Back when I was teaching in front of a traditional classroom, in those days when we used chalk to outline the main points of our lecture, I’d often have my students draw timelines on big rolls of butcher paper that I would then hang on a wall of the classroom for reference. The power of the visual timeline gave students a sense of perspective as we discussed historical happenings.
In that vein, I’ve played around with the SIMILE timeline tools for awhile now, one of my earlier efforts being the crowdsourced Mormon Women’s Timeline project for The Exponent blog and my most recent effort using a WordPress plugin for creating a timeline for my Environmental History class. While the WordPress plugin is easier than creating a timeline from a Google spreadsheet, as I did with the Mormon Women’s timeline, I’m finding that the loading of the timeline widget has slowed down my class website considerably, and when I’ve tried to customize the category colors for the widget, it breaks the timeline and I have to uninstall it completely and then re-install it to make the timeline functional again. Also, my students who bring mobile devices to class instead of laptops, can’t scroll the timeline so they’re feeling frustrated with my attempt to use it as a teaching tool.
So now I’m feeling somewhat tempted to bring back the butcher paper and crayola markers and have my students create something wall-sized and analog instead of digital. Because, although they enjoyed the ‘wow’ moment when their blogposts first started populating the digital timeline, their frustrations with it seem to have eclipsed their initial enthusiasm. And I’m not sure that they’re actually getting much from it, visually, because of the technical limitations of the WordPress plugin.
It brings to mind some of my recent feelings that it’s important to mix a wide variety of pedagogical approaches in my classroom. Some students will learn better when they are hand-lettering a poster rather than typing up a blogpost assignment. When we had our class at the train station a few weeks ago I bought a small chalkboard along for a lesson about maps. I found it utterly painful to be drawing anything on that board–trying to hold it with my left hand and balance it on one knee while writing on it with my right hand. It was cumbersome and slow. But the feedback from my students was overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve noticed that they seem to have remembered that lesson better than others that I taught with the benefit of an overhead projector, a laptop, and an internet connection.
It reminds me of the THATCampSoCal conference that I organized at Chapman a few years ago where the favorite hangout during the event was the “Craft Cabin” where attendees could do hands-on project with historical flickr images. Time flew by as we decoupaged and stamped and painted and glued stuff together. What I produced there wasn’t so important as the place to play and create and to admire others’ artistic work. After spending so much time at the keyboard it felt satisfying to pick up a pair of scissors and a paintbrush, instead.