Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Tech-fallacy vs Quality Edtech

I’ve recently advocated a great deal of edtech.  My approach to education has always emphasized content and skills.  Because of this, I see a real value in incorporating technology into coursework.  There are, however, unfortunate side-effects that can emerge.

Recently, Jay Matthews wrote a Class Struggle column for the Washington Post online, called, “How computers can hurt schools,” discussing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.  He describes the case of Melvin highlighted in the lawsuit whose English class functioned “virtually” with little to no interaction from his teacher.  The computer was, in his teacher’s mind, supposed to educate him.  It didn’t work.

I have also in the past advocated “slow reading,” bound paper books, and handwriting.  There are many advantages to technology, but it comes with its own drawbacks.  In this post,  I want to highlight the challenges.  These are a generous sampling of issues, not a particular tirade.

Access to technology
A great teacher in my area teaches STEM classes at an elementary school that has had a surging percentage of ESL students.  In her mind, technology is the equalizer.  If you were to walk into her classroom and watch her students working through a Robotic Legoes project in which they measure their designed cars’ ability to drag a load, you’d agree with her immediately.  The key to success has been her ability to write grants that allowed her to procure the equipment.

Few of her students have access to such technology at home, of course.  And, many of her ESL students without her instruction would not gain the advantage of expanding their English vocabulary.  Technology works in this case because the school owns it–the students need bring nothing but their thirsty minds–and the teacher is excellent at maximizing gains.

I advocate using technology to do a number of projects that many students simply cannot do unless the school provides the access to the technology.  Incorporating smart phones or tablets only works if every student has access.  Does this mean we will add such technology to our school supply lists?  Perhaps it means teachers in low-income areas need to learn to write grants as part of their training.

Screen time
South Korea is one of the most strongly plugged-in, high-speed technological cultures.  They recently halted a plan to transition all textbooks to e-books.  The reason for this was centered on studies about the dangers of excessive screen time.  These include brain-patterning and chemistry that develops over time, mimicing addiction.

In general, students with higher screen time hours tend to have a host of attendant health problems.  Some of these are cognitive though many are related to inactivity.  There are also concerns about reduced face time with other human beings and minimized time outdoors.  Besides concrete health concerns, such as a lack of sunlight and its natural provision of vitamin D, this creates a disconnect with the natural world which will, among other side-effects, challenge future conservation.

The reliance on getting information digitally impairs a slow, concentrated ability to read in depth for comprehension of complex ideas.  Scanning is a useful skill for a quick upload of information–I use it all the time when I am referencing a source for a particular idea or concept to be sure of the context.  But, true comprehension of complex ideas, whether in a great work of literature, a written study, political analysis of an issue or legal problem, a work of philosophy, etc., requires more than a cursory scan.

It is also an essential cognitive skill to maintain and foster.  Slow reading promotes the ability to focus deeply.  This is a basic skill used in decision making, destressing, and problem-solving.  It is also life-enriching.  Consider the difference between the experience of social media memes and contemplating a Raphael, Van Gogh or El Greco three feet from your nose.  As with much of “slow” movements it comes back to experiences.

I am an advocate of using technology to recreate experiences that cannot be otherwise accomplished.  You can use the web to create a virtual field trip even if the resources are not available to make the trip any other way.  But, the understanding is that this is a substitute resource.  Emphasis on substitute.

History instructors can use leisure activities, food, music, etc. (see the sub-categories under my Experiencing category) to recreate another era.  These are also very social activities.  The learning is achieved together and it uses the human senses, which in turn stimulate the brain and its learning.

Poverty limits experiences, obviously.  While technology can be used to ignite curiosity and encourage experience, it can also deprive one of experience and reality.  Naturally, this comes back to balance.

Studies show that practicing and learning handwriting does important things for our cognitive development with language.  Many schools have already abandoned it in their curriculum.  Keep in mind that part of the issue here is literacy, the other part circles back around tothe aforementioned concern about access.

On the one hand, learning to write by hand is a stronger means to learn literacy.  On the other hand, anyone who cannot afford a computer can still write out a job application or send a letter to his or her politician.  That same citizen should know how to type, too, because some day he or she may be able to get a computer, but until then… it’s all about access.

Some students in our area-elementary schools are extremely poor, relying on school for two to three meals out of the day (with after school programs), going to school in the winter in flip-flops because they do not have shoes, missing the afternoon of classes if they spoil themselves because they don’t have a change of underwear when they go home, and having no money for basic school supplies such as paper and pencils, let alone tablets and computers.

Teacher participation
The final x-factor is the instructor.  Technology cannot be a substitution for instruction in a classroom setting.  You walk into the classroom and it’s game on, period.  Teacher interaction has an incredible impact on students.  Buy-in problems and student management troubles are often the result of poor teacher interactions.

I can look back on my own career and identify those moments when I created problems with my students that otherwise, with a different pattern of interaction would have shared a productive learning experience with me.  They were not problem students, but I created problems.  In the end, their rebellion was unproductive but justified.  I can also look back at those teachers who had a lasting impact on my life for a point of comparison.

If it can make that much difference, think how much impact ignoring a student can have, telling him, like Melvin, to learn from the computer.  How inspiring.

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Filed under Editorials on education, Experiences, Tech tools

What if Twitter had existed in other historical eras? Tweeting historiography.

I recently was tickled to find this piece on (where else?) Twitter: British r Coming. Pls RT! | Foreign Policy.  It’s really funny.  It gets one thinking, too.  Others have pointed out the value of challenging students to make observations in a succinct 140-character medium.  This forces students to use precision about the subject they are evaluating and to prioritize the material succinctly.  This is also a moment of frivolity to share with your class.

Aside from being fun, you could actually delve into some real historiographical issues.   Each set of tweets could be altered based on the different interpretations from the historiography.  For example, assign small groups a different scholar and encourage them to create tweets from the primary documents based on the assigned scholars interpretations.  Then you could compare the results.

It adds an extra layer of education, but it’s still fun!  Done well, this should be a slightly addictive exercise in levity and history.  Students should get addicted because its funny and entertaining.  You may find they actually have a better grasp of the scholarly concepts at the end, as well.  Maybe you throw it in right before or after exams or a big paper due date to get productivity despite the intensity of their coursework.

This is similar to the concept behind making fake Facebook walls.  You are asking students to use the technology with which many of them are well-acquainted as the medium in which to present their findings.  This does not suggest that you abandon papers or other means for testing their knowledge and developing skills, it is an alternative that can give students a bit of break without simply putting in a movie and having them unplug.  These exercises introduce a little levity and they should be fun.  At the end, they’ll be #Twitterstorians!

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Historian's Journal, Tech tools

Some quick advice for visitors to Washington DC


Let me begin by saying that nothing in this post is likely to be extraordinary or even unique.  The things I am observing about DC tourists are generally the same thing I observed about them 10 years ago.  But, bad habits persist.

Walk on the left, stand on the right
In DC, people are doing things, like going to work, catching transportation for medical appointments squeezed into busy schedules, and meeting over meals.  So, it’s fair to say that the least amount of tolerance is held for jamming up public transportation.
Obviously, you don’t always know where you’re going–and, that’s fine, Washingtonians vary in how helpful they will be and many are transplants, themselves–but the one thing you can always do is avoid blocking the escalators!  Stand on the right side so people can pass you on the left.  It’s a beautiful system and it works!

You always know someone in DC
Americans always know someone in DC!  Well, sort of.  Your Representative and Senators are here for you, though, and you should contact their offices if you’re heading this way.  They owe you this service whether you like them or not–and they’ll get you tours of the Capitol!  Say, while you’re at it, why don’t you talk a little politics with them, especially if you’re having problems under federal jurisdiction.  You don’t have to, of course, but you should–you’re an American!
If you are visiting from outside the U.S., you probably have an embassy in DC (and other cities, like NYC).  They can help you, too, but of course it varies.

Getting around
Metro has gotten more expensive, so you may want to look into buses and bikes.  Metro buses inside the city are pretty good.  Bikes are also increasingly available.  Bike and Roll offers rental in DC at Union Station and the Old Post Office Pavilion, plus  Arlington, VA.  They also do bike tours of the National Mall as Bike the Sites.  And, there are other options, too.  Just be aware that trying to bring your car into the city is a crap shoot and almost always pricey.

Get away from the shining white marble!
Over the last few years some great and vibrant neighborhoods have been revitalized.  Visit some of these!  Check out Eastern Market, and maybe get some groceries for the trip.  Go to U St., the former Harlem of DC, where the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington used play.  While there, head over to Ben’s Chili Bowl: great history, great food.  Adams Morgan is a sweet, happening place, with good food and hole-in-the-wall shops.  In the evenings, it has a big nightlife scene; you can even catch some free music in a handful of venues.  And, there are more!

Well, that’s my quickie list of advice for visiting DC.  I myself will be heading into the Library of Congress for some research, today, so if you visit and take a peek into the main reading room I’ll be wearing the bandanna and the Kermit the Frog t-shirt.  Forgive me if I don’t wave–I’m working!


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Smart Summer Fun: 30 Ideas for History Dorklets

Geek Mom of recently published this brilliant post about fun things to do with your geeklets: Smart Summer Fun: 30 Ideas For Your Geeklets | GeekMom |  I love it!  But, it got me thinking, what about your history dorks?  Don’t they deserve a little geeky, history-dork fun this summer?

So, I have come up with my list of Smart Summer Fun: 30 ideas for Your History Dorklets!

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  1. Are you going to a beach this summer?  Come prepared!  Build a trebuchet catapult to assault the sand castle!  And, learn a little about applied, medieval physics while you’re at it.
  2. Ok, this idea is lifted from Geek Mom, but make a point of hitting some of the local historical sites in your area (or beyond) and have the kids send themselves postcards from monuments and historical reenactments (etc.).
  3. Get historical with the Olympics this summer and be active!
  4. Instead of playing video games, have your kids create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story/game.  There are a bunch ways to do this with video, text-based game creation, board games, role-playing games (both digital and card-based), etc.  I cover a ton of resources for this in my “Gaming the Past” post.
  5. Research the history of your home.  Who lived there before you?  What historical moments did your house witness?  What history is hiding in the walls’ memory that they can’t tell but you can discover?  The House History Man will show you how fascinating this investigation can be!
  6. Dig through your old photographs and put them on, see how the places where you and your families grew up have changed!
  7. Design board games (preferably with a history twist–because that’s what I do–but they don’t have to be, of course) the family can play for family game night.  Here are some practical tips.
  8. Get poster board, family photos, and other craft materials and design a family tree or timelines.  You could, for example, draw the outline of their bodies or have your kids lie down on pieces of poster board and measure their height with strip of paper measuring tape clued to the poster board and then have them fill in the years along the measuring tape, including different events and moments of growth–it will amaze you what the kids choose to select for their timeline!
  9. Write a story.  Or, you could have them write a historical story.
  10. Read historical fiction about a time period before you visit an historical site.  That will help them connect with what you are seeing and visiting.
  11. Get National Park Service Passports and get stamped!  It’s really fun… even when you’re my age.
  12. Look at old family photos together and if possible talk to older family members–even better: record these interviews.
  13. Buy a collection of small figurines–toy soldiers, colonial figures, medieval knights, etc.–and use junk from your house to create a village or city that the kids romp through.  (It’s much cheaper than Legos, but operates on a similar idea.)
  14. Build models: airplanes, cars, historic buildings (like the Parthenon or the Colosseum).
  15. Make costumes and teach the kids to sew!  Host a costume party around a particular era and include era-appropriate games and activities, food, and music!
  16. Attend a Renaissance Festival.
  17. Cook a historic feast!  Work on their cooking skills, too.
  18. Make a historical toy: the Jacob’s ladder.
  19. Dig up history at local public archaeology digs.  There are many opportunities around the country–most of them are free!  Google your local public archaeology and historic preservation service–both your state and county government may have a division devoted to this–or simply inquire at local historical sites.  In Maryland, try these sites–others may find inspiration for their area by perusing this, as well.
  20. Learn to play Nine Mens Morris, a colonial game, or the game of Viking Chess, Hnefatafl, (you can make your own board, too).  (If you play on the computer, Nine Mens Morris is against the computer, whereas Hnefatafl requires you to play with an opponent… or against yourself.)  Here are some other colonial games.
  21. Make a map of your day’s travels and indicate the treasures!
  22. Read old family letters and look at other interesting family documents, such as military orders, etc.
  23. Read newspapers that are 100 years old to the day!
  24. Write a daily/weekly newspaper about your family/neighborhood and store them in a chest, next summer see what happened a year ago.
  25. Invest in some nice journals that your kids like and encourage them to keep a journal.  It can be a whatever they want–nature journal, record of their day, record of their thoughts, a way to work through a challenging time, etc.–whatever they need it to be.  Alternatively, you could also have them keep a summer scrap book.  You’re teaching them to keep primary sources–one day they’ll be historical documents!
  26. Too hot to go outside?  Play history with these online history games.
  27. Explore the world with maps!  Or, explore the historical world with historical maps!  Or, explore World Wonders!
  28. Make scavenger hunts!  You can do one in your home or beyond: for your library, local museum, neighborhood, community, city, historical site, etc.  You can also do them online using programs like Google Maps or Google Earth.
  29. Explore what your local, community and state historical societies have to offer–many of their events may be pricey fundraisers, but many will also be free.
  30. Have them make illuminated manuscripts!  This how they were made in medieval years.

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Things that annoy me as a historian (election thoughts)

I should qualify this post with the disclaimer that election seasons annoy me a lot, so this particular annoyance is probably just an extension of the many other misuses of history that pass so much gas with the elections and the various stumps and campaigns.

On Facebook, this morning, someone posted this comic:

Or, a brief non-history…

So, before I wrote this blog, I double-checked to make sure I hadn’t forgotten something obscure about the history of socialism.  I had not.  Socialism–the word and thus the concept, more or less–was first used in a French newspaper in 1832.  (The OED acknowledges that the roots are obscure, but the idea itself has far fewer direct parallels to historical eras than has been argued.)  Americans have not been decrying every new or progressive idea by hollering, “Socialism!”  I did not bother to double-check the years for which the various public institutions were invoked, though I may still look up the public water controversy of 1808 if I have some spare time.  I encountered this cartoon after it was shared from the Facebook page, “Being Liberal,” but I’m sure they found it elsewhere (it was the second time they had shared it).

In fairness, this isn’t really a post about elections, so much as it is a post about the misuse and abuse of history in politics which inevitably ramps up during the election season.  The current Tea Party, is not entirely accurate in its retelling of the original Boston Tea Party, either, which just demonstrates that political polemic abuses of the field flourish on both sides of the aisle.  (C-Span also captures such abuses regularly during congressional sessions, but they do not often get the same press or viral sharing that occurs during elections.)

History can be an interesting tool for the present, but the parallels can be overplayed.  I am starting to increasingly believe that we as historians and instructors of history should spend more time talking about the Nachlebens of history to show how applying history on the present can be used as a propaganda tool.  History majors usually get a healthy dose of historiography, but non-majors seldom do, and even the history majors do not always see the fallout of popular historiography.

In the end, I find this tendency at best embarrassingly stupid and at worst dangerous.  Rewriting the past to suit the ideological needs of a platform in the present does everyone a disservice and can unduly manipulate with damaging consequences, just as all untruths and lies can be used to manipulate.

It reinforces the importance of actually learning the field of history.  Aside from content blunders, a better knowledge of how we learn about the past highlights the limitations in making parallels because we appreciate the time’s unique culture that can differ in a thousand ways from our own.  I’m not saying we cannot evaluate the past with the present and vice versa, but we have to be cognizant of the inherent challenges.  Most people who pull from the past do so without that understanding which means they have only further confused the contemporary issue.

Besides, it’s damn annoying.

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Teachers Speak About Educating the Digital Generation

Increasingly, students are not only becoming acclimated to the digital world and its tools, they are surpassing the competency of the adults around them.  This forces us to make a decision as educators: embrace the digital world or ignore it. The option is actually a false one as choosing to ignore technology is a losing option.  The students who have access to it will not ignore it and thus education will be forced to compete with digital technology, while the students who cannot afford the technology will be left unexposed to it and thus not learn how to use it to the same degree as their peers.

So, while research supports the value of handwriting and slow reading–best done with books as opposed to digital media and readers–it is clear that the digital tools must be integrated.  This can be as simple as allowing students to Tweet about works in progress, assigning students to design useful websites on historical persons or events, using role-playing games or assigning students to create such games, geo-caching or other scavenger hunts utilizing History Pin or Google maps,  create fake Facebook pages for historical figures, etc., etc.  If you are not so confident in your own skills, enlist the aid of others, including the students themselves (many of the ideas I just suggested can be found in posts on my blog).

Don’t remove students from the library, but be prepared to grant increased access to the historical eras you are teaching by means of digital access points and tools.  Don’t cut them off from the art museums that showcase humanity’s history, but allow them use of the internet to build their content-knowledge before they look at stone-carved hieroglyphs.  Don’t give up on books and paper maps, but allow students to also explore an historical era through a role-playing video game.

Use the technological skills of one class to help you develop technological tools for next year’s class.  In enlisting their help in teaching with technology they will learn more.  And, so will you.

Enjoy the short, below, and make use of the resources and activities I have amassed at my site (including posts for retaining the use of paper!), especially in my posts in the, “Experiencing History – Project Based Learning,” category and its sub-categories.  You should also check out the resources at and  For more from, “The Digital Generation,” by Edutopia, visit the website:

Good luck!

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Filed under Editorials on education, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games

Video games create role-playing opportunities for learning

I was first introduced to the concept of using games to teach history when I read Larry Ferlazzo’s post about teaching with “Choose Your Own Adventure Stories” (CYOAS).  (See, “The Best Places to Read and Write ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories,’” “‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Additions,” which inspired my own post: “Student-written ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories’ for learning history,” and a related post, “Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education.”)  Using the provided links from Ferlazzo’s recommended sites (such as the Microsoft site with a PowerPoint tutorial and these clowns who actually explain a YouTube adventure quite well despite failing at humor), I created my own PowerPoint CYOAS: “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade.”

The main character was based on a real historical knight who left a charter about his decision to give up his life of robber-baron crime and repent by accepting the call to the First Crusade.  Links to online biographies, online primary sources, and an in-document glossary, provided the means for the students to build content-knowledge.  The links that moved the story provided students with the opportunity to role-play and engage in decisions that would have been relevant to a late-11th century knight.  Some decisions were purely moral and resulted in the same outcome, but the decision would have required careful consideration by a knight of the era who was opting to be moral or not.  The story progressed based on the events of history and historical persons.  In the below sample, for example, the knights in Emico’s entourage attacked the Jews of Mainz, sought to enter the Kingdom of Hungary, were repulsed, and then fell to bandits in the woods during their  retreat.  This is a dead-end scenario.  If the student selects the option of Nivelo refusing Emico’s offer, the story continues.

To recap: the students, by participating the story, do all of the following:

  1. Read related secondary and primary sources (online in this case)
  2. Build relevant vocabulary for the unit (plus, in my glossary of, “Words you may not know,” I included, “Places You May Not Know” with links)
  3. Engage the thought-processes, problems, and decision-making challenges of the historical era
  4. Engage these within a realistic fiction of actual historical events and persons, based on primary document evidence

This is a pretty useful way for students to engage the familiar and the strange in a the foreign culture they are studying.  (It is also a useful exercise for the educator who creates the CYOAS–assuming, of course, that it’s done right.)

It was thanks to Glenn Wiebe’s post, “Gaming the Past: How to Teach with Video Games,” that I was introduced to an entirely new and productive approach to teaching history with video games.  (A fact that was strongly recalled to mind when I visited, “The Art of Video Games,” exhibit and learned about the incredible potential of modern video games.)  Upon visiting Glenn’s site with the above link, you will be provided with links to’s posts by Jeremiah McCall on using and creating simulation games in the classroom and the blog, Gaming the Past.  These tools will give you another opportunity to provide an authentic role-playing experience that helps students learn about historical eras, events, or persons.

boys,household,leisure,playing,teenagers,television,video games,kids,people

A twist…

Students will benefit from playing these games–their knowledge and understanding will increase.  These games are exercises in historical experiences.  That’s useful for learning.  There is another way to approach this, however.  As you will learn from the links, above, software exists to create simulations.  This means you can make games for your students to play, but it also means that the students can make the games!

I have already advocated for this learning experience in previous posts: “Creating Educational Games,” and, “Some advice and tips on creating educational games.”  The same logic can be used in providing students with the necessary tools to create digital simulations and games.  The same knowledge that was required in making my CYOAS, “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade,” would be the researched portion of the project for the students in developing their games.  The same ideas I suggested for board or card games in the above posts could be used to create digital simulations with the software available, today.

In this way, students are not only engaging in role-play learning for eras, but they are doing the necessary research to create a simulated historical era, and learning enough about the habits and ways of a historical period to create problem-solving scenarios in line with the era.  This is an incredibly useful learning experience, a good way to engage the current generation, and valuable experience in traditional history research.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Games