Monthly Archives: April 2010

Bringing Primary Sources to Life

Friday was the culmination of a unit on women’s suffrage. The goal of the unit was to show the students what women, and some men, went through to win the right to vote, a right that most of the girls take for granted. The girls studied primary source documents from the scrapbooks of Emily Smith Miller and her daughter, Ann Fitzhugh Miller, that are part of the Library of Congress’ online library of documents. There are seven scrapbooks that chronicle the actions of suffragists in New York from 1897-1911. They include everything from early photographs of the New York Women’s Suffrage Convention to invitations to concert to raise money to letters to the editor. They shared what they learned from their investigations online on a ning on Women’s Suffrage. (See previous blog post about using online tools for collaborating.)

I also showed them the movie, Iron Jawed Angels, with Hilary Swank, to help them get a better feel for the time period and for the limitations on women at the time. The combination of the film and the primary sources brought the women to life. As the students read the words from letters and newspaper articles, they began to grasp the contrasts between their lives and those of women in 1918.

Using the information that they gained from the Library of Congress documents, they had to build their own campaign, one that had a signature slogan, a stump speech as well as a button or sash. They worked hard to craft their campaigns in ways that avoided slipping into modern ways of thinking and expressing themselves. They had to return to the original documents to verify that their ideas fit with the thinking of the suffragists. One main struggle was to keep the focus on the Right to Vote, rather than expanding it into all sorts of other areas and general complaints.

After building their individual campaigns, I put them into groups of 4 to collaborate on a group campaign, one that used the thinking of each girl. They could decide to use one girl’s initial ideas, but they had to all work to develop them further to be even more effective. Or they could blend together the different ideas to generate a new single direction. Once they had a central theme and strategy, then they were ready to prepare for the parade, one that was going to go all through the school and then down the street and around the campus of the boys school next door.

Throughout the process, I kept sending them back to the sources. Was their thinking in line with the times? What could they wear or create that would present a sense of the late 1910’s? How were they going to present their message? As they went back and forth between their own thinking and the documents, their thinking developed and they became eager to craft the most effective campaign possible. There was an amazing energy that was created by using the papers and photographs of history to capture their imaginations and minds.

The day of the parade was sparkling and bright! The girls dressed in their campaign outfits and hoisted their banners, ready to change the world. And off they marched, aware that they could walk right into a voting booth when they turned 18 because women before them had fought and sacrificed to give them the power to do it. As they carried their placards through the halls and down the sidewalks, my hope was that somewhere deep inside them, they were mkaing a memory, one that will lead to a commitment to be full citizens, remembering this march whenever they don’t feel like making the effort to get out of the house and to the polling place. May the voices of women long gone call out to them to make their voices heard!

Me and my iPad

In truth, it isn’t mine. It belongs to the school, and I have it for 3 days to play with. It has really impressed me in ways that I didn’t expect. It is like my phone, which I love, only easier to use. The colors and sounds are fabulous. I am not an artist, but it is great fun to play around with the art program, ArtStudio. I can almost type on the touch screen, and with a little bit of practice, I am sure I could master it. I am already a fan of Mac’s Pages as a word processing tool, so that is an added advantage. Plus, the internet connection is smooth and easy. It allows me to have all that I want from the Web, without any feeling of intensity or distraction.

For my classroom, I would love to have a set to use with the students. It totally dissolves the distance that occurs as soon as students all open their laptops and create a visual barrier between me and them. If I stand in the front of the room, then I am projecting over the 18 laptops to reach them, with no real control over what is on their screens. If I stand in the back of the room, with a full vision of their screens, I have lost the easier eye-to-eye contact that connects me to them and helps direct the conversation. If their tool was an iPad, I could see them and see what is going on on their screens.

There are advantages and disadvantages around its size. Because it is smaller than a laptop, it would be much easier for a student to have a textbook and an iPad on their desk, able to reference both during an assignment. With laptops, it is usually too tight a space for working with the textbook. The challenge with its size, however, is that it might well be dropped or banged up more easily. There may be some sort of device necessary to hold the iPad on a desk while it is being used in the classroom.

Touch screen creates a really different experience for me of using technology. It is so much less “separate.” The tool feels like a simple extension of my hand and thinking. Because the students use this technology with ease, the iPad seems like it would be a great, new tool.  How do they see them? Do touch screen have the potential to allow them to feel closer to their work and self-expression or is it not that big a deal for them? I need to work with it more myself to figure out how this technology is shifting the ways that students might express themselves and connect with each other.

Research and Sharing

My class started working this week on a research project. I set up a ning for them to access the documents that I wanted them to investigate. I love using nings for this kind of work. It is a tool that is easily accessible for middle school students. As an educator, I simply email to ning and they will remove the ads from the pages. It is a tool that I use for research and for online collaboration. It is a great first step in helping students to develop an online presence, while still giving them the protection of a closed site. I have to invite them to the site. I can make the site open to the public or simply by invitation.

One aspect that the students really like, and one that I think is important for them to experiment with, is that on Ning, each student has a “My Page.” On that page, they can post a photo, update what they are doing and share aspects about themselves. It is very much like a Facebook page, but it is not open to the public. I encourage them to set up their Page in a school-appropriate way. They are so used to posting whatever pops into their heads on their Facebook status, often without thinking about who can see it and what it is telling the world about them. As they interact on a school site, they can begin to learn some of the ways to project positive messages about themselves, while protecting themselves and their reputations.

After each student has set up a basic “My Page,” she turns to the research of the project.  For the current project, their research involves primary source documents. After studying the document, they record their observations in the Discussion section. This way, each student can learn for herself and benefit from the ideas of her classmates. Or they can comment on the observations of others. This collaboration allows each one to stretch her own understanding, but to also see how others have learned. They each bring their own unique mastery to the sources and their reflections capture that.

This sharing holds their attention far more than when they are working independently. While some students can maintain their momentum throughout a long project, far more become distracted and lose interest. When they are sharing their ideas and commenting on each others, the energy for the project stays active. They want to learn something themselves, so that they can make a contribution. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, they are much more willing to share new ideas and test out ones that they are not sure of in this format. There seems to be a sense of anonymity, that what they write there is less personal, than when they make a comment in a class discussion. That makes the ning a powerful tool for more hesitant students.

Into the Role

It is always an adventure when I try a new roleplay activity with my class. I am a great believer in the power of acting out to help students make connections. Roleplaying is a fabulous tool to communicate main ideas. I try to create a challenge for the students, one that usually involves a fair degree of whimsy. Through laughter and some invented obstacles to conquer,  I try to build a path for understanding larger ideas that might otherwise be confusing for them. If I can create an emotional response, then I have got them. When they join the game, they forget that I am actually teaching them history.

Here is the one that I created for this week. It could easily be adapted to a lot of different lessons. The main idea has to do with power and how far one group will go to control another. We are studying the end of the Civil War, but as one of my students pointed out, it could be applied to Iraq today. When I am using a roleplay, the goal is not to have them hold onto all of the historical details. In this case, I want them to grasp why the North invested in the South after the War, during Reconstruction, and then why they stopped. I want them to experience the feelings and challenges that the North faced.

So here is where the whimsy comes in. For the initial set-up, each girl was told that she had a Home Planet, one that had been attacked by aliens. She also had control over a new planet, that was inhabited by Weegits. For the first 60 seconds, their task was, in silence, to name their new planet and draw a picture of the Weegits, the creatures who live on the planet. The purpose of this was simply to get them invested in what happened to their Home Planet and their new one. They fairly quietly drew what their Weegits looked like, adding antennae, large stomaches and budging eyes. Whatever their imagination came up with!

I then gave them a few seconds to share with the people around them what their Weegit looked like. This is a critical steop, one that it took me awhile to recognize. I often want to move right on, excited to get the actual game aspect started. I have found, however, that if I don’t allow them to share their new creations as part of the lesson, they are going to do it anyway. And that just gets me frustrated that they aren’t playing the game MY way. Ah, games!  When I set up time for sharing, it connects them to their roles, and the room fills with laughter and excited chatter. Then I have exactly what I want as a foundation!

Each student had a worksheet to keep track of their finances: their income, expenses and total for each round. They started with 50 coins. For each round of the game, they had to spend 5 coins for the upkeep of their Home Planet. They also had to pay for any transportation to the new planet: 2 coins for a person and 3 coins for any goods. When they started, it seemed like a lot of coins to all of them, and they were sure that they could maintain their Home Planet and colonize the new one with no trouble.

Then came the four rounds. Each girl chose a card that told her about the expenses for that round. “Build a school for your Weegits. Pay for transportation of lumber and 2 coins.” “Your great-grandmother leaves you 3 coins in her will.” “The Weegits rebel. Send 4 police to the new planet. Pay transportation and 2 coins.” I created the cards so that the majority of them had to do with expenses of settling a new planet. They had to build schools, hospitals, housing. There were cards where they made a profit: the mine strikes gold, you collect taxes, you win the lottery. Those cards were far fewer than the expenses.

For the first two rounds, each girl read her card aloud, so the whole class could share in the successes and expenses of the class. This led to lots of groans and some envy. For the last two rounds, I simply handed out the cards and reminded them of the expenses of maintaining the home planet and of transportation. After the four rounds, I had them raise their hands if they wanted to move back to their home planet and abandon the new one or if they wanted to continue to develop the new planet. All but two of the girls raised their hands for abandoning the new one! Success!

We then had a conversation about why. What was it about securing, maintaining, and upgrading a new planet that made them want to abandon it? This conversation had been the goal of the roleplay. As they talked about their Home Planet and their Weegits, I used the vocabulary of the history lesson. What did the North want in the South initially? Why would the North leave the South? What would happen when they did that? The girls hardly noticed the shift. Some of them talked about Weegits and some of them talked about Southerners, but they all understood the challenges of keeping control over a territory that is not close by.

Laughter and invention are wonderful tools for making kids leave behind their apathy and embrace the fun of learning!