Monthly Archives: June 2012

Quotations and Deceptions

As a historian and one who researches primary sources, I’m not a big follower or seeker of quotations.  Twitter accounts and websites devoted to quotations of famous people, politicians or authors (etc.) will throw up a stack of witticisms and wisdom attributed to various so-and-sos.  These get lifted and quoted in editorials and speeches, but context and sources are often left out.  This makes for some oddities by the unsuspecting (and unthinking?) speaker or writer.

Now, I pull quotes as evidence when I am writing about history, but I do it with a citation for the source and I make the context of the quotation clear–anything less would be unethical.  So, this post is not really about the evidentiary use of quotes that historians (and other academics) frequently use, nor about those quotes the media is supposed to supply in news reports (assuming they have done so ethically and competently).  This is about the random quote hawker and random quote seeker.

“Don’t be a good quote surfer, be a good reader!”

Think about someone who has been well-quoted and prolific with a long life of writings or speeches.  Such a person may be particularly remembered for a given episode of his or her life.  Think about how that would color the quotes from other episodes of his or her life.  For example, consider the case of Elie Wiesel, a well-respected, thought-provoking, quotable author and speaker, who for a long time after his Holocaust experience was an atheist.  Today, he is further from his Night and indeed has lived through the Dawn.  Quotes pulled without context from Elie Wiesel can be really misleading, especially as he his still most strongly connected for his recollections in Night.

So, take this as a word of caution.  Even when quoting literature–go read Hamlet and really take a look at the character and context for the quote, “To thine own self be true,”–don’t just lift someone else’s words, respect the speaker or the writer, learn the context for the line you want and use that to make your point, as well.  Don’t be a good quote surfer, be a good reader and self-educator.

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Teaching and presenting

5 Things Every Presenter Should Know About People, Animated | Brain Pickings

As a TA, I watched students tune out a brilliant professor because they were too busy copying down the PowerPoint slides… despite these being made available online before every class.  It was astonishing, especially because she was so interesting.  As teachers and professors we are presenting material to students that we expect them to learn and retain, but how often do they actually learn when we present to them in class?

This is one reason I tried to work projects and case studies into my lectures.  In other words, they would investigate primary sources in between periods of hearing me talk.  I would occasionally use video for this, as well.  But, I recently came across a short video via one of my favorite websites, www.brainpickings.org, about what presenters need to know about people: LISTEN UP, EDUCATORS!  This is great advice for improving the class time we spend gabbing at the front of the classroom.  In my most successful classes, I can look back and see that these points were contributed significantly to an excellent rapport with my students and engagement on their part.

If you click on the link above, you can see the video at the Brainpickings site, but here it is with quick bullet points, below:

5 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People from Weinschenk on Vimeo.

  1. People learn best in 20-minute chunks. There must be a reason for the successful TED-sized talk format.
  2. Multiple sensory channels compete. During a talk, you engage both the auditory and visual channels — because we’re visual creatures and the visual channel trumps the auditory, make sure your slides don’t require people to read much or otherwise distract from the talk.
  3. What you say is only one part of your presentation. Paralinguistics explores how information is communicated beyond words — be aware the audience is responding to your body language and tone. Record yourself presenting to get a feel for those and adjust accordingly.
  4. If you want people to act, you have to call them to action. At the end of your presentation, be very specific about exactly what you would like your audience to do.
  5. People imitate your emotions and feel your feelings. If you’re passionate about your topic, this excitement will be contagious for the audience. Don’t hold back.

I was really pleased with another book from the same series which this video is promoting, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, so I would hold high expectations for the 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People.  Add it to your summer reading list–you may use it to improve your teaching and you may figure out what it is that has been hiding behind some of your greatest successes!

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Teaching History with blood-sucking, stake-driving style, Or, Why Historians Should Be Vampire Hunters

W. Scott Poole: Why Historians Should Be Vampire Hunters.

Literature and History can be taught in a complementary fashion.  Literature is a primary source for its culture and society; the events of History enrich our reading of many great books; and, in general these two subjects are often complimentary as Literature deals with a certain realism of life that History seeks in past eras.  Literature, itself, can use fiction to teach something about History–indeed, most authors are far more conscientious than Hollywood.  (For the moment we will leave behind my favorite personal anecdote about the graphic novel a student read, and believed, that features the pope ordering the crusades be carried out by his zombie armies.)  But, perhaps few would have anticipated a history scholar advocating the recent novel, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.

Professor W. Scott Poole makes a fantastic argument for making use of the fiction, even that as fantastic as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  (If nothing else the book is a salve for the obnoxious Twilight series, but that’s my argument–not Professor Poole’s.)  He assigned it in his History department’s mandatory “The Historian’s Craft” boot-camp-for-history-majors class as a way to demonstrate how, “primary historical sources, the raw material of history, can be repurposed in surprising ways.”

The author of the novel, Seth Grahame-Smith, used primary sources to, “recreate the 19th century, indeed give it a lived-in sort of feeling.”  Read the article linked above and, if nothing else, credit Poole with thinking outside of the box and getting his students to really stretch their brains about the era and history.  His students helped him arrive at some interesting conclusions about the book and its interpretation!

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Some of the (selfish) benefits of homeschooling

Art class: glass blowing! (She made a glass pumpkin.)

There were a number of important reasons and situations that prompted us to homeschool our daughter.  I don’t talk about homeschooling as much on this blog because it isn’t my main focus and my teaching experience was (and remains) diverse long before we ended up at the conclusion to homeschool.  So, maybe this is just a brief and aberrant soliloquy on some of the selfish benefits I derive from our decision.

Field trip: Visiting the National Mall while the Space Shuttle Discovery was flown in laps around us… and the Capitol.

Some months before we took the homeschooling leap last year, I had decided to quit my job(s) and work as a freelancer from home–yes, homeschooling has slowed my income potential–I write and blog about history and food, travel, sports, drama, and education with an eye towards the historical.  That is my niche.   The rest of my time is divided by homeschooling my daughter, my Rotary club, family–the usual.

So, what are my selfish reasons for homeschooling?  Allow me to run out a list of my favorite selfish reasons for homeschooling, in no particular order:

  • I get to go on cool field trips–some of which even have writing potential–did you get to see the Space Shuttle Discovery flown around the National Mall?  I [we] did.
  • I get to use vacations as school time, not punishable time away from school, as much or as little as  I like.
  • I get to brush up on subjects I have neglected while planning out the curriculum.
  • I get to write lesson plans–something I really enjoy doing and at which I have gotten much better over the years!
  • I get to have the coolest reading lists covering an array of disciplines and literature.
  • I get to attend the niftiest programs, whether they are drama performances, professional development workshops in fields in which I am improving, or student events planned by local institutions (like the forensic anthropology lab workshops we did at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum) and much more!
  • I get to make up for lost time–when I came into my daughter’s life she was already six and I worked jobs that required long hours, was in grad school, or was actually, one summer, working and living in another state for much of these early years.  It is only since we have begun homeschooling that I’ve really been able to spend quality time with my (step-) daughter.
  • Life is non-stop exploration!

Vacation to foreign cities, such as Barcelona, above, is our time, not punishable-time away from school.

My daughter has her own selfish reasons for enjoying homeschooling:

  • She gets to do internships (she logged 66 hours at her archaeology internship this past year).
  • She gets to do the coolest field trips–we even went to New York City.
  • 4-H projects become part of class work–so, she does more of them.
  • She can get her conditional work permit at 14 and is sooooooooooo excited about working at our local ice rink as a skate guard and cashier (she volunteered there last year as training).
  • She gets to practice for her soccer team as part of her phys. ed. “class.”
  • She gets to learn without the bad manners and nasty behavior of her peer group distracting her–this does not mean she has no conflicts with other kids, because she definitely does with her soccer team, with her 4-H clubs, and even at her job, but these (a) do not impede her learning and (b) do not have the social weight of numbers that came with such conflicts at her old school.
  • She gets to rack up tons of fun and different volunteer hours that she can use for her resume!
  • Her education involves so much more than just a textbook, and even in our “classes” which largely rely on  textbook learning, the “textbooks” are often unconventional.

We have bumper stickers on our cars that say, “IF WE’RE NEVER AT HOME, AT IT’S NOTHING LIKE SCHOOL, WHY IS IT CALLED HOMESCHOOLING?”  Behind this sentence is a list of activities: ROCK CLIMBING, FIELD TRIPS, MUSEUM VISITS, MUSIC LESSONS, SPORTS, PLAY PRACTICE, etc.  That’s how we roll and there’s no moss to be found!

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Forging Ahead, Greek fire through history and mechanical engineering

Tom Harris and one of the swords he made. (Photo credit: Marcus Woo, http://features.caltech.edu/features/393)

Forging Ahead

It wasn’t long ago when I realized that I was a huge nerd, a total dork, a complete geek!  Now, I have long known that I was a big history and civics dork, but it was only when I was attending NOAA’s Why Do We Explore professional development workshop at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that I realized that I’m an enormous knowledge nerd!  (I’m pretty minimally competent when it comes to technology, so maybe I don’t get to be a geek.)

So, along those lines, I was pretty excited to read about a 2012 Caltech grad with a double major in mechanical engineering and history!  How cool is that!?  His experience brilliantly illustrates the value in multi-disciplined approaches often easily achieved through project based learning.  The intrepid student, Tom Harris, combined research of primary sources about Greek fire with modern scientific knowledge of fluid mechanics.  (Uh, AWESOME!)  He concluded that the weapon was not as effective when used by the Byzantines against the Islamic forces given the methods in naval battles, but acknowledged that his study was not definitive.  His conclusion corroborated some of the contemporary descriptions which suggested the range of Greek fire was limited.

But, let me share with you my favorite paragraph from the short article linked above:

Harris came to Caltech with an undeclared major, thinking he would study computer science. But, having been an avid Lego builder as a kid, he was drawn to mechanical engineering. He also has an interest in medieval history, which similarly dates back to his childhood—he loved pirates and knights, and both his parents were history majors—and after he took Brown’s medieval history class, his impression of the study of history changed. Instead of reading textbooks and analysis from other historians, Harris and his dozen or so classmates read and analyzed original documents.

This is what caught the young man’s imagination:  Instead of reading textbooks and analysis from other historians, Harris and his dozen or so classmates read and analyzed original documents.  The project, an undergrad thesis, resulted in good, quality, original history research.  BRAVO!!

Not only that, but Harris did it by uniting his interests–and, no doubt it took a lot of work with few overlapping core course requirements, from two different tracks.  For some reason, it is a trend in the U.S. that you either do science and math or humanities and language.  While it is one thing to suggest that individuals who do well in one track tend not to do as well in the other track, it is a mistake to encourage this artificial segregation of studies or competencies.  Harris demonstrates the limitations we self-impose on academic study and is exemplary for his cross-disciplinary pursuits.  And, he had fun!  Lots of fun!  The article quotes him as saying, “You could say this experience was about rediscovering my inner child and finding a more mature way of exploring these interests.”

Congratulations Tom Harris on the completion of your thesis and on your graduation from Caltech in the studies of History and Mechanical Engineering!  I hope many people take notice of your example!!

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Failure and Fear, Our internal teachers

business concepts,businesses,characters,concepts,heights,ledges,looking,looking down,looks,people

Much has been written about the importance of failure.  While disappointing, it teaches us, a) to keep going, b) that unintended consequences can be serendipitous (or disastrous, it is true), and c) how things work and do not work.  Failure galvanizes us to reevaluate, and–if we learn it well enough–not to give up just because the desired success was unmet.  Keep going, keep trying are important lessons, themselves.  Failure also challenges us to reconsider what went wrong.  Sometimes we fail because we did not plan well, or because we left out a step, or because our hypothesis was simply wrong, or because the data/evidence was faulty, or because we were afraid of something that created, in that moment, an insurmountable road block.  Sometimes we fail because of our fears.

Fear, like failure, is one of those teachers we take around with us.  We’re used to seeing fear as something negative, something we should ideally live without, but I think it is a little more complicated than that.  If we acknowledge our fears, sit down and really explore them, we can get at deeper roots–the sort that often lead to fear’s evaporation.  Fear is really only a negative when it is externally and unjustly thrust upon us as by a totalitarian state, or when we allow it to paralyze us.

Fear of failure… fear of public speaking… fear of rejection… fear of being a fool… fear of success…  These are all common to writers, artists, creative types, and students.  How do we know that we fear such things?  Well, sometimes that takes a while to figure out.  We look at our inaction, we look at our failures, and we look at all those times everything should have worked out, where there was all that potential, and did not.  Why did we not get hired, why did we not publish more, why did we not speak at more conferences, etc.?  Because, something inside inhibited us and got in the way of our talents and our potential.  What was it?  After honest reflection, what prevented us from initiating or finishing?

Honest reflection is the key, here, but if we can do that, take responsibility and make a plan for the next time, we can really grow.  Courage doesn’t only happen on battle fields.  The courage to overcome fear is the same courage that overcomes failure.  Do not take fear complacently, or write it off as if to say, “well, I don’t do that because I have a fear of it,” but rather sit down and probe the fear, make it uncomfortable.  In the same way that anger is the symptom of being hurt or scared, fear is the symptom of something deeper still.  Embrace the fear and dig to the root of it.  For example, someone may fear success because he is not sure he handle the responsibilities that come with it; or, someone may fear failure because she does not want to disappoint those with high expectations of her.  The key is to deal with the problem that lies underneath and feeds the fear.

I’m not really talking about your standard phobias, here, but any fear that paralyzes or limits us should be challenged.  (Admittedly, fear can warn us of danger, too.  I am not endorsing recklessness, though risk-taking is important to human growth–so is banging your shins, now and again.)  Fear can be a tool and a motivator in its own right.  A friend of mine was afraid of water–with good reason–and challenged that fear by becoming a life guard.  She used the fear as a tool to overcome it.  Needless to say, she’s my hero!  Humans are meant to grow, so we should challenge, in a healthy way, the things that prevent our growth.  We’ll learn a lot that way.

I want to recommend the following online articles: “The 7 Biggest Creativity Killers,” “The 40-30-30 Rule: Why Risk is Worth It,” and, “Why Can’t I Finish?”  Their content is germane to this discussion.

I also want to suggest that as educators, it our responsibility to nurture students and help them overcome their own personal stumbling stones.  Why does an incredibly bright student not hand in his homework?  Is it because he is bored, or is because he feels the pressure of being smart means that everything he hands in must be perfect, so to avoid  anything less than perfection he hands in nothing?  Why does another student shy away from leadership roles that seem a natural fit?  Maybe she does not think she has time, or maybe she is terrified at the thought of speaking in front of a crowd even though she is very articulate and thoughtful one-on-one or in small groups.

Unfortunately, often the fears of our youth have greater consequences than we or others can foresee.  Bright students who turned down Ivy League scholarships because they were afraid of moving away from home and settle for community college; gifted musicians who don’t audition for prestigious music programs because the pressure is too great and end up resenting their musical gifts; students whose fear of failure is so palpable they fail out of college without having really tried; these are common, heartbreaking stories.  It does not mean that when they turn 30, 40, or 50 they are stuck in the rut in which they landed at 18, but  it does mean that they’ll have to learn from the initial failures and fears to reach the point where they can regain their former potential.

Educators can teach a respectable comfort-level with failure and fear by building in low-stakes risks and rewarding failure if it is coupled with healthy reflection and fear if it is overcome or simply turned into a learning tool by the students.  (I do not suggest rewarding sloppiness or carelessness born out of apathy, unless, of course, it is turned into a valid and useful learning experience.)  With projects-based learning, especially, academic competitions (not for grades), and other such tools, we can teach students to recognize their fears and their potential failures as important learning experiences.  Students will understand that failure and fear are our internal teachers that take with them into the world.

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Historic American Newspapers – Chronicling America (The Library of Congress)

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The Hawaiian gazette. (Honolulu [Oahu, Hawaii]) 1865-1918, June 18, 1912

If you visit the Library of Congress’s (LOC) website and click on, “Historic Newspapers,” you open up a unique tool for teaching American history.  The first thing you will see is a collection of newspaper front pages, “100 Years Ago Today.”   These, of course, offer great potential as a way to scan the current events from a century ago, but it is not the only resource the site affords visitors and educators.

“Chronicling America” is a joint-effort of the Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities to provide access to digitized newspapers and to digitize select others.  The intent is, of course, to provide a digital directory of such resources for American history.  The website explains the project in the following manner:

Chronicling America is a Website providing access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages, and is produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). NDNP, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress (LC), is a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages. Supported by NEH, this rich digital resource will be developed and permanently maintained at the Library of Congress. An NEH award program will fund the contribution of content from, eventually, all U.S. states and territories.

To search for particular content, start by clicking on the sidebar’s link, “Recommended Topics,” (location on left upper sidebar, as seen from the screen shot, above) a large alphabetic list of topics is provided.  From here you have two options, 1) find your topic among the listed suggestions, or 2) type in a search term(s) into the box labeled, “Find,” with one of three search areas (1, “News & Current Periodical Pages,” 2, “Researchers Web Pages,” and 3, “All Library of Congress Pages”) provided in the drop down box immediately to the right and see what is provided (see at the top of the screen shot provided, below).

Topics in Chronicling America

 For example, I typed in, “Thomas Edison” in, “News and Current Periodical Pages,” and hit, “GO.”  Now, here, it gets a bit confusing.  While I did not get a direct result for, “Thomas Edison,” the man, as such, I got a topic that is related to Edison: “Early Cinema.”  This could be frustrating for some folks, but the site does function best along the topics it has prepared.  An alternative method is to search, “Thomas Edison” in, “Researchers Web Pages,” and hit, “GO,” giving you research options from the LOC.  Not all of these results will be useful, some will be collections’ items that are not digitized, and others may be only tangentially related, such as the page for the, “Motion Picture and Television Reading Room,” which explains on its main page that:

The Library of Congress began collecting motion pictures in 1893 when Thomas Edison and his brilliant assistant W.K.L. Dickson deposited the Edison Kinetoscopic Records for copyright. However, because of the difficulty of safely storing the flammable nitrate film used at the time, the Library retained only the descriptive material relating to motion pictures. In 1942, recognizing the importance of motion pictures and the need to preserve them as a historical record, the Library began the collection of the films themselves. From 1949 on these included films made for television. Today the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) has responsibility for the acquisition, cataloging and preservation of the motion picture and television collections. The Division operates the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room to provide access and information services to an international community of film and television professionals, archivists, scholars and researchers.

 The last search option from this page is to search, “Thomas Edison” in, “All Library of Congress Pages,” and hit, “GO,” thus providing you with a wide array of materials, including lesson plans, events information and much more.  This brings up some of the same material that the last search provided, but it also includes the LOC biography of Edison and the lesson plan, “Thomas Edison, Electricity and America,” which provides some pretty interesting primary sources, though no newspaper sources (it does include magazine sources, focusing especially on advertising in select magazines).

If you are determined to cover Edison and use the Historic American Newspapers website, you still have a couple of options: 1) direct your students to the page on the 100th anniversary of something newsworthy from Edison’s career, or, if you can’t manage that, 2) use either the, “Early Cinema,” or, “Nikola Tesla,” topics.  Once you select on the topic of choice, you will first get a list of, “Important Dates,” for the topic, then, “Suggested Search Strategies,” and finally, “Sample Articles,” providing links to digitized newspaper articles.

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A Nikolas Tesla article, The Times. (Richmond, Va.) 1890-1903, October 21, 1894, Page 2

The digital copy of the newspaper can be manipulated with controls in the top left corner of the view screen.  In addition to zooming in and out, turning pages, etc., one can also take snapshots with the view screen which can be copied and pasted, downloaded, or printed.  By clicking on the, “Clip Image,” link, the snap shot is opened on a new page or tab with bibliographic information from the newspaper, itself, and the link to the site.

Keep in mind when using old newspaper articles that the rules of journalism developed over time and are relatively recent guidelines, despite the upheaval and threat to such rules created by the web.  As ever, multiple sources will often reveal biases and prejudices among individual publications or authors.

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