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Few will deny that the expansion of web technologies has drastically transformed our classrooms. It has allowed me to do things in the classroom that I could only dream about just a few short years ago. That said, in the end my usage of this technology has enhanced and improved my ability to achieve certain goals rather than transform the goals themselves. Let me explain. I love primary sources. My courses are built around a belief that the best way for students to understand the past is for them to engage the available primary sources. I want them to learn to analyze sources, appreciate perspective and develop interpretations that form the foundation for classroom discussions and debates as well as various written assignments. Yes, I give my students every opportunity to display their understanding in various ways, but at the end of the day I want my students to develop their critical writing skills.
They even write a substantial research paper over the course of two months. I hope you are not too surprised to hear this, but unfortunately, more and more history teachers are ditching the traditional paper. That is unfortunate because there is nothing traditional about writing formal papers given the online tools now available. If you are my age you probably remember writing research papers that were almost, if not entirely, based on secondary sources. The teacher took the class to the library and we spent our time reading encyclopedias, books, and maybe a few magazines. The goal was to synthesize what other had written on the subject. In the case of my library most of the books were old, which I now understand was a significant problem. Such a project left very little room for original thought because there was no access to the relevant primary sources.
Because there is now a wealth of primary source material available online I can teach the kind of essay that allows students (echoing the words of Carl Becker) to be their own historian. A two month process allows students to experience the entire research process from gathering materials, formulating a thesis, outlines, and rough drafts. So, the most important websites for me are those that function as online repositories such as the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Valley of the Shadow, and Library of Congress. While secondary sources aid my students in understanding the outline of their subject their essays are built from the ground up with online primary sources. They gather their online sources using social bookmarking sites like Delicious that allow them to tag and organize their sources. What I like about Delicious is that it allows users to network with others with similar interests. The more sophisticated may find Zotero to be helpful in organizing sources. Every stage of the writing process is done on Google Docs. First, it makes it much easier to follow and comment as the teacher, but it also allows other students to read and comment on their peers’ work. I think this helps to foster community as well as an appreciation for the communal aspect of research. Students can also take advantage of programs such as Noodle Tools for the proper citation form of their sources.
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[Part 2 and Part 3]
Tomorrow I head out for the Civil War Preservation Trust’s 2010 Teacher Institute in Hagerstown, Maryland. The conference doesn’t begin until Friday, but since the good people at the CWPT put me up in the hotel beginning on Thursday I decided to make a day of it in Gettysburg. I’m looking forward to the conference, which includes a number of interesting workshops as well as keynote talks by Bud Robertson, Peter Carmichael (filling in for Gary Gallagher) and Jeff Shaara. My responsibilities are minimal. On Saturday evening I am taking part in a roundtable discussion on the role of technology/web2.0 in the classroom. I am joining Jim Beeghley and Eric Miller with Robert Shenk moderating. I have five minutes to share some thoughts before the audience has an opportunity to question all of the panel members. In preparation for the session I thought it might be helpful to write up a few thoughts.
What is the role and place of technology in our history classrooms? This may seem like an obvious question, but unfortunately, not enough people in our field are exploring it with the level of importance it deserves. I am constantly being asked if I use this or that in my classroom as if we are dealing with a continual wave of fads that come and go. My response is always the same: Why should I be using a specific program? To answer that question we need to first understand our goals as history teachers. I teach a specific subject and there are various methods and tools that can be used in that process; technology is but one of them. The teaching of history involves both a content and skills component. My overall goal is to teach students how to think critically about the past as well as their place within that broader narrative. This involves both the analysis of primary and secondary sources as well as the development of their own understanding of the past through some type of presentation. So, there is both an emphasis on how students process information as well as how it is shared with a broader community. Every piece of web technology that I use in my classroom somehow fits into this overall goal.
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I have culled a number of helpful sources from Google Books. Today I am sharing a wonderful image of Douglas Southall Freeman that was taken from a Life magazine article published in May 1940. The article takes the reader to various places from the Petersburg Campaign, including the Crater and follows Freeman as he attempts to make sense of the growing conflict in Europe and its likely outcome based on his understanding of the Civil War. It’s an interesting piece and the photographs are wonderful. The article begins with that famous photograph of Freeman saluting the Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
I believe that the photograph of the remains of the Crater was taken facing north. The modern day trail follows the far side to the left and behind the Confederate position. If you look closely you can see the South Carolina marker in the rear and to the right behind the tree. I should mention that Freeman’s fascination with the Civil War began at the Crater. In 1903 he attended the famous Crater reenactment with his father, who served in the 41st Virginia Infantry. After watching the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade march by the young Freeman pledged to his father that he would tell their story. Another great find.
Every once in a while I tune into the Glenn Beck Show. In a media world where conversations/interviews are much too short, Beck at least tries to dig into specific topics during his hour-long show. I especially enjoy his Friday show, which in recent weeks has been devoted to historical topics. History for Beck is part of his broader political-cultural world view that sees fascism, communism, atheism and every other -ism at America’s doorstep. I am actually fascinated by his ability to weave a complex web that makes perfect sense if you accept just a few of his assumptions. In the end, Beck is doing exactly what Father Charles Coughlin would do if he had access to the same media. According to Beck America has been on this road since the Progressive Era. I don’t claim to understand his particular historical outlook, but as far as I can tell every American president in the twentieth century, including Eisenhower and Nixon have contributed to this dastardly turn. Well, whatever…enough with that.
This past Friday, Beck focused on the Progressive Period once again with particular attention on the racism of Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger and a reappraisal of the “Robber Barons.” Beck was joined by Burton Folsom Jr. and Larry Schweikart. Neither is a serious historian and Schweikart is a complete hack. You may remember a recent post of mine which critiqued a FOX interview with Schweikart, who made some ridiculous claims about the state of history textbooks. [See here, here, and here] At one point during the interview the subject of Abraham Lincoln came up along with the subject of slavery and the Confederacy:
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One of the richest sources for a black counter-memory of the Civil War is Ebony magazine. Throughout the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s and beyond the magazine published articles that addressed the crucial role that African Americans played in Union victory. No topic received more attention than USCTs. You can view old issues through Google Books and it has proven to be incredibly helpful as I write about how black Americans remembered the battle of the Crater during this period.
One particular article written by Lerone Bennett Jr., (October 1975) about the battle of Chaffin’s Farm caught my attention. In addition to Bennett’s text there are five sketches by Orville A. Hurt that add quite a bit of depth to the essay. You can find Hurt’s illustrations in multiple issues of the magazine.
Hurt’s illustrations emphasize the bravery and manliness of USCTs as well as the sacrifice made on the battlefield. The image above is by far the most powerful. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a stark image of a black soldier plunging his bayonet through a Confederate officer before the movie Glory.