My 8th Grade History Class Is Full of Spies!

My 8th Grade Class is Full of Spies!
Submitted by Christie Miga: Artist, 8th Grade Teacher


Experiential education (EE) was a term I first heard when a classroom parent was describing my teaching style to other parents, whom I did not know. I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. As she spoke to these parents, I remember getting lost in my own thoughts, breaking down this foreign term to determine if I agreed with her. I decided if it meant learning through experience, I agreed; fortunately I was correct. Yet the greater realization I had from this conversation was far more important: EE was a formal method of teaching. This was an idea that was out there in the world, others think like I do, and I was a part of it without knowing it. In my mind, my style of teaching was rooted in my art background and I was just doing what came naturally.

With no formal training in education, I had no choice but to ask an endless amount of questions to those more experienced, allow my intuition to guide me, and rely on my art degree. In college, teaching never occurred to me because my trajectory always led to becoming an artist or designer. So when an opportunity for teaching art and creating art lessons was presented to me a few years later, I was surprised but curious. For a few years I taught after-school art classes to preschool and elementary school children, they were extra-curricular classes where the focus was on fun. This relaxed, inventive, and low stakes environment is where my teaching style began to take form. So when I was presented with another opportunity to become a full-time middle school teacher, I challenged myself with a specific goal: to generate the same interest, curiosity, excitement, and passion of an after-school art class, in academic classes. The solution I decided upon was to keep all my classes hands-on, make it interactive, and to view teaching through a creative lens. I was still becoming a designer, the only difference was I was designing curricula rather than logos. Funny enough, I felt and feel more creative making the former.

“I am not an artist because I’m not creative”. Both students and adults have said this to me more times than I can count. Creativity, for me, is simply finding various solutions to a challenge. Anyone can do this and everyone does do this all the time but many do not recognize it. Finding an experiential approach in the classroom begins the same way for me as creating a collection of art or writing an article for AEE. I ask myself questions to understand the challenge better, then I answer the questions with a variety of solutions, picking out the best ones and moving forward. For classroom work some questions may be: What is my objective? How would I have enjoyed learning this when I was in middle school? What can I do to make this information as accessible as possible? Are there any opportunities to get students out of their seats, working in groups, or teaching each other? What can I do to make this information memorable? How can I place the student within the knowledge rather than outside looking in? There could be a variety of solutions for all of these questions. Often as I find one solution, many more ideas seems to pop up too. Here is an example of my process:

In creating an assessment for my 8th grade history class unit,The Beginning of the Cold War, my first thought was, “What kind of activity will my students find fun?” In the past, this class has enjoyed video projects, anything that allows them to be creative and funny, games, and they like to be given scenarios to work within.  Then, I asked myself, “How can they use their new knowledge to actually create something interesting?” I think this often because this is a real-world request. I have never had a job where I needed to find the correct multiple choice answer or fill in a blank. However, I have always had to use my knowledge in order to accomplish a larger task.
My next thought was, “Has anything in this unit caught their attention?” They were very interested in the formation of the CIA, and the secret agents in Russia and the US. My solution was creating a spy agency. Each of my students became James Bond-type secret agents and were tasked with the undercover mission of bringing me eight specific documents by a specific due date (I gave them specific requirements for each document). These secret documents had to prove a variety of suspicions and explain key points from the unit in detail, the more detail, the more likely they would save the world. Furthermore, each student had to create a secret agent alias and turn in these documents in concealment without anyone else knowing.

This project was a huge hit. I had a student turn in a lunch box with documents hidden within potato chip bags and sandwich containers. Another student gave me a book “to read” with his secret documents hidden on specific pages. Yet another student turned in a Christmas present with each document wrapped beautifully. The students had a great time creating the items and worked hard to put a lot of detail into each document. It put them into the shoes of Joe McCarthy, Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and the American public. Even more importantly, it either reinforced information or it cleared up any information that was unclear. This assessment asked them to utilize information in an interesting way and so it forced them to gain a greater understanding of it. They asked many questions while making the documents to clear up details they had missed in class. I was available for questions and brainstorming throughout the process and they were allowed to open up discussions and ask questions of one another. Lastly, it allowed them to find their own solutions and see the unit as a whole rather than individual pieces. No multiple choice test can do this, in my opinion.

In addition to asking myself questions, I use what is around me and the resources I have available to me. I use every inch of my classroom and the furniture within it in a variety of ways. Curriculum books and ideas found online are used as jumping off points. I change, rework, and retrofit ideas to fit my needs or my students needs better. Yet with all of this, I am still finding ways to do better every year. I have taught a poetry unit for advanced students over the course of five years, every year trying to improve it because I have not seen the results I have been looking for. This is the first year I am finally happy with it. It took me five years to test ideas, rework activities, find better poems, and fill in gaps.

Experiential learning is always a work in progress for me and continues to humble me when things don’t work out as expected. In fact, the most educational experiences I have faced have been trying ideas in the classroom, and the most valuable feedback I gain is from the people that matter most, my students. We have open and honest discussions often and I try new things frequently based on their assessments of my work. Over the years, I have learned what middle schoolers find boring, confusing, frustrating, and anxiety-inducing but I have also learned what makes them feel confident, successful, creative, and proud.

Today, as I continue to improve and learn, I am proud to consider myself an experiential educator and I am passionate to help others in their process. I am thankful to have found this special community who seek out better ways to educate and see education for what it should be: transformative. My hope is that others within the education profession will realize their creativity and foster it in their schools, transforming the profession and the students they teach along the way.


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