A crazy impression I was left with coming out of the school of education was that I was too dignified and professional to do "silly teacher stuff"- costumes, outlandish classroom decorations, etc. Really what I had was a vague idea that teachers needed to be professionals- in my mind that meant they should wear ties every day and not treat the job like some kind of production. Anything "unconventional" was gimmicky to me and perhaps even disrespectful to my students as surely it would be insulting their intelligence to do any of that. The problem was I lumped pretty much everything outside of lecture-based instruction into this crazy-stuff category including loads of hands-on, tactile learning strategies. By the end of the year last year I started to really see the value in making things more tactile for my students, but I didn't really know how to do that in a history classroom.
This year I started small. Instead of transforming and entire classroom into some kind of alternate social studies dimension, I bought a few props, more real decorations for the room and some more tangible, positive incentives that would support the curriculum rather than promote tooth decay. I mentioned the button-maker before, which is a way of keeping academic achievement in front of my students' faces all year. I also used the flags of all countries my students represent to cover my entire classroom ceiling. The idea behind that one was to give students something to connect to immediately in the room and originally it was going to be used for something to do with our immigration unit last fall, but I lost track of that one.
My other major "gimmick" this year was conceived based on the notion that my students destroyed everything they could get their hands on last year. It was actually kind of impressive how much stuff they broke, vandalized and whisked away. Come September I wanted to bring things into the classroom to make history more concrete, but I still didn't trust students not to destroy or steal whatever I brought. It was also impossible for me to carry something around the entire period or stand over it and watch it, as some students last year took any opportunity where I was tied down to something (oftentimes helping an individual student) to start up the mayhem. My response: hats. I figured that if they could connect to it and I could wear it around the entire class period I would achieve all the goals I just laid out.
For every unit I've had at least one hat to wear representing the time period. These are worn on Fridays and I tell students they too can wear a hat in school against the Chancellor's regulations if, and only if, they explain how it relates to what we're studying. So far I've had a Union Soldier hat, hard hat, welding helmet, WWI soldier helmet, paperboy hat, fedora, bowler, a trucker hat with a women's suffrage cartoon on it, a headlamp to affix to the hard hat, a paperboy hat with pieces of burlap stitched to it, a Yankee hat, and today arrived in the mail my genuine American WWII soldier M-1 helmet.
While buying hats, flags and a button-maker might not strike many as ideal kinesthetic pedagogy, it's a big step up from the lame projects I had my students complete last year that generally included drawing stick figures with colored pencils and writing two sentences on the back of the thing. As I move forward with the idea of "living history" I hope to acquire more artifacts of what makes up America and what has made up America. Creating some kind of concrete connection to the material, especially for our students, is incredibly important in helping them to understand it.
Disclaimer: As an important side note, this stuff does cost money. This could be especially burdensome for first-year teachers. Last year (mostly last fall) I spent enough money on my classroom that TurboTax sent up a flag telling me "great job!" I thought that was somewhat telling. If you're strapped for cash you should realize that these sorts of things certainly aren't quick fixes and that you can't buy your way out of a crappy situation. That said, I think it's also unreasonable to expect teachers to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of their own dollars on their classroom in order to make it a place to which students want to come.
Today's Wine: Luigi Bosca Reserve Malbec 2006. We went to a fairly new restaurant called Setlights. The bartender let us try two Malbecs and we picked this one. It was heavier than the other and described by my girlfriend as "warm and cozy."