In preparation for a presentation that I’m giving later today (which is what you have to say when starting to draft something at 12:18 am…ah, the liberties of summer!), I thought I’d put together a reflection post on an assignment I gave to my US History students earlier this spring. My presentation is to members of the Fort Worth Area Council for Social Studies, and although it’s being billed as an architectural history of Fort Worth, my focus will center on the pedagogical design, implementation, successes, challenges, and areas for future revision and improvement regarding my assignment that had the students explore the presence and legacy of the New Deal in Fort Worth. This assignment not only got the students to think about the presence of broad national trends in a local setting, but also got them to explore the city in ways they perhaps hadn’t done before.
My first reflection comment is entirely unrelated to any pedagogical point, but is rather an observation about the weird and wild patterns of internet bots and keyword scouring. Here’s the lesson: putting the words “Deal” and then the name of a city together in a single post will please and delight the overlords who run Groupon and other locally-focused discount peddlers. Seriously, just look at my comments for that post. Only one of them is from a real human (thanks, Erika!).
Sampling of bot-generated comments
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The above images were the set that I used with my class. I initially went about finding the locations just by Google searching phrases like “New Deal Fort Worth,” and “Fort Worth New Deal Architecture.” These searches yielded me some helpful leads and resources that I used to both find the locations that I wanted to photograph and also to get some background knowledge about the buildings themselves. As one of my majors in college was in the History and Theory of Architecture (and you wonder why I’m not managing a hedgefund, right?!?), I already had studied (and preserved a vague recollection) about the dramatic reshaping of the landscape created by large-scale New Deal programs, and also about the architectural, Art Deco elements that characterized most of these projects. In essence, I had a sense of what I wanted my students to be researching and discerning once they found and then could visually study a building.
Surly Pacer overlooking Fort Worth
Then, as an excuse to get out and get some exercise, I rode my bike to all the different locations, took a few pictures at each location and pedaled on to the next site. In taking the photos I tried to get noteworthy architectural features, but also take pictures of key elements that were in fact part of the New Deal building projects. In fact, many of the New Deal projects in Fort Worth were additions to existing schools built in the 1920s. For instance, it seems that stone retaining walls were one of the major components added to Fort Worth schools throughout the late 1930s. In those cases, I tried to capture that particular feature in my photos. My hope was that the students would connect the context of the New Deal, its various phases, and particular building programs to specific additions to the buildings.
I sent the photos off to Costco, had them printed up, and allowed each student to select a certain site. Immediately upon selecting their sites, they began discussing which ones they recognized, which were totally unfamiliar, and how they might go about discovering the location of their chosen building. I enjoyed seeing the earnest and authentic collaboration that took place amongst the students, as that’s often something that’s difficult to create in an assignment. While I did not create groups for the assignment, and instead had each student research and present on his or her building independently, I did encourage them to collaborate in driving around the city finding the locations, and also in sharing their knowledge and familiarity of Fort Worth with one another. I think the collaborative elements when they did happen were authentic and in part that may have been because they weren’t required. The issue of assignment design and effective collaboration is still one that I struggle with and ponder about, but that’s a topic for another day.
I scheduled the assignment so that the students had one weekend in which they could get out, explore the city, and take photographs (for which I required that they appear in at least one…and no Photoshopping!), and then I gave them a bit of class time (I think two days in the library) to cull information about the architect, construction date, noteworthy architectural features, Federal monies spent and the agency in charge of the construction, and other aspects detailed in the assignment. We then had two days of presentations in class, in which students presented their buildings, and information about the other elements I asked them to research. For this presentation, each student had five minutes and twenty slides. I used this modified Pecha Kucha presentation style in order to get students to hone in and focus on their key research questions and also to ensure that all students could present within the allotted time-frame.
So, let’s get onto what worked, what didn’t, and what I might consider changing in the future.
Most obviously, this assignment worked in terms of getting students out and having them look at their city in a way most had not done so before. It also got them to connect the broader national context to their immediate surroundings, and hopefully take away a longer-term understanding of the fact that national and international trends have profoundly local effects.
For some students, the research task also had them exercise their problem solving skills in ways in which they were unaccustomed to doing in a history classroom. The best example of this took place with a student who had this picture:
Mysterious Fort Worth New Deal site
To find the site, the student focused on the circular pattern in the image (NB: here’s one example of the stone retaining walls I mentioned earlier), and then used the Historic Fort Worth website to narrow down a range of years that it could have been built, recognized the yellow bricks as familiar, cross-referenced the location he thought it was with Google Maps, which provided an overhead view of the circular design in the image. I enjoyed hearing him talk about this process of riddling out the location and drawing on a variety of resources to ultimately confirm his suppositions, thereby allowing him to travel in confidence to the location and take pictures of the site. In this respect, I need to find or design more types of assignments that more proactively force students to engage with the material in a problem solving way (or perhaps I already have the structures and assignments, but instead need to find ways to articulate this process better).
I also thought the assignment succeeded from a presentation point-of-view, as the students were generally focused, well-prepared, well-rehearsed, and had thought carefully about what to place on their slides before launching into the presentation. I’d included some links about Pecha Kucha presentation technique for them in the assignment sheet, and my impression was that most used those resources to make their presentations image-centric and avoid excessive text. Interestingly, as students followed one another, it became clear that a relatively narrow range of architects designed these building, and in their observations of these patterns, the students began to refer to one another’s presentations and interpretations — an interconnection of knowledge and research that I was really glad to see develop organically.
Challenges and Areas for Improvement:
The hardest part of the assignment for the students, and one which I debriefed with them after everyone had finished their presentations was the way in which they evaluated the “success” of the projects. I’d included this part of the assignment in order to get the students thinking about these sites in an evaluative way and to force them to cast historical judgment on the impact and legacy of the New Deal in Fort Worth. My hope was that the students would engage with primary sources (local newspapers and magazines), and with broader secondary sources (overviews of the New Deal; histories of Fort Worth) to assess how the project reshaped the city and life for its citizens. However, the most common response I got to this section (many students essentially elided it altogether), was that the site was usually successful because it is still around, or because it serves the same purpose now as it did originally.
While these are both (very impressionistic) ways to measure success, I realized that I need to spend more time earlier in the project emphasizing quantitative vs. non-quantitative methods of evaluating “success.” At the very least students need to define what they mean by success from the outset, and then, ideally, be able to substantiate that in some specific piece of outside evidence. After doing that, I hope students will be able to seek out and present answers to these sorts of evaluative questions: How much financial benefit did the site create? What was the local reaction to the site? How has the site effected its surrounding neighborhood?
I think that this will lead to me to have future iterations of this project require that the students ground the evaluation in primary sources from Google News Archive, or perhaps even better, The Portal to Texas History, hosted by UNT. Moreover, it might be possible to even have students ground their analysis in some sort of text-mining, like that available from Google Ngram, although I’m not sure what this would tell us — but it sure is interesting to look at!
Google NGram of "Fort Worth" and "New Deal"
Although many students’ research/scouring expeditions proved successful (particularly for those whose sites were schools and where the FWISD had already provided a fair amount of research), some struggled in their attempts to find pertinent information about their site. In the future I’ll considering providing some launching points for internet research, although I did like observing the students’ experience of muddling through information and coming up with a problem solving strategy. This aspect of the assignment gave me great insight into a student’s complex reasoning skills and his or her ability to structure and then dissect a problem.
The final correction is one of my own creation, and that’s that I need to make sure all my locations are, in fact, New Deal projects. I particularly goofed on the T&P Station in Downtown Fort Worth, which was built with railroad company money in the early 1930s before FDR’s election. However, I know there are some sites still out there that are New Deal projects in the city and that I didn’t photograph, so I should have plenty of back-ups to replace any non-New Deal projects that I accidentally included.
Interior of T&P Station Lobby. Not a New Deal building, but a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture
Resources and Readings:
Below are a few resources, websites, and reports that deal explicitly with the New Deal in Fort Worth. Some of them address specific sites, and others deal more generally with Fort Worth’s architecture or specific historical developments.
Although this project broke up some of the narrative cohesion of the semester (something that isn’t my strongest suit in the first place, but that I was also very much learning as I went though teaching a US History survey for the first time), I feel like the benefits of the project outweighed its drawbacks. The opportunity for the students to present in a concise and direct form seemed to make them attentive to their research and mindful of how to organize and effectively share their findings with the class. Moreover, we were essentially able to break some of the confines of the classroom and have students research and perceive their familiar surroundings in a new way. Ultimately, I’ll definitely use this assignment again, as I think it allows for an in-depth study of the New Deal while also getting students to engage with historical material in a more authentic and immediate way than they’re able to with a textbook.