Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Sandhya Nankani of Literary Safari,
A Panelist from "Teaching Students to Become History Detectives"

There's an annual gathering of 10,000 educators right here in New York City, and yet I had never heard of it prior to several weeks back. A sister alumna of mine at Bank Street College of Education tipped me off to A Celebration of Teaching and Learning. Why hadn't I heard about this before?

The Celebration, sponsored by THIRTEEN AND WLIW21 - describes itself as "[...] a premier professional development conference that brings together the world’s best thinkers, practitioners, and more than 10,000 educators to share their passion for teaching and learning. [...] Our seventh anniversary will bring experts and content from the areas of the Arts, English Language Arts, Global Awareness, Health & Wellness, Instructional Technology, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), Social Studies, Special Education and Whole School Issues."

At The Celebration, I attended the panel entitled "Teaching Students to Become History Detectives," featuring speakers Sandhya Nankani and Elyse Luray  kicked off the panel by describing in fascinating detail her experiences as one of the five hosts of the PBS' American History series History Detectives. Once a top appraiser at Christie's auction house, Elyse has spent her years on the show using objects ranging from canons to horse saddles as the jumping off point to make amazing discoveries about U.S. history. At one point, Elyse found a piece of Amelia Earhart's airplane. At another juncture, she helped find the S.S. Portland, a sunken ship in Alaska which was the first ship that found gold there!

Elyse conveyed the importance of primary sources as well as public institutions like libraries and historical societies as the keys to solving historical puzzles, and to "linking family, city, and commmunity folklore to a bigger story." Some specific skills which Elyse utilizes on the show, and which teachers can pass on to students, include appraisal, forensic science, geology, geneloglody, patent and property searches, and textile analysis. "What can a type of cotton or wool tell you about an object," asked Elyse. "What does beeswax tell you about a certain kind of bees that were in our country at a certain time?"

Elyse was excited to announce that History Detectives is launching a focus on the history of music. In the show's investigation of The Star Spangled Banner, Elyse had the honor of hearing a private playing of different versions of the song by President Obama's band.

Following Elyse, editorial producer Sandhya Nankani described the interactive online game based on History Detectives which she and her colleague Sari Wilson created for students. She preceded her description of the game by sharing that American students are less proficient in their nation's history than in any other subject.

The purpose of the game it to help middle school students understand themselves better through objects around them through investigating object-based mysteries as well as engaging in open investigations where they record their own research findings. The game is designed to teach the skills it takes to be a history detective, namely the ability to see, act, and think like one. Students beef up their capacity to make observations and inferences, to find and evaluate historical evidence, and to draw conclusions based on that evidence.

Through playing History Detectives Lab, students can gain a sense of what it's like to be active researchers out in the real world. "The game gives them a sense of agency, but with limited choices," explained Sandhya.

Some of the feedback from students who have field tested the game is that they enjoyed using technology, and that the game made history relevant and real. In terms of learning about history, they learn not only about what events happened, but why events happened.

Good for teachers to know: The History Detectives Lab game matches with state standards and also supports Common Core and 21st Century Key Skills. Also: most of the mysteries take one to two class periods for students to solve.

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