Teaching Tuesday: Revision History 101: Western Civilization

For the past five years or so, I’ve been teaching History 101: Western Civilization in a large, Scale-Up style classroom. You can read how I ran that class here.

In the spring, because we no long her graduate teaching assistants, we’ve been forced to reduce the number of students in our lower division classes, and they are now capped at 40ish. As a result, I’ve had to “scale-down” my class and I’ve taking this situation as a chance to revise substantially how I’ve taught the class.

In the past, I based the class around a multi-part exercise which walked the students through the production of a Western Civilization textbook. Over the course of the semester, each table of nine students wrote three chapters focused on a particular aspect and period of Greek, Roman, and Medieval History. For example, a table might right a chapter on the social history of the Hellenistic period; another would write on the economic history of the Roman Empire and another on the political history of the Classical period. Aside from any historical content, the class emphasized various skills associated with long-form writing from brainstorming and gathering evidence to outlining, drafting, and peer review. This worked relatively well.

This semester, however, with the class only at 40 students, I decided to shift from writing a textbook to modifying and expanding one. The basic text I’ll be using is Christopher Brooks’ Western Civilization: A Concise History. This is an open access textbook that is as solid as it is concise. The goal for the class is to produce a series of supplements for this textbook that use the concise nature of the book as a guide.

First, I’m going to divide the class into 4, nine to ten student groups. I suspect I’ll lose 3-5 students to drops so the final enrollment numbers will sit at around 36. Nine-student groups seem to be best practices for sustained group work over a semester and help to mitigate the natural ebb and flow of students and attendance in a large class and give students a range of opportunities to engage in the learning process. 

The semester will be broken into three, four-week modules (with a three week introduction and a one week conclusion). Each module will include four exercises designed to develop the existing textbook in four different ways. Each four-week module will focus on a broad period: the Greek world, the Roman world, and the Medieval world and each of the four groups will be assigned a chapter from the Brooks text. These chapters, as you might imagine, are defined chronologically.

Over four weeks, the group will have to work on four tasks.

First, each group will be asked to clarify key points in their chapters by creating a list of five key terms, five key individuals, five key events, and five key places. Each will receive a 50 word definition that emphasizes the significance of the term, individual, event, or place. All key places will also be found on Google Earth and the group will attach a KML file to their glossary.

In week two, the students will deepen the reach of the concise textbook chapters by identifying three primary sources that will enrich their reading and understanding of the topics in the chapter. Each source must be around 1000 words (and no more than 1500). Their primary source selections will have a 600 word introduction that explains how these sources deepen our understanding of the chapter and why they are significant. 

I’m going to give the students a copy of my old primary source reader, as well as Ryan P. Johnson, Western Civilization-An Open Source Book and links to the Ancient History and Medieval source book.

In week three, the students will expand the reach of their textbook by developing a 1500 word “call out box” which refers to at least one primary source (and can include an excerpt of this source up to 500 words). This call-out box will explain clearly why this particular topic is significant, how it fits into the existing chapter, and how the primary source provides evidence for this topic.

Finally, in week four, students will write an essay question designed both to guide how students understand their expanded, deepened, and clarified chapters and circulate it at the beginning of class to another table along with their completed, expanded chapter. The other group will write a 1000-1500 word response to the essay question over the course of the class and the group who wrote the question will write a 500 word response to their answer.

The first three weeks will work the students into the rhythm of the class and introduce the four main tasks of clarifying, deepening, expanding, and assessing their chapters. This will also give me a chance to figure out what kinds of assignments work to guide the students to building their supplemental material.

As I get the class together over the course of the semester, I’ll share my victories and inevitable failures right here on the ole bloggeroo.

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