Category Archives: Reviews

Lecturing and passive learning

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A common question for educators that is often raised is that of lectures and passive learning.  There are two reasons why it is  good to ask about this:

  1. Is the lecture/passive learning method a successful means  for teaching our students?
  2. Do we employ it simply because it is how we were taught (keeping in mind that many of us enjoy our subjects and therefore often enjoyed many of the classes we took)?

I think, firstly, that we as educators have to admit that we frequently enjoyed our lectures as undergraduates and, for those of us who sought grad school, avidly attended many conferences when feasible.  Because of our interest we were seldom passively learning, however, and often making connections to other material or asking questions.  We frequently enjoyed lectures.

On the other hand, what about students who lack that interest or experience with other material?  Is it impossible to inspire them to be interested?  I can freely admit to sitting in class, genuinely interested in what the lecturer was saying, but totally unable to keep my eyes open unless I got up to get some water.  How much more difficult is it for someone who has not yet learned to appreciate the subject or gained experience with related subject matter?

Lecture is effective as long as it is engaging.  There are many ways for lectures to be active learning experiences, but we have to be honest and acknowledge it is easy, without vigilance and planning, to make it a struggle for everyone.  Whenever I feel I’ve fallen into the dull lecture trap, I like to return to the Ken Bain book I was assigned in a graduate level historical teaching course: What the Best College Teachers Do and especially the chapter, “How do they conduct class?”  This book is the result of asking people about their best experiences with college professors to create an interview list of the top instructors in the country, as well as inquiring about their worst experiences to create a negative persona, Professor Wolf, with the bad examples.

Below, I want to provide my own summary of this chapter.  (Keep in mind that I’m prioritizing my summary based on those things I am either most passionate about or those points about which I think I need the most improvement, personally–other points within the book might apply differently to other instructors.)  The headings are directly from Bain.

Create a Natural Critical Learning Environment (99)

The gist, here, is that students should be engaged, probing materials and assumptions, seeking answers and asking questions.  They should be grappling with the same questions and problems that scholars do.  They should be doing this while they are sitting in class with the instructor!  The biggest and most common mistake an instructor can make is to provide answers to unasked questions.

This learning environment pushes students to higher-order intellectual activity: “encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember.”  (102)  Bain describes the story-telling and Socratic-questioning of Donald Saari (filling me with all sorts of envy that I never took his class) that challenges the students to develop the concepts of calculus: “‘When I finish this process,’ [Saari] explained, ‘I want students to feel like they have invented calculus and that only some accident of birth kept them from beating Newton to the punch.'”  (102)

Questions are a great means of reinforcing processes and building to the next step in the lesson:

  • What’s the next question?
  • What can we ask now?
  • (in response to questions asked by students)  What do you think?
  • If this is true, then why (how, what, where, when, etc.)…?
  • What major conclusions did you draw?
  • What questions remain in your mind?

Of course, there are many ways to create this environment–lecture is not required, but nor is it true that lectures are incompatible.  Investigations supply a vocabulary of the field and the experience of thinking like an adept in the field.  Bain found no professors who relied solely on lectures, but none of those who used lectures provided an “encyclopedic coverage.” (107)

Start with Students rather than Discipline (110)

Bain speaks briefly about the need to get the attention of students and hold it in his 2nd heading of this section.  He begins this under this heading by stating that it is necessary to gain students attention for higher purpose, to initially focus on something the students get, are concerned about, or assume before our own stories, theories, or outlines.  Another professor Bain interviewed, Michael Sandel, reminds us that Socrates began by staring with what people thought they knew and then tried to “systematically to wrench them from their familiar place.”  (110)  Thought exercises/experiments can introduce familiar scenarios that test for assumptions and force students to reason forward, applying critical thinking, self evaluation, civil argument, and defense.

“Many of the best teachers,” Bain writes, “make a deliberate and carefully measured effort to confront some paradigm or mental model that students are likely to bring with them to class.”  (112)  This is a student-centered ethos that serves to draw students in and introduce them to the type of thinking and questioning that is required for solving problems in the field.  It starts with the students and elevates them from where they began the process to a new level within the field.

Help Students Learn Outside of Class (114)

Students should be armed with the necessary skills and preparation for the next homework assignment.  This is in opposition to merely “covering” material or assigning something because it “deals with” some subject.  The best teachers plan in reverse, says Bain creating a map with intellectual way-stations that provide the opportunity to develop through the course.  In other words, they know what their end goal is for the students and develop a course that will guide them there.

This means that they are properly prepared to advance both their knowledge and their thinking by doing the assigned work outside of class.  It should contribute both to their knowledge of content and the skills they need to employ while working in the field itself.

Engage Students in Disciplinary Thinking  (114)

Any course that is not designed with this tenet in mind is a waste of time and money.  Just read a textbook or watch a few documentaries if we are going to ignore how this information is gained.  If, as a professor, I present my discipline without teaching you how to replicate the field’s problem-solving, them I’m swindling you, withholding the sacred knowledge, keeping you beneath me.   That is unacceptable.

Besides, we should take advantage of our disciplines to advance our students’ thinking skills.  What could we possibly gain by neglecting this fundamental duty?

Create Diverse Learning Experiences (116)

Alter the rhythms of learning: supplement oral information with visual information; allow for group discussion of problems; and, use case-studies.  Diverse materials, experiences, and input reinforce both content and method.  Interviewed professors relayed to Bain, “Some material was organized inductively, from facts, data, and experimentation to the general principles and theories; other things, deductively by applying principles to specific situations.  The teachers gave students an opportunity to learn sequentially, a piece at a time; they also gave them space to learn globally, through sudden insights.  Some of the learning involved repetition and familiar methods; some, innovations and surprises.”  (116-7)

The key to successful lecture, thus, begins with a successful concept of the course, including a commitment to engaged learning, followed by the notion that it is more of a conversation–a collaboration, if you will–than a performance or an exhibition of one’s knowledge and know-how.  Passive learning is, in actuality, ineffective.  But, this does not mean that lecturing has to equate to passive learning–good lecturing is, without doubt, a means of engaged and active learning.

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Considering the historical interest of video games, A review of “The Art of Video Games”

Exhibit currently being curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

There is a traveling exhibit that has settled in the Smithsonian American Art Museum through September 30, 2012: The Art of Video Games.  While it is billed as an art exhibit, and it fabulously displays some of the historical evolution of the technology’s art, it does a bit more.  Video games take a lot of heat in the culture, today, because of concerns for screen time, child obesity, and social skills development.  There are elements of this exhibit arguing for a more nuanced evaluation of video games as interactive fiction and that consider the evolution of video games in art, player participation, etc.

Gaming art samples

Of the exhibit’s three sections, it is really the first that is most directly devoted to the art of the games.  This focuses on the both the current conceptual designs and the evolution of the art in games from the early days of gaming history.  In addition, a number of special events were scheduled when this exhibit opened including concerts of video game music and guest speakers discussing art’s evolution into the digital age–of which video games are an important medium.

Gaming concept art

Contributing to the art, the second section of the exhibit showcases the evolution of games featuring Pacman, Mario Brothers 1, The Secret of Monkey Island, MYST 1, and Flowers with their game controllers.  It’s interesting to stroll the room and recognize the evolution of the games from visualization to story line, and from controllers to player options.

Mario Brothers’ beginnings, as being played by a younger, knee-high generation

Flowers is a new wave of game that the knee-high generation plays

The final section is a collection of gaming systems with narratives about their operations and features.  This is a gamer’s Hall of Fame and for many a walk down nostalgia.  I listened to one graying gentleman reminisce to younger companions about playing on the Commodore 64 when he got home in the evenings.  Even high school students, immersed in today’s online gaming, reminisced about the gaming systems of their early youth.

Atari game system and narratives about the system’s gaming operations

PS3 gaming system and narratives about the system’s operations

Throughout the exhibit there are videos of interviews from different video game designers.  They make a case for video games as being interactive fiction that stimulates decision-making skills, problem-solving, and skills-building.  Additionally, the role-playing games, based in many ways off of the old Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, do involve social interaction, though the modern version is admittedly tied to screen time.

QR codes placed near TV flat screens link to the exhibit’s YouTube page

As a display of the genre’s artistic achievements, the exhibit could have done more, including more concept art and addressing more clearly the means by which the 2-D art transitions into a 3-D interactive video game.   One of the most successful displays of the gaming world’s art is the video running at the exhibit’s entrance that features art from a plethora of games and eras. This provided a real array of artistic possibilities for visitors.  Also, the different game images featured with their consoles in the third section makes a pretty cool comparison.  So, that’s my take on the exhibit as an “art exhibit,” which is it what it is doing in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The left-facing wall ran a montage of various video games from all eras, while the three screens on the right-facing wall showed a changing montage people playing video games

The left-facing wall ran a montage of various video games from all eras, while the three screens on the right-facing wall showed a changing montage people playing video games

It bleeds into other fields, though, and I think these need to be addressed.  Games are an interesting record of a society’s leisure time activity.  The record, as provided by this exhibit, demonstrates several things about (video) gaming leisure time: 1) as games have evolved the social activity around them and built into them has increased, 2) some of the newer games have incorporated actually physical activity, 3) the gamer’s options and control of the game’s storyline has dramatically increased, allowing for greater decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity.  These are pretty fascinating developments.  Not only this, but these gaming developments and the technology has leaked into the world beyond entertainment, even including studies in economics–consider gaming theory, for example.

The complexity of current games ranges from the design of the digital artwork to the sophistication of story lines and from increased socialization to greater gamer creativity has evolved mightily since the Pacman arcade, to say nothing of Pong.

The fictional creation is not to be overlooked.  Fiction functions as a primary source for historians researching an era, and these games amplify that possibility by considering not only the storyline of the game’s creators, but the individual storylines that players increasingly have the ability to create and manipulate.  Here is just one extreme example:

In 2004, a player in the MMO [Massively Multiplayer Online (game)] EVE Online declared that the game’s creators had stacked the deck against him, called EVE, “a poorly designed game which rewards the greedy and violent, and punishes the hardworking and honest.” He was upset over a change in the game dynamics which made it easier to play a pirate and harder to play a merchant.

The player, “Dentara Rask,” wrote those words in the preamble to a tell-all memoir detailing an elaborate Ponzi scheme that he and an accomplice had perpetrated in EVE. The two of them had bilked EVE’s merchants out of a substantial fraction of the game’s total GDP and then resigned their accounts. The objective was to punish the game’s owners for their gameplay decisions by crashing the game’s economy.

~ Cory Doctorow, “Why Online Games are Dictatorships,” Information Week (April 16, 2007).

Video games will increasingly fall into the purview of historical investigation.  Does the exhibit address this in its span of gaming history?  Not really, only brushed the edges of what historians will want to investigate, but it may inspire investigative tracks.

As I will discuss in a later post, the potential for role-playing games in teaching is could be a wonderful way to engage and enhance the participation in the field of the younger generation.  Gaming design, as I have already discussed, is an excellent way to engage students without skipping the history work and research, the need to engage primary sources, and deep thought about historical subjects.

I encourage you to take a look at the videos–easily the most substantive element of the entire exhibit–provided below:


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games, Historian's Journal, Reviews

Colonial Foodways, A delicious learning experience

The Lord Mayor’s Tenement–our schoolhouse for the hearth cooking class.

In our area, we are fortunate to have Historic London Town and Garden in Edgewater, MD.  This site is a county-run facility built on top of colonial Londontown, a city built to be the tobacco weigh-station for the colony of Maryland.  Its existence was of short duration as the weigh-station would be moved to Annapolis, MD.  Thanks to the construction of a single brick edifice in a town built of wood, the site became an orphanage until the 1960s preserving it for archaeologists from the Lost Towns division of the county’s preservation board.

Our classroom for the program.

The educational arm at London Town has worked with historians who have compiled a strong package of historical sources that have been used to teach homeschoolers and school groups on field trips.  These programs introduce students to colonial living, practices, clothing and architecture, plus allowing them to literally get their hands dirty in the actual archaeology dig of the town’s tavern.  Pretty cool stuff, really.

Class supplies!

One of the programs offered is called “Colonial Pathways.”  While they have a streamlined version of this for schools on field trips and for families in the summer, we attended the homeschooling program.  The program is designed to complement the curriculum in the Early Maryland Program and it also supports Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum for grades 4, 5, 8, and 10.  The program teaches students about colonially life and trade through food.  The longer homeschooling program begins in the morning and extends well into the afternoon, culminating with a feast of the prepared foods.

More class supplies!

There is also an accompanying packet that challenges students to think about food in their own families and culture to make connections with the past.  This is includes a section about why we should study foodways.  It defines “foodways” (quoting folklorist Jay Anderson) as “the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization, procurement, distribution, preservation, and consumption share by all members of a particular group.”  The packet continues, saying:

Food is used to reinforce ties to ancestral homelands, ancestors and places of comfort ad stability.  Moreover, foodways can communicate many things–belonging to a group (expressing cultural and regional identity), self-identity, emotions, behaviors, and memories.  In addition, food preparation was often a communal affair, and cooking frequently involved many members of a family and community, because of the labor-intensive nature of technologies available to them.  Thus, a study of the attitudes, practices, and rituals surrounding food can provide windows into an early society’s most basic beliefs about its members and the world as a whole.

~ “Colonial Foodways Teaching Packet,” Historic London Town and Gardens

Colonial staples included pork, beef, lamb, fish, shellfish, chichen, corn, beans and other vegetables, fruits, and numerous baked goods.  Added to these foods were African crops that came over on slave ships, including black-eyed peas, peanuts, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, kidney and lima beans, watermelon (thank you!), rice, okra, sorghum, millet, pineapples, chile peppers, and sesame seeds.  These eventually became part of larger culinary experiences in the North America.

Harvesting beets from the garden.

The packet includes information on food preparation, food preservation (drying, salting, smoking, pickling, and jellying), and colonial receipts.  In the activities section, it challenged students to categorize foods with the social classes that would have eaten them and then comparing them with 21st century foods.  It also tasked them with identifying family and community interviews for a sampling of food preferences.  Next, it challenged them to consider food taboos and, finally, it asked about the holiday meals and the “grammar” of ingredients and sequences to “deciphering a meal” (borrowing form anthropologist Mary Douglas).  In the back of the packet are footnotes and a bibliography.

Chopping wood for the fire colonial style.

Using the Lord Mayor’s Tenement, a reconstructed building constructed in its original post holes, as our classroom, the students set to work making a feast:

Chicken on a string (seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, and cooked hung over the hearth–by a string

Kickshaw (a quiche or frittata) — students made two, one with asparagus and one with kale, cooked in a ceramic pie dish, rubbed with lard or butter, placed inside a dutch oven over the coals (the lid was built like a dish so that coals could be placed on top)

Roasted beets — harvested by the students from the colonial garden

Ginger rice (a Ghanan dish) — Ghanans and Senagalese were brought into Maryland because of their experience in tobacco or related agriculture — rice boiled with oil, salt, pepper and ginger

Apple fritters — fried on a cast iron pan

It was quite a lot of food and all of it was devoured by the students and parents present.  The students were actively involved in the preparation though, for safety reasons, they were not allowed to work directly with the fire.  Throughout the process the educators from London Town continually referenced sources from the colony, hopefully giving the students a direct insight into how this recreation was designed–using historical processes.

The posts for the reconstructed building are built into the original post-holes thanks to archaeological work at the site.

Food is one of those things we share with humans of the past, so employing it in history lessons makes a lot of sense.  Plus, students get to eat their studies!  Hard to turn that down, really.  This is a great afterschool program, too, for schools in disadvantaged areas through collaborations with charitable organizations and historic organizations–learning and eating, how do you beat that?  Food is a really good teacher about historical communities tying into social classes and trade connections.

A brief recreational interlude: the colonial game of quoits (think horseshoes).

The London Town experience is a good one, both for learning history through food and for learning about culture in general.  It is not flawless, however.  Their homeschooling programs are marketed for students ages 8 and up, but they have not done a fabulous job about enforcing those ages.  We made a point of inviting another family to join us to guarantee some student participation in my daughter’s age range.  One other family showed up with a boy who was a very young 8 and his little sister–the parents would not clear out of the students’ space directly impeding the participation of other students, and none of the staff asked them to step back or move away from the table.  That’s very frustrating when you pay for your children and an adult to take a course that places requirements on attending.  Aside from this issue, the concept and program are well-designed for learning history.

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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.


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A Glutton’s Supply of Resources |’s “spotlights”

Yesterday’s post took a look at’s free Civil War poster.  Today’s post is taking a look at the websites “spotlights”.  This is a newer series of resources that are intended to provide material to educators in conjunction with calendar events, both national holidays and anniversaries.  For example, there are two spotlights currently available on the website–and the number will grow–one on Constitution Day and one on remembering 9/11.  The content and the spotlights evolve and change throughout the year.  Jennifer Rosenfeld, the Outreach Director at, explains,

Our idea is to update the spotlights continuously throughout the year so they will be evolving over time as new content comes forward.  For example, the “Constitution Day spotlight” will have all the material we have on that topic from our site, updated to include our most recent content additions.  Teachers can access it year-round.

Signature of George Mason

The Constitution Day spotlight contains lessonplans and links to other resources that provide creative means for teaching about the Constitution in various contexts.  Featured are 1) a link to Colonial Williamsburg’s electronic field trips, featuring A More Perfect Union, available free for a limited time; 2) a lessonplan that considers the constitutional issues surrounding the Watergate scandal; and, 3) picking a civics textbook–the historian advises a good curriculum over a good textbook.  Beyond this are additional Learning Resources, such as a link to the National Constitution Center and a link about the Federal Judiciary provided by, Teaching Resources, such as the game “Do I have the Right?” and “Resources for Units on Early American Government”, and Quizzes.

Photo, World Trade Center burning, Anonymous, 2001, September 11 Digital Archive

The spotlight on 9/11 provides a compilation of resources.  This is a great example of what tries to provide: in addition to a great deal of original content, it also culls the internet and provides a one-stop shop for some of the web’s best tools.  For this spotlight, they feature short reviews and links to websites devoted to the memory of 9/11: 1) the first review is of “The Sonic Memorial Project” website, which focuses on the sounds that mark the history of the World Trade Center; 2) next is a review of the “September 11 Digital Archive” website, focused on stories people shared; and, finally, 3) is actually a blog post by eighth grade teacher Elizabeth Schaefer who shared her lessonplan on a 9/11 project that teaches students not only about events they cannot remember, but of which all the adults in their life can, and also useful skills employed by historians to learn about past events.  Here, again, there are additional, Learning Resources, Teaching Resources and, for 9/11, Remember and Reflect resources.

This is one of the real advantages in using not only are there great materials for learning history, there are also teaching approaches for historical method.  Not only does this make the subject more interesting for students, it also makes it more memorable, and the hands-on approach teaches essential citizenship skills that are highly applicable beyond the history classroom and an assortment of names and dates on recall.

(Note: the content on these spotlights changes with regularity, so do not be surprised if I have highlighted material that has been cycled–it is still there, it may simply no longer be on the featured content box.)

Visit the Constitution Day’s spotlight at this link:

Visit the 9/11 spotlight at this link:

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History Education Resources | A review of’s Civil War poster

Even if these were not momentous times we are living through (does this make the ’90s seem dull–all that prosperity and pop-culture?), there are always reminders of momentous times.  Last Sunday we remembered 9/11, ten years later.  This year is the National Road’s bicentennial as we remember the pioneer spirit and its side-effects in expanding and founding our nation.  Next year will inaugurate the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  And, of course, this year marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  We study these subjects, anyway, even if there is no rounded-number anniversary, but when these moments come it is worth a little extra emphasis to put the past in perspective, both in terms of the chronology and years since the event, but also in the progress or regress in human actions from point A to today’s point B.  Plus, there a wealth of opportunities and resources spring up on such anniversaries that are well worth exploiting!

In honor of the Civil War’s big birthday and the start of the new school year, has unveiled a new free poster for classroom walls.  This poster, much like their general history poster (click here), it is geared as much to exploring how we learn about the past–not as from a textbook, but as a historian doing research–and the types of questions and sources we engage for that purpose.  In other words, it is about historical method.  The Civil War poster also tries to tempt students, to tease them, to pull them into the investigation on their own accord.  I think it may well be successful in sowing seeds of curiosity in young minds, but any teacher who posts it has to take advantage!  It cannot just go up as a passive “tool”–it needs to be built upon.  This is something that a lot teachers do not do.  They tape it up and hope the poster will speak for itself and inspire or teach.  To help with this, provides an additional research: an interactive online version of the poster.

This is the perfect opportunity for history teachers and parents to make use of and build upon a great eye-catching, tool.  At, the poster’s pictured artifacts and documents are presented.   Scroll over them, and click on the individual items to be linked to lesson-plans and videos for instructional ideas and resources.  For example, there is a series of videos of historian Tom Thruston who explains a book of slave receipts to expound upon the realities and legalization of slavery, its regional influence and its absolutely mundane, accepted nature of its existence in American society.  These are designed to assist the teacher in using the artifacts that the poster includes.  Because of the different types of artifacts, one has the opportunity to make a several learning projects for small groups and build upon each group’s learning experience by having them teach the subject to their fellow classmates, either in small groups or in class presentations.

Once a teacher has used the poster as part of the active learning, the poster remains an active learning tool.  Students who look up at the slave receipt and the other artifacts will be reminded of the exercise and will continue to think about it and make links that they had not thought of before every time they see it.  Active, thoughtful, considering learning is the the great skill that all subject should teach, with each subject enhancing it in particular ways and bringing the subject’s value to it.  History has its own particular value that, among other things, encourages self-reflection.  The Civil War is one of American History’s most important moments for self-reflection.  If in using this poster, teachers initiate the students in active learning of the event, it will be a great tool for educators to introduce that national self-reflection along with history and historical method.  Well done,, well done.


Tomorrow, look for my review of’s Spotlight series.

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The Smithsonian remembers 9/11 | American History

September 11: Remembrance and Reflection,

September 3-11, 2011, Hall of Instruments

Washington DC Firefighters visiting the exhibit; some answered the call in Arlington, VA at the Pentagon

The silent group of students was clearly puzzled looking at the crumpled, twisted cylinder of metal.  There were about five of them standing in front of the table; behind and above it a sign hung, reading, “PENNSYLVANIA.”   They gestured and signed, finally getting the attention of the attendant who called over both a docent and a sign language interpreter.  Why a hot water bottle?  The docent explained that this was a standard piece of equipment on airplanes to heat water for the drink service, but there was an additional story in this case as a stewardess was believed to be prepared to use the boiling fluid in the attempt to retake the aircraft.  He asked them in this situation, what would you do?  The highjackers may only be armed with box-cutters, but how do you respond?  A tall teenage girl signed in response that she would break a makeup mirror and use the shards.

Recovered from Flight 93's crash site: a window shade, an orange call button, a dial from the cockpit and the hot water heater

* * *

For one week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History remembers September 11, 2001.  It is story-telling and reflection through fifty objects from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 crash outside of Pittsburgh.  This is not your ordinary museum exhibit; there are no glass boxes or picture-coated walls.  Instead there are four tables set up, surrounded by exhibit booth cubicles draped in soft gray.  Behind each table are two docents, at the ready, to explain the artifacts and share the stories.  Because the space is small and the artifacts are unprotected–please, they ask, do not touch, but take as many pictures as you want–entry is counted to keep the crowd down and the exhibit comfortable.  The line runs about thirty-five or forty yards down the hall and while you wait museum staff hand out the official booklet to read over.

The booklet is extremely well-done.  It highlights a handful of the exhibit’s pieces, telling their stories, accompanied with glossy photographs on a white background.  It is a mere six pages, but does its part wonderfully and is a thoughtful souvenir.  Opening with a brief introduction about the exhibit, it covers the three sites by discussing one or two of the artifacts and concludes with the TSA and a timeline of that dark day’s main events.  This serves both a practical and emotional purpose in that it helps one pass the time in line and prepares one for the rest of the items in the exhibit.

Once you enter the exhibit, there is no plan you must follow as the attendants will assure you, encouraging you to go to any spaces that happen to be open.  Most people were, however, immediately drawn to the life-size photograph of the New York City Armory’s brick wall, covered with missing posters.  Next to it was the table featuring artifacts from the World Trade Center site.  The crunched red fire truck door (FDNY Division 11, Squad 1 of Brooklyn), the emblem for the exhibit, stood at attention behind the table.  Laid out were artifacts both from the Towers, the first responders and the airplanes.  The EMT badge worn by Michael Collarone was laid out next to the video camera Jules Naudet used to film, almost by coincidence, the only known footage of the first airplane hitting the North Tower.  Prominent in the middle of the table is the dusty, worn-out briefcase of Lisa Lefler who evacuated the South Tower after the first plane hit and who lost 175 of her colleagues after the second plane hit.  (The briefcase was blown out of the tower and recovered at street level.  When the man who found it tried to return it to her family, using the resume inside, he did not expect her to answer the phone when he called.)  It lies next to the tool belt worn by James Connor as he worked at Ground Zero.  Further down the table, beyond Mayor Rudi Giuliani’s cell phone, is a recognizable scrap of window frame from one of the planes.

James Connor's tool belt from the Ground Zero clean-up, used September 2001 - January 2002

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's cell phone, used during the crisis

Next to the “NEW YORK” table is the “PENTAGON” table.  Laid out on the table are remnants from offices, building pieces and pieces donated by survivors.  An M&M dispenser sits almost luridly in front of a crumpled support piece and next to the photograph and uniform worn by K-9 Pentagon police officer Isaac Ho’opi’i and his bomb-smelling dog’s collar, named Vito.  Beyond is a collection of office equipment: an antique yellowed office phone, an analog wall clock, stopped at 9:32.  A hunk of melted commemorative metals and an Altoid tin of melted coins, sit ashy at the end.  Behind the table, one of the enormous Pentagon wall maps stands dusty, but solid next to the docent.

M&M dispenser and a structural piece of the Pentagon

Map of the Pentagon's 1st floor

The third table, placed opposite these two, is the one remembering Flight 93, which came down in Shanksville, PA.  The relics from this flight are limited to those from the plane, featuring shards of twisted fuselage, items from the passenger area, such as a charred seat belt, and United Airlines manuals and logs belonging to flight attendant, Lorraine Bay.  This is the table I found the students at, asking their question about the hot water heater.  Its offerings are sparse, reminding us that there are no stories of survival among the lives lost, except for those unknown lives spared the catastrophe of that plane crashing into a civilian or government target.

Seat belts recovered from the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA

United Airline manuals and personal logbook of flight attendant Lorraine Bay

The final table is manned by smiling TSA agents with a small collection of materials donated by the agency to the museum–including a relic of the early 2000s, in a pre-9/11 world, a yellowing out-of-date, walk-through metal detector in use on September 11.  They are there to ask questions about what is allowed, what they find, but nothing regarding procedure.  Two agents I spoke with confirmed that they joined from other areas in law enforcement because of 9/11.

TSA was formed in response to 9/11

TSA Agents stand behind a table that includes contraband, such as brass knuckles, taken from passengers

As you exit this room there is a screen showing excerpts from two films produced by Smithsonian Channel.  For a limited time these are available on the website:  Beyond this,  tables were set up with cards asking guests to share the impact of 9/11 on their lives–responses varied, but many were long and thoughtful, some were illustrations.

Two visitors read the comments left by guests

Asked to share how 9/11 changed our lives, this guest is still so overcome with the events of the day, she shared them instead

The exhibit’s success is its simplicity.  Rather than large panels or placards, the museum provided people who could tell the stories behind a small, select number of pieces which in many ways spoke for themselves.

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