I’m teaching Social Studies again this year. Grade 8 Social Studies. My curriculum is…world history. Pretty much none of it is off the table. As a fan of history, this is great.
I started the year by running a Classroom Story where students create and run their own city-states/islands. We learned about some of the terminology we’d use for the year and the students constructed their islands based on the general learning outcomes of the curriculum. Power and authority; the land, people and places; historical connections; economics and resources; identity, culture, and community; and global interdependence. The student-made city-states interacted, had truces, fought pirates, studied new technologies, and explored new lands.
I had been listening to Dan Carlin’s “Death Throes of the Republic” podcast series (for a second time) and was sure I could make some fun of Roman subject matter. So, I did a bunch of research. Lots of podcasts and books, particularly Isaac Asimov’s “Roman Republic” and the aforementioned Dan Carlin Podcast. I decided that history need not be learned nor taught, linearly, so I jumped to straight to Rome *gasp*.
Playing With Content
I started a new Classroom Story by assigning famous Roman figures to the students as roles. Marcus Crassus, Pompey, Cleopatra, Agripina, Octavian, and so on. Twenty-five different figures. The eagerly research this mysterious person they were assigned. We watched some videos about various Roman topics on BrainPop to frontload some more information.
Now that we had learned some terminology, people, places, and events, we were ready to play with the content. As a class we acted like the ruling class, the patricians and senators, and confronted some of the Roman Republic’s issues and historical events. With this power we defended Rome from Hannibal (even though the Romans weren’t nice to the Carthaginians either); we engaged in foreign campaigns of conquest to enrich ourselves; and we defended Rome from the northern invasion of the Cimbri and Teutons. All the while we monitored the balance of food, slaves, wealth, and happiness of the plebians.
Then came the civil wars, Sulla’s Civil War, and the class turned upon itself in a vicious game of political chess. Optimates vs Populares. We played our own version of the dinner game Werewolf to simulate the danger and suspicions that were prevalent during the time, but also to have fun and make some facts stick. Then, we finished things off by learning about Julius Caesar. We looked at his rise to power, investigated his death, and saw the transformation of Rome from a Republic to an Empire.
The Big Idea
Ever since I saw the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, which featured the amazing teacher and student work from High Tech High, I fell in love with the idea of publicly displaying student work. I don’t mean putting work on the bulletin board outside the room, I mean creating work that is intended to be seen by others. Since we are studying history, I figured that we could make our own mini-museum with exhibitions based on Ancient Rome. We would invite friends, family, and community members to come see our creations and what learned. When I presented the idea to students I saw them give me a bit of the look that said, “are you sure we can do this?” I told them that I was confident we could do it and assured them we would be fine if we made sure our exhibits had the same purpose: to be engaging AND informative. We set the date for December 19th, giving us about a month to complete our exhibits.
Students got to work putting ideas onto paper and into action. Some ideas took off right away, some ideas were abandoned, and some ideas required careful developing and crafting.
Overall though, the classes (815 and 816) put together a healthy list of exhibits proposals. We had everything covered: traditional informative displays (which were done beautifully), an interactive Colisseum built in Minecraft, a Rome quiz made in Scratch, a Roman gods reality TV show, three escape rooms based on Roman content, digital sketched artwork, and much more. Topics covered things as general as an overview of the Republic and Empire. Other exhibits examined specific topics like women and children, Sulla’s Civil War, Roman beauty standards, mythology, and Julius Caesar and his death. Further, there was plenty of students at the ready to be hosts for the night. They were responsible for welcoming guests, ushering people to the different rooms, explaining the ideas behind the exhibits, and generally helping things run smoothly.
Throughout this, I was there to make suggestions, proofread, give feedback and ideas, hunt supplies, vet resources, circulate the classroom, conference with students, and encourage. The week leading up to the event we shared some previews on social media of what we were making. Students had already made sure friends and family had the date marked. We were set.
The Big Night
The exhibition was on a Wednesday. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday leading up were crazy with prepwork. The students were equally excited and scared. Admin was totally on board, supportive, and ready to help. The day of, they went out and bought a bunch of great food for us to serve to guests and it really helped the experience. Students stayed after school to help move furniture, setup escape rooms, decorate the halls, and put up the finishing touches. Of the 50-something students, only 5 were unable to attend the exhibition. And of those, most had prior commitments.
The students were ready to stand behind their work.
Instead of having you read more text, examine the following photos taken the day of by two students, Jelsie and Yesenia. The photos capture the final preparation for the exhibition and the event itself.
The exhibition evening went amazing. The students really took the process seriously. Once all setup was done and we awaited the first guests, that’s when the students looked proud. That’s when they realized they did it.
The night of, students were great. They stood by their exhibits, educated guests, and delivered on our mission; make an engaging and informative evening. I could visibly see students either relishing in their success standing proudly beside their work as guests circulated, asked questions, and gave compliments. On the other side, not all students were proud of their work. Some students noticed their shortcomings.
Plenty of supportive parents, friends, and family came and had a huge amount of fun. They were amazed by the sheer amount, and quality, of content the students created.
I still feel like we missed out on the “public” aspect by not attracting more community members (but this could also be due to the fact it was days before Christmas in a cold Winnipeg December). If I were to do this again I would make a more concerted effort to reach local media outlets and Winnipeg celebrities.
As a teacher, it was awesome to see kids researching and asking questions. That was the process I wanted. For students to research, confer, and then form ideas. Because of this process, the final products were very solid in terms of overall presentation. Writing conventions and organization were on point. Visuals were crisp and well laid out. Art was done with care. During the event, the creations on computers were active and a source of a lot of laughs. It was validating to see so many “top performers”. This project had a high percentage of exceptional pieces of student work.
Might do again.