Remember Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” My seventh grade Social Studies teacher Mrs. Hadgis used it to teach the Cold War. I don’t think I exposed too much of my nerdy self at such a precarious age to my peers, but I distinctly remember cramming the lyrics down my mom's throat. Without so much as an eye roll she would countlessly repeat the memories of her childhood as they applied. And after catching a glimpse of the video, I understood why she wanted to replace the avocado refrigerator! Accidentally and unconventionally I learned the social revolution of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. By design, Mrs. Hadgis created an intentional process for meaning making. She did the culturally relevant: she met us on our pop music-loving playing field and designed an environment in which we could learn deeply without minding too badly. Csikszentmihalyi refers to this in Flow (1990), “As long as we respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad, it is easy for others to exploit our preferences for their own ends.” This was my Blended Learning vision: exploit my student’s desire to use computers. My vision has evolved. Luckily for my students, I attempt to model my approach with the good heartedness of Mrs. Hadgis.
Every teacher does this: we all try to connect with students. I harshly argue that teachers who don’t are ineffective. Yet, reflecting on my first semester Blended Local and American History course, I don’t believe I have done it. At first glance, I thought I accomplished the connection to student lives easily: students were engaging online. Students love to be online. Simple. Done. Box checked. However, the blended student does not seem to want online as much as they want a unique experience. And this is what I am beginning to understand: Mrs. Hadgis didn't choose a song because we liked music; she chose a particular song because it fit her purpose. The same is true for the design of my course. Learning online will never replace being online for students. However, I must thoughtfully design the experience so that students choose my class over YouTube
So, how am I going to do this? My most direct answer is: better in the second semester than in the first. My intentions moving into second semester are twofold: create an engaged learning environment and create a unique space to explore historical content. Not terribly different than last August, but I move forward with clearer intent. In August, I was motivated by hope: I have learned that hope doesn’t cut it. I must move with intent in my design if this is going to be successful.
First, I must reorganize my own online space. I need to make the visual design of my course more appealing. My blackboard course remains messy and cluttered. I must approach this with more consideration for student interaction. This will be tricky for me in an online space since I fail re-positioning my own household furniture. When building in the Medina Historical app, I tell my students they have seven seconds to convince a mobile app user they should continue reading and investigating the site. I need to hold myself to the same standard.
Secondly, I liberate myself from the chronological events of which Billy Joel sings. I intentionally approach second semester in a non-linear structure. I purposefully embrace the three dimensional thought process that is critical thinking. I am steadfast in my belief that each of us has some element of ADD in us and that isn’t always a sign of weakness. I thoughtfully allow my students’ minds to wander so that more informed opinions and conclusions of what has been and what should be can be cemented. My intention is to allow my students to stumble upon (pun intended) their own historical interests and investigate multiple concepts in the historical structure of our country. I release the timeline and embrace historical thinking skills.
Moving forward from a very rocky and precarious first semester, I reignite my energy for taking this journey. History can no longer be the boring class. In the second semester, students should begin to build their own fires. I know that I should probably take credit for starting the fires, or at least providing the match, but only one thing is for sure at this point: unintentionally my students are learning a thought process that will serve them well in the 21st Century workforce because I intentionally teach skills not content.
I also intentionally empower myself to ignore the fact that I am bumping up against a well established educational paradigm that at times vehemently resists a non-linear, organic approach to history, but I will hold off on lighting that match: too much kindling results in a quick burn.
Social Studies Teacher