Friday, November 23, 2007

How do you spell MIT?

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On a quiet day here in Sparta, when everyone is geared up for the long weekend full of Thanksgiving meals and shopping, Ryan Lollgen and Steve Schels had something else in mind for their United States History Classes.

Ryan had made contact with Dr. Pauline Maier, the Dr. William R. Kenan Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after having read some of her work. A simple email and phone call to the contact information she supplied landed Ryan and Steve, and more importantly, their students, access to one of America's preeminent historians.

On Wednesday morning at 10am, we used Skype to phone Dr. Maier at her office and conducted an hour-long interview with her with questions generated by the students. The podcast of the event is available for your listening above, and while not the cleanest audio in the world, it is well worth a listen by anyone interested in a unique conversation about the American Revolution.

Maier was featured prominently in PBS's documentary Liberty a few years back, the ebullient style with which she exhibited in the documentary really came through in the phone interview. Her enthusiasm for the topics the students brought up was refreshing for us to hear, and her perspectives were poignant and insightful.

Perhaps the greatest part of the process was that she was genuinely interested in not only the topics, but why the students wanted to know these things. Her answers to the questions the students asked were above and beyond what we all expected, and reflected her desire to help the students view history as a dynamic and changing process. Here is a quote from an follow-up email she sent to Ryan:

Congratulations again on getting your students so involved in American
history. There's nothing like encouraging them to ask questions to avoid
the sense that history is a boring collection of dead facts arranged
chronologically rather than an exciting inquiry into human experience. My
hat is really off to you and the other teachers I have known who, like you,
are doing good work preparing students to think and, not incidentally, be
informed citizens of the American Republic. What was the line attributed
to Franklin (perhaps mythically)? I think as he left the convention,
someone asked him what kind of government the Americans would have, and he
supposedly said "a republic, if you can keep it." We need to know what a
republic is and what it demands of its people if we want to keep it.

This was a unique event for us to participate in, one that showed how we can easily bring experts into our classrooms just by reaching out to them and extending the invitation. Much like Dee Peselli did with Kyle MacDonald a few months back, all it takes is a teacher who wants to provide a memorable experience for his or her students.

Cross-posted at Tech Dossier.

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