Stephen Petro, another junior in the class, developed his thesis on the rights of women, "on how women saw their inequality during the American Revolution, and how that made them want to change their position." Stephen enjoyed putting independent skills to use on the project. "This was a practice in independent observation and analysis. You had to make your own way through it, and I appreciated that because you could interpret it any way you wanted—as long as you proved your point. I liked that."
Reaction was also positive for Michael and Char. "There was an added upside," notes Char. After students viewed the primary sources, "they recognized that secondary sources can be biased. After experiencing it themselves and then reading what a textbook author allows, they can see the different takes. That gives them the confidence to have their own opinions, as well."
Michael considers the difficult problems students faced when dealing with primary sources: "Sometimes the students can feel a bit lost. But I think that's actually one of the values of this—that you are there on your own. That moment of confusion is a very rich moment. Once they break through it, it can lead to some real learning. That's why it's important to give them the time and the chance to work and talk with a peer. It's crucial that we're there—but we don't want to be a crutch. It's important that they puzzle through on their own."
Char agrees. "Steve and his partner were in front of the Peale painting Rachel Weeping. At first it was just a dead baby and a mother's sorrow. They were worried. What else were they going to say about it? But together they started to get ideas, and it was a huge sense of accomplishment for them."
While every teacher wants his or her students to experience such a sense of accomplishment, a multi-disciplinary project dealing with primary sources requires preparation in order to work well. Students need to be instructed in the classroom in how to view works of art, and should work with primary sources as a class before venturing out on their own. Additionally, it's a good idea to check with a museum to make sure selected objects will be on display when students arrive.
Michael offers additional advice: "We learn by mentoring. If there is a teacher at your school who is more savvy or experienced or confident—remember that people are always your best resource."
"This experiential component—seeing things first-hand and spending quality time with them—works across the whole course," Char notes. "It helps them understand the times—the historical and cultural influences. It is such a rich experience." "And the basic structure of the visual and the textual—and the team approach—we want to keep that in place," adds Michael.
Hannah and Stephen would gladly use this approach again for another project, despite its difficulties. "It's interesting," Hannah says, "because we're so used to using textual sources rather than going outside the classroom." Stephen is also ready to go again. "Again? I would like that. I like these projects because they involve an independent thought process—and it's art, so that it is an artist's interpretation of history."
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