Learning By Design


Students Retell History on the Web

By Mel Malmberg

Josh Perlman's US History class tackles broad themes to help students more fully understand the story of their country—and themselves. Students look closely at myth-making in history, examining why Americans develop myths and why they continue to believe them. They also discuss how history is made of layers of events and interpretations and that their job as historians is to uncover those layers and think about how they interact.

Last November, Perlman posed a unique allclass assignment to each of his sections: create a website about the myths of the Reconstruction Era. Each section had one week to write, research and design their work. Perlman presented the assignment, then sat back and watched it unfold.

“I wanted them to stop seeing the teacher as the expert in everything,” Perlman explained. “They are the digital experts, and I wanted to let them know they can take matters into their own hands, that they have real power.”

Beginning with their first class period, students began to work out how to tackle the assignment. One section decided on a top-down management style, while the other two used more of a flat structure.

As they split up tasks, each group considered how to express its unique point of view. In particular, students faced the challenges of creating meaningful, well-researched content and choosing a format that enhanced their central message. The dynamic possibilities of designing for the web gave them more flexibility than a traditional paper or presentation, though the sheer number of choices was at times overwhelming.

As the week progressed, the concepts and content for the websites began to crystallize. Students shone in different ways—contributing artwork, finding out how to make the website work best, digging into research. They took on new leadership roles and had conversations about content and methodology. Perlman’s role was simply to observe. The students were in charge all week.

The resulting projects had similar historical content but radically different presentations. One used interactive, hand-drawn illustrations to “reveal” myths, while another used a film loop of a watch’s movement, inspired by a story on their website, to symbolize the persistence of myths to the present day. One project offered an interactive portal where site visitors could add personal stories related to myths, discrimination and power.

The assignment, as Perlman hoped, was empowering for students. The hands-on format allowed students to contribute unique talents while acquiring new skills in technology. Katie Lee ’18 told Perlman, “It felt really good to take the research that would be done for a research paper but apply the information to something creative. I was able to tell profound stories with just a few drawings. This was a breakthrough project.”

Perlman says his students learned both history and how to communicate meaning in a technical way—and he learned he can step back and relinquish control to his students.

“It was a way to bring the class together and show that in the face of a big problem, collective action, and even organized chaos, can work. I was tapping into the potential of the students and watching emerging styles of leadership,” he says. “This was a great way to have them learn not only history but life skills, by doing and by creating something unique.”

In recent classroom discussions, all three sections assessed the culture of their group as well as individuals they considered leaders. In describing leadership styles, students made connections both to historical leaders they had examined, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Madison, and to more personal experiences.

The website project remains fresh in many students’ memories.

“I was really proud we were able to come together and create something meaningful, that had a real message and that brought in all of our different strengths,” says Jonas Kristensson ’18. The assignment was so successful, in fact, that Perlman was inspired to create his own website. Learning from his students’ example, Perlman recruited help from several friends to make it happen.