For Teachers of World History

By , September 5, 2023 7:18 am

Hello, I’m Risa Gluskin. You probably know that since you’ve found this website.

After 25 years of teaching, I am taking a year off to rest, relax, and share my experience. I get a lot of requests through this blog to share my materials. It seems natural to me to expand on that.

I will use this blog to link to future videos, blog posts, links, maybe podcasts, etc. designed to help you teach world history at the high school level.

Watch this short intro.

Art and/of Teaching

We’ve all heard the expression, “the art of teaching.” What about art and teaching? By that I don’t mean teaching art history. In a nutshell, this is the core of my approach to sharing what I have learned these past 25 years about teaching the fascinating and fun subject of world history.

I’ve long considered myself uncreative and unartistic (mandatory grade 7 art was my worst mark ever, lower than math). However, during the pandemic I started to learn how to paint. I’ve continued on and off over the last three plus years. I’m still rather basic and progressing slowly, but I enjoy it and have more recently devoted a lot of time to it, especially watching YouTube videos of other people teaching.

This new painting hobby (and its accompanying skill development) has helped me to recognize that I am somewhat creative. Teaching and planning courses are creative acts.

Since I want my year off to be meaningful, I’ve decided to frame my “sharing” through an examination of the parallels between learning to paint and learning to teach. Today’s post is just the introduction but I hope it will guide me in the weeks and months to come. Please stay tuned here under the “For Teachers of World History” tab since I don’t use social media.

Zim art sculpture


  • need to practice (Sept. 12, 2023)
  • need to step back and look at your work from a distance + video (Sept. 19, 2023)
  • avoid obsessing over every detail and go with ‘good enough’, not perfection
  • pick the right tool for the job
  • work within the constraints of time, budget (aka reality)
  • know your limits
  • be self-critical to a point
  • educate yourself
  • take risks, challenges and stretch yourself
  • love what you do

#1 Need to Practice

By , September 12, 2023 8:09 am

Starting with my strength! In art as in music as in lesson planning, one must repeat, repeat, repeat.

When I first started teaching grade 11 world history back in 1999, I was literally a few pages ahead of the students in the class. I had not taken any world history since high school – and even that was very limited as the teacher had a rather narrow view of what should be taught (western, Christian civilizations).

Interestingly for me, many of my students were members of the classics club at the school and were very keen; though mostly they could recite things in Latin and/or Greek and knew a lot of trivial pursuit factoid types of things. That didn’t help me much.

I had no choice but to dive in. I started reading a lot and using the resources at hand. Our library had a great collection of world history books. Yes, actual books. I also watched a lot of history-related shows on PBS, especially relating to Greece and Rome.

Since I was also teaching Canadian history and grade 12 “modern western civilization” at the same time, my saving factor became lesson planning. Organization has always been one of my best teacher skills, not so much a skill I possess in my personal life. Odd.

Thankfully I inherited a small collection of materials from the previous “ancient” history teacher. After weeding through it for things I liked, I had a sense of what came before me – not that I wanted to copy it wholesale. That’s not my way. I usually do like reinventing the wheel.

I made myself a lesson planning template and started planning units, tests, and then individual lessons. For me, the skill that needs the MOST practice in teaching is lesson planning. I find that almost right out of the gate, new teachers stop planning their lessons. When I host student teachers (teacher candidates, more precisely), they sometimes seem surprised that I want to see detailed lesson plans from them on a daily basis.

Anticipating how things will go is a big plus! These days I cannot imagine how anyone could teach without planning. Lessons need to keep moving swiftly as kids lose interest very quickly, sometimes instantaneously if you can get their interest at all.

Even after 20+ years I still write some lesson plans. When I was going on a short medical leave last year I wrote lessons for all the grade 12 world history classes I’d miss which ended up being the whole course because of surgery postponement!!

One might ask if lesson planning is a facet of creativity at all? I believe it is. It is in the planning where a new or experienced teacher comes up with an idea to make a topic interesting. In history that could be a trial, a role-play, a simulation, a short activity, or as we say today, a minds on. I admit that some of my most creative activities come to me spontaneously in the classroom. However, I don’t think my creativity would be able to kick in if the cognitive load had not already been reduced by doing so much planning.

My Most Creative Plan

Looking back is hard for me because – ironically – I have a bad memory. That’s bad for a history teacher, but it doesn’t usually affect content. Just events, names, faces in my OWN life. That said, one activity I developed on the topic of Hammurabi’s Code really stands out. The students first analyzed the document (okay, not all 282 laws) looking for ways that specific laws affected different groups of people in society – farmers, merchants, women, the king! They were divided into different groups based on roles on society and each had to come up with either a law they wanted to keep – and the justification for that – or the law that they wanted to ‘amend’ and their proposed revisions. They would then present to the king and his advisors – roles played on a rotating basis by each group of students. The kids would always love in-role activities. Sometimes they got so into it they sent out spies to check on the other groups. I remember it even getting it slightly out of hand as they tried to maintain secrecy until the final reveal of their scripted encounter with the king. Then of course there was always the moment when the king decided if he wanted to punish them for their suggestions!

Did I plan this? Well, I didn’t plan for all the offshoots such as spies and secrecy. But I planned the activity to such a degree that the kids had the freedom to give it a life of their own.

I don’t do this activity anymore for a number of reasons but mostly I am more cautious with role-plays now as I am much more mindful of presentism and the need for students to asses how probable (or not) it would have been for people to think a certain way. On the whole I am much more of an inquiry-based teacher now. However, I still find room for some role-plays such as my Black Death simulation.

Hammurabi’s Code was the basis of a memorable lesson.

Art Parallel

Now, do I practice enough in art to help develop my skills? Because I don’t paint on a daily basis I would say no. This usually results in me overthinking what I should do next because I don’t have a plan. Ultimately, my potential creativity and skill development are hindered before they even got out of the gate.

Having a sketchbook where one can practice is akin to writing a lesson plan. I definitely use my sketchbook. However, I don’t always follow through with a “good” copy, so to speak.

For Teachers

Get yourself a lesson template. In world history, use it to plan the societies you will include in the course, either through direct instruction, group work, or student inquiries. It’s very important to make sure the course is diverse and ever changing.

I use a template such as this to make my plan for what I will teach in a given semester.

First Day of School!

By , September 4, 2023 8:25 pm

First day of school – it will be great (if overly hot)!

Have a wonderful year.

AGO Visit

By , September 1, 2023 9:34 pm

I haven’t been to the Art Gallery of Ontario for quite a while. It was a valuable return as I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition Cassatt-McNicoll: Impressionists Between Worlds.

Mary Cassatt, Summertime, and Helen Galloway McNicoll, Picking Flowers
Mary Cassatt, Summertime, 1894. Oil on canvas, 100.6 x 81.3 cm. Terra Foundation of American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. 1988.25. Photo Terra Foundation of American Art, Chicago. Right: Helen Galloway McNicoll, Picking Flowers, c. 1912. Oil on canvas, 94 x 78.8 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of R. Fraser Elliott, Toronto, in memory of Betty Ann Elliott, 1992. © Art Gallery of Ontario. 92/102.

I have seen Mary Cassatt’s work somewhere before – I can’t recall where. However, Helen McNicoll’s work is new to me. She was a Canadian artist, though she mostly lived in the UK. Like Cassatt (who was American but also primarily lived in Europe), she painted women’s lives.

The exhibition cleverly highlights the similarities and differences between their approaches. Both were very advanced, well trained, skilled, and relatively successful, Cassatt probably more so, or at least she was more well known in her time and after. Both came from well off backgrounds that allowed them the freedom to travel, learn, and paint professionally.

Doors were often closed to these women; however, they opened their own by developing unique styles. Cassatt is known for her mother and child portraits. So is McNicoll, apparently. My favourite of hers in this genre is the one where the mother (or caregiver) has her hand on the baby carriage but does not turn her gaze toward the child as she is reading!

Helen Galloway McNicoll, In the Shadow of the Tree
McNicoll, In the Shadow of the Tree

McNicoll painted a series portraying women on a chintz sofa in her studio, some of contemporary women (early 1900s) in modern dress. Two were of women in heavily Victorian garb. I am absolutely fascinated by these pictures. In reading the exhibit book I have learned that McNicoll seemed to be making a point about the outdated crinoline style in comparison with the sleeker contemporary style, in particular by those in favour of women’s suffrage. While the expectation at the time was generally still that women were to be limited to the domestic sphere, McNicoll highlighted the sofa as not only a part of her domicile, but of her work. That’s not to say she was a suffragette, apparently.

Vintage Anti-Suffragette Propaganda 'Mummy's a Suffragette', circa. 1905-1918, Reproduction 200gsm A3 Classic Vintage Suffragette Poster
This image came to mind. I use it in grade 12 World History.
Helen Galloway McNicoll, The Victorian Dress
McNicoll, The Victorian Dress

One very interesting feature of the exhibit was a soundless video of two deaf artists discussing Helen McNicoll’s work. She was deaf from the age of two. It’s nice to see the institution diversifying its perspectives.

Sadly, McNicoll died at a very young age from diabetes. I’m happy to have discovered her. As a person learning how to paint, I am totally enthralled by her technique. As a history teacher, I am interested in discovering more about her in the context of her times.

Feels Like Fall

By , September 1, 2023 8:55 pm

Our flowers would agree.

Slow Summer Reading

By , August 7, 2023 7:55 pm

Less TTC, less reading.

I finally got through Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017).

I would not say I loved this book due to the writing style – just not my style, nothing wrong with it; however, I found it interesting enough to keep at it. And I certainly learned a lot about the Osage people and their history. I also took on board lots of new information about the early years of the FBI, but that I was not so keen on. Maybe that’s why it took me about a month to get through this book.

Note: I didn’t choose it because of the upcoming movie, though that may have helped. I was actually browsing on my local book store’s website when it came up. There were a few times when I was reading when I pictured Leonardo DiCaprio in my head. Weird.

Simply put, the book tells the true, very sad, and angering tale of the mass murder of Osage in the 1920s, up until the 1930s. Its premise is that a very well-connected white guy lauds himself as a friend of the Osage. Quite a lot of white people make their way in, too. That’s because the Osage are earning tonnes of money from their underground reservation, oil, in Osage County, Oklahoma. It was an oil rush! However, given the underlying racism of the country at the time (and probably still so), the Osage are required to have non-Indigenous guardians to manage their headrights. That’s how the murders started – greed, manipulation, and an unjust system that made it possible. Though there were some good people who worked hard to find the killer (it was suspected that the multiple murders were all directed by one man), the US and state governments, the nascent FBI, and the open-to-corruption court system just didn’t put enough into the investigation. In fact, as Grann points out at the end of the book, more people were killed than originally suspected. That’s one thing I definitely appreciated about David Grann’s narrative approach was his delineation of his historical research methods: archives, interviews, other books, etc. Working with Osage and descendants of other victims allowed Grann to piece together unknown parts of the story, expanding the conspiracy.

At the start of the book Grann goes into the history of the Osage prior to arriving in Oklahoma – look it up; it’s maddening. Given what we now know of the Canadian government’s treatment of Indigenous people here, it’s not a surprise that whatever little was given was taken away. However, they lucked out, initially, in arriving in northeastern Oklahoma because of the oil. Obviously, the moral of the story is that money does not bring happiness, especially when that money comes with conditions that put the Osage in great jeopardy.

Will I see the movie? Not if it’s on Apple TV.

Worth reading.

Tom Thomson North Star at McMichael

By , August 3, 2023 9:33 am

My mom and I went to see the new exhibit at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg. Actually, it’s called the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, to be proper.

I know I have been there before but I only have a vague memory of the building. The building does not disappoint. In fact, my mom remembers going there with her parents when it was still the McMichaels’ home and they would sit and greet guests.

All photos are mine.

The way the collection is set up is very smart. All the exhibits and galleries lead into each other. So it’s not really practical just to see one exhibit. Since the building is not gigantic, like the Met Museum in New York, for example, the whole thing that can be seen easily. We enjoyed a small exhibit by Sandra Meigs, Sublime Rage, featuring very large paintings, almost like they were done on window blinds.

I am not qualified to speak on how diversified their collection is now. It is clear that they have made an attempt to feature many women artists and some Indigenous artists beyond their Norval Morrisseau collection and their Inuit sculpture and print collections.

The main reason we went was to see the North Star exhibit. I happen to have watched the curatorial video on You Tube. As a new painter, I am quite interested in the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. I often flip through the pages of my book on their paintings before I go to sleep (I am NOT saying they make me fall asleep!).

The show did not disappoint. It is so intriguing to see Thomson’s brushstrokes in his many small sketches. He was not a professionally trained painter – though he was friends with some very well trained and educated painters such as AY Jackson, JEH McDonald, and Lawren Harris. Considering he mostly learned (apparently) through talking with these fellow painters and experimentation and how he painted for such a short period, his work is incredible. Never mind that, his sense of colour and freedom of the brush are incredible. It is actually quite a pedagogical experience to be able to see the brushstrokes up close.

The exhibit highlights some of the few sketches he turned into canvases for future exhibits and sales. Here’s one example of the transition, one I really find exquisite because of the detail of the shadows. The exhibit book (which I bought, of course) explains that the influence for this type of shadow work was AY Jackson. The sketch is the bottom photo.

As I said, as a new painter I am trying to learn certain basic techniques pertaining to sky, clouds, water, flowers, and trees. Tom Thomson is a tree master!

I have only just started to read the book accompanying the exhibit. One that stood out already is an interesting piece on how Thomson has often been “Indigenized” in much of the writing about him – really mythologizing about him. At the same time, as has often happened in Canadian history, the actual Indigenous people have been written out of the story. I look forward to more insight on not only his painting but his place in Canadian history.

I wonder if I will be able to apply any of my learning in my art?

Summer Art So Far

By , July 18, 2023 3:45 pm

Lucky to be off work, I have started painting again. When you are as slow at is as I am, it is a very time-consuming hobby. All paintings are done according to Art Sherpa tutorials, except the last one which is from Will Kemp Art School.

Lazy Days of Cat Summer

By , July 18, 2023 3:20 pm
The crossed legs indicate Shadow was not pleased about taking this photo.

Spring Subway Reads

By , July 2, 2023 2:03 pm

I wanted something a bit lighter and quicker for my spring subway reading so I turned to YA fiction to keep up with possibilities for credit recovery (NOT next year). Earlier in the year I had read the entire Hunger Games series for credit recovery, though it turned out the neither student got past chapter 10. No worries, I enjoyed all three books – far more than the movies (which I also watched simultaneously on Netflix). I also read Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, more of a children’s book, as I was using it for two students in credit recovery on Mr. Bryant’s excellent recommendation. It is an excellent, easy reading book with a powerful story about a 12-year old Black boy shot in Chicago. He tells the story from the perspectives both of being dead and alive. He is taught to be a ghost boy by the ghost of Emmett Till. I wish my students had cared more about the moving nature of the book. Though it only took about two days to read, I cried a bunch of times. They got through it (which is meaningful) without much connection.

The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon; A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

I very much enjoyed the dual perspectives (two characters relate an event in different ways) in The Sun Is Also a Star. The whole time I was reading the book (about 3 days) I was thinking about how I could use these perspectives with students in English credit recovery even if they don’t read the whole book. I heard it was made into a movie as well. However, after watching the trailer I buried what I had seen. The book IS always better.

I had started A Very Large Expanse of Sea about a year ago. I got about a chapter in and decided I didn’t like it because the main character swore too much; this felt too forced. So I put it away. I decided to give it another go. This time I loved it. I guess I had to be in the right headspace to read young adult fiction. The narrator has a very strong voice and is an interesting character, not an easy-going character. I like her sharp tone. I will admit the book brought back a lot of high school memories, some pretty painful in retrospect.

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith

This is a highly engaging, relevant, hard-hitting book. I had heard about it from the New York Times best seller list last year. So I bought it in February as part of a collection of books to be given as gifts from THHSSSC to people who came to the subject council session at the SWSH PD conference at York Mills. No one wanted it so I kept if for myself but held off taking it home feeling kind of guilty. It was worth the wait.

The subject matter is exactly the hard stuff I love reading about: the history of slavery in the US. But the framework is so clever. Clint Smith travelled to sites – museums, cemeteries, plantations, Angola state prison in Louisiana, to name a few – that have deep connections with slavery; some of them are honest about that history, some of them are not. He went on tours and spoke to fellow tour members and tour leaders. He spoke to experts and researched on his own as well. The result is a meshing of excellent history with beautifully written prose. It is both a timely book given the polarization in the US, and a timeless book given its deep, pensive approach to a very difficult conundrum: how Americans consider (or don’t) slavery in their view of their country’s history.

There were times while reading this book on the subway that I had to stop, put it down, and shake my head. During the author’s tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola, I learned that the US – to this day – has a number of states that do not require unanimous jury verdicts in trials. I was floored but not shocked when I learned the reason was to sideline Black jurors. Similarly, when Smith relayed the average length of sentence in the prison is 87 years I just had to stop reading for a while. All of the chapters are very indicting but the Angola one really shocked me. I don’t know why; it is obvious that mass incarceration is a direct descendant of enslavement.

I’d like to divert to a film review here. About a month before I started reading How the Word Is Passed, I saw a meaningful documentary on Netflix. In retrospect, it pairs very effectively with this book. Descendant shares with the book the perspective that history matters, memories matter. It is the story of a community of people in Alabama who are the direct descendants of the last enslaved people brought to America from Africa over 50 years AFTER the slave trade was made illegal. The premise for the movie is that the there is a new search for the ship, the Clotilda, that was scuttled by the owners in 1860 after it dropped off 110 people in Mobile. The community, Africatown, part of Mobile, Alabama, is coming to grips with what it means, how it should be commemorated, and, for some, how it can bring tourism to the town. It turns out the story isn’t just about the ship and the people who began their forced journey to enslavement on it. The town, very similar to Africville in Nova Scotia, has been a dumping ground for heavy industry for decades as Mobile encroached. There is one moment in the film where a person is walking in a leafy, green section of the town. The camera suddenly pans up to an overhead drone shot and huge smoke stacks are revealed. The town is surrounded by pollution and has high cancer rates (reminds me of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta). One of the last scenes in the film is of a young activist who is taken on a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC led by one of the curators who has been to Africatown to work with the community in the aftermath of the discovery of Clotilda. She is awakened to the power of history. I was ALL in.

Back to the book, I learned a lot even though I consider myself knowledgeable about slavery in the US. Starting with Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia, Monticello, Smith reports facts about his selling and moving of enslaved people as a means of paying off his personal debts. Some white women on the tour were shocked. Their education on slavery had been limited, part of Smith’s point. Then he goes to Whitney Plantation in Louisiana to learn about a plantation with its enslaved people centered in telling its story. Then to Angola where the prison obfuscates about its history as a plantation and its smooth transition post-slavery to using essentially unpaid the labour of the inmates. Following the prison tour, Smith goes to Galveston to experience and investigate Juneteenth, the celebration/commemoration of Texas’ freeing of the enslaved people. Here he explores the intersection of facts and memory. Next, Smith visits a Civil War cemetery where folks are commemorating the Lost Cause view of the Civil War pretty much completely in opposition to what the war was really about. Interestingly, he also travels to New York City and takes a tour of several areas of the city with Black pasts that aren’t very well known, including to a section of Central Park which was once a Black community. In the penultimate chapter Smith travels to Senegal to look at the telling of the story of slavery from the African perspective and confronts, once again, the complicated relationship between historical fact and historical memory, this time in relation to the infamous House of Slaves which cruelly sent off thousands of enslaved people to their fate in the new world. I found it quite poignant that Smith chose to end his book by exploring the history of his own grandparents by having them share their experiences with racism, Jim Crow, education, and finally, memory.

This book reaffirms for me how much I am grateful to have a career in which I get to instill the importance of history to current day life. Without it, we flail and move backwards.

The 99% Invisible City by Kurt Kholstedt and Roman Mars.

Val bought this book. It’s by the guy who hosts the 99% Invisible podcast, apparently. I haven’t listened to it but I enjoyed the book as its focus is on urban architecture and design (one of Val’s favourite topics, and thus mine, too). It has very short chapters (about 2 pages) that reveal little known facts about cities, ranging from the design of emergency vehicles to the design of lamp posts. Perhaps the podcast is a little bit more in depth. I enjoyed it (note – I am 99% done reading it). But it was too heavy to read on the subway. It’s more for my night table.

What If? 2 by Randall Munroe

This book is also too heavy to read on the subway, but I took it for a few weeks as I needed some lighter fare. The best way to describe this book is: smart, funny, really useless stuff based on science. In other words, Donald Trump wouldn’t read it. Well, I don’t know if he can read. It’s not exactly my thing – I will probably never finish this book. But when I need a ‘smart’ laugh, I will pick it up and learn something that I will never be able to use in real life since I am not planning to create a tower from here to the moon or to know if a plane can be launched by catapult.

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