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Dan Polifka

History Department Chair; Upper School History Teacher; Mock Trial Coordinator; & Student Senate Co-Moderator
B.A. History, Middlebury College
M.A. History, Brown University

Teaching philosophy

Important skills I want to teach my students

I want to give my students the tools to think deeply and critically about important questions. That means training students to go beyond what they first see, hear, or read; to consider multiple perspectives and understand how those perspectives shape the world; to strive to be empathetic; and to understand that thinking is a process rather than instantaneous insight. I try to teach students to read closely, to consider that there are multiple (legitimate) ways to answer a question (and that often questions beget other questions), and to follow a learning process that involves multiple steps, discussion, and revision.

Teaching methods that reach these goals

We often do what I call the “history lab.” We start with a question (for example, “Why did Nathanial Bacon and his followers rebel against the Virginia government, what happened, and what came of it?”) and I give students a collection of sources. Working in groups, students read and discuss the sources to try to piece together the story of Bacon’s Rebellion, paying close attention to causes and effects. Once they’ve had a chance to go through all of the documents and build their own narratives of the rebellion, we discuss what they found and create a master narrative. The lesson accomplishes several of my objectives. First, the students must piece together the story from multiple perspectives, which compels them to make (and think about) their choices (such as, which sources they put stock in and why, what they chose to tell in their narrative and why, etc.). Second, we learn that to show the story of a historical event we have to try to explain why it happened and what came of it (causes and effects). Inevitably there is disagreement about this, and that often leads to a robust discussion. Third, we get to discuss how a simple narrative can actually tell us a lot about how Americans view aspects of their society (in this case, Bacon’s Rebellion is a conflict over class and race). So, in that lesson, we are combining content with a process to help students both learn about the material but also to get practice at transforming a set of documents into a rich story that is the product of deep, critical thinking.

My favorite projects

I love our Athenian Assembly Project in World History I. The class is broken down into factions with different points of view. After researching their assigned factions, students recreate the assembly in class to deliberate and ultimately vote on what course of action Athens should take on several key issues. The activity is great because it teaches content and research skills, gives students practical insight into what can make governments work well (or, of course, poorly), and is really a lot of fun. Rather than lecturing about what made Athenian government vibrant and turbulent, students experience that for themselves (and thus learn it far better).

What I like best about teaching at Seven Hills

We have engaged, interested, interesting students. They are happy to be in school. They not only want to do well on tests, they want to learn.