Blugolds deliver digital tools to teachers to help bring history to life

| Judy Berthiaume

People of all ages love a good story, so it’s no surprise that K-12 educators like to spin a few yarns while teaching kids history.

However, history teachers have had few — if any — resources available to help them to integrate what they know is valuable storytelling into the digital technologies found in most classrooms today.

A team of UW-Eau Claire faculty and students is now filling that gap by sharing history-based essays and short stories, written by UW-Eau Claire Honors students, in interactive digital formats, which teachers can use to teach history and nurture critical thinking skills in their elementary and secondary classrooms.

The project, “Writing and Teaching History in the Digital Environment,” focuses on innovative and interdisciplinary ways to teach and learn about the past.

“I know of nothing comparable being done in the fields of digital history or digital humanities,” says the project lead, Dr. Patricia Turner, professor of history. “This project illustrates the potential of integrating digital technology with creative expression and critical thinking in the K-12 and college classroom.”

To make their project easily available to educators, the Blugold research team recently launched its website, historytelling.org.

“Digital resources for elementary and secondary teachers are still limited primarily to digital archives and lesson plans,” Turner says. “These can be very helpful, but they typically aren't in themselves interactive and engaging. Nor do they serve as pedagogical tools to teach foundational skills such as writing, reading and critical thinking. These are the skills that this project focuses on.”

Blugolds in an Honors course, “History in Fiction, Fiction in History,” wrote short stories and essays, which Turner’s student researchers then used to create digital educational programs designed for K-12 classrooms.

Each of the programs focus on a core history, social studies, English or reading topic.

Teachers using the Blugold-created resources can assign students to view the programs independently or the teachers can use them in class as instructional aids, Turner says, noting that each program also has references and links to additional resources.

As part of the project, Turner and her students selected and transformed four short stories and four essays into inquiry-driven digital programs.

They enhanced the short stories by creating historical "pop-ups" and multimedia timelines to give the stories a broader historical context.

“The result is a hybrid form of ‘creative nonfiction,’ which uses the digital environment to enable fictional narrative to complement and enhance historical interpretation,” Turner says.

Teachers can easily incorporate the programs into their teaching in different ways to best fit their needs, Turner says, noting that students can access the programs on tablets, laptops or desktops, and teachers can project them in the classroom. 

UW-Eau Claire students were eager to help with the project, Turner says, noting that they welcomed the opportunity to support K-12 educators.

“One of my students referred to working on ‘real-world’ projects for the K-12 classroom as ‘paying it backwards,’” Turner says. “Many students say they have benefited from the excellent instruction of their elementary and secondary teachers.

“This project provides students with an opportunity to share what they learned for the benefit of students who will follow them.”

Turner first began exploring concepts to support classroom teachers when she was directing a graduate certificate program for teachers. Funded by a federal grant, the program involved hundreds of teachers and students in northwest Wisconsin.

“Directing the program made me aware of teachers' need for and interest in interactive, inquiry-based technologies for the classroom,” Turner says. “In the late 2000s, digital humanities was emerging as a new field for humanistic studies and our department's public history program became actively engaged in developing digital archives and other resources for the university and community agencies.”

She revisited the project in 2013 and then began to work on it in earnest in 2016 with the help of students in the Honors class she teaches, "History in Fiction, Fiction in History." 

In that class, she required students’ final projects to incorporate content and sources suitable for conversion to the web.

She recruited two students, Megan Henning and Bryce Mohr, from that class to collaborate with her.

“I am excited to have teachers begin to use the projects in their classrooms,” says Henning, a sophomore secondary education broadfield social studies major from Germantown. “It makes me happy to contribute to the education of students in a game-changing way before I even have graduated with my teaching degree.”

The students say they were eager be part of an undergraduate research project that could benefit the field of education.

“The fact that the research covered educational aspects and also historical ideas made the project perfect to fit in line with my major,” Henning says. “By being along the lines of my major, it allowed me to make contributions to my future career.”

Henning’s work included adding the historical context, like pop-up bubble annotations and timelines, to the short stories.

Her hope, she says, is that she will help make classrooms more interactive, which will enhance student learning.

“I want it to help students come alive when exploring history and learning critical thinking skills through the analysis of sources,” Henning says. “I hope that the programs will make the classroom interactive and exciting for exploring in-depth concepts of history.”

Mohr, a sophomore from Sparta, was the lead developer on the technological side of the project, creating the main website as well as the digital projects.

While happy that his work will support K-12 teachers, Mohr says he also gained a lot from the project, including a potential new career path.

“This project was the first real work I've done designing websites or web projects, and the experience it gave me in that area will be invaluable,” Mohr says. “It actually made me switch majors. I was initially an English education major, but working on these web projects and figuring out I was good at it convinced me to switch to communications.”

Turner and her students now are focused on making teachers aware of their website and the programs now available to them.

Turner, Henning and Mohr already shared their project at the Research in the Rotunda event in Madison and at the National Council for History Education conference in Texas.

In addition, they have had a number of informal discussions with teachers, who have been encouraging.

“I'm excited to see how teachers will use our projects in their classroom,” Mohr says. “The reactions we get while presenting have been positive.”

Thanks to the project, Henning says she is more excited than ever about her future teaching career.

“My hope is to become the best teacher I can be,” Henning says. “I want to be a teacher who is always learning and using my experience to help further the knowledge and skills of my students so they can succeed in their lives and, just maybe, learn to love social studies along the way.”

Photo caption: Blugolds Megan Henning and Bryce Mohr are collaborating with Dr. Patricia Turner to create digital resources for K-12 history teachers.