Making History

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Creating podcasts out of actual World War II-era events offers one example of a collaborative project that is propelling students out of their textbooks and into the real world.

Making HistoryJennifer Dorman was in a fix. Teaching ninth-grade US history at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA, Dorman wanted to tap into her students' interest in creating "something of value," she says, "not just for their teachers, but something they could share with other students and people." But that required something a conventional paper-based assignment could not provide. It meant conceiving of a project that freed her students from their textbook and allowed them to work together toward a finished creation.

Dorman's school district subscribed to Discovery Education's Streaming and PowerMedia Plus; the two products provide classroom access to streaming audio files such as speeches, music, and video images, which she knew appealed to her students. The wheels began to turn. She created teams of four or five students and had them each create a podcast that placed them in the midst of pivotal moments in and around World War II, where they would have to reenact and report on those events as if they were happening live.

"We discussed breaking news and how reporters interview sources, and how they would have to talk to experts to get information," says Dorman, recalling the project from two years ago. Today she works as a staff development facilitator for Pennsylvania's Central Bucks School District. "Specifically, I wanted them to imagine talking to experts with different viewpoints on the event to force them to get different perspectives."

The idea was for the podcast to be what Dorman had once heard characterized as "a breaking 'oldcast,' as opposed to a breaking newscast."

The students had to choose from a list of World War II incidents or backdrops that Dorman provided, which included the front lines of Poland after the Nazis invaded, and the deck of the SS St. Louis after President Franklin Roosevelt denied refuge to Jewish passengers sailing from Germany. Every member on the team had a role, such as playing the part of desk reporter, field reporter, or eyewitness.

"In 21st-century classrooms, using technology and analyzing and defending your position in front of a group and working cooperatively with others is where we're headed."

Dorman gave the students a full class period to plan, brainstorm, and conduct "interviews," making use of the internet, library resources, and their textbooks. In Discovery Education's Streaming, she created a folder of audio and video clips, images, and articles. "My goal was to give them raw material to work with, which they were able to access with a student log-in," she says. "It gave them background information to understand their event."

After the day of research, the class had one day to prepare a script, practice it, and begin recording. A third day was provided to finish the recordings and do any necessary editing. "For me it was a time investment of three classes," Dorman says.

The recordings were made with Audacity, an open source program from Source Forge. The program enables students to add layers of sound effects or music to their audio file, and then edit, rerecord, and trim it if necessary. The finished podcasts were saved as MP3 files ranging in length from six to 10 minutes.

Dorman says the students tried to inject authentic vintage elements into their podcasts. For example, a lot of the teams would have the reporter interrupt a musical program typical of radio in that era with breaking news. One of the more memorable podcasts, says Dorman, came from a group that reported from London during the Blitz. What made the production so interesting was that the students went beyond the scope of the information provided in their textbooks, interviewing people in a London subway train and a family sheltering a Jewish child.

"This particular group touched on other topics besides the bombing of Britain," Dorman says. "They were hinting about other things like the Holocaust, and they used a lot of sound effects, even using three or four piano keys to do the call sign for the radio station they were reporting for."

While this wasn't the first time Dorman had her class make podcasts-- they also create them throughout the year for vocabulary reviews and to study for tests-- she calls this her most creative use of the technology yet. It was a particularly effective study tool in this case, she says, because the students had invested so much creative energy and effort into the podcasts that the work they put in sparked and sustained their interest in learning history.

"As we got to the end of the unit, which was the last one of the year, when kids are starting to be really tired of school, they had their final exam," Dorman says. "The podcasts provided something motivating, since the students got to listen to them again to study for the exam."

Moreover, Dorman says her students were taken by some of what they learned during the World War II unit. One event in particular, she says-- Roosevelt's denial of asylum for Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis-- is not well covered in their learning materials. "Through creating the podcasts, the students were able to explore more details that didn't appear in any great [length] in the textbook."

Getting Down to Business

Dorman's experience has much in common with that of most K-12 teachers who have tried enhancing conventional textbook teaching with the use of collaborative, technology-infused, project-based learning. The approach produces new levels of engagement and motivation among secondary students. Like Dorman, Vicki Fuesz became a believer as a result of her effort to find an assignment she could give her students that would be more satisfying than the usual printed task, and one that would require them to collaborate.

Plus, she had an additional obstacle. When Fuesz was hired at Colorado's Haxtun High School a couple of years back, she was asked to teach an Introduction to Business class to her school's 22 freshmen. Trouble was, she was a history teacher.

Fuesz decided to try a paper-based simulation activity so her students could learn how to run a business. She had little success. "The kids didn't like it and I didn't like it,'' she says.

The students would become discouraged when some of their classmates were absent or didn't complete a task, such as paying off an invoice, which caused a slowdown in the whole project. Fuesz also found herself constantly running off papers for each of the student businesses.

"They didn't get to see the big picture," she says, "and even though they were interacting…they didn't see how dynamic it could be if they all worked together. It wasn't realistic and didn't feel like the students were really playing the part."

So Fuesz went online in search of a computer-based program to use the following year so her students could get hands-on experience using different business components to run a company. She became intrigued with an offering from Capsim Management Simulations, a provider of business simulations and business games for educational and corporate institutions. Fuesz and Haxtun High's principal took a virtual tour of the product and signed on that day. At a cost of $40 per account (now $44), students received spreadsheets for inputting data, generating results, and conducting analysis.

The students were separated into teams and put in charge of operating a multimillion-dollar virtual corporation. They had to decide how to manufacture, develop, market, and finance their product-- electronic sensors to be used with devices like cell phones, computers, cars, and airplanes-- analyzing important data such as consumer surveys, their company's financials, and the position of their competitors, before determining what was the right course to take. The software generated the results of the business moves they made and offered the students the opportunity to probe the impact of their decisions.

"What they learned is the ability to analyze," Fuesz says. "Your profit dropped by $1 million; how did that happen? What can you do to improve results? The true learning occurred from results that were generated from bad decisions. They had to figure out what they could change." At the end of the semester, a mock boardroom meeting was held, and each team dressed up like businesspeople and gave a PowerPoint presentation displaying their results.

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The podcasts created by Jennifer Dorman's history students can be seen at Gcast. Visitors to the site can access the completed projects by registering for a free account.

Fuesz says she marveled at how adept her students became at using business language, interpreting data, making strategic decisions-- and behaving like true business leaders. She was also struck by the conversations she would overhear among her students as she walked around the classroom. "They were being creative, learning to listen to their teammates who had differing opinions, and problem solving. The program allowed them to have immediate feedback. They could try different scenarios and see the results of their decisions."

Fuesz, now back teaching history, came away with a strong understanding of how collaborative projects and the use of technology can dramatically charge up the learning process. She says her students' enthusiasm for the project was due in great part to having the opportunity to work in their comfort zone. "Our kids grew up on computers and they're not afraid of technology, so to come into a classroom and play a game was fun," she says. "They couldn't wait.

"In 21st-century classrooms, using technology and analyzing and defending your position in front of a group and working cooperatively with others is where we're headed."

An Outline for Success

Janet Fisher has long known the potential of software to engage students in project-based classroom learning. For the past 12 years, the newly retired business teacher enlisted the help of school supply company Mead's web-based mapping software, Mead Map, which makes it easy for students to organize and outline classroom projects, for use in collaborative activities in her 11th- and 12th-grade marketing classes at Beavercreek High School in Ohio.

The relationship started, she says, as a way for students to participate in real-life marketing projects that Mead offers, such as reviewing new features on book bags, binders, and spiral notebooks. That interaction evolved into a project Fisher assigned at the end of a marketing course last year. After learning the basics of marketing and advertising, the students broke up into teams of four, and each team decided on a product to develop. The teams were required to do research, design a marketing plan, and develop a sales strategy. As an example, using Mead Map, one team plotted out plans for developing a new tropical smoothie.

Fisher's students used the program to research and consider such key business factors as consumer behavior, the demographics of their target market, the strength of the competition, and the plusses and minuses of their products. The software provides a way to logically structure all the research notes, arguments, and information that the students enter into the system as they develop their product. "It brings a level of structure and organization to any project work, or note taking or brainstorming," Fisher says.

The program cultivates collaboration by allowing students to log in individually and view the work of their fellow team members as each plots data onto the group's expandable "map," or outline. According to Fisher, the students collaborated almost entirely through the technology, even though they were all in the same room physically. "That was one of the funny things," she says. "Sometimes they'd be side by side, but they communicated by computer."

In one case, one of the student team leaders sprained her ankle and couldn't come to school for a few days, but she was able to keep pace working remotely. Before software enabled remote communication, Fisher says student absences would wreak havoc on her team marketing projects.

Fisher says the program engages students by using digital technologies to perform a conventional academic task. "My students, being juniors and seniors, had all done term papers, so they were used to research, but always with pencil and paper. [Mead Map] brought to life what their generation is doing and applied it in the classroom with a business application."

Fisher says that students commented on how easy the software made the collaborative process. A chat feature allowed for rapid information sharing, and the ability to access the system from anywhere made it possible for team members to keep up with one another's progress. She says students said that the usually tedious process of outlining was actually made more fun through communicating with their teammates.

One of the most important fundamentals her students learned was how to work with others, Fisher says, which will serve them well when they get into the business world. The project managers took their jobs very seriously, she says, and didn't hesitate to report on students who were slacking off on their research, noting that the collaborative component of the mapping system exposes students who don't pull their weight.

"One thing we struggle with in the classroom is how to make each student accountable," Fisher says. "This was one way for students to tell each other they noticed if someone wasn't doing their part. Whereas before [those students] might think no one would notice, now it's out there for everyone to see."

Any project-based, collaborative activity that incorporates technology use creates a more powerful learning experience than a standard lecture can provide, Fisher says. But she adds that technology is not meant to be a substitute for traditional methods, but instead to branch off of them. "Just like you have to learn your math facts before using a calculator, once students master basic marketing functions-- or whatever you're trying to teach them-- the sooner you can get them using technology for projects. It's much more engaging and current for students, and it's what businesses are looking for."

::WEBEXTRAS ::
If you would like more information on project-based learning, visit our website at www.thejournal.com. Enter the keywords project-based learning.

Esther Shein is a freelance writer based near Boston.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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