Editor's note: Today's post is written by guest blogger Mark Moore from the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE). In February 2012, the WVDE hosted the Smithsonian's Let's Do History, a new national outreach program that brings the National Museum of American History's resources and strategies to 10 communities nationwide. The program, part of the A. James Clark Excellence in History Teaching Program, is designed to energize and support K-12 social studies teachers by introducing them to exciting and effective techniques, powerful online tools, and standards-based content they can use in their classrooms.
Like almost everyone reading this, I’m involved in transforming education and I’m also a parent. This is a success story. West Virginia recently played host to the Smithsonian’s “Let’s Do History” tour. Teachers received hands-on practice with theater and object-based instruction. We began with the humble cotton boll.
Hundreds of teachers reached into their packets to find a boll—that is, cotton directly from the field. It had a stem, it had seeds, it had white fibers. Trying to separate the white fibers from the seeds is hard, as everyone knows, but doing it with your own fingers is another story all together. This led us to a discussion on mechanical separation and the roller-gin, and then to the better "gins" created in the late 1700s. Being able to process more cotton meant the need for more land, more labor and, in our history, a conversation about slavery. Being able to touch and feel with our fingers led to an almost instant understanding.
Our next object was a mystery to almost everyone in the room. Teachers were given either a “rock” or a “handle” and asked to identify what they held. We shared our items so everyone would have the full picture, yet most still had no idea what the story was going to be. It wasn’t until sparks flew from the presenters hands that everyone in the room said, “AH HA!” and had instant understanding. It was flint and a striker used to start fires. Combining these objects with primary source documents was a powerful lesson that transported us to the colonial era.
Our next historical adventure didn’t use an object, but rather a living, breathing piece of history. We had a video call with Captain John Brown! This character actor from the Smithsonian eloquently justified his use of violence to achieve his goals as an abolitionist. His famous raid of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry happened in what is now West Virginia. He was the perfect figure to choose for our audience. This is a story that we all know; we’ve all discussed it and we all have our opinions, but now we had the chance to actually engage in debate. The passion in the room was palpable.
Our workshop included theater-based education, using the performing arts as another entry point to learning about history. We had trainings to prepare us for a sit-in to fight for our civil rights. We learned about sewing the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired our national anthem.
Our story concludes back where it began. A few days following the event I did what every parent does; I asked my daughter what she learned in school. I was fully expecting to hear “nuthin’” but instead I heard, “Dad! We had the coolest lesson today! The teacher gave us these cotton bolls. And we could feel the seeds inside and then we talked about cotton gins and about labor and about slavery.”
The story came full circle. I started as an administrator, working with teachers and discussing new ideas and resources. Then I got to see actual transformation of a classroom as teachers gave up the old and tried new techniques. Finally, as a parent, I was able to see the light in my daughter’s eyes because learning history was so “cool!”
Mark Moore is Coordinator of the Office of Instructional Technology in the West Virginia Department of Education.