Taking Control of the Toolbox

In the first quarter of the 16th century, a revolution in social media was taking place.  Martin Luther and other agents of Church reform leveraged the power that the printed word, easily digestible by the populous in pamphlet sized doses written in the vernacular, could have on galvanizing support for their cause.  Though the story is slightly more complex than that, the fact remains that the technological revolution of the printing press had a significant impact in bringing about the Protestant Reformation.  And, as the Renaissance and Reformation gave way to the Enlightenment, the printing press played an increasingly important role in the exchange of ideas ranging from physics to politics, ideas which gave way to the beginning of what we now call the Modern World. Mixed in with the ideas of Newton and Locke, other theories that we might call daft today certainly circulated in the mix.

The similarities between this earlier age and the Information Age in which we currently find ourselves are clear.  The differences are defined by the pace and scale and pervasiveness of the information and myriad outlets for it in today’s media driven world. But, one key difference is the way in which the problem Wineberg identifies may also contain the seed of its own solution.

In the earlier age, it would be very difficult to fully vet a popular source.  Information ran easily along trade networks, but wide ranging individual mobility was far more difficult and time-consuming.  In today’s digital age, information often runs along algorithmic networks and daft theories abound, but our ability to step outside those networks and to vet daft theories has probably never been greater.  The key difference is that in order to do so, consumers of information, students and adults alike, must be aware of the tools they are using and how to place themselves in control of the tool instead of letting the tool control them.

I applaud Wineberg’s two-handed approach to vetting information through whois.net and website.com.  Understanding how to easily learn who owns the website is probably a much easier “verification” for my students than going through my “long” list of five CRAAP Test questions. I am still a bit unsure about how Wineberg used the website.com site to discover the “digital pack” that links to the website he was trying to vet.  But, I understand his point that sticking to one or two disciplinary habits may be more effective than teaching a more complex set of tools that nobody remembers.

The key here is to have the conversation – with students and with adults (myself included) who have already come of age without the benefit of the exchanges that are beginning to happen around this topic within the educational world. Perhaps in addition to ongoing dialogues in education, outlets of public history might create some PSAs to promote awareness of historical thinking skills as they relate to vetting digital sources. As Wineberg makes abundantly clear, our democracy hangs in the balance.

Reflecting on Lessons Learned

Reflection is a valuable assessment tool, and it is often one that provides richer feedback on the learning experience than a grade alone.  This practice is a good reminder in and of itself of strategies I might want to employ in assessing my own students’ learning through this project.  Learning from the experiences of others who have designed a project for this course was helpful. Their reflections provided valuable insight for me as I tackle designing my own.

Celeste and Jeri’s project on Historical Thinking and Writing made me think about ways I could identify existing historical narratives as examples for what their end goal might be in collectively writing about how the hoard came together.  Since the project is inspired out of a BBC Radio narrative about the object, I have a good example.  I need to determine if I use that piece as an example narrative and see how students use the materials to corroborate it, or do I show them a different narrative about an entirely different subject and see if they can come up with a similar tone with their own about the hoard.

I also liked their idea about writing over and over.  While this particular project won’t have that component, I do see potential for how I could “uncover” other stories and have students write about those.  I see that the larger site has the potential to be a framework around multiple experiences of developing historical thinking skills and writing styles across the span of a year of study.  Having students go back to the same site and see different lessons might help to make the learning more visible to them in the same way they might move through chapters of a book.

However, they also warned about scope so I know I need to be mindful of not packing too much into project and keeping my own assessment load manageable.  Perhaps instead of a “grade” for each activity, students could keep a reflection journal that goes into their digital portfolio.

Finally, Greta Swain’s project, Voices of Sackville, will be helpful in being mindful about taking students through the project step by step with resources and guided practice meant to develop the historical thinking skills necessary for uncovering history.

Language Limitations in the Fourth Piece of the Puzzle

This image is one of the many coins found in the Vale of York Hoard at the British Museum.  It is comparatively rare in the collection in terms of the the number of coins found in the hoard; it is also extraordinary when one considers how far the coin traveled from its origin in the Samanid Empire in what is now today Afghanistan along with portions of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.  I can imagine how it moved along pathways, through deserts, along dusty roads, down rivers, through forests and across the seas, stashed in the pockets or purses of its various possessors. Or, perhaps it belonged to one extraordinary individual who was able to trade and travel, amassing the fortune he needed to hide in a Yorkshire field over 1,000 years ago.  I can image that a sister coin, struck immediately after this one, might have traveled a different route, heading east along the Silk Road to China.

I chose this coin because it does come from such a great distance and has such potential for a great story.  Yet, how do I flesh that story out of my students?  What tools do I need to give them in order to tease out meaning?  What context will they need prior to their encounter with these objects?

In teaching what happens after the collapse of the Roman Empire, I tend to vary my next move.  Some years, I move straight into the early Middle Ages and other years I go directly to study the rise of Islam and Islamic empires.  Clearly, it will be important to teach the introductory unit on Islam first.  That will give them some context as to what Arabic looks like and might help them deduce geographic possibilities as to where the coin originated.  It will also be helpful for them to have had some background on the Vikings and the concept of the longboat and its capabilities.  Students are familiar with Leif Erikson’s story, but will they be able to think about Vikings who went in the opposite direction, into the innermost parts of Europe and on to Asia.

I also wonder about how I might build in some scaffolding if they get stuck.  I’ve thought of incorporating a multiple choice style activity once they’ve had time to explore and come up with possibilities.  A student might not know what language is on the coin, but she might be able to choose it from a curated list.  Another option might be to give them some “lifelines” along the lines of the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” where they get to ask a friend, call an expert or use a web search.  Students who keep their lifelines might receive a small prize like a sucker or a free homework pass.

I am excited by the possibilities of the lesson, but I remain mindful of keeping it targeted so that it doesn’t become too time consuming or unwieldy.

Walking Through History in Public Part II

Last fall I was fortunate enough to visit the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco.  William Tran, the Education and Programs Coordinator, led my teacher group on a walking tour of Chinatown.  It was fascinating to observe all the layers of story as he explained the evolution of Chinatown through its architecture and changing landscape.  He held up documents and photos that helped us to see the changes in the landscape over time and to understand the ways that urban pressures are rapidly eroding the cultural heritage of the community.

Later in the trip my family joined me, and I tried to duplicate the experience using a paper tour map that William copied for me. I was not a successful tour guide.  I was missing his knowledge and the supplementary materials he showed us that enriched the experience.

Recently, friends have visited San Francisco, and I have encouraged them to try to book a tour through the museum.  Sadly, tours are very limited due to staffing shortages.  Thinking about the work of Histories of the National Mall, I have imagined how a mobile history app or website that mimics William’s wisdom, insight and perspective might aid the museum in sharing the rich history of Chinatown and draw people in to connected exhibits housed at CHSA.

While I haven’t used StreetMuseum in the field, I wonder if it might overload the user with content in an already overwhelming environment.  It seems that the challenge of augmented reality is to provide enough information and supportive content to enhance the experience of the user without overwhelming the real world.  While our physical landscape may often be a living museum, it is important to remember that the life goes on as we are moving through it.  A museum is, by its nature, an intentionally designed physical space meant to constrain the user’s experience of an environment.  Signage, user guides and docent tours augment that intentional space.  It seems that one of the challenges of augmented reality is how to design virtual signage, user guides and docent tours in a way that are supportive for its user and do not stress the user with information overload.

While my project isn’t really tied to an augmented reality environment, I wonder how I might design an experience for visitors to the CHSA as they walk though the museum’s exhibits and out into the physical landscape that inspired them.  In my mind, less may be more, but I would make sure that the content I did create would enhance the user’s focus and security in the environment in order to generate meaningful understanding about how an environment changes over time.