Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Skyping History

Today, my 9th grade history class took a digital detour to Scandinavia. A good friend of mine from Stockholm skyped into our class session on Vikings.

American history curricula teach Scandinavian history as if its only contribution to the world was plunder and horned helmets (which of course, as some of my students pointed out yesterday on their West Civ Proj blog, they didn't even wear). So, I wanted to give them a view of what Scandinavian history is really like by having a conversation with someone who actually was born and lives there.

My friend Joel is a world-class musician and he's spent the last few years working on NGO projects using music as a way of empowering kids in the forgotten cities of the world. A native of Sweden, he was a perfect choice for a brief conversation with my kids here in Maryland.

First he pointed out the different ways Scandinavians think about their ancestors. On the one hand, they were admittedly brutal and severe. One the other, however, they were industrious people who wanted to better their lives and who survived much hardship in the face of climates and limited resources few of us could imagine.

Someone asked what Sweden was like today, and Joel described their schools and government as well as the general attitudes of Swedes towards world affairs. And you could see in the faces of some kids a difficulty lining up the modern society he was describing with the limited knowledge they had always carried around about the land of the Vikings.

Each week, I give the students a question to ponder. This week's question is: "Who is Good? Who is Bad?" We collect these questions, along with many others, on our class wiki; and we crowdsource for more via Twitter. These questions -- not the facts from some filtered-down textbook -- form the basis of our class dialog.

The kids are learning history via the questions we ask about it.

And so, after an eight-minute conversation with a stranger a quarter of a world away -- a conversation that threw some theoretical complications into the mix regarding Vikings (Good, Bad, and Otherwise) -- I look forward to seeing how my kids answer the question this week.

And just as an aside, I'm gonna say that I'm just so happy that I'm living in a time where I can bring the world to my kids and bring my kids to the world.


  1. I've wondered, when I've looked at your wiki, what you do with the questions you post, the weekly question and the dailies. Can you fill me in?


  2. Sure.

    So each kid has their own blog where they respond to questions from the wiki. Those questions come from all over the place: me, the kids themselves, folks out in the blogosphere and twitterverse.

    My student editors and I then choose our favorites each week and they go onto the West Civ Blog. Here's an example post in response to a question about Vikings left on the wiki by someone 'out there beyond our classroom walls':

    We also create collaborative assignments and students team up to research and write together. Many of those end up on the West Civ Proj as well. So we're trying to respond to as well as collaborate with things/people both within and without the classroom.

    Other questions from the wiki become ideas for class discussion. That's where today's Skype session started.

    - Shelly

  3. If you don't mind a follow-up: I'm assuming that students have some sort of reading due for, not all, but many classes. So on any given night will students have reading and a blog post to do? If so, how long are the blog posts?

    A few other questions:
    • Did you choose the editors, or does the position rotate?
    • The page you sent me to has a couple of authors--is that because the original post was edited, or are the blog posts sometimes done collaboratively?
    • Do you also do "traditional" assessment (i.e. test and papers) or have you switched away from those completely?

    Sorry to bombard you with questions. My school is going 1:1 next year, and I'm trying to think now about good ways to take advantage of the opportunities it creates.



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