Homework!

After reading the articles on digital humanities teaching tools, especially the article on Historical Thinking Matters, I was encouraged by the fresh approach to teaching and new methods of getting students more involved in learning.  While I was not necessarily excited about completing an assignment for school (i.e., an HTM), I was looking forward to trying the tool. 

Unfortunately, I regressed all the way back to high school – much more rapidly than I would like to admit.  I felt like I was 16 again, fervently searching for the answers contained in the text so I could move onto the next question.  My goal was to finish the assignment as quickly and accurately as possible, so my heart sank when I saw 2 warm-up questions before the actual inquiry.  “Did I really need to complete the warm-ups first?  Can’t I just skip right to the inquiry?  No, Grown-up Beth thought, I am a graduate student, and I am supposed to be LEARNING, so I should complete the entire assignment, in the order given.  But, surely, I really only need to do ONE warm-up.  After all, I’m NOT 16 anymore (despite the fact that this internal conversation clearly indicated to me that remnants of 16-year-old Beth lingered) and I can be trusted to learn what I am supposed to learn.”

My heart sank further when I encountered not one, but SEVEN, sections to the actual inquiry.  “How much work do they really want me to do?  Do I really need to write an essay at the end, which basically reiterates what I’ve put elsewhere in the sections?” I whined internally.  Please understand, Grown-up Beth is thoroughly ashamed and likes to think that objectively she can see what is happening here. 

Nevertheless, the assignments failed to appeal to either 16-year-old Beth and Grown-up Beth.  I felt little of the joy I now feel when learning about history, especially a topic as interesting to me as social security. 

Questions such as “who is the intended audience?” and “describe one aspect of the poster and what it is trying to say”, did not prompt me to the deep, critical thinking I was expecting (or, I am guessing, the creators of the website are trying to get their students to do).  Instead, I found myself acting like Chuck, our friendly 11th grade AP History student.  I made connections that did not necessarily exist.  I came to conclusions far too quickly in an effort to move through the assignment as quickly as possible.  I was intent on the GOAL: finishing the assignment.  Learning was absolutely secondary. 

Now, I also admit that I caught myself doing this, and had the presence of mind to stop myself.  “This is not the intention of the exercise”, I told myself.  I also had the presence of mind to think that my thoughts might be valuable fodder for practicum reflection.  If I were acting like the quintessential high school student, perhaps it would be valuable to share this with the entire class.  Then, perhaps we can discuss how we can get real high school students to act more like graduate students.

After all, isn’t that what we’re trying to get to?  The more I read this week’s articles, the more I thought, we are trying to get high school students to think like graduate students.  Is that possible?  is a question that kept running through my mind.  How do we get students to slow down, arguably the most important aspect of learning?

Good things about the website (for there were good things) – working through each of the sections (2 warm-ups and 7 parts to the inquiry!) did make an impression.  I did learn (woo-hoo!) and I did get involved in the material.  I considered issues involved in the Social Security debate that I had not been aware of before (African-Americans, taxes and eligibility), the specific content questions (first in each section), forced me to read more carefully so that I actually got the answers right.  It also forced me to contextualize, as I needed to refer back to a previous poster, compare it to a current document, and put them in a timeline which gave them more context.  I persevered, but still felt that my experience as a graduate student significantly contributed to my thoughtfulness (whatever of that there may have been) in the exercise.

Next, I made my very own HTM!  I chose the New START Treaty as my subject, having written a paper for a previous class.  I chose a cartoon, a segment of the Constitution discussing the President and Senate roles in treaty making, and then a speech from Senator Kerry (demonstrating the Democratic side) and a newspaper article on the Republican side (highlighting Senators McCain’s and Kyl’s stance).

This task proved challenging, but also a lot of fun.  I enjoyed thinking about what question I would want students to answer, and what material they might need to consider seriously a question.  The research paper that wrote on the New START Treaty – national security or Congressional politics – asked the question whether New START debate in the Senate was really about national security, or if it devolved into just another bipartisan debate. 

For the HTM, I would want students to explore such questions as “What is national security?  How does the Senate protect it?  Does the Senate protect it?  What are the key issues?”

All in all, this week’s readings proved extraordinarily interesting.  The practicum assignments were some of the lengthiest to date, but also some of the most rewarding.  I would have liked to see how real students react to the HTMs, how they navigate through them, and how the teachers measure success.    

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