Students As Historians

July 16, 2014

[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

Thinking back on my own personal history as a student, I have remarkably few memories of impactful learning happening inside a classroom. I remember social situations (both good and bad), I remember moments of personal connection with teachers, and I poignantly remember the small number of real-world, hands-on experiences facilitated by teachers.

Deep, impactful learning is learning by doing, learning by experiencing, and learning by discovering. When learning is built around these beliefs, classes can be structured so that creation and discovery happen both inside and outside of the classroom walls. With this in mind, I structure the study of history around the concept of students working as historians. Instead of restricting them to memorizing dates and events, I want young people to understand that history and the past are contested and contestable. When doing the work of historians, instead of merely learning about history, students actively immerse themselves in gathering information, interpreting sources, and developing original ideas.

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[This piece was publishing by the Public School Notebook in June.]

I choose to teach in the School District of Philadelphia. I don’t choose to teach in the District because the pay is lower and the physical conditions are worse than comparable suburban teaching jobs, or because class sizes are large and the bureaucracy and daily realities many of my students face often feel insurmountable.

I choose to teach in Philadelphia because my students are wise beyond their years. Their varied experiences, though sometimes painful, add to our classroom and allow us to probe issues deeply in ways that go far beyond theory

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[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

Teaching would not be possible without time devoted to reflection and rejuvenation. In the same way that crops need to be rotated so that soil can be replenished, teachers need time away from the classroom to rediscover different parts of their identities and return to classrooms and students with renewed joy, creative ideas, and reaffirmed visions of themselves as educators.

Summer is a time for reflection, scholarship, and a chance to give myself a break from the daily cycle of planning and feedback that make the school year such a whirlwind. The choreographer Liz Lerman first introduced me to the idea of mechanization of movement and the importance of breaking out of what inevitably and unconsciously becomes routine. While teaching is far from mechanized, I can relate to the idea of repetition as a force that causes us to lose sight of a vision of possibility.

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My 10th graders recently submitted their final portfolios. As I read the portfolios a sense of accomplishment and pride is tangible. For others the portfolios are a poignant moment of reflection as they realize they achieved less than what they are capable of.

Overall I appreciate the thoughtfulness, insights, and honesty as we wrap up our year together and students synthesize the parts of our course that were most meaningful to them. I wrote about the portfolio process in an earlier Edutopia post.

Here are some excerpts that stood out from the 2014 portfolios:

My general understandings of the course are that creativity is built with experience and imagination, and in order for one to understand oneself, they must step outside their comfort zone to build a better self-sense of everything around them. – Kevin

What I take away doesn’t have to do with the material and the topics, but rather with the way the material was presented and the learning style of the class and SLA as a whole. – Zack

Sometimes, speaking up is the difference between complete success and absolute failure. – Heaven

One thing I took out of this year’s history course is that we cannot wait for others to do what we want.  - Andrew

I have come to understand that collaboration requires patience and organization. – Joe

I realized that belief systems should not influence basic human rights. – Angel

Over the course of the year, world history has taught me that the only way to truly understand yourself is to go out of your comfort zone. – Kara

This year, I learned that self identity is very important, and if you’re not comfortable with who you are (or at least accepting), then you’ll never be satisfied. – Lindsey

Looking back at my history class, my classmates and I did a great job of creating a quality education for ourselves… I found that community was extremely important in our history class. – Mali

Development comes over time. Change never shows right away, it is a process. – Amirah

Throughout the year I’ve learned what hope and dreams can do for a society. - Jasmin

Overall this year has been successful, because whenever you can take the knowledge you have received and place it on other things in your life, that class truly has changed your perspective and identity. – Kadija

This year, I found myself thinking about my surroundings and how I affect the world rather than how the world affects me. – Stephanie



We completed our oral history projects! Read this earlier post to learn more about the process.

Click on the image below to see the different completed projects.



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