Monthly Archives: December 2012

A great semester! New approaches prove successful.

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As the semester winds down and I am grading the finals, it has been exceptionally rewarding to see how much improvement my students made this go-around in my 101 course.  Teaching roughly 7000 years of history is no joke!  For a community college’s introduction to history course, I try to emphasize a general knowledge of the eras that produced the modern western civilization we live in today and the skills of the historian.

It had been immediately evident in the finals I have graded so far that the improvement in working the historian’s craft was considerable–not only in reading and rating the reliability of primary sources, but also in constructing a logical argument for one’s interpretation of the sources.  Reading and writing skills have improved as they have learned how to approach the material.

This semester I worked towards this goal in a couple of new ways:

  • The midterm was broken into three parts and the first two of these parts were collaborative–and the grades were curved.  The midterm asked them to replicate as much of the reading and writing skills as we had covered in class up to that point while also testing their knowledge of the readings and eras up to that point.  (The greater emphasis on analysis followed their own collective attempts at first on the midterm.)
  • I provided extra credit assignments (two) that specifically emphasized these skills after the midterm–groups that struggled the most on the midterm could thus practice the skills further in the following weeks and earn extra credit for the additional practice.
  • I modeled, with the class’s help, the prioritization of reliable sources when conflicting accounts exist and constructing a basic outline for a history paper.  (Extra credit assignments built directly on these in-class/homework exercises.)

These activities seemed to really help students grow in their understanding of the material.  One could tank on the midterm, but still work towards a successful grade in the class if one was willing to put the work into the class and the projects with the extra credit options.  It was important for me to give students the opportunity to collaboratively see how far they had come on their own and take some risks, but I did not want to punish them if they hadn’t come as far by week six as I hoped they would by finals week.  (I should point out that our institution has a really early midterm.)

The major drawback was that some students were too greatly discouraged and did not see how they could climb out of the hole–none of these ever approached me about their grades or situation before quitting, though.  Students who flat out failed the midterm recovered to earn grades in the 80-90% range.  So, it was definitely possible to make the turn around–most of these did come and speak to me or e-mail me about their grades.  I did not give anyone a free pass–each student earned their grades–though, I was far more lenient in grading the finals where grammar and syntax was concerned.  (This was, in part, because of the high number of ESL students in my evening course who do not have easy access to tutoring resources on campus; and, in part, it was due to the fact that I am not handing back the finals for students to see their mistakes.  Besides, at this point I was far more concerned with their historical understanding and was gratified to observe considerable improvement in organizing their essays and in writing even if they still have work to do in that area.)

Students who were sharper on the first day of class further honed their skills and understood far more about the historical process.  Students who were green gained new understanding and experiences, growing in the class.  It was an awesome semester and the students were a lot of fun to teach–I never dreaded going to class.  Semesters like this remind me why I love teaching so much–even if I only adjunct for a couple of courses a year.

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A festive lesson plan (via Mental Floss)

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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World – Mental Floss is a quick review of the various other Christmas characters in the western world.  I teach Western Civilization and am well aware of the connectedness of European and American culture.  Given that fact, the variety of the theme is remarkable.

Sadly, Mental Floss is not in the habit of citing their sources on these lists.  Still, universities in this country teach about these cultures in their foreign language departments and may well provide some additional information.  I think it is worth it–this is a nifty cultural lesson.  It relates back to an old theme shared by Sam Weinburg and this blog, among many others, about the challenges of grappling with the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Below, I describe a lesson plan emphasizing these things.  It is written for a classroom, but easily adapted into a homeschooling lesson plan.

Suggested lesson plan (outline):

Introduction:  Have each student describe their family’s Christmas traditions (note, these do not need to be religious traditions, obviously, if you feel more comfortable you can phrase it based on what students’ families do on their winter breaks)–do this by having each free write for five minutes or break the class into small groups and have each share with his or her group, then have someone from each group describe someone else’s family tradition. (It is worth keeping in mind that a student may not have a family tradition for the Christmas holidays because of religion, personal tragedy, or different cultural background.  This does not mean you shouldn’t do the exercise!  This is as important and valuable a learning experience as the others!!!  The greater diversity in your classroom the greater the opportunity students will have to learn from each other!  Also, remember that Santa Claus is almost entirely secular in the U.S.)

Activity 1:  Assign the reading from Mental Floss, provided in the link above.  Ask students to each read the whole article, or break it down so that each student reads one of the descriptions, or make small groups in which they each group reads three of the character descriptions.

Activity 2:  If you haven’t already, break the students into small groups.  These can be the same as the previous activity or entirely new groups.  Unless they all read the same thing, have each student describe what they read.  Then have each group answer these questions (adjust as needed for age or experience):

  1. Which continents do these traditions come from?
  2. What religions celebrate Christmas?
  3. Is there a connection between the answer of question 1 and the answer of question 2?
  4. What do these characters have in common (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?
  5. How are these characters different  (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?

Reflection:  For either a brief reflective essay or a brief reflective discussion ask students to answer the following: Why do you think we have so many different traditions for the same holiday?

Santa on the sleigh

From here a homework assignment could be made for further research into the different cultures and the character featured–and other cultural Christmas characters could be added, perhaps even as the result of the student discussion of Christmas (or winter break) traditions.  Ideally, this results in a feast with information about the cultures represented and their winter holiday traditions, such as games, music and songs, etc.  One might also just as easily make the next assignment about the class’s research of itself by having each student share more about their own family traditions and history.

American culture came out of European culture and for all of their similarities this reading helps illustrate the limits of the cultural similitude while nonetheless emphasizing the cohesion in comparison with the rest of the world.  This is an important point to learn from the exercise though it will probably resonate more with older students who have had more history exposure or to a particularly diverse class that is roundly international.  The follow-up exercise options described immediately above will be more appropriate depending on the class age and level of exposure, so adjust accordingly.

This lesson plan is designed to work on the following skills:

  • reading
  • writing
  • oral and aural communication: speaking and listening
  • historical thinking: making connections based on history knowledge
  • cognitive thinking: drawing conclusions based on provided information, cause and effect

If you try this or variant of it, or if you have your own already existent lesson plan, please, share your experiences, below.

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Decoder Ring Theatre – Your Home for Adventure, Golden Age of Radio-style

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Decoder Ring Theatre is a new obsession of mine.  I found it by accident–one of those websites a friend liked and thus caught my attention, but it took me a while to actually explore it.  I was thrilled with it when I finally did so.

Even when I was a kid, I had a fondness for old timey radio programs.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings and so watched old school westerns.  Maybe it was because I used to watch the old Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  Maybe it was my interest in the Green Hornet, which I followed in comic books.  Hard to say, really.  Hard to know what led to the other, too.

The programming available on Decoder Ring Theatre is the style of the old noir detective shows and superhero programs from the Golden Age of Radio.  I heart Black Jack Justice and his fellow-P.I. Trixie Dixon, girl detective.  I most enjoy those shows, but the real superhero is the Red Panda and his sidekick Flying Squirrel who keep the streets of Toronto safe from mad villains in the 1930s.  Each pair has their own show that can be downloaded as a podcast or played on your computer and smart devices.

The style of the shows are in the classic style of radio dramas, before TVs largely replaced the medium.  (And yet, coming full circle, perhaps, so many of us seek out the book-on-tape option to sneak texts into our busy lives.)  Certain aspects, common in this early style of story-types, whether in comic book, pulp fiction, dime novels, or radio programs, have been modernized.  The women are not uniformly helpless–in fact, Trixie Dixon, while still a knockout worthy of centerfold, is a pretty darn tough gun-toting sleuth, and the Flying Squirrel can rumble with any back-alley thug–and have key roles to play in the crime fighting and detecting.

This factor makes them rather more palatable than some of the classics they otherwise emulate.   While the programming is genuinely entertaining, the era is also recreated in an accessible manner.  For this reason, I think they have real potential in education.  Not only do they reproduce the era in their sordid tales of crime and justice, they also reproduce one of the major cultural experiences of the era: radio programming entertainment and news.  So, you could create a playlist that the students can access using one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire Side Chats and one of the shows from Decoder Ring Theatre.

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I wholeheartedly approve of teaching about other eras through experiences.  Reproducing the later years of the Depression through role-playing in built-in class scenarios is an excellent way to bring home the difficulties of the age.  For example, you could easily set aside a couple of classes and recreate the 1930s life within a scenario such as a town hall meeting or recreate a social gathering.  You could also recreate a fictional town and assign each student a character with a particular goal, for example:

  1. a few characters with different backgrounds can each search for a job from other classmates who own businesses
  2. several standard business-owners: bank, grocery, newspaper, etc.
  3. pick a blue-collar industry that supports the town and have the various roles filled: owner, foreman, workers
  4. standard town services: police, postman, doctor, etc.
  5. CCC/WPA project workers

In this way, the Decoder Ring Theatre could actually be assigned as homework along with a handful of other leisure activities that fit the bill–marbles and other games, baseball or football games on the radio, newspapers and comics, etc.  Other activities could be done in the class, such as canning–yes, I’m serious, just find a parent with a hot plate and a pressure-canner–sewing old clothes into new sizes (like letting a pair of pants out for someone who is growing or shortening them for a younger sibling), watch a news reel and movie from the era, hold a pot luck and have everyone bring in Depression-era recipes, etc.

Experiences are a great way to bring things home to students.  When a student takes on the role of a character, the real-life troubles of the character become much more real to him or her.  Assign primary sources to help the characters come alive.  And, leverage student interests–one of the real values of this approach to teaching.  If Suzy plays the trumpet she can take a look at the music of the era and be a musician as with other types of artists, many of who were specifically sought out by various federal programs.  If Carl is into cars, then make him a Packard dealer or a mechanic and let him study the historic forerunners of today’s automobiles.  Etcetera, etcetera.  Help them learn and get excited about it.  It’s ok if they have fun!  *wink*

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Hellenism spreads history and other Greek ideas. Part 2, of a web-based picture comics.

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intro to Hellenism

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History comes from Hellenism

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Want to see Part I?  Click the title, here:  What is history?  A web-based picture comics in 3 parts.

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