- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
For sophomores in Mark Howell’s AP American history class at Westlake High School, it has been a year of presidents. Recently, they were in the midst of learning about Andrew Jackson, and when the class had the opportunity to talk via teleconference to author Kenneth C. Davis, who created the “Don’t Know Much About ...” book series and wrote “Don’t Know Much About American Presidents,” Howell asked about Jackson’s presidency and his legacy.
The question got the ball rolling, and soon students were lining up to question Davis, who was sitting in his home office in New York City.
In Room 231 at Westlake, students are connected with authors and experts in the subjects they are tackling via Skype and teleconference technology. Telepresence is high-definition audio and video allowing two or more groups to meet face-to-face from different locations.
“I sit alone in my office and write,” Davis told the class, beaming from two large screens at the front of the classroom. “I never expected to be talking to classrooms. I learn as much from you guys as I may be telling you.”
Ricardo Cardoza asked which president made the greatest impact on the country.
In his opinion, Davis said, there were two: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Lincoln came from poverty and Roosevelt from one of the wealthiest families in the nation, but both connected with the average American and that ability elevated them.
Lincoln shines for Davis because of how he confronted the crisis of the Civil War and slavery.
He did it using humor, humility and humanity, and those are attributes that every great president must have. Roosevelt shaped the 20th century with programs and initiatives he put into play, like labor laws, Social Security, bank insurance and the minimum wage.
Student Cordae Dunston asked Davis about the Japanese-American internment that Roosevelt authorized following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“Almost every president makes mistakes, and that was his biggest mistake,” Davis said. “Fear and suspicion leads to mistakes.”
Cordae had a follow up question, asking if that fear and suspicion was what was behind the war in Iraq and the search for weapons of mass destruction.
Davis was impressed with the questions that were lobbed at him about the father-and-son presidents —John Adams and John Quincy Adams and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — and Harry S. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb.
“Curiosity is important, and it is important to continue to ask questions and be curious and don’t be satisfied by the simple answer,” Davis said. “That’s what school should really be about, being curious and finding out answers, and technology has given you the opportunity.”
Students appreciate telepresence because it gives them another voice, opinions and ideas to mull over.
“I always thought Mr. Howell knew everything,” said student Elizabeth Ravancho.
“Mr. Howell does know everything,” classmate Gregory Bice said.
“But this is a different learning experience,” Elizabeth added.
Telepresence has allowed Westlake students in various classes to conference with humor columnist Dave Barry and science fiction writer Cyn Balog; they have talked to a man who witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, sat in on documentarian Ken Burns talking about his Dust Bowl project and talked to representatives of the Pro Football Hall of Fame about sports merchandising and branding.
“This generation has the world at its fingertips as it happens,” Howell said.
Teacher James Mascia oversees the telepresence classroom.
“We have this technology,” he said. “Why not use it?”
He scours the Internet for authors and others who might have something to share with students and starts sending out emails and inquiries. What’s the worst that can happen? They say “no,” and Mascia will keep looking. But many guests jump at sharing their knowledge with interested students.
Telepresence “affords our students opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Holly Dolan, a resource teacher at the Waldorf school who helps coordinate speakers and programs. “It provides an authentic learning opportunity. This is the new era of education. [Information technology] is invaluable, and it wouldn’t be possible without ... telepresence.”
With all the talk about the global community, Dolan said that by connecting students with experts, witnesses to history, authors and giants of their respective fields, “We’re showing students that they are a part of the global community.”