Monthly Archives: February 2012

Some advice and tips on creating educational games

This post gives you some practical tips and advice for creating a functional educational game.  Whether you are inventing the game that your students will play or assigning them a project to make an educational game, these are some useful tips to guide you through the process of both game creation and production.  I have culled these from experience and other advice I have picked up along the way.  If you aren’t yet convinced of the educational value of these, read my earlier post about some of the advantages.

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Creating the game play and rules:

  1. A theme: the game should have a directed theme.  This should be pretty easy since you are linking it to an educational concept or unit, but you may need to review the game theme of your students who might need help focusing it.  Here are some examples, anyway:  If you assigned a fiction reading or movie with your history unit this could also be a good way to have the students interlace it into your history unit.  You could focus on a particular set of primary sources and have them create a game out of it.  You could also ask students to create a game based on a particular battle or an economics game based the unit’s trade system.  You could ask students to consider different players or cultures from a unit and represent each according to their differences and similarities in the game (think Life or Scategories).  Or, you could challenge the students to come up with their own theme from the units after offering some suggestions or provide options that they could select.
  2. Establish the object of the game: Every game has an objective for each player.  In the game of Life, you are trying to acquire wealth; in the game of Monopoly, you are trying to acquire wealth and drive your opponents into bankruptcy; in the game of Risk, you are trying to take over the world while conquering the armies of the other players; in the game of Scrabble, you are trying to earn points by creating the longest or most point-laden words; in the game of Clue, you are trying to establish whodunnit based on logic and elimination; in the game of Scattegories, you are trying to gain points by filling the most categories with words starting from the letter you’ve been assigned; etc.  Each game will need a goal for which the players are aiming to attain.
  3. Advancement in the game:  Related to the above point, the steps need to be put in place that will allow players to progress through game play to the objective.  Is it by rolling the dice or spinning a spinner, making decisions, answering trivia, performing an act or drawing a picture?  It may also be necessary to work out the minimum and maximum number of people that will needed for game in this phase, and likely the general board design or card types–depending on how the game evolves.
  4. Game’s ending:  This may seem obvious, but depending on how the game has been set up it may be trickier than you might think.  Does the game end once the first player has reached the objective, or does it end once everyone has reached the objective and the winner is determined through a comparison of points, acquisitions, etc.?  Some games are a winner-takes-all sort of deal, while others may be more of an everyone-wins type of game but with different results or products.  With the latter concept, think about a game that involves more of a role-playing feel,wherein the objectives for each player vary slightly depending on character/culture/occupation the player has adopted.  (For example, let’s say you are creating a colonial American game in which a player might represent a tribe, a governmental body–such as England or a colony, a religious minority–such as the Quakers or Catholics, individual frontier pioneers or city people–such as one you may have studied with primary sources, and slaves or indentured servants: different objectives would be in place for each group, and different obstacles might have a greater toll on different groups.  Therefore, if you are progressing through a game board, there may simply be a built-in ending point and once each player has reached that point the results are compared for how successfully each player did.  The measurements could include health, wealth, population, legislation, etc., to determine each players’s success.  Or, the game may play end up being more of a role-playing card game where players seek to build their decks in order to play.  These have a less obvious end point and are often played continuously unless a player dies or loses their deck in more cut-throat versions, however for a classroom-created version there would be no way to purchase more cards and endlessly expand the deck, thereby allowing for the end of the game to be established either by loss of cards, inability to play, death of character, or another generic end point.)
  5. Rules:  This another obvious one, but it can create problems if the rules do not allow for a logical play of game (such as a game board where a spinner or one die makes more sense than two dice, i.e., the maximum advancement in one turn should 6 or lower, instead of 12 or lower), render certain steps meaningless (for example, if the there is money used in the game, but it serves little to no purpose because the ultimate objective can be reached without it or because there is not enough means for gaining more money while the game requires that it be spent), or create a scenario where the endgame comes to quickly or slowly.  The best way to avoid this difficulty is actually to develop a working prototype well before the production of the final project.  This segues nicely into my next set of tips.

The above is advice for game creation.  Below, are tips for successful game production.

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Game Production

  1. The Prototype:  This is essential in any game-making process!!  The prototype allows one both to create a draft for the final game board, but also to create a method for playing the game to work out the kinks that might sneak up in the above phase and thus avoid rules that interfere objectives, allow for a solid endgame, etc.  This step cannot be skipped!  Too many things can go wrong in the board appearance or game play, so this draft phase must take place.  As with other assigned projects, it also provides a logical mid-point deadline to make sure everyone is progressing at the necessary pace.
  2. Game pieces:  These need to be designed and constructed.  There are numerous ways to make figurines or acquire pawns such as the following: put stickers on thick cardboard or foam board and cut them out, kidnap them from another board game rescued from a thrift store or garage sale, carve them out of balsa wood or use a Dremel and make wooden pieces, reuse and recycle items from the house (bottle caps, pieces from other games or toy sets, buttons, pins, holiday decorations, etc.), Lego people, etc.  The more these fit with the theme the more fun they are.  For example, let’s say the theme is America in the Cold War, pieces could include an old Coca Cola bottle cap, representing capitalist economics; a peace symbol or smiley face pin; an astronaut or Apollo mission equipment; an American flag; a Soviet flag; a Chinese flag; a miniature book that could be a Playbill or a miniature director’s “cut” board; indicating the Red Scare investigations into actors; an “I Like Ike” button; a domino, representing the “Domino Theory” in Asia; a hockey figurine in red or red, white, and blue; an Olympic flag; a miniature globe or world map; a missile; a submarine; a toy car from the era; a miniature nuclear fallout shelter sign; a toy bomber plane; etc.
  3. Board design:  I recommend purchasing some blank game boards (I found a couple websites that sell these for a few bucks plus shipping, see below), otherwise, white poster board will suffice and you can make it more sturdy by gluing it to two pieces (one for each half of the board game) of corrugated cardboard (which can be covered in cloth, wrapping paper, or adhesive liners) so that it can still be folded down the middle.  In decorating the board, I recommend typing, printing, and pasting squares or other features down on the surface.  You can also print onto Avery stickers with Microsoft Word products that bypass the pasting requirement.  Talented artists may be able to do something more elaborate and those skills should definitely be tapped if they are available, but not assumed.  The prototype should have provided clues for the placement and proportions–another reason that it is critical!  Another possibility is taking an old board game from a thrift store or garage sale and simply spray-painting a neutral color over it to create a new board.  If the game is a card game than one can try using index cards or spray-painting a purloined set of cards from another game or deck (though some materials will be difficult to paint) and pasting down printed pieces or stickers.  As with blank board games, blank card sets also exist (again see below).
  4. Printing up final directions: These can be made into a simple rule book that goes with the game and its pieces, or can be written up in an essay that explains the game play and the educational value of the game and its play.  For example, historical knowledge may be required, skills that our culture has gained from the historical cultural might be demonstrated, antiquated skills or rituals may be required, etc.  Or, role-playing games may recreate the narratives of past people from either specific individuals found in primary sources or invented characters based on primary source (and potentially secondary source) research.  If it is a game that you created for the students to play, than the necessary reading(s) would be built into the assignment of playing the game.  (Note: if you create a few games for small groups to learn and teach each other early in the semester/school year, then you may plant creative seeds for students to tap in a later assignment in which they create their own games.  I love creating things like this, so I would want to do both, personally, but I am not everybody!)

Once that’s all been done, the next thing to do is host a game night!  It’s a great way to bring parents in if you are a classroom teacher; a great way to bring investors in if you are in museum education or historical site education programs; a great excuse to throw a party if you are in home schooling.

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Game-making resources

Check out your standard craft, hobby, and office supply stores if you are making your games from scratch.  If you would like to purchase blanks, check out the sites below:

And, individual game products can be acquired through Amazon, such as:

Books about making games:


Collaborative Opportunities

History and social studies classes can team up with other teachers’ classes.  Art teachers are an obvious collaboration, but for narrative-based games, also think about English and language arts teachers who may help students create narratives for the game.  Computer or tech teachers may be able to help with graphic design for game boards, boxes, or cards.  Shop teachers may help with game piece design where applicable.  These are could opportunities to introduce other disciplines and problem-solving for students.

Make sure to invite these teachers to the game night!


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games

Why history is important, The Lion King Example

Oftentimes the past is relegated to, well, the past.  It is argued that it offers little value to the present.  And, then, when it is used as a case study to explain the present, historians regularly shake their heads at its misapplications and misunderstandings.

Today, I offer a simple post about why history is important and why it’s necessary to get the details down correctly.  I offer this via the Disney movie, The Lion King.

If you recall, the crisis in the movie is caused by sinister Scar, king Mufasa’s brother.  Mufasa’s heir, his son Simba, is brought to a narrow ravine and told to wait for a surprise by his Uncle Scar.  In the meanwhile, Scar’s outlaw hyenas stir up a stampede that cascades into the ravine threatening to trample the crown lion cub to death.  Scar, ever so helpfully, alerts Mufasa to his son’s impending doom.  Once Mufasa gallantly saves his progeny, he seeks to escape the stampede’s melee by climbing the walls of the ravine to safety.  As he struggles up the rock face, Scar, instead of helping his brother, sends him tumbling back into the ravine, to his death.  He convinces cub Simba that he is responsible for the death of his father and drives him away.  Without the king or his heir, the throne falls to Scar.

What does this have to do with history or history education?  No one could contest Scar’s claim because the only story they had–that an accident had killed both of Scar’s leonine rivals–supported his succession.  Because, in other words, he controlled the history, he controlled the throne, but should the truth be revealed–as it ultimately was–his claim to the throne would evaporate.  Furthermore, the impressionable young Simba, an innocent cub mistakenly trusting his uncle, was also fed a falsehood that directed and dominated his life until the movie’s climax.

History can be a dangerous weapon when it is controlled by the seat of power.  It can be a dangerous propaganda tool that is fed to youth so they will already be programmed by the time they come of age.  It is notoriously misused to subjugate populations or isolated groups.  There are literally thousands of examples in the 20th century alone.  Without the historical record being corrected, the movie could not earn its happy ending.  So, it often is in real life power struggles.

Just saying...


Filed under Editorials on education, Fiction, Historian's Journal

The meme that says it all (for historians)

That’s right.  I do.  I do get upset when i think of the colossal amount of knowledge that got fired in antiquity and cut us off from any number of sources about our past: science, history, geography, drama … lost.  It is nearly as catastrophic as the early advanced civilizations that were halted by volcanic explosion and subsequent smothering.

So much we’ll never know.  Lost.  Ashes to ashes…

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A review of “Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe” by Richard Kaeuper

Kaeuper, Richard W. Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, Oxford: NY, 1999. 

Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe was written in 1999 by scholar Richard Kaeuper.  What follows is a review of the book and its contributions to the thought regarding chivalry in society and chivalry’s place in violence.  While chivalry had long been a source of study for late medievalists (11th-13th centuries), our understanding has evolved a great deal from the conception of early historians—Kaeuper plays a significant role in this evolution.

Kaeuper’s book treats chivalry as an inherently violent facet of the culture.  This runs counter to the notion that the romanticized ideal was a means to civilize and restrict the violence of the era.  His concern is with the social and political dynamics, in which chivalry played an ambivalent role, now as a protagonist for order or the Church, now as an antagonist playing havoc in society.  He is searching for the complex ideals and practices of the knights themselves in the face Church or royal controls.  One thing the book does not seek to do is provide a systematic social development and evolution of the idea of chivalry—or for that matter violence and reform.  To this end, Kaeuper creates a triangular relationship of the clergie (clergy), chevalerie (knights), and royaute (royalty), which becomes the order for the opening of his book.

Chivalry and Violence is divided into four parts: Part One discusses the author’s concerns and approaches, laying out the justification for his methodology and sources.  This is a convincing approach focusing on a combination of chivalric literature, clerical admonishments or praises and legal documents to develop the social and political relationships he is seeking surrounding knightly conduct and independence in emerging societies and social orders.  Parts Two and Three focus on the clergie and royaute, the two social checks on knightly exploits and ambitions, which alternately support or repress the knightly play of chivalry.  The clergie expresses frustration with chivalry because of knightly vanity and pride, no less than loss of life and unchecked violence against fellow Christians.  At the same time, it is itself powerless to enforce its laws regarding violence.  Meanwhile the royaute, is seeking to gain the monopoly on violence within its realm, and is increasingly intolerant (especially in Capetian France) of violent behavior outside of its courts or consent.  Part IV is designed as a thematic discourse on certain issues of concern, especially to a modern reader, looking at high medieval society.  In other words, he is seeking answers to his questions about chivalry’s effect on society and its place therein.  These themes include the following: the importance and ambivalent effect of the idea of prowess (ch. 7); the central role of and behavior in war and violence for a knight’s ideals (ch.8); the social dominance of knights in society (ch. 9); issues of gender and treatment of fellow men and of women (ch.10); popular literature and its influence with reforms (chs. 11-12); chivalric self-criticism and reform (ch.13).

Kaeuper’s sources are first and foremost the popular literature of romantic chivalry.  His own analysis of this type includes an acknowledgment that popular fiction represents both a mirror and a catalyst, capable of demonstrating a knight’s desire for independence from authorities to pursue his own ideals and his own sense of piety, but nonetheless representing unattainable ideals that are perhaps limited to the written word as opposed to deeds.  His use of clerical writings include those which decry violent behavior and the trappings of chivalry as well as those biographies of exemplary knights and leaders, which spell out (sometimes seemingly in contradiction) the ideals of the Church regarding licit and illicit violence.  He also makes use of chronicles and the growing mass of legal documentation of these growing states and their court and appeal systems, which define the position of the royaute.

This approach to the sources was to try to determine the knight’s ideas of chivalry as compared to Church’s ideas of reform and the monarchies’ building monopolies on control.  His use of the romantic chivalric stories is both curious and sensible.  They are curious on the one hand because they are fictitious representations of knighthood and society; fantasies, in fact.  On the other hand, it can be demonstrated that the knights read them or listened to them (31) and furthermore their influence on non-fiction works demonstrates that the ideals were mainstream (31-32).  Kaeuper makes a case that while the literature demonstrates tendencies to social criticism and reform and that the genre itself seems to point to a goal of ordered society, it also continues the glorification of violence.  This seems to create a struggle between the knight and society: can his judgments in contributing to social order and peace be reliable.


Kaeuper writes a book that is thematically organized according to his pursuits, which is not inherently problematic, though it does produce some byproducts that may frustrate the reader.  The first of these is that the reader will find it difficult to follow the chronology of the ideas.  Something such as a timeline of his primary sources would greatly help the reader trace the greater contexts for his narrowed pursuit of social concerns.  The second difficulty is the geography of his discussions.  The majority of his popular literature is French and there is only a smaller amount of English literature in his section on the Plantagenets—arguably still French.  He does not address whether this literature is unique to Capetian France and Anglo-Norman England or if it has been found in translation in other languages and regions.  Had he defined his search as limited to that type of chivalry exemplified in Capetian France and Anglo-Norman England from the start it would be less confusing and not leave the reader wondering about the chivalric traditions from the rest of Europe.

When discussing the role of the clergy, Kaeuper brings up both the Peace and Truce of God movements and the Gregorian Reform, both of which seem to precede chivalric ideals significantly by his own reckoning.  There is less discussion of the papal role in ideas of violence that coincides with chivalry in its prime, i.e. the Crusades.  This is somewhat odd given that the evolution of crusade theology is certainly the starting point for the most advanced Church theology on licit violence and coercion at the time.  Where, for example, does it fit in the violent movements against heretics?  If he discusses 11th century Gregory VII, where is 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux—the man who condemned the vanity of the knights even as he helped establish the military orders—a perfect and prolific man for discussions on the seeming contradictions of the clergy?

This study does not account for the influence of chivalry on the clergy or ideas of licit violence other than to observe growing laxity on some of the trappings of knighthood (i.e. tournaments).  This is perhaps beyond the scope of the book, but in setting up his triangular relationship ones expects a certain movement back and forth along the lines. Any struggle between the clergie and royaute is likewise absent.

Regarding his goal of pursuing the social and political dimensions of chivalry and violence, Kaeuper is mostly successful.  He explains the world of the knight, from his ideas of salvation and violence to his expectations, both romantic and realistic, and his chafing under outside restrictions.  Kaeuper gives an excellent summary of royal and religious reactions to the knight’s behavior and ideals.  Finally, Kaeuper considers the aspects of chivalry in the knight’s society in Part IV.  He does a masterful job, here, of including the social concerns of a modern audience without coloring his research in the shades of modern values, specifically pointing out at times that there is no need to pass judgment given the different values of the age he is studying.

I stand firm, however, that he sets up an expectation of relationships that he does not entirely fulfill.  Knights and their chivalry surely had a greater impact on both clergie and royaute than he describes, eliciting something beyond merely the reactionary, especially given the fact that both the clergie and royaute were individuals coming out of the knightly class themselves—a point he does not fail to make.  The expectation is made (see p. 36, and including the rest of the section under the heading “The Framework of Institutions and Ideas”) that the reader will learn about the intellectual commerce trading between all three points of the triangle—clergie, chevalerie, and royaute—regarding violence and chivalry; instead, Kaeuper sets up an arrow of reactions from the clergie and royaute pointing to the chevalerie and its social concepts.

In his prologue, Kaeuper places his work in contrast to scholars who take the view of the romantic, seeing chivalry as a restraining hand in establishing peace and order in emergent civilizations.  Chivalry is instead, for Kaeuper, that ambivalent source which can damage the development of peaceful societies as much as it might contribute.  I, for one, find his placement in the historiography of violence and the Church as the more compelling contribution.  Despite lacking certain developments I would prefer to see made along these lines, this study is valuable given its focus on lay ideals of violence and both the responses of the Church and monarchies.  This book provides a very useful starting point in treating the perceptions of licit violence and violence in general by the laity which contribute usefully to the following discussions: crusader behavior, popular responses to the crusade, Church foundations of licit violence, crusader theology and the military orders.  Crusade studies will benefit from a greater consideration of this evolved notion of chivalry and its ripples in society.

NOTE: Kaueper recently wrote a follow-up book: Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (The Middle Ages Series). This book addresses many of the holes I noticed in the first volume, including the crusades.


Filed under Historian's Journal, Reviews

My National Geographic Magazine project

In this post, I am sharing my National Geographic assignment.  This is especially useful in generating multi-disciplined assignments and projects.  I use it for home school, but it could easily be adapted to history, anthropology, English, social studies, language arts, or related subjects–the reading level is higher, obviously, so if you are doing it with younger kids, enlist the help of parents or reading coaches.  It also makes a pretty good extra credit assignment, if you do that.

The purpose is to get the student to read one of the articles and then engage in the content at a higher level.  Whether the student reads further, creates fiction based on the article, or is artistically inspired, he or she is reworking the content of the article into his or her own project.

This is a great way to expose students to science, history, sociology, travel, and culture beyond their classrooms!  Once they’ve tapped into the pictures and maps, the story becomes hard to resist.  Each article is a kind of field trip (almost) and it should capture students’ imaginations and fuel their curiosity–for life.

(Additional tip for history use:  Assign older Nat. Geo. magazines from a period you are studying–the old Life magazines work well, too–so, students could, for example, read about the Space Race as it was unfolding.  Now, you’ve advanced it to a primary source project!)

National Geographic Assignment

Directions:  Read the current issue of National Geographic Magazine and do one of the following activities using an article of your choice from that issue:

  • Write a short story
  • Make a board game
  • Write a play
  • Do a related experiment
  • Further reading
  • Write a short report
  • Make a travel brochure
  • Do an art project
  • Invent a product or service
  • Write a blog post
  • Write a letter to the author or someone in the article
  • Make an informative map or chart explaining an aspect of the article
  • Create a storyboard for a short movie or documentary inspired by the article
  • Draw one of the photographs from the article
  • Write a speech
  • Make a cartoon strip
  • Write a song or poem
  • Make a PowerPoint explaining the article or an aspect of the article
  • Create a glossary or encyclopedia entries for the article
  • Design a craft project inspired by the article
  • Create a non-profit/fundraising service idea to address an issue raised in the article
  • Prepare a meal inspired by the article

These projects also make good “show” projects when highlighting the class’s  work or an individual student’s accomplishments.  Stories, artwork, and other projects may be used for contests or projects beyond the school or home school.

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Filed under Drama/Theater/Cinema, Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Food, Games, Music, Tech tools, Travel

Creating educational games

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Board games can be designed to teach many subjects and principles alongside the competitive objectives.  As a kid, my parents introduced a German board game called “Deutschlandreise,” which means “German travel” or “German vacation,” as a way to get me excited about our trips to visit family in Germany.  In essence, the objective was to complete your travel itinerary, which directed you to several cities on the board–a map of Germany.  As you “visited” each city, you learned about some of the city’s highlights.  It is a Cold War era game, so while travel through the GDR was included in the game, the borders were clear on the map and provided a useful talking point for my folks when we played the game.

I think one of the best ways to utilize board games in the classroom is to ask students to create one on your subject.  For example, a Greek unit could cover a great deal, but let’s say it covered the following subjects:

  • Homer – The Illiad, The Odyssey
  • Athens – democracy, philosophy, orators
  • Sparta – the 300, the military state
  • Hellenism – drama, history, city-building, agoras and commerce
  • Conflicts – two wars with the Persians, the Peloponessian War
  • Alexander the Great

A game could be designed that focuses on any one of these subjects, or on multiple subjects.  For example, a game could be made on Odysseus and his travels designed somewhat like the game of Life, with a map and a winding path that includes the many challenges he and his companions faced.  A Risk type of game could be adopted for Alexander the Great.  Or, a Monopoly style board could be created in which each color, instead of being purchasable properties, could be one of the subjects above.  Instead of acquiring the colors through purchasing, you would gain them through answering questions.  Similarly, anybody landing on your colored spaces would have to answer questions, with a more difficult questions being reached as more of the colors are acquired, i.e. a “monopoly” is earned.  Failing to answer questions correctly would result in loss of points, much like paying cash in Monopoly.  There is also always a simple Trivial Pursuit spin-off as well.

Of course, many games can be created without resorting to existing favorites.  They can be based on commerce, battles, knowledge, or Greek “skills” such as drama, oratory, philosophy, history and art (something like Cranium comes to mind, here).  Small groups could be assigned a specific feature from the above list so that a variety of games are created and can be played and shared.  Parents could be brought in for a class game night and Greek food could be part of the experience (there are numerous resources for historically-based recipes).  Alternatively, the teacher could establish a particular theme and the game development could be a classroom activity.

How does this help your student learn about history?  By delving into the subject enough to establish game objectives, students hit numerous points on Dale’s Cone of Experience, building off of classroom learning: listening, reading, writing/creating.  I recommend an accompanying essay that functions both as a “how-to” with the directions, plus an explanation of what historical elements the game recreates and teaches.  If you encourage the students to go for authenticity and professional presentation, they will usually go all out.  Collaborate with the art teacher who will be able to help them with materials and supplies.  You may want to also collaborate with the English or Language Arts teacher on the “how-to” essay or in coming up with a “story-outline” for the game–but many very good games could be designed that do not follow a specific storyline.

Games have also been an essential part of leisure time throughout history.  Many historically created games have been recreated and are available, today.  While many of these were gambling games, many were akin to our modern board games.  Mancala or similar games were played in many places in the ancient world.  The Vikings played Hnefatafl–like chess, but where one player has a greater advantage–sort of like Leonides and the 300 versus the Persians!  And, of course, there is chess which has gone through many evolutions before being played the way we know today, each informative about the culture.  These games can also be incorporated into teaching, but it is a considerably different experience from students creating a game based on history and sharing that with their peers.

Or, you could play the Viking game of Hnefatafl.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games

Immigration in NYC during the Ellis Island Era

First vlog!  (So, be patient as I learn the ropes, ok?)  This is based on a November, 2011, trip (Planning the Education Vacation or Extended Field Trip Using NYC as a Case Study).  You can view it  here or at the Brush off the dust! History now! YouTube page.

I wanted to also provide  the following recommendations for this subject and exploring it in NYC:

  1. The Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum
  2. The Museum of Jewish Heritage
  3. The Museum of Chinese in America
  4. The Statue of Liberty
  5. Ellis Island
  6. The New York Historical Society

(Follow them on Twitter, too!)


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Filed under #FF, Travel, Vlogs!

Teaching history without a history degree

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Obviously, the best case scenario for every teacher is that they have a degree in the subject or field that they are teaching.  But, for a variety of reasons, that simply is not always possible.  (I am clearly speaking about primary and secondary education, here.)  This post is addressed to those earnest educators working at museums, schools, home schools, historical reconstruction sites, memorials, and similar placements who seek to teach history better, despite a lack of training in the field.

First note, that this post is filed under the category of “Experiencing History” and that I have no “History Education” category on my blog despite frequently writing about it.  Simply put, I believe that “Experiencing History” should be synonymous with “History Education.”  By this, I mean that history education should comprise of history research, writing, and presentation on the one hand, complemented by experiences in historical reconstruction on the other whether it is through food, sport, drama, music, travel, presentations, or recreated experiences.  Naturally, this is revised according to level of learning, but experiential learning in history is far more rewarding and lasting than simply being told what happened when, and, oh by the way, kindly memorize that and regurgitate it for me later.  (I’m not castigating tests here, but I do firmly believe that some tests are far superior to others.)  Being a historian is also “experiencing history” because real historians stopped using textbooks the moment they entered real academic training; instead, they read scholarly works infused with passion about the subject (usually passionate, anyway), researched primary sources, and wrote presentations of arguments about their findings.

So, in order for the above to be possible, the teacher has to have certain knowledge and resources.  One thing I want to do in this post is recommend some resources and suggest the best methods for achieving the desired knowledge.  I also recommend you read the following two posts, if you are new to the field: “A metaphor to explain what historians do” and “Primary sources and getting some context” (these may also give you some ideas for exercises–many other “Experiencing History” posts will also recommend exercises).


If the books you read about your subject frequent the fancy display cases at Barnes and Noble–unless it is a university bookstore–you should be wary.  Popular history is written for entertainment and revenues, but seldom for peer review!  This is really important!  Peer review means that other experts in the field have reviewed it, as opposed to newspaper or magazine reviewers who are not historians.  One of the values in getting journals (or getting access to journals) is that they include the peer review, such as the American Historical Association’s The American Historical Review, which has the benefit of covering the vast range of historical sub-studies and eras.  Going to university library and accessing a database such as JSTOR allows you to search for reviews specifically on topics.  This effectively gives you a list of quality history books on your subject (along with their strengths and weaknesses).  It will also give you an introduction into historiography which is the history of what historians have argued regarding your topic and an important insight into how history works and how our understanding evolves.

Another avenue is to skip Barnes and Noble and go to peruse the catalogs, online or print, of publishers who specialize in academic books.  These include university presses, of course, and also academic publishing arms such as Bedford’s, Palgrave, Blackwell, Modern Library (their “College Editions”), and Penguin (though, they publish a lot of popular stuff, too, so be discerning or look for their academic publications–they also have many useful translations of primary sources).  I would still avail yourself of reviews, especially if you are new to the field, but these should be safe for their information.  Once you’ve got good books, start paying attention to their footnotes/endnotes and their sources, both primary and secondary–this is literally your paper trail, and while you probably cannot replicate or follow every lead practically, you can cross-reference and learn about the subject’s evolution in our understanding.

Some of you may ask why you can’t you rely on the history textbook?  At least two reasons: 1) textbooks aren’t very good (for a full explanation of this read the following: “Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks”), and, 2) your students already have the textbook, so you aren’t providing anything that they can’t already teach themselves if they simply read the textbook–admittedly there opportunities for refining reading skills, but that is not enough of an excuse as you can do that with any reading assignment.  Some of you may be faced with required texts that you are assigned and that’s fine, but don’t be a slave to them.  Once you have educated yourself, the inherent limitations of the textbooks become mind-expanding teaching tools themselves.

But, before you really get into your subject learn more about the field itself.  Some of the books I am about to suggest, are aimed at students.  If you do not have extensive formal training in history, then it is worth considering yourself a student, too.  (Actually, the best teachers never stop thinking of themselves as students, no matter how many years of experience they may have.)  I should clarify why it is important to learn about the field itself: have you ever heard of teaching science without also teaching the Scientific Method or performing experiments to learn chemistry or physics?  Of course not!  Science counts on transparency of method so that each experiment and its findings can be reproduced.  Academic history functions, more or less, the same way–except that history involves a lot more grey area and interpretation of findings–but for some reason history is limited in the early years of education to the very dry transferal of “historical facts” (which, as we see, are often not fact at all–read the link about textbooks above!).

So, this is why your job requires getting good information about your subject and demonstrating transparency of method for your students.  Once they learn the methodology, you will find it makes them more critical readers who grow into citizens requiring a trail of evidence not just random assertions by someone claiming to know something.  (In other words, you are teaching them the skills that will remove them from the gullible e-mail chain population and make them critical of political spoutings and commentary.)  The books below will help get you initiated into the field, but it will take your own leg work to discover the books you need for the history subject you are teaching–by the way, your reading requirement doesn’t end as long as you are teaching: historiography!  What we know is constantly evolving!

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives On The Past), Sam Wineburg–*Anyone teaching history, should read this book, even with historical training!

From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Martha Howell & Waltern Prevenier

A Student’s Guide to History, Jules R. Benjamin

A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, Mary Lynn Rampolla

Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History, Jim Cullen

Writing History: A Guide for Students, William Kelleher Storey

Reading History: A Practical Guide to Improving Literacy, Janet Allen and Christine Landaker *Use this book with an eye to any reading assignment–not textbooks.

Thinking History, Peter N. Stearns *This was published by the American Historical Association along with countless other useful booklets on historical thinking, comparative history, historiography and teaching history.

There are other good books, of course, but this a good list to get you started!


The web provides far less reliable secondary source material about most subjects than it advertises.  (This should not be a surprise!)  If you are trying to find accurate historical information written by competent historians online, your best bet is to pursue academic sites, National Park Service sites (although the quality is variable and lacks an academic standard to be universally applied, these websites are still the product of folks with an intimate knowledge of their Park and often who have some historical training in their background), preservation sites, and those of professional historical associations.  The most difficult area, at least for American history, will be the Civil War, which is awash with amateur historians, often infused with regional prejudices; this would be followed by our colonial history which has become overwhelmed by modern day, political commentary, and is, thus, propagated by amateurs with a modern political agenda.  (Note: I am abstaining from commenting on modern politics and merely discussing the quality of the history.)

Search engines also complicate things.  When you type a query into your search engine, you get the most popular sites–not the best sites–at the top.  Most search engines will let you refine the url type you are searching.  In other words, you can search for your subject but only among .gov or .edu websites, for example.  Some of the sites below include useful secondary information, while others specialize in primary source information.

Of course, there are also documentaries online (and TV), but here especially be critical!  Documentaries often include valuable information and interviews with historians, but they also are usually directed and produced by non-historians in the entertainment industry.  The film genre, more than any other(!), is for entertainment–even National Geographic will emphasize treasure over good history because people will be more interested in gold!  The minute someone sets about making a film, the first goal is always entertainment.  This is the nature of supply and demand for film: busy people, inexperienced people, or lazy people who still have an interest in history are targeted, because they want to know about the subject via great footage and in the space of an hour. Furthermore, they tend to portray a unified interpretation of a subject, which is fairly impossible in history.  Scholars come to well-reasoned, but different conclusions, so the films tend to perpetuate the myth of cold-hard historical fact.  I’m not saying they are useless, but documentaries have inherent flaws because of their goals that you should understand in advance.

The websites below will build on the reading I recommended above and augment individual subject studies.  They will do slightly different things for you which I attempt to clarify.  There are other websites out there, but these are a good start.

A Student’s Online Guide to History Reference Sources – This is an online source that goes with the Jules R. Benjamin book above.

Resources for Teachers at All Levels – American Historical Association, teaching resources–they really serve teaching and pedagogy, so take advantage!

The AHA and K-16 Teaching – American Historical Association, teaching resources. – National History Education Clearinghouse: includes exercises, primary sources, and historian interviews.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project by Paul Halsall of Fordham University – Primary sources, with some secondary source reference material and maps.

And some useful blogs:

History Tech – Teaching resources blog with an eye to technology.

The History Channel This is Not… – Great posts on pedagogy from a trained historian who is teaching.

Brush off the Dust! History Now! – This blog.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Vlogs coming soon! Duck!

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Thanks to my responsibilities as writer-in-residence and PR captain of my Rotary club (that would be the BWI Rotary Club, ahem!), I have been initiated in the grand art of video-making.  On the whole, I find this incredibly appealing and enjoyable–it is writing, augmented by images and sound!  Now, I lack much of the advanced technology that many up and coming film producers have at their disposal, so we’ll take it a little bit at a time, but I hope to increase the number of videos in all categories.

If you want to skip the written blog–oh! but don’t do that!–I will have a new category called, “Vlogs,” and a “Brush off the Dust! History Now!” YouTube Channel.  The YouTube Channel is already set up, but no videos have been posted, yet.  These documentaries will vary greatly in length, I think, so be aware that some will cover a subject in greater depth.  Many of my first will likely link back to existing blog posts, though they may include updates or have footage that was not included in the original blog post.  Part of this is due to the available photographs I already have, many of which were not used in the blog posts for a variety of reasons, usually simply because of space.

What can you expect in the relative immediate vlog future?

  • A series of NYC flicks based on my trip there this past November
  • A Ft. McHenry flick–one of my first posts was on Ft. McHenry, but now it’s 2012!  We got some ‘membering to do!
  • Possibly a food flick or two–but we’ll have to see about that–looking at recreating and investigating history via food…yum
  • A flick on planning family trips for educational edification, or extended field trips school
  • Some local travel pieces centered on history themes
  • Hopefully some interviews
  • A piece on the American government and its policy relations with native tribes
  • Hopefully some videos on Spain based on the time spent there a couple of years ago

I am also open to suggestions or questions for investigation that people might like to see me pursue on the blog or in vlogs, so feel free to use the comment space below to throw out some suggestions.

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The National Archives refurbs the Magna Carta

One of the really cool things about our National Archives is that it owns a copy of the Magna Carta, aka, The Great Charter of Liberties (thanks to a wealthy philanthropist).  Sadly, if you visit right now, you won’t be able to see it.  The 13th century document is currently getting a makeover of sorts.  Kindly, however, the National Archives has provided this cool looksy at the process.

So, why should you care about a 13th century document that is older than our country?  Well, when the barons had finally had enough of King John–yes, that King John–of King John’s taxes and other policies, they cornered him at Runnymede meadow, and handed him a document that they had written up with some aid by a few bishops on hand.  While they were primarily concerned with looking after themselves, the barons put a few lines in that most important of all legal documents that have become the hallmarks of the Rule of Law and of our dearest-held rights.  It wasn’t much aid  to a woman who wished to bring a rapist to justice (“54: No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon a woman’s appeal for the death of any person other than her husband.”)–although, it does do some mighty fine things for the rights of widows–it nevertheless extended and insisted on the these rights for all free men in the kingdom, regardless of rank (other than that free part).

Try to think about this for a moment: imagine that France had secured a similar document and protected as the English lords would do (several successive kings attempted to do away with it, only to have it be reestablished by the combined might of the aristocracy), would there have ever been a Sun King, a Versailles, a vast centralizing of power in the king, a Marie Antoinette, a French Revolution, and a handful of blood baths?  Would the successive events have been possible if the power had been forcibly decentralized and the early stirrings of a parliament founded when France was still medieval, as happened in England?  Quite plausibly not!

Regardless of France, these United States of America referenced the legacy of the Magna Carta at length both in arguments for fair treatment while still a colony under Britain and in the construction of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

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