Student Created American History Museum

After five weeks of incredible work the 8th grade students have prepared an interactive hands on American History Museum that explores the major events from 1800 – 1960. Like most major events this year the museum is both in person and virtual. This ensures that all students can learn and interact with all of the exhibits.

How was this accomplished?

This unit was the perfect storm of the end of the year doldrums and the drive to make all educational time purposeful. As a middle school teacher it is well known that while my content is important, my real job is teaching skills that will help my students grow and develop as better learners in the future. This was a point that was driven into me during my first real job by a literacy coach in New York City. My students do not need to know the individual battles of war, and they do not need to memorize dates. The do need to know how to read and analyze primary sources, how to work in teams, organize their time, take notes and problem solve. These skills transcend the content area, grade level and school that they are in. They are skills that will continue to develop into adulthood, but must be introduced and practiced during their formative years.

When considering any project, unit, lesson or activity it all starts with content and skills. What content will be addressed? What skill will be developed? Both of those answers must be clear before moving forward.

With this project the content was clear. I teach an American Government course that touches on history. The way this has always worked was to concentrate on the development of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, explore both primary documents and how they are interpreted in modern times and constantly examine current events against the primary sources. This year I wanted students to get an understanding of how the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted throughout all of American History.

This year is a historically messy year. We are hybrid with some students in class and others online. Contact tracing as removed whole sections of students for weeks at a time. The students are starved for interaction and for the first time in my career begging to come to school. To work within this system I integrated Eduscrum in the beginning of the year and transitioned to agile and kanban under the coaching of Jeff Burstein founder of L-EAF.org.

In the fourth quarter my students had been their own project managers for three quarters of the year. They have learned how to break down large tasks into small do-able tasks, through daily scrum and stand up meetings they practice collaboration, communication and reflection daily. They have examined difficult questions from both the historical perspective and then applied that knowledge to modern day issues.

Student rubrics are mostly based on skill acquisition. This enforces the ideals of the class. Students are learning to grow into stronger versions of themselves. They are learning skills they will take with them to the future. They are learning how to be better learners, community members, innovators and creators. They understand the function of the course.

When developing an agile mindset it was clear that by the end of the year students needed full agency in their learning. That is what makes this event so special.

Students chose their own groups, across class periods and days in class. They chose their own time periods to study, and developed their own idea of what a museum should be. Students then had to write their own rubrics, manage their own time and determine their schedule to turn in “done” checkpoints.

My role was truly of a guide. I taught two large group mini-lessons. For the rest of the time I circulated the room stopping and talking with each group. This enabled me to deep dive into content and strategy with small groups providing a level of personalized education that I never thought would be possible before. Every period I was able to speak and check in with each student. All received attention and help for the issues, questions, needs that they had.

The Unveiling

On May 17 all museum exhibits were due. The great American History Museum would be open to the public. The students were the creators therefore the exhibits varied wildly.

Videos

  • A student dress up as FDR and host a cooking show where she compared the ingredients of a cookie recipe to the New Deal.
  • A set of twins that were virtual learners all year created their own music video to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Let You Go”.
  • One student decided to show the rise of fascism, militarism, and nationalism as contributing factors to World War 1 by playing every European country arguing during a day time talk show.
  • A team of usually quiet girls created a “Make Your Own Adventure” video series on Youtube which allowed students to make decisions to go to or avoid war.

Although these examples where not physical products they had huge engagement. Students watched them over and over. Afterwards students could talk about the issues presented and extract the big ideas of the time period.

Hands On

  • A group of girls created a lock box challenge where students needed to learn about the War of 1812 to unlock boxes within boxes to finally crack the code.
  • A group of box brought in boxes of sand to allow students to sift for gold, while learning about the 1849 California Gold Rush through QR codes placed on a map of California.
  • Another group created their own fountain out of tupperware where they placed “pennies” with facts about Lincoln that you could earn after working through a trivia game about his presidency.
  • A group created a modified game of corn hole with an imbalanced number of bean bags to symbolize the balance of power between the federal and state governments during Reconstruction. Students were able to play as they learned about federal legislation passed during the time period and determining who had more power.

Each of these exhibits’ goal was to make students active learners. They explored ways to engage kinesthetic learners while embedding historical information. The students loved these exhibits and spent time at them over and over again.

Facing Difficult History

  • A group of three girls dove into the American family experience during the Great Depression. They created handwritten letters based on primary sources and then made video and voice recordings of them actioning them out in costume. Not only could the students see the letters that were created to be old and worn, but could hear the sadness and desperation as the girls described how hard it was to survive during the time period.
  • Another group of girls explored the Enslaved Persons Experience in the 1800s by creating a diorama, which featured songs that were sung to share information of escape by the Underground Railroad. This was an incredible design by girls that understood the seriousness of the subject, wanted to be sensitive to their learners and wanted to showcase the perseverance of people that experienced atrocities. The students could see conditions that people were forced to live in, could hear the songs and see the analysis of the message the songs were conveying.
  • A group of boys who researched the Reform Movement of the Progressive Era created protest signs with slogans popular at the time that had QR codes that brought them to student made videos about the purpose of each movement and how it succeeded. Students were astonished at what they considered basic health and well being norms that needed to be fought for to live the lives we do now.
  • A set of girls explored the ethics of dropping the atomic bombs at the end of World War 2 by giving students the ability to analyze difficult facts that led up to the event. Students were asked what they would do after receiving facts from both points of view and then learned the outcome of their choice afterwards. Several students were heard discussing how difficult the choice was not knowing the outcomes ahead of time.

Each of these time periods is difficult to learn about and student had to be mindful when creating an exhibit. All students were sensitive to the big ideas that they needed to teach, but mindful about how to engage their fellow students but convey the correct tone. I was especially proud of these groups and their understanding of difficult history.

Of course I cannot mention each of the 46 projects. Below are some stunning pictures and a video of the entire American History Museum.

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