Rethinking how to teach history is an uphill battle. There’s a lot of history behind teaching history – traditional ways, traditional issues, traditional structures. But I try to take it slow and not get overwhelmed with the task. Life by the inch is a cinch.
Last year’s research paper assignment on labor and industrial leaders of the Gilded Age – the Saint or Sinner Project – has been remixed this year. I kept the saint-and-sinner theme (good guys, bad guys, moral questions), broadened the scope letting the students choose any topic between 1870 and 1930, and encouraged them to do projects options other than traditional papers. Quite a few of my students took up the challenge and did projects. Some were teeth-grittingly uninspiring – PowerPoints of mundane facts with little structure or focus – but there were some jewels.
One nearly brought me to tears of joy. A girl who’s not all that into school stuff sat in the library with a look of frustration on her face. I (being a perceptive fellow) asked her what was wrong. She was stuck. She didn’t know what to do for her research. “What do you like to do outside of school?” She listed a couple of activities which I can’t recall right now – four-wheeling maybe – “… scrapbooking …” I struck like a muskie on a sucker. “Scrapbooking! What an awesome topic!” She looked at me puzzled. But I brushed past her expression, and with genuine glee I said, “I heard about this historian who just finished book on the history of scrapbooking. It sounded really cool; you should do that.”
A few clickity-clicks and we had some sources for her. She’s still puzzled but coming out of the fog. “How do I do that?” she asks.
Enter Lora – stage left. We tag team her on the topic. Lora tells her about a series of scrapbooks that a man made of his life. I tell her she could do a scrapbook – DO a scrapbook – about scrapbooking. Lots of work, the girl said. True, but you would only have to do a couple of pages – craft it for effect.
She brought the scrapbook to me today – wow. She scrapbooked a dozen pages about an artist from Milwaukee who painted churches and designed stained glass. His wife was going to put a scrapbook together but died before she could finish it. My student finished it — beautiful … textured … deep … meaningful. Besides the scrapbook, she wrote a paper describing how she became inspired by the artist and outlining her journey from beginning to study the history of scrapbooking, to studying the artist, to creating the book.
I wish you could feel the textures of that scrapbook through your computer screen … boy are you missing something. Yeah, every once in a while the struggle of remixing history teaching has its rewards. I wish I was a faster learner or a more skilled teacher. Maybe more of these jewels would emerge from the rough ground. Where’s my shovel?