How do you teach history? Do you get in front of the class and tell it as it as it was, with historic dates and everything? That can be effective, particularly if you’ve got mad storytelling skills and can engage their historical imagination. The thing is, it can be rather one-sided and leave you struggling to engage the class. If you’re finding that’s the case in your classroom, have you considered Project Based Learning Lessons?
In case you’re not familiar with the concept, the name largely gives away what it’s about. The idea is to allow students to actively engage in projects so as to take a front seat in learning. This doesn’t just hone the student’s understanding of the topic under investigation, but also leads to them gaining a plethora of other skills – such as problem-solving, group work and self-motivated research. It is used quite widely, from elementary school all the way to the hardest classes in college and university
Sounds pretty good right? So how do we apply this process to the teaching of history?
Give them something to engage with and care about
The first step to consider is how you can bring historical concepts back to life. This can be quite tricky on occasion, as many events are long gone and the only thing they’ve got to look at is history books and similar material which, though factual, are frequently neither engaging nor emotional. This means that it can on occasion be hard to get them fired up about the topic.
There are several ideas that might create higher engagement.
- Choose a topic where you can bring items, people or demonstrations into the classroom. So, for example, think about finding speakers from the local community – preferably those who have first-hand knowledge if the events happened recently enough.
- If that’s not possible because the events happened too far away or too long ago, scrounge up interviews with those affected or first-hand accounts of what transpired. Anything to bridge the gap.
- If possible, go on field trips to show them landmarks and/or actual items from the experience in museums and other places so that they can get in touch with that historical era.
- Use historical dramas and television shows to let students see that back then people were people too, with feelings, fashion sense, and desires. Yes, many of these are quite inaccurate but they hold emotional appeal and if used correctly that can trump historical inaccuracy.
- See if there are historical maps of the location available for the students to walk through so that they get a better sense of the landscape and the locale.
Give students a choice
Have several different projects that are geared towards different activities. So if you’re exploring the First World War, consider having a project about technology, one about medicine, one about living conditions in the trenches and perhaps another about what happened while the men were away.
By giving students a choice, you enable them, engage them and make them responsible for the outcome.
They need the basic skills
You also have to make certain that your students actually have the skills necessary to complete the projects. This often will mean research skills and writing skills but can be a far wider range of skills depending on which project they choose, including performance skills, speaking skills, and even handicraft. It all depends on how you decide to allow them to complete their project.
Another thing to consider is how much basic knowledge they need before you let them go off. This really depends on the learning capacities of your students (as well as their ages). If they are not used to independent work then they are going to need a lot of the concepts explained to them before they engage in the project. If they are independent, on the other hand, just giving them access to the books and the right research tools can be enough. This is a call you have to make on your own.
Do note that if they can’t do it on their own their engagement and drive will quickly be snuffed out, so stay alert and ready to give them a helping hand.
Think outside the box
Yes, you can do another presentation or a poster, but why not try something different? Heather Calabro and her class, for example, ended up enacting the poetry of interned Japanese citizens during the Second World War. Her students ended up so engaged they raised money for another class, in another school, to continue the project and even designed a plaque to remind people of the social injustices.
Here are some other great ideas:
- Have students design and build a monument to some historic event, such 9/11, the start of WWI or the cold war. Even better, build two – one from the perspective of the USA, one from the perspective of the other side.
- Project the project forward. For example, to get to grip with something like the great depression, have students connect with and talk to homeless people today and then make the project about helping the community.
- Have the class pretend they’re solving the problems a historical epoch by pretending they’re the government, the different sides of the debate or the different political parties. This can work for industrialization, the New Deal or Cuban Missile Crisis.
In this way, you’ve got some great alternative ways to assess students to go along with those we’ve already mentioned.
Create an audience
And finally make certain other people but their classmates get to see it, so that they become invested in actually producing something of value. At its simplest, consider having another class come in and the two groups present and critique each other. But it doesn’t have to be that easy going. You can also invite in people from the community affected by this problem or something similar and have the students showcase their projects for them.
By doing this you’re creating far more motivation for the students to care about the project. After all, now it’s not just about learning, now it’s about showing what they’ve learned.
The trick to PBL is that it allows students to not just learn the material but learn vital life skills as well while engaging them and making the classes fun. Often history classes can benefit immensely from this approach.
What’s more, it doesn’t immediately require a semester of investment. Instead smaller projects can be completed in a few lessons, while offering an interesting break to the humdrum of normal classes. So what, really, is there to lose?
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