Antics in the Attic: Immersing Students in the Joy of Learning

Stephanie Sperber, Upper School History Teacher

Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” – that the American values of equality, democracy, and freedom were shaped by the continuous presence of the western frontier – might seem like a dry, academic subject. But if you had walked into my U.S. history class last February 14, you would have seen his ideas come alive as you encountered a scene from a western saloon in the 1890s.

My students, wearing cowboy hats, blue jeans, bandanas, sombreros, and checkered shirts were portraying cowboys, Mexican Americans, miners, members of Indigenous communities, sheriffs, homesteaders, and African Americans. 

As player piano music played in the background, they were assessing and debating the merits of Turner’s thesis from the point of view of diverse individuals. Did these westerners believe their experiences validated – or invalidated – Turner’s thesis about frontier egalitarianism?    

Because it was Valentine’s Day, students were asked to identify other people who shared their views about Turner’s thesis and then send valentines to them. Then the valentines were read aloud, amidst laughter, mirth, cheers, and whoops. The kids were tackling difficult material and having fun at the same time. 

Learning To Love Learning

As a history teacher, I have one goal for my students: that they take joy in learning. I want them to love learning so much that they look forward to every class, that they experience excitement, surprise, curiosity, and delight during class, and that they leave class bubbling about what just happened.

When we study an era of history, I seek to create that joy and a life-long love of learning by immersing my students in the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of that time. I want to transport them to a distant time and provide them with a 360° view of what the past was like. My goal is to create experiences that make them want to learn and to equip them with the tools to do that.   

To accomplish this, my classroom frequently comes alive in a wide variety of creative simulations. These include donning costumes, role-playing, eating food, playing board games, listening to music, building models, staging debates and trials, and even meditating. While I can’t always take students to restored historical communities like Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village, I can bring a little bit of that experience into the classroom almost every day.

Antics in the Attic

My classroom is located on the second floor of the First House, built exactly 100 years ago. With its sloped roof, dormer windows, and working fireplace, the room has the cozy, quirky charm of an attic, so it’s the perfect spot for creative activities. I want my students to have a space where they feel at home. The classroom walls are covered with posters, maps, bumper stickers, and artwork by students. 

Through these activities, I hope to foster deep and genuine learning experiences for my students. Here are some of the other “antics in the attic” my students have enjoyed this year:

• Crime Scene: For our class on the Boston Massacre, I greeted my U.S. history students at the door dressed as a British officer, replete with a redcoat and tricornered hat. Laid out before them was a crime scene surrounded by yellow caution tape: five plastic gingerbread men carefully positioned on the floor, representing patriots shot by British soldiers. After examining the evidence, students read first-hand accounts of the shooting from various perspectives and then wrote a letter arguing whether the British soldiers were guilty of murder or acted in self-defense.

• Gummy Government: I challenged students in my Global Cities class to portray different forms of government, such as monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, by using Legos and Gummy Bears. Showing delightful creativity, they worked in pairs to build thrones, voting booths, and barracks and used different flavored Gummy Bears to represent different classes in society – as well as dead Gummy Bears to depict the dangers of autocracy. Afterward, they arranged their exhibits around the classroom to create a museum that the entire class then toured.

• Food for Thought: What foods did enslaved women cook for their own families? My U.S. history students literally got a taste of history when they prepared authentic soul food, including collard greens, okra soup and cornbread, and brought the delicious dishes to class to share with their fellow students. 

• Founders League: My U.S. history class has 13 students, the perfect number to recreate the Constitutional Convention of 1787 where each of the 13 states had one vote. I dressed as presiding officer George Washington as students, seated at tables draped in green cloth as at the original convention, presented their state’s concerns. Then all 13 students debated, compromised, and voted to choose the best form of government for the United States. 

Joyful Learning

While we usually think of high school history class as listening to lectures, taking notes, and memorizing dates, I’ve found that students absorb the facts, concepts, and understanding of history most effectively when they are enjoying the learning process. I provide simulations and immersive experiences so that they’ll approach class each day with anticipation, expecting something exciting is going to happen. I want to surprise them and engage them physically, mentally, and emotionally so that we can find the answers together as they learn to love learning. If I can light that fire, I’ve accomplished my goal.      

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