American History: Teacher’s Perspective on Connecting Technology and Content

Rocky River Social Studies teacher Sara Ziemnik shares her thoughts on technology and historical thinking in US history-also see her Teacher Spotlight feature from December 2013.

How do you use technology in your classroom?

I have an online gradebook, Progressbook, which allows my students and their parents 24/7 access to grades.  I also have my own website where I upload assignments, post videos, encourage discussions, and just generally use as a “hub” for my class.  My website is www.mrsziemnik.net and it’s really revolutionized the way that I teach and the way I disseminate information.  I’ve been trying out some “flipped” lessons which have worked really well.  I also have a YouTube account where I create “video lectures” that help kids who need a little extra review or were absent from class.  I’ve even gotten a few comments from students in college that they’ve found my lectures quite helpful, which is nice to know!  Technology has helped me bring my classroom beyond the 4 walls of my classroom.

Do you think that it is important for students to use technology in the classroom? If so, why and what technological resources should they be using?  

Absolutely.  I also want to emphasize that there still is a place for documents and hard books from time to time, but I do think that technology needs to be mastered “for the power of good” to learn how to research effectively, use databases, and understand valid sources.  Sites like INFOhio, the Library of Congress, etc. are great for this.  I’ve also used apps like Cleveland Historical to help make historical ties to local areas.  I’ve had great products created with iMovie and Windows MovieMaker, too.  Digital citizenship is also something I feel strongly about, and I try to get the students to understand how their digital footprint is permanent, no matter when they hit the ‘delete’ button.

What do you perceive to be some issues related to technology in the classroom?

Without a doubt, security of personal images and information is a problem. Social media is both a blessing and a curse, and again, teaching the students to use it “for the power of good and not evil” is extremely important.  There’s also just the etiquette that teachers are forced to deal with, too.  Students (and to be fair, adults, too!) have a hard time resisting the email alert, screen flash, tweet, etc. and this is something I try to get them to understand.  I jokingly tell them that unless their last name is Obama, their incoming text message probably doesn’t affect the future of the free world and thus is really not that important and can wait.

How would you answer a student that says they do not foresee using the information they learned in an American History course in their everyday life?  

This really depends on the topic, but believe me, I’ve got an answer ready for pretty much any topic in U.S. History. They learn pretty quickly not to ask me that question!  I show them a concrete example of how something they are wearing, listening to, reading, believing in, or interested in directly relates to a historical event and then they usually don’t ask me again.

How would you define historical thinking?  

…Thinking like a historian?  My students often start the year expecting me to ‘tell them all the answers’ and, again, find out pretty quickly that’s not how I do things.  I think it’s really important for my students to get many historical perspectives on the same event and then to formulate their own opinions of who is “right” or “wrong” about a topic.

Do you employ any unconventional teaching methods in your classroom? If so, what are they, and how do your students respond?

I’m not sure how unconventional my methods are today, but when I was in high school my classes were lecture-only, so based upon that I’m unconventional. I do lecture from time to time, but I enjoy simulation, role-playing, debate, and flipping lessons here and there to get students involved in a different way.

What advice do you have for pre-service teachers regarding technology in the classroom?  

This one is making me laugh–when I graduated from Miami University in 1999, I had one “technology” class and it was how to use an overhead projector and introductory Macintosh programs.  I have since never had a Macintosh computer in my classroom, so there went those skills!  I would say to just be prepared for everything you are learning to use now to be obsolete in 5 years.  But just remember, it is for everyone out there, so don’t worry!  Just roll with the punches, and don’t be afraid to try new things.  I still have so much to learn about technology!  It is definitely a leap of faith and can sometimes backfire, but in my experience I have definitely had many more positive effects than negative ones.

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