OK Class - Put Your Pencils Down


Bringing new technologies into history classrooms

by Stephanie Lang
photos by Tim Collins

Kathi Kern found a little humor in the “pencils only” sign positioned prominently on the research tables in King Library. Seems slightly different than the new approach to teaching and researching history, she thought. Not many people immediately connect teaching history with new technologies.

But for Kern, these new technologies proved irresistible. Whether it is her pricy camera providing a fascinating glimpse into topics of interest, the iPhone that is constantly by her side, or any number of multi-purpose gadgets – Kern has combined lightening fast computer speeds with the tried and true process of research and writing to reveal to her students and herself, a new way of approaching history.

Kern will be the first to admit, however, the use of new technologies in her classes did not come from her own interest in all things high tech but instead grew out of her work on three federally funded grants from the US Department of EducationTeaching American History Grant Program (TAHG):

The TAHG projects are aimed at deepening teachers’ content knowledge in American history. “We have focused our work in eastern Kentucky where there is a great deal of need and interest, as well as a rich history.” Kern began. “One of our goals has been to connect local issues and local history with larger national narratives, so that teachers there can investigate the history of industrialization or World War II using local historical examples to teach their students – so they do not feel as though history never happened in Kentucky,” Kern explained.

The goal of the grants was to not only enhance the content knowledge of history teachers, but to introduce new technologies and teaching pedagogies the teachers could employ in their own classrooms.

“The grants are really research-based outreach grants. As UK faculty and as a university, we are challenged to find ways to give back to the community. These grants have been a great opportunity to pool the resources of the university and other state agencies and do something for public school teachers that is very meaningful to them,” Kern said.

As with the grant writing process, Kern noted that collaborative partnerships, both within and outside of the university, provided the enthusiasm that made the work on the projects successful. A unique aspect of the grants was the cross-college collaboration between the UK History Department and the Curriculum and Instruction Department from the College of Education. Kern designed all three grants with Linda Levstik of the College of Education, and worked with Kathy Swan of the College of Education to a plan summer institute for teachers on Digital Documentaries. This partnership link also paired UK, the grant participants, and local teachers with the Kentucky Historical Society, Appalshop, and other state and local agencies.

“The university was able to offer the teachers graduate credit for the academic work they completed as part of the grant project. That was one way to help teachers meet their own professional goals,” Kern said. “As part of the distance learning aspect of the grants, we held book discussions at various sites in the state and had video conferences with the authors or other historians. Teachers were able to experience themselves as part of a larger conversation of scholars. In addition, we were able to support some of their technology needs and to provide training and assistance for teachers navigating the web, searching for materials to use in their lesson plans,” Kern said.

“We also partnered with the Kentucky Heritage Council and took teachers on a road trip centered around a historical theme in Kentucky, including Lincoln and the Civil War, Industrialization, and World War II. We stopped at various locations to witness how people think about history in their local communities. The trips help teachers make Kentucky history a more viable part of the classroom experience.”

The road trips were eventually expanded to include teacher workshops throughout the country. “For one summer seminar on slavery, we took teachers to Charleston, S.C., while another workshop focused on the western perspective in American history, so those teachers went to Santa Fe, N.M.,” said Kern. “We worked with local historians in those areas and provided teachers with cameras and other equipment to document their trip and use in their own classrooms.”

It was this digital storytelling aspect of the grants Kern found fascinating. “I ended up employing this teaching method after working on the grants. Digital storytelling is used by historians, political activists, community groups, and by people who just want to tell their stories. This is a technology that can be adapted to any field that works in a narrative framework” Kern explained.

“After receiving additional equipment from the College of Arts and Sciences, including video and still cameras and computer programs, I offered a course in gender and women’s history where the whole class was asked to read a book, pair off, and create their own digital documentary based on their interpretations of the readings.”

Digital storytelling allows students, especially in American history, to connect with contemporary issues while teaching technical and partnership work skills.

“All of this work, whether it’s on the grants or creating digital documentaries in my classes is so collaborative,” said Kern. “I have support from TASC (Teaching Academic Support Center) to give my students tech support when they run into problems while working on a project.

"I have colleagues, like Kathy Swan, who visit my class every semester and offers a workshop on technology training for the students. And I have colleagues, like Kate Black from Special Collections and Archives, who help students identify archival sources to use in their films," Kern commented on her numerous contributors that make the entire process work.

Kern also spoke about the unique experience of presenting the project. "At the end of the semester, the students who have been researching and creating their project all semester finally debut their film before a panel of historians, filmmakers, and archivists. Unlike a paper where students write alone and only show it to the professor, in this project the students show me work as it’s going and receive feedback from the professor, panel, and class and make changes before the final project is turned in. For me, this is a unique aspect of the instruction. The whole class gets to learn from everyone’s project. But it would not be possible without the generosity of my colleagues (Kathy Swan, Kate Black, Linda Levstik, and half of the history department) who are willing to devote an evening of their semester to screening student films.”

Prompted by the positive feedback received from colleagues and students, Kern continues to employ digital storytelling in her class.

“This method of teaching is more labor intensive for me but I get to know students in a different way than when they only write papers. The students say ‘this is the single most creative thing I have done in college,’” said Kern. “It makes a difference when students create these pieces: they’ve done the research, talked to scholars, found images and interviews, and put it together and presented it to a live audience. The level of enthusiasm and engagement in history is far and beyond what I could get from them in a traditional paper assignment. It’s what we want students to learn, after all: how to be analytical, and how to work with other people, to prepare them in a new medium for life after college. I love getting students excited about history.”


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