Hello and Welcome

As a social studies teacher, my goal is to help students understand their own lives in a number of ways. Thinking historically is a powerful tool for people to understand why things are the way they are – a question that seems increasingly urgent today. As students work to figure out who they are as people, I want to help them arm themselves with reading, writing, logical reasoning, and analytical skills and positive habits around self-expression and self-advocacy.

One of the things I am most looking forward to in my new career as a teacher is becoming an integral part of a school culture. In addition to my work in the classroom, I hope to leverage some of my professional and life experience with technology, newspaper production, sports, data analysis and presentation, blogging, and the arts (all of the large background photos on this site are mine) to contribute to my school.

The first step, of course, is to find a job! To that end, I created a website to highlight my work and interest in education. On this site, you will find some of my thoughts about education, a few sample lessons I’ve developed, and some projects I am involved with. I hope you enjoy browsing as much as I enjoyed finding this Google Street View car on my block a few years ago.

Here is a copy of my current resume. References available on request.

 

Ideas About Education

Pedagogical Ideas

I would love to write about all of my pedagogical ideas but, as Fermat said about his last theorem, “there isn’t enough room [on this website]”. For now, I’ll share three practices that I would like to make a habit of using in my teaching.

  1. Students should have choices – whether this is a choice in what they are learning, the format of their learning, or how they demonstrate what they have learned, I believe the secret to student interest is student choice. I understand the practical challenges of offering choice within many classrooms, but whenever possible, the benefit is worth the effort.
  2. Students should create useful products – notes taken in class should support homework. Homework should support bigger projects. Whenever possible, I hope to have students learning for the purpose of teaching each other as well as themselves.
  3. Students should contribute to a community – in some ways, this is an extension of the second principle. As students are creating useful products from their labor, I hope to encourage them to feel as though they are contributing to a community of learning within the classroom and one that extends beyond to students in other classes or students who will be in their place in the future.

One unit I dream about creating and potentially finding a grant to fund is a research project that combines all three principles. Students would choose a topic, find a book to read, and produce some type of report on what they learned. These reports would remain, paired with their source material in my classroom. Students in subsequent years could choose to acquire a new book to add or follow in the footsteps of an older student and use an existing book in the collection.

Why Study History?

 

This fall, my advisor at Tufts asked his students to answer the common question: “Why do we have to take this stuff? Why do we have to learn about all these dead guys (and women)? Who cares?” Here is my answer, written as if I were addressing my students.

By most estimates, 110 billion people have been alive. They’ve done a LOT of stuff. No one cares about everything that’s ever happened or is happening.

On the other hand, no one cares about nothing. Even the most nihilistic (someone who believes life is meaningless) person cares about something. Maybe it’s what their parents were like before they were born or how black clothing got to be cool.

So, we can agree that some things, but not all things are worth caring about.

History, as we do it in our class, is the study of things that have happened which are important to you.

They can be important for any number of reasons. Maybe they teach you something you didn’t know about yourself. Or help you discover something about how you and your family got to where you are today. Or they inspire you. Or help you connect better with a friend. Or you might just think something is cool. Any of those are good reasons to know something about the past.

If you think what you’re studying in history isn’t important, that means that either you’re studying the wrong things or you haven’t figured out how they are important to you yet. Sometimes it can take days or even years before you realize how something you learned applies to your life.

In our history class you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose what you want to study. The rest of the time, when we study something as a class, you can be sure that I tried my best to pick something which I think will be important and interesting.

Remember though that our class has a lot of students in it. Sometimes what’s important to most of you won’t be to a few. At those times, if you’re in the few, you can try your best to understand why it’s important to other people, even if it isn’t to you. Also, you should tell me that you didn’t find it relevant. Maybe I can convince you that it is, but if I can’t, that’s important for me to know for next year too.

What’s Data’s Role in Education?

I believe deeply in the potential power of using data to improve individual and organizational performance. My belief in data comes from two important parts of my life: my professional experience and my various forms of engagement with sports.

During my time working for the technology startup Return Path, I had a number of data-heavy roles. For a time, I lived in Excel spreadsheets, performing all sorts of data manipulation and analysis. Later, I was responsible for our company’s primary sales and financial data platform. As a member of the company’s Operational Committee, I also became involved in the design and collection of data for quarterly board meetings and for company-wide scorecards.

As a sports fan and sports blogger in the 21st century, I am almost necessarily also a fan of data. Although I may not be able to explain what wRC+ is, I have written about how batting average is calculated in baseball, the inherent deception when announcers talk about a run (like a 11-2 “run”) in basketball, and the shots-on-goal statistic in ice hockey. More important than an understanding of arcane sports statistics, is having followed the statistical revolution in sports and been convinced that a commitment to data can be a powerful way to improve performance.

Although I am still new to the world of data in education, I am ready to learn. I’m open to any promising data-based approaches to teaching. And if my old skills with spreadsheets and analysis can be of use to a school community, that would be great too!

Lessons

The Cabinet of the United States

This six day unit contains a few elements of pedagogy I am particularly interested in. It starts with a simulation intended to help students understand why a national leader might want or need trusted advisors with particular expertise to delegate large tasks to. Only after they experience that need, do we introduce the reality of the cabinet.

Students choose a cabinet department they are interested in and research it. Their individual work goes through a Google form so that it can easily be shaped into a tangible product –  a cabinet reference guide for the entire class. Students next use this guide to answer questions about the entire cabinet, an activity which encourages them learning from each other.

The last section of the unit focuses on how the role of the cabinet has shifted over time. Students develop their understanding and opinions about this topic while practicing critical reading, information synthesis, and essay writing skills.

American Government and Politics • Cabinet Unit

Dazzle Camouflage and the Art of Historical Vision

I had the pleasure of leading three classes of high school sophomores and one class of graduate students through this historical warmup activity. I began by handing students a half-sheet of paper with two sections for writing down ideas. One section is for observations, the other for inferences or guesses about what they see means. After a period of silent contemplation, students shared only their observations for a few minutes while I annotated the image based on what they had seen. Finally, they were given permission to share their conclusions about the photo. Where was it taken? When? What’s the explanation for the strange paint? How can we tell?

I was hesitant to swoop in at the end with the “correct” answers, so instead, I abridged a podcast on the topic and had students listen to it while taking notes on what they had guessed accurately and what not. In my graduate class, the audio did not work, so I contextualized the photo myself. That worked nicely in that setting, so perhaps I will try it that way the next chance I have to teach this lesson in high school.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t given any spoilers in this description. I encourage you to try the lesson out yourself! It’s a fascinating topic. Let me know how you do.

Passport to Europe

During my time teaching seventh grade geography this spring, I adapted a unit from the legendary middle school geography teacher and adjunct Tufts professor, John Daly. In my version of the unit, I had students pretend that our school had received a grant to travel to one country in Europe the following year. Students chose or were assigned a country to research and present to the rest of the class.

Each student’s research and presentation followed a path that I had set up and included basic information about the country, descriptions of its people and its physical geography, pictures of sights to visit, and a climograph showing average temperatures and precipitation throughout the year. You can view the template here and a few of the resulting posters below.

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One fun element of every poster was a passport stamp. This was meant to be a single composition which represented the student’s country. Before students glued their stamps onto their posters, I scanned them and minimized and duplicated them. This gave them the opportunity to hand out miniature versions of their stamp to their classmates as part of their presentation. Each student in the class collected these stamps and pasted them into their own “passports” which also functioned as a note taking sheet.

To finish the unit, I had students complete a three-part quiz during which they were allowed to use their passports. My idea was that students would be able to use the collected data from their passports to create ranked lists and visualizations of area and population. I quickly saw that most students needed help, so I created a few differentiated cheat sheets with varying amounts of data. Despite or perhaps because of this, I was pleased with the quality of my students’ engagement on this part of the unit. They spent a lot of diligent time ranking countries and charting or mapping the data and the tangible results and learning outcomes were impressive. The quiz ended with an essay about the country or countries students would most like to travel to and why.

 

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is a fascinating topic for many reasons. As a vitally important political tactic, studying it has clear application to answering the basic question of every history class: Why are things the way they are today? Understanding what Gerrymandering is and how it works is good, but the goal of this lesson is to give students a chance to experience Gerrymandering themselves. The heart of this lesson is a set of scenarios in which students are asked to redraw district lines to achieve different political results. Only after personally manipulating election results do students learn the power of Gerrymandering.

As a secondary goal of this lesson, I hope that students will notice the general power of process; that the ways in which a decision is reached can be extraordinarily important to their outcome.

Gerrymandering Lesson

The Connecticut Compromise

They say there’s no crying in baseball but no one ever said there’s no math in history. I must admit that there was an audible groan when I first mentioned that we’d be using math to understand the Connecticut or Great Compromise from the Constitutional Convention.

From a skill perspective, I designed this lesson to help students with the valuable skills involved in reading, comprehending, and contributing to data tables. In terms of content, my goal was to connect the sometimes dusty-seeming history of the Constitutional Convention with the all-too contemporary issue of the electoral college. I think it worked. At least, by the ten-minute mark of the lesson, there was no more groaning from the students!

Connecticut Compromise Lesson

Projects

Dear Sports Fan

In the Spring of 2011, I started writing a blog called Dear Sports Fan as a hobby. Dear Sports Fan is my attempt to demystify the world of sports for people who do not understand sports but who want to. To date, I have written over one thousand posts (which have been viewed almost a million times) about soccer, football, hockey, basketball, baseball, and other sports. Most of them explain foundational aspects of these games, like what “second down and seven” means in football, why soccer teams pass the ball backwards so much, or whether basketball fouls are really as arbitrary as they seem. I also write topical posts that aim to arm the non-sports fan with talking points for conversations about recent sporting events.

When I tell people about Dear Sports Fan one common response is for them to say, “Whoa, you must really love sports!” The answer is yes, I love sports, but my primary motivation for Dear Sports Fan has to do with the social capital that access to and understanding of sports information provides people in mainstream society. Sports talk is one of the common languages in our culture but it’s not universal. Go to a restaurant and more likely than not, there is sports on the television. Head over to the kitchen at work to get a snack, and you’re likely to run into a clump of colleagues talking about a controversial call in last night’s game or a player who let their fantasy team down. Not understanding or following sports can easily make someone feel alienated or excluded. Dear Sports Fan is my attempt to bridge this social gap.

As useful as I believe Dear Sports Fan can be for people who do not understand sports, it is nothing compared to what a teacher can achieve. A teacher can inspire hundreds of students during his or her career, can help students gain access to language and knowledge that will serve them throughout their lives, and can make complex issues approachable and simple truths profound. A teacher can address much more important issues of alienation and social capital deficits than a sports blogger ever could.

The Corpses in the Copse

In my senior year at Rutgers University, I wrote a Henry Rutgers Thesis. This year-long honors project gave me the freedom to research a single topic for a full year. After studying a lot of world history and spending the spring semester of my junior year at the University of Cape Town, I decided to focus closer to home. I discovered that a notorious murder — the crime of the century before the Lindbergh kidnapping — had happened just a few hundred yards from my house.

Through the story of the Hall-Mills murder, I wrote about the evolution of American life in the early twentieth century and the forces of modernity. In a move that foreshadowed my short future in newspaper production and my continuing interest in having students produce tangible products, I produced and self-published the thesis in the form of a paperback detective novel.

The Corpses in the Copse or Murder, Marriage, and Modernity: Understanding the Hall-Mills Case

Contact

Feel free to reach out to me about anything you’ve seen or heard here. Thanks!

Email: ezrafischer@gmail.com

© 2016 Ezra Fischer