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ERIC Number: EJ1002129
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2013-Feb
Pages: 22
Abstractor: ERIC
ISSN: ISSN-0018-2745
How the Air Felt on My Cheeks: Using Avatars to Access History
Volk, Steven S.
History Teacher, v46 n2 p193-214 Feb 2013
For the author, teaching history has become a double challenge: to help students understand both "History" (the narrative crafted by the historian, based on documentation, supported by previous scholarship, and bound together through logical argument) and "history" (the real events that occupied real lives that are largely hidden from the documentation). He was pondering this challenge when he came across a short article by Edith Sheffer, a Stanford historian. She described how, in a course on German history, she allowed students to create unique characters, born in 1900, who, on the basis of student journal entries, would live through Germany's difficult twentieth-century history. Students would create avatars based on the few demographic characteristics she gave them. They would be governed by a set of just three rules: the avatars couldn't leave Germany permanently, die, or change the course of history. Students would post weekly entries on a course website tracking their avatars' unfolding lives. Sheffer had him when she observed that the exercise allowed her students to understand "how ordinary people adjusted to extraordinary times." His course on "Dirty Wars and Democracy" gave him the opportunity to adapt and expand Sheffer's innovative approach. "Dirty Wars" is an intermediate-level history course that explores four "Southern Cone" countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay) where the military seized power in the 1960s and 1970s. The dictatorships came as a violent response to a number of leftist, nationalist, and populist leaders who had reached power in the previous period. This course requires that students understand why two stable democracies and two countries prone to militarism succumbed to martial rule at the same time; why these dictatorships were so much more repressive than any that held power previously; how they sought to organize and prolong their rule; how and why they left power; and what has been done to confront the difficult problems of dealing with past human rights abuses following the return to civilian rule. An avatar project seemed an exceptionally promising tool for "Dirty Wars," and he integrated it into the course when he offered it in fall 2010. This project is described in detail in this article. The author suggests that the avatar project is an approach to the study of history that can work best when examining a short period of time, ideally, 60-100 years, or a single life time. Students need to have a strong background on the period of history that their avatars will be occupying. (Contains 2 figures and 33 notes.)
Society for History Education. California State University, Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach, CA 90840-1601. Tel: 562-985-2573; Fax: 562-985-5431; Web site:
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Descriptive
Education Level: Higher Education
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers - Location: Argentina; Brazil; Chile; Germany; Uruguay