Experience is Learning

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Reflection on the process of creating DBQs for social studies: by Erik Nelson

My grandfather used to tell me stories of climbing Mt. Rainier in his youth. I loved his stories.  My imagination tried to relive those events, longing to know what that challenge was like. Growing up in Western Washington Rainier dominated our views on clear days; a monster of snow, ice and rock beckoning me. The challenge awaited, I needed to experience it for myself. No old person could tell me how or why, I needed to do it for myself.

As a young teacher, I am re-learning lessons I should have understood from my own past. Learning happens through experience. As a teacher, I need to focus on creating opportunities for my students to experience history and social studies for themselves so that they can draw their own conclusions. In the same way my grandfather’s stories enticed me to the mountain but could not tell me how or why, I can present opportunities for my students to develop their own hows and whys about social studies.

Creating my first DBQ has been an experience for me to learn as a teacher. It is very difficult for me to stay in the mindset of thinking how students might approach a document, let alone a series of documents. It is very easy for me to know how and why I am studying history, but not so easy for me to think how students might encounter the same sources. I am committed to treating my students as capable and independent learners, and DBQs like the ones we are creating in class can harness student independence and focus it into learning. As I curate source material and create accompanying questions to guide students I need to always keep the perspective of how they will approach the document in mind. This will allow me to give ownership of the creation of meaning and understanding to the students.

Going through this process has helped remind me that the learning found in experience can be truly rich, and should be the type of learning I am committed to regularly making available to my students. They will need to experience for themselves the lessons, and not simply be told an answer from this old guy. My own experiences on Mt. Rainier mean so much more to me that my grand father’s stories, but I might not have my own experiences if he had not presented the ideas and possibilities for me to explore on my own.

As a teacher, I hope I can always create opportunities for my students to learn through experience, and well crafted DBQs are a tool to facilitate that process. The irony is that I need to experience making more to make them well crafted. Further proof that the experiential process reveals the rich learning.

(This DBQ will be published in iBooks in Dec. 2014. Check back for the link and free download!)

Image Credit: Mazamas hiking trip to Mt. Rainier. Original Collection: Gerald W. Williams Collection. Item Number: WilliamsG:Mazamas_Ranier1905. Link.

Lessons from the DBQ

Source: http://aso.gov.au/titles/historical/landing-of-australian-troops/extras/

Thus far, the DBQ has been a very challenging, but educational, experience. I initially began this journey thinking that I would do my DBQ on Operation PB Success. However, I found that would not be feasible so I changed my topic to the Anzacs in Egypt during World War I and perceptions of the ‘other.’ Through this, I have learned how to conduct a successful history lesson without a lengthy lecture. The setup of my DBQ allows students to interact successfully with the material and make an argument without needing in-depth background on the topic beforehand. Students, therefore, practice thinking like historians and the classroom becomes more student-centered.

Another lesson I have learned from the DBQ is how to find primary sources. Finding primary sources is, clearly, very important to the DBQ process. The internet makes it possible to track down hundreds of primary sources from a range of websites whether they be from an academic institutions or a small blog. In order to ensure that my sources are reliable, I have found that government websites are really helpful in locating legitimate primary sources. While it is certainly tempting to just steal primary sources without worrying about their origin, I believe it is important to ensure that I am giving my students something that is quality and genuine.

I would really enjoy using this DBQ in a class that was exploring World War I. Race hate is a reoccurring theme in wars and this DBQ gives students another avenue in which to explore it. When we think of race hate we often think of groups such as the Nazis, but it is important to show students that there are many dimensions to history and while it is easy to villains only one group, it is not necessarily accurate. Racial prejudices come in many shapes and sizes and can be found in all eras. The Anzacs provide another perspective to historians. It is not my intent to belittle the bravery of the Anzacs in World War I. Rather, I want students to remember that history is not black and white. It is not simple and it is not static. It is fluid and gray. It is their job to sift through it and make a claim and support it with evidence as historians in training.

Content vs. Process

In addition to being practice in how to go about making a DBQ, this assignment has also been a solid lesson in how not to create a DBQ. I feel that as an actual practicing teacher, this will be easier as I will have a better idea of what I want and need the DBQ to do. I will have a topic in mind, and a message that I am trying to convey to the students, or messages that I want them to come up with on their own. There will be more structure in place. Creating a DBQ in the manner that we did for this class allowed me too much freedom, I feel. I needed a more concrete goal, as my DBQ turned into doing whatever I wanted to with it, not trying to meet specific requirements for student learning.Lady Bird and Students

Going along with that, I decided early on that I wanted to create an image based DBQ. I found my resources, and shaped my DBQ around what I had discovered. If I were to do this again, I would reverse my work flow. The topic would come first, and then I would find documents that fit with it. There would be more diversity in the sorts of documents that I included, rather than just using images.

While I do like my DBQ, and feel that it would get students to think about something that wouldn’t normally cross their minds, I am less pleased with the process that I went through to create my DBQ. My problems aren’t so much with my content as with my process. If anything, I became too attached to  my content, and struggled to make changes because of that.

Image Credit:  White House Photo Office Collection courtesy of the National Archives.

Taking Shape: Thoughts on creating DBQ’s

screenshotAfter spending a few weeks exploring the different avenues available to me for my DBQ, I am finally on a focused track to the finish.  After switching my topic from the more obscure food history topic to the much more document rich Marshall Plan, my issue was not where to find documents, but just the opposite.

There were so many great documents, I found myself following lead after lead on possible directions to take the assignment.  While I learned a tremendous amount about the Marshall Plan, the state of Europe after WWII, and the different opinions throughout U.S. and Europe about the plan, I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to completing the assignment. But I was finding photos, documents,  and getting more information. Through this research I was able to narrow my focus and choose an angle on which to focus: the differing views on the Marshall Plan from Europe, Russia, and at home in the U.S.. My next challenge was to step away from the history and just look at the documents.  What was I trying to say?  What were the documents telling me?  I finally focused on assembling documents that could tell a story.  Once I had a clear narrative of what I wanted the students to see, the guiding questions practically wrote themselves.

Next up for me is to add the last few pages into iBook Author and begin to fine tune the look and feel.  I will have my classmates review the work to ensure the documents and questions create a clear narrative that will guide the students to address the enduring questions of the unit.

This assignment has been exciting for me on two main levels.  First learning how to write this type of assignment for my students will be something I will continue to work on throughout my career. I am a big believer in having students think like historians.  The other facet is just how much I enjoyed researching the history surrounding the Marshall Plan. Reading all the documents and seeing all the photos was like a DBQ itself.  I will continue to practice, learn, and hopefully inspire my students to do the same.