Teaching Historical Context With Primary Sources & Podcasting

The Philosophy Behind the Lesson
Now that the second half of the school year is well-underway, I am becoming more and more cognizant of the fact that I need to teach my freshman students certain skills to prepare them for the larger-scale research projects that await them in their sophomore classes next year.

One of those skills is historical context.

Professor Claude Bélanger at Marianopolis College describes historical context as:
The context is understood as the events, or the climate of opinion, that surround the issue at hand. They help to understand its urgency, its importance, its shape. What was happening at the time of the event or the decision that sheds some light on it? In what type of society did the event occur? An urban one? A rich one? An educated one?
The Lesson
I wanted to come up with a fun way to teach my freshmen this concept.  So, I opened the class with an explanation of historical context.  We happen to be studying American colonial society prior to the American revolution.  So, the two issues I chose to highlight were the Great Awakening and colonial westward expansion into Native American lands.

Each group received one primary source quote or excerpt to analyze.  They did some pre-reading the night before, and now they had to apply that knowledge and set up the historical context to explain how people of the time might feel and why they might make the statements assigned to them.

Click here to see the handout they received.

They had the first half of class to do their research and writing, and then we recorded their results in a podcast during the second half of class.  Groups sent two representatives up to my desk, and they recorded there using a simple headset with microphone and my AudioExpert.com account. (Audio expert is something covered and demonstrated in an earlier History Connected Seminar this year.)

I published the podcasts before the kids even left the classroom using my PodBean.com account.  PodBean is easy to use.  If you know how to write a blog using Blogger or WordPress, PodBean is relatively intuitive.

Here are the podcasts that resulted:
D Block Podcast

C Block Podcast

Finally, to follow up on the lesson and ensure that everyone got the historical context for all of the quotes, students were assigned to go online and listen to the podcast one more time for homework. They were to take notes on the historical context explained by each of the other three groups on their handout from class.

Reflecting on the Results
The students really liked this lesson because... 
  • It reinforced and reviewed the reading and outline work they had done the night before.
  • They got to work in groups and talk to each other throughout the class (it was a student-centered activity). 
  • They love publishing podcasts online.  Fourteen and fifteen-year-olds love to hear their own voices! 
  • Also, I often send emails home informing parents when we publish podcasts or videos from class.  Parents love hearing what their children are learning directly from their mouths and in their own words.
I really liked this lesson because...
  • It was quick, one 55 minute class period.
  • The kids were engaged and motivated the entire time they were in class.
  • The work they are doing is applying the knowledge they have already learned.  It isn't about spitting back information they memorized, it is about higher order thinking. 
  • Also, I tend to get a lot of feedback, from both parents and students, when our lessons result in something we publish.  Parents email me and comment on the actual podcast.  I can also see how many "hits" each podcast gets right on the PodBean site, so I know that students are going back and listening.


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