Guest Speakers

Demonstrating sketching techniques used by the Civil War era “Bohemian Brigade” for middle school students at a history fair in Los Angeles in 2005. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Teaching is a team effort. Many schools have adopted a team teaching or block schedule model to replace the paradigm of solitary single subject teachers presenting separate material over the course of six consecutive periods. For those of you still working in this traditional environment, a time tested way to supplement your curriculum and reinforce state content standards is to bring in guest speakers. Experts in various fields can help your overall presentation and enrich the learning experience of your students.

The social sciences in particular offer endless possibilities for guest presentations. During my twenty years in the classroom I brought in many guest speakers and served as one myself. One of my students had a great uncle who served in World War II. His father brought in several artifacts, including a German headquarters flag captured in Italy in 1945. One of the Little Rock Nine visited the community college adjacent to our campus. Other guest speakers shared stories of travel to historical sites. In economics class, I brought in small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Over the course of my fifteen years in living history programs, I often served as a guest speaker at schools and home school programs, civic organizations, and community events. This was particularly true during the decade in which I portrayed an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. I wore historical costuming and brought in artifacts for the audience to see and showed samples from my sketch portfolio. I presented for several years in the outdoor classroom program of the Fresno Historical Society at their annual Civil War Revisited event in Kearney Park.

My partner Jill and I gave many presentations to local Civil War round table groups and school history fairs. We brought extra costuming in which to dress volunteers from the audience in order to illustrate the ensembles of war correspondents of the period. We traveled throughout southern California and Nevada for many years and posted educational material online. We attended the premiere of historical films in period costume and set up tables with educational materials to share with moviegoers.

Jill was cast in several television programs and films because of her authentic materials and her background in directing numerous theatrical productions in Orange County, California. Both of us portrayed unusual characters of the American Civil War period (1861-1865). She was a Union Army vivandiere for many years and also took the field with me as a news reporter. In 2005 she created a website for my correspondent impression which included a list of guest venues in which we participated as a team.

Jill and I served as guest speakers together at several educational events throughout southern California and Nevada from 2005 to 2010. Here she is demonstrating period letter writing as a Union Army vivandiere at a Los Angeles middle school. Photo Copyright (c) 2005 Torin Finney.

Check with your district and administrator about guest speaker policies before you bring them in. When the guests arrive, introduce them to your students and explain the learning objectives for that period. Require the students to be more than passive listeners. Have them take notes or participate in a question and answer session. Structure the content of the guest speaker around a debate or Socratic seminar. Assign an essay response to what is presented. Leave some time in class for the students to divide into small groups and analyze what they have heard. Challenge them to make thematic connections and dig for deeper meaning.

Many prominent authorities in business, athletics, education, and the arts are more than willing to come to your class to share their expertise with your students. This can even include celebrities. Use your connections. Get creative in putting together your instructional units. Attend presentations by prominent speakers yourself. Most importantly, draw on the support of others to strengthen the content and structure of your class. Team effort produces better and more enduring results.

Jill and I attending a presentation by noted Civil War author and battlefield guide Ed Bearss at the Glendale Public Library in 2007. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

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