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New interactive technology turns classrooms into time machines

Interactive programming gets them up close and personal with history — from the Civil War to the Great Depression.

In the deepest depths of the Minnesota Historical Society’s St. Paul headquarters, an actor named Jack Matheson dons a felt ranger’s hat and picks up a wooden crate of leafy shoots. Standing in front of the same kind of green screen that TV stations use to project the weather map behind meteorologists, he’s ready for one of his favorite roles.

The studio is equipped with a sophisticated two-way video-conferencing system that allows Matheson to interact with students in pretty much any classroom in the world. This particular costume-and-props combo will help him transport kids back to 1933 and the Great Depression.

The lesson in question is about the New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Matheson uses the artificial saplings in the crate to lead the students in an interactive recreation of the corps’ mammoth effort to reforest areas denuded by logging.

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There’s math. There’s reading. And there’s physical activity.

Each crate contains 100 saplings, and the 200 young men at each camp were expected to plant 10 crates a day, five days a week. As the math gets worked out in 2014, some kids get up and assume the role of corps members.

The rest are trees. Some crumple to the ground during deforestation. During a later phase of the lesson arms rise, representing the new saplings.

Accompanying curriculum for use before and after the video session includes stories of corps members drawn from the Historical Society’s vast collections. Students learn how much the young men who worked on the project were paid, how much they were expected to send home to their destitute families and how little people had to eat.

History brought to life

Welcome to History Live, a nationally recognized effort entering its fourth year. Although all of the content of the nine interactive lessons has a Minnesota component, teachers anywhere can request one of the virtual field trips.

The Historical Society has long offered education services, but the interactive video sessions are an advance on multiple fronts.

“We’ve always had the content, it’s just a matter of how to get it into the schools,” said Joanna Danks, the society’s education marketing manager.

“It used to be the costumed person would drive out to a school to do an interactive, 40- to 50-minute lesson. That meant an eight-hour day for a one-hour experience.”

Enter Video Guidance, a local “distance-learning” company that provides technology that, oversimplified, bridges any incompatibility between the videoconferencing equipment the actors and educators in St. Paul are using and whatever less sophisticated capability a school may have.

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“Most schools, if they have an internet connection we can get to them,” said Mike Werch, president of the company. “This is not the video-conferencing of 20 years ago.”

Out of their seats

Indeed not. Because it was aimed at younger kids, the New Deal lesson had students out of their seats and moving. A lesson for high schoolers, “The Dred Scott Family and the National Debate About Slavery,” is billed as BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device.

There is still a video conference component, but students are encouraged to use whatever interactive technology they have on hand — their smartphones, iPads, laptops and the like — to participate.

At one point in the lesson, they are asked to rewrite the infamous decision in eight words. A digital mash-up of their submissions goes up, populated by cartoons. After the best rewrites are voted on, a slightly creepy Uncle Sam avatar reads the best examples out loud.

And there is nuance. Students talk about the decision’s role in the Civil War, and about subsequent amendments to the U.S. Constitution. (An irony: Asked during the lesson to report the three pieces of property that are most important to them, students frequently name their phones, computers and pets.)

Demand is particularly high for lessons involving black and American Indian history, where teachers who do not specialize in history often fear they will make a mistake.

Elementary-level teachers have to teach multiple subjects, noted Matheson. And often to classes that include pupils whose backgrounds mean they know more than the teacher.

In addition, elementary-level teachers are not specialists in any particular subject. And the arrival of new state standards for what students should know in English language arts and other subjects has educators scrambling to find curricula that communicates what students are supposed to be learning.

And because Video Guidance has largely eliminated technological barriers, the program is able to reach students in underserved communities.

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Growing popularity

History Live is paid for partly from Minnesota’s Legacy funds, and partly by schools and by the technology co-ops that serve them, particularly in Greater Minnesota. A lesson costs $75 for an in-state school and $120 for one outside the state.

“Our goal is to serve the whole state,” said Matheson.

Some of the lessons are proving popular in other parts of the country. Forty percent of the classrooms that participate in the Dred Scott lesson are elsewhere, for example. And a lesson on Inventions that Changed the Nation is a popular request.

Teacher feedback has been enthusiastic enough to earn the actors and educators who create and bring life to the lessons three consecutive years of awards from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration.

“Teachers really look to us to be the experts,” said Danks. “We’re not a state agency, but we are really the only folks who are producing history for Minnesota.”