I was honored to be named the 2017 South Carolina Daughters of the American Revolution Most Outstanding Teacher of American History. As an additional Honor I was asked to be the keynote speaker at their Spring Convention which I am told is not a usual request. This was my first major speaking opportunity and hopefully the nerves didn’t show too much. This was my view before the ceremony began – not my usual group of high schoolers!
As a side note a student saw the speech sitting on my desk Thursday and read through it while I was working with some other students – she told me ‘it’s not that bad…’ High praise from a teenager I guess.
Here it is in its nearly polished form (I caught a few typos and cleaned some phrases by hand in the hotel room). Hopefully it really is not too bad.
Thank you very much. As a US History Teacher I am honored to be here to share my educational vision with the Daughters of the American Revolution particularly during the your education night. I have been working with the Theodosia Burr Chapter and Ms. Jane Harvey for the last two years on supporting the social studies and I have a great respect for your efforts to encourage history and civic engagement in schools.
It is a goal we share. In fact, the theme of my speech is Making History Come Alive in the Classroom. There are several ways that I accomplish this but with that theme in mind. I’m going to start in an odd place, with something a bit less alive… in fact it’s more undead… I need to start with Zombies…
Now I know Zombies are not real but they have played an important role in the development of my US History class because I’m also a runner. Yes, Zombies and Running. We are a long way from US History, but bare with me. I took up running about 8 years ago to get away from heart disease not the walking dead. As much as I try I’m not a fast runner. In fact on the Marathon circuit I’m what’s known as a “Clydesdale” – a big runner that just keeps plodding along. Usually going for a run is a great feeling and is my moment of meditation in a stressful day. The problem is that some days are difficult even for perfectly conditioned thoroughbreds. Your legs hurt, you didn’t eat a proper meal, or you’re too busy thinking about the stack of papers that needs graded. Some days running is just plain hard work and extra motivation is needed – something like being chased by zombies.
Again, I know zombies aren’t real, but I stumbled across an app called “Zombies, Run!” that makes it feel like they are. Normally I’m not a scary movie type of guy, but I had heard such great things about this app that I wanted to give it a try. During a run, this app transforms exercise into a game by adding a narrative and because the story is being pumped directly into your earbuds you are immersed into a fictional world where you become ‘runner 5’; a human decoy and item collector running in a post Zombie Apocalyptic world to ensure the safety of a little fortified town called Abel Township. You are connected to the story by a radio operator and spotter that breaks in every 2 or 3 minutes with a new piece of the narrative. Each episode of the serialized story lasts about a half an hour roughly the time needed to go 5 kilometers and the story pieces act as a reward for continuing to run. This next part is a bit embarrassing; but the first time I tried the app I forgot that zombies aren’t real and when the radio operator told me that there was a group of zombies on my right and then I heard their moans in my right ear… I looked right and moved left. The only thing there was a group of college students that must have been wondering what the weird old guy was doing. Towards the end of my run, the radio operator frantically told me a group of Zombies were gaining on me. I heard the moans getting louder from behind me and I subconsciously ran faster… I was totally immersed in the game world and felt truly engaged with the run. I quickly realized that there was something powerful going on.
Four years ago I began studying a business concept known as gamification. A colleague and I had been joking around about turning our classrooms into a video game and I thought it might actually be a good idea. At the time I was watching students waste time on a seemingly monotonous smartphone game called “Make It Rain”. The game play consisted of throwing virtual dollar bills by swiping across the screen. The students spent weeks with a game I thought looked far more tedious than the work I was assigning and I was curious why they were so engaged. I took a free course about gamification and learned that this business concept takes the engaging elements of video games and applies them to non-game situations to more deeply engage customers with a brand. If you have ever earned reward points at Starbucks or upgraded your airline tickets in order to get access to the business class lounge you have experienced gamification. At the time I didn’t know about the small community of educational gamifiers online so I developed my own system which I call Game Inspired Design. Using this philosophy and game mechanics I transform my class into a game students play – a live action role playing game where they learn content and skills by completing quests and missions.
When I got back from being chased by Zombies I filtered the experience through my Game Inspired Design lense. I realized that the app tries to transform a tedious and repetitive task into an immersive and engaging experience. Gamification has become a bit of an education buzzword which unfortunately means that the easy external motivators – adding unnecessary or unjustified points, badges, or rewards – are tacked onto existing lessons. This app had external motivators but they were earned. It also had the novelty of zombies but that seemed incidental; a mere narrative device that created a more powerful internal motivation – a sense of purpose. To paraphrase gamification author Jane McGonigal, games are nothing but hard work that we chose for ourselves. Games place unnecessary obstacles in the way of simple goals and the player finds satisfaction in overcoming those obstacles. This seems counterintuitive. People look forward to the weekends to get away from work so why do so many people chose to make more work for themselves during their leisure time? I think that the answer is that in a game the player gets to make meaningful choices that have a direct meaningful consequences, something that is often lacking in a student’s school experience or sometimes even in a full time job. In a successful video game, the player is literally the center of the universe. It is their actions that are the animating force of every experience. When I was running from Zombies it was my effort to keep running that saved the people of the Abel Township. There was a sense of Purpose for the run beyond reaching an arbitrary time or distance and it was my choices that impacted the way it happened. The goal of a gamified classroom is to make each individual student’s experience central.
So with all of this in mind, I was inspired to improve the most boring and repetitive but necessary work facing my students. I teach in what is known as a Flipped Classroom. In this approach, the lectures and other content are recorded so students can take notes at home or in their free time at school. This shifts the easier content acquisition away from whole group instruction allowing class time to be used for deeper critical thinking activities and lets the teacher become a guide rather than the central focus. The challenge is that many students struggle with completing the recorded lecture notes. My goal was to use the Zombies, Run game mechanics to increase student engagement. To do so I created an original narrative that runs through our entire school year. As students watch the recorded lectures they are rewarded with access to a new piece of the storyline every 3 or 4 minutes. Don’t worry there are no zombies. The only thing scary is the quality of my scripts and my voice acting. The important part is that the storyline gives a purpose to the work, turns a dull and repetitive task into an immersive experience, and allows my students to interact with US History in meaningful ways of their own choice.
To accomplish this, I’ve created an immersive fictional world based on historic concepts. My game is called the History Underground. It takes place in a dystopian future with a totalitarian dictatorship that uses our Constitutional structures like President and Governors but uses state power autocratically. In this fictional world, the founding autocrats, took steps to eliminate the study of history in order to more easily mislead the public. The subject was eliminated from schools, libraries are monitored and propaganda is the standard for journalism. In the game I am the leader of an underground group of rebels whose mission is to create public history products aimed at reeducating the general public. Students learn skills of the Historian so that they can teach the public how to see through the oppressive government. As Nikita Khrushchev once said in justifying the soviet stance on restricting academics, “Historians are dangerous people. They are capable of upsetting everything.” The game provides a Purpose that transforms the students’ experience so that they are not pointlessly memorizing and regurgitating names and dates. They are developing and using their historic skills, and dodging the secret police, in order to save the world!
My narrative makes learning history more engaging and answers the eternal student question “why do I need to learn this?” At its core my storyline rests on a fundamental truth about why we study History. As Khrushchev knew , it provides a basic understanding of who we are and where we want to go. Our past is a compass directing us into the future or, to paraphrase Orwell in 1984, he who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future. History must be an open discussion among a people that are prepared to participate. To accomplish this we need to teach our students skills like finding source validity, understanding a source bias, building an argument based on evidence, finding multiple and corroborating sources, and developing cause and effect relationships. The game design provides a context and purpose for learning the content and skills. But the engagement of the game would mean nothing without the actual work that the students do.
In a subject like science students get to do labs, in math the can work with manipulatives, in phys ed they can run, jump and swim. But how can students get Hands-On with History? The answer is through a move away from overly sanitized textbook entries and towards primary sources – the documents and artifacts that are the evidence that historians use to tell their story of the past. History is a complex, beautiful, scary, and sometimes awe-inspiring discipline but textbooks have a nasty habit of removing the most interesting parts by taking the nuance from very complicated stories. Nearly all of the teachers that I know refer to a textbook but heavily supplement them with direct sources from the past. Groups like the Stanford History Education Project, the Document Based Question project, and National History Day program allow students to become practicing Historians by allowing them to dive into the past.
In my History Underground game lessons and activities take the form of Quests or Missions. The major first semester mission is a National History Day project. In creating the project students research a topic of their choice that relates to an annual theme – this year the theme was taking a stand in history. The students the choose to work individually or in groups in one of five categories – exhibits, documentaries, website, performances, or historic papers. They can then compete against other projects at the school and regional level. They have to meet with judges that are often tied to local history organizations. If they win at the regional level they advance to state and even national levels of the competition. In addition to being a participating teacher, I also serve as the Horry Regional Coordinator. This year we had over 600 students submit over 400 projects and the quantity is only overshadowed by the quality. Ms Harvey and her chapter members have served as judges the last two years and I’m sure they would love to tell you about the amazing quality of these projects.
History Day is an incredibly engaging activity because of the meaningful choices and skills application that transform the students from passive consumers into active creators of History. They become Historians diving deeply into the research, developing thesis and evidence based arguments, establishing context and chronology and tracing the historic ripples into modern day. In my 6 years with History Day I’ve been awed by the student’s work and it is often the most unlikely students that excel. Two years ago a pair of young women showed interest in the Orangeburg Massacre. If you are unfamiliar with this incident it was a Civil Rights event in 1968 just a little ways from here, where 3 young African Americans killed by SC troopers after a protest. It is a complicated incident and the girls dove into the research. They amazed me when they took the initiative to arrange an interview with Dr Cleveland Sellers, then Voorhees College President, the man authorities mistakenly blamed and later exonerated of starting the incident. That same year a group of boys traveled hours to the upstate to meet with a local Historian and go through records related to the Hamburg Massacre perpetrated by Ben Tillman during Reconstruction. This year a student dove into the US Army archives to find original sources about Frank Kemeny a gay rights advocate who was discharged from the army because of his sexual preferences. Just this week a student found me during my planning period just to tell me that she had just received an email from the sister of Phyllis Schlafly to for her project. These stories are not unique to my school. Last year a Loris Middle School project interviewed George Frierson, one of the men that helped, in 2013, to posthumously exonerate George Stinney – a 14 year old African American boy convicted of murder and executed after a 1 day trial and a 10 minute deliberation by an all white jury in 1944. Mr Frierson was even the girl’s special guest at the State Awards ceremony. That group didn’t advance to nationals, but that experience will impact the rest of their lives.
History Day is just one of the ways my students become Historians. This year I have offered them the opportunity to develop independent study projects I call Rogue Missions. The students are responsible for completely designing, organizing, and carrying out the project. My role is to offer guidance and final approval before the work begins. Students even set their own due dates. It makes me smile to see students panicking to make a deadline that they themselves set for a project that they themselves designed. After the work begins my role is similar to a CEO as I conference with students and provide them the tools they need to succeed. I’m getting some very creative products that range from books of illustrated poetry to board games to curated websites.
One of my favorite primary source activities has been when students work with the men and women of our armed forces. Since 2010, Early College students have interviewed over 50 local veterans and submitted most of these interviews to the Library of Congress as part of its Veterans History FolkLife Project. The veterans experience range from as early as WWII to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the interviews are submitted to the Library of Congress where they are archived for future historians. In the long run these interviews will lead to a better understanding of the soldiers perspective during the conflicts but the interviews are also valuable primary sources for my students that build on the dry text book explanations of events. My students have recorded tragic stories like that of Frank Brincat. Mr. Brincat was a WWII Prisoner of War in a Nazis camp. The students laughed with him at his description of eating raw pork on a forced March – he said it was like chewing pork bubble gum – but were speechless as he held back no details of his liberation and how he still sleeps with every light on in his house. Vietnam is part of our state standards and, in addition to the causes and outcomes, students are supposed to understand how the war affected returning veterans but it was an interview with Lt. Sinclair Sean made the standard come alive. He described his best friend being killed in combat and then living with PTSD. He also talked about being a Northern Black Man being sent to a southern fort for training and experiencing the ghost of Jim Crow for the first time.
Not only do we learn content but we sometimes also help the veteran see the value of their service. I begged one veteran to be interviewed that didn’t think he was worth being interviewed because he never saw combat. Once we got him in the classroom he went on to describe the difference between East and West Berlin and then the scene as he was standing on the Berlin Wall as it was being torn down. My favorite interview though was from Gerald Hoogmoed – my wife’s grandfather. Mr Hoogmoed served for 6 years during the Korean War and has always felt that he served during a forgotten war. He was interviewed almost 6 years ago by Lauren. She goes to a local college so I run into her occasionally and the first question is always get is “how is Mr Hoogmoed?”. He gave Lauren a service star during the interview that she still has. We gave have Mr. Hoogmoed enough copies of the interview on DVD to give to each of his children – he asked for more. He beams with pride when he tells long unseen family that his story is archived in the Library of Congress. Lauren may not understand how important that interview was to him but I see it every Sunday at dinner and I am so happy that my students and some future historian will hear the stories that most of my family knows by heart.
I’ve shared with you some of the great things that are happening in my classroom, but I am not alone in the effort to offer great social studies education. Through the dedication of teachers and organizations like the D A R, I am here tonight to tell you that History is not only Alive – it is growing and maturing. We still study the important people and events but the old drill and kill method is on life support. My colleagues and I are now teaching students to think and analyze, to question and validate because in spite of high stakes tests, teachers know that students need to go beyond simple memorization to be challenged with deep critical thinking activities and have the opportunities for creative productivity. And while schools are emphasizing Science, Math and other jobs based curriculums historians understand that while some students will go onto use algebra or chemistry in their careers every student will be expected to know how to be an active and well informed citizen and every student will need to be able to look at a source, identify its bias and analyze its content. Game Inspired Design is a tool that can used to engaged students in this growth and it may have taken some undead Zombies to inspire a gamified engagement tool but with primary sources, skills based lesson planning, and the efforts of organizations like the National History Day, the Library of Congress and Daughters of the American Revolution, History is definitely Alive and Well in South Carolina’s schools.