Four Score and Seven "Likes" Ago...
As you step through the doorway of a history classroom, the lights are off as the teacher drones on about the importance of certain Revolutionary War battles. A plain PowerPoint slide is plastered across the front of the room. A few students are awake, actively taking notes, but the majority of the class is dead asleep as the teacher drones on, unfazed by this behavior. This is what many stereotypically characterize a history class to look like, probably because that is what they were exposed to. As a history teacher, I am no stranger to the adversity that educators face when it comes to making historical content relatable to their students. I teach at E.B. Aycock Middle School, located in Pitt County in eastern North Carolina, a school with an extremely diverse student population in terms of both race and socioeconomic status. It can be very challenging in a history classroom to present information and create assignments in a way that appeals to such a wide variety of student interests and backgrounds while building content knowledge.
This resource will take you through my experience with the Tar River Writing Project, as well as how I implemented connected learning, collaborative learning, and new digital tools into my own history classroom to make content more relevant to students.
The #TRWPconnect Experience
My overall experience with the #TRWPconnect MOOC, a remix of NWP’s 2013 #CLMOOC with the Tar River Writing Project (TRWP) has helped shape me as an educator. I have learned that there are many more options in the “teacher-verse” for hands-on projects and a variety of online resources that can be applied to the classroom that we have yet to harness. The concepts of collaborative and connected learning highlighted throughout this experience inspired me to become more connected with my colleagues in a way that has furthered my instructional practice, and I have encouraged my students to practice these as well.
This online professional development experience also caused me to challenge the idea that “Makes” are not much different from the projects I have assigned in my class. We were introduced to Makes as any project or piece of work where we were creating something. I felt that I was allowing my students creative freedom, but I was actually placing too many restrictions on their work with lengthy checklists or rubrics for them to really show me what they were capable of. By placing less restrictions on requirements for projects, I was able to open the doors to an entirely new world of creativity and innovation for my students. Their work has evolved along with my standards, and now we are all speaking the same languages of “creativity” and “collaboration.” Many teenagers are worn out on the idea of “think-pair-share.” They say that the sharing is forced, and that they are only saying something because they have to. By implementing projects that allow students to explore many different creative outlets and modes of production, they have become more willing to take it upon themselves to collaborate with their peers. This has resulted in a higher quality of final products for each project they complete.
Incorporating Peer-Culture and Student Interest
My main goal as an educator has been to incorporate peer culture and student interests in lessons and assignments as a way of encouraging students to become actively involved in history. Students should not be bystanders to history; they should be involved in it! History is a subject that many students are not inclined to be interested in; honestly, many students find history to be boring and irrelevant, particularly at the middle school level. To give you a better idea of this struggle faced by many history teachers, here is a brief list of common student frustrations:
- “Why do we have to know this?”
- “Why is this important to me?”
- “What does this have to do with anything?”
- “THIS IS BORING.”
While there are many different approaches that could be used to address these complaints, I have found technology to be a great way to create connections between students’ lives and events that may have occurred long before their existence. Allowing students to use a variety of digital tools that they are familiar with results in learners of all ability levels creating connections to the material in a way that speaks to them.
Throughout the course of the #CLMOOC, we explored the concept of Makes, which I have incorporated into my classroom. These Makes can range from thirty minute in-class activities to long term assignments that are completed outside of the classroom. Participating in these projects has increased students’ ability to relate to the content and show the connections that they have made by linking the content to modern forms of technology, namely social networks.
The Founding Fathers, Facebook Style…
I have found that students are thrilled when offered the opportunity to create Facebook accounts because these are two social media networks that use regularly and are comfortable with. Makes involving social networks spark student interest, even in those who are typically resistant to “creative” project ideas. One such Make was to create a Facebook account for a founding father, and students were offered multiple different format options: a paper template, an online “Fakebook” account creator, or an opportunity to use any online medium of their choosing (like Google Draw). They were directed to include a short biography, at least one post by their founding father, at least one post by one of their “friends,” and who at least two of their “friends” would be.
Just like the Makes we created with #TRWPconnect, this Make gave students a general guideline as to what was expected, but allowed them creative freedom to lay out the information in the manner of their choosing. This resulted in students developing a greater passion for the Revolutionary War era and gaining a better understanding of both the person they chose and their contemporaries.
One very high-achieving student created a Facebook profile for George Washington. This profile included the American flag as the cover photo, a picture of Washington for the profile picture, a short biography, a wall post by Washington, two wall posts by “friends” Ben Franklin and Paul Revere, and a photo depicting Washington as a General in the Revolutionary War. The student even included “likes” and “tags” for posts and photos, and they created their own template using Google Draw to fit their idea of what the Facebook profile should look like. Another student of a lower achievement level created a profile for Ben Franklin using the Fakebook creator, and included very similar information in a different format. I was stunned that with such broad guidelines, these students were able to bring George Washington and Benjamin Franklin to life in a way that was far more entertaining than I ever could have presented in a lecture.
(See pictures and analysis of student work below)
For students, this project inspired a thought process that was reminiscent of the learning experience I had in the MOOC and with the TRWP for the simple reason that it required them to think “outside of the box.” Obviously, none of the founding fathers would have been familiar with Facebook, which meant that students would have no “real” example to follow. This frustrated many of them, just as I was very frustrated in the beginning of my TRWP experience with the lack of checklists and explicit instructions. Students had to determine what that person would have been thinking, what would have been important to them, and what they would have wanted to broadcast in a public forum, and they slowly discovered that their best resource was the feedback from their peers. They were able to effectively collaborate with each other without having been instructed to do so, and more so, they wanted to share and comment on each others’ work. Students with different founding fathers joined together to create conversations among their Facebook pages, and they enjoyed using humor in these Facebook posts (which I instructed was great so long as it was historically accurate information). I found that without specific instructions, students were willingly participating in the collaborative learning process.
This project was successful because it tapped into not only student interests, but peer culture as well. They were able to examine events and people who lived hundreds of years before them and bring them to life in the present. Had I attempted to lecture about this information, I likely would have put them to sleep because of how “boring” it was, but allowing students free reign to create their own product allowed them to present what they perceived as “boring” information in a fun, creative, and new way. My experience in the #CLMOOC and #TRWPconnect made me realize that it is not important to have explicit instructions.
Many educators are so weary of their students writing “inappropriately” that they issue strict guidelines for assignments that stifle student creativity. Why not let students use humor? One student who chose George Washington as their founding father wanted to post as Martha Washington on their “wall” and say, “I love you, sweetie pants. See you for dinner at 6 – I know cherry pie is your fave!” Why not? If it causes them to become more interested in history and the life of George Washington, is a “cutesy” post going to cause significant harm? As educators, we need to realize that “loosening” project guidelines does not necessarily mean that we are lowering our expectations. By doing this, we are allowing students the creative freedom that they require to truly blossom as learners.
The bottom line is, students do not expect history to be a “fun” class; why not surprise them?