Fostering a Collaborative (Social Media) History Classroom

One of the challenges I distinctly recall from my 9th and 10th grade history courses (the ones, by the way, which I now teach) was dealing with the overwhelming sense of just how much information one was responsible for in preparing for a test or final exam. Teachers would provide lists of ID terms and then students would dutifully go off and try to sift through their notes and the textbook compiling the “review to end all reviews” in order to do well on that particular assessment. While I cannot remember whether or not our teachers actively encouraged us to adopt this practice, a number of the most driven students in my classes decided to get together, split up the ID terms and potential essay topics, and assign one another to complete them in a punctual fashion so that everyone could use them in preparing for the assessment.

As I recall (and I’ve shared this anecdote with my students when I discuss study strategies) the ringleaders of this practice went about calling their group that existed for swapping of exam review materials, “The Loop.” (The name deriving, obviously, as a way to indicate whether or not one was “in the loop” and benefiting from one another’s intellectual largess.) While an equity country club membership this was not, the existence of “The Loop” nevertheless had the effect of 1) making me want access to this hallowed font of information, and 2) ultimately pushing me to begin working at a level and generating review materials that would pass muster with the 14 and 15 year-old Mandarins who sat on the Governing Council of “The Loop.”

I recall that once one of my already-initiated friends had made the necessary political overtures to get me in “The Loop,” I was very sternly warned that if my work did not meet the exacting standards of the Politburo I would be summarily dismissed from “The Loop” never to drink from the fountain of test review knowledge again. Needless to say, the specter of such intellectual ostracism was haunting…

So, I soldiered on throughout high school and preserved my position within “The Loop,” and shockingly enough, still possess many of these same review materials today, which I drag out on occasion to consult for my own teaching or to illustrate to students how it’s never too soon to start curating one’s own presidential library.

In any event, this rather long, discursive introduction all serves to make the point that as a high school student I found the intellectual peer pressure created by the necessity to collaborate and generate work that would be critically evaluated by my peers to be immensely valuable. This experience really forced me in the course of studying and assembling these reviews to critically analyze and synthesize the information in ways that I otherwise would not have done if I had no one else holding me accountable. Of course, one eventually internalizes such skills and learns how to think and work at a high level for oneself, but the “stick-carrot” dichotomy of “The Loop” created the external stimulus necessary for me to develop these skills.

While members of “The Loop” blew threw reams of paper and creating these reviews for one another (to the point of eliciting an public condemnation from the Sierra Club for our catalytic role in late 20th c. deforestation,) contemporary technology has created the opportunity for so many meaningful, instantaneous, and useful forms of collaboration.

Now I reflect on my own experience and how collaborative work aided my own intellectual growth as I think about how to structure my classes in a way that not only takes advantage of these new technologies, but more importantly places primacy on learning how to be a part of an intellectual community and produce work not simply for the teacher to grade but for one’s peers to learn and benefit from.

This past school year I made some initial forays into collaborative technologies for test review and project creation. Wikispaces proved to be a nice repository for ID terms and information, though I did cause some unintentional flame wars amongst my students when they accidentally deleted one another’s contributions. Additionally, I had some success with using Twitter for test review, which I’ll certainly do again and also use it for a host of other activities, many of which have been inspired by TeachPaperless (create group bibliographies, evaluate sources, critique writing, analyze primary source documents, etc.) Moreover, my students found the semi-synchronous nature of Twitter @messages to be a convenient and relatively instantaneous way of communicating with me as it is certainly less intimidating (and potentially long-winded) than email. Finally, I alsothink the paper-trail created by Twitter will be especially useful in student review.

I’m also planning on having students create their own blogs and use an RSS aggregator to follow one another’s postings and keep up with what one another have to say. Ultimately, my hope is to establish a Socratic seminar dynamic amongst my classes that extends beyond the classroom and beyond our forty-five minutes together each day.

I’ve also taken inspiration from an idea from GMU English professor Mark Sample, who is planning to use a variety of social media tools to facilitate his now-much larger undergraduate English course. I like his structure of dividing class roles and having them rotate amongst students from week-to-week, or in my case, from chapter-to-chapter, or unit-to-unit. Establishing this type of rotation will allow students to engage in a variety of different intellectual tasks and also push them to generate valuable material for one another. I’ll write a more detailed discussion of how I envision this functioning in a future post and solicit feedback there.

Finally, I hope to create what Peter Pappas wrote about in a recent blog post about how the structure of a classroom can either foster a student’s intellectual independence or make them ever-reliant on reinforcement from the ostensibly omniscient class leader. I think a large part of making this type of dynamic develop successfully involves the teacher modeling that he or she is also simultaneously a learner along with the students. Ideally, this levelling of the classroom will help foster an understanding of the inherently collaborative nature of education and also encourage students to focus on and enjoy the process of learning rather than teleologically obsess about the graded outcome.


2 thoughts on “Fostering a Collaborative (Social Media) History Classroom

  1. Nate,

    Glad you found some inspiration in my post. As a long time history teacher, I was guilty of the “teaching as telling” approach for many years. Eventually I realized I had to find ways to get my students to “be the historians.” (That led me to create my site Teaching With Documents http://www.edteck.com/dbq ) Now the new Web 2.0 sites give students more functionality to realize that goal.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Pingback: The “You Can Lead a Horse…” Idiom Applied to Social Media in the Classroom « The History Channel This Is Not…

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