Writing in history and the social sciences is different than writing in your language arts class.  While there is creativity in historical writing, the more apt analogy is that of a legal brief.  You are the attorney and your teacher (or class) is the jury.  The stronger the evidence you present, the more convincing your argument will be.

Today’s Common Core standards for the social sciences are oriented primarily toward writing and research skills.  While state content standards remain, the ability to think critically and process information is paramount.

This makes utilization of resources particularly important in achieving success in the social sciences.  Most of the assignments I gave as a teacher involved this reliance on thorough research.  Socratic seminars, essays on document-based questions, targeted notes, and test writing prompts all provide opportunities to demonstrate your skill in employing effective research.

When I hosted Socratic seminars in my history and economics classes, I had my students pair off and come up with a position on the assigned prompt.  They used the excellent Opposing Viewpoints in Context database by Gale, which my last school district had purchased for our library.  It included a myriad of historical and contemporary topics with the latest articles and essays uploaded on a regular basis.

There are many outstanding online databases which can help you in your research.  My personal favorite is, the database of the Library of Congress.  Another is of the National Archives.  Find out what resources your school and your local library have to offer.  And remember to cite your sources correctly when you submit your work.

In my day, research was done with books and magazines and work was submitted in typewritten form.  Corrections were made by hand and new drafts had to be retyped.  The advent of online classrooms and research has changed all that and expanded the possibilities for improvement and opportunities for learning.

Take advantage of the resources at your fingertips.  You can never have too many sources for your work.  And remember, your voice is unique.  Believe in that voice.

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Setting Priorities

School can be overwhelming.  The experience of trying to learn in a large mainstream class is stressful enough.  Add to this extracurricular commitments such as athletics and clubs, and you are facing a formidable array of responsibilities every day.  It’s hard to know where to begin to focus your energies in order to achieve success.

When I was a student, I always found that being proactive was better than being reactive.  The first step was choosing the right class schedule.  I was fortunate to have two parents who were both supportive of my academic success.  My home life was anything but a tranquil place in which to study, but my father was a teacher and my mother helped me select my courses with my school counselor.  If you don’t have someone at home who can help you do this, work with your counselor directly.  They are there to help.

Once you have firmed up your schedule, pay close attention in the beginning of the semester to what your teacher wants.  Figure out what you need to do to achieve the grade you want, and start doing that from the beginning.  Procrastination is a great enemy to guard against.

Then focus on the subjects that you find more difficult.  If history and language arts come easy, for example, do what you need to do to stay in good standing, and then devote more time and energy to math and science.

Those four are the core subjects and demand your greatest attention.  There is some wiggle room with electives, and sports and clubs should always be seen as pursuits for spare time only.  If you can manage all your classes well and still have resources to give to football or performing arts or clubs, then by all means do what you want to do.  But be careful not to overextend yourself.

It is often said that colleges pay the most attention to your junior year of high school.  I would argue that every year of school is equally important in your academic profile.  Strive for excellence in everything you do, and allow yourself the time and space to achieve that excellence.  Find a quiet place to do your work and create a schedule for yourself in which your coursework can be completed without distraction.

Success starts with small steps.  Setting priorities is a first step.

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Find Your Connection

Here is a photograph from the year 1890 I was given by my maternal grandmother when I was around 12 years old.  It is an image of her father (at left) when he was five, and his father, who served as a Union soldier in the Civil War.

We always knew my great-grandfather as “Pop,” but you can see from this picture, taken at a GAR (Union veterans) reunion in Cleveland, Ohio, that he was named both for his father and his father’s general, William Tecumseh Sherman, with whom Michael Schneider had marched through the Atlanta Campaign of 1864.

My grandmother also passed on her grandfather’s Civil War campaign medals and ribbons, wrapped carefully in tissue paper and stored in a shoe box.  In 1996 I had these mounted and framed and now they hang in my home.  By that time, I had spent the good part of a decade compiling a family history scrapbook on both sides of my family.

History is more than a subject we have to take in school in order to graduate.  It is the story of people – your people and mine.  Making a personal connection with the past is important in bringing history alive.  It also helps us understand ourselves and our place in the world.  The more we know of where we come from, the more ably we can decide which traditions to continue and which to leave behind.  To paraphrase John Quincy Adams, we must come to understand that who we are is fundamentally who we were.

If you are new to genealogy, there are some basic places to start.  Start with your living relative(s) who know the most and have the largest collections of artifacts.  Find out what countries your ancestors came from, and what parts of the United States they settled in.  Birth, death, land and marriage records can be obtained online at the county level.  Military records are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  The internet now has several excellent websites with which to begin your search.

The more you can discover, the more you will understand the historical events and contexts in which your ancestors lived, and the role they played in shaping the history of this great nation.  America has always been the story of innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers, and every person who made the decision to come here has contributed something to that story.  Discovering your people’s contributions is an exciting adventure that awaits you.

Below is a photo of me in 1995 at my paternal great-great-grandparents’ graves near Salem, Oregon.  They fled famine and persecution in their native Ireland, sailed in disease-ridden ships to Canada, crossed the border at night into the United States, and settled in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago around 1850.  By 1874 they had bought 300 acres in Oregon and gone west to settle them.  My grandfather was born there in 1900 and later became the first Finney to attend college.

Find your part in the story.  It starts with discovering where you came from.  Only then can you best decide where to go from here.

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On Excellence

Becoming an outstanding student is not the exclusive territory of those to whom it comes naturally.  Diligence and discipline are just as important as talent and aptitude.  Success in learning works, if you work it.

I know this is true from 20 years as a classroom teacher.  More importantly, I know because I was a successful student.  I received the DAR Excellence in History Award in junior high school, graduated at the top of my high school class, scored a 5 on the APUSH exam, and was awarded the Medal of Merit in Social Studies, making me the top history student in a class of over 700.

Can you achieve this as a student?  Absolutely.  The key to my success in school was not genius, but discipline.  Let me share with you what worked for me.

First and most important, I became a devoted reader.  Books, newspapers, magazines, stories – whatever I could get in the subjects that interested me.  The more you read, the more your comprehensive knowledge of a subject increases.  You become an authority.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the school library.  But I also spent hours outside of school in the public library.  I even worked as a library page at several local branches in my junior year of high school.

I also listened to the news.  Network television and newspapers as a kid, and National Public Radio and cable news channels as an adult.  The more you listen to what is going on the world, the more informed your essay responses on tests will sound.  The internet, of course, brings the entire world to your fingertips.  Take advantage of it.

Finally, I wrote.  Not just papers and assignments for school, but original fiction and nonfiction.  It is a well-known fact that more reading leads to better writing.  As you get to know your favorite authors, take some time to write your own stuff.  You will be pleasantly surprised at the voice you discover.

I leave you with a photo of me as a high school senior, working at my typewriter on my latest story.  This picture is almost 40 years old, before the internet and personal computers and cable television, but the principles of excellence that drove me then and challenge you today have remained unchanged.  Your success in learning depends, in the end, on you.

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Welcome Parents and Students!

Welcome to Mr. Finney’s Tutoring Blog.  I hope you will find these entries helpful as you strive toward success in learning.

I am a certificated teacher and award-winning author with twenty years classroom experience in both private and public schools.  During that time I taught every grade level from middle school to community college and every subject in the social science curriculum.

After seven years teaching in Bakersfield, California, I taught for thirteen years in Orange County.  I also participated for many years in living history programs across the United States, in which I portrayed an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly and created a portfolio of more than 70 original charcoal and pencil sketches.

I believe in creative learning, focusing on interdisciplinary connections and grounding comprehension in reading and artistic expression.  My own background is in the field of American Studies and I served for many years as the social science teacher in an amazing Digital Arts and Humanities program.  Now I bring my experience and enthusiasm to one-on-one learning with my tutoring pupils.

When I learned that Thomas Jefferson read fifteen hours a day, I was inspired.  I dusted off my calligraphy skills from my years as a junior high student in Virginia and created this poster.  It hung on the wall in my classroom for 18 years and was seen by thousands of students.  I now share it with you:  read it, believe it and live it!

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at