There is Nothing Traditional About the Traditional Research Project (Part 2)

[Part 1 and Part 3]

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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Teachers, Technology, and Gettysburg (Part 1)

[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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“War So Terrible”

One of the highlights for me during last week’s Petersburg conference was the opportunity to view Pamplin Park’s feature film, “War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film.”  Will Greene describes its inception as a response to visitors who reflected on their experience in the park as somehow enjoyable or entertaining.  Greene and the rest of the staff did not want visitors, especially students, finishing their tour with a glorified view of war.  Rather, they wanted to convey the horrors of battle and the changes that soldiers underwent over the course of the war and beyond.  [This is something that I’ve discussed on this blog on a number of occasions.  See here and here.]

There are two versions of the film, the full length running 48 minutes as well as a less graphic version that runs 23 minutes.  The film is framed around a veterans reunion that takes place somewhere in the South.  During the ceremony both Benjamin Franklin Meyers of the Union and Andrew Jackson Stewart of the Confederacy reflect on their experiences during the war from their first battle to the trench warfare of 1864.  The film delves into questions of why men fought and persevered in the ranks without reducing the war to any one explanation.  There are no transcendent figures and no references to Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant or anyone to detract from the focus of the film.  Viewers empathize with both individuals and suffer through some very difficult battle footage, which is emotionally draining.  The film succeeds brilliantly in conveying the emotion of battle.  Finally, the reunion scenes steer clear of the mistaken notion that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox or even later events involving Union and Confederate veterans reflected the healing of old wounds and bitterness.  I don’t want to give too much away about this movie.

At the conclusion of the movie our group remained silent for a few moments before discussing it with Greene and I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear in my eye.  I made it a point to purchase a copy before leaving and I plan on showing the full version to my Civil War class this year.  If you are a teacher I encourage you to purchase a copy through Pamplin Park’s online store.  It’s only $9.95 and I guarantee that you won’t be sorry.

Congratulations to Will Greene and the rest of the staff for this fine film.

Are You Teaching Social Justice?

I came across the following post at Chris Wehner’s Blog4History site.  We’ve had our share of run-ins in the past, but Chris is a fellow APUS History teacher and somehow he managed to write a regimental history and teach at the same time.  That’s quite a feat.  Chris is a public school teacher and is worried about the influence of left wing ideologues shaping our history curriculum and influencing how our children think about themselves and their relationship to government.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this.

On the other hand, Wehner’s most recent post on the push to turn classrooms into labs for the teaching of social justice seems to me to be a case of serious hyperbole.  The US Social Forum sounds like a wonderful opportunity for those who are interested in bringing about a certain kind of change to American politics, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea and as far as I am concerned it has no place in the classroom.  Wehner would have us believe, however, that this kind of agenda is infiltrating our public schools.  Now keep in mind that I am a private school teacher so he may be in a much better position to judge this program’s popularity among teachers.  In his post, Wehner claims the following:

This is called teaching for Social Justice and it is not about truth or honesty, it is about radicalism, indoctrination, and propaganda in our schools. And we wonder why our public schools are failing us? There is little learning going on and instead, lots of indoctrination.

They are teaching educators about radicalism and revolution, and they in turn will teach the children!

This is just more data that our educational system is being hijacked by a movement that seeks to do nothing more than fundamentally change this country into something it was never intended to be!

Now, perhaps I need to go back and browse the website more carefully, but where does it suggest that this conference is being marketed to history teachers or any teachers for that matter?  More importantly, how many school districts actually implement programs that fall in line with this agenda?  Wehner fails to provide any facts that would back up his claims.  One thing that is clear is that these conferences are marketed to America’s youth, but that should come as no surprise.  I suspect that I could just as easily find organizations on the conservative side that are engaged in exactly the same thing.  And I have no doubt that I can find accompanying texts for their programs that are equivalent to what William Ayers does in his book on the teaching of Social Justice.   In the end, however, I am still left wondering just how influential any of this is.  For example, how many history teachers actually implemented the curriculum outlined in the History Channel/Howard Zinn collaboration, “The People Speak”?  I’ve seen a few online clips of the show and concluded that it was a complete waste of time.  If the barbarians are actually at the gates than show it.

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Seats Are Still Available

One of the challenges that I faced this past year as head of the history department was filling one final vacancy.  You would think that with this economy we would have had no problem finding the right individual.  Well, think again.  Private schools face a number of challenges in the hiring department.  We are looking for folks that excel at teaching, work well with students, have an interest in coaching, and in our case, living in the dormitory.  This year we were flooded with resumes.

For the department we were looking to bring someone in with an interest in non-western history and International Studies.  It’s important for us to be able to offer courses that challenge our students to think globally.  We want them to be able to build on their understanding of world history in the 9th and 10th grades with a thorough understanding of global politics and culture in the modern world.  As April wore on I was worried that we were not going to find the right person, but thankfully on one of the last visits we hit the jackpot.  This means that we are going to be able to offer a slate of new courses next year and I couldn’t be happier with what our new teacher came up with.  Below you will find short course descriptions.  Please keep in mind that these are rough sketches that will be revised for the course catalog.  That said, I think you will get a sense of what each course will involve.  Given the excitement surrounding the World Cup I couldn’t be more excited about the first offering.  I probably should anticipate some brain drain from my own electives once students get wind of these.  I am also excited about a pilot program that we are offering in American Studies as well as an elective on Government and Politics that will prepare students for the AP test in that subject area.

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