Darfur, Google Earth, Brilliant!

My experience with Googe Earth is somewhat limited. I’ve looked at my house, school, and various other cool places. All with the direction and attention span of my four year old.  I’d seen Google Earth Lit Trips and thought it was a pretty cool idea – for someone else to do.  I’ve shown the Great Wall and Forbidden City to my classes.  But, never did I really think about seriously applying it to my own classes.

Until now.  Seeing the new partnership between Google and the USHMM to illustrate the ongoing genocide in Darfur, has officially thrown the switch in my head.  I spent the last couple of days before spring break talking about Darfur to wrap up my Holocaust/Genocide unit.  I primarily used the information, images, and videos segments from the USHMM web site.  In the end, I had hoped for a greater response from the students.  When I said there were 200,000 dead, two million internal refugees, and hundreds of villages destroyed, I couldn’t quite illustrate it in a way that made an impact.  I spent about an hour yesterday moving throughout Darfur in Google Earth.  Reading first-hand testimonies, examining pictures of destroyed villages, and actually seeing the number of refugee camps in Sudan and neighboring Chad.  I’m pretty well read on the subject, but this truly opened my eyes to the conflict.  No doubt when I share this with my students on Monday, it will clarify their understanding as well.


Adding visuals like this will certainly enhance their understanding. (Image from Ogle Earth).

Now I can’t stop thinking about ways I could incorporate Google Earth into my classroom.  I envision students creating projects that trace the Mongol’s race across Asia, Alexander the Great’s army trek to India, the travels of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, and Mao’s Long March.  Don’t know if I can fit it in this school year, but definitely in the fall.

This is why I never sleep.

Behind the Sunni-Shi’ite Divide

Time Magazine just published an extensive article explain the history of the problems between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim placed in the context of Iraq. Students have asked me if I think we will “win” the war in Iraq. While trying not to show any bias, I express my opinion (and I do mention that it is my opinion) that winning is much more complicated in Iraq because of the historic problems between these two groups of people. It seems like Bush’s plan never really accounted for this long history of conflict and oppression. Let alone the lack of a democratic tradition.

Next year this article will be required reading for my students when we study the origins of Islam.

WWI Poetry/Visualization Wiki Project

WWI Poetry AssignmentThis year I decided to take my WWI Poetry Activity a step further. In years past, towards the end of the WWI unit we completed the linked handout together in class. By this time the students were well versed in the horrors of this war (from the poison gas to the machine guns to trench foot). Based upon all of this information students were to write a poem from the perspective of a WWI soldier. It has always been a great assignment. I already shared the most memorable poem written by a student.

In 2000, I decided that I wanted to publish some of their poems on my classroom web site. I did not have time to actually teach them how to make a web page, so I asked students to e-mail me their poems or type them in on one of my classroom computers. I then copy and pasted them and put them on html page in Dreamweaver. I repeated that time consuming process several times. Students shared their poems with their parents and family members outside of the area and it was generally well received. I once showed this project off to some teachers at a “general” technology presentation I did and was asked how I did it. I knew as soon as I started that I had lost most of them. They weren’t web designers and they did have the time to become one.

Due to time constraints I dropped the publishing aspect of the poetry assignment in the last couple years. This time around however, I had a new plan. It was time to put that publishing power into the hands of the students (a la Web 2.0). The basic assignment remained the same, but now the students type their poems directly into a wiki I set up at Wikispaces for the project. Then to take it a step further, I had them find five images from World War I and integrate them into the poem.

Here is the basic lesson plan.

  1. Conduct my WWI Poetry lesson plan (the same one I’ve done for years). Assign the poem to be finished by the end of the week. The rest of the week I did other lessons.
  2. After I checked off the poem, we went to the computer lab for two days. A good chunk of the first day was spent getting the students signed up with Wikispaces and into my WWI Poetry Wiki (I’ll discuss the logistics of this another time).
  3. Next students typed their poems into a page I set up for each student (I just typed their names and made them links). Many of the students had e-mailed their poems to themselves so this was a quick process for most students.
  4. Most of the second day was spent sifting through hundreds of photographs, propaganda posters, and paintings from WWI.
  5. Finally they posted the pictures in their poems. Some did not finish in class and had to finish it up at home.
  6. The final aspect had them read each others poems. We finished with a short class discussion.

I know this lesson is not ground breaking, but it is cool none-the-less. I think lessons like this is a good first step for many teachers who might be overwhelmed and not quite ready for a larger scale project. I also intend to do a couple other wiki-based projects with this group that will be a bit more complex. This project essentially gave them a wiki primer and got them Wikispaces accounts that they can use in the future projects. The biggest hassle ended up having to use old technology. Our lab still runs OS9 (won’t run OSX) and none of the available browsers support the visual editor in Wikispaces, something I didn’t realize until I had 35 kids trying to get it work. Fortunately, brand new computers have been ordered and will be ready for use in the next month!
Wikis (and blogs) allow students to publish for a world wide audience without actually spending a lot of time on technology. I spent only moments instructing them how to use the wiki.

Want to see the World War I Poetry/Visualization Project? Here it is.


Teaching War

Like many of my 15 year old students, I am fascinated by war, but for entirely different reasons. I am not a military historian. The details of each battle and the weaponry used have never been something with which I’ve been obsessed. I have always been more interested in two other elements of war, the politics of war and the plight of the individuals who do the fighting. As a result, I find myself looking critically at the reasons wars are fought, the tactics used, and the results. As a history teacher, I have always tried to find an appropriate balance in how I teach units dealing with war. I want students to be able to critically analyze a conflict and make a reasonable assessment. All without trying to sound like a hawk or a dove.

This obviously requires some balance, especially in today’s political climate. When I first started teaching World War I in my world history classes eight years ago, the emphasis was centered upon the causes of the war, the impact on the individual soldier, and the results. While it was certainly pro-soldier, the tone of the unit had an anti-war feeling to it. Years ago I even had one student who requested a transfer to another teacher (it was denied) because this approach offended her beliefs. I went on to create an activity that centered around the Just War Theory which uses a number of factors to determine if a war is justified. Early versions of the theory date back to Classical Greece and were later refined during the European Middle Ages to help balance Christianity with the need to fight wars. The items to consider include:

  • Comparative justice: While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other;
  • Legitimate authority: Only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;
  • Right intention: Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.
  • Probability of success: Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
  • Proportionality: The overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved.
  • Last resort: Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.
    (From Wikipedia, 12/20/06)

World War I fails most of these elements and then when you take into account the devastating effects of the Versailles Treaty it is difficult for any student or historian to argue the merits of the Great War. The Allied efforts in World War II obviously are a different story. During that unit, the tone shifts completely.

One of my major goals is to teach students to critically examine why nations decide to fight a war. The current conflict certainly complicates this approach. Many Americans, including myself, have reservations about the justifications for the war and the manner in which it has been executed. However, in the years since the Iraq War began, I have seen a shift in my students’ opinions. Initially in the build up and the first year, perceptions were very positive. I felt that I had to walk a very thin line. While I tried to get them to look at the conflict as a historian might, many only heard the arguments provided by the government. In the last couple years, my students (generally) have been much more critical of the war. It is still very far removed from our immediate lives and only a minority of us actually have a friend or family member serving overseas. Despite this change in opinion, that line still needs to be watched. My role is not to influence their political beliefs, but to create an academic environment in which they can figure it all out.

In many ways our culture glorifies war. I hear my students talking how great the latest war movie was or discuss staying up all night playing first-person shooters (many with a military theme). I once heard a student compare Saving Private Ryan to some video game he was playing. In further conversations with the student, I discovered that he had missed the point of the movie and only thought the special effects were “sick.” This over-exposure to the violence of war has created a disconnect between the popular imagery of war and the reality of war.

I don’t believe my role as a history teacher, or more generally – just a teacher, is to teach a series of facts. Let’s be serious, other than an appearance on a game show, most of the small detailed facts will do little to actually help students later in life – if they even remember them beyond the test. The conceptual and big picture ideas define my class. If a student leaves my class with an understanding of the world, I have done my part on leading them towards becoming a citizen of this great nation. The skills (critical thinking, assessing for bias, information management, etc.) they hopefully develop while learning about history are as important as the actual content.

The Dead Marshes and WWI

Harvest of Battle, C.R.W. Nevinson, 1919

As part of my World War I unit, I do an Art and Music of WWI lecture. When I showed this image someone in one of my classes said it looked like the Dead Marshes from the Lord of the Rings movies (The Two Towers). I had a vague memory of Tolkien serving in WWI so I did a little research and apparently it looks like there is a connection.

Tolkien’s experience in the war and the encouragement of his only friend who survived the war ultimately led him to write the Lord of the Rings. His service in the British army, his contemplation of the enemy, and landscape scarred by the first modern war (mixed with a lot of rain) can all be seen in his books.

I probably would never say it out loud, but I have been a LOTR fan dating back to when I read the series in elementary school. Since I started teaching world history, I’ve always had the closest connection to my World War I unit. Interesting how those two things were actually related.

I think I may include a short clip of the movie to this lecture next year and add literature to the discussion (All Quiet on the Western Front, Her Private We, etc.). I often find that my students think everything is created in isolation, without influences from the past – from music and movies to current events. This could be a good illustration.