Building lessons on free websites . . . or creating children’s books.

One of my favorite “wow” lesson plans uses the website gapminder.com. It presents a variety of data in clear visualizations that let students play with historical statistics. It has huge limitations when studying history. Still, I use it as part of a lesson on quantitative history and the importance visualizing big numbers.

Last week one of the key data sets failed to load (Income per person). The gapminder people corrected the failure in 8 hours, but then the website broke again. Students howled. I howled on the “Report a problem” section of the website. In the end I pushed the due date for their assignment back one day. Nothing ground breaking about the pedagogy or our response to a common problem, yet something worth considering when building from open web resources.

In contrast, for my MN History students, I asked them to write a historical fiction children’s book based on 4 chapters in our textbook. One of the learning objectives for the class is to demonstrate the ability to write different genres of history. A full short-story would take too much time, both to teach and to create, but the basics of historical fiction can be taught with children’s lit (sources, plot, narrative arc, critical deployment of the suspension of disbelief, historical accuracy). And the final products are just fantastic. Granted, some spend more time on the art than the sourcing, but this low tech assignment forces students to grapple with how to tell a story about the past that even my best digital history assignment don’t yet.

So, this week is a contrast in pixels and paper.

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