Sunday, March 30, 2008

How do you teach the incomprehensible?


You have a total of 3 hours (in two 90-minute chunks, minus the usual housekeeping time) to teach your students about the Holocaust and other modern genocides. You have some state standards to guide you, but they focus on terminology (what is genocide?) and a laundry list of genocides to mention. Your students will come to the first lesson fresh from spring break.

How do you teach this weighty topic without trivializing it?

I don't have an answer. I struggle with this every time.

The hardest thing about teaching history, for me, is to do justice to the tragedies of the past without turning it into sensationalism. It seems there's a fine line to walk between glossing over what happened (11 million people died) and turning it into a horror-show (look at these pictures of concentration camp survivors) that, rather than building empathy and compassion, appeals to the enjoyment of the grotesque that so many of us have learned from tv and movies. How do you use the tools of modern media to tell a real story, with real people? (Now I'm starting to sound like Claude Lanzmann.)

My students, by the way, are fascinated with the topic. I don't know how to respond to that.

Part of my problem is that I spent an entire semester studying Nazism in college. It was a senior seminar, so we read a lot, had the sort of discussions that continue for an hour after class is over, and thought long and hard. Everything I do will seem too shallow after that, I suppose. I can't take the reading and discussion of a variety of "biographies" of Hitler and easily turn it into something my students can do in a block, and yet I want to. I can't show Shoah. (I'm not sure I want to, really.)

I'll probably do what I did last year, and piece together fragments of the things I'd love to spend more time on. I just know it's not good enough. It never is.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review Quizzes

Sometimes I do this thing where I give a pop quiz.

The first time I do it, everyone panics, because I'm not a pop quiz type. Then I say, "no, no, it's ok. It's a review quiz. Don't worry." Everyone gives me this look like "What in the world are you talking about Mrs M? Are you crazy?" and I explain.

A review quiz is a pretty simple idea that always amazes me with how well it works. I give the students a quiz. It's all identification, short answer questions so that when I read their answers I really know what they know. They spend some time taking it like a real quiz (books and notebooks out of sight, no talking, no questions asked.) I tell them they can get out their notes and they switch pens and start looking up everything they don't know. Eventually, I collect them and take them home and look over them, marking them up with corrections and suggestions but giving a lot of leeway in grading.

I'm always surprised by how motivating they seem to be. I'll get a few students who just keep working with their books closed even after time is up, because they'd rather remember it than look it up, and eventually get it all. The majority of students will have to look up about half of it, and I can get a feel as I walk around about what's been working or not lately. A few students will have almost nothing on their paper at first, but rather than give up, they work diligently to figure it out when it's notebook time.

This also gives me a good chance to fix misconceptions, point out common errors and take notes on what to review before the actual test. Great for long units like the current one (World War 2).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Veropedia to the Rescue! Maybe?

I have a confession to make:

I love wikipedia.

I may be a history teacher, but my memory is just bad enough that I double check myself on dates all the time. Wikipedia helps. Sometimes I want to know more about a time or place I'm not an expert on (just because I teach history doesn't mean I know all of it, people) and wikipedia is a great starting place. Sometimes I just need a source of public domain/creative commons licensed maps and photos. Wikipedia comes to my rescue! Sometimes I'm really curious about the death tolls of different wars and disasters, and not only can wikipedia help, but the arguments on the talk pages make for great reading.

However, I'm smart enough to know better than to use it as my final word on any bit of info. I don't really recommend it to my students for research, although I have pointed out that if they use it as a starting point, that's fine.

A Solution?
Veropedia, looks like a really cool thing to me. From their FAQ:
Veropedia is a collaborative effort by a group of Wikipedians to collect the best of Wikipedia's content, clean it up, vet it, and save it for all time. These articles are stable and cannot be edited. The result is a quality stable version that can be trusted by students, teachers, and anyone else who is looking for top-notch, reliable information.
This seems like the perfect solution for someone looking to have their students take advantage of wikipedia but leery of the ever-editable nature of the project. My one concern is the fact that the editors in charge of vetting seem to just be people involved with wikipedia with a good reputation within the site. However, I've spent enough time reading talk pages to know that this means that they'll have decent standards.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Scramble for Africa

The Current Game*

Set up: The board is an outline map of Africa. Make it as simple as possible-- a few major physical features (Nile River, Suez Canal, Congo River are all that's on mine) and that's it. Each student is a European nation seeking territory in Africa. I set up six players per board (Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal) giving each player a set of colored construction squares and a goal. The goals are based on the actual goals/empires, for example, Britain is trying to create a transcontinental (N-S) empire. The students get colored squares based on the power their nation, so Britain has the most.

Play: Students take turns placing their squares one at a time to claim territory in Africa according to their nations' goal. They may overlap, and play until everyone has run out of squares. The board at this point will be a jumbled mess of overlaps. That's good!

War: There is no peaceful solution to these territorial conflicts. Like nations throughout all of history, we solve our disputes by strength of arms in the ancient game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. To ensure fairness, all wars must be monitored by the teacher and are best 2 throws out of 3. Loser removes their square and cannot re place it. (I tell them that those soldiers are dead, so they can't go conquer some other territory with their ghosts.)

After you've solved all the wars, it's time to determine the winners. Each nation reveals their goal and we figure out who, if anyone, actually met their goal. Sometimes no one has, and sometimes a few lucky throws lead you to a clear winner.

Wrap Up: I tend to follow this up by displaying a map of colonial territories in Africa ca. 1914 and ask them to do a little compare/contrast between their own maps and the real territorial divisions. Depending on how well your various students play RPS, it can lead to some pretty realistic maps. We discuss how the real map makes sense in terms of the students' goals in game and then move on to the rest of the lesson on Imperialism in Africa. (If you don't teach in the block, that will probably be next period. This does take 30-45 minutes depending on class size and wars.)

Someone else did it Prettier

The day after I taught this lesson this year, I found this Scramble for Africa board game online. There are some serious differences -- their game includes points values for colonies w/preset borders, dilemmas based on historical situations, and a more real win condition. The basic goal is the same.

The Plan for Next Year

Based on my simple game and the pretty one I found this year, I'm going to try to do a SmartBoard version of Scramble for Africa. I will set up the board as a blank Africa made up of hexes, which will change color to be claimed by a country. I still plan on setting national goals, rather than the points-based system, but I will add some scenarios to exploration and probably a movement system. I'm not sure whether I'll keep the conflicts over territory--the creators of the other Scramble for Africa game had a good point about how little violent conflict there really was between European powers. I'm still working on a lot of details, because this will move from being a group game where every student is involved (with 4-6 Africa boards out) to something that is whole-class by necessity of using the SmartBoard.

* I'm not at work where all my binders/files are because it's break, but when I get back I'll post links to my goals and details of set up if you want them.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


To be honest, I've been feeling a lot of doubt lately.

Doubt that I'll ever be the teacher I want to be, or at least good enough to not hate myself.

Doubt that I'll ever get this classroom management thing sorted out.

Doubt that I'm doing anything right, even when things seem to go well.

I have a lot of posts stored up in the old thinker (actually, over on my backpack) but I can't bring myself to write any of them because what's the point? I clearly don't know anything compared to everyone else out there.

I don't have a personality that makes classroom management easy to figure out. I'm non-confrontational and shy by nature. I have issues with the idea of myself as an authority figure. I have issues with the rules that make up high school that I still feel I have to enforce. Sometimes I can convince myself that I'm getting better at this, and maybe it'll take me longer than others I know to figure it out, but I'll get there anyway. Sometimes I think I'll never get "it" and maybe good teachers really are born and I should give up.

I don't know which one is right, and that's the problem. If I really am destined to be a terrible teacher forever because of my lack of classroom management skills, then I should get out sooner rather than later, right? (That's what I've been reading a lot this week.) Yet the people who've actually seen me teach don't seem to think so. Am I just too hard on myself? I don't know.

Honestly, I can't even begin to imagine what I would do with myself if I didn't teach.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Imagining the Invisible Teacher

An artist is invisible in their work.

Despite this, I can wander around art museums with my mom guessing at the particular Impressionist who painted something and we get it right often enough to earn a solid B.

A masterful performer is one who makes it look easy.

If you don't know what's going on, dressage looks like the easiest equestrian sport. Somebody sits on a horse, doesn't move much, and the horse backs up and walks sideways and maybe dances around a little. What you can't see, but can probably guess at, is the incredibly amount of training that goes into preparing a horse for this sort of competition. You can't ask any old hack to do a capriole and expect results. The riders, too, must be the best. A beginner can get on a horse and yank its head around and kick it and get it to go the right way at a trot, but it takes someone who knows their stuff to communicate with miniscule movements of feet and hands while looking relaxed.

I was going to keep going, but I think the analogy is obvious. The masterful invisible teacher does a lot of work to become invisible. Their presence, in fact, is necessary for the creation of the masterwork, the classroom full of independent students engaged in their learning. You can't get the same result from throwing a bunch of kids into a classroom with some computers and a vague goal any more than you can get that dressage performance from throwing me on a camp pony.