SPQR @ GWMS

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. Students eagerly research this new, mysterious person they were assigned. To continue our information frontloading, we watched and took notes on some Roman videos on BrainPop.com. Now that we had learned some terminology, people, places, and events, we were ready to play with the content.

The class acted like the ruling class, the patricians and senators, and confronted some of the Roman Republic’s issues and historical events. With this power they defended Rome from Hannibal (even though the Romans weren’t nice to the Carthaginians either); engaged in foreign campaigns of conquest to enrich ourselves; and defended Rome from the northern invasion of the Cimbri and Teutons. All the while the students monitored the balance of food, slaves, wealth, and plebian happiness.

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.

Process

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 Colosseum 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.

Reflection

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.

Overall 10/10.

Might do again 😉

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Bloodlands: A Lecture by Tim Snyder

ImageThe other day I had the had the fortune of seeing an excellent lecture by Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, in support of his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I’ll admit I just happened to see someone tweet a link about the lecture and I decided to go on a whim (I do love history though). Social justice and human rights are very close to my heart and I figured that hearing this lecture by such a reputed scholar would give me some good insights into a historical event that has been much publicized. And it did.

I knew I was in for a good night when I got held up by a train for 10 minutes, causing me to be a bit late and score this awesome spot on the floor at the back of the lecture hall 🙂

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Here is what I gathered as notes:

  • Deliberate murder of 14 million non-combatants.
  • 2 regimes: Nazi Germany (Hitler) and Soviet Russia (Stalin)
  • “Bloodlands” refers to a geographic are. A strip in Eastern Europe where most of the killing happened. The area where Nazis and Soviets were both present.
  • We separate histories by nationality and ideology, when really this is one story.
  • “We” Questions are good for moral inquiry.
  • It’s a fallacy to refer forwards in history when making arguments about what happened. Ex. Right now I can’t argue my behaviour as impacting what I don’t know will happen in 10 years.
  • Ideological battles don’t “cancel” each other out. The clash of Nazi Germany and the Soviets didn’t cancel each other out; they accumulated.
  • Book has a focus on territory instead of the two opposing sides.
  • Ideology always has a link to economy. Germany conquered for imperial purposes. Soviet exploited it’s current territory to catch up and modernize. Each Nations’ world was closed off by British Navy. They had to attack Eurasia to achieve their goals.
  • Ukraine was a common land to conquer.
  • Poland was a problem for both nations, hence it was invaded jointly in ’39.
  • Poland was like a “homeland” for Jews numerically.
  • The Great Terror in Russia was predominantly against peasants and national minorities.
  • If one survived the Gulags, then they were usually killed upon returning. Soviets didn’t want anybody to speak out against their regime.
  • 1939 was the destruction of states. State -> statelessness is always worse for national minorities.
  • Nazis scaled down their starvation and scaled up the “Final Solution”. Germany couldn’t starve out eastern Europe because they weren’t self-sufficient in food production.
  • 14 million is a number. But each of those 1’s is a unique, loved, and special individual. We must listen to the stories.

Professor Snyder was an excellent lecturer. He delicately worked his was through his material while giving clear, insightful commentary along the way. He presented his material with an excellent balance of appeal to the logos, ethos, and pathos. I could tell that many in the audience were very well-acquainted with the subject and held on to every word he said with nods of affirmation and inaudible gasps of affirmed knowledge. At the same time, he wasn’t overly esoteric with his language. This way the typical history student (like myself) was equally engaged with his well articulated arguments and seamless story telling.

Snyder argued how he doesn’t like to segment histories into neat little packages with clear boundaries. Although it’s a useful tool for memory and organization, it doesn’t do the story justice. I was particularly intrigued on his ideas about the role of territory and geography. So often in history, the story stops where the national border does and then a new story starts with another nations version. Snyder debunks that idea. Along the same lines, he argues that just because events may be separated by time, they can still be closely connected. Here he referred to the Ukrainians telling their story about the forced starvation in 1933 and later again in 1941.

The final point I want to mention is how Professor Snyder made the interesting observation about how the tale of the deaths camps has become canonical when really it was exceptional. The vast majority of Jews were killed close to their homes, but for some reason we have come to see the concentration camp as the symbol of death. A person in a concentration camp at least had a chance to survive and live to tell their tale.  Those murdered in the streets or in their homes never got that chance. My take on that is that the concentration camps are places that are still physically standing. They serve as a tangible memorial to the deliberate extermination policies. One can’t look at a street or home and say the same thing.

Overall, I was very glad to have the chance to see this lecture. It makes me want to see more speakers. I always LOVED going to my history classes in university. Maybe I’ll do that. I don’t even care about credits. Maybe I’ll just sit in on classes and absorb what there is to know.