Sunday, March 4, 2012

Teaching with a Theme: Year Two

Just like last school year, I decided to make use of the professional development knowledge, ideas, and lessons I have gained by having a theme for the year in my modern American History course. This helps me to decide what to cut out as I try and add in new elements to my teaching. The theme I chose this year was “War and Society” with a sub-theme of “Public History.”

This year I think I did a better job of using my theme to guide students in the writing of their Sophomore Research Papers. Last year, my theme was “Southern Culture” and I let students make their own connections in their papers and use their own sources. This year, I gave students an article, an excerpt from Paul Rubenstein’s Reason to Kill (Rubenstein, Richard E. Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2010. Print). This excerpt was used in the Primary Source Summer Institute. In my class, I handed out copies of this article and had a class discussion about his list of common reasons for war. I also used this as a way to teach about bias and the idea of a secondary source versus a primary source. Later, I made this a mandatory source for my students to use in their papers. Their paper topics had to in some way connect to “War and Society” and I recommended that they use Rubenstein’s ideas to explain the background of the war(s) they were covering in their paper.

The final drafts of the papers are due Monday, March 5, 2012. When I was looking over the rough drafts, I saw that students had an easier time with this year’s theme because they were all using the same source and we had discussed it in class. It also helped them start the paper. Sometimes, I think students are overwhelmed with the idea of sitting down to write an eight-ten page paper. Despite having an outline, they don’t know where or how to start the writing of the paper. This year, students felt comfortable with starting their papers by describing the cause of the war by using Rubenstein’s reasons. I also found in the rough drafts that most students seemed to have a better understanding of using primary and secondary sources in their papers because of the lesson I did with them at the start of the year.

As for my sub-theme, I didn’t formally announce this to students. I figured they might think it was boring, so I decided to subtly use it throughout the year. So, I have embedded the ideas of public history into my teaching. I started with talking about the idea of having a 9/11 Memorial in the Town of Wilmington. I encouraged interested students to join our 9/11 Memorial Committee, but I also asked students about their ideas about what should and shouldn’t go into a memorial. I went over the difference between a historical maker, monument and memorial. I continued this discussion when we covered our first war in the course, the Spanish American War. We used Rubenstein’s article to analyze the causes of the war. We also examined memorials and monuments in the United States dedicated to aspects of that war. Lastly, we discussed other examples of public history that students have heard of or personally visited.

Right now in class, my students are wrapping up their designs for a Smithsonian Exhibit on the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb. This was the lesson I created for the second year of our grant. I plan to share some examples of student work with you in a separate blog entry. I am very excited and impressed by their work! When we discussed the reflection piece, I brought back the idea of public history, this time using those words. Students agreed that if they visit exhibits in the future, they will most likely think about what was chosen for the exhibit and its intent. At the end of the year, I hope to bring things full circle by asking them to write about the themes we covered on their final exam.

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