Sara Egge, assistant professor of History, wanted to create an environment that would support students’ ability to examine areas of historical significance while effectively synthesizing their findings in a manner consistent with Centre’s focus on critical thinking. Although history courses often incorporate research from primary sources, oral presentations, problem-solving, and critical thinking, Egge wanted to approach her History of the United States course from a different perspective in order to infuse synthesis into the learning process.
In the fall of 2013, an opportunity arose to teach collaboratively with a colleague teaching Latin American History. By combining the two courses through a series of problem-based learning activities, Egge emphasized that she and colleague, Stephen Dove were “able to create a learning environment that focused on social issues surrounding the topic of race in comparative Transamerica” and provided ample opportunities for students to practice synthesis skills.
In this combined course, with a different format and set of expectations, students were challenged to approach learning in a new way. Rather than simply gathering information from primary sources and disseminating their findings, students were encouraged to think deeply about the material by applying it in an active learning atmosphere and having to communicate orally about their work. “A group of students would synthesize class discussions and present to the other class. This approach is really opposite of a typical research paper because they now take the details and synthesize them, which is a cohort of critical thinking skills that they need to master,” explains Egge.
Several meaningful projects sprung up from this collaboration, including visual representation of colonial perceptions of race, role-playing, and a community-based learning (CBL) collaboration with a local high school. In one of the larger projects of the semester, students explored history through the eyes of others through a role-playing activity in which students from both classes took on the role of a member of a slave community during the antebellum period.
The premise was the Latin American slave community had to relocate to the United States plantation where the other slave community lived. As the two communities of students met and worked together to negotiate their place in the new combined community, issues of roles, power and family dynamics, language differences, proximity to family, and status arose.
Students were able to experience what it might have been like during that time period, and examine slavery as an institution with orders and limits, make decisions, use their historical imaginations, and ultimately make new connections in their understanding of the similarities and differences of slave culture in Latin American and United States History.
To wrap up the course, Egge decided to expand the students' oral communication practice by incorporating a community-based learning opportunity for their final project. Students partnered with a Danville high school history class and were tasked with picking a topic, researching the topic, and then synthesizing their findings into a presentation to the high school students to teach them about their topic. The impact on the high school students was extremely important; and students at Centre were able to really focus on tightening their audience, context, engaging with the students, and relating what they learned beyond the classroom.
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