Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why study history?

Right now my middle school students are studying the Enlightenment. This was a powerful time in Western culture, as the Enlightenment thinkers emphasized reason over dogmatic faith and superstition, and scientists were refining exact methods of observation and experimentation. However, for many students, studying the Enlightenment entails the memorization of a bunch of people – Newton, Hobbes, Smith, Descartes, Voltaire, Franklin and Jefferson – and a bunch of dates. But, the spirit of the Enlightenment was exploration, discovery and independence. I'm hoping our current project will help the students recognize the powerful influence of the various ideas from the Enlightenment on our modern sensibilities.

The students will be creating a 3-dimensional model of a monument for an Enlightenment figure or event. Within the model, the students need to focus on the ideas and impact of the person, not just the events of his/her life or list the work done. Students have completed research on their individuals, completed a planning guide for the monument which asked them to think about the message behind their monument and how the design would support that message. Today they began drafting some paragraphs to describe the person's life and work and the impact the person's work has on modern life. Here is the outline I provided:
  1. Importance - explain why you feel this person and ideas should be remembered
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • Topic (person & work) + a claim (opinion about why he/she and work is important) = strong topic sentence
    • Include some basic facts about the person's life and work
      • Use the information you researched
  1. Purpose - explain the message this monument is communicating and how the design will support that message
    • What is the lesson or moral of the person's life that will be illustrated in the monument?
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • State the lesson/moral + how he/she exhibits this lesson/moral.
    • Include some examples from the person's life and work that support this lesson/moral
  1. Content - explain the information/ideas you intend your audience to think about when they visit your monument and how the design will present these ideas
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • This monument will show …....
    • Describe the monument
      • What will it look like? How big? What materials? The setting?
      • What information/content/pictures will be on the monument?
        • Be specific – list the quotes, pictures, etc
      • How will people use and view the monument? Walk through it? Walk around it? Sit and contemplate it?
  1. Feelings - explain the feelings you want to evoke in people when they visit your monument and how the design will evoke those feelings
    • Write a strong topic sentence
      • When people leave this monument they should feel _________ because ________
    • How will the design, material and use of the monument help evoke (create) these feelings?
As I conferred with students throughout the class, one of the major ideas they struggled with was making the initial claim. Why is this person's work still important? The other idea they struggled with was the purpose of the monument. I have been encouraging them to think beyond just showing the person's work or discovery, but to look at what lesson or moral can we learn from the person's life.

Some major lessons that students are learning from the Enlightenment thinkers include:
  • Catherine the Great – Education is key.
  • Joseph II of Habsburg – Equality for all.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft - Writing can change the world.
  • Thomas Jefferson – Change can happen without violence and through the written word.
  • Ben Franklin – Never give up.
  • Mozart – Even prodigies needed to practice to get better.
  • Isaac Newton – Censorship stifles ideas.
This, I believe, is the purpose of studying history. Not just to know what happened and when, but to learn a lesson from it and be able to apply it to our own lives. I hope my students begin to see this through our classes together.

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