Resources help engage students

Students in Valerie Courville’s American history classes will soon set their eyes on a photo and video displaying the intricate workmanship of Abraham Lincoln’s watch.

The discussion that will follow should link history with technology using the watch as an example of innovation developed centuries ago, Courville said.

“I like to show the past and present to show students there were people who were smart before us. To think it survived and it still works,” said Courville, who teaches seventh-graders at L.J. Alleman Arts Academy.

The image and video of the watch is just one resource Courville and about 30 Lafayette Parish school system teachers accessed during a daylong professional development session offered by the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural Museum of American History.

Two University of Louisiana at Lafayette College of Education faculty members, who work with social studies student-teachers, also attended the training.

The program “Let’s Do History Tour” is part of the A. James Clark Excellence in History Teaching Program funded by A. James Clark, CEO of Clark Enterprises Inc.

The outreach program delivers intensive training to classroom teachers on ways to incorporate the museum’s resources into their classrooms to better engage children in their lessons.

“We want them to leave fully energized with ideas they can implement directly into their classroom,” said Naomi Coquillon, an education specialist with the National Museum of American History. She and fellow education specialist Matt Hoffman led Thursday’s training.

The trainers shared activities such as debates or “time trials” using historical figures to defend the actions that made them part of history books. The activities are designed to develop students’ critical thinking skills, Coquillon said.

Thursday morning, teachers participated in a “time trial” of abolitionist John Brown, who was hung after his October 1859 raid of a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va.

Brown, portrayed by an actor who communicated with the group via a video conference call, defended the raid as a necessary means to supply slaves weapons for a rebellion.

One teacher in the group labeled Brown a “crazy zealot,” which visibly shocked Brown, who defended his actions as no different than the country’s founding fathers’ fight for independence.

He asked the group if there was a pledge they make to their country and for them to recite it. After the group recited, “one nation, under God,” Brown shouted, “Stop! You are zealots! You have claimed yourself a nation under God.”

Some teachers questioned his use of violence rather than education to sway opinions that rationalized slavery.

Few teachers in the crowd were swayed by Brown’s defense, with the majority viewing his raid on Harper’s Ferry as contemptible.

“What should John Brown’s legacy be?” Colloquin asked the group after Brown logged off.

She encouraged the teachers to lead their students through similar debates using other historical figures.

The program provides video clips of actors portraying historical figures along with other resources to lead classes through similar trials, she said.

The trainers will return in October for a follow-up with the participants, but the teachers were encouraged to stay in touch through an online community where strategies and ideas are exchanged among “Let’s Do History Tour” teachers.

The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation sponsored the program’s stop in Lafayette as well as in Caddo and Jefferson parishes, said James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation.

“It’s designed to get students to look at history as a process rather than just cold, hard facts,” Caillier said of the program.

To enrich their lessons, teachers receive access to online tools as well as tangible objects — such as a cotton ball still on its stem and a piece of flint used “way back when,” said Zachary Welch, a civics and American history teacher at Northside High.

The ideas on how to incorporate objects and more hands-on activities into classes will benefit students, especially today’s generation, said Welch, who teaches sophomores and juniors.

“They need to feel it and see how it relates to them,” Welch said.