Teaching “tough history” with Composer

Teachers face so many challenges these days. Honestly, it would take a while to name them all, but suffice it to say that they have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. So, like other teachers, I have occasionally (OK, sometimes more than occasionally) used the internet as a resource for creating or supplementing lesson plans. But even this presents challenges. How many times have I skimmed through the results of a web search and found what appears to be the PERFECT lesson plan, only to click the link, enter the site, and BOOM! Paywall. Ugh. Back to the drawing board.

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen with Composer.

I’ll admit, I didn’t know a whole lot about Composer when I was invited to join their advisory council in September 2021, but all it took was five minutes on their site for me to realize its value. Composer offers free lesson plans and curricular units from top content providers with an emphasis on citizenship education, social and emotional learning (SEL), social justice, and civic competency. There are no paywalls and no endless jumping around to different sites. More importantly, I was delighted to see that I could “mix and match” lessons from different content providers and build my own curricular unit, or “string,” directly on the Composer site.

My primary task on the advisory council was to design my own string on Composer and offer feedback on the experience. What follows is a narrative description of my design process. My hope is that my work on Composer can serve as a model for others as they reflect on their own curriculum design process. And of course, anyone and everyone is welcome to use or modify the string I designed!

A good instructional design process should begin by clarifying basic pedagogical considerations, goals, objectives, and available resources. For me, it seemed like the best place to start was by skimming through the different types of lesson plans (or “elements”) and content providers that were available through the Composer search portal. I was able to narrow my search by specific grade-levels (6–12), the three different types of available elements (which I’ll discuss in a moment), and specific content providers (over 30 are currently featured on Composer’s site). I was unfamiliar with some of the content providers (and excited to learn more about them), but knew others quite well, including Facing History & Ourselves, iThrive, and Generation Citizen.

I decided that “world history” would be the search category I would use to explore the types of strings and elements at my disposal because 1) I’m a history teacher and 2) I love teaching world history. My initial plan was to build a string that encouraged a comparative analysis of two different cultures, regions, or countries, but as I skimmed the lesson plans I realized that aside from American history, most topics were arranged thematically as opposed to geographically. Moreover, because many of the history lesson plans offered on Composer have a civics and social justice focus, the overwhelming majority of the content I found related to American history. (I’m hoping that changes in the future. I’d love to see some lesson plans on the Islamic Golden Age, Akbar the Great, or the Incan Empire to name just a few).

What jumped out at me during my research were the various lesson plans I found that related to ethnic cleansing and genocide. It seems important to mention that this is a content area in which I have expertise. I studied Eastern European history in graduate school, and Eastern Europe basically invented ethnic cleansing. I’m joking of course, but there’s been a lot of it. I also teach a course nationalism, and ethnic cleansing is (sadly) a central theme there as well. I’m not going to lie, my courses can get pretty grim. Sometimes I joke with my students that I’m the depressing the guy at the party that no one wants to talk to. Nonetheless, I have always felt it was my responsibility as a history teacher to engage the tough topics. I guess you could say it was a calling.

So, in keeping with this tradition, I decided that “genocide” was going to be the theme of my first string on Composer. Happy days ahead!

Now that I had my topic, I needed a larger objective before building my string. My initial plan was to design something comparative and trans-national. In terms of historical thinking skills, I knew the unit would need to focus on contingency, comparison, and contextualization. Additionally, Composer features a broad range of elements/lessons that focus on civics, citizenship, and SEL. It hardly needs mentioning that genocide is a heavy topic, and I’ve found over the years that one of my key roles when exploring these topics is to help students (and myself) process their intense emotional reactions and then build upon them towards meaningful civic engagement. Composer had plenty of tools to this end, so I decided that this would be my primary objective.

Time to build my string. I decided it was best to begin by adding as many elements as I could find that connected to genocide and the socio-psychological phenomena that precipitate it: out-grouping, stereotyping, racism, etc. Facing History & Ourselves in particular had a lot of excellent lesson plans, to which I added material from High Resolves, the Anti-Defamation League, iThrive, Learning Justice, and Generation Citizen.

Altogether, I compiled more than 30 classes worth of material. I definitely needed to make some cuts and reorganize the lessons into a logical progression. Composer made this reorganization process easy — everything is visualized on a timeline with three different shapes that represent the different types of lesson plans. First are the triangles, which symbolize a “peak experience” — the cold openings in the unit that introduce topics and stoke learner interest. Next are squares, which symbolize “repeated practice” — the everyday bread and butter lessons that comprise the unit. Last are the circles, which are “real world applications” — culminating assessments that allow learners to apply their learning.

Of course, the organization process required more than shape arrangement. I had to provide enough space to dive into the SEL and civics components while also offering opportunities for breadth across different geographic regions. Next, like any good story, I had to think about how I would organize the various chapters, from beginning to end. I generally introduce themes first and then provide “case studies” from which the themes can be analyzed. So, for example, a lesson on racial thinking would be followed by a lesson on Japanese atrocities in Nanjing — an opportunity for students to analyze the concept of racial thinking in a specific historical scenario.

The final “case studies” in my genocide string include the Armenian genocide, Japanese imperialism in Nanjing, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide; however, given the structure of the curriculum, teachers can easily shorten, cut, or add additional topics as time and interests allow.

In terms of introductory peak experiences, I added “Lives in Balance,” the tech-supported simulation by iThrive in which students roleplay government officials who must resolve a crisis while contending with external pressures and a rapidly evolving situation on the ground. Ultimately, the goal is for students to experience how genocide seems “black and white” in terms of morality, but then proves surprisingly difficult to stop or prevent in the realm of international politics. (Note: “Lives in Balance” currently offers specific simulations that are tech supported directly by iThrive, and they do not offer a genocide simulation, but the plan is to create a usable template that instructors can use independently with their own unique content.)

For my final “real world application,” I wanted my students to respond meaningfully to genocide by challenging the preconditions that allow them to occur. I created two possible choices for this assessment. Option “A” is an op-ed writing activity by Generation Citizen that allows students to write about an issue that is important to them. For this string, I would modify the assignment slightly and require students to write about a contemporary genocide or a situation that threatens to turn into a genocide. Option “B” is the “Understanding Human Rights” activity by Facing History & Ourselves, which requires students to work together as a class to design and develop their own bill of fundamental human rights, with the goal of preventing future genocides.

Once I had organized my elements into a coherent set of lessons, I began finalizing my string by copying a list of the learning outcomes from the various elements into a Google document. Then I read through them carefully, cut the ones that were too content specific, and synthesized any others that overlapped in their themes and ideas. My final list of learning outcomes are:

  • Identify and devise strategies to mitigate the harmful impact of the social-psychological phenomena that precipitate acts of genocide.
  • Understand the long- and short-term causes of genocide in specific historical contexts including Rwanda, Armenia, China, and Eastern Europe.
  • Develop a productive and thoughtful final project that identifies and challenges one or several social, cultural, and political processes that can lead to genocide (or are currently leading to genocide) in a specific geographic context.
  • Practice deliberating with others on tough emotional topics, and advocating for their own and others’ well-being in a manner that is productive and respectful.

Overall, I really enjoyed working with Composer to design this string, which you can explore on your own here. Composer kept me mindful of my larger goal to incorporate civics, SEL, and social justice into my curriculum, but not at the expense of engaging case studies and historical examples. I also appreciated the flexibility that Composer provides — as I pulled the different elements together I began to think of how I could modify them to fit into my string. (This has always been my biggest critique of prepackaged curriculum — it’s too formulaic to allow for the types of modifications teachers might need to fit the specific needs of their classroom.) Additionally, and although I didn’t try this for my string, Composer also allows users to design and create their own content lessons, although they cannot share them with the Composer community.

The internet offers a vast amount of material at our disposal, but the real challenge is sifting through it. Composer is a clever means of finding and organizing online lesson plans without requiring me to sign up or pay for an additional service. I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops and grows!

And don’t forget to check out my string!

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