During the third quarter, my students completed an independent research project on the Gilded Age. For me, the Gilded Age is tricky to teach in regular US History and historically students have retained the least from this unit. I decided that rather than continue to give them a broad and shallow overview of the era, I would ask them to study one particular aspect that interested them in-depth. I defined my objectives as:
- Investigate a specific historical problem during the Gilded Age
- Utilize primary sources to develop a historical argument.
- Review effective research note taking procedures.
- Conduct research using Google Books and develop a bibliography
- Appraise how different historians view a specific historical event.
- Defend a historical interpretation in an oral presentation.
- Document research on a specific historical event using Google Sites.
The project consisted of three main parts: collecting evidence using Evernote, presenting findings through Google Sites, and defending conclusions with oral presentations. Forcing my students to use Evernote had mixed results. Most of the problems occurred because some students had to use the mini laptops, while others brought their Macbooks from home. The mini laptops, or netbooks, seem to really bother students and I would say their productivity compared to the Macbooks or desktops was around half capacity. Perhaps I will share more on this and Evernote later, but today I wanted to talk about Google Sites.
I am fortunate to work at a school where the students have access to Google Apps. This made it very easy for me to use Google Sites in class. The students simply login to their email and they can see the “Sites” link at the top of the screen. Within two minutes they had created a website. I did not have to worry about setting up accounts for students or finding a wiki service that offered everything I need. Also, the sites could easily be shared with me, peer editors, the entire school, or the world.
This project focused on collecting and presenting research. I asked each student to research a historical ‘problem’ or question from the Gilded Age. For example, “How does social Darwinism, influence the role of the government in the economy during the Gilded Age?” For this unit I gave them around 20 possible ‘questions’ to research or allowed them to choose their own. Ideally, in order to make this truly student-directed, each student would create his or her own problem, but I did not have the time to do that in this unit.
On Google Sites, the students created a small five page website. The main page website included student produced background paragraph(s) and thesis. The students created subpages on the research they collected to build their thesis. For the subpages, one page presented a bibliography of the books used, one a bibliography of the internet resources used, and one excerpts and analysis of primary sources found. Some students took the site to the next level. Google Sites makes it really easy to embed music, YouTube videos, and other multimedia from the web. It also allows you to add a “comments” section at the bottom of each webpage. This allowed each student to get feedback from their peers, similar to a blog posting. I was also thrilled to see students sharing tips about Google Sites and research resources over our class Twitter feed.
I liked the Google Sites approach because this allowed students to take ownership over their final product. I wanted to force students to think critically and devise their own historical interpretation. This meant taking ownership over their ideas and thought process. Creating a personal website simply continued to build off of this theme. I could have done better with this by not giving them a framework for the site (letting them choose how to present their findings). The students will be using the research skills developed in this unit for their fourth quarter research paper. I will not force them to use any of these tools, but many are already using Evernote and Google Books for that project and even other classes.
As a side-note, I tend to grade projects without rubrics for a variety of reasons. After some negative feedback about this approach, I caved for this project and created three detailed rubrics. I could explain how this was both beneficial and detrimental, but that is a much longer post. That said if anyone is interested in the rubrics, contact me and I will be happy to share.