Tag Archive | American colonies

Thoughts on Teaching – Wrapping up the first Unit – 10/3/2013

Week 5 in my hybrid class was the final class of the first Unit of the semester.  So, we have essentially finished a third of the class to this point.  In wrapping up the Unit, I tried to do two things.  First, I took some time out to talk about research.  Second, I set up a discussion about what united and divided the colonies in the lead up to the Revolution.

For the first part of the class, I started what will eventually be a three-part series on how to write a history paper.  This is something that I find we do not do at the college level.  (And, based upon what I see, is never taught before college either.)  The only class where we actually teach students how to write is the introductory English class, and the only class where we teach students research is the second English class they take.  Since my students are often taking my class concurrently with the English classes, they may or may not have any of these skills by the time they are writing for me.  And, in the past, I have generally assumed that my students will be able to write effectively for me without ever teaching them how.  In fact, I think that is how it is generally approached in most non-English classes — namely that we give them a paper topic and the next time we see anything from them is when they turn in the final draft.  We just assumed they could do that without any guidance.  However, the quality of the writing from that method was always rather poor, and the opportunities to teach them how to fix their problems only came in the comments left on their writing, which most students never read anyway.

So, I have embarked on a mission to try and teach them what it means to write a history paper and what it means to use historical sources in a paper.  Some of this comes from my college’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), where we are to teach research methods throughout the college.  But it has also come just because I have grown sick and tired of never getting what I am looking for from my students.  This first presentation, which you can see below, concentrates in on two things — the need for an argument and the method for reading and understanding primary sources.  I started with the failings of high school education at teaching students how to make a historical argument, and I talked about what it means to make an argument.  I showed them the difference between what I call an information dump paper, where you try to get everything you know down on the paper in the hopes that you hit the points the teacher will be looking for, and an argument paper, where you have an organized and coherent argument that runs throughout the paper.  Then, I took them through a 9-point method for reading primary sources.  This is key because students have very little experience reading documents from the past.  They generally pick them up, read them, find them incomprehensible, and then put them down.  Thus, when we assign them to read something, they come away seeing it as unnecessary torture to read something that they are not going to understand anyway.  So, I take them through how they should be approaching a document, especially in getting them to think about the context of the document as a way to see why it might be something important.  I stressed to them that I do not assign things out of spite or sadism but instead assign things that emphasize the ideas I am trying to get across in the course.  I also talked about how it is important to try to read the document as if you were there in the past rather than as someone from today reading something in the past.  This is a difficult thing to do, but it can help the students understand why I would assign something for them to read.  As an example of this, I talked about William Penn’s “Plan for a Union” from 1697.  That was something I had assigned for them to read, and it is something that is difficult and largely opaque to the students.  What I pointed out to them was that if you considered the source and context, it could be a very interesting document, since it is a document that calls for political union among the colonies many decades before the Revolution.

Here is the PowerPoint that I used to hit these themes in my class:  SourcesPresentation1.  I don’t know how successful it was to talk to the students about these ideas, but I think it is important.

Going through those parts took between 30-40 minutes in each class.  That left only about 35-45 minutes for the rest of the discussion. I put two columns on the board — Unites and Divides — and had the students talk about what they would put in each column to show the things that united the colonies and the things that divided the colonies.  This is part of the bigger Semester Project that the students are working on, where they are asked to eventually write a long paper on the subject of whether we can consider the colonies/United States as united or divided.  The main goal, and one that was met in all of the classes, was to get the students to see that all of the major issues could realistically be put in both the unites and divides column.  As a specific example, I took the topic of religion.  I wrote on the board the statement that the American colonies were founded on the Christian religion.  Then we talked about how that could be seen as both true and false.  The true part, of course, comes from the fact that 99.5+% of the people who formed the colonies were Christian, all of whom believed in the same God and read the same Bible.  Colonial society, politics, and the like were all taken from a context of a people who shared very similar beliefs.  Then, we talked about what might make that statement not true, namely that, despite all being Christian, the colonists were all from vastly different sects and backgrounds.  In fact, many of the dominant sects very explicitly opposed each other and found the beliefs of each to be quite abhorrent.  In fact, the varieties of religion could be considered to be so vast that calling them a common group of Christians basically elides the reality of religion in the colonies.  As one of the students put it, it is not really a question of Christian values, but of which set of Christian values.  I was rather pleased with how the students grasped this concept overall, not just on religion, but on the broader idea that most major ideas could be both uniting and dividing.

The other thing that I wanted to cover in some detail, but largely ran out of time on, was the question of who we were talking about.  When we consider the question of what made the colonies united or divided, we are mostly considering the white, European colonists.  I raised the question at the very end of the class about whether we should also consider the slaves and the Native Americans.  We ran out of time to talk about this in any detail, but I was happy that I, at least, got to put the idea in their heads.

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Thoughts on Teaching – First Discussion – 9/3/2013

Today was the first week of discussion in my hybrid class.  I have reoriented this American history class on a more dominant theme throughout the semester.  I will write about that in a later post, but the short version is that we are looking at the overall question of whether the American colonies/United States could be considered a united group at any point in time, with the definite connection to our sense of unity today.  But, I digress from my main point today.

This discussion was really set up to get my students started in the class.  I had them read two chapters in the textbook and access one lecture that I had written in preparation for the class.  I had no other major assignments for them to do before class, except that I provided them with a series of questions to think about to prepare them for the discussion.

These were the questions I gave them to think about as we approached the discussion:

  • what the Americas were like before the Europeans arrived
  • what the Europeans were like before arriving in America
  • why the Europeans chose to colonize and settle in the manner that they did
  • why we do not generally talk about the non-English origins of the Americas
  • what we can learn about the United States today from this era

I started off the discussion with a quote from the book that influenced my thinking on this topic more than any other — 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.  This is what I wrote on the board:  The idea that the natives “had existed without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence.  Then they encountered European society and for the first time their history acquired a narrative flow.”  I had the students first take apart the quotation, and then we delved into what the societies looked like.  I worked both from having answer questions and draw conclusions on their own, while also imparting new information.  In addition to 1491, I also referred repeatedly to Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.  That book has been highly influential to my own thinking of the period, and I talked a lot about the differences between the European and American societies and how they encountered each other.

The underlying theme, however, was that of civilization, namely, how do we define civilization in the interaction between these two societies.  I will be the first to admit that I did not go as far as that as I would have liked to, but the level of knowledge of the scholarly articles is low with my students, and much of the day was filled with imparting information, even though it was a scheduled discussion.  This is something I get into trouble with repeatedly, in that I fall into lecturing too easily still.  I try to have it a discussion, but I still talk too much.  Still, I think it went pretty well today.

As to the students, about half participated, which is not bad for a first discussion.  The responses were varied in quality, but a number of people said at least 3-4 things in a 75-minute discussion, which is really not too bad overall.  They seemed to understand the general ideas, but I would have liked to delve more, as well, into why they are not taught these things up to this point.  Namely, I would be very interested in their ideas about why we hear so little about what really happened in history and are more often taught a simplified and sanitized version of  history.  We will definitely hit on that theme as we go through the class, but I would have liked to have brought it up more explicitly today.

Anyway, that was today, the first full discussion day.  I run the same discussion in the next three class days, and the cool thing is that the exact same topic can very likely go three more different ways.  We shall see.

Second “week” of the hybrid class

Ok, so I’m a bit behind.  Our life has been a bit upside down, as we are coming up on the last month before our baby is due, and the urgency on getting things done is ramping up on a daily basis.  So, it makes sitting down and getting extra things, like this blog, done hard.  I actually have to go back and see what I did in the second “week” of the hybrid class, as that was a while back at this point.  I put the “week” in there because it is technically the third week of the class, but the first week really didn’t count for the activities.  This will be the last time that I put in the quotation marks, but I wanted to keep it consistent for the moment.

In the second week, I had the students go online to watch some pre-developed lectures.  I decided to use the site to see if having the students access the same material in several different locations and forms made a difference.  In this case, they have my own lectures, which are both written and in audio podcast form, the textbook reading, and these lectures.  While these outside lectures are somewhat cartoony and simplified, the basic ideas are delivered well and they are at least moderately entertaining.

After reviewing five of the lectures in addition to the normal lectures and textbook reading, the students had to come ready to do a group activity.  The activity was to be done completely in class, and each of four groups of 4-5 students was to create its own successful colony.  They were to apply the lessons from American colonial development and create an ideal colony.  I left it pretty much open from there except that I did stipulate that their colony must be a real one, as in it must be reasonable in presentation and must relate to the other existing colonies at that time.  They were to discuss the people who would have come, where they would have settled, what their economic basis would have been, what religious ideas they would have had, and what type of government they would want.

So, how did it go?

Well, it was the first time for me for an assignment like this, and it was the first for my students in this class as well.  The major issue was that all of the work was to be done in class.  That was tough for a 75-minute class.  I took out about 15 minutes at first to talk about the reading and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  That gave about 45 minutes of work time and then 15 minutes to present.  In all ways, it would be nice to have had more time.  I did not keep as good of track as I should have the first class, and we had to do one of the presentations the next class.  I graded them on the basis that they only had limited time to work on it.  The other issue is that it is hard to hold the discussion to just 15 minutes for the first part, and if that goes long, then we really don’t have enough time to complete everything.

Overall, I think it was reasonably successful.  I graded it on two things — the presentation and the group work.  The presentation grades were all reasonable, as I had to be lenient considering the limited time to prepare.  On the group work, I went around and observed each group and came up with my own grades for each person.  I also had them grade each other and send me the information.  I averaged their grades as one with my grade to come up with a group work grade for each student.  It was a bit complex overall, but I think the grades were somewhat reflective, if a bit high for most people.

The problem for giving more time to prep for the students is that this is still early in the semester.  I didn’t want to get them going too deep into pre-class prep yet, as that will come later in the semester, which does put a limit on it.  What do you think?  Am I being too cautious there?  Should I have higher expectations of the work ahead of time or keep it as something that is done in class?  I just don’t know.