Tag Archives: teaching

A great semester! New approaches prove successful.


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.


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

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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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Railroaded by the librarian — teaching in collaboration (or not)

Teaching in collaboration is a wonderful tool, but it is often challenging!  I have had the pleasure in my sports history class to invite experts to come in and speak to my class: Dr. Stephanie Molholt guest lectured on the native American origins of lacrosse and John Gartrell, MA, lectured on sports in the Jim Crow era.  They both brought expertise with them that enhanced the class lectures and provided greater experience than I could.  In each instance, I asked them to place some emphasis on sources for their material because the students are going to be doing their own research projects in the upcoming months.  Otherwise, I placed few restrictions on them, not wanting to interfere with their natural teaching and lecture styles.  Any exercises they introduced were of their own design and device.

This differs from my approach with the librarian, when we went to a fairly routine library-provided “course” on using the library facilities for research.  When I scheduled the meeting,  I was told I could introduce an exercise into the proceedings–since this would be taking up a class period, this was something I was particularly interested in doing to preserve the course topics.

What I am going to do, from here, is describe how my day went and then talk about ideas in classroom collaboration a bit further, including my own growing pains, the advantages and disadvantages.

Leading up to the class, I had some difficulty in getting in contact with my assigned librarian.  When I chatted with him two days before the class was scheduled, he was leaving campus and we talked as he walked to the car.  He had made no other attempt to contact me before that point, but that afternoon said we could talk before the class on Thursday.  (In retrospect, respecting his need to get to an appointment I probably should have requested his e-mail and sent him exactly what I hoped to achieve, but I did not so we left it until the day-of.)  On Thursday, he was working on another project and it was a little difficult to get a word in edgewise when we finally met and actually spent a fairly limited amount of time in our collaborative preparation.

What I wanted to do that day was cover the library resources, databases and smart online searches to compile first the basic facts about Jesse Owens and his participation in the 1936 Olympics–which was the topic for the day, but focusing on Owens, in particular, would be more useful for their own projects.  The second half would be to use primary sources available online to make some interpretations and take it a step beyond just establishing facts.  The final product was to create a Jesse Owens profile at MyFakeWall.com.  In other words, I wanted the students to have an exercise that would allow them to actually practice using the resources.  None of this happened.  The students did not get on to the computers at all.  They did not do anything!  My librarian took over.

After opening introductions, my librarian opened up by challenging the students to clarify their understanding of the upcoming project to the extent that they understood it up to this point (I have not handed out the official assignment, yet, but we have talked about it–some of them may have even read the syllabus), and after fielding some answers explained that this was a multi-disciplinary project (which is largely true).  Then he launched into a discourse on themes he found particularly important from the general subject of the course.  I did not mind at first, because he had some legitimate points to make, but he carried on the subject for almost the first half of the class.  Also, I think he was a bit off-putting when he singled out students by race and asked them how they thought they might have been treated in Alabama a few decades ago (where he had previously worked).

Finally, we started to move in the direction of library sciences, but quickly were bogged down in plagiarism.  This is a very important subject and he made some very useful points but a half hour’s worth quickly becomes more proselytizing and less instruction.  We did, however, cover some useful points regarding sources, both primary and secondary, and how perspectives of an event change over time, even from direct witnesses.  Using the projector, he also covered some useful tools and rules of thumb in quality versus quantity internet searches.  For example, he explained how to use and Advanced Search on Google and direct it towards .edu sites for more reliable content, but also explained that the responses are based not on quality of the site, or even on closest match, rather simply on popularity of the site, i.e. number of hits.

With a short time left in class, we finally actually looked at what the CCBC library databases afford, including the newspaper database and educational sites run by Gale and Ebseco to which the school subscribes.  What we did not cover particularly well were the book sources available in the library–most of which are merely reference books, but many of which provide quick reference material of facts, such as DOB, individual’s educational institutions, careers, etc., plus provided stimulus for students trying to find a topic for their final project.  (I went back after the class and took pictures with my Android of the library entrance with directions to the relevant shelves and then photos of the actual books and series so they could see the various resources that were immediately available.)

I was trying to squeeze in information about the other area libraries that they could use and would have access to when I was abruptly informed by my librarian that we were done.  (Me: (mid-sentence)– Librarian: “We’re done.”  Me: “Yes, we’re at the end–” Librarian: “No.  We’re done.”  And, then he pretty much turned and walked out of the classroom.)  I managed to get in that the students had access to anything available in our neighboring institution, UMBC–a five minute drive from our campus.  But, was cut off while explaining that the best Maryland resources are in Baltimore’s public library, the Enoch Pratt, and that Johns Hopkins University’s collection is open to the public, even as he interjected with affirmations regarding this information–all information of which I had learned from him before class.

In the end, the class got the Jesse Owens assignment as homework and a bunch of handouts.  I sent some follow-up e-mails, but they are going to be hard-pressed to complete the assignment, although the attempt should expose them to some useful resources.  Still, it would have been much more fruitful if we had worked together.

When I worked for the Close Up Foundation, most of our teaching was done collaboratively, both with our colleagues and our students–it was a huge driving force behind our methodology.  Collaborative learning is a particular approach that is very active.  It implies active learning, lots of doing, lots of thinking about how you are learning as you go.  Collaborative teaching combines the knowledge and experience of different people with widely varying backgrounds in both education and profession.  It implies preparation and planning towards a commonly understood goal.  Neither or these forms of educational collaboration were achieved that day in the Y building on CCBC’s Catonsville campus.

In general, I am wildly excited about collaboration in the teaching arts.  Whether this is simply teaming up and using each other for brainstorming and exchanging ideas or in more involved co-teaching assignments, especially introducing multi-disciplinarian approaches to history or humanities, I think opportunities exist to transform instruction into an interactive and successful experience for students, that explodes with innovation.  Now, this is obviously idealistic as people actually often have control or ego issues (problems I have encountered in other people and which other people encountered in me–especially in my initial attempts at this sort of thing), or other clashes along ideological or pedagogical lines and, of course, personalities.  Still, if both parties are committed to the students and willing to compromise than most differences and clashes can be overcome.

The longer I worked in the heavily collaborative climate at Close Up, the more I realized I had to adapt.  I was annoying, headstrong, resistant to some forms of help or input, bossy and struggled at the basic courtesy that accompanied collaboration.  (For example, I had to train myself to write ideas or questions that popped into my head down on a piece of paper in front of me and wait to see if they were really all that germane to the conversation before blurting it out.  This also helped me focus on listening more instead of waiting to speak.)  Part of my faults were rooted both in my genuine passion and excitement for the subject matter and for the pedagogy, but the other half was equal parts arrogance/ego and insecurity–neither of which really have any place in collaborative work.

I also think collaborative work is an important part of teaching and modeling for students–they are going to have to do it at some point in their lives and they need to learn to balance both what they can contribute with what they can get out of each other.  As educators, we so often hear the following with collaborative projects: 1) he didn’t do anything; 2) he took over everything; and 3) I didn’t understand.  Excuses are common from students, but no more consistently in group work, especially if they have to work together outside the classroom.  Refining this skill is so important that many schools (especially colleges) require professors to include them in the curriculum.  But, it is hard to get students to all put the same effort into the pot–maybe its unreasonable, even unnecessary for the “same effort”, still it requires something resembling an equitable division of labor, if not input specifically.

Even teaching a sports history class getting everyone on the same page is a challenge–and, these students fully understand the concept of team, though maybe not as it applies to intellectual endeavors.  I have tried various means to create templates and systems to at the very least encourage true collaboration and not tyranny or slacking.  For example, I have tried to establish group contracts that clarify the division of labor from the outset of the project, but nothing has been as successful as I hoped.

Additionally, we as historians come from a collaborative field and as much as we want our students to learn the methodology and approach within the field, we want them to learn about the functionality of the field.  This includes everything from conferences to peer-review and symposium to colloquium.  Students should engage in that activity!  In doing so, they refine their speaking, writing, reading and researching skills.

Obviously, I should have been more proactive from the beginning when planning this class, maybe even raised the possibility earlier in the process that I was not paired up with the right person for my goals.  I should have e-mailed a week out and started the ball rolling myself instead of waiting for him.  All of which is very clear and easy to identify, now, but that doesn’t help my students.  We’ll talk on Tuesday about where they are on the assignment that is due Thursday.  I will provide directions if they have had little success so far on their own and hopefully the tools they have been exposed to are now more familiar and stacked helpfully in their toolboxes in preparation for the final project.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Cultural Illiteracy and the History Vacuum

I recently read a couple of articles that I thought were poignant and related.  (Special thanks, here, to Gleb_Tsipursky for bringing them to my attention via Twitter.)   The articles come from CNN’s “Subject Matters” column, by Sally Holland, and Insider Higher Ed’s guest editorial, “Sorry”, by Stephen Brockmann.

Read the articles by clicking on the links below:

Subject Matters: Why students fall behind on history,” Sally Holland, CNN.com

“Sorry,” Stephen Brockman, InsideHigherEd.com

These two articles are both talking about the struggle within our society to engage our young citizenry in history (and the humanities) and the vacuum of cultural illiteracy that has developed in recent years.  The two articles point to different causes, but they are addressing the same effect.

Cultural Iliteracy

Western Civilization has certain traditions and assumptions that inform our society; these influence our legal system, political system, moral and ethical codes and educational approaches.  It differs significantly from other traditions; it has flaws both historically and currently; it often neglects other societies and traditions or looks down upon them.  It is also the culture from which we emerged.  Learning about our civilization’s heritage is also a means for acknowledging its shortcomings and provides a stable platform from which to contrast alternate traditions.

Unfortunately, however, traditions that are not passed on from one generation to the next die. If an entire generation grows up largely unexposed to a particular tradition, then that tradition can in essence be said to be dead, because it is no longer capable of reproducing itself. It does not matter whether the tradition in question is imagined as the Western tradition, the Christian tradition, or the Marxist tradition (and of course both Christianity and Marxism are part of the Western tradition). Traditions are like languages: if they are not passed on, they die. Most traditions, of course, have good and bad elements in them (some might argue for Christianity, some for Marxism, relatively few for both), and what dies when a tradition dies is therefore often both good and bad, no matter what one’s perspective. But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.

~ Stephen Brockmann

Teachers in high school and middle school notice the problems at a young age.  Students do not retain material, nor do they make necessary connections between time and space as they learn.  We have moved away from memorization drills, which seems to lead to a greater enjoyment, but, while it opens the door for greater opportunities in developing thought processes, there clearly are problems with retention and cognition.  On top of this, students seem to have a lower common-denominator of shared knowledge which requires more teaching than the curriculum may assume necessary.

At Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas, teacher Jeff Frazer said he’s surprised by how many of his incoming students know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 but don’t know that it was a list of grievances against Great Britain.

“I think they learn information by itself, in isolation,” Frazer said of his students. “But putting the big picture together is not happening.”

And during the comparative religions unit at Rutland Middle School in Rutland, Vermont, Ted Lindgren regularly asks students, “What is Easter about?”

He said they invariably bring up the Easter bunny but don’t know the significance of the holiday to Christianity. It shows a lack of cultural literacy, Lindgren said, that they have to compensate for during class.

~ Sally Holland

The field’s potential impact on how we think is itself born out of Western Civilization’s traditions.  This is relevant not only to cultural literacy but cultural fluency and is an important asset for one’s ability to participate in our cultural institutions–not least in our participatory-based political system.  As Brockmann says, we fail to adequately learn even its shortcomings or to understand precisely how this tradition and society contrasts with others.  Without the ability to learn about our own past and its own strangeness and differences we will fail trying to learn about other cultures and traditions.  This also leads to failure in progressive attempts to break from the supposed tyranny of Western Civilization and create a successful inclusive curriculum.  As Sam Wineburg has written in his explanations of historical thinking as a curriculum goal, lacking engagement with our own culture’s foreign attributes will necessarily stunt our ability to deal with the contemporary foreign cultures around us with which we are in ever-increasing contact.

What’s the cause of the current set of circumstances?

Holland’s article focuses on the perspective that is twofold: on the one hand, the amount of content is overwhelming for teachers and, aided by crummy textbooks, often reduced to trivia; on the other hand, history has been deemphasized in schools at an ever-younger level because it is not part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing.  Even in cases where state-mandated tests exist, there is often a large gap between the testing and the period of learning.

World history teacher Troy Hammon of Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, said he is constantly weighing how much “trivia” he teaches, like names, dates and places, and when to try to help his students relive history.

For example, Hammon had his students take on the roles of individuals who may have taken part in the Crusades of the Middle Ages. The students then answered questions based on their knowledge of that time. Hammon believes this helps his students better understand the Middle Ages.

History grows every year, no matter what,” said Jennifer Kravitz, who teaches world history, civics and economics at Rutland High School in Vermont. “So with this ever-expanding content, teachers are trying to balance teaching history content with helping students learn the essential skills they are going to need.”

~ Sally Holland

The resources provided to teachers at the secondary level emphasize “facts” but not thinking.  (I actually open classes by telling my students that we will not be studying facts, but interpretations of sources–hopefully reliable sources.)  Even so, the challenge of retention and engagement remains.

Brockmann opens his discussion much earlier than NCLB with the cultural wars in the 1980s.  He argues that these were not only counter-productive to either group’s goals, they also gutted the humanities of its respectability and dignity in the minds of the general public.  It created the image of the liberal arts as a bastard child in the academic arena, subordinate to more vocational majors such as business, which is a completely topsy-turvy understanding of education and its roots in Western Civilization.

A quarter of a century later, with the humanities in crisis across the country and students and parents demanding ever more pragmatic, ever more job-oriented kinds of education, the curricular debates of the 1980s over courses about Western civilization and the canon seem as if they had happened on another planet, with completely different preconceptions and assumptions than the ones that prevail today. We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.

The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

~ Stephen Brockmann

What is lost?   Perhaps it is irrelevant to you that America’s children are limited in their thinking about Easter to a basket full of candy and gifts delivered by the Easter bunny, but it is a tragedy regardless of whether those children are raised as Christians.  This reflects an unfortunate reordering of our values and mores–and I am not insisting on a Christian society, here.  The questions are broader than religion or life viewed through a religion’s perspective.  How do business courses prepare students for the cultural interactions of the modern world?  How do they replace philosophy courses that ask us how to think about how best we should live?  By what means do they teach the next generation to communicate, argue and understand rhetoric?  In fact, business schools must add such tangential courses to their programs because they recognize that their students are not getting a well-rounded education beyond the major.

How is it solved?

Indeed, how?  It requires a re-commitment to our society’s roots, even if we dispute the value of it’s ideals and practices.  It is not necessary to glorify it, but it is necessary to learn it.  We cannot possibly expect students to understand the conflicts that exist today or the necessity for self-education and participation in the community and civics without some grounding in what got us here–and I understand this to extend beyond our Founding Fathers, just as they looked beyond their British heritage in the founding of a new American civilization.  The value of testing-based education has been questioned long before NCLB and the idea that a multiple choice test can adequately evaluate a student’s ability to think historically is, naturally, absurd.

Brockmann believes that we have truly lost something, which is why he entitles his op-ed, “Sorry”.  Holland’s teachers appear to have few answers as well, though their myopic  concern about NCLB and state testing requirements smells like a scapegoat.  Naturally, students‘ lives have changed from the 1980s–not just their habits and activities, but also the way their brains develop as a result.  Will instructors be able adapt as necessary within the systems that exist–those systems born out of Western Civilization?  Probably.  When and what will be lost (and need to be recovered by later generations)?  Good question.  Students of the breadth and depth of Western Civilization will recall that the Romans looked back to the Greeks.  In succession, the Carolingians, 12th Century scholars, Renaissance Europeans and Enlightened thinkers all looked back to the Greeks and Romans following a decline in such interest and remembrance.  Enlightened thinkers looked back to the Renaissance, as well.  So, perhaps we are due for another flourishing in the long history of ideas from our extensive heritage.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Helping students read and write better

At the end of the semester it is worth reflecting on what has passed and what one would do differently.  Fall 2010 was less than smooth for me–some of it was very much in my control and other aspects were simply not.  (Friday, I will write about the glamorous life of the adjunct.)  One of the things I introduced this past semester were workshops associated with the midterm specifically intended to improve reading, writing and understanding of the historical method.

Studies have concluded that the social sciences and hard sciences are better mediums to teach reading because students have to grapple with the content.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have already created a bit of confusion in my design.  I refer to the first class of the week, or the first part of class depending on the weekly structure, as a “workshop” which is a carry-over from my Close Up days.  In this formula, a workshop is used to examine important concepts centered around questions pertaining to the subject.  At Close Up, these were questions about democratic governance; in my history classes, these are questions about historical method or challenges with those methods.  This is separate from the workshops I assigned this semester with the midterms which were intended to help improve students’ reading and writing skills.

In the case of the midterms, I assigned three questions that required two-page essay responses with two options for each question.  The first question asked the students to analyze an anonymous passage, to find the clues that would place the text in our course chronology and make an argument for their conclusions.  The second question asked students to make a historian’s argument dependent on four primary sources provided with the exam.  For both of these questions, the students were allowed to use any primary sources handed out in class and their textbook to supplement their answers and the provided material.  The final questions were based specifically on methodology: either they answered a how-to about specific a question we touched on during the first half of the semester or they made an argument about whether or not they believed there was such a thing as historical fact.

Notice that they are asked in each instance to make an argument and that in at least two of those instances these arguments are dependent on their ability to read and extrapolate the content for their argument.  While we have worked on these skills in class, this is the first time where I do not hold their hand through the process.  I graded the midterm with a firm hand and then assigned the Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop assignments when I handed back the midterms.  These were designed to force the students to revisit their work and improve upon it.  The major drawback with the system was the time it took for me to tailor assignments to each student and each student’s work.  Now that I have done it once, it would be easier for me to reproduce it a second time because of the experience granting me some anticipation for the sort of problems I can correct.  Once graded, the students earned back points on their midterm–in some cases, extra credit–but the workshops were also counted as separate assignments to insure that students took it seriously.  The earned back points made a big difference for many of students’ midterm grades; it is my hope that the workshops made a difference for their reading and writing.

For the Reading Workshops, I assigned tasks meant to get the students to reread the sources and find what they needed.  The amount of work varied depending on the quality or strength of the original submission.  For example:

Workshop assignment.

For the assignment, I want you to compile a list of quotes from the text that show it is a) from the Queen, b) English and c) Reformation-era.  This should be literally a list under the appropriate heading (i.e.: “From the Queen”) made with each quote getting a bullet point.

The intent was to go back and find the clues that they missed and or that they mis-attributed and correct their mistakes.  In each instance there are many clues that provide a direct link to the time period and the culture that produced the text.  In the above exercise, for example, there is little difficulty in going back and recognizing that the piece is English because of references to Parliament and to the decree that all prayers and preaching be done in English.  In the case of each answer, students had to demonstrate the skills they had learned as well as their acquired knowledge about the era in question.  With Queen Elizabeth’s edict, referred to in the above example, one had to be able to take the clues provided (the queen, the language of the Reformation, the reference to Parliament, etc.) and recognize it as a document from the English Reformation during Elizabeth’s reign.  So, it is not as though they are only being tested on historical method.  They are demonstrating their knowledge through their use of the methodology that we have also addressed in coursework.

In the second question, the texts were meant to work in harmony and provide evidence for a larger case.  So, reading the texts as being in dialogue with each other was essential.  In most cases, the students simply did not deal with each of the provided sources which often produced a one-sided perspective.  For example, one option asked students to evaluate the changes in English culture as a result of the Industrial Revolution, but many ignored the document provided by the manufacturers who owned the factories with the new machines and limited their focus to either child labor (from primary sources referenced in class) or hand-workers who had lost their profession to the cheaper machines.  So, in this instance I needed students do grapple with the content of each provided source as with the following assignment:

Workshop Assignment.

Being sure to cite the sources as you use them—even where you don’t directly quote, but nonetheless paraphrase—write four paragraphs that follow the provided outline.  This is in essence the body of the essay without an introduction or a conclusion, but also tightly focused on the provided sources.

I.  First piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the William Radcliffe text, what type of document he writes and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what it was like before the development of the textile machines
  3. Point #2 about what it was like after the development of the textile machines

II.  Second piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Leeds Woolen Workers Petition, 1786 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about why the workers say they have written the document
  3. Point #2 about what they say about the impact of textile machines on their lives and livelihoods

III.  Third piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Letter from Leeds Cloth Merchants, 1791 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about what the merchants say has changed (you can note that they have a different take than the authors of the petition above)
  3. Point #2 about what change the merchants propose to enable in the future

IV.  Fourth piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the final text, “Observations”, what type of document it is and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what change the author observes (first point)
  3. Point #2 about what change the author observes (second point)

(Note: Roman numeral = a paragraph; number = 1-3 sentences.)

In this example, the point was to ask the students to provide evidence from each source–not necessarily to change their conclusion.  In some cases, this meant simply rereading the sources with the benefit of my notes on their exams.  The outline is set up so that they now know what each source is supposed to provide them, even if they could not figure it out when they read through the texts on their own the first go ’round.

For the Writer’s Workshop, I was often asking students to address organization or their argument’s structure.  Sometimes this meant refining the above structure to include an introduction and conclusion.  Often, students skip introductions and conclusions to simply “answer the questions” without realizing how an introduction and conclusion benefits the clarity of their answers.  In some cases, students provided good information, but understanding it required extra work because there was no logical order to their answer.  This was also when they frequently would contradict themselves.  So, in some cases the assignment was to produce a refined outline of their content and to make sure they were really answering the question as in the following sample:

Workshop Assignment:

Write an outline for a new essay answering the question showing steps a historian would take to answer one of the provided questions.  Consider the things you have been asked to do previously in the exam and review the material from our first week if classes to help you think about what it is a historian does and how one uses the historical method to answer questions about the past.

The outline should show consideration for the following points:

  • What types of sources are available for the era and the people involved?
  • What are the limitations of these sources?
  • How can answers be found with the sources we have?
  • How does the historian make an argument to answer this question [you selected]?

Getting students to approach the material in a more organized way helped them to better understand their own arguments and the material in general.  In the best-case scenario they make new connections that they had not realized before–in other words, the exam itself is a learning tool.  In assessing the success of the workshops, I am inclined to be optimistic.  While some students were still not able to make some of the connections I hoped, their was improvement in every instance.  For some students, the improvement was significant (indicating either that they better understood on the second attempt or that they put more time and effort into the second attempt).

The Readers' and Writers' Workshops helped bump up Midterm grades--but they had to work for it!

For the final, I assigned less work, dropped the third question regarding methodology and asked them to answer more guided questions for the first anonymous passage.  It was also worth more than the midterm to hopefully reward them for having taken some risks in the first attempt and to have refined their approach by the second attempt.  In order to make use of this method in the future, I need to plan it out better so it is not such a time-consuming process on my end, otherwise it is not worth it for the students.  Still, once I saw the results it was hard to argue against doing it.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Music, Sports, Games, Food — The things people like . . .

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There are several popular things that I really enjoy: music, food, sports, games.

These also happen to be things that most students really enjoy.  And, they are things that are often particularly unique to the cultures that create or adopt them.  Looking at any one of these features opens a window into another culture and, thus, into what makes it strange or familiar.  Later this winter I would like to run I a week devoted to each of these fine and wonderful contributions to society.  For now, however, I would like to make a case for making greater use of these cultural institutions in teaching.


Arguably something we don’t do enough these days, feasting has had an important function in pretty much every culture.  It is also something that can be duplicated with a certain amount of ease.  A feast is a fantastic way to bring together students, families and the greater school community at large.  What’s more, it is also applicable for virtually any unit in your social studies and history classes.

It doesn’t have to be an exhibition on the glamor of exotic or foreign culinary delights, though.  Sometimes what is most powerful is the sense of deprivation.  Thanksgiving on the western frontier is a very different experience from Thanksgiving in Boston.  The food culture of a region depends on resources, climate, environment and access.  Within that culture there are often variations that exist based on wealth.  All of these are teaching points and all of these are often accessible in primary sources.  Food traditions also often represent points of fusion and connection with other cultures and regions, making a certain emphasis on food a great way to experience cultural change through contact.


Spectator and participatory sporting activities have a long history in our human story.  On the one hand, this is something that is easily recognizable and offers a familiar face to a foreign culture.  On the other hand, the purpose these served for ancient cultures is often rather alien.  Most students would be able to grasp the technical similarities that exist between the ball game of Central America with soccer, but most students will not immediately take hold of the idea that losers will be sacrificed on an altar and have their hearts removed.  By starting with the ball game, you lead to other avenues, such as religion, ritual and beliefs.

Even with more recent sports, social issues, such as eminent domain and segregation, are put into a particularly accessible format for students.  Certain international realities are also made plain when looking at international competitions such as World Cup and the Olympics.  ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series is based to an extant on this notion.


There are a combination of factors that contribute to the relevance of games.  Chess, backgammon, cards, dice . . these are games with a lot of history and there is the opportunity to put a student in the same shoes as a child, soldier, king from centuries beforehand and tell him this is the same way they past their time.

Some games are ones of strategy and others are of chance.  Strategy itself has a history as chess enthusiasts will tell you.  But, apart from that, there is also the appearance of games that are adapted to new cultures, such as with chess and its introduction of feudal symbols into the game.  This can quite frankly be brought into the present when you consider modern video games and their increasing ability to create online communities around the games.


Music is often difficult to reproduce the further back you go and yet musical historians have made hypothetical reproductions of ancient music and instruments.  The study of particular pieces and styles of music is extremely telling about a culture.  Monks chanting the daily antiphon to each other morning, day and night speaks of the round the clock prayer that accompanied monastic life.  Listening to the Blues speaks of the economic hardship in Jim Crow America.  The triumphant tonal qualities of western national anthems speaks to the nationalistic fervor of the 19th century.  The melding and blending of musical qualities in today’s modern music speaks to increasing contact and interaction through the internet, travel and trade.

Music is also something that can be [re-]produced by students who may be more in their element with singing and their instruments than with history–a point that is valid for all of the above categories as well, though maybe music and sports most.

Below is Stile Antico performing a 16th century piece.  The piece is in Latin, religious and written to be sung by many voices.

Below is Benny More; largely considered to be one of the greatest Cuban singers, he fronted Cuba’s leading big band and was known to be gifted at both the fast rhythms and the slower ones.

Finally, Dylan.  Well, ok, not Dylan–it’s a Dylan cover, because that’s what people do with Dylan songs.  This is gratuitous, perhaps, but as such I need provide little introduction.  In this case, I will only say that the cover is by Ani DiFranco, who is someone akin to Dylan in a post-sixties way.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

The Quandary of the assigned debate in class

One of my favorite units in my 101 class is the week we cover the Hebrews.  I frame the question of the unit around the challenge of how history is affected by the historian’s search and we spend the opening volley looking at the minimalist and maximalist camps in biblical archaeology.  This subject is potentially as emotional for my students as it is for the scholars debating it today.

There are a lot of challenges built into this field of study.  Particularly when considering the early biblical books, it is difficult to assess what should be regarded as history versus religious origin myth.  Abraham came out Ur, but conquered all sorts kingdoms for which we have no evidence at all.  It is a considerable hurdle that the stories were written down well after the events supposedly happened. In my opening workshop where we considered the question about how a historian’s beliefs effect his/her research, I used the example of the Exodus story and the maximalist arguments by James Hoffmeier (“Out of Egypt”, Biblical Archaeological Review, Jan/Feb 2007) and Meshel Ze’ev (“Wilderness Wanderings”, Biblical Archaeological Review, Jul/Aug 2008) to explain how one side answers a lack of archaeological evidence.  Maximalists argue for authenticity in biblical texts to demonstrate plausibility.  Minimalists argue that biblical texts comprise a collection of religious documents–not historical documents.  So, I decided to introduce the debate into our classroom with one of the fairly recent flash points in the field.

Broken in antiquity and reused as building material, the stela lay in a wall beneath the eighth-century B.C.E. destruction debris from Tiglath-pileser III’s conquest. The inscription’s 13 partially preserved lines in the Early Aramaic language, written in paleo-Hebrew script of the ninth century B.C.E., uses dots to separate the words.

A heated question in biblical archaeology, today, is the question over King David.  Did he ever exist?  Is he part of an origin myth story?  In the mid-1990s, excavations at Tel Dan revealed a shard of a stele that had been torn down, stuffed into a wall and used as filling.  The writing on the fragment is perfectly clear, but the artifact is only a chunk of a larger piece.  It made so much news because the lead excavator, Avraham Biran, announced that it provided proof of King David’s existence.  On the stele, the proto-Hebrew letters BYTDWD, Bethdod, which Biran translated as HouseofDavid.  I have deliberately run the letters together, because the written language 1) has no vowels, and 2) uses dots to indicate a separation of letter groupings into separate words.  Minimalists argue that DWD can be translated as David, or uncle or kettle, the lack of written vowels opening the door to various possibilities.  Also, there is no dot between BYT and DWD in the inscription which leads Biran to suggest the likelihood that DWD should be translated as David, but others to point out that this is not the only or most logical possibility.  Biran hypothesizes that the shard comes from a victory stele erected by an invader referenced in the biblical record.  Critics argue against both the translation and the use of the Bible as a historic source to prove that the Bible is a historic source.  (Some scholars who believe the fragment says House of David, are critical of some of Biran’s explanations.)

In the Biran translation, the material in brackets represents suggested reconstructions. Fortunately, the phrases “House of David” (the dynastic name of the kingdom of Judah) and “king of Israel” (often used without a specific name in the Books of Kings) need no reconstruction.

The Biblical Archaeological Review (BAR), admittedly a maximalist publication, is often conscientious in giving voice to detractors and published a critical paper by Phillip Davies, who was particularly unimpressed with the translation Biran provided–especially given the gaps in the tablet.  So, the Davies article was paired against the write-up based on Biran’s report and written by BAR’s editorial staff.  Students, during the practicum phase of class, met in small groups to discuss the Biran perspective and the Davies perspective which had been assigned as homework.  They were tasked with analyzing both sides and then we came together and each side of the room was assigned a position to take.  They were given time to prep their arguments and asked to write them down, including their own position at the bottom.  Something curious happened next.

The debate grew heated (though always respectful and friendly) almost immediately.  As students were preparing for the debate, some acknowledged that they supported the opinion I assigned them to

argue against, others said that they were undecided.  By the end of the this debate, some of the students had strongly allied with the position that they were assigned.  What did I do?  Had I created an emotional attachment to the side that they were developing an argument for?  Were they fully listening to the other side of the aisle?  Why had they flopped?  I am adamant when I assign a student a position in an argument that they will always be able to supply their own opinion at some point.  My brother-in-law thinks such assignments are immoral, forcing a student in to a compromising situation.  I have never thought that, but last night seeing students switch their position post-debate got me worried.  The reason I do this is to insure an equal representation of each point of view–I always tell the students that I know some people will be arguing against the position they believe in, so they will always have the opportunity to clear the air and state their actual point of view.  At least two of my most active debaters switched their point of view.  So, was this a successful exercise because their point of view evolved?  Or, had I created a circumstance that swayed them artificially?  Not all students flip-flopped, and a couple remained undecided, so perhaps it is just that, an evolution of thought, but I am not really sure.

I would love to hear ideas or comments–I can also direct you to some more information about the controversies.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning