Digital Textbook Inquiry Tasks for the Renaissance

by Dave Scott

What follows is post number two of a four part series on the curricular potential of digital textbooks. These posts are the result of an action research study I have been involved in as part of a research initiative at Calgary Science School to encourage innovation and reflective practice within an inquiry-based environment.
Recently, there has been much discussion of Apple’s free iBook 2 application that allows anyone to create interactive textbooks for the popular iPad tablet. See this article here for details on an application Apple believes is going to revolutionize the textbook market. In working on what I have been referring to as an “Integrated Inquiry Resource” created for a grade 8 Humanities unit on the Renaissance (see this blog post here for the resource itself) over the last year, I too have been trying to create a classroom resource that could leverage the potential of a digital textbook. In the next two blog posts I would like to report on feedback I have received from students as to the curricular potential of the digital resource I created. Let me begin by outlining the inquiry tasks I created within this digital textbook.
Within this resource, I provided among other things, links to short videos on the historical events addressed in the unit, inquiry questions meant to encourage students to think critically and uncover the themes and content connected to specific aspects of the Renaissance, as well as assessment rubrics and accompanying strategies to help students provide sophisticated responses to the inquiry tasks outlined after each section. By undertaking the tremendous work involved in creating a digital textbook from scratch, it was my hope that, through creating opportunities for a flipped classroom (see this article for a full explanation on what this entails), Khan Academy style tutorials, and links to remarkable videos, I could create something that would make the classroom only one site where meaningful learning takes place.
To this end, within the resource I began by trying to provide the context needed to understand the creative flourishing and rebirth of classical (Ancient Greek and Roman) learning that was the Renaissance. Here, I included a chapter outlining some of the major events, from the Golden Age of Ancient Greece to the Fall of Rome on through to the Black Death, to provide the historical background of this age of renewal and rebuilding. Writing in a conversational voice, I accompanied a brief discussion of each period with hyperlinks to short video clips posted on YouTube of various documentaries drawn from sources such as the History Channel and PBS, to help bring these events to life. Noting that the Renaissance can be understood as period of renewal and rebuilding after the ravages of the Black Death, this video on the Bubonic Plague is an example of the kinds of documentary clips I used to help show the impact this event had on Europe. At the end of this section in the digital resource, students were asked to create a historical timeline outlining the historical events covered in this 2,500-year expanse of history. Here is an example of a historical timeline students created:
From here, after providing a series of lectures on the different aspects that make up the event we now call the Italian Renaissance, I had students choose from a list of five characteristics that can describe this time period (i.e., a period of renewal after the ravages of the Black Death, a period of intense artistic activity). Then using the cartoon-making program Pixton, we had students explain this particular characteristic of the Renaissance in this graphic novel style medium. See this Demonstrating Understanding Through Pixton blog post for an explanation of this task, along with the comic below for examples of the kind of work students created:
Students were then asked to choose from a list of 16 developments that led to the Italian Renaissance (i.e., The Crusades, contact with the Islamic World, the fall of the Byzantine Empire) and after a talking to the text note taking exercise, create a SES (state, explain, support) paragraph on their area. After presenting their development to the class, as a culminating final activity, students were asked to use criteria for historical significance and decide which development was the most historically significant for igniting a Renaissance in northern Italy during the 15th and 16th century. As a culminating activity for this section, students were asked to defend their decision in a horseshoe debate format. Here, the emphasis was on developing two arguments as to why your event was significant, developing these ideas, and identifying historical facts to back up your opinion. Unfortunately video footage of the debate was erased, however, here is an example of a student’s debate script.
In the final section, we created a series of tasks that, among other things, sought to surface the worldview of key Humanist and Renaissance thinkers. To take one example, after revisiting the concept of Humanism emphasizing that this movement involved the rejection of the medieval obsession with the afterlife at the expense of this life and placed man and his potential at the centre of things, using two superb video clips to bring students deeper into this notion, we asked students the following question:
Drawing on this History Channel video Humanism Triggers the Renaissance, and after watching this Clamation version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, how do you think Humanist thinkers would have interpreted the symbols in this story meant to contain a hidden meaning?

See this blog post for video footage of what this conversation looked like. Here, rather than just saying the Renaissance involved the revival of Greek learning, I wanted to show this by bringing students into the world that Humanists would have been encountering in reading the ancient classics of Plato and Aristotle. Here is an example of a student response to this question:

Symbol 1: I believe that the Humanists would have interpreted the chains as a barrier holding them back. The barrier is the overpowering belief of God or a supreme being, which is stopping them from moving forward. Due to such an intense belief of God, people would assume that God would give them the inventions, which held them back from taking the initiative to actually do something. Cities and towns would not have been nearly as progressed because people believed that if it were meant to be, God would have made it as such. However, when the belief of humanism became popular, people became motivated to do things on their own and cities became more advanced much sooner. In the video, the cave dweller’s hands are chained back, showing that their belief in God is restricting them from advancing and pushing forward.

Symbol 2: It is my belief that the Humanists would have interpreted the real world outside as reality. Just a glance at the real world would have shown the cave dwellers that they did not need God, or a higher being to control them. People could do things on their own, rely on themselves instead of some mythical being. The real world was representing what the world could be if people believed in themselves, and believed that the individual could be great. In the video, the cave dwellers are unable to see the reality of the world, because they are chained back by the belief of God. I think this is showing that many extreme religionists were unable to open their eyes, and turn around to see the real world.

One thought on “Digital Textbook Inquiry Tasks for the Renaissance

  1. Dave, your posting on the curricular potential of digital resources is very timely with the recent announcement of Apple's iBook 2 application. The work you have done in preparing the digital resources on the Renaissance and the student exemplars are very impressive! Clearly, the resources you have developed authentically engaged your students, enriched their learning experiences and facilitated the development of a deep understanding of the Renaissance. Garry McKinnon

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