Culling the Story from the Sources

If ever there was a time to be good at telling stories, it is now.

For the past two weeks, I have been attending the James Madison Seminar in American History at Princeton University.  We’ve been immersed in the elements surrounding the birth of our nation, most specifically how the ideas of Republicanism, Liberalism, and the Enlightenment all had tremendous influence over the founding of our nation.

Most of what we have done has been fairly traditional: we’ve sat in class and been talked to, albeit by some talented and learned folks.

Today, however, looked and felt very different.

We spent the day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art exploring collections within the museum and architecture in nearby Fairmount Park.  Doing so amounted, in my opinion to some real moments of clarity regarding what we do as teachers, and specifically as teachers of history.

One of our guides, Justina Barrett, took us through two homes in Fairmount Park managed by the museum: Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove.  The houses were distinctly different in their architecture and function, but Ms. Barrett, in her discussion of the homes crystallized something for me.  On the second floor of Mount Pleasant, she asked us a simple question about how they came to know what each of the rooms functioned as during the initial life of the home (over 225 years ago).  With that question as a springboard, she spoke about how the job of a historian, especially art/architectural historians is to cull the story from the homes, the historical record, and each room individually.  Her main role, and that of teachers of history for that matter, is to deduce an interpretation of what happened right from the primary sources.

Think about that.

We laugh at how little people in later life remember of the “stuff” of history, but I ask, if they forgot a good amount of the stuff, but could still distill a relevant story from several sources, was the stuff important?

Secondly, during our time in the museum itself, we examined the following works:

I’d forgotten what it was like to sit around with a group of intelligent folks and dissect a work of art, fully basking in the multitude of perspectives each one of us brings to the painting.  The work of Peale astounded me, and as our guide, Mary Teeling, explained, brought forth so many of the ideals we have spent time studying over the course of the last two weeks.  Peale was a natural philosopher, a true enlightened man, who brought into his work the polymathic principles of the period.

Ms. Teeling asked us to examine these pieces with playfulness, to see what came to us and what struck us.  We took stabs, we built off of one another, we contradicted one another.  I thought for a while on the way home about how much fun that was to project out those thoughts and then listen as the group interpreted them or rejected them.

Sadly, in education, whether in teaching our students or in collaborating with colleagues, we rarely get that time to build what is known as neuroplasticity–that time we take to re-shape our minds through engaging play.  Today provided a window into that for me once again, and gave me that time to wrangle with some conflicting ideas, and it took a visual medium to do that.

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“That” Student.

Have I become “that” student?

It’s been a long time since I sat in a graduate class of any kind.  I’ve dabbled in various situations, thought long and hard about various programs to enter, but as for sitting in a traditional classroom setting as a serious student, it’s been nearly ten years. For two weeks this summer, I’ll be part of a Teaching American History Grant through the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, at Princeton University in July.  Surrounded by other history junkies, I am wondering what the experience will bring.

So much has changed in the way of how I learn now: it’s much more immediate, more on-demand and free-form, that I am wondering how I’ll fare in the structure of the Seminar.  Each day consists of a three-hour lecture in the morning followed by lunch and a discussion session in the afternoon.  Pretty standard university stuff, but can I do it like that anymore?  Have I become the type of student that can’t handle that format?  Will I be “that” student you hear about in diatribes in the Chronicle about today’s students lack of focus?  Will I be the guy that causes the professor to ban laptops?

Holy cow.  I hope not.

The reading list is heavy, and it reminds me of the type of reading graduate students are asked to do in order to contribute to the learning community at that level.  However, the reaction of my colleagues and I to the reading immediately reminded me that things have changed.  Our initial idea was to create a schedule of the readings so we could pace ourselves, but then we stated that we needed to share our information so that we could enter the two-weeks with as much of a perspective on the readings as time would allow.  Luckily, the seminar has set up an internal social network called mydolley where each of us can post our work.  We set up a group page where we could easily outline the readings, including our major ideas about them.  As for taking notes and backchanneling during the seminar itself, we are exploring if we should use something like etherpad rather than Google Docs, or todaysmeet rather than twitter.

Already, you can see I will be that student, won’t I?

It’s Comforting to Know These are not New Problems.

In his recent article at Slate, Vaughan Bell begins his article about the historical fear of media change with this outstanding lede:

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

I remember sitting with my fellow freshman during our high school’s student council election speeches.  A senior-to-be named, and he clearly annunciated this as he took the podium, Jake John Robert Hast, began his speech with a diatribe against the youth of the day being lazy, incompetent, and not nearly as capable or driven as the generations that preceded them.  He continued in his staccato tone for a good three minutes reading from his endlessly flickering notecards until he reached a dramatic pause.

He looked up from his note cards and informed us that this was just not true.

It wasn’t even written in our parents lifetimes, or their parent’s parents lifetimes.  He was reading from Hesiod, who wrote in the 8th Century A.D.

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
[disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

According to Bell, it’s at the age of 35 when we begin to look scurrilously upon that which burst upon the scene in the form of new media, and this being my 35th year, I am paying close attention to how I feel about my social networks.  I’ll admit, there are some I could do without, but that is no reason for me to begrudge those who gain from those interactions.

I was part of a conversation today in which the group I was in was asked what we thought were essential skills for students to leave their K-12 schooling with.  The things we came up with were completely soft skills associated with living well, not hard skills that we are used to seeing in our curriculum.  We spoke of things like discernment, empathy, and ethical behaviors.  Reading through Bell’s piece, it’s easy to see how older generations get their hackles up about skills like this, especially when the means that the younger generations use to express themselves is one that is foreign or extrinsic to them.  If we can’t see how they are attaining these values, we worry.

Image Credit: “steckschrift” from wilhei55’s photostream

I Have Become That Student.

I have not been a student in the traditional sense for some time.  I have not sat in a classroom, at a desk, and listened to a teacher or speaker discuss and run a class centered around a central topic.  Everything I have done over the last few years has been focused on my own learning and those elements that I deemed necessary for me to focus on: technology, school change, leadership, curriculum, educational theory, methodology, state mandates, assessment, differentiation, learning styles, visual literacy, Web 2.0, or any other of the most current buzzwords the field of education.  In the last seven years, that time that has passed since I have last entered a graduate school classroom where my primary role was that of “student,” a lot has changed in me.  Never was this as evident as a lecture series I sat in on Monday and Wednesday of this week.

Dr. Eric Davis, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, came to our district to engage any of us interested in a conversation about how to teach our students to better understand terrorism, its root causes, and a means to combat it in an enlightened way.

I was an anthropology major in college, and took enough history to obtain a dual degree (have to check on the status of that one).  It’s my bag, and I am lucky to work with a department that is rife with history junkies.  So when one of our teachers arranged for Dr. Davis to speak with us about his work in the Middle East, we were all excited to work up some intellectual sweat.

Dr. Davis ran his class like many of our classrooms are run: he used a slidedeck laced with his overarching objectives, followed by rationale, example, and explanation.  He also, at any moment, took questions or requests for further clarification from us.  No different than many of the history lectures I attended in either high school or college.

What was different was me.  In those previous situations, the only source for information I had was Dr. Davis, his syllabus, and the recommended books on that syllabus that I was to have read for that day’s class.  In Monday and Wednesday’s class, I had all of you, I had video, I had Flickr images, I had Amazon’s recommendations.

As Dr. Davis spoke about Fareed Zakaria’s work on how to win the war on terror, I popped out and linked my notes to his book on Amazon.  The same with obscure texts like those by Olivier Roy.  As he talked about and showed us startling images from the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the treasures that were lost, I realized I wanted those images too, so I pulled them into my notes from Flickr.  He discussed the use of Iraqi student blogs with his undergraduates; I conducted a quick scan of my twitter network and of Davis’ own resources and and found several examples.

We all asked questions and contributed to the discussion.  I chronicled it in a way that I never would have.  My notes look vastly different and more robust than anything I could have done ten, even five years ago.  His lecture, his class, took on a whole new life in my notes.  I dropped in questions to myself that I’ll look back on and that will help me go in new directions later on.
The best part, for me at least, is that I shared them with everyone in the seminar via Google Docs, and I asked them to drop in their notes and thoughts as well, or to just use mine to springboard even further.

I am now that student–that student that wants more than just what is front of me, and knows how to get it.  We had all types of students in this seminar: those that listened, those that talked, those that hand-wrote notes, and me.  The best part about it is that it doesn’t matter at all if no one shares their notes with me in the collaborative document.  Their interactions in engaging Dr. Davis became part of my thinking and my documentation.  They contributed to my learning, and the least I can do is give back to them this document.

For the Social Sciences…

This is a list of resources I sent out to the Social Studies Department at the high school via their Google Group (which is working out famously):

I am a huge fan of teaching through the use of timely statistics and facts delivered alongside stunning visuals (among other methods as well).  These are a few of my favorite resources that combine both:

xTimeline: allows students, or teachers, to create timelines and view others created by students.  Loads of topics to choose from.

270toWin: great site to show the visual map of the electoral college process and the states required to win.  Timely.

Daylife: news site that relies very heavily on photojournalism to highlight the days events and most popular stories.  Dig deeper and find all sorts of connections between the participants in the stories.

Maps of War: from their site “Maps-of-War presents a special list of the best multimedia war maps from across the world wide web.”

Social Explorer: uses U.S. Census Data to show how demographics have shifted in the U.S. and cities since 1940.  Great visuals based on solid data.