A. Lincoln, Funny Man?
How the 16th president taught me to infuse project-based learning into my U.S. history classes.
- Who hasn’t pursued an ill-advised liaison?
- In his late twenties, Abe Lincoln found himself engaged to a woman who defied even his imagination: “nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirtyfive or forty years,” he wrote to a friend. She was “weather-beaten,” short on teeth, and altogether, “a fair match for Falstaff,” the overweight, comic character of Shakespeare’s plays.
See if you can guess which is Falstaff and which is Mary Owens, the supposed object of Lincoln's affections:
- Lincoln made the comparison in a letter he wrote to Eliza Browning:
- That Lincoln could have found himself in such a relationship comes as a surprise. That the man who later urged Americans to seek the “better angels of our nature” could sling hilarious personal insults is a shock, indeed.
- As a history teacher, I’m always looking for ways to make the subject relevant for preoccupied, somnambulant high schoolers. Discovering that the president who seems to be "Exhibit A" for the "Great Man" theory of history was pretty-darned human--and funny--was a revelation.
The need to know leads to the need to do
- Having stumbled into the wit of Abe Lincoln in his letter to Eliza Browning, I wondered what else there was to know about how he employed his humor and, as he became prominent, how he was the subject of humor himself. I began to pursue it, and the website A. Lincoln, Funny Man? was born. But my investigation and work on the subject also made me think more about how I teach history:
- What if we could teach students the skills to make these discoveries for themselves? What if, instead of seeing themselves as put-upon victims of an industrial model of schooling, they could see themselves as historians?
- This is an age rich with possibilities for moving beyond the history-class-as-information-dump model of teaching. The technology supports it in two significant ways.
First, the internet opens avenues for research into the primary and secondary sources that used to be reserved for the scholars lucky enough to be able to travel to the right libraries and locations. Browse these offerings:
- Second, a variety of technologies provides the grounds for collaboration (an essential skill for both a well-lived life and the workforce) and publication of the work that students do (which motivates students by creating an audience for their work). From Google Docs to Wikispaces, from Quora to YouTube, the technology is extremely useful for students doing history. According to the following study, many AP and National Writing Project teachers have embraced the use of digital tools:
- The powers-that-be support a shift toward students constructing meaning.
For example, Common Core standards recognize the clear links between literacy (including digital literacy) and the fundamental skills needed in history. They embed a set of standards on writing into their section on "Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects." As a whole, the standards place great emphasis on students-as-doers, rather than students as passive receivers of information. Consider just a few examples of the standards addressing critical thinking, writing, using technology, and research. To meet the technology standards, many are weighing in with suggestions:
- In addition, the newly revised historical thinking skills from the College Board support the notion of students acting as historians. These skills require students to "evaluate multiple cause-and-effect relationships in a historical context, distinguishing between the long-term and proximate," to "evaluate the dynamics of historical continuity and change," and to use “relevant historical evidence” to craft arguments about the past, to note just a few juicy opportunities for students to do history. Of course, the College Board didn't invent the idea of historical thinking skills, and others have offered good advice on this front, too. For example:
Why Project-Based Learning in a history class?
- The demands of these rigorous skills and standards could be met by shifting to project-based learning (PBL) in history classes, which encourages students to pursue open-ended essential questions, collaborate, research, and ultimately publish their findings in some fashion.
Here’s a short introduction to PBL from the Buck Institute for Education, which promotes PBL; it offers a sample project for a science classroom:
- And here are a variety of PBL resources the Buck Institute recommends: