Oliver Stone’s Untold History Project: Developing Historical Thinking and Argumentation in Students

Greetings from San Diego!  I recently had the pleasure of co-teaching an AP US History class on 20th Century US Foreign Policy.  The teacher, Mr. John Struck – 2014 Winner of the Gilder-Lehrman VA teacher of the year, and I created an “Opposing Viewpoints” lesson around the claim of “US Interwar Isolationism.”  The lesson targeted the course’s newly established  Historical Thinking Skills .  Specifically, we focused on these two: Historical argumentation and Appropriate use of relevant historical evidence and challenged students to formulate a short essay response based on the following sources:

    1. Our two 15 min presentations
    2. Prior knowledge (class textbook etc.)
    3. A general Q and A session where students could ask the presenters to clarify, elaborate etc.
    4. Structured small group discussions among students on how they would form their reply

Historical Thinking Skills – Historical Argumentation from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

This approach to teaching and learning about the past, that is presenting students with a provocative question followed my multiple, opposing historical narratives (or constructed claims about the past) is an effective approach grounded in constuctivist theory. In this class the guiding question was “To what extent can US interwar foreign policy be considered isolationist?” In addition, students were exposed to content relevant concepts including “Soft Power”, “Hard Power”, “Agency”, and “Multi-lateral.”

In the 1987 Metahistory, historian Hayden White sketches this pluralistic standpoint as such: “we are free to conceive ‘history’ as we please, just as we are free to make of it what we will” (p. 433). In such a climate, the plurality of narratives, readings, and interests foregrounds polyphony, or in Ihab Hassan’s term “multivocation,” a postmodern feature that maintains that there exist multiple versions of reality or truths as read, seen, and interpreted from different perspectives.

Or, as French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur encapsulated and reminded us: “If it is true that there is always more than one way of construing a text, it is not true that all interpretations are equal.”

Simply beautiful!


Fast forward  to a 2015 article by Stephane Levesque, Probing the Historical Consciousness of Canadians and you can see this congealing of history education, narrative, and identity.  Levesque, professor of education at the University of Ottawa asks important and complex questions related to these themes:

  1. Is identity a key factor to relating to history?
  2. What historical sources do people consider trustworthy?
  3. How do they construct a sense of the collective past?
  4. How should classroom teachers engage students…in learning national history?
  5. What role should this kind of survey play in evaluating students’ prior historical knowledge and thinking?

Ultimately, Levesque notes the disconnect between High School History teachers and historical research and the subsequent difficulty to enact change at the secondary level. “Scholarly knowledge by itself is not enough to change practice. Simply telling teachers… about new evidence and urging them to change their practice is rather ineffective.”

teaching history logoI disagree with Levesque’s point somewhat. I have had multiple opportunities to work with scholars that brought about an expansion of my knowledge base and powerful reflection about my practice. I urge high school teachers to seek out these opportunities and in fact attempt to create such connections in m y current position.

Enter Dr. Eric Singer and Oliver Stone’s Untold History project.   I had a chance to talk with Singer, Historian, Principal Researcher and Educational Outreach Coordinator for Untold History of the United States.  The discussion  added to the topics mentioned above and highlighted what the project offers teachers, including free resources and a summer institute.  

Hi Eric. Thank you for taking some time to discuss history education. Who is involved in the Untold History of the United States project and what has been   your outreach to educators?

Involvement expands by the day.  Since late 2012, we have brought together a veritable army of people who crave an singeralternative to traditional historical narratives that have persisted for way too long.  Teachers, administrators, curriculum writers, activists, public intellectuals, journalists and academics have helped us organize screenings, develop curriculum, establish a vibrant website, organize speaking engagements and facilitate cross-disciplinary communication.

In 2012 I took on the role of Educational Outreach Coordinator for a new Untold History Education Project.  Since then, we have keynoted several social studies and education conferences including NCSS 2013 and ALA 2013.  We have also anchored scores of other events including a discussion with students at Stuyvesant High School in New York, the commemoration of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, AR and the keynote of the 2015 Northern Nevada Council of Social Studies conference.  Along the way, we established an advisory group for the project that includes award-winning master teachers, curriculum specialists, leaders in the social studies field, academics and activists.

  Describe your resources and opportunities for educators and students.

We developed a curriculum guide to go along with the Untold History documentary and books.  The guide, which is aligned to the California State Social Studies Standards, is designed with Common Core in mind.  It is available for untold historyfree on our website.  The lesson plans contained within are all primary source-based, inductive and mindful of multiple teaching and learning styles.  They provide suggestions for teachers, but are flexibly crafted so that teachers can exercise their own creativity and employ their own expertise.

In December, we released Volume 1 of the Untold History Young Readers’ Edition, which boils down the content of the series and original adult book for middle and early high school students.  Volume 1 covers Reconstruction, war profiteering during World War I, the causes of the Great Depression, World War II and the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The original Untold History book is currently being used in AP and other upper-level high school classrooms across the country and around the world.  Volumes 2, 3 and 4 are now in production and will be released in 2016 and 2017.

Any new plans or events coming up in the future?

In July, we will host the first annual Untold History summer teaching institute, Teaching “Untold” History.  The institute, which will run from Friday, July 10 through Sunday, July 12 is open to all middle and high school teachers.


Topics of concentration will include “Moving Beyond the Textbook,” “Globalizing US History” and “Deconstructing Engrained Narratives.”  This experience will be valuable to teachers of AP and IB instructional programs, as well as teachers of non-affiliated curriculum.  The ultimate goal is to establish methods that empower students to think critically about history and the world around them, so that they may become better informed participants in the democratic process.


The institute will also attempt to critique historiographical approaches to instruction.  Ultimately, we will publish our curricular products on the Untold History website, making them available to teachers across the country and around the world.  We will also seek out other potential venues for publication and outreach.


Thank you Eric.  I am looking forward to the July Conference! 

Information on the Conference is Provided Below. Hope to see you there.

Teaching “Untold” History Summer Institute July 10-12, 2015

East Side Middle School 331 E. 91st St.

New York, NY

Please join us for an exciting and invigorating weekend as we explore ways to engage multiple historical perspectives in the classroom. Historians, master teachers and curriculum specialists will lead intimate, interactive weekend-long workshops⎯out of which will come tangible curriculum designed for teaching some of the most controversial topics in recent history.

Director Oliver Stone and Historian Peter Kuznick, co-writers of the Showtime documentary series Untold History of the United States and companion book, are scheduled to participate.

This experience will be valuable for

  • Middle and High School US History Teachers working with Common Core requirements
  • Middle and High School US History Teachers working in non-Common Core environments
  • AP teachers
  • IB teachers
  • Any teacher interested in developing ways to teach multiple perspectives to diverse groups of students.

There is a $200 fee to attend, which covers the cost of speakers and 2 meals/day. Attendees will also receive:

  • Continuing education certificates
  • Copies of Untold History DVD, book and Young Readers’ Edition
  • Resources produced from the workshop
  • Networking opportunities with public historians, academics and curriculum specialists
  • Copies of the Untold History of the United States curriculum guide, designed to accompany each episode of the documentary series.

We have reserved a block of rooms at the Courtyard New York Marriott Upper East Side. Rooms with 1 king bed are $195/nt, 2 queen beds $215/nt.

It will be possible to share rooms in order to minimize costs.

For more information on institute content, lodging options or to register, please contact:

  • Eric Singer, MEd, PhD Principal Researcher and Educational Outreach Coordinator Untold History Education Project
  • (410) 830-9789
  • es1355a@gmail.com







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