Tag Archives: Ancient History

Video for the Classroom: A Tour through Ancient Rome, courtesy of Khan Academy and Rome Reborn

This is the type of history video Khan Academy needs!

A Tour Through Ancient Rome is a collaboration between Khan and the Rome Reborn project, an initiative to create digital models of Rome from its foundation settlements to its depopulated self during the 6th century CE.  This tour is narrated mostly by Rome Reborn director and University of Virginia professor Dr. Bernard Frischer.

The video juxtaposes a magnificent digital rendering of ancient Rome around the year 320 to various modern and ancient images of artifacts, buildings and ruins.  Dr. Frischer’s narrative contains none of the boring, linear, rote stock pedantics of other Khan humanities videos.  In fact, for a 14-minute video lecture, it’s surprisingly fun to watch.

Khan Academy had better take note: if it wants its history and humanities videos to get the same hits as its math and science films, it had better quit the light-pen Chinese takeout menu-look that it thrives upon and make the videos actually ENGAGING.

…I mean, God forbid kids actually ENJOY learning about history.

 

 

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Videos for the Classroom: Crash Course!

I cringe at the word “kid-friendly” — sounds like a bad Law and Order: SVU episode.

One of the constant missions of the Neighborhood is to find resources that tap into the caffeine-addled brains of young people.   In the quest to find “kid-friendly” material, most of what I find is directed at…okay, I’ll say it…good little white children.  Good little pasty white kids that sit still and believe anything told to them because a happy smiling face in a toga (or bonnet or Abe Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat) tells them so.

Today, even the good little white kids aren’t really that good nor that white–you can thank TMZ, MTV and YouTube for that.

So to connect with today’s kids, we need something a little edgier.  Crash Course! is a series of films about history and science, told in an irreverent, snarky way by brothers John and Hank Green.  The World History series I saw was pretty entertaining, although the producers do make clear that historical people have sex (they get around it with a folksy word that I forgot).  They are, however, loaded with data, facts and historical debate, when necessary–these guys don’t hide their biases, and it’s important for kids to see someone unashamed of their opinions.

If it weren’t for the occasional sex references, I’d recommend Crash Course! to middle schoolers on up.  It’s perfectly fine for high school, but you may need some discretion with younger viewers.  I’ve attached the episode on Alexander the Great to get an idea.  Enjoy.

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How “Philosophy Bro” Helped me Corrupt the Youth, Socrates-style

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.

On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review.  It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her.  I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.

The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room.  They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students.  The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.

My students, of course, stole the show.

As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress.  My supervisor laughed nervously.  The other reviewers gasped.

I couldn’t be prouder.  There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.

Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room.  Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire.  Student-produced definitions of “civilization.”  Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.”  Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.

My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk.  Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.”  I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer.  At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”

“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained.  “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”

There was no reason to panic.  A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc.  Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.

This is why I love philosophy.  It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.

I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough.  I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.

In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.

Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization.  It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it.  If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.

Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.

P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points  of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market.  Yet he goes one step further.  In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought.  He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.

Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all.  I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die.  Bullshit.  I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE.  Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.

Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle.  We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line.  P-Bro nailed it.  What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail.  In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.

(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)

So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students.  They got it immediately.  It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.

The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator.  Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.

…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.

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Videos for the Classroom: The Western Tradition

As regular followers of the Neighborhood can tell you, I was a pretty dorky kid.

It wasn’t enough that I sat and read the encyclopedia cover to cover.  Nor was it enough as a precocious 8 year old explaining human reproduction to my mother–on a crowded city bus.

I actually got up early for school…to watch school on TV.

Especially during middle and high school, I would get up at a ridiculously early hour.  Most of the time, it was simply to unwind and have some time to myself before I go off to the drudgery of classes.  Usually I could watch a movie on the VHS, or an old show I taped the night before.

Eventually, I was hooked on the most surprising of programs–a college lecture.

Produced by the Annenberg Foundation and broadcast on PBS, The Western Tradition was a 1989 series of 52 televised lectures given by UCLA history professor Eugen Weber.  It covered the development of Western civilization from the dawn of agriculture to the technological age, and wove many common themes together into a unified theory: trends in technology, social movements, government, economics, religion and art.

For me, it was an early entry into the world of higher education, and I was hooked.

Not only were the lectures rich, informative and compelling, they were delivered by a professor whose cadence even today is the benchmark for a great college history professor.  Dr. Weber was born in Romania and educated at Cambridge, so his Eastern European Oxbridge lilt was both comforting and erudite.  His pronunciation of names was impeccable–I thought all professors should sound like that.

Its not really for kids younger than high school age, but these lectures give a great overview of the main topics of Western civilization.  They also give kids a heads-up on what is expected of college students–it sure isn’t “accountable talk” and Common Core, is it?

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Videos for the Classroom: What the Ancient Greeks Did for Us

Since I work double-duty as a social studies AND science teacher, I’m always looking for ways to combine the two…sometimes out of piquing interest, often out of laziness.

Today’s offering is just plain fun.

I’ve seen various episodes of this BBC series over the years.  What the Ancients Did for Us is a 2005 series on  BBC that detailed the accomplishments of various ancient societies and their impact on our lives today.  It was derived from earlier shows that looked at contributions from earlier periods of British history, such as the Tudor period, the Stuart era or the Industrial Revolution.

Yet this is no ordinary history documentary.  Ancients was produced in conjunction with the Open University, the largest British university by student enrollment and a pioneer in distance learning.  As such, it not only provides information on the civilization (names, dates, and whatnot) but also practical demonstrations of the kind of technology used at that time period–often with amazing results.

I’ve attached the episode on the Ancient Greeks, as this is the next unit we will be studying in my class.  I’ve already previewed the film to a few students of mine, and they all saw the experiments (from Archimedes’ screw to Hero’s steam Jet engine) as great ideas for science fair projects.  One even wanted to try out Archimedes’ famed “Death Ray” – the mirrored weapon used to angle the sun’s thermal energy towards wooden galleys with devastating results.

I’m not sure that will fly with the principal (nor the fire chief) but the series is a great connection between science and history.

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ORBIS: The Coolest Map of the Roman Empire Ever, thanks to Stanford University

Orbis

ORBIS view, courtesy of Stanford University

If all roads led to Rome, then how many roads must a man walk down to get to Rome…

or Athens…or Alexandria…or Jerusalem for that matter?

The folks at our west coast Ivy, Stanford University, came up with one of the most interesting solutions to this problem.

Meet ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Model of the Roman World.  In layman’s terms, meet the Google Maps of the Roman Empire.

ORBIS was designed by a team of historians, classicists and IT specialists.  Walter Scheidel, a Roman historian in the Classics and History departments, painstakingly mapped out roads, routes, sea lanes, settlements, obstacles, mountain passes, and anything else used for transportation in the Roman world.  His research further helped calculate distances, travel times, travel costs, adjustments for wind currents, altitude, population…just about anything you need to travel around 200 CE.

With IT experts Elijah Meeks, Karl Grossner and Naomi Alvarez, Scheidel and company created a model that calculates time and cost for various transportation routes  throughout the Empire.  According to their website, ORBIS uses about 751 sites (cities, towns and prominent landmarks), of which 268 are sea ports.  There are 84,631 kilometers (52,587 miles) of roads and desert tracks, 28,272 kilometers (17,567 miles) of navigable rivers and canals, as well as 900 sea routes which averages a total distance of 180,033 kilometers (111,864 miles).

Never mind all that.  I had loads of fun playing with the ORBIS mapping application.

One of the tabs is Mapping ORBIS, which allows someone to map a distance between Roman settlements using various forms of transportation.  For example, to travel from Rome to Londinium (today’s London) in January, on foot or on riverboat, would take about 41.8 days covering 2436 kilometers.  It also gives shipping and travel costs in denarii, or Roman currency, per kilogram of wheat by donkey (25.53), by wagon (31.46), or per passenger in a carriage (a whopping 1624.24).  ORBIS even provides the settlements where you stop along the way.

I cannot wait to use ORBIS in my class when the Ancient Rome unit gets around.  This application is an incredible tool for the classroom, especially for students that still cannot get around the complexities of travel in the ancient world.  ORBIS provides, using the most accurate research, a first-hand look at travel in the Third Century CE.

Please let me know how you’re doing with it…and make sure to tell them the Neighborhood sent you.  Enjoy.

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The Return to the Neighborhood – Mr. D is back!

I'm Back by popular demand!It took quite a while, but the Neighborhood is back in business!

To be honest, I was really expecting to post at least once a week when I started my new position.  However, this year I learned of a new kind of exhaustion.

My new school, in all fairness, is such a refreshing change from my old situation that my exhaustion was barely noticed.  It’s a charmed life: a K-8 neighborhood school in a Bronx neighborhood reminiscent of my ancestral haunts in Brooklyn, with incredible colleagues and administrators that really back me up to the hilt.  Few teachers nowadays get that kind of treatment anymore.

Yet the Neighborhood had to take a back seat to a cruel mistress-two of them, in fact.  Ancient history was less demanding.  Sixth grade science, on the other hand, has had me doing tricks that would make a Flying Wallenda soil his tights.  Its been rough creating basically a whole new curriculum on the fly, especially in two subject areas.  History was simply a refresher: it was nothing some pyramids, a Hammurabi Code and some gladiators couldn’t fix.

Science…well…let’s just say for years we’ve had an understanding.  We usually stay out of each other’s way.

Yet when the principal asked if I could teach science during my interview, of course I nodded.  I could teach anything.  A superteacher like me only needs a stopwatch and some dry-erase markers to make kids recite Herodotus in the original Greek or do long division while explaining word problems in perfect iambic pentameter.

In other words, I lied.  Sort of.  Hey, I wanted the gig.

So between physics formulas, ancient artifacts and suffering through a broken Smartboard and a stack of paperwork I never had to do before, my life has been pretty much exhausted to the point that the Neighborhood was neglected.

Well, no more.

The Neighborhood will be back to give the usually refreshing, mostly irreverent, oftentimes crass and always honest commentary on American and world history, history education and education in general.

So to start…how about a teaching tool designed by yours truly?

One thing I really needed at the beginning of the year was a good comprehensive, all-inclusive introduction to the ancient history curriculum.  Since I’m known to knock around a decent PowerPoint or two, I created this introductory presentation as a jumping off point for lesson planning, assessments, projects, whatever you need.  It starts with a world map where you click on individual areas and it shows information about the “Big Four” civilizations usually studied (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome).  Each section has maps, pictures, short bios of important people and key contributions of each people.

It isn’t a silver bullet, but the presentation is a good way to get students to think about deeper exploration of various themes.  The link is below:

Introduction to Ancient Civilizations

PS – It has my real name on it…as if it were a big secret LOL.  Enjoy.

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