Sommer Newkirk - Granada HS, Livermore, CA
A PUSH to Innovate Series:
Granada High School, Livermore, CA
by Christine DeFranco, CCO
Sommer Newkirk, an AP U.S. History teacher from Granada High School in Livermore, CA uses her blog, Facebook community page, and Twitter account to keep her students connected, engaged, and supported beyond their regularly scheduled APUSH class.
Much like Kate Harris, the first innovator we spotlighted in this series, Sommer's blog features a cornucopia of hand-picked resources that run the gamete—from podcasts for the auditory learners, to writing assignments and peer assessments for those in need of practice. Through her blog, and it's incredibly comprehensive assemblage of online materials, she has truly created a one-stop study shop that her students (and their parents) can rely upon.
Sommer stands out as an innovator because she has branched out beyond blogging into the social stratosphere, widening her reach and tapping into the medium her students know so well—social media. By diversifying, she has created another way to connect with students in a more conversational, interactive way. Although her blog offers a ton of information, delivered in a variety of formats, it does not encourage the type of active exchange that Facebook or Twitter was designed to support (that's why they call it "social"). Another bonus is that the "AP US History GHS" page and the @ApushNewkirk Twitter account both live where many students and parents already are—Facebook & Twitter—making it a comfortable and familiar interface.
Newkirk clearly understands that students learn and retain more if they are engaged, and one of the best ways to do that is by offering them multiple lines of communication that are accessible 24/7. In this digital age, she takes full advantage of the fact that she does not have to limit student interaction to classroom conversation. She understands that learning that lasts a lifetime, not just an exam period, happens when students are immersed in their area beyond the silo of their class period.
Newkirk was kind enough to extend some of her time outside the classroom to interact with Sherpa Learning's Christine DeFranco, and share more about her approach to learning and all things APUSH.
SL: How many years have you been teaching AP U.S. History?
SOMMER: 4 years.
SL: How long have you been creating your own online resources?
SOMMER: I have had a site since I started. I do one for every course. I'm currently making one for Women in American History...sources are limited :( Others I have created/manage include ASB leadership, Psychology, Economics, and a student travel site.
SL: Your APUSH blog has an intuitive design that students will immediately recognize and navigate easily. Students have access to a variety of teacher-approved resources—from homework assignments to articles to relevant links—not to mention an APUSH-themed G.O.T. meme, which not only serves to interject humor, but also engages students on another level. In your estimation, how has the accessibility you provide your students through this site impacted their APUSH experience?
SOMMER: I find this extends the learning beyond the allotted time we are given in class. We're a trimester system, so I only have roughly 24 weeks to teach the entire APUSH curriculum. I feel having a site and using social media (i.e., Facebook and especially Twitter) fosters discussion regarding events (current and past) surrounding American history.
SL: Your blog is truly a multimedia experience. You post videos, link to podcasts, and there is even an "AP US History GHS" community page on Facebook. Which media source have the students connected with the most (video, podcasts, Facebook or any other social platform)? Please tell us why you think one source is favored.
SOMMER: Students love short video...that’s why they are so Vine oriented!! I find parents use Facebook and kids use Twitter - for the most part. I use a short content overview to prime their brain so when we are in class, we can go deeper - especially hit the historical thinking skills hard in class together.
SL: Which portion of the exam do your students find the most challenging?
SOMMER: For the new curriculum they are having a hard time shifting paradigms from the fact-driven, cramming type of studying to really utilizing the skills needed for history. Honesty, they have bad habits to break. Helping them to learn and consistently use skills like close reading, contextualizing, historical argumentation, synthesis, etc. is a challenge. They are used to searching for and finding the fact-based answer.
SL: Share with us your fear, joy, or disinterest toward the 2015 exam redesign. Which aspect of the redesign do you consider to be the most significant change and how do you feel about it?
SOMMER: I’m actually really excited about it! I think it will take a few years to get everyone accustomed to it, but I like that we are not simply testing a student's memory (which is genetic) and are really testing their skills, as well as depth of knowledge and understanding, of this subject.
SL: Favorite historic figure? Please tell us why.
SOMMER: Alice Paul. Because she was not afraid to challenge others, even those she shared the same goal with.
SL: Do you remember where you were when Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" first hit the airwaves?
SOMMER: Yes!!! I was a 9th grader at Bidwell Junior High in Chico, Ca. I can still picture the video coming on MTV after school and me and my best friend rocking out! I am a huge fan of his work especially is historical commentary via song. What a great songwriter!
SL: Billy Joel is a self-proclaimed "huge history nut" who, at one time wanted to be a history teacher. If young Billy Joel was one of your students, what words of wisdom would you share?
SOMMER: Follow your passions, ask questions, don't take no for an answer, and every person out there is a book waiting to be discovered...don't judge them, but get to know their story! I saw a really great quote that really spoke to me, especially as some states and some critics of the new APUSH curriculum have claimed the new material seems anti-patriotic.
“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for that reason, I insist on the right to criticize her.”- James Baldwin.
Side note: In all honestly it was my love for Elvis Presley and his story and the history surrounding him that inspired to learn more about his great country.
SL: Of course, is there anything I didn't cover that you'd like to speak to? Educators will appreciate any thoughts you have to share.
SOMMER: Something I find ironic is that if you were to ask one of my former teachers if they could see me in this profession—teaching—they probably would say, "no." I struggled greatly in school. I had a learning disability that kept me in special education classes from 1st to 11th grade (and this was before full inclusion). But it was one teacher that made a difference by believing in me and challenging me to think creatively and to find my voice. I had counselors telling me to go to beauty school, but I wanted more! It was because that one teacher who tried to see more that I had the courage to become the teacher I am today. I think as educators we get bogged down by some of the less attractive parts of our profession, but we need to keep in mind we have an amazing gift to help people achieve their dreams and believe in them when others have given up. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wake up knowing I have the best job in the world and that to be able to explore and share the history of this great nation is truly awesome.