Academic journal article Social Education

My Reward: Outstanding Student Projects Based on Primary Sources

Academic journal article Social Education

My Reward: Outstanding Student Projects Based on Primary Sources

Article excerpt

There's a fine collection of term projects sitting nearby demanding attention. It's the end of the term and this is my reward. A few of the projects are pro forma, created to meet the course requirements with minimal effort. Most, however, will reveal some dedicated scholarship and sound historical technique. There will be enough in the stack to generate "gee whiz" reactions. The common denominator of the "gee whiz" projects is that all deploy fascinating primary sources. I'm in for a treat.

Past experience with student projects shapes this attitude. I've kept track of them for more than ten years. Many have become intertwined within course materials. It's an interesting challenge, however, to determine what motivates student performance and assess the impact of primary sources on the quality of their work. This essay attempts to discern why and how students employ primary sources to strengthen their projects.

My students are freshmen and sophomores from nearly all curricula offered at Reading Area Community College (RACC). They range in age from seventeen to seventy-one and have a wide range of interests and experiences. Class demographics resemble the general demographics of the institution with an increasing enrollment of Latino students. Most (over 98 percent) are students who plan to transfer to a four-year college to complete a bachelor's degree. No curriculum at RACC requires history courses, so all of my students are "volunteers." The curriculum of the transfer school, however, may have a history requirement, and students from other institutions sometimes come to RACC to complete that requirement. I try to make the students aware that they have an opportunity in the survey courses to meet students who are not like them, and that as they reach third year and beyond, their colleagues will be more and more just like them in the sense of interests and academics. My course surveys indicate that the students tend to have a greater interest in social, ethnic, and cultural issues than in political and economic ones. This attitude tends to shift over time.

At the onset of the term, students in my history courses receive a packet of project materials. Although all my history courses have a project requirement, this essay addresses United States history courses specifically. Within the packet are generic history project guidelines and options along with strict citation rules. The first requirements are that projects must fit within the scope of the course and be historical in nature. The project need not be a paper, although many are. The objective is to encourage creativity. To stimulate creativity, I discuss with students an array of previously successful projects created in the specific course. Within two weeks, students submit proposals.

The proposal consists of topic, purpose, method, and a list of preliminary sources. I provide each student with a personal, typed response in which I address the topic and provide guidance on form, length, and grading criteria. Unusual projects, which are encouraged, get a bit more personal attention and students are required to set up a meeting to discuss deliverables. Examples of atypical projects that have been accepted include creation of a museum exhibit of children's toys, a "how to" video for firing a Civil War era cannon, lesson plans by teacher education majors, audio-video productions, multimedia presentations, creative writing "simulations," desktop publishing such as historical society brochures, artwork, web pages, and the list goes on. One student even arranged a United Service Organization show, complete with a big band, within a grade school World War II night she had organized. Whenever possible, students submit a photocopy or other facsimile duplication of a primary source connected to the topic along with my written response or, in the case of unusual projects, they provide the relevant materials during the meeting that discusses the project. …

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