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Using Choice to Increase Engagement in the History Classroom

Lest anyone read Tim's article and make the critique, "Sure, choice works in an English classroom, but I don't teach English," I just wanted to give one example of how choice can be used within a History classroom where state standards and testing emphasize a breadth of knowledge as opposed to any depth of (real) knowledge.

Let us take the example of teaching a modern world history class looking at the revolutions in the US, France, and Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and imagine the unit project is the creation of a newspaper about the revolutions (the above unit is one I observed the last time I visited the school I will be teaching at next fall). For argument's sake, let's assume there are 30 students in the classroom.

To incorporate choice into this project, I would use three different types of groupings. The first grouping would be determined by the revolution. Group I would be American, Group II - French, and Group III Haitian. Students would be allowed to choose which group they wanted to be in at least to the degree that numbers worked out. Since there are many aspects to any revolution, there would be a second grouping based on different aspects of the revolution. Some examples (though there could be different ones based on students interests: A-Politics, B-Role of Women, C-Effects, D-International influence, E-Class, F-Military Strategy, G-Philosophy, H-Role of Religion, I-Economics, J-Arts/Propoganda, H-Education, I-Significant Personalities etc. Students could chose whatever "specialty" they wanted for this. The final grouping would be the groups that would actually produce the newspapers. There would be 5 groups (1-5) with 6 people in each, two from each group representing a different country, and a representation of as many different specialty, or lettered groups, as possible. In the end, each person in the class would have three be a part of three groups: Country, Theme, and Newspaper.

Given the setup, there are many different ways to play with the different types of knowledge being accumulated by the students: students could be assigned to do research in groups based on country, and each of these groups (the roman numeral one) could give brief, informal presentations in class summarizing their country's revolution. Students could be asked to write a group comparative essay on the theme they studies (the lettered groups). Again, using the lettered groups, students could be asked to role play a "meeting" between people affected by each of the revolutions.

I was taught this mechanism as "jigsawing," and have used it in my past classrooms to great success. It enables students to gain in depth knowledge about a certain aspect of an object of study (depth), while the student still gains a basic familiarity with a wider range of topics (breadth).

(This becomes even easier when one gets over the need to teach history chronologically. According to one of my undergrad professors, there has never been a study that shows there is any advantage to teaching history chronologically, while there have been studies confirming that teaching it thematically increases student engagement and comprehension)

What are other ways this could work in a history class? And how about Science and Math? I'm at a loss there, but I would love to hear of models that incorporate choice into science and math classrooms (especially since I may be responsible for these subjects to some degree next year).

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