Monday, December 7, 2015

Benicia High School teacher promotes hands-on education

(Originally published in the 12/6/15 edition)

   Anybody can read about history, but it is another thing for people to feel like they are living past history as they learn about it. 
   Such is the concept of project-based learning, which allows students to learn about subjects through hands-on activities rather than just straight lectures. In the wake of California’s Common Core academic standards that were put forth in 2010, more schools are adopting this approach, including schools in San Jose and Fresno.
   However, one Benicia High School educator had been utilizing project-based learning long before that.
   History teacher Edward Coyne has gained a reputation on campus for his student-involved projects, and he was even featured in a KQED article and interviewed by NPR on the topic.
   “When I first began teaching, I tried experimenting with projects,” he said.
   Coyne’s history classes cover everything from imperialism to the Industrial Revolution to the Cold War. For his unit on the French Revolution, Coyne demonstrates life before the Revolution by removing all desks from the classroom and providing only a few chairs. Those lucky enough to grab the chairs get to play the roles of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and assorted feudal lords. Those who sit on the floor become peasants. The peasants then draw strands of wheat on paper and calculate profits. The lords get 10 percent of the profits while the peasants get nothing and King Louis and his wife get the reamainder, giving students a lesson in economic power and inequality before the French Revolution.
   “Students learn in ways I could never imagine,” Coyne said. “They gain skills in collaboration, verbal, written and electronic communication, math, analysis, problem solving, and my favorite: historical critical thinking.”
   Coyne has also gotten students to participate in a citywide Cold War simulation, which involves students figuring out nuclear codes.
   However, he says response to the projects have been mixed.
   “The majority of students like them,” he said. “But of course, there are the ones that say ‘Just give me a handout so I can fill it in’ or ‘I don't want to think, just give us the answers.’”
   Nonetheless, the projects remain a big hit, and other teachers at the school have utilized similar methods.
   “I have gotten (history teacher Will) Fritz to share his talents, and we do the Cold War project together,” Coyne said.  “Last year, we had almost 300 students involved.  This year, we have had interest from the P.E. Department and English Department to see if we can incorporate their students.”
   Overall, Coyne believes that hands-on projects are the best way to get students to retain what they learned and apply it to the real world.
   “They will gain an abundance of experience and memories,” he said.  “I look at it this way:  if they are talking about history outside of class, outside of school and/or with their parents and other students, I win.”   


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