Saturday, August 26, 2017

Lessons in Local History

Warning: This is not so much one of my rants about education policy as it is a look at an actual piece of teaching that I use in my own classroom. It's an example of how to use the unique and specific materials at hand to create what I believe is a valuable piece of learning.

For a couple of decades now, I have assigned my 11th grade Honors English class a major paper focused on local history (lovingly named by generations of students "the research project from hell"). Originally they drew a set of years out of a hat. Nowadays I have them select their own topic.Their goal-- to create a written work of local history, based on primary research.

It was the primary source part I was initially after. I had tired of traditional shake and bake research projects in which we basically asked students to plagiarize while being sure to make it look as if they hadn't. And research from published books and articles skips one of the most important parts of research writing-- sifting through a large pile of details to decide what is important and what is not. In a traditional research project, students get their facts pre-selected and pre-attached to a pre-written thesis. I wanted to get past that.

To do that, I needed a topic for which primary sources, or at least unsifted source material, was readily available. My first thought was local history. We have a fairly rich local history, much of it linked to the beginnings of the oil industry. And I was already familiar with the resources available, because I had been wading through them for many years myself. I belong to a local traditional town band with the concerts in the park and the whole nine yards, and I worked on their history for decades, poring through old newspapers, interviews, documents, scraps, anything I could find, tracking the lives of hundreds of members as well as the community, other arts groups, and whatever seemed to me to fit. If the idea of reading several hundred pages of me talking about small town history and the history of town bands appeals to you, just follow this link. Bottom line-- I knew the territory I was sending them out to explore,and I had the contacts and connections to get them into the places they needed to go to explore it.

The process is long and involved. They pick partners in December, begin the work, and hand in a final product in May. There are orientation sessions at the room in the library where materials are stored, and I often take a few Saturdays to go down and open the room up for them. There are check-in dates along the way, because I learned very early that procrastinators could dig themselves into a hole too deep to escape. And lots of discussion along the way of how to do such a thing.

The results have not always been stellar, but I believe there are some real benefits.

* You don't find the answer-- you make it. This is a revelation and a struggle for many of them, who assume that for any question a teacher asks, there is one correct answer and their job is to retrieve it. No, I tell them, you are deciding what the answer, the main idea, is here. You are in control of the outcome of this project-- and only you.

* No borders. In the typical shake and bake project, the teacher tells students where they may not look and what they may not use (to avoid cheating or cutting corners or making things to easy). For this project, there are no restrictions. If you can think of a place or person to consult, do it.

* For follows function. How you organize your materials depends on what you want to say, and that's up to you, so the organization is yours to set, too. But make it make sense. Follow the ideas and stop looking for an answer key.

* Create something. If you have done this really well, I tell them, there will be a piece of knowledge in the world on paper that did not exist before. You will have created something new.

*Learn about your community. "This place is dumb and boring," is where we usually start, and it's true that nothing ever blew up real good here, but they can learn to understand real history on a human scale. At least a little. And anything that connects people to their own communities is a win.

And we have almost always published. I used to run off copies, punch holes, bind the whole mess together. Each student gets a copy, and there are copies in the school and city library. More recently, I've been using Amazon's Createspace (the link is at the bottom of every amazon page) which both creates a decent print copy, but lists it on amazon (so Mom and Grampa and the rest can order copies too). I buy copies for the students and libraries, and as the "author," I get them for under $5 each.

I won't pretend for a second that every project in every year has been a triumph, or that every project has been a work of eleventh-grade genius. But I think the project is valuable, and has mostly worked. It is certainly one of the things my students remember for years and years after they've left me.

Should every teacher run out and pilot this same project? No, no no no, nope. But the larger point I want to make is that when we focus on some worthwhile goals and pull out the skills and knowledge that we personally have, tap into our own expertise, we can come up with useful and unique learning projects. We can design things that we are passionate about, and that passion will infect (some of) our students.

Standards? Pshaw. I handle that like all good teachers do. I designed the project using my best professional judgment and a constant feedback loop that helps me tweak it each year. The standards alignment is just paperwork that can be filled out after the fact.

So as you approach this year, look for your own projects from hell, your own ideas that your expertise and passion can bring to life while taking your students out of the more ordinary assignments. Anyone can do it. My 12th grade AP teaching colleague finishes her year with Paradise Lost, a work she loves, culminating in a trial in which two sides argue in front of local attorneys whether or not Milton successfully justified the ways of God to man. I wouldn't touch that project with a ten-foot pole (can't get excited about Milton, don't have lawyerly expertise to tap), but it is not only highly anticipated by each year's class, but it draws a huge audience. Really. Milton.

The lesson for us is, actually, the same lesson I try to deliver to my students. The answers are not outside us, waiting for us to dig them up. They are inside us, waiting to be brought to life, to be created by us. Do something really cool this year (understanding that you may well make some terrible mistakes first time out, but that itself is a learning opportunity and next year it'll be better) and make your classroom a unique window on the world.

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