Laughter and Lightbulb Moments: Why I Love OER Project Resources for History

by | 08.15.22

Anne Koschmider is a history teacher in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KoschmiderAnne.

A few years ago, when I was assigned to teach a sophomore history course I hadn’t taught in a while, I knew I wanted to try something new to make history come alive for my students.

In the past, I’d been discouraged by how my history students seemed to consider themselves “answer hunters.” It felt like they just wanted to know which page of a textbook had the “answer,” when I knew they were capable of much more rigorous critical thinking. I wanted to find ways to amplify skills and literacy practices that would make the course more relevant. When I was invited to pilot the OER Project World History Origins Course in its beta year, I thought I might get a new activity or two out of it. But OER Project ended up being so much more for my students and me. 

OER stands for “Open Educational Resources,” meaning all materials are customizable and free on the website. I want to share the way OER Project changed my history classes and invite you to check it out for yourself. 

Student investment like I’ve never seen before

The spring before I was set to pilot OER Project resources, I decided to try some out near the end of the school year. I came across one of their projects called Visions of the Future, which invites students to select a big topic with a worldwide impact, like poverty or renewable energy. They research its current status and make predictions about what it will look like in 25 years and 100 years.

I introduced it to the juniors in my AP World History class, after they’d already taken the AP exam. I thought they’d enjoy pursuing their own interests, but I really underestimated how immersed they would become – especially so late in the school year.  

This scene from my classroom offers the perfect illustration: During the last period of class, on the last day of the entire school year, I allowed too little time for their presentations. While the last student was presenting, the final bell rang – the final bell of the whole school year – and I just froze. I was worried the student presenter would feel abandoned when his classmates all rushed off for summer break. But they didn’t. They didn’t even look at me to ask, “What should we do?” They just sat there. They continued to listen to this kid and his presentation, because he was so passionate about it, and they were so interested in his findings. They were in the classroom because they wanted to be, and that’s a pretty powerful thing on a hot, humid June day. 

Simulations and bringing play into learning

The power of OER Project materials is in the simulations and creative activities that invite students to apply the skills of real historians. Below are a few I’ve loved:

  • Cold War Crisis: In a great Cold War simulation, kids take the perspective of  President Kennedy’s executive committee of advisers and receive a “top secret” file of documents. Their role is to analyze the documents and discover what’s happening with regard to a critical national security issue – which they soon understand is the Cuban missile crisis. I tell my students, “No worries, but the safety of a hundred million people is in your hands today.” They’re engaging in primary document analysis work, but they’re also part of an exciting, high-stakes investigation.
  • World War I Peace Talks: It’s incredibly powerful to watch students simulate World War I peace talks, because they understand that it’s only called “World War I” because there was a Second World War, and yet they want so badly to succeed. I tell them, “We have 72 minutes to negotiate a lasting peace; let’s go.”
  • Recipe for a Revolution: In addition to the simulation activities, I appreciate lessons that allow students to think in new and creative ways. In this activity, students end up writing a recipe that sounds like: “Preheat the oven to 1,789 degrees. Throw in a dash of excessive taxation, a handful of angry peasants.” It turns into a brilliant use of causation, but students are having so much fun as they learn complex concepts.

The rigor in each of these activities is high. It’s content, it’s contextualization, and as I walk around the room, I hear laughs and light bulb moments and bursts of creativity. And that’s what warms every teacher’s heart, right? We don’t want our classes to consist of a series of moments in which we’re just up in front of the class lecturing. We want kids to discover the learning for themselves, and these types of activities really make that possible.

Resources adapted for accessibility 

The OER Project platform is workable for different sets of standards and different student populations. It offers multiple points of accessibility and adaptability, which are so vital since we all support students who have diverse needs, including students who qualify for ELL and special education services.

The texts have adjustable Lexile levels. The videos come with transcripts. The readings have audio versions recorded by a real person. There are graphic biographies, and we all know anime and manga and graphic novels are having a moment. To see a history text written in a way that is so appealing to kids just grabs them and pulls them in right away.

A supportive educator community

There is a supportive online community of educators with OER Project, which I found especially valuable during the time of the first pandemic shutdowns. People share modifications to lessons, sometimes strategies that are so straightforward I think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But I didn’t have to, because another teacher did. There are very few lessons in my planbook that haven’t been somehow touched or enhanced by somebody else’s suggestion in the community.

The community offers such a deep well of empathy and expertise and kindness, with teachers offering each other quick responses to any request for help. Something I really value, and which is hard to come by on social media platforms, is that there’s space for vulnerability without fear of criticism. I feel comfortable saying, “I did this today, and I think it was kind of a flop, but I’m not sure how to make it better.” People will chime in with kind, helpful suggestions in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I failed.

 Dynamic and flexible to your needs and time

When teachers hear of a new “curriculum,” we can feel overwhelmed, like adopting it would mean completely overhauling the way we teach our class. But with OER Project, I’ve found a lot of flexibility. I think people can feel daunted by the amount of curriculum available, but the truth is, you can start small, grabbing whatever resource you need for your success and the success of your students. If you’ve been in the classroom a few years, you already have your favorite activities. You know your strengths. Hold on to those.

I like the buffet analogy for OER Project resources. You have all of these choices. You have all these different activities and articles and videos to teach a history topic like the Industrial Revolution. You can’t do it all. But knowing your population of kids, knowing your pedagogical preferences, you have choices that will suit your needs.

Start with one topic that you’ve always kind of felt lukewarm about in your curriculum and sub it out with one thing from OER Project and just see how it goes. That’s what I did with OER’s Visions of the Future activity and that was enough for me to say: “Hey, I really like the way that these activities are designed. I want to learn more.”

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