as normal for us. It's our norm. And for other people, they view it differently. So they're like, oh, you're from there. So they make assumptions about where you're from. So that's basically how--

All right, can you guys please go back to your seats?



When I use a strategy like this, I think I enjoy class way more than when I'm speaking because I actually get to see the students and hear them talk and be themselves. So it gives me some opportunities to get to know them better. I can circulate around the room. And I can hear who is maybe a stronger speaker than I realized, or who might be struggling actually, also.

And that's really important, to identify someone who you might overhear in the corner saying, I didn't understand that article, can you help me, where they may not come to me and ask that question. So I find it useful and helpful and beneficial in multiple ways.

Connect, Extend, Challenge

The Connect, Extend, Challenge strategy helps students both deepen their understanding of a topic and become more thoughtful and independent learners. Facing History teacher Jenna Forton notes that one of the great things about this strategy is that it’s flexible and can be used in many contexts to help students make personal connections to the material. “Students are able to engage with it in a way that is relevant to their own lives,” she says. “I start every unit with coming back to students at the center. They see how important their voice is in the classroom, and that has a way of disarming them from thinking that this is about any other thing except for them. They know that it always comes back to them and that their voice matters. That’s central to keeping students’ trust and keeping them safe in these difficult histories.”

Connect, Extend, Challenge is a very flexible teaching strategy that you can apply in a lot of different ways. The goal of connect, extend, challenge is to help students understand the growth that they've experienced during the class period. And so you could apply that to after a fishbowl. You could apply that at the end of a Socratic seminar. You could apply that after we've done a walk-and-talk activity. Right?

So it's a flexible teaching strategy in which students see what they have learned, how they can apply it to their own self and what they're looking to continue to learn.

We're going to broaden this conversation a little bit, and we're going to look at connecting, extending, and challenging our thinking. So, Lady, can you read the connection question for us on this slide?

"How do the ideas and information in this lesson connect to what you already know about equality?"

Wonderful. Thank you. Tony, go ahead. Second question.

"How does this lesson extend or broaden your thinking about equality?"

Thank you.

OK, go ahead.

"How does this lesson challenge or complicate your understanding of equality? What new questions does it raise for you?"

OK, so take one minute, and a quick one minute. You do not need to answer all of those. Choose one of those questions to respond to, whichever one you have the most instant answer for, and take a minute to reflect on that. We're then going to take about two minutes to reflect as a class before we head out for the day.

All right, who would like to share out a takeaway? So this is just like walking out of class today. What do we walk away with?

A question that I had was, "Who does the Constitution protect?" and also, am I protected?

Wonderful. Thank you.

And, Tony, cap us off. Go ahead.

I kind of thought of something that we were doing downstairs about how the American dream changed over time from what it was before and then what it is now, and I'm kind of connecting that to how slavery became segregation back then. And they changed the slavery laws to be free, but they weren't actually free with segregation, and how that will keep progressing and changing over time until how it is now where it's racism. And it's not as much of being inferior or having separation, but it's still there.

And it connects back to the mass incarceration, right? It changed forms.


Thank you. Very, very nice class period, you all. I'm going to collect these tomorrow. Try to respond to all three of these questions tonight if you haven't already, OK? See you all later.

Thinking about the questions from the end of the activity for Connect, Extend, Challenge, I would say that students were able to engage with it in a way that was relevant to their own lives. I start every unit with coming back to students at center. They see how important their voice is in the classroom, and I think that has a way of disarming them from thinking that this is about any other thing except for them.

They know that it always comes back to them and that their voice matters, and I think that's central in keeping students' trust and keeping them safe in these difficult histories.

Four Corners

Today’s students are coming of age amid political polarization, economic inequality, ongoing public health crises, and climate change. These current events will inevitably find their way into your classroom but we know discussions of these topics can be controversial and/or emotionally charged. Banjineh Browne uses the Four Corners strategy to prepare students for these conversations by using their own experiences to explore their opinions and understandings. 

Using the Four Corners strategy elicits the participation of all students by requiring everyone to take a position on a subject. Four corners in the room are labeled either “strongly agree”, “agree”, “disagree”, or “strongly disagree” and students are instructed to stand in the corner that best represents their feelings about a particular statement. As students take turns discussing their position, they encounter ideas different from their own, they have the opportunity to reflect on why they think and believe what they do, and they have the option to move to a new corner if something they hear changes their perspective. All of this helps to prepare young people to engage in conversation across difference in the broader world. Four Corners can be a useful way to bookend tough conversations – it helps students frame their arguments and understand the evidence supporting varying points of view.


How do I prepare students for discussing controversial or emotionally charged events? I start with reexamining the norms of the classroom. If it's going to be a conversation I know, perhaps I know this because in the past when I've done it, emotions have gotten high or I just know that this is controversial. I know the students in my classroom, I know the students in my space, and I understand that there are maybe a handful of students that don't necessarily have the majority opinion on this.

So then I think it takes a lot more structuring of reexamining the norms, looking back and saying, here are the contracts we made at the beginning of the year. Here are the classroom rituals and routines and norms that you created on your own that I guided you through this-- perhaps list of 5 to 10 ways in which students felt like, this needs to happen for us to feel safe and this needs to happen for us to feel like we can participate.

Being able to use students' own experience when talking about the things and issues. Where are students? Where are their opinions on it? And so sometimes, it might be like four corners ask a question that's about something, and then kind of see where people are at.

Allowing someone to explain themselves if explanation is necessary. And I think that's a big one is if a student says something that perhaps someone doesn't agree with rather than jumping to conclusions and saying you're wrong or I can't believe you said that, ask the follow up question of, hey, you said this thing and you response, can you just explain it a little more?

It can become sensitive when you're dealing with actual people because sometimes when you teach something, people aren't strongly-- might not strongly be connected to it like teach history because they're like, oh, yeah, it happened way back there that doesn't necessarily impact or affect me. But when you're talking about something like undocumented immigrants and you have undocumented students that are in your class or undocumented parents, there's a different tenor in terms of the conversation when somebody agrees or disagrees with that.

And so that safe building and that community is extremely important whether it's this is a real topic that impacts people in this classroom, in the school, or families. Because sometimes when topics are introduced if people just think it's this thing on the outside, they respond differently than knowing, oh, actually, this person to my left or my right, it might be them. I think there's a different level of accountability for that.


These are only a few of our many teaching strategies. Last month we shared our five most popular strategies, but there are over 80 in our resource bank that can be adapted for your classroom!