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Sandy Journal

Waterford history teacher makes history come alive, interactive

Dec 14, 2020 02:40PM ● By Julie Slama

Waterford history teacher Aaron Stockham became a poll worker on Election Day to illustrate the importance of the voting process to his students. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Waterford AP U.S. history teacher Aaron Stockham didn’t just vote this fall. He didn’t just discuss the elections in class. He stepped up to be a poll worker.

“I showed my students how I put my values into action,” he said. “There are more ways to get involved, more than voting, and so when I saw on the website that they were needing poll workers, I responded. It’s my first time and it’s been great to see the young people and everyone in the community vote.”

He also wants students to know that history isn’t something they read about in a book.

“I want students not to see history as a bunch of dull names and dates, but there are ways to explore and find how history can excite them,” he said.

As part of that engagement, Stockham teaches with hands-on approaches so students remember what they’re learning. Some of his ideas are his own, others he read about and adapted from a University of Michigan professor.

For example, already this fall, students read and discussed Thomas Payne’s “Common Sense,” which is a 60-page pamphlet published in January 1776 that advocates independence from Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies. Instead of just leaving the lesson there, Stockham asked students to write their own version of “Common Sense.”

“I tell them I’m King Stockham from Stockhamstan and ask them to explain why they believe I’m an idiot,” he said.

That way, Stockham has them apply their understanding and principles to their own writing.

“I’ve been told I’m a fraud since my wife refused my last name or they say I dress like an ape in a tuxedo (since he wears button-down dress shirts) or they say I peaked in high school (since he teaches at his alma mater),” he said. “We’re learning and seeing the importance of literature by reading, analyzing and applying it. Students understand the importance of ‘Common Sense’ as it leads up to the importance of the Declaration of Independence, but they can relate to it as it has colorful language and they can trash talk.”

The assignment goes on to learn about the Declaration of Independence, understanding “here’s a decision we’re making and why we’re making it and about the powerful piece of writing it is.”

Fast forward to January and the study of industrialization and Stockham knows students don’t always understand the significance. 

“I teach why the assembly line is so transformative, knowing they can compete at lower prices to drive out their competition, but students live in an industrial world and don’t understand what it was to live before then when there were small shops and farming before the 1820s,” he said.

So traditionally Stockham asks for a student who is a self-proclaimed expert in making a paper airplane and times them making paper airplanes during a given period. Then, he has small groups in the rest of the class make the same paper airplanes in an assembly line during the same time limit.

“Usually, I have one kid make 10, while the others may make 45,” he said.

This year, with students on a hybrid schedule, he may have those online make the paper airplanes individually and those in the class work together as an assembly line.

“They understand the importance of an assembly line and the conversation about why artisans oppose industrialization,” he said, adding that they then go on to discuss Henry Ford’s assembly line and muckraking in “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

After students take the AP exam in May, Stockham encourages students to step into the role of historians.

“We have students research and choose topics that interest them, usually on the United States stubs, which are on underdeveloped Wikipedia pages,” he said. “Then, as guest editors, they can add details, sources, images and depth to an entry.”

He said that Wikipedia also will tell students if they need more information, which allows the conversation of research and primary sources.

“We’ve run the gamut from students researching obscure Civil War battles to local Utah women and men. Some students have family relationships to those so they’re able to add personal photos,” he said. “The idea behind it is that they’re providing a public service, which is up to date, and exploring topics as historians and getting a sense of what historians do. Wikipedia is a good source of information, but it isn’t an end source. It’s useful to others who are interested in the same things and it’s where most everyone goes first. So, we’re making it an even more reliable source.”

Stockham said his lessons are a way to engross students and make history come “alive.” 

“Students look forward to these and have a chance to think differently,” he said. “Students’ eyes can glaze over when you just read historic topics, but this gives them a chance to think differently, engage in their learning and it’s an approach to do something useful as a historian.”