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.

1 comment:

Adelheid said...

My FAVORITE history teacher was 7th grade, Mr. Leidecker, and he did all of these things for us! Well, basically. I really remember stuff from that class, because it was really, really fun, engaging,and it also was the BEST teaching.

We re-enacted the Salem witch trials, we had a unit on ancient Greece that involved a forum, temple building, and olympics, we learned about ancient Japan and had a war game involving a map, pushpin armies, and rice patty allocations. We also re-enacted the civil war, and had a "civil war day" one Saturday complete with uniforms and battle.

What made it even better was how he collaborated with the English teacher, so we read and wrote in English class about those time periods, too. It's been quite a while since I took those classes, but I remember a ton, and I learned much more that year than any other year.

Good luck!