Monday, August 16, 2010

viz. A Blog for Media Literacy Pedagogy

via viz

While doing an image search for an unrelated project, I came across this informative blog, vis. Visual Rhetoric, Visual Culture, Pedagogy, from the University of Texas. As the subtitle explains, this blog has a nicely arranged series of posts related to a curriculum I usually refer to as media literacy on my blog. Namely, this curriculum focuses on the creative techniques advertisers, governments, or any other creators of propaganda use to inform or persuade an intended audience.

Granted, at first glance, some of the content found on the viz website might seem "too philosophical" for elementary and secondary social studies students; however, the concepts presented in several of the its posts provide a helpful structure for any social studies curriculum.

Here's what I mean:

In the secondary social studies classroom, media literacy pedagogy usually makes a brief, yet underdeveloped and unconnected, appearance during a unit on World War II. I've seen what feels like countless lessons on WWII Propaganda Posters. The usual routine is to show students a series of posters and to point out how countries dehumanized the enemy. In other cases, this lesson amounts to little more than an interesting slide show intended to "break up" the usual lecture routine. Such a poster activity is no doubt a great way to introduce students to visual culture, but these activities usually lack a coherent connection to the rest of the curriculum or the students' everyday lives, for that matter. For example, consider the possibility that some of the techniques (e.g., guilt, peer pressure) governments used for WWII propaganda posters are also found in a commercial for a candy bar.

via viz

An example of pedagogy related to WWII posters on the the viz website is under the "assignments" section with a lesson titled "Visual Rhetoric and Violence." There is also a great series of related posts tagged "Propaganda." The central message throughout these posts and assignments is an emphasis on comparing "arguments, strategies/appeals, and effectiveness." Another website/resource that can guide the "strategies" question is "It's No Laughing Matter" from the Library of Congress. (See previous post for more detail.)

Anyway... I just found the viz site, so I have some more exploring to do to see what I can use for my methods course.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Don't Buy a Textbook

Stanford History Education Group's Reading Like a Historian

I recently received an email from a Superintendent in Massachusetts. It was time to buy an American history textbook series, and he wanted to know if I had any suggestions. My quick answer is: Don't buy a textbook. There's too much out there that's free and a lot better. Below is an updated version of the longer answer I sent him.

1) Get a Free Secondary Source/Textbook
Overall, my recommendations reflect a "balanced" approach of breadth and depth of coverage, which also allows your teachers to use a variety of sources. For example, I was extremely impressed with an approach used at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. There, the teachers kept an older set of textbooks on the shelf in the classroom--similar to a set of hard copy encyclopedias for occasional use. For more engaging instruction, teachers used supplementary materials from a variety of sources.

I realize that teachers often want a textbook. So an example of a FREE copy of an updated secondary source/textbook can be found at Digital History, a collaboration that includes the Chicago Historical Society. There you will find a link to a free online textbook as well as numerous supplementary sources.

2) Access Digital Text for Using CAST's Book Builder
Easy access to this free digital textbook (which can also be printed out) would open up the opportunity for your teachers to use, when appropriate, CAST's Book Builder. I, as well as the middle school teachers I work with in Southern Illinois, have been so happy with this program's flexibility. It is truly amazing. Here is an example of a lesson I developed with Book Builder for a recent research project in a fifth-grade classroom. Granted, every student in this middle school classroom had their own netbook, which I realize is not a reality in every classroom.

3) Consider the Choices Curriculum
Not spending money on a traditional textbook series frees up dollars for supplementary texts that support the topics your teachers would like to explore with much more depth. Lately, I have really liked what the Choices Program from Brown University has developed. On their website you will find several text series related to American History and Current Events topics, to name a few. This website also offers an amazing collection of videos of scholars discussing the issues presented in the series. Keep in mind these readers were originally developed for secondary students, so your teachers would want to review them to make sure they are appropriate for your students before ordering.

4) See how Historical Thinking Matters Could Support your Curriculum
Professor Sam Wineburg's website, Historical Thinking Matters is the closest curriculum I have found that matches the types of supports CAST developed for their program, Think Like a Historian. If you are interested in learning more, I provide highlights about this website, including links to teaching materials, UDL-like supports such as Graphic Organizers, etc. in one of my previous blog entries. I also recently received an email from announcing the availability of 75 American History lessons through the Stanford History Education Group, another organization tied to Sam Wineburg. These lessons emphasize historical thinking, thus the website's title: Reading Like a Historian.

5) Include Civic Education Another important topic for the middle level learner is civics education. The Center for Civic Education offers some helpful titles.

6) Include Holocaust Curriculum In Illinois, all districts are required to include a focus on the Holocaust in their curriculum. The best resource for these materials is Facing History and Ourselves, which is headquartered in Brookline, MA.

7) Don't Forget Children's Literature Saving money on a traditional textbook series also allows you to buy classroom sets of nonfiction texts. For example, Robert H. Mayer's When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement recently received an honorable mention from the Carter G. Woodson Committee as a middle level text that promotes social justice. These types of texts are more engaging than the bombardment of facts presented in traditional textbooks.

I realize my response is a bit more verbose than a quick suggestion for one textbook series; however, I have been less than pleased with what's typically being published by the major textbook companies, especially in terms of the activity sheets they are producing under the banner of "English Language Learning (ELL) Strategies." For example, a major textbook company did provide activity sheets for English Language Learners, but these "accommodations" on worksheets were larger font size and fewer questions (i.e., NO visuals, NO vocabulary support, NO concept maps). It's as if to say talking louder (e.g., larger font size) is all that's required for language acquisition. Fortunately, there are organizations such as CAST that know better, and getting this word out continues to be an important endeavor.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Examining Photographs: "Migrant Mother"

Cover Image via

Analyzing Photographs
In previous posts, I have identified resources that help students analyze images through the lens of media literacy. A recent NPR Morning Edition interview with the author of the new book Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits reminded me of the powerful role photography has played in the American Psyche. This point is best explained by the author, Linda Gordon, who states:

"Most of Lange's photography was optimistic, even utopian, not despite but precisely through its frequent depictions of sadness and deprivation. By showing her subjects as worthier than their conditions, she called attention to the incompleteness of American democracy. And by showing her subjects as worthier than their conditions, she simultaneously asserted that greater democracy was possible" (excerpt from Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits available online at NPR).

Photographs related to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl provide powerful images from an important period in U.S. history. Two of my elementary social studies methods students are currently developing a unit related to these images, and I thought I would share some resources and strategies I suggested that they consider for one of their lessons.

Using the Reader-Generated Questions Technique
One of Lange's most recognized photographs from the Dust Bowl is titled "Migrant Mother." This image provides a perfect opportunity for a technique often called "Reader-Generated Questions."

1. Pose Questions First, students can view the image and create simple questions (e.g., who, when, where, why).

2. Make Predictions
Next, students can make predictions that answer their questions.

3. Find Answers
Finally, students analyze a source the provides information related to the image. In this case, students could analyze excerpts from an interview with the photographer (Dorothea Lange) or the mother in the photograph (Florence Thompson).

The purpose of this activity is to have students create the questions they answer. Better yet, students may not find the answers to all of their questions in one source and will have to consider the types of sources they could consult to find out more information.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Example of lesson (Health of Nations) from GeoMath Lessons

Another amazing resource for lessons concerning geography is GeoMath. This initiative combines the social sciences--specifically, geography--with mathematics. You can search their lessons by alphabetical listing, grade level, and even national standards (Geography or Mathematics).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Primary Sources, Primary Sources, Primary Sources...

It's that time of the semester when my students are hurriedly (and thoughtfully, I hope) developing lessons and units with primary sources. Of course, any web search will yield millions of hits, but finding and organizing these sources into a thoughtful, coherent way is critical. Fortunately, there are several resources out there to help.

Analyzing Sources
The Library of Congress has a number of guides to help students analyze sources. The document below details a three-step process: 1) Observe, 2) Reflect, and 3) Question. This is similar to other curricula that emphasize Literal (What do you see?), Interpretive (What does it mean?), and Contextual (How does it reflect a time or place?) questions.

These steps align quite nicely with the Media Literacy Questions and Historical Thinking Heuristics I have mentioned in previous posts. (Click on the hyperlinks to see these posts.) That is, students can ask, "What creative techniques are used to influence my opinion?" (Media Literacy) or, "Who created this source?" (Sourcing Heuristic).

Of course, students should consider different types of questions for different types of sources. For specific types of sources, the Library of Congress also offers invaluable Document Analysis Sheets to help students analyze written documents, photographs, cartoons, posters, maps, artifacts, motion pictures, and sound recordings. Of course, these activity sheets could be adapted to meet the needs of any particular lesson. George Mason University also provides guides for analyzing sources such as images, objects, maps, music, newspapers, official documents, personal documents, and travel narratives. This site also provides examples of how scholars analyze these various sources.

Lesson Ideas

Speaking of lessons, if you need a jump start for ideas, the Library of Congress also offers lesson ideas using documents. These are organized by topic for American history. Another collection of documents readily available for American history topics is Roland Marchand's "A History Teacher's Bag of Tricks." Lessons range from topics related to Colonial America to Watergate. What's particularly helpful about this site is that the lessons include ideas for essential/critical/central questions and excerpts of sources related to specific inquiries. Granted, no historian would limit her search to the set of artifacts neatly packaged for her review; however, for the student, these "bracketed" lessons can serve as an appropriate introduction to analyzing and corroborating sources.

Gathering Sources
One site of particular note offers links to myriad sources. The Finding World History link from the George Mason University site mentioned above has history resources organized by regions and time periods. The emphasis here is World History, so searches for conventional U.S. History resources need apply elsewhere. An example of an exception is under the category "Cultural Contact," which includes links to 63 websites, including a link to one devoted to the slave narratives. In other areas, you can find over 100 sites devoted to this history of Industrialization. Each site is annotated with a review of what's offered in terms of primary sources and background. In a word, this resource is a gem.

via George Mason University's Finding World History

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More Geography Resources

Here are a few additional geography resources of note.

In a previous post, I mentioned the National Geographic Xpeditions site, which is a great spot to find lessons and print-friendly maps. Another place to get maps, including "Maps with Historical Themes" (e.g., Silk Road, Moundbuilder sites in the U.S.) is under the "Maps" tab (on the left-hand side of the homepage) from the Arizona Geographic Alliance site.

Another quick link to resources is Education World's "Great Sites" for map-related activities.

Teachnology also archives great lesson ideas, including the Edible State Map Lesson Plan (including the recipe).

Finally, don't forget about the myriad features via Google Maps (I talk about Google Earth and gCensus in a previous post). For example, when teaching younger students the differences between horizontal and bird's eye views, that little "yellow figure" can be dragged to any location for a street-level view of most communities.

Street-level image (once figure is dragged to map) via Google Maps

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Stuart's (Interactive) Portrait of G. Washington

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has provided an excellent online tool for analyzing Stuart's (1796) famous portrait of the U.S.'s first president. When the portrait is launched, the user can explore the painting through features highlighted as symbolic, biographic, and artistic representations. For example, a symbolic feature of the painting is the clothing Stuart selected for his subject. For this topic of clothing, the online tool provides a revealing look at another portrait from the same time period, that of French King Louis XVI. With a little guidance, the juxtaposition of these two portraits can help students compare and contrast the ideals of two (somewhat) abstract concepts: democracy and monarchy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Environmental Intelligence Unit (Web Activity)

via EIU

Here is an example of British tax dollars hard at work for online resources. The Environmental Intelligence Unit website gives students the opportunity to practice their skills with recycling, reusing, reducing, and a mystery "R." It's a fun and educational activity the BBC developed for UK elementary students; however, the topic is equally relevant for students stateside.

via EIU

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lincoln Legacy Learning Kits

Here's an example of an amazing resource that's free for Illinois teachers, the Lincoln Legacy Learning Kits courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Any resident in Illinois with access to a local public library can simply check out a suitcase filled with resources such as artifacts, books, primary sources, and DVDs related to one of four topics (inter-library loan #s provided):
  1. Abraham Lincoln Biography Reading Kit(OCLC#244638162),
  2. Mary Todd Lincoln(OCLC#244638165),
  3. Civil War Soldiers Kit(OCLC#244637504), or
  4. Slavery in Illinois(OCLC#244638607).
Once ordered, these suitcases are delivered to your public library (where you also return it within 14 days).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Netflix Queues via GIS

Who's renting Twilight? via NY Times

Here's yet another fascinating use of GIS technology. (I blogged about free GIS applications in a previous post.) This technology is even more powerful when a teacher can reference popular culture for "educational purposes." For example, check out this NY Times article that provides interactive maps detailing Netflix users' DVD queues via GIS technology. Interactive city maps include New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Bay Area (e.g., San Francisco), L.A., Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami. A great use of these maps is having students compare rental patterns (e.g., Twilight, Milk, Taken, Doubt) to Census demographics presented through gCensus and Google Earth. That is, what variables seem to attribute to the high number of Twilight rentals in certain neighborhoods? Number of teenage children or number of single adults? Ok, kidding aside (I should actually see the movie before I criticize it), this article is a great example of how map analysis (with a pop culture spin) and GIS can be made even more accessible in the classroom.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A "Smart(er) Board" for less than $50 (Projector not included)

Last fall, I was introduced to this amazing use for a Nintendo Wii remote. Basically, for a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost of a Promethean Board or Smart Board, you can build your own. You just need software (free download), an LCD project, a Computer, a Wii remote, and an LED Pen (build your own with this link). Here's a video on that demonstrates this and other Wii remote hacks.