Teaching & Learning History

Presenting the Past

The 21st century has been witness to an amazing evolution of information technologies that are having a dramatic impact on how we digitize history. These technologies for good or bad, are transforming the way we learn. The human record is no longer limited by time, space, and even language. In regard to teaching history, social media has bypassed traditional academic channels and gatekeepers as the primary source of news and information. There is a growing awareness about history and how we present the past to future generations.

On the one hand, the accessibility of online historical collections has strengthened the value of primary sources. In fact, everyday, we are learning about new historical evidence that until recently lay dormant or relatively unknown. These discoveries are reinforcing the need to support the growing field of digital humanities and public history. But on the other hand, the abundance of online historic rhetoric is distracting and often too overwhelming. Critical thinking, is now being replaced with confrontation and strong opinions. In fact search technologies unfortunately reinforce “information bubbles” and people are not open to new ideas or concepts. As a result, the ability to have a civil “academic” discourse on a historic subject has been replaced with “digital” shouting or bullying.

Covid has demonstrated that the classroom is no longer confined to a singular place. In fact, synchronous learning may be a distant memory. The new norm of remote teaching and asynchronous learning provides both opportunities and challenges. For history teachers, the ability to use multimedia and provide access to other primary sources, presents a new way of making history come alive. Historical museums are moving towards making their collections accessible online. This provides a new resource for teachers.

For history teachers, there is real concern over their future. Could artificial intelligence one day eliminate their jobs? Will machine learning take over the traditional role of teaching? Like trends in other fields, will teaching history be programmable? The good news for now is that researching the past has never been easier. But unlike the traditional academic gatekeepers, individuals are required to think more critically and play a more active role in interpreting the information sources. Having access to more information is not a guarantee that everything online is accurate.

For the digital humanities there are now many options for presenting the past. These include new ways to visualize data and display historical information. In addition, online collaboration, like the use of Wikis, demonstrates that the wisdom of the crowd can be beneficial. But the future of historical research and discovery can not be depended just upon search engines, artificial intelligence, and other technologies. Society has to place a value on its heritage, and recognize that presenting the past, first starts with preserving it.

Teaching & Learning History

5th Piece of the Puzzle

There are only a few weeks left for class and the assignment this week is to report on the current state of our projects. As an overview I am leveraging an online digital collection I created for my last class, Mapping the Civil War in Arlington. The purpose of the project is to use an actual local historical event, the Ball’s Crossroads Skirmish, to draw students into a Civil War lesson plan. The goal is to have students “think historically” by analyzing photographs of Union soldiers from the 23rd New York Regiment, that fought in the skirmish. In addition the students will read newspaper articles, diaries, and regimental history that describe the historic event.

I initially wanted to create a Civil War lesson plan for Arlington 4th graders, but after speaking with a retired teacher, I decided to focus on 6th graders instead. This decision was based on several factors, first, the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) for 6th graders was more flexible, and second, they would have better writing skills. Not only will the students have the opportunity to analyze the photos, but also be encouraged to write their own news article, pretend to be a soldier writing a letter back home, or write an essay for the Arlington Historical Society.

For my next steps I am finalizing several deliverables. These include:

  1. Student lesson plan webpage on my site with instructions and links to the necessary resource material, including videos, and primary sources.
  2. Photo analysis worksheet that includes specific questions to help the students analyze their selected images.
  3. Historic background resources, including primary sources like newspaper articles, diaries, and regimental histories. Also, there will be several videos that a provide additional historic context.
  4. Teacher’s guide, with necessary resource links, assist with instructing the students and explain their assignments. The teachers will have an opportunity to leverage several background resources to customize the lesson plan based on what they believe to be the higher learning concept objectives.

In regard to challenges that I have encountered, there have been several. First, based on what I learned from my interview with the retired teacher, the timing of the lesson plan has to be flexible. For example, it needs to be short enough, where the photo analysis research and group assignments can be completed in a single class period. However, the optional written assignments can be completed as homework over a few days. The topic of the lesson plan also has to clearly align with the SOL material that has to be covered. Finally, the scope of the lesson plan and age appropriateness, requires some thoughtfulness in pre-selecting what primary source material the students will review.

To ensure that my lesson plan will overcome these challenges, I plan on having the retired teacher review the deliverables. It is my intention to design the lesson plan with as much flexibility as possible. I recognize if the plan is too complicated or takes too much time it will not be used. I hope that there will be sufficient time to review her comments and apply the necessary changes. Stay tuned and let’s see what progress I can make during the next week.

Teaching & Learning History

When a plan comes together

In regard to my project I am pleased to report that this week has been very productive. First, I have moved closer to developing a lesson plan that leverages available primary sources and the learning objectives they will support. Second, I had an excellent online meeting with a classmate to discuss our projects and their progress. Third, the week’s module assignment was to explore interviews with former students and educational digital history projects. This provided some very useful reference material. Finally, while doing research on Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning I came across a very interesting concept called “unsupervised learning.”

The concept refers to an algorithm that permits a machine to learn patterns from untagged data. The hope is that, through mimicry, the machine is forced to build a compact internal representation of its world and then generate imaginative content. In essence, trying to teach the machine to “think.” While watching some of the interviews from former students, and reviewing several of the educational digital history websites, I could not help but see some similarities between the need to teach machines to think and the objective of our final project to help students to think.

The classic teaching model, is based on a “supervised learning” process. Students are assigned specific reading material, and then provided with questions that need to be answered. But “supervised” learning does not always encourage critical thinking. Our assignment this week demonstrates how learning models are adapting to technology.

Several of the educational websites that were listed, like Children & Youth in History, exemplify a “hybrid” model using document based questions. In this case the site provides “unsupervised” access to particular primary documents and then recommends suitable questions for the students to respond to. The Disability History Museum site encourages the use of reading primary sources, but this time it includes both class discussion (supervised) and also group discussion (unsupervised). Finally, the World History Commons presents a model of using primary sources to teach students about different historical perspectives. It accomplishes this goal by allowing the students (unsupervised) to compare and contrast sources. The process challenges students to explore “what was the actual truth” and what did the primary sources reveal.

The review of these educational sites confirms that to be successful students need some contextual historic background (supervised) before evaluating primary sources (unsupervised). In addition, in order to “think historically” there needs to be consideration to encourage students to study both individual primary source documents, as well as conduct comparisons. For introducing students to use primary sources, it may be beneficial to first start with “visual literacy” exercises. For example, studying historic photographs and learning how to focus on unique details.

The student project examples were also very useful. In particular, Kathy Carroll’s, Uncovering History had an exceptional teacher’s guide template. I found that it presented an excellent framework to assist both teachers and students with key learning concepts, essential questions, and the necessary primary sources. Another great student project was Katie Willard’s The First Wave at Omaha Beach. Her concept of having the student “choose their own adventure” is brilliant and a wonderful way to teach history. By providing “options” to select, students get to experience the very decisions faced by soldiers over 77 years ago. Requiring students to think through the consequences of their decisions “unsupervised” is by far one of the better examples of how next generation educational websites are evolving.

For my next steps I plan on incorporating some of the excellent ideas provided by the templates and models presented. I hope to create a working draft of my lesson plan during the next week. I am now convinced that a “hybrid” model of both “supervised” and “unsupervised” teaching methods will work best for my project. Not only will this provide the necessary historical context the students need but it will also encourage students to think independently and present their own interpretations.

Teaching & Learning History

Do you want some popcorn with your history?

Glory, 1989

Hollywood loves history. Over the years there have been countless movies that attempt to historically portray actual events and people that lived them. But inevitably movie makers have to compromise historical accuracy due to time and other storytelling constraints. Our assignment was to select a feature film that had a historical theme. For me it was an easy choice, I selected Glory, the 1989 Civil War film about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first all African-American unit in the Union Army. I was able to rent it online off of YouTube. The movie was directed by Edward Zwick, and co-produced by Tri-Star Pictures and Freddie Fields Productions. The popular film starred Matthew Broderick as the real life Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th’s white commanding officer. It also starred Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as fictional characters representing the African American soldiers wanting to fight for their new found freedom.

The movie, which won three Academy Awards, is based on the books Lay This Laurel (1973) by Lincoln Kirstein, and One Gallant Rush (1965) by Peter Burchard and Shaw’s letters to his family during the war. The story traces the creation of the 54th regiment in early 1863 to their heroic fate at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The film’s major themes includes the battle against racism facing both the white and black members of the 54th regiment, and the need to prove one’s worth sometimes requires the ultimate sacrifice.

There are many significant moments in the film, but I have selected two worth noting. The first occurs around 55:00 into the movie, when the soldiers are lining up to get paid for the first time are told that they are not going to get paid the same as white soldiers. The 54th soldiers start to protest and refuse to accept their pay. This scene is based on historic fact. But the movie producers added a dramatic moment when the white officers, especially Colonel Shaw, fearing a mutiny fire a warning shot in the air, and show their support by agreeing not to accept their payments as well. Fictionalized or not, it dramatically captures the spirit of the 54th and how both the white and black members had to “fight” to be accepted and allowed to fight.

The second moment takes place near the end of the film (1:52:00) and it is the dramatic conclusion (spoiler alert you might not want to read the next paragraph if you want to watch the movie). The movie is entitled “Glory” since it is what the 54th regiment was fighting for equal opportunity, to earn their glory. The second attack on Fort Wagner was a real event. However, the scene in the movie when the African American troops, led by a white officer, breach the Confederate ramparts is very Hollywood. In a dramatic moment, the soldiers are able to demonstrate all they were able to learn through training and how they became an effective fighting force. For a brief moment it appears that they are going to make it, but unfortunately historical accuracy prevents a different Hollywood outcome.

The movie Glory, produced in 1989, is still popular. Its theme of racial integration and the military is still relevant. Throughout American history the problem of asking those to fight for their country, despite not being treated equally, is persistent. Many Americans are still unaware of the contribution African American troops had in the Civil War. Over two hundred thousand U.S. colored troops fought in the war. The battle scenes are realistic, especially the opening scene of the Battle of Antietam. There are several opportunities in the film for teachers to show that will stimulate conversations and encourage their students to think historically. In regard to some of the questions that I might encourage the students to ask:

  1. Over 160 years later scholars are still debating the cause of the war, states rights, slavery, or both? At the start of the war in 1861, Union soldiers may have not be certain, but how does the movie represent the attitudes of the lead character Colonel Shaw?
  2. Many northerners did not believe that African American soldiers could be taught to fight, and they w0uld not be willing to lay down their lives. What does the title “Glory” mean and how does the movie portray the real life characters and fictional characters in their struggle for “Glory.”
  3. Research the regimental histories of several USCT regiments. What battles did they fight in? How well did they fight? After the war, Union veteran organizations allowed USCT members to join. What does this finally say about how white Union soldiers felt about African American soldiers and their military record?

Teaching & Learning History

Recruiting Historical Thinkers

My attempt at creating a poster to assist Arlington teachers to promote
Mapping the Civil War in Arlington
Teaching & Learning History

Visualizing History

Lobby card provided to moviegoers for the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.”

It has been over a century since D.W. Griffith’s controversial film, The Birth of a Nation (1915) made its cinematic debut. The movie about the origin of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was a huge success at the box office and it played an important role in the development of the American film industry. But it also represents a significant problem with Hollywood and history. Since the advent of “moving pictures” audiences have gone to theaters to be entertained and not necessarily to be taught history. In fact, in the art of filmmaking, historical accuracy is usually left on the editing floor. That is why we must approach the use of films as educational resources carefully.

The Birth of a Nation represents a major turning point in the evolution of “public history.” Until the film’s release in 1915, the history of the Civil War was confined to academia and the publishing of autobiographies and biographies of historic personalities. The timing of the movie is significant, since the war had been over for 50 years and many of the northern and southern veterans were starting to pass away.

Scene from The Birth of a Nation (1915)

From a 21st century vantage point it is easy for us today to be critical of the 106 year old film. Yes, it significantly distorted historical fact, it was racist, and unfortunately supported the South’s “Lost Cause” narrative. But for audiences (at least white audiences) in 1915 the film was compelling and and racial integration was still a work in progress.

Since the release of The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has been telling and retelling the story of the American Civil War. There are dozens of popular Civil War movies (, including the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind, the 1951 adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage, Glory 1989, Gettysburg 1993, and Lincoln 2012. The problem for most audiences, is they are easily convinced that what they see on the screen is historically accurate and often don’t bother to check the facts. For those teaching history this presents both a problem and opportunity to use these films to point out, and have students reflect on, these historical inaccuracies.

In regard to digital storytelling, we now live in a world that online media technologies permit anyone to become their own D.W. Griffith or even a Ken Burns. His popular 1990s historical documentary The Civil War, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. For historians, Ken Burns is the gold standard for visualizing history. In fact Apple’s IMovie has a special effect called “The Ken Burns Effect” that allows users to replicate the motion of the camera panning over old photographs.

But even 30 years later Burn’s historical interpretation is being criticized for not questioning southern historians like Shelby Foote, and their persistence in advocating the “Lost Cause.” This is a stern warning for anyone that wants to enter into the realm of scholarly storytelling. The popularity of Social Media, and the ease to create visual content, provides students with some creative learning opportunities. The very nature of media production and editing, forces students to be selective and stay focused on arguing the major themes or historic interpretations they want to support. But unlike The Birth of the Nation, over a hundred years ago, today’s media also permits audiences to react to historical thinking almost immediately. This forces film producers, amateurs and professionals alike, to be on their guard and do the historic research.

Good storytelling, at the expense of bad history will no longer be tolerated, or at a minimum ignored. The “long tail” of the digital humanities world will eventually expose or at the very least embarrass would be “Ken Burns” of the future. Hollywood is finally taking note that “historically thinking” is here to stay. Historic films will continue to be popular, and hopefully continue to be more accurate.