Digital tools for community-engaged learning

Thanks to all those who came to my presentation at SRU’s Community Engagement Breakfast Series.  Below are some tools to spark your thinking about digital tools for community engagement in your own classes!

HistoryPin Assignment materials

I would definitely recommend reading through the “Read Me!” file in there, as it contains my comments on lessons learned, refinements, etc.


Easy-to-use tools for digital storytelling – including timelines, audio annotations, mapping, and more


An open-source web publishing platform for sharing digital collections and creating media-rich online exhibits.

Be sure and check out their directory of projects for ideas on the wide variety of ways this platform can be used by students and partner institutions

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Episode 6, In which Tammy enjoys flour sacks and family history


Exhibit flyer from Curator Edward Irvine and the Cameron Art Museum

Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, North Carolina

After Hurricane Matthew moved the opening of Art from Flour: Barrel to Bag back a week,  I was dismayed to realize the new opening date coincided with a show for which I’d bought tickets and for which I’ve been waiting twenty years to see: Rent. (Yes, life is full. This is not a complaint.) This meant another week of not getting to the exhibit and missing its opening festivities, but it all turned out all right. When I did get to see it, my mom was with me, which made it even better.

Art from Flour: Barrel to Bag explores the connections between design, commercial culture, and those amazing moments when people find themselves with little and decide to make art out of it. My friend Ned Irvine curated this fantastic show, and part of the joy of seeing it with him was recalling all the conversations over coffee and lunch on design and the American consumer economy, for his work on design and flour coincided with mine on bicentennial consumerism and the beginnings of my interest in tourist photography.

The other joy came from my mom, who is a lifelong, practiced purveyor of joy. A true master in the art.

My mom grew up in rural Michigan in the late 40s and 50s. Her family was made up of, in the phrase of a new documentary, “Chicken People.” In addition to their day jobs, they raised chickens, sold eggs, and genuinely loved the birds, both when it came time to care for them and when it came time to eat them. (Plucking them was another story. My mom said she’d never teach me how to pluck a chicken so I’d never have to do it. Thanks Mom! That was a solid!). My grandpa, when he took his roosters to auction, would bid on them and buy them from himself if no one present had the intelligence to appreciate the rarity and beauty of those magnificent examples of pure cockitude.

Here’s where I circle back around to the flour sacks in the exhibit. Ned gave us a personal curator’s tour, which was a huge treat because no one knows more about the engaging designs of flour sacks than him. My mom had questions and insights because she had the lived experience relating to feed sacks, which have a history similar to that of flour sacks. Coming from a long line of creative and eccentric women who dealt often with scarcity, she is of the folk who found themselves with little and decided to make art with it. As they talked grist and fabric, I knew this was one of those moments when my absolute best and luckiest option consisted of listening and listening well.

Some time I’ll tell you about how my spouse thinks its funny when I get together with my mom’s side of the family because he thinks all we talk about are birds, sticks, and roots. I’ll start with that time my mom most awesomely referred to white pines as “opportunistic little bastards.” She rocks. For now, I’ll get back to appreciating what she and a good friend have to offer about flour sacks.


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Reading suggestions?

Do you notice any readings that you’d consider essential that are missing from the schedule? Please comment and share links or publication information, along with a bit about why you think the piece should be included. This course is constantly evolving, based on my own reading and input from others, particularly the #digitalhistory community on twitter. I’ve had the privilege to attend one of the Doing DH NEH institutes, instructed by Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan, and the other great scholars they brought to the workshop. Many of these readings come from that experience, and I’m always looking out for new work. This is an ever-changing field. Thanks for your suggestions!

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Tips for Asking Open Ended Questions When I Teach

The Savior Asked Questions:

“He asked questions that caused them to think and feel deeply. He was sincerely interested in their answers and rejoiced in their expressions of faith. He gave them opportunities to ask their own questions and share their own insights, and He responded to their questions and listened to their experiences. Because of His love, they felt safe sharing their thoughts and personal feelings.”

Characteristics of effective questions

  • They require a person to pause, think, and reflect.
  • Answers, typically, will not be facts, but personal feelings, opinions, or ideas about a subject.
  • When using open-ended questions, the control of the conversation switches over to the person being asked the question, which begins an exchange between people. If the control of the conversation stays with the person asking questions, you are asking closed-ended questions.
  • Tips from class members: Don’t be afraid to give students time to think about your question, even let them know that you are doing so in advance. Don’t be afraid of a few moments of silence while students think. You can always repeat the question while they think or give context and then come back to the question.

The language of open ended questions:

  • How . . . , why . . . , what . . . , explain . . . , describe . . . , tell me about . . . , what do you think about . . .

Characteristics of close ended questions

  • In general try to avoid questions that have the following characteristics:
    • answers that provide facts
    • easy to answer questions or answers that require little to no thought (Sunday School answers)

Can a question be too open ended? Yes! How so?

  • How was school?
    • (Tends to produce a one word answer, “good” or “fine”)
  • What were the best and worst things that happened at school today?
    • (This is a more focused open-ended question that might be more successful at soliciting a conversation).

It is okay to say “I Don’t Know”
Remember that Elder Ballard counseled us to not be afraid to say, “I don’t know” in response to a question but then do your homework and find an answer. If you need resources, the Sunday School Presidency would love to help and may know of a good article to read that might have answers.

  • Tips from class members: 1. If a student asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, tell them that you are willing to search for an answer and invite them to search for an answer too and then come back next week ready to share your answers and learn from each other. 2. One teacher uses this approach with his children: If you and a student have a different perspective on a matter, invite the student to research the question and both come prepared to share your answers. 3. It is okay to open a question up to the entire class, “That is a good question, let’s see what the class thinks about it.” More often than not the best answers are sitting in the hearts and minds of your students.

Elder Ballard also counseled:

“One way to know what questions your students have is to listen attentively to them.”

Action Items:

In the spirit of Elder Ballard’s counsel, our two action items for this month are below:

  • 1. Write and ask at least two open ended questions for each of the lessons you teach this month.
    • Be willing to share your successes and failures next month.
  • 2. Ask your students: “What questions do you have that it seems like we never talk about at church?”
    • Give them pen and paper
    • Allow them to answer anonymously
    • Maybe have a question box in class every Sunday where a student can drop an anonymous question

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What is Helpful To Know about Biblical Scholarship before I Dive into the Old Testament?

LDS Perspectives Podcast has interviewed several scholars of late about the history of Biblical scholarship and the current state of the field, including how LDS ideas about the Bible fit into the broader field. These podcasts, taken collectively, are a great way to bring us up to speed and will help us to approach the Old Testament better informed about what it is that we are actually reading this year.

I’d suggest starting with the interview with Ben Spackman on Misunderstanding the Bible. He focuses on the importance of understanding the different genres of the books we will read in the Old Testament. When I learned, for example, that the book of Job was a poem, it all of a sudden made sense to me. Trying to read it as actual history never felt right and I could never accept that the unnamed author of the text was somehow privy to a conversation between God and Satan who were bargaining over Job’s soul. Once I understood it was a poem, I could read it the way it was intended. It still teaches correct principles, but I don’t have to be concerned about whether it actually happened or not. Why didn’t I ever learn this in Sunday School? Understanding genre is crucial to understanding the Old Testament.

Next, Phil Barlow, a friend of mine and a wonderful scholar and Latter-day Saint who holds the Arrington Mormon Studies Chair at Utah State University, does an interview on Higher Biblical Criticism. Barlow explains what that actually means (spoiler: it doesn’t mean that those who engage in it are critical of the Bible). Barlow teaches us about the history behind Higher Biblical Criticism and situates Mormonism in a broader context. In short, we have nothing to fear from it and much to learn.

Cory Crawford then teaches us about the Documentary Hypothesis in his interview. It is a great way to learn about the history behind the hypothesis which is simply a scholarly explanation for where the first five books of the Old Testament come from. These books are sometimes called the Books of Moses, but scholars argue that they are written much later than when Moses was alive.

Finally, Ben Spackman does a second interview regarding his research on understanding Genesis 1. He has a book in the works on this topic and he shares some of his insights with us in this podcast.

These podcasts are a wonderful way to bring us up to speed on Old Testament scholarship before we dive into a study of the text this year.

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Old Testament Resources

The curriculum for 2018 is the Old Testament. I hope to share some resources with you that might help the Old Testament feel a little less foreign, although it should feel somewhat foreign no matter what because it originated in a very distant and different culture. As the Harper Collins Study Bible puts it, “even the most excellent translation from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts cannot by itself completely remove the strangeness that many modern readers sense when they encounter the Bible. It is, after all, an ancient book. Indeed, it is a collection—no, several collections—of books that were formed and written in cultures distant from our own not only in time and space but also in character. Indeed, what is required of us as readers is rather to enter, through these texts, into another world of meaning. Only when we have sensed the peculiarity and integrity of that other world can we build a bridge of understanding between it and our own.”

It is my goal this year to help you to enter into that other world of meaning so that we can draw closer to Christ. My approach is one that is centered on the principle outlined in D&C 109:7 “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.” Sometimes we cast suspicions on the “study” part of the couplet and neglect the “best books” part too. Elder Maxwell said that “for a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship.” (On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, ed. Henry B. Eyring (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 7). And Elder Ballard recently made this comment at a BYU Devotional:

“I am a general authority, but that doesn’t make me an authority in general. My calling and life’s experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in the specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions. I seek others including those with degrees and expertise in such fields. I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers, expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite others to come unto Christ, not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions that we may have about scriptures, history, and about the Church. Our primary duty is to build up the church, teach the doctrine of Christ, and help those in need of our help. Fortunately the Lord provided this counsel for those asking questions: “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118) If you have a question that requires an expert please take the time to find a thoughtful qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and the expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.”

In the spirit of this counsel, you will find resources here from a variety of experts who have degrees in Biblical scholarship or who have studied the texts of the Old Testament in much more depth than I ever will. Our goal is still to come closer to Christ, but we also need to understand the culture and the context of the texts we will be using to do so.

My first suggestion is that you watch Benjamin Spackman’s fireside that he originally gave as a talk at the Sperry Symposium at BYU. It is a very helpful introduction to big picture ideas on how best to approach the Old Testament this coming year. Find the video here.

My next suggestion is that you listen to a podcast with Benjamin Spackman on Misunderstanding the Bible. The podcast is here.

I also suggest that you purchase a study Bible. I recommend the Harper Collins Study Bible. It is commonly used in Bible as Literature classes at Universities across the nation. It has introductory essays to each book in the Bible and it includes annotations throughout which help us to learn the history and cultural context and genres of the books we will read this year. I am not suggesting that you replace your King James version of the Bible, but I am suggesting that a study Bible can be a valuable resource this year for the Old Testament and next year for the New Testament.

Here are some additional recommendations (from Benjamin Spackman):
1. Matthew Richard Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (2015).
2. Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament is available at Deseret Book for $45.95, but if you order it through the online store it is only $10.00. Correction: They have now raised the price even at the online store. Sorry! Here is the link.
3. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (2012).
4. Hershel Shanks, Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, 3rd Edition (2010).

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1850 Slave Census for Gwinnett County, Georgia

I just added an Excel file of the 1850 Slave Census to the Gwinnett Census page of this website. I know I should create and share using CSV format, but for some reason WordPress won’t let me upload it in that format. The file was done as a class project by the students in my Fall 2016 “Early National US History class.” I wove their pieces together and corrected anything I thought needed correcting. I would like for this to be the start of a crowdsourcing attempt to create a usable file of slaves/slaveholders in the Southern upcountry. We will see if time allows that ambition.

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