Saturday, December 18, 2010

Final Blog Reflection

1. The technology that will be most useful to me is the stock market simulation Rick introduced to me. It provides a great way for students to actually understand how the free market works and, more to my purposes, how the free market has been known to collapse (either due to internal or external pressure).

2. I will use this technology to help my students get their hands dirty. If students don't *feel* a topic, they will not learn it except as a hoop to jump through. Students can learn to trade stocks, form corporations, and appeal to the government for assistance, thus teaching them the nature of today's economy in all of its messiness.

3. My goal as a teacher is to give students independent learning skills so that they know how to analyze truth claims. I am a history instructor; most of my students will not pursue history as a career. Therefore, my job is to use history as a venue for showing students how evidence can be used and misused. One of the ways this class will help me do that is through the class wiki assignment. I want all students to feel like they have a vested interest in the outcome of the class; they are part of a community, and communities help its members.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Final blog post for class: Haunting moral questions

The more I think about how best to teach history, the more I realize that if our history doesn't *haunt* the students, then it's not very effective. By haunt, I only mean that the lesson material resonates in their bones, that it isn't merely the cold analysis of a science or math class. After all, most who teach history would suggest that at some level, we're teaching students how to be good citizens, how to be active thinkers. In essence, we're teaching them a kind of morality (and those involved in education know that that's hardly right-wing nuttery--the quasi-socialist Goodspeed made a name for himself by discussing the "Moral Foundations" of education).

So how to break that resonance barrier The key is that students need to *actually* see how the topic they're studying is part of contemporary discourse. I've considered a few ways. I'll use specific history units to illustrate, but these techniques can be applied across the board with a little ingenuity.

1) Re-enact the Salem Witch Trials without informing the students before hand. Have one of your more dramatic students play the role of Bridget Bishop, for example. Make sure she does a *good* job, enough to scare her fellow students a little (you might also want to pick someone who has a pretty strong rapport with her fellow students--the kind that endure one class period of insanity :). After about 5-10 minutes of that, inform the students what just happened. Have them write down a "journal account" of what they saw.

2) Have students compile a soundtrack to a favorite war--the Civil War, the Vietnam War, etc, using contemporary songs to illustrate various battles, episodes in the war. They form groups and must agree on the final song selections (requiring that they sharpen their debating skills). Have them present their soundtracks to the class and defend their song choices. This helps them to conceptualize the wars in ways that they genuinely understand.

3) Model a totalitarian government. One student is chosen as a chairman who exacts all control over the grades of other students. If they are late, fail to tell the chairman where they will be at a particular time, or do not pay due deference to the state, then they lose points. The teacher acts as the #2 man, basically advising the chairman on how best to maintain control over his people. And make sure you're *serious* about this. Send people to check up on where each student says they're going to be. It's complicated, but it provokes the students into understanding exactly what the 20th-century totalitarian experience was about.

This, in my mind, is the best way for students to start asking the great moral questions about human nature, the role of government, and the reality of war. Just some Saturday morning thoughts.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Last week's blog post

I'm now finishing up writing my first multiple-choice examination. Especially in history teaching, these exams are infamous for being mind-numbingly difficult and worse still, largely irrelevant. Here's how I work to ensure the relevance of my questions:

1) A focus on cultural literacy

I look for the terms that are used in common, educated discourse about a particular topic. This way, I'm emphasizing knowledge as a part of community discussion rather than for its own sake. I want students to walk away from the exam with the ability to recognize once-obscure names as a part of a larger milieu: "I remember answering a question about so-and-so, etc." This will help them not to feel like fools when having conversations on the topic.

2) Direct it back to the Big Ideas

Even when using obscure names, those obscure names should reveal something about Big Ideas. If they do not, then according to the dictates of cold, historical logic, they should remain obscure. For example, most people don't know the name Anthony Johnson from Russell Stevenson; however, if they understand that Anthony Johnson was one of the first African-American slaveholders in America, then he helps to evoke a larger thought process about the birth of race slavery in America.

3) Truth will out

Multiple-choice exams are good b/c they don't give the student the opportunity to haze their ignorance in a lot of moralizing and platitudes. But for them to succeed, But it also leaves the students vulnerable to their own misunderstandings. It definitely reveals how little/how much they know of the facts of history, even if it's raw knowledge. Multiple-choice exams are therefore quite important for determining if they have the requisite facts running around in their head in order to have an intelligent conversation about the topic.

Multiple choice exams can be highly useful if used properly but utterly ridiculous if not. Next up: grading final essay exams.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Project Proposal

For my project proposal, I will learn how to use Virtual Stock Exchange. I haven't been exposed to this technology before, so it should be interesting, to say the least. It will help me to teach the Great Depression as well as the idea of "stock market bubbles."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chalk and eraser style

So every once in a while, I like to go au natural with my teaching. Not naked, mind you (though that would add a certain dynamic to the lecture)--rather, I like to go sans technology. Kick up the chalk, tell a few stories, and ask a few questions. Of course, this isn't exactly smiled upon these days, esp. when our kids live at the speed of text.

How to do it? It's something I working up to, even now. But I've formulated these three keys to doing an au natural lecture right:

1) Every story is boring; every story is exciting

I think about the famous historians of our generation (I use the term loosely, if only b/c some of these writers are frowned upon by the academy, and sometimes for good reasons): McCullough, Goodwin, Ellis, and Ulrich--all of them knew something about details, about characters, and about anecdotes. They wrote their stories as though someone might actually care about who these people are. Their characters could be boring under most circumstances--yet they know how to contextualize them in ways that go beyond "he was a man of his times."

2) Show the power
No one likes hearing a story about the pathetically oppressed--even stories of Communism highlight the "people's revolt," riots, and populist action. Showing the character's *agency* under even horrible circumstances moves students more than any analysis ever can (Elizabeth Smart is a good example of this).

3) Be a little quirky
Go out of the box occasionally--it'll jolt the students out of their txtmsg stupr. Get happy, get sad, even get a *little* angry at the topics being discussed. Bottom line: get something.

No one else in America cares about history, except in some sort of abstract way. If we don't do it, then their historical understanding is hosed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's been a long time, blog...

Welcome back, friends of history teaching. I had surgery last week, so I've been a bit MIA for the past little while. That said, my thoughts on teaching for the week.

Surgery is a funny thing. The same tools used to kill a person can also be used to help a person heal. There's blood, lowered heart rate, even the risk of death when a person "goes under." Yet we do it--all in the hopes that we can attain some greater good.

Forgive me for waxing metaphorical, but I see the teaching of history in the same way, and I wish that more teachers would share this vision. When I present an issue during my classroom lecture, I find that I generally am not doing it to "uplift" but to pose moral questions. I *want* my students to sweat over the questions I present. If they walk away from class thinking about slavery, workers' rights, or war all with a smile on their face as they think about their date that night, then I have indeed failed. The truth cuts, hopefully to the core.

So maybe I should just teach all history classes with the intent of overturning everything they know, upending worldviews, and shifting paradigms? That's generally what most "activist" history teachers do. Yet in our delight as we see our students sweat, I have to constantly remind myself that I too am wielding a surgeon's scalpel. Am I carefully helping the student to rid themselves of what could be cancerous ignorance or am I just cutting recklessly, doing "surgery" after "surgery" with no regard to the students' capacities to embrace new understanding and truth? Without care, our delight in questioning assumptions can culminate not in enlightened students but in crushed ones who have trust issues towards.

This has been a little stream of consciousness-esque, so let's boil it down to brass tacks. I'm going to teach a class on the Mountain Meadows Massacre at some point in my life (so I anticipate--I do live in Utah, after all). That's a difficult topic for Utahns to comprehend. It brings to bare all kinds of issues about Mormon exceptionalism, zealotry, and Utah-federal relations. It is also loaded with a century's worth of bitterness and activism. In such a context, it's easy to react violently: to see ignorance and wield the "surgeon's scalpel" in the defense of truth. Yet the reality is that such a reaction sheds more heat than light. The best reaction is the reaction of the skilled surgeon: calmness, measured response, and even a little sedation. Then...and only then...can we as teachers hope to remove the tumors of ignorance that burden our students minds.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Multimedia Project

This is a short film on the role of Walter Cronkite in forming American public opinion during the Vietnam War.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Another non-linguistic mode of teaching

I am preparing a lesson plan for teaching the Vietnam War during the Nixon era. I want especially to highlight how Nixon was able to break the New Deal coalition to his own advantage. Here are the plans. Any thoughts are welcome.

I am going to recreate the atmosphere surrounding the "Hard Hat Riot" of 1970. I am going to divide the room up into three theaters. The left side of the room (student's perspective) will have a Vietnam War-era musician singing Country Joe McDonald's I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die. The right side of the room will have men dressed as construction workers carrying an American flag and chanting "USA! USA! USA!" and "Love it or Leave it!" The center portion of the room will have footage of President Richard Nixon giving his "Great Silent Majority" speech. I will have each group perform their part separately, then I will play them altogether, with it culminating in an imitation riot at the end between the VN singers and the construction workers (a mild one, to be sure :).

After this little bit of socio-political theater, I am going to have the students write out whom they sympathized with the most. Even more, I want them to write out three similarities and three differences of all the different factions by using a three part Venn diagram. I think it will help give them some perspective on the idea of civil dissent in America.

Thoughts? Compliments? Snide remarks?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Instructional Video Storyboard

Enclosed is my storyboard for my instructional video.