Thursday, March 31, 2011

Creative Writing in the History Classroom

It’s the end of a long March after a winter bombarded with snow-days and the forecast is predicting snow on the first of April. I, firstly, want to offer some encouragement and cheer to my fellow teachers who are on the front line defending Fort Sanity. I have found this true for myself, and hope it will be useful to you as well, that during this long and transitional time of year when we’re itching to say good-bye to Winter and Hello to Spring, it helps to remember to design lessons and activities that revive the excitement, interest, and creativity in teaching and learning. Creative writing strategies may provide the necessary ray of sunshine for your classroom, yes, your history classroom.

The Buzzards Bay Writing Project (BBWP) presented writing strategies for the history classroom at the History Connected December Seminar, War and Protest. They highlighted two forms of creative writing, RAFT and Found Poems. RAFT, an acronym for Role-Audience-Format-Topic, provides students with a unique way to analyze a primary source and make connections with a historical event. After selecting a primary source, teachers assign, or allow students to choose, their role, which can range from a specific person, to a general character, to an inanimate object; an audience, which can vary from personal, public, supportive, oppositional, or undecided; a format, which can be at any level of formality, from a postcard to a speech; and a topic that connects to the purpose of the lesson. Students develop valuable insight through considering the personality and point of view of their role and the word choice, tone, and purpose given their audience, format, and topic. BBWP modeled RAFT with two primary sources, Jackson’s defense of the removal policy (Role, Andrew Jackson; Audience, “aborigines;” Format, address to the tribes as they prepare to leave; and Topic, why this action is necessary) and a Memorial and Protest of the Cherokee Nation (Role, Cherokee Nation; Audience, people attending the “funeral” of the Cherokee Nation; Format, Eulogy; Topic, Our People). RAFT has the potential to deepen students’ understanding of an event and develop their historical thinking skills by prompting them to consider historical perspective and competing historical narratives.

Found Poem is a unique way for students to synthesize concepts from a primary source and organize them into a creative visual. You literally “find” a poem in a source…it’s easier than it sounds. Found Poem is broken down into manageable steps so that no “traditional” poetry writing skills are needed; students don’t necessarily need to know they are writing a poem! I’ve slightly modified/clarified BBWP’s procedure for Found Poem: 1. Teacher should share the idea of a found poem with the class, show a model or model the process. 2. Students read passage independently, highlighting key words or phrases that help to define the meaning of the passage. 3. Students may either work individually or in pairs or small groups to arrange words and phrases into a Found Poem. Encourage students to consider the use poetic devices such as imagery, personification, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme, as well as the use of white space and writing words in a shape, size, and direction that reflects their meaning. 4. Students come together and share their poem. I really like Found Poem because of its effectiveness in exploring and evaluating key concepts within a source and because it requires students to express the meaning, tone, and significance in a format that’s easy for others to understand. Its accessible procedure and creative format encourages participation from different learning styles and learning abilities. BBWP modeled Found Poem with an 1838 letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson protesting the removal of the Cherokee Indians from the state of Georgia. Each group of teachers had a few paragraphs to read and from which to “find” a poem. Together, we collaborated on what phrases and ideas best represented our section as well as how to visually represent them. As each group presented, I learned about the entire document. Found Poem also leaves the teacher with excellent, content-rich wall décor that continues to teach long after the lesson. I used this with my world history class and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. One of my favorites has the poem written in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. It’s on my wall and we refer back to it whenever we need a refresher on the ideas of freedom that have shaped the world.

Two resources I’ve used to help add more writing, creativity, and thinking, without necessarily creating a lot of grading for myself, are

The Story in History: Writing your Way Into the American Experience by Margot Fortunato Galt and Content-Area Writing: Every Teacher’s Guide by Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke.

I’m interested to know what documents you’ve used or what documents you think would work well for RAFT or Found Poem. What other forms of creative writing do you use in your history classroom?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer

To date, the book that has captivated me the most this year is Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. This meticulously research account of Revere’s ride is a must read for teacher who teaches the revolutionary period. Full of interesting antidotes, little known facts and compelling action, Fisher has put together a read that I am planning to excerpt for my students next fall. Paul Revere’s Ride will not only engage them with Fischer’s writing, but intrigue them to learn more about this remarkable hero of the early revolution.

One of my favorite poems is “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. Published on a wide scale in 1861, this lengthy masterpiece of Longfellow’s is in my opinion, a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the poem that I love so much is full of historical flaws and inaccuracies. In fact, I am almost embarrassed to admit that I like it, as I think of myself as a fairly current student of History.

Fischer, among others, has taught me just how wrong Longfellow’s poem is and where the major inaccuracies about Revere’s ride come from. Generally, I believe that most of America has learned about Revere’s ride from Longfellow’s poem and not from scholarly products on the man and his adventures in 1775. The first principle myth that Fischer revels is that Revere rode alone. On the contrary, Revere was one of two major riders out of Boston that night. He and William Dawes road from the British infested town of Boston via two different routes to guard their message against capture. Secondly, Longfellow neglects to highlight in his poem that Revere and Dawes ignited an explosion of other alert riders that evening. These additional riders took messages about the British on the march north and south of Boston; as far as Connecticut and New Hampshire. Thirdly, Longfellow never mentions in his poem that Revere and many others had been ‘alert riding’ for quite some time by the 18th of April. They were experienced and they had made the surrounding towns well aware of their roles and their alert system. Additionally, Longfellow omits that General Gage and the British command was very much aware of all of the ‘alert riding’ going on prior to the 18th. In fact, patrols were deployed to thwart as many alerts as possible that night. It’s hard to conclude with the mentioning the fact that Longfellow depicts Revere completing his mission and terminating his “Midnight Ride” in Concord Towne. Fischer reminds us that Revere was actually captured by one of those British patrols with William Dawes. A young doctor by the name of Prescott completed the Revere/Dawes alert in Concord after meeting them by chance not far from Merriam’s Corner.

The ‘Paul Revere myths’ created by Longfellow were a great necessity to this country when the poem was written in 1861. At the time, the country was at the brink of Civil War and the war seemed inevitable at the time. This country needed a patriotic super hero, and Longfellow worked hard to produce it through his classic poem. The most ironic part of this part of history is that the country always had a super hero in Paul Revere. In 1861, Paul Revere was not as extensively researched as he is today. Longfellow could never be expected to know as much about Revere and everything that was connected with him as Fischer gives us in Paul Revere’s Ride. Longfellow’s understanding of the Ride created a true folk hero through a tremendously enjoyable poem. What Fischer reveals to us are a myriad of reasons why America always had a true hero in Paul Revere.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Teaching Historical Context With Primary Sources & Podcasting

The Philosophy Behind the Lesson
Now that the second half of the school year is well-underway, I am becoming more and more cognizant of the fact that I need to teach my freshman students certain skills to prepare them for the larger-scale research projects that await them in their sophomore classes next year.

One of those skills is historical context.

Professor Claude Bélanger at Marianopolis College describes historical context as:
The context is understood as the events, or the climate of opinion, that surround the issue at hand. They help to understand its urgency, its importance, its shape. What was happening at the time of the event or the decision that sheds some light on it? In what type of society did the event occur? An urban one? A rich one? An educated one?
The Lesson
I wanted to come up with a fun way to teach my freshmen this concept.  So, I opened the class with an explanation of historical context.  We happen to be studying American colonial society prior to the American revolution.  So, the two issues I chose to highlight were the Great Awakening and colonial westward expansion into Native American lands.

Each group received one primary source quote or excerpt to analyze.  They did some pre-reading the night before, and now they had to apply that knowledge and set up the historical context to explain how people of the time might feel and why they might make the statements assigned to them.

Click here to see the handout they received.

They had the first half of class to do their research and writing, and then we recorded their results in a podcast during the second half of class.  Groups sent two representatives up to my desk, and they recorded there using a simple headset with microphone and my account. (Audio expert is something covered and demonstrated in an earlier History Connected Seminar this year.)

I published the podcasts before the kids even left the classroom using my account.  PodBean is easy to use.  If you know how to write a blog using Blogger or WordPress, PodBean is relatively intuitive.

Here are the podcasts that resulted:
D Block Podcast

C Block Podcast

Finally, to follow up on the lesson and ensure that everyone got the historical context for all of the quotes, students were assigned to go online and listen to the podcast one more time for homework. They were to take notes on the historical context explained by each of the other three groups on their handout from class.

Reflecting on the Results
The students really liked this lesson because... 
  • It reinforced and reviewed the reading and outline work they had done the night before.
  • They got to work in groups and talk to each other throughout the class (it was a student-centered activity). 
  • They love publishing podcasts online.  Fourteen and fifteen-year-olds love to hear their own voices! 
  • Also, I often send emails home informing parents when we publish podcasts or videos from class.  Parents love hearing what their children are learning directly from their mouths and in their own words.
I really liked this lesson because...
  • It was quick, one 55 minute class period.
  • The kids were engaged and motivated the entire time they were in class.
  • The work they are doing is applying the knowledge they have already learned.  It isn't about spitting back information they memorized, it is about higher order thinking. 
  • Also, I tend to get a lot of feedback, from both parents and students, when our lessons result in something we publish.  Parents email me and comment on the actual podcast.  I can also see how many "hits" each podcast gets right on the PodBean site, so I know that students are going back and listening.