23 May 2012

The Power of a Personal Story

As a social studies teacher, I have always tried to bring personal stories and perspectives to my students from people around the world and across historical periods.  Usually, those have taken the form of documentary evidence in letters, journals, diaries, and records of various historically significant people.  With the development of video in the 20th century, those written accounts can be supplemented by people speaking about the history that they have experienced on film.  In the 21st century we now have the added capacity to speak to people around the world in real-time through the various video chat services that are available, most notably Skype.

I have taken this opportunity twice recently to have my students speak to people who have experienced historical or current events.  The first instance had a friend of mine, Melanie Arnold, whom I met on a trip to Prague two years ago, speak about her experiences growing up in East Germany during the 1980s, her family leaving the country, the experiences surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and life in Germany and Europe since then.  She spoke for 40 minutes with my AP European History students and it was an conversation that gave them a new perspective on how life in Europe has changed over the past 30 years.

This week my students in my World History course were studying the impact of nuclear technologies on the world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of the topics we looked at were the benefits and dangers of nuclear power.  To give them a good perspective on the potential dangers, I had my students speak with a friend of mine, Christopher Godish, who I went to high school with who now teacher in Japan.  He lives about 50 miles from the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Powerplant and in the zone affected by the earthquake of March 2011.  He spoke about his experiences the day of and after the earthquake and the continuing concerns around the nuclear plant.  This gave the students a solid first-hand account of recent events that are still having a significant impact on our world.

Tools like Skype open the world to our students and all teachers should be thinking about ways to incorporate this into their classrooms.  There are many examples beyond Social Studies how this could be used (English classes can speak with a author, Science classes can speak with scientists, etc.) and I am looking forward to repeating these experiences next year and hopefully expand them to include other speakers such as historians, economists, archaeologists and others.

This post is also posted at Teachercast

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