Dr. Margaret Haviland is Director of Teaching and Learning at Westtown School in Pennsylvania, a Quaker co-educational, college preparatory day and boarding school founded in 1799. Westtown emphasizes collaborative learning and ethical leadership in a connected world. Margaret teaches Advanced US History to tenth graders and World History 2: The First World System to World War I to 11th and 12th graders.

We’ve asked Margaret to write in depth about her shift from a more traditional style of teaching World History to a project-based, student-directed approach. In our experience, teachers in the content area appreciate this level of detail. We hope others will as well.

map of major fronts WWIby Margaret Haviland

Last month, Jane Addams — fresh from attending the 1915 Women’s International Congress for Peace and Freedom in the Hague, Netherlands (to which she was elected President) — hosted a roundtable conference in my classroom at Westtown School.

Present at the roundtable were Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, a British soldier from the Battle of the Somme, a British soldier from the Christmas Truce, Gertrude Bell, Vladimir Lenin, Kaiser Wilhelm, Nicholas II, Paul Baumer (from All Quiet on the Western Front), Woodrow Wilson, and Ernest Mayer (American conscientious objector to WWI). George V and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk were unable to attend.

These luminaries were gathered by St. Peter from their eternal rest for two days of lively discussion. On the first day they were asked to assume that two weeks have passed since the funeral of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria: given their now perfect hindsight, was there anything they could do or propose to prevent World War I? On the second day of the conference, they were asked to assume that it was January 1918 and find a way to a negotiated peace.

This two-day event was the highlight of our five-week exploration of World War I. The final assessment is a two-part exam. Students hand in an essay arguing for the importance of World War I to their understanding the 21st century, then come to the exam period to defend their argument before their peers, their teachers, and an invited guest or two. All of our work through the unit has built backwards from this essential question: What are the lessons from World War I that we must learn to understand the 21st century?

Shifting my approach to teaching World War I

When I first started teaching World History to 11th and 12th graders twelve years ago, I would begin the year with a quick summary of Time, asking students where our consideration of history should begin: the Big Bang, the formation of Earth, the evolution of homo sapiens, the invention of writing? At the very end of this first class, I would ask students what topics they hoped we would cover. Invariably, a few students every year mentioned a desire to study WWI. Their previous history classes had touched on it briefly as an explanation for WWII, if it had been mentioned at all. The kids had a sense from somewhere that there were lessons to be learned by probing the first great global conflict.

Three years ago, when my course shifted so that it ended with World War I, my students and I marched through the war with a combination of careful reading and discussion of our old text book Traditions and Encounters, lots of the PBS video series The Great War, a lecture or two by me, a content-based test, and an essay on the results of the war.

This past school year, our exploration of World War I was designed to enable students to construct their own knowledge and their own meaning within a framework established by myself and my intern, Brit Suttell. This framed, project based, self directed approach was our method all year in World History 2. Our first unit, the Pax Mongolia and the First World System, began with three short contradictory interpretive essays on the Mongols by prominent historians. We brainstormed what students knew about the Mongols and what they hoped to discover, and then I told them that they would be responsible for choosing what they wanted to learn, how they would demonstrate what they had learned, and how they wanted to be assessed. One of my students looked at me quizzically and said: “We are going to do the project first. How will we know what we want to learn???” This was their task throughout the year, figuring out what they needed to learn, both to answer the questions we generated together and to understand the topics they wanted to more completely understand.

World War I – Setting the stage

For our WWI unit we did dig Traditions and Encounters (2nd edition) out of the closet. I assigned the WWI chapter but explained it was background information and that we would not be discussing the chapter in class. For my students, textbooks (and I have a whole collection of them) now serve as starting places – much like an encyclopedia. They have become a resource like any other, rather than the final word on what students need to know.

We then watched Volume I of The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century — produced by KCET/BBC in association with the Imperial War Museum. This year students also watched a second World War I video The Great War: The Complete History of World War 1 from KOCH Vision. We then asked students to compare the two interpretations and test them against their own growing understanding of the causes of the war. One student observed that neither film mentioned the rampant imperialism European nations engaged in prior to the war. Another argued against the Koch production’s rosy depiction of European royalty, and a third complained that both films adopted an all too Euro-centric approach to this war, even as she wondered what made this a world war?

As we began to grapple with the causes of the war, students also began exploring other aspects of it. Several felt the need to better understand the war’s geography and proposed creating maps of various battles. We had been mapping history all year so this request was not entirely out of the blue. With a greater sense of the geography of the war, our next check-in had students wondering about the nature of the conflict itself, the Schlieffen plan, what trench warfare was like, and how the stalemate that developed might have been broken.

Our collaborative research

Having decided on topics, students divided into work teams to do their research. The PBS Great War website served as an excellent resource with links to other resources. Students found and were able to draw trench maps for specific battles, learn chemical compounds for mustard gas, read discussions on the limitations of early tanks, and reflect on the failures of generals to understand the nature of trench warfare. One student suggested that to break the stalemate, the military high command should employ the strategies that had proved so effective at the Battle of Caporetto. Several groups advocated heavy use of gas attacks followed by properly coordinated tank attacks supported by infantry. Their willingness to employ gas was surprising to say the least. The next day two students led the rest of the class in a discussion exploring the ethical issues in using gas even if it had helped to end the war two years earlier.

One of my weakest students volunteered to facilitate a discussion of several different documents the class had collected relating to the war. Following their interests each student was expected to bring to class a document they found particularly challenging to their own emerging understanding of the war. We had the letter from the Syrian Congress to the Great Powers in Versailles; a Count who called the British “the vampires of Europe”; an African soldier writing of the dignity and recognition he expected to earn for his people from his participation in the War; to Marxist philosopher and activist Rosa Luxemburg writing critically of what Lenin had achieved.

Our Round Table experience

With the Round Table conference 10 days away, we mounted a field trip to the library to explore biographies as resources for understanding history. Each student chose a person alive during World War I and for whom a memoir or biography was available. The one exception to our non-fiction rule was Paul Baumer, Erich Maria Remarque’s central character in All Quiet on the Western Front. The next several days were spent reading. Before our Round Table, we held a check-in discussion and asked students to reflect on biographies as sources for understanding history.

Our students’ ability to stay within their character’s imaginative possibilities was the most impressive part of the two-day Round Table experience. Churchill, somewhat chastened by his loss at Gallipoli, commiserated with the common soldiers and agreed with them that ordinary citizens could have done nothing to have stopped this war. Where he disagreed was during our second day, when all three of the frontline soldiers called for a negotiated truce to be followed by a negotiated peace treaty. Our student soldiers recognized that with Germany’s recent offensive success — a few miles of German territory gained back — Germany was in a short term position of strength even though the country’s ability to continue the war was nearing an end.

In the presence of our Round Table assembly, Kaiser Wilhelm insisted that his generals had shoved him aside very soon after the Archduke’s death. He argued with Nicholas II over Russia’s unwillingness to stop mobilizing troops. Jane Addams had to remind the participants that we had been dead many years and asked them to consider whether, given what they knew about what had happened, they might have done anything differently. Lenin said no: As powerful as the individuals around the table were, these events were bound to happen. Further, from where he sat, a negotiated peace was not to Russia’s advantage as it would have allowed Germany to rebuild sooner. Lawrence of Arabia countered that when Germany finally did rebuild, 20 million Russians died. Woodrow Wilson finally spoke up, though British writer and political advisor Gertrude Bell wondered what gave him the right to have anything to say. Wilson insisted on a negotiated peace and felt the war was entirely avoidable. Europeans had only to put their long term interests ahead of their short term interests.

How we assessed and what we learned

The major formal assessments for this unit included the students’ maps, the summation of their character, their participation in the Round Table, and their combination written and oral exam on the original essential question: “What is the importance of World War I to understanding the 21st century?” [Download the exam format here.]

♦ The students’ maps were the most disappointing of the formal shared work, even though we had created three freehand maps prior to this. The difference with this assignment and the previous ones is that I didn’t give the kids a list of things to find nor specify whether they were working on a political or a physical map. I left it entirely up to them to choose what needed to be included. Some provided too much information in terms of battle locations without much sense of topography; others had huge maps of all of Europe when their focus was the Battle of the Somme. We asked the student’s individually to discuss their choices. In some cases, what became apparent was that they had no experience with war maps and had no understanding of what kinds of information might be useful to include. Next year, we will discuss military maps as well as other sorts of maps before we take up this project again.

This is one of the pieces about project based learning that I am still figuring out. Students, even fairly sophisticated juniors and seniors, still have so many forms of communication to experience for the first time. Without a baseline understanding of what is useful (e.g., in a map of a battle), they flounder in the execution even as they are learning. In spite of mediocre maps, each student did know where their battles took place and where the troops lined up and what the trenches were like.

♦ Each student chose how to share what they had learned about the person they were to impersonate. In creating their rubrics they needed to include an explanation of why the medium they had chosen was the best for them as a learner. Two students who were going to be away the day the assignment was due chose traditional essays. The Churchill scholar wrote poetry from the points of view of various people in Churchill’s life. The best project by far was a PowerPoint based game in which the audience was asked to try and survive the war along with Remarque’s Baumer. I was dead with the first decision! The paths through the game were intricate and drew on extensive research into battlefield conditions.

♦ Because my students have been writing their own rubrics all year, they have learned to shape the categories to play to their strengths even as they include things they know I think are necessary for all historians: arguable theses, strong written and oral narrative, citations and great source lists! In two cases students failed to live up to their own rubrics and in self-evaluations wrote about managing time and how their own plans exceeded their ability to execute them.

I think this is another challenge to project based learning. Ambitious students, with wide ranging interests, have trouble shaping projects that are realistic given the other demands on their time, their technical abilities, and in some cases their artistic talents. This year I have learned that the best means of helping students craft the interesting and doable is to talk with them, ask questions and gently voice concerns. I don’t think telling students they are heading for a train wreck is helpful. The project which most missed the mark left the student with an opportunity for reflection on himself as a learner, where he fell down and what he learned anyway. His final exam essay and what he had to say during the oral discussion portion showed the same overall depth of learning as his peers.

♦ What’s most valuable about giving World War I, or the Mongols, or individual research projects 3-5 weeks for student exploration, study, and sharing out is the opportunity it creates for higher order thinking and connections across disciplines. Furthermore, students find their own ways to engage with topics and construct meaning for themselves. Throughout the process, during our in-class and asynchronous check-ins, they are sharing with each other, making suggestions, and challenging each other’s assumptions. In the oral portion of our exam, our guest examiners were impressed with the connections students made between the past and the present and the thought they’d given to the continuing challenges of competition for resources, unrealized nationalist aspirations, the hidden costs of short term gains at the expense of others, and the potential for terrorism to spark war.

My shift was gradual

My shift from a traditional survey of all of world history to project based learning happened over a number of years. When I finally had a manageable span of time to cover, I realized I had already begun shifting from a traditional delivery and assessment method. Three years ago I picked a unit each term to remake more intentionally around student constructed learning. The next year I looked carefully at units and topics I could cut in favor of giving my students more time for the extended projects of the previous year.

Last summer I removed one more unit per term, acknowledging to myself and my students that what they would gain from spending two to three weeks immersing themselves in particular topics and themes would far outweigh anything that might be gained from providing them with the more typical survey. We have time to write and re-write, discuss and re-discuss and, most importantly, explore.

As more of my colleagues make similar shifts I will have to do less reassuring and cajoling of my students that they should be the masters of their education—this will become their expectation. Certainly, this spring these kids were all capable managers and charters of their own paths through the morass of World War I—the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the War to Protect Democracy—the first in a long line of 20th century wars.

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