PBS in the Classroom

Exploring History Through Real Time Interaction

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A Brush With Fame

Some moments in life etch themselves in memory more deeply than others. For me, one such moment occurred last summer at the National History Day contest on the University of Maryland campus. While trudging across campus with my student contest participants in our bright green Iowa t-shirts, I had a brush with fame – literally. Imagine my surprise when a golf cart carrying famed documentarian, KEN BURNS, buzzed by me on its way to the opening ceremony where he was serving as keynote speaker. Realizing my fleeting opportunity, I screeched, “Ken Burns!” and began running as only a 48-year-old teacher can run, behind the golf cart. Burns turned, issued me a friendly wave and smile, before being whisked away to the ceremony. My students were visibly embarrassed by the star struck actions of their teacher, while I reveled in my euphoria for days.


OVEE Opportunity

While many of us grew up in the era of lectures, textbooks, worksheets and map work dominating our high school history instruction, filmmakers such as Ken Burns and his co-producer, Lynn Novick, were bringing history to life for viewers and enriching  today’s classroom teaching and learning as a result of their efforts. In a stroke of genius, PBS magnified the impact of Burns’ and Novick’s work, by utilizing the power of virtual programming using the OVEE platform to offer real-time, interactive classroom opportunities for students to learn, ask questions, and connect with the “makers” of history. (OVEE is a shared media viewing experience to reach and engage audiences, created by ITVS and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)

This fall one of my National History Day students, Caleb, was invited to serve as student moderator for a November 8, 2017, PBS OVEE webcast on The Vietnam War, a documentary produced by Burns and Novick. During this program, thousands of students and teachers around the world tuned in to interact with the featured guest, Lynn Novick.  Caleb’s moderator role involved monitoring a chat window and asking questions raised by students, introducing polls that allowed students to share their own personal connections to war and sharing poll results so participants could see where their experiences and opinions fit in relationship to other viewers. 

With this novel classroom approach, PBS, ITVS, and the OVEE platform are revolutionizing the social studies classroom by engaging students in authentic, real-time experiences with documentarians and other experts on pertinent historic topics. Furthermore, this platform enables students to personally shape the webcast experience through its interactive features such as polls and a chat window. PBS has turned a once passive viewing experience into a dynamic learning opportunity. While I sat in the room near my student who moderated the hour-long Vietnam webcast, I watched the program on my own computer. I was struck by the multitude of classrooms in remote locations around the world signed into the program, the thoughtful questions and inquiries raised by students in the chat window and the number of students who indicated they were seeking information and perspectives for their National History Day projects, school research papers, or just personal insight regarding their own family’s experiences in the war. Although the takeaways from this program were divergent and varied by individual, one common theme emerged – the program had a positive impact on all participants.


Black History Month

After being part of the The Vietnam War programming experience, I am so excited to enhance my own students’ learning with more PBS opportunities. Fortunately, I won’t have to wait long since PBS is hosting three Black History OVEE programs with their series, "More Than A Month." Thanks to PBS, we have regular opportunities for our students to engage with historians and filmmakers, who deepen their interest and knowledge of history. While I had to wait until middle age to have a fleeting interaction with a famed documentarian, PBS provides programs for our students to interact with “history makers” on a much more personal level. Don’t miss out – your students will thank you.

Suzan Turner is in her 25th year as an educator at Nashua-Plainfield High School in Nashua, Iowa, where she serves as a talented and gifted teacher, instructional coach, and National History Day advisor. Turner has twice been named National History Day Teacher of the Year in Iowa, has served as a National History Day Behring Ambassador, and was selected to participate in the 2016 Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute

Suzan Turner

Suzan Turner High School Teacher

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