PHILADELPHIA – This fall, the education for members of an honors history class at St. Mark’s High School has expanded beyond the walls of the Wilmington school.
Some 50 freshmen have been in a virtual classroom for the course, interacting with staff from the University of Pennsylvania several times over the first six weeks of the school year. On Oct. 16, the students traveled to Penn for a campus visit and a tour of the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
It was the next logical step in the coursework, said history teacher Guy Townsend.
“So far we’ve done four virtual classrooms. We’ve done four lessons on Egypt. Next week, we’ll begin our series on Greece,” he said.
“It’s been a great hands-on experience for the kids. It kind of integrates technology with history. The kids are able to interact through the teleconferencing with Penn. They’ve had a good time, and it’s been a very student-centered experience.”
The first exhibit the students toured was “Sacred Writings: Extraordinary Texts of the Biblical World,” which was put together with Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in mind. The exhibit includes various bibles that highlight how the Bible has been represented over time, according to the museum. It includes one of the world’s oldest fragments of the Gospel of St. Matthew, written on papyrus that dates to the third century; an ancient clay tablet in Sumerian cuneiform from Mesopotamia from 1600 BCE (before the Common Era, or before Christ); and two folios from a Qur’an from Iran copied and signed by its writer in 1164.
One of the highlights was a short presentation on the sacred writings by Steve Tinney, the deputy director and chief curator of the museum. Tinney was able to provide the students expert details about the pieces in the exhibit.
Student Michael Williams said book learning is good, but he gets more out of the virtual classrooms and especially the visit to the museum.
“I have a good interest in world history. It’s really interesting to hear and see what has gone before me and to see how we are standing here today,” he said. “It’s such an honor and privilege to be here because it’s an Ivy League school, one of the best in the country.”
Learning outside the book
As the students ate lunch, Williams said he was looking forward to the Iraq exhibit, as was his classmate, Eric Ludman, who said getting out of the classroom was invigorating.
“It helps us learn more, outside of the book. I think it’s really good,” he said.
St. Mark’s teamed up with the Penn Museum over the summer to design the program. Through video, and then during the visit, the students have had access to the museum’s education personnel and archaeologists. Townsend said technology is so much a part of the students’ lives and of education that it is absolutely necessary to integrate the learning experience.
“It’s important to get the kids more engaged in learning about history, going beyond just pages in a textbook, actually bringing history to life,” he said. “Any time you can get the kids out of the classroom and into an alternative learning environment, that’s always a plus.”
One of the activities the students participated in was a scavenger hunt inside the museum. They broke into groups of four and went in search of different objects, using their phones to take photographs that were used to create a video presentation for class.
Da’Mara Arrington, a freshman from New Castle, said she prefers this approach to learning. “I feel like I’m more involved in the classroom (because of this initiative), so I can learn more about it. My brain is like a sponge. I learn about it more.”