A Success and a Failure

For this week’s post I want to reflect upon a classroom success and a failure to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and why they did. I’ll start with the success.

A week ago I started our unit on the Middle Ages and decided that it made the most sense to start by taking a close look at feudalism, since it was the dominate social and economic system that society was organized by during the Middle Ages. Instead of going with slot notes I decided to take the time to make my own pyramid shaped frame so students could visualize power and authority during the Medieval ages. First I had students guess where kings, nobles, knights and peasants fell on the pyramid and briefly talked about each group and wrote down notes while students copied me with the document camera. Then I mentioned that the arrows represented the “feudal burden” and wrote down what those were. Then I transitioned into my Feudal Candy Simulation where each student received 10 M&Ms in a cup. But students also received roles based upon the Feudal Pyramid. Due to the feudal burden/contract peasants gave 6 of their 10 M&Ms to the knights in return for protection. Knights gave 5 of the 6 they collected from each peasant to their lord/noble in return for protection and land. Finally, the nobles gave 4 of the 6 they collected from their knights to the King. After the simulation I gave students a sheet of reflection questions for them to answer about the simulation and feudalism. From their written responses I knew that my objectives had been met. From their positive responses to the lesson during and after class, I knew that they were engaged.

A blank copy of my feudalism frame.

Now I’ll focus on the failure. This past Thursday we transitioned from taking a close look at feudalism, to spending a day on Charlemagne. The lesson I planned involved a short 15 minute lecture with slot notes, followed by a paired activity in which students read about the accomplishments of Charlemange and organized that list into a mock resume for Charlemagne. Sometime, within the first 7 minutes of the lecture, the students started to become restless, disengaged, and disruptive. By the time the I got to the activity nearly all the students were clearly bored. Then, during the activity, only half of the students seemed to understand what I was asking them to do, even though I gave directions on the paper, on the board, said them aloud, and modeled an example.

What do I think worked?:

  1. Comparing the two lessons (along with the knowledge of how well the Manor’s Activity went), I think the thing that works the most is when the students are allowed to be interactive. This means that they’re allowed to move around the classroom, to interact with their classmates, and feel like history is something that is active rather than passive. In the Feudal Candy simulation the lesson required the students to do all three.
  2. A second reason I think the Feudal Candy simulation worked is that it made history real and more experiential. Instead of just talking about history, the simulation helped students see how this particular historical topic worked.

What do I think didn’t work?:

  1. Last semester I was with a few classes where lecture worked, but this semester I don’t see that my students are receptive to lecture. For me, who is used to lecture and who lectures when teaching undergraduates, it’s often hard to think of ways to get away from lecture and turn things around for the students to be more involved. But when I look at my Charlemagne lesson I know that I lost the students during the lecture portion and, once lost, I couldn’t get them back when they were working on the resume. While half of the students were able to complete the activity, the other half of the students could not re-engage in the activity after they had tuned out the lecture.

How can I learn from this?:

Currently, as I’m writing this blog, I’m completely overhauling my lesson on the power and structure of the Medieval Church. Before Thursday I had planned on doing a typical mini-lecture followed by a summative/formative activity. After Thursday I thought that I should change course. Fortunately, due to the wonders of the internet, there are teachers who have shared lessons that have worked for them and I found one that combines students being responsible for learning, interactivity, and movement. The lesson is called the “Medieval Church Tea Party.” In the lesson there are 14 possible roles for students to assume. Each role has a page to a half page reading for each role. At the beginning of class students will receive one role (it is fine if there are doubles), and will be asked to spend 5 minutes reading the role sheet that has information about who they are, what they do, and why they are important. After that five minutes, students will take a question sheet and go around the room talking to other students to ask who they are and answer the questions. By the end of the activity students will have interviewed two Popes, two Kings, a bishop, a priest, a monk, a nun, and a heretic. My hope is that this lesson will be engaging and active for students. They will be responsible for their own learning and will do so by assuming a historical role and retelling that information to their peers when they interact with them.

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