Closer Readings Commentary

A Middle School Teacher Leads the Way: Tim Bailey and Common Core

“Who should be mentoring other teachers? The Tims of the world should.”

—Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

We have been following the career of Tim Bailey ever since he won the Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year award in 2009. Currently on a sabbatical from teaching in the Salt Lake City School District, Tim is serving as a Senior Fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

For the past 20+ years, Tim was in the classroom as a U.S. history teacher at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has, however, taught at all levels, from elementary school to college. His work, almost exclusively with high-risk, low-income, second-language populations, makes him especially sensitive to the challenges posed to ELL students by the new English Language Arts Common Core State Standards.

A new Common Core approach for U.S. History

Tim’s extensive work with David Coleman, one of the chief authors of the English Language Arts Common Core Standards, has made him a recognized expert in its implementation. Currently, he designs and directs the new Gilder Lehrman Teaching Literacy through History program. (Free registration for K–12 teachers or students is required.*)

The goal of the program, which aligns history instruction with Common Core State Standards through content-based curriculum and professional development for educators, is to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance.

Tim has already developed units that focus on the close reading of foundational U.S. history documents: the Declaration of Independence; the Bill of Rights, Washington’s Farewell Address; the Gettysburg Address; and FDR’s First Inaugural.

Complementing these are lessons on other significant informational texts such as Christopher Columbus’s letter of 1493 on his discovery in the New World; John Winthrop’s City on a Hill sermon; and Andrew Jackson’s Message to Congress on the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

This list of lessons is but the tip of the iceberg. There are over a hundred lessons to come, each based on an important historic document, from Tim’s shop at GLI.

Someone might say, “Most of these documents are too challenging for my students.”

We asked Tim why he thinks every student should read these documents, and how to teach them to every student.

“Every student in an American classroom has the right to study what Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt, or Lincoln had to say in those esteemed men’s own words. There should be little argument about that. The question then is how to teach those documents in a way that gives every student access to the words of those men. There are teaching methods that can unlock those documents for all students, but it takes time and strategic effort.”

Tim goes on to ask this compelling question:

“[W]ould you rather have students analyze, reflect, and comment on what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all …’ or would you rather someone tell the students what he meant to say? The study of history is always going to be a matter of interpretation and point of view, but the closer we get to the actual words and actions of the past, the closer we will be to understanding it. That goes for our students as well.”

High quality professional development is also going to be essential and so Tim and Gilder Lehrman are developing an extensive program to accompany these lessons and implement the Common Core shifts, which demand teachers build content knowledge, emphasize evidence, and provide practice reading complex texts.

How to teach the Declaration: a professional development video

You will want to see Tim in action teaching the Declaration of Independence to his 8th-grade class of struggling readers. Go to the Common Core section of the America Achieves website. (Again, free registration is required.)

The video lays out how Tim leads his class in grappling with the text by breaking it down into its component paragraphs and spending a class on each of paragraph. Observe how he gets students to pull out the important words in each paragraph; how he directs them to use “Jefferson’s own words” to make a summary; and the techniques he uses to allow students to take the final step of paraphrasing the Declaration in their own words. Watch as they write a short essay about the meaning of Declaration. In this careful step-by-step process, Tim proves that all students can acquire the skills necessary to analyze any primary or secondary source.

Then click on the accompanying video as a group of teachers who have spent some professional development time with Tim reflect on topics relevant to the techniques shown in the module; on the lesson itself; and on how teachers can successfully implement the Core.

*Here you can also find information about the wonderful Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School Program, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provides free resources and professional development opportunties for teaching and studying American History.