A couple of years ago, somebody directed me to one of the oddest documents I'd seen in a long time - a list of predictions from the turn of the last century about what life in America would be like in the year 2000.

This sort of thing always makes my brain hurt.

If you've ever read any  "alternative history" science fiction, like some of the stuff by Robert Heinlein or Harry Turtledove, you know what I mean. We generally walk around with a pretty good idea of how history has played out and without really thinking about it too much, we adopt a sort of historical chauvinism - "Well, of COURSE it worked out like that! What sort of stupid world do you think we live in that wouldn't turn out like that?"

Then you read something that points out that our world could have turned out very, VERY different, with just a few twists and turns, and it really messes with your head.

Do you remember those old newsreels classroom movies we watched as kids that showed the Kitchen of the Future, or Life on the Moon, where housewives would cook dinner with a push of a button, then lounge around on Swedish-looking furniture, while their husbands zipped off to work with their jet-packs and briefcases?

What the Lady's Home Journal did in December of 1900 was something like that, but about thirty or forty years before anyone else thought to do it. They asked leading experts and scientists to give their best guesses as to what the situation would be like in their fields of study in a hundred years' time.

The predictions were pretty amazing, both because of what they got right and what they got spectacularly wrong.
  • Color Photography? - Check
  • Intantanious beaming of information from around the world? - Check
  • Peas the size of softballs? - Not So Much
  • Giant Navies of zeppelins armed with doomsday devices? - 50/50
It's the wrong predictions that are the most interesting to me - both because I get lost in thought imagining a world where those things are true, but also because it gives some real insight into what an educated world-view was in 1900. Someone once said that if you want to know what society was really like at a given time, read its etiquette books. If they are telling you not to do something, it probably means that a lot of people were actually doing that.

This is sort of like that. What they thought would happen was an extension of what they saw happening around them at the time.

What I did About all This:

I'm a big believer in passionate teaching. My feeling is that if I bring a huge amount of interest and excitement to any subject, I can sweep my students along on the wave of my enthusiam. So, as days went by and I continued to obsess about this 100+ year-old list of predictions, I started wondering what I could do with it in the classroom.

Here's what I came up with:


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I designed a project around the predictions.

I broke down the 29 big, multi-part predictions into 77 smaller, individual predictions. I rewrote the language to make it a little easier for 21st Century 8th Graders to understand. I printed them up on slips of paper and put them in the Awesome Jar of Destiny. (Da, da, DAAAAAHHH!!!)

After setting up the concept and reading some of the predictions to my students, I had each of them draw a prediction from the AJofD. Each of them was responsible for making a poster telling what their prediction was and whether it had come true or not. If it had, they were supposed to give evidence of how it had happened. If (and more interestingly), it had not, they were supposed to show that it hadn't and to tell what we can learn about how people in 1900 saw the world that made them make that kind of guess.

This was their first big project of the year.


Did it Work? Was it all Rainbows and Unicorns?

Well, not all rainbows and unicorns - maybe cheap glitter and rented ponies.

It turns out that this "alternate history" concept is pretty hard for 13 year-olds to wrap their heads around. I used a short homework assignment to help them with the idea of making predictions and wondering about the future, but some of my students were solidly concrete-operational at that point in the year and still had a hard time understanding what I was looking for. I'd probably have a little more luck assigning this project at the end of the year, when they've gone through their Amazing 8th Grade Cognitive Development Growth Spurt, but the end of the year is pretty packed already.

On the other hand, one of my goals is to challenge my advanced and gifted students more and this really grabbed some of their interests.

I think we'll do this project again this fall, with a little more scaffolding and maybe as a podcast; students could interview each other about their predictions and findings.

Or maybe as a VoiceThread...



[Note - I have removed the links to the RootsBlog in this post. I'm in the process of setting up the blog for a new school year and I've erased last year's student posts. I've also temporarily removed the synopses of the episodes from the RootsBlog pages, so that students will be surprised when they see the movies in class. Sorry for any inconvenience.]

One of the most engaging activities each year in my 8th grade Social Studies class is watching the mini-series Roots. Our students are a very, very, VERY white group of kids, living in New Hampshire; for many of them, this is their first prolonged exposure to anything having to do with African-American history or culture. It is very gripping for them.

On the other hand, watching all six episodes takes up 3-4 weeks of classtime over several months. I've been trying to find some way to make watching this movie a less passive experience.

This year, the students are posting to a Roots blog.

After each episode of Roots, the students line up in front of the Awesome Jar of Destiny.

[A note of explanation: the Awesome Jar of Destiny is a technique I use when I'm assigning projects to our 8th graders. I have an empty 1-gallon mayonaise jar with slips of paper in it with all the possible assignments for a particular assignment. The students line up and each draws a slip of paper. They have five minutes or so to compare assignments with each other and trade assignments, if they want to. This adds an element of choice to their project and gives them a little more control over what they do. If a student really, REALLY doesn't like his or her project, he or she can draw a new one from the AJofD, but is then stuck with that project - no redraws, no trading, no nothing. (It's amazing how many students have taken that option this year.) After giving them a few minutes to look at each other's assignments, I have them sit down and I'll call their names from my gradebook, then write down each student's assignment and they are stuck with it. Even the really unmotivated students seem to agree that this is a fair way of doing things.]

For the Roots projects, each slip of paper in the AJofD has the name of one of the characters in the episode the students have just watched. Sometimes it is a minor character, sometimes a major one. In order to have enough characters for each of our 58 students to have his or her own character, some of the major characters are in the jar multiple times. For example: "Kunta Kinte as a boy before going through Manhood Training", "Kunta Kinte after Manhood Training, living in his village in Gambia", "Kunta Kinte after being captured and waiting to be loaded onto the slave ship", ect..

Each student is responsible for writing a short essay (250-1,000 words) about how his or her character felt about the events that went on in the episode, then post that essay to a blog.

After experimenting with a lot of different blogging platforms, I ultimately decided to go with Edublogs. It is not the most user-friendly blogging site around, but in the end, it had the flexibility I needed, without being TOO complicated. I set up seven blogs - one for each episode and one for the project instructions. In each episode blog, there is really only one post - a synopsis of the events of the blog. Each student posts his or her blog entry as a comment under the synopsis. Students can even comment on each other's comments.

All comments are moderated, which means that they get sent to me to check out before I approve them to be posted on the blog.

To protect students' privacy and to practice good internet safety, the students post their comments with their first names and last initials only, as well as the name of the character they are blogging as and the class they are in (to help me with my grading). If a student forgets and puts his or her last name in the blog post, I can catch it as I moderate the comments and edit it before posting it. When I do this, it gets posted under my name, so I put a little explanation at the bottom of the post explaining why it is posted under my name. This gives a pretty good nudge to offending students and they usually are more careful the second time around.

We try very, VERY hard to get parental permission to post student work online. An additional benefit of comment moderation is that for the students for whom we do NOT have permission, I can read their blog post, grade it, then simply not approve it to be posted online.

So far, my students have blogged on two of the six episodes of Roots. The first set of blog entries was a little rocky - which is to be expected for the first attempt at any project - though some individual entries were very good. The second round of blog posts was much, much better. While the spelling and grammar is still not where I'd like it to be, some of these blog posts were heart-breakingly good.

Judge for yourself:

Click here to read the students' instructions.

If you like what you read, please leave a comment to let the students know it. One of our Literacy standards in the 8th grade is writing for a larger audience than just a classroom. Blog comments are a good way for them to know that they are doing that.

The downside of all this is that I'm currently in the middle of showing them Episode Three and I suddenly realize that I don't have any of the little slips of paper written yet.