SLA takes a different approach to teaching History than most other schools in the city. At most schools the students are taught and forced to memorize meaningless facts and dates, then tested on their memorization capabilities and how well they know the facts. In my History class at SLA, however, we explored and discussed various topics, both historical and present day, through readings, videos, discussions, and other forms of media and communication, then applied those topics to modern day politics and events. We were then assessed, on application and knowledge, not on meaningless facts and dates, through engaging projects instead of tests. I leave the year thinking this: learning about historical and contemporary topics and ideas then applying them to present day, and learning through projects, is a much more engaging, enriching, and meaningful way to teach history than through irrelevant facts, dates, and tests. The best way to understand and learn history is through applicable ideas, not facts.
I feel that from this learning approach that SLA poses as a whole, I have taken away more from and learned more from this World History class than if I had been in a traditional World History class. So what I take away doesn’t have to do with the material and the topics, but rather with the way the material was presented and the learning style of the class and SLA as a whole.
Over the course of the year, we completed several projects on areas or topics where most classes or teachers would have given us a test. One such example is at the very beginning of the school year, our first unit was on the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. We learned all about it, facts, stats, opinions, everything essentially. But at the end of the unit, instead of being tested on the material, we were assigned a project: to write three unique monologues that showed different sides to the story and how it would affect different characters and people. In one of my three monologues, which can be found here, I wrote from the perspective of a rural fisherman whose river was threatened by the pipeline. My character says, “Not only are they [Trans-Canada] not allowed to get away with this stupid and careless idea [Keystone XL Pipeline], but we most certainly will not relocate from generations of tradition so they can build their goddamn pipeline!”. However, in another monologue of a conservative senator about to address senate on the issue, my character says, “We are basically being given a freebie: no financial drawbacks with many benefits that stack up and up. Tax revenue, job creation, the list goes on and on”. This type of learning teaches its students how to think, not what to think, like how this project taught us how to think about controversial and contemporary issues by challenging us to think about different perspectives and aspects of it. With more traditional ways of teaching, we would be taught a one-sided, historically warped opinion or stance on the issue, but with this way of teaching and learning, I feel the students learn more and attain a stronger understanding of the material and its historical and modern day relevance.
Another example project and idea based learning is a play that I wrote over the course of a couple months in collaboration with a professional playwright, found here. While studying struggle and revolution around the world, we explored general ideas about the issue, but also were exposed to a variety of different materials that allowed us to form our own opinion on the topic. We then were assigned to write a play based on this broad topic that showed or addressed our opinion or stance. This form of assessment, rather than a test, resulted in more creative students and learning, and is shown in the variety of each student’s respective play and the issue they related to. My play is about the importance of ambitions and dreams in a person’s life, and the main character, Gordon, says to his son, Matthew, “You just take your dreams, and your grades for granted? Well I have news for you: you are a junior in highschool now! You’re not just some little kid with his whole bright future in front of him.” I think that learning through projects allows for more abstract and complex thinking, like how in a unit on struggle in hope I wrote a play about future and ambitions.
The comprehension fashioned by this style of learning, and my overall understanding and ability to think and connect can also be shown by looking at some of my journal entries from the year. I think the journals are a prime example of the types of students, learning, and learning environment project-based learning creates. When looking back on some of my journals I wrote over the year, I saw improvement in my complex thinking, and also complex and unique ideas. One of my first journal entries of the year, Journal 3, found here, posed the question, “When is it okay to criticize other cultures?”. I responded, “It is only acceptable to criticize another culture after we have walked in their shoes.” I feel that this response shows abstract and complex thinking. That is the goal of education, is it not? As the year progressed, my journal entries became more knowledgeable and more applicable. Much later in the year, Journal 47, found here, which related to the book Things Fall Apart, posed the question, “Can traumatic experiences ever be an excuse for negative behavior?”. In an excerpt from that entry, I responded, “Traumatic experiences can never be an excuse for negative behavior, it only makes it more understandable as to why someone behaves a certain way.” The journals showed how my ideas were changing and developing as the year progressed, and how the project based learning was shaping how I thought.
Looking back on the year, and how far I have come since September, I leave the year firmly believing that there really is no other way to teach World History other than through projects, discussion, media, and everything I already mentioned. At school you are supposed to learn how to think, not what to think, and I look back on the year knowing and understanding World History topics and ideas, and will carry them with me in their essence and application to modern day life as I progress on through high school.