Author: nhsdwelch

Presenting at AMLE Annual Conference

This past week, I had the pleasure of presenting the story of how my students connected with our community, and, although it sounds like a cliche’, with the world to compile a series of researched multi-touch books.  Within the pages of these books, students interviewed friends, family, neighbors, politicians, and more to answer a simple question, “How do historical events impact individuals?”  Each interviewee was able to share their oral history of how a historical event  direct shaped who they are, and vice versa.  This served as a launching point for students to dig into primary source archives now available and accessible from their iPads and to intertwine this research with their interview.  In the end, I was able to team teach with my grade’s English teacher to put students in a position to publish their individual section or chapter within one of four volumes of these oral histories.  Each chapter included a primary source photo, the archived interview audio, and a student research paper, truly combining both “old school” and “new school.”

We were thrilled to be recognized as the Association for Middle Level Education Community Engagement Award Winner for 2017, and even more excited that were invited to Philadelphia to present our project and process at their national conference.  I am even more excited that we were granted the funds necessary to further our collaboration with the community, by bringing students to our local library and history center.

It was invigorating to share our students’ work with an international audience.

Here is a sample of one of the books:



“What Did You Use to Make That?!?” – Keynote, History, Shapes, & Magic Move

We’ve all been there.  You spend hours and hours working on a lesson hoping that it is a hit with your students and inspires them to want to dive deeper into content, to feed off of your enthusiasm as they take an initial question or problem and use creative approaches to go their own ways to be creators and collaborators themselves.


Rewinding to the ADE Academy 2017, I felt like a student watching Ben Mountz work wonders with Keynote’s shapes and magic move.  As a history teacher, this had so much potential to be used to tell a story, but moreover, to put my students in a position to tell a story.

After my students used stop motion to tell the story of Jamestown, it was now time to tell the story of some of the best rising action that you can experience in school, the build up to the American Revolution.  But, how to inspire them again to be digital storytellers?  I purposely would leave my projector on in the morning, during homeroom, and during the day as students watched me make my first attempts of using Keynote’s Magic Move.  What makes this tool even better is the ability to not only use Keynote’s shapes, but also to be able to edit those shapes and create your own.  My goal was to eventually be able to create all of my own graphics and shapes. So, I got started.  I began by using historical images and Magic Move and moving them around to create animated scenes.  But, I wanted to take it to the next level.  It was time to make my own shapes.

“What is he doing?”  was a common question as students would come into my first period, watching and questioning to each other.  Admittedly, some of my first attempts were not the greatest.  In fact, my attempt to draw my own head as the head of a colonist and then fill in the rest with shapes looks, at best, extremely goofy.  But, I decided to leave it in to show that it was a work in progress.  What I ended up with was hours of work for a 30 minute discussion, however, it was a discussion with lots of “What do you think might happen next?”  “What should happen next?”  “How could you show what might happen next?” In the back of my mind, I was hoping that students would be “hooked” just from seeing some of the possibilities of Keynote, shapes, and Magic Move.  They were.

“What did you use to make that?” This quote actually came from another teacher who happened to view some of the animation possibilities in Keynote, not believing that this was even possible within the application.

A 2:00 Minute version of the story of the rising action of Britain and the American Colonies is available here.

No lie, but students began asking, “can we make one of these?”  Several students in my afternoon classes asked if this could be a class at North Hills.  Not only am I hooked on using Magic Move, but, I was glad to pass on the inspiration of Ben Mountz to my students.  We already have some great ideas that I look forward to sharing in the very near future.


Powerful, Seamless Classroom Tool for the iPad Environment: Apple’s Classroom App

As my school enters our seventh month of our 1:1 initiative, more and more teachers in my building are starting to utilize Apple’s Classroom app.  This app, which, within seconds of using it, will prove to be extremely easy and intuitive to use for any teacher or administrator.  Classroom enables teachers to maintain a pulse of student iPad use in their classes, while also using tools like AirPlay and Screen View to make it a more collaborative one all at the same time.  As such, I create a brief video to introduce Apple’s Classroom app and some of its capabilities for our teachers:



A Clear Lens to Personalize Learning: Digital Storytelling with Primary Sources & Stop Motion – PBS Webinar Coming Soon!

Imagine this as if you were a student:

Documents that are over two hundred years old are sitting in front of you.  Great.  More fancy “old English” words that you just don’t understand.  From what you can gather, the person that wrote it isn’t like you at all.  Your teacher says that you need to summarize the document by the end of class but don’t even know where to begin nor do you have any motivation to do so.

Now, imagine this:

A journal or poem from a soldier and war statistics are laying on your desk.  Once again, your teacher asks you to summarize the documents.  You perk up a little, just enough to complete the summary and get on your way to your next class.

And now, this:

You are watching a movie.  Forrest Gump. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Shawshank Redemption, or binge watching the Wonder Years.  You can’t turn it off.  You want to see what happens to the struggling man from Alabama, or the high school troublemaker, or the criminal Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, or even the young boy Kevin Arnold.  You are hooked in by the story of somebody that is completely unlike yourself.  You can see qualities in people with whom  you thought you had very few similarities, if any.

What’s the difference?  Visuals? Maybe.  A catchy theme song? Okay, maybe.  A great soundtrack?  Alright, that makes sense, too.  But the biggest thing?  A personal connection to the story.   You can see yourself as that person.  You are rooting for them.  You can insert yourself into their experience.

Hollywood does a fantastic job of doing this for us when we lose ourselves in a character.

How do we do it for our students?

This brings me to the story of Lin Manuel Miranda, who, as it can be seen on the PBS LearningMedia website, turned his personal reading of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, into what he personalized in his mind when reading it: an energetic hip-hop/rap song (and consequently, a hit Broadway musical).

Again: How do we do this for our students? 

I hope that you can join me in March as I share how I have done this in my classroom by employing quality (and free!) primary resources to allow students to answer a larger question while interpreting a story using their own materials and through their own lens using a simple, yet effective technique: stop motion animation.  (Think Rudolph!)

As Lin Manuel Miranda brought American History and hip-hop together, you and your students can bring together two things that may not immediately “jive” together in your mind: Primary Sources and Stop Motion.  In doing so, you will see a level of personal connection, creativity, and interest that you may not have experienced in your social studies, ELA, elementary, and/or library classes, as students latch on to tell a story through their own eyes.  Even neater, students will start to express stories while displaying their own interests, just as these students did, while answering the larger question of “Why did Jamestown struggle to survive?”


Disney?  No?  Pixar? Not quite?  Authentic learning for a real audience? Absolutely.  Join me in March to learn about the basics of putting your students in positions to do this as well as tips, strategies, and needed materials. and let’s get started with interpreting primary sources with digital storytelling tools such as stop motion on multiple platforms.


An Interview with Gram: How Students Archived Community Oral Histories by Creating Multi-Touch Books

It hit me.  This past summer, I panicked.  I had never stopped to interview my 95-year old grandmother, Sara Whalen, who has had experienced so much during her life.  From the time I was born until I moved out of my parents’ home in 2008, my grandmother had lived in the same house as me.  However, I had never sat down with her to interview her about her life.  I immediately worried that it was going to be too late.

Using the framework from the Veteran’s History Project, I focused my attention in August of 2016 on interviewing grandma.  I prepared interview questions, researched the Women’s Army Corp and its contributions during World War II, read over handwritten letters and records of my grandma, and viewed numerous artifacts andimg_1915 photos from her life.  I sat down across from her, with my iPad recording, and had a conversation about her life.  I heard about her early life in an orphanage, her relationship with her step-father that led her to join the service, experiences in the WAC, and life after the war.  Sadly, she would show her age at times, repeating stories that she had just told me.  Sometimes, she would use vocabulary that may not be considered “PC” today.  Still, I had it.  I had her story to share with the VHP.  This process, though, left me kicking myself.  Why had I not done this earlier in my life and in hers?  Surely, her story would have been more vivid, details more sharp in her mind.  If I had only done this when I was in middle school in the late 1990s, I would have a more polished and authentic piece of history.  If only…

This led me to realize how powerful an experience this would have been if I did this years earlier.  During that conversation with grandma, I learned things I had never known. I felt more connected to her (and my) past by simply having a conversation.  I had to share her story.

My students HAD to have this opportunity.  But, how would it “fit”?  Thankfully, I have an incredible English teacher on my team in my building, who was more than willing to amend and augment the annual our 8th grade research paper to revolutionize it to be something more meaningful.  Over the course of an iMessage conversation this summer, we moved from a 5 paragraph essay on a westward expansion figure, to a project that had a few basic principles and goals:

  1. Connect our students with the community and/or a family member
  2. Conduct primary source research using archived newspapers and magazines to promote historical thinking skills
  3. Employ the services of our library/media specialist to teach database research skills
  4. Organize research into focus areas and develop a thesis that encompasses both the oral history and student research from legitimate primary & secondary sources
  5. Author a 5 paragraph essay that intertwines research with the oral history
  6. Create an multi-touch interactive iBook chapter per student that archives an image, the full audio interview of the student, and the student work.
  7. Design and release 5 volumes of multi-touch interactive iBooks available to the community (and the world!) to highlight student learning by the Spring of 2017

This project was a team effort on all angles.  Prior to the holiday break in December, students learned of the project and used the break to make connections to relatives to figure out what significant event they would want to research and who they would want to interview.  After the break, students watched my grandma’s interview as a guide and began to write their interview questions in English class.  With the assistance of our library/media specialist, our English teacher did a fantastic job in explaining how to locate primary sources using Google News Archive in addition to utilizing databases that our school has access to this year.  Moreover, she introduced NoodleTools, a web-based tool to cite sources, create focus areas, and create note cards, before seamlessly moving thoughts into an outline.


Many students went above and beyond.  Several students elected to interview grandparents and great grandparents on the topic of the Great Depression and World War II.  The Vietnam War was one of the more prominent topics as well.  Still, some students reached out to relatives around the world, with one student interviewing a relative about the first post-apartheid election in South Africa while another interviewed her grandfather about living under Mao during many of his reforms.  Some topics included significant personal tragedies, including a Holocaust survivor now living in Washington state, Kosovo under Slobadan Milosevic, a NYC emergency call center employee on 9/11, and a Washington, D.C. Air Traffic controller on 9/11, to name a few.  Some topics were very local, including the closing of a local theme park that was part of the community, a major blizzard in the city, the decline of the steel industry, and how flooding impacted the region at various times.

No matter the topic, students reported an underlying theme: they became more connected to those they interviewed and took a greater interest in their topics. The community undoubtedly stepped up as well to contribute to student learning, which was simply awesome.  I have the utmost respect for the English teacher that led the note-taking, focus area, thesis development, editing, and writing of the papers.  As mentioned, our librarian and special education staff jumped right in as well. Many members of our teaching staff volunteered to be interviewed as well.

My role in this project was that of a guide of historical research, oralscreen-shot-2017-02-13-at-8-22-47-pm history, and, on the educational technology side, developing and releasing our class iBooks, which will be released on the Apple iTunes Store in late March or early April.  Students certainly took ownership of their own learning, while being guided by our English teacher and supported by the community.  It will come full circle when the students “give back” to the community members that assisted them as we are working on creating a book that archives such astounding stories and personal contributions to our local, national, and world history.  A bridge was truly built using oral history and primary source research, and I have so many to thank for it, notably the English teacher on my team that was so willing to not only adapt to the oral history idea, but to completely redesign her research guides and templates and instruct students how to intertwine oral histories, primary, and secondary sources to make it happen.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.




How George Washington’s Winter at Valley Forge Inspired Memes in My Classroom

Okay, we’ve all been there.  We’ve seen that hilarious meme that gets posted on social media.  Then again, we’ve all been there, we see that borderline inappropriate (or over the line) meme that is neither funny nor witty. Unfortunately, sometimes people we known in our own lives may rely a little too heavily on proving a point by showing a meme that they had seen on Facebook.

Our students, too, see memes.  Some students even enjoy making them over the course of the day to day.  This led me to a few thoughts, why not harness this interest and try to spin it to allow students to express and enhanced their understanding of a topic by creating an appropriate meme.  I stress appropriate for a reason, as it leads to a digital citizenship discussion on what is an is not the proper way to utilize images on social media, and really, on the internet as a whole.

Enter Valley Forge.

No, really.  Valley Forge.  One of the most trying times of our young nation during the American Revolution.  Washington struggled to keep his men alive, let alone thrive as a fighting force to take on the British.

Enter primary source documents from Valley Forge.  There are many journals of the trials of soldiers at Valley Forge, paintings the support their struggle, and data to provide even more of a buttress for the idea that life was difficult during that winter in eastern Pennsylvania.

Enter memes.  Stick with me.

Stick with me like Washington needed his men to do at Valley Forge.  Why not have students display their understanding of the underlying message of the document by creating memes that would express the viewpoint of a soldier there?

Many of my students were familiar with memes.  Some didn’t know what they were until they saw some examples, and some still had never seen one.  This “teachable moment” allowed us to have a discussion about how using images in memes to “pick on” others was in no way being a good digital citizen, and moreover, led to students having the ability to make a meme highlighting what a soldier their may have been thinking in a creative, and humorous manner.

What resulted after was, put simply, awesome.  Students were asking to make two, three, four, five, six, or more memes to display different aspects of how life was harsh at Valley Forge.  Their favorite part was sharing these with the class, explaining the rationale of their meme if not immediately able to be discerned from their text tagline. There were lots of laughs, lots of “oh, I get it” comments, and, most importantly, lots of interaction with the primary sources to garner additional ideas.

It may not have caught the social media world by storm like the “Obama-Biden” memes, but, this is a tool that will now be a go-to when expressing an underlying theme of content in my class, and one the students will want to “wait out the winter with me” to experience some more of, just like those soldiers at Valley Forge.

Engineering History: 3D Printing in a Middle School History Class

Today was the culmination of a year img_0434of implementing a $10,000 STEAM Grant to the 8th Grade Social Studies program at my school.  At our local STEAM Showcase event, we were able to put some of our students in positions to share what they learned in the previous year, what skills they developed, and, as teachers, reflect upon the challenges, successes, and opportunities for growth. We were supplied with 3D printers, supplies, and 3D scanners to outfit our classrooms, but, the knowledge and experiences gained were just as valuable.

The most common question we received today, though, was something along the lines of this: “3D printing…but in Social Studies…in a history class?”  Listen, STEAM concepts are great.  Students should be challenged to use design thinking to combine knowledge from a variety of previously separate showcase1subjects to be creators.  But, shouldn’t these skills be integrated within classes throughout a student’s school day, rather than isolated to a single class that is the designated STEAM area?

Using this belief, myself and two of my colleagues applied for a 2015-2016 STEAM Grant, planning to allow students to create history, designing and making historic landmarks, forts, and innovations that have played vital roles in American History.  Full disclosure: we took a massive risk.  Not one of us had any experience in 3D printing when we applied for the grant.  When we got word that our grant was accepted, there was a definite learning opportunity for not only our students, but for us as teachers.

showcase2Looking back, I learned just as much as my students about trial and error, problem solving, and design thinking.  We actually had some hiccups early on as we were sent a faulty machine, and decided to send all of our devices back to the supplier to select a different model.  This resulted in a delay to our plans to start our implementation in September.  Instead, we were looking at January.

Fast forwarding to today, our students featured our Civil War Innovations project.  Last year, students selected a different Civil War innovation in which they had an interest.  Some students selected weaponry, some selected musical instruments, some focused on uniforms and other accessories, while others decided to direct their attention to technological and transportation innovations.  They began researching the impact and legacy of these items before making a decision on what it was that they wanted to create in 3D form.  They then took to the task of measuring, designing, erasing, re-designing, and sketching their soon-to-be creations.

Another hurdle, though: Students really didn’t have much, if any, of a knowledge base of how to take their sketched designs and transform them into a file downloadable for 3D printing.  The solution: Tinkercad.  Props to my ADE colleagues for recommending this resource!  It was simple to use, as I believe it is really designed for younger learners.  However, my students had to start somewhere, and, after going through a series of quick demos and interactive training lessons, most students were hooked.

Students excitedly worked together, solved each others problems, and made suggestions to each other of how to improve their designs.  What I thought would take a couple of weeks to accomplish really took a matter of days.  Students were anxiously awaiting their prints, which resulted in setting up prints to run after school hours and late into the evenings.  I got into a steady routine of monitoring prints remotely and asking our awesome school custodian to turn of the machine’s power at night before his shift ended.  I would hope that this experience led some of my students to enroll in high school level 3D courses, as they now could visualize their creations in addition to learning history-based content.  So, to answer the question…3D printing…in social studies…in American History?  Yes. Take a risk – why not?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


What Electric Football Can Teach Us About Our Classrooms

I’m a child of the late 80s and early 90s.  I have vaguecam00129_preview_featured memories of watching my older brother and neighbors gather around excitedly to watch a table of plastic move around in an unpredictable fashion.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t get it.  But, wanting to be “part of the fun,” I, too, sat around and watched.  What created this excitement?  Why was this so engaging?

This era was also the dawn of the video game era.  Ataris, Nintendos, and handheld single-player games came on the scene.  So how could there be a niche for these electric football games.  The answer is simple: seeing, feeling, and experiencing something is powerful.

Draw upon the parallel at play: we are at a time when screens are on the rise.  Like the late 80s and early 90s when children would now sit for hours in front of screens, we now have awesome tools for our students to use, but also place them in front of screens for hours.  So what in the world does this have to do with electronic football?

When we allow our students to get up, move, hold physical objects, touch and feel items, there is a level of engagement that can’t be supplied from simply looking at a screen.  We need to use the “all of the above” strategy that is sometimes mentionedimg_2505 in political debates about energy sources. In my class, we recently were discussing our own city through the lens of why it was such a critical component within the realm of the French and Indian War.  Could we have simply looked at a map of Pittsburgh?  Certainly.  Could we have talked about the geographic features of the region? Absolutely.  But, using the “all of the above” and “electric football” mentality, what would happen if students got to hold physical objects, move around the room, and collaborate.  Students were provided with placards of rivers, physical features, modern day landmarks, landmarks from the 1750s, and flags and given the task of using their own experiences to recreate our city.The end result was a level of engagement in class activities and an inquisitive attitude to “figure it out” as a group.

So, what can we learn from electric football? Even though we have engaging and powerful applications, resources, and ways to amplify our student’s voice in ways well beyond our classroom, sometimes, it can be useful to gather around together, grab some physical objects, and make a lesson come to life within the fingertips and in front of the eyes of our students.

When Imitation is NOT the Sincerest Form of Flattery

The current day classroom is one that is based on collaboration image-1-jpgevery day.  Student collaboration, teacher collaboration, collaboration with experts.  An inherent and essential element of collaboration to make the best possible learning experiences for our students is sharing. Gone are the days where a teacher makes the “perfect test” and keeps that exam locked up in a file cabinet behind his desk (Okay, I know that this may still happen, but let’s pretend.)  Most teachers are now extremely willing to share ideas that work, share lessons and strategies that engage students, and share resources that improve the overall quality of our students’ education.

An underlying question that I ponder: What is collaboration?  I’ll revisit this in a moment.

Expanding our Professional Learning Networks

How amazing and awesome is it to participate in the many chats that are held weekly on Twitter to share the things that are working in our classrooms? How great is it to pick up a few new educational tools and new ways of thinking about a concept or giving your students a new wrinkle in the learning activities they participate in within your class? Or, when you take advantage of an opportunity to attend conferences in the summer to speak face to face with some of your role models in education?  What about when you jump into an EdCamp or local ed tech conference to share best practices of something you specialize in or have a passion in, only to have it be improved upon by someone in attendance sharing an augmentation to that passion of yours? To make a long story somewhat shorter, there are a plethora of ways for us to grow as educators to improve our students’ educational experience and opportunities to find success.  These are things that all educators should strive to take part in to be the best educator they can be.

Hootie and the Blowfish & the Currency of Collaboration

For my colleagues that are Darius Rucker fans, he describes what is needed in order to truly collaborate: Time.  Not expertise.  Not an ungodly amount of skill.  Not some secret society or handshake.  Not a conference registration fee.  Time.  If you want to participate in the educational dialogue, you just need to commit the time needed.  You can throw effort and work ethic in there, too.  Now we have some (as the Donald would say) “yuge” variables here: time, effort, and work ethic.  Teachers have busy lives: kids, aging parents, second jobs, marriages, volunteering gigs, community projects, coaching, etc.  The list of things that intrude on our time and effort levels depend on these items and how much one prioritizes their teaching.  The last variable, work ethic, is one that I want to focus on in the collaboration discussion.

When Collaboration is Really not “Co”llaboration

Let me preface this by saying that sharing the great things that occur in our classrooms and schools makes us all better.  When we build walls in our classrooms, we all stunt our own growth.  Second, teachers all have different skill sets.  For some teachers, they may not be comfortable or at a place where they are ready to share their successes quite yet.  That is perfectly fine.

But, back to my original question.  What is collaboration?  In my professional learning network, I have always felt like we all have some obligation to “pay it forward” at some level.  From new teachers to longtime veteran teachers, we have something to offer to teachers.

What is collaboration?  Is collaboration consistently lifting the same educator’s (or educators’) ideas over an over with no contribution back?  Is collaboration consistently capitalizing on the time, effort, and work ethic that another educator invested or sacrificed even though you may have the basic skills to also innovate yourself?  I love being in a position to share with my colleagues at a school, district, state, national, and, thanks to the ADE Program, an international level.  I am invigorated by the idea that educators are really more powerful than ever in terms of our ability to advocate for better learning experiences for our students and to find others with common passions.  One area, though, still perplexes my mind.  Is it acceptable to define something as collaboration when it is consistently a one way street, paved with stones of a lack of work ethic, time, and effort of others?  Is that collaboration?  In my book, it is not. And we need more collaborators.


Unlocking History: Breakout EDU as a Means to Introduce Primary Source Docs

As a celebration of Constitution Day, my classes have officially jumped_img_8477 head first into BreakoutEDU, and it is fair to say that it was an awesome initial experience that left all involved wanting more.  I have never seen students more excited about analyzing, discussing, and thinking about primary source documents and artifacts from outlets ranging from Gilder Lehrman to the Smithsonian Institute’s Learning Lab.  Have you ever had students screaming with excitement when they received a pocket Constitution?  Neither had I.  Until this past Friday.  It happened. Really. But, before getting to the specifics of the lesson, let me rewind to explain how we got here.

The Background

This summer, I, like many other educators attending the ISTE Conference in Denver, Colorado (thanks again, PBS Learning Media!), was introduced to BreakoutEDU.  Social media was full of photos of colleagues posing for celebratory photos on the “Breakout Bus”, signaling that trendy escape room games have arrived in the classroom.

Intrigued by what I was seeing, I figured that I would go to an evening event that BreakoutEDU was sponsoring with some fellow Apple Distinguished Educator folks to learn more about the movement.  Talking there with teachers from around the United States convinced me to give it a shot, despite not being completely sure how in the world I could tie this into my curriculum from a content basis.

Making the Boxes – Gathering Materials

Back in Pittsburgh, I began to look intoimg_1867-jpg ordering items, seeing delivery times of 4-6 weeks from BreakoutEDU.  With the start of the year falling into the same timeline, I figured I could build my own box(es).  So I broke out the table saw, a 1 x 12 oak board, some screws, and I was in business.  A trip to Lowe’s and an Amazon Prime order quickly furnished the supplies and locks needed to complete one box.  But, of course, I needed some graphics, right?  Using a Harbor Freight coupon, I purchased a wood burning kit for about $5.00, allowing me to now transfer graphics onto wood from an inkjet printer.  (Seeing I could do this, my 3 year old daughter, Julia, also asked me to make her a Disney locked box for her Disney Magic Clip dolls, so her little brother could not get to them.)

Um, Now What? Creating a Game

So after making 1 box, I made another.  But, now what?  What did I want to accomplish? Myself and a colleague base our class on some key principles including students interpreting events to create their own stories based on those interprestatic1-squarespace-comtations of history. Students analyze primary sources almost daily in class, as they provide the unfiltered lens into our nation’s past, allowing students the ability to connect to another person’s emotions, fears, biases, and experiences.

Boom.  My students benefit from accessing digitized primary resources from Smithsonian’s Learning Lab, Gilder Lehrman, Library of Congress, National Archives, OurDocs, and more.  Why not create a Breakout Game that required students to access a “clue” from a document or resource from each of those outlets?  From there, I created a game that is now available on the website: Commander in Mis-Chief.  (Set-up video here)

Commander in Mischief is based on the story that a new presidentimg_8511 has just been elected who does not respect American History.  As such, this president wants to destroy all primary source documents and artifacts to make sure that his/her own version of American History remains unchallenged.  With the foresight that this may happen at some point, our founding fathers locked away the one item that can stop this tyrant is his/her tracks.  Students have 40 minutes to use the clues left by some of the president’s secret service to open the locks, including 3 and 4 digit numerical locks, directional lock, word lock, and key lock before the president signs an executive order to have all documents destroyed.

My next challenge: what could I have locked in the box thatimg_1754-jpg could prevent a president from abusing his/her power? This answer was obvious: the Constitution.  What was not obvious was how I could possibly provide each of my students with a Constitution.  Enter TeachingAmericanHistory.Org.  I had attended some great events sponsored by TAH, and, after reaching out to Monica from TAH, they generously donated 100 pocket Constitutions to be provided to my students.  What makes this more perfect?  I planned to implement this activity on Constitution Day 2016.

Implementation & Observations

I had hinted to my students to be ready for something different on the day prior to our Constitution Day lesson.  They were broken into 2 groups of about 8-13 students, group “Red” and group “Blue.” After being given the ground rules and a quick lesson on opening directional locks, they got started.  Of my 10 groups that participated, 7 were able to open the box by the end of the time, with 6 of the 7 groups opening it with under 8 minutes left.  Ironically, the first group to get into the box in my first period class, performed with the fastest time of the day with around 17 minutes to spare.

Was this worthwhile?  Really, when I wrote that I had never seen students more excited about primary resource research, I meant it.  What was a bonus, though, img_8520were the collaborations that occurred.  Students divided tasks, brainstormed ideas, read and re-read (and re-read) documents, tested theories, laughed together, became frustrated together, and encouraged each other.  At the end of each period, students asked “when can we do this again?”  That made the summer prep worth it.  As a teacher, this offered the opportunity to get to know my students in a setting outside the norm.  Who is a leader? Who is a follower?  Who steps up when challenged?  Who gets frustrated easily? Who perseveres? These are all life-long skills  that we want our students to develop, in addition to content knowledge.

As I told my students, we will certainly do this again in my class.  I’m thinking an election-based challenge as we get closer to the general election.  But, this time, I, along with my students, will be a little more familiar and comfortable with what to expect. Thanks for reading!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.