Do you struggle to use textbooks as an effective educational tool? If you do, I want you to think about your students. Imagine you are a teenager. You go home from school with a textbook assignment to read. At the same time you are surrounded by screens calling your name. Your SmartPhone buzzes with texts and notifications from Vine and Twitter. Your laptop is the source of endless amusement from videos to the endless content of the Internet to social media. Your television has a new episode of the latest ABC Family drama. Your PS4 has a great new game. And that textbook, how excited are you to read that?
Teachers need to bridge the content gap from textbook disengagement. They need a source of text that is well-written, informative and visually stimulating with pictures, charts and graphs. A source that clearly explains content with brevity. It would be great if this text asked students to explore a perspective about a historic issue.
Meet the Brown University Choices Program. The program comes in different units for American History, World History and Current Issues. Each unit provides readings and assessment questions. I prefer to have students work on these in class rather than at home. I like to make Expert Jigsaw groups and divide the reading into chunks for each group. Each group answers questions I make for their assigned section and then shares with other groups. The assessment questions in the Choices Program unit then provide a great exit assessment to ensure students understand the reading.
The readings themselves are great but what makes the Choices Program special is the simulations it provides. The simulation starts with reading for all students involved. Then students weigh four options for a critical situation in history. Groups are tasked with arguing for a specific option. Each group member receives a specific role. Students read the assigned reading for their group and present their option. You can have students conduct further research on the Internet. There is a fifth group that develops questions for the option groups, listens to their arguments and chooses one of the options.
I have used the Choices Program to have students evaluate colonists’ response to struggles with Great Britain, senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, JFK’s response to nuclear missiles in Cuba, the United States’ response to 9/11 and other interesting historical issues. Engagement is increased because rather than simply memorizing facts, students are considering perspective and building an argument.
Debating historical issues can be very controversial. The Choices Program ensures students are never asked to take a stand that would be considered morally repugnant by today’s standards. For example, the Choices Program unit on the Civil Rights Movement goes in-depth about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and its struggle to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The unit consciously avoids asking students to argue that the MFDP should not be seated.
The Choices Program supplements your text and provides in-class activities that teach students through role-play and perspective. Is there a catch? There is. Cost. The curriculum units are not free but the price is very manageable. A PDF version of a single unit is $30. I like to order the PDF versions so that the images in the unit print clearly. The units have great images. I have printed large versions of the images and captions in the Civil Rights unit for display in the classroom. I have used PTA grants, my school district’s curriculum funds and my own wallet to pay for units depending on what was most convenient at the time. Colleagues at my school have some printed units (available for $35) but I prefer the PDF so that the copy quality is better.
Free Choices Program Resources
If you want to try some Choices Program materials for free, there are some on their site for free. Give them a try:
- Map activities to understand American westward expansion.
- A lesson about FDR’s fireside chats and The Great Depression.
- A reading with assessment questions about the development of the atomic bomb. (PDF)
- A lesson on America in Vietnam from 1968 to 1973.
- A lesson where students conducting an interview to explore the human dimension of 9/11.
- Free resources to teach about the US invasion of Iraq.
- A lesson to teach students about ISIS.