I first learned about Darin Maier’s City Video project the way I learn about most everything of worth on campus . . . in a google chat message from the fabulous Hollie Marjanovic: “You need to showcase Darin Maier’s city video project from his US History class! I just watched one and it was awesome!!!!!!!! Really engaging for ALL our students.”
I was immediately intrigued and emailed Darin to get more info. I learned that the project gave students the chance to showcase a city of their choosing through either writing or the creation of a short video. When I asked if he’d be willing to share what he learned with teachers, he replied in typical understated Darin fashion: “Before I say yes, I really feel like I should see what I actually got back from the students to see if that’s a hill on which I wish to plant my flag.” Lucky for us, the student work must have been decent, because a week later I secured a 20 minute conversation with Darin about how the City Video Project came to be. And I got a whole lot more than cool ideas for a new form of assessment. I got some deep insight into the pedagogical design process Darin calls “indigenous creation”, the ways that frustration can actually be fertile ground for something new to grow, and the fact that effective beats out the word innovative every time.
So, Darin, tell us the story of how this project came to be.
So really I actually started in AP government . . we just had some time and we were talking about places that people had been and so really I decided to extend it to US history. So you know, all they had to do to begin is identify three cities that they consider to be their favorite and discuss why one of them was their favorite; identify a city that they would like to go to, but they have not been to yet (with the provision that airports don’t count). It was really intended to be something that’s going to help the students’ grades out a little bit. You know, as you complete this, you get eight points. And given that a test in my class is normally forty points, eight is not inconsiderable.
Sounds fascinating. . . especially right now when we are all missing travel. Did students have sample writing or videos they watched to get a sense of what you were looking for?
I have in the past as summer reading, assigned a book called America by Charles Kuralt. He went to a different place every month and he writes about it. . . . on the road with Charles traveling around and just meeting people. And so he writes about his experiences in each of these 12 areas. So the students then [had] the option to either do a short essay that sort of was an attempt to mimic that. And so I had them read the New Orleans chapter, which is the first place that he goes. I picked New Orleans because for most students that’s something that they could easily contextualize. And so they had the option of writing or they had the option of doing these videos. So I also gave them a couple of videos of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which is near where I grew up, so I could look at it and say, “okay, yeah, that’s a pretty accurate representation.” And so some of them chose to do videos. Of course, you know, some of them are much more adapted . . . So, the thing wasn’t really to see, “okay, how good are your video editing skills?” [Instead it was] “can you make something that has some context and some content that really expresses why it is that this city is a special place to you?”
Did most students choose writing or video? And did they take up the project in any ways that surprised you?
I would say the majority went for writing but I know of at least four who did videos and then there were two groups of two students that paired up to do the video. Then you start getting these other questions, like, “okay, does it have to be a city?” And the answer was no, really doesn’t have to be a city. So, you know, one of the places that was on the list of Evan Champney. I think his essay is probably going to be about the Grand Canyon. Oh, that’s cool. And then it doesn’t even have to be a single place. So Emma did one on Route 66.
I mean, when you say Route 66, it’s like, well, how much more iconically American you get than that? and so I was like, “I can’t come up with a reason why I should say no.” It’s the great American road. So I absolutely have to say yes to something like that, especially when they’re thinking in that way, and it was connected to her family traveling that road. They actually had some of their family come over from Europe and they started in Chicago and drove all the way out to California. And her immediate family met up with them in Oklahoma. And then it was just things as simple as iconic restaurants and diners and hotels that are traveling on Route 66.
Love that. What advice do you have for other faculty trying something similar?
It was definitely a happy convergence of probably a few accidents and now I have something I can utilize and build off of. It’s like the movie fact check paper– I just got sick of reading about the Salem Witch Trials seven times every fall so I was like “enough of this” you know, because it wasn’t fair to the kids by the time you get to the fifth one and, having grown up in that area, I had been to the Salem Witch museum multiple times when we learned about it . . I wouldn’t say it’s likeNew England Aquarium where there was a point where I could probably have given the tour. For Salem, I probably wasn’t quite to tour-giving level, but I’ve been there a lot.
That’s hilarious. Frustration is the best birthplace of invention!
No I wouldn’t go that far. I think sometimes the annoyance and the desire to avoid being annoying can generate its own creativity.. So it’s like how do we do this and that just was sort of an idea. I thought it was something that the students also might enjoy doing because they have a movie that they probably have in mind or they have a movie they would like to see an opportunity to see it. So this might just give them the motivation to watch a particular movie.
It really just sort of, it was, it was one of those things, it was almost a happy accident. It was very, very much an indigenous creation. It wasn’t something that I cannibalized from some other teacher somewhere . . . It was something “Okay. Well, let’s see where it goes and where this goes.”
Wow I love the phrase you just used saying that this project came about as an “indigenous creation.” We don’t often talk about how messily-conceived these new ideas often are. Can you say more about that?
So yeah. I would love to tell you that there was some grand master plan behind all of this, but there really wasn’t. It was one thing just sort when I started thinking, in fact the idea to do the video/writing, was actually one of these things that I had them fill out the Google form and then the next day in the shower I was going “Well, why not do that with this? Okay. Let’s see where this goes”. You know, before she retired, I had been talking to Julia about the concept of innovation, and you might take offense to this. It’s like “I don’t necessarily spend my time trying to figure out how to be innovative. I’d rather be effective.”
No offense taken!! I have a love/hate relationship with the word “innovation” myself.
I think we, we assume that it’s, you know, a lot of these things that have the bells and whistles, therefore they’re innovative and good. If I could be effective without being innovative, I would do that. And if I can be effective and innovative simultaneously, I would do that. And if I could be effective and innovative on some things and not others, I would do that too. So this seemed to also be something that fit into line with this idea that I keep playing with that at some point I might do to run this as more of an American Studies than a straight US history.
That idea is fascinating; I would have loved a class like that when I was in high school!
[We could] get into perhaps some of the music, get into some of the literature, which really, because I’m not a literature person. . . . Something along the lines of Douglas Brinkley’s The Majic Bus. But actually not getting on a bus and traveling all around the country and having to corral 20 students. Although that could be really fun. Well, that’d be kind of a fun thing to do the summer after they graduate.
Oh wow- the idea of an American Studies course is exciting. It could really set our curriculum apart from other schools and has immediate relevance that is hard to resist.
. . . Playing with that idea of American studies, you know, dealing, even with questions like, and we did this a little bit in the spring with last year’s juniors, to look at various songs that had been identified as sort of the genesis of rock music. There’s actually a debate among music scholars of what is the first rock song. You know, everybody sort of says, well, you know, “Rock Around the Clock”, by Bill Haley and his Comets because that was the first rock song to get to number one on billboard. But there are these two authors that have written this book and they actually have like 50 different candidates for the first rock song, I think, to go all the way back to like 1928. So I played some of those songs and you know, just a question: “Do you consider this to be a rock song. If it’s not, what do you consider it to be. If it is, why do you think it’s a rock song?” So that that’s really sort of how some of this got started really thinking about trying to think about it in an American studies context, as opposed to straight US History context.
Darin’s City Video project took me on a journey across the country, sure, but the conversation we had also took me on a different kind of, more introspective trip. What do we mean when we say the word “innovation”? Why do we teach the curriculum we teach? How can we leverage our moments of frustration to catapult us into something new, something better? We may not have all the answers now, but his project highlights that teaching is nothing if not a journey: always moving, always messy, and (if you are willing to evolve) rarely boring.