Creativity in the Classroom: Bringing History to Life

Preston Peeden
We sat down recently with upper school history teacher Preston Peeden to talk about an Ancient World History project last spring that stoked the creative fires of 9th grade students. Mr. Peeden presented this project at the Make: Education Forum, a conference for teachers, school leaders, and education experts.
What was the project about?
The Ancient World History teachers (Allegra Molineaux, Hans Decrop, Claire Tam, Justin Symington and me) designed the project for a unit on trade. What we trade, why we trade it, and the impacts of that trade lead to infinite possibilities that can oftentimes only be read in the rearview mirror. The basic prompt was “Make something that teaches the class about trade in the ancient world.” Trade was defined super broadly, not just “I give you and you give me.” It included the exchange of ideas, goods, cultures, and beliefs. The project had to be grounded in facts, with at least four sources for a bibliography. Beyond that, the sky was the limit.
What kind of work did students produce?
It was amazing! Here are just a few examples from my class:
  • A cookbook about the history of pasta, the origins of its ingredients and how they reached parts of the world like Italy – while teaching how to make homemade pasta
  • Hand-shaped surfboards from pre-contact Hawaii with a written piece about how the boards changed over time because of cultural and technological influences from the outside world
  • A movie about Mansa Musa (leader of the Malian empire who was also purportedly the richest person who ever lived) and how his gold caravan dropped global gold prices for over two decades
  • A Risk-style board game based on spice routes and how spices were traded around the Mediterranean
  • A resin sculpture that illustrated Viking navigation

What was the process?
We spent about 10 working days on the project. The first step was for them to decide on their topic. “What are you going to teach, and how are you going to learn about it?” They spent five days evaluating sources and researching. Then we met with them so they could explain why they selected their topic and what they knew about it.
Once they had sufficient mastery of the topic, we then went into blue sky thinking: “If you could do this in the most perfect way you could imagine, what would it look like?” They put the project through some conceptual iterations, then we worked on accessing resources that could help them with their idea. Mr. Pashkow, Ms. Schmidt, and Mr. Oakes were incredibly helpful in getting students into the fabrication studio, the art studio, and metalworking and woodworking spaces. Having those resources ­– both facilities and helpful people with expertise – really let the kids think big.
At the end of the project, we had a gallery walk and presentations so the students could share their work with their peers and teachers.
How did the students respond?
Here are some examples of the kind of reflections they wrote at the end of the project:
“I liked it specifically because we were able to focus the project on something we were passionate about, which made it overall a lot easier and more enjoyable to work on. I feel like when you are working on something you care about learning about you tend to get more out of it.”
“Choosing the topic on our own allows us to gather our own sources. Being only a freshman in high school, this helped me to get familiar with the resources our school offers and get used to citing and finding reliable sources.”
“I have taken away more from this final project than any research paper this year. While the research papers have focused arguments/topics backed by facts, evidence, and analysis, they often miss the big picture of what we are learning, leading students to forget much of what they just wrote about. On the other hand, from this project, I have a firm grasp on the topic of trade and its relevance during the Renaissance.”
What about this project (and others) promotes creativity in the classroom?
There were several factors in this project. First, giving students agency is truly important. They had choices, within certain guidelines, and I encouraged them to pursue what interested them. Second, the presentation aspect of it was key. The project didn’t end up on my desk but with those around them; they had an audience. Third, the blue sky thinking process helped them understand that this could really be something unique. Finally, it was also important that they were grounded and feeling confident in the content. If students don’t feel like they can own and understand what they are learning, they aren’t really going to go for it.
Helping students own their understanding is a primary goal for us. That’s learning. Teachers sometimes assume that information being accessible is the same as learning. But accessibility in the moment for a performance task isn’t learning. That’s just recall in that second.
For curiosity, engagement, and deeper kinds of learning, the key is the class culture that you set. Since we are a Harkness school, every day is conversation-based. I am not the owner of the information. We construct our meanings together. We come in with readings and try to figure them out together and we work towards an end point. It’s inquiry, which is really what studying history about. It’s asking questions of the past rather than memorizing an answer. That daily process helps the kids feel that they can do what historians do. They can research the past, understand the past, analyze the past and try to teach about the past. It’s the everyday work leading up to a project like this that gives students the confidence that they can go for it.