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Multisensory Adventures in World History

Posted by TNCS on Jan 9, 2017

The following article, written by Carolyn Latta, was included in the December 2016 Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS) Vision e-magazine. Click here for a download of the full magazine. VAIS magazine archives can be found on their website.


Multisensory Adventures in World History

It is no secret among my students that I LOVE history. Some days, this enthusiasm is a by-product of too much coffee, but most of the time it is excitement over the content I’m teaching. Investigating history allows us to explore patterns and understand causes and consequences. When people find out that I teach world history, the typical response is “Oh, I hate history. I’m so bad at names and dates.” Guess what – so am I! The names and dates are not what make history relevant. Instead, it’s the bigger picture. It’s how the Hundred Years’ War can show us the impact of new technology. It’s learning that empires that are open and accepting of other cultures often end up more advanced than where they started. It’s recognizing that one person, such as Martin Luther or Michelangelo, can have a big impact on the world. So how do I bring history alive for my students so they can explore these ideas?

It started after my first year of teaching. While reflecting at the end of the year, I realized several abstract concepts were totally lost on my students. Very few of my students could tell me how the Crusades changed the world or what the Age of Enlightenment was all about, even after we had spent a significant amount of time on each topic. This shaped my goal for the following year. I needed to figure out how to make my lessons more efficient, while maximizing my students’ learning potential. The key to this puzzle lay in how my students learn. At my school, every child has dyslexia or a related learning difference. There are only 8 students in my room at a time, but each of them exhibits dyslexia in a different way. One of the best ways to bring history alive for these students is through multi-sensory activities.

During my second year of teaching, my 9th grade students quickly learned to associate my class with crazy activities and simulations. The beauty of teaching history is that it is easy to create reenactments so that students can “experience” history. I challenged myself to create two or three simulations for every unit and saw a remarkable increase in the success of my students. Instead of approaching the Crusades with lectures, videos, and worksheets, I decided to send my students on a fake Crusade through campus. Every aspect of our journey reflected key points my students needed to remember, from the rousing speech by Pope Urban II which provided the reason Europeans went on Crusades, to the marauding middle school students who attacked us on our journey, to the falafel and mint tea refreshments waiting at our destination, where we discussed the innovations of Muslims in the middle ages. All of my students were able to explain what a crusade was and why they were important, but the success of this activity continued to show up throughout the year. My entire spring curriculum circles back to the cultural diffusion that happened because of the Crusades. One of my students who routinely struggled with history was able to recall the main ideas months after the lesson. Granted, he referred to it is as “the Falafel activity,” but he was also able to tell me what Europeans brought back with them from the middle East and how those items helped change Europe, which in turn helped him understand the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution.

Many of my students struggle with reading comprehension and ADHD and would not benefit nearly as much from reading a textbook or listening to a lecture. Multisensory activities like simulations allow them to access my content and give them a place to connect what they read for homework with what we discuss in class. Students who had once barely participated were jumping out of their chairs to share thoughts and contribute to class discussions. By allowing my students to experience history, our discussions deepened and students were able to recognize the bigger world patterns on their own. Multisensory activities can be one of the most powerful tools in education and I have seen that each student is capable of learning. While my students may not always share my love of history, they are excited to discuss our class activities and feel the success of understanding my content.

Carolyn Latta

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