Research Seminar: What are we learning?

“What are you learning?” I posed that question to my seniors in a discussion during the last part of class today. We had time for this discussion because the majority of the class was not ready to present their projects, and the ones that were ready had already finished. I was frustrated with them; they set their own deadline. Many of them had indicated that time management was an area on which they wanted to improve after this happened with the first round of projects. My question, though, was sincere. I wanted to know what they were getting out of this class where they created their own curriculum and set their own deadlines.

I asked the question because we were facing a dilemma with class time. We had originally planned to be finished presentations by Thanksgiving, but with the delay we would be running over a class. I wanted to know where their learning was happening so we could decide whether to limit the presentation time or just let people do what they wanted. If students were learning a lot from one another or from the process of presenting, it would not make sense to impose time limits. One student pointed out that the length of the first few presentations had made it impossible to stick to our original timeline anyway. Each one had prompted good discussion in a question and answer session that lengthened the presentation.

The answers to my question were interesting for me to hear. Where was the learning happening? One student said it was the process of researching whatever they wanted. The act of presenting and trying to be creative about it was mentioned. Another said that it was the question and answer sessions after the presentations where the learning really deepened. They valued listening to the presentations of their peers. One boy noted that he was improving his research skills by being able to choose a topic he loved; he was motivated to dig deeper and sharpen his skills. Another noted the learning curve and improvement in time management and focus between the first and second projects.

Then came the confessions: They were tempted to put work for my class on the back burner because I was not imposing strict deadlines; they felt freer to miss their own deadlines than ones set by teachers. I asked if the problem was individual breakdown or that they did not feel a responsibility to the class as a community. The answer was a little of both. They seemed to feel guilty and some apologized, perhaps thinking their confessions were disrespectful to me.

The truth is that I was frustrated and disappointed in them. I had visions of amazing, timely presentations where they each demonstrated that they took my feedback and their own reflections from their first projects to heart. Some clearly did do that, but others stumbled.

Then, I took a step back. The biggest lessons that will come from this class have nothing to do with me. Once I start imposing my idea of what success and learning look like in this class, then it becomes my class. I promised them at the beginning of the semester that it would be their class, not mine. I also promised that it was okay to fall down in the class; what mattered was the response. I need to keep my promises. So, Research Seminar students, where do you want to be when the semester ends? How will you get there? The class is yours. I guess I am still learning how to do this class, too.

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Why I teach history

My sophomores are starting to blog today. I gave them a prompt about the value of studying empires from 400 years ago or the ways that our own views influence the way we view history. I wanted to blog alongside them, but it didn’t seem fair for me to answer the prompts I created. I have thought a lot about those questions. So I asked if anyone had a prompt for me. One girl asked me why I teach history. My first response was that I had already blogged about that, but then I realized that it has been a while, if ever, since I have considered exactly that question. So here goes.

My mom influenced my worldview in ways I didn’t even know. We spent many vacations in Williamsburg, she worked as a volunteer at the Maryland Historical Society, and she loved antiques and antique shows. I didn’t always appreciate how steeped in history my formative years were.

When I was in high school, I didn’t love history class. In fact, I took three languages my senior year. I was going to major in International Relations in college and do something with finance or language. Then, I found that the courses I loved the most were the political science courses that were really contemporary history courses.

I stumbled upon teaching almost by default. I was looking for a job when some grad school plans fell through, and I randomly sent out my resume. One school took a chance on me, and to make a long story short I was hooked. It took me a while to realize that I wanted to teach at the high school level. I had aspirations of being a college professor until I got a sense of what that world was like.

My mother always told me to do what I loved and in turn I would love what I do. I followed that advice and it brought me to where I am today, which is where I think I should be. So, I guess the reason I teach history is the influence of my mom.

Thanks to my student for the prompt. I have never quite thought about the question she posed in the way that I did today.