DPLA – Spark for Inquiry-Based Learning

Students asking questions and digging deeper for answers, which lead to further questions = my definition of learning (or at least one of them). I am always looking for ways to encourage inquiry in my classroom.

Last fall I was introduced to the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). The collection is phenomenal, if a bit eclectic at times, given the wide range of participating organizations. In keeping with a summer goal of exploring this site a bit more on my own so that I could harness its potential as a resource for my students, I sat down to try using the Timeline feature to see where it would lead me.

I picked a random date – 1951 – and typed it in. I needed to narrow the results so I selected text and English as limiters. That produced 2,887,870 results – an overwhelming amount. I decided to narrow by subject, and saw that “Menus” was an option. I was intrigued. I thought it would be interesting to see the food options for people in 1951, although I was still not really sure what I would see. That narrowed my results to 3. Much more manageable, almost too narrow.

The second document of the three was a Japanese foods cookbook published in Hawaii in 1951. I. Struck. Inquiry. Gold. Immediately I started thinking about the context. You don’t have to know a ton about World War II to know that the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii brought the US into the war. In 1951 the war had only been over for 6 years. I began to wonder about the interest in Japanese food and culture so soon after the war. I wondered how many Japanese were living in Hawaii, and how well they were integrated. I thought about what the experience of Hawaiins had been after Pearl Harbor.

I started looking at the document. It was published by the YWCA, which led me to think about that organization and its history. I noticed the ad for Reed and Barton silver and thought about how ads had changed over time. The preface indicated that it had taken three years to compile and test the recipes, which meant the project began even closer to the end of the war. The introduction makes the case for Hawaii being the ultimate “melting pot” and then provides a brief history of Japanese food. What follows is a lengthy cookbook with many, many recipes and instructions. I could see this one item interesting students who want to learn more about Hawaii, postwar US relations with Japan, Japanese-Americans after the war, women’s roles and organizations, even cooking.

I can envision having students pick a random year that interests them, look for a document they find intriguing, ask some questions based on their observation of the document, and then set about trying to learn as much context as they can in order to offer some insight into their questions. This would be fun for students to share and would provide another way into doing research. I am convinced we need to equip students with as many research skills as we can. In this case, the lesson would be that the writing of important history can begin with the discovery of a single item.

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Thematic US History – Syllabi and Materials

From the number of Google searches bringing people to my blog and the number of people who have reached out to me, it seemed the right time to gather some of my materials and put them into a folder to share. There is a lot of interest in shifting from a chronological to a thematic approach in US history. There are certainly many ways to do this (which is a large part of the appeal), and I would love to engage in dialogue about other ideas people making this shift might have. The beauty of a thematic approach is that it is flexible; no two years need be alike. In fact, I find that there is some variation with the different teachers, and even with different sections taught by the same teacher, even though we all follow the same course outline.

Here is the link to my folder – Thematic US History. Please be in touch with any questions or comments.

Lessons from Summer Reading (So Far)

My goal for the summer was to read widely and regularly. It’s my goal every summer, but I think I have accomplished that better this year than I have since my children were born – they are nearly 11 and pretty self-sufficient throughout the day. I am unable to concentrate on anything too substantive during the year, unless it is directly related to what I am teaching. During a regular week, I struggle to find a few hours where I can unplug, be silent, and focus on reading. Most of my reading happens in bed as I try to stay awake or fall asleep, depending on the night and the time. Part of the problem comes from a busy shedule, but much of it comes from having a mind that is too busy. I think this is a hurdle many of our students face. We like to blame their phones, but even without technological distraction, it is hard to see them feeling like they can take a few hours to focus on a single thing that requires attention and energy. Their attention is pulled in many directions and their energy regularly runs low.

Having the time to read and think about what I am reading has inspired me. Here are just two of the concrete examples I can point to where my summer reading is influencing me as a teacher:

Last year, with my Research Seminar I gave over control of the curriculum to the students. They learned what they wanted, how they wanted, and they chose how to demonstrate their learning to me and their classmates. I asked them how they wanted to be graded – on process or product – and then proceeded accordingly. At the end of the marking period, I wrote a narrative evaluation of their work and shared what I thought their grade should be in individual conferences. I invited their input, but as I think about it, it probably would have been hard for them to question me one on one, no matter how much trust we had built up. Inspired by Mark Barnes in Assessment 3.0 I am going to share my observations with my students this year, but I will let them evaluate and grade themselves, based on the criteria we agree upon as a class. (Note – I would not grade them at all if I was not required to enter a grade on the report card). There is a part of me that is nervous about giving up this level of control, but I also know in my heart that with regular feedback and reflection, they will do a great job.

The US History class I teach is thematic, and throughout the year there are a number of projects including a research paper where students are free to choose their own topics. That level of student ownership has been great, but I like balancing that with common work, so that we have some shared learning experiences. Inspired by Andrew Hartman’s book,  A War for the Soul of America, I started thinking about whether or not there should be a common list of things that all Americans should know, and if so what would be on it. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I am going to have my students attempt to create their own list while reading Paul Boyer’s American History: A Very Short Introduction (the book we begin the course reading). At the same time, we will try to create a list of essential questions that we want to address during the course of the year. These lists will be open to discussion, evaluation and editing as the year moves on. They will be thinking about content, but also about the meaning of the content, and the question of what content should be privileged over other content.

My summer of reading has led to a feeling of renewal. I have felt joy and a reawakened ability to sit still, be still and focus that has left me wondering how to sustain that for myself and how to help my students achieve that during the school year. I have spent years trying to unlock the secret of work/life balance during the school year. It might be that what I need is a rebalancing of attention – punctuating the busy day to day, hour to hour tasks with a regular period of solitude with a single book, one that entices me to interact with it.