Leonardo da Vinci’s Smartphone

History from the Inside Out

how does professional development affect technology integration?Every two years our team does an interdisciplinary unit on the European Renaissance. I’m a big believer in learning history from the inside out, by asking students to really look at individual people. I also wanted to do something that connected things that kids were interested in to this time period. To get them to really feel as if they were some of these people, it just made sense to connect modern technology using the smartphone, since many of them are on their smartphones a lot of the time anyway.

So what would happen if you found Leonardo DaVinci’s smartphone?

Rubric and technology integration

My Grade 7-8 students created the smartphone of a historical figure from the Renaissance. Here are the assignment sheet and rubric that I gave to students.

Students used Google Draw to create the home screen of the smartphone based on this template. Then they used ThingLink to make the icons interactive. The Snagit Chrome Extension was used extensively for screenshots throughout the project.

Also, throughout the year we talk about primary source and artifacts that allow you to learn about a historical time. What would be on there that would tell you about him as a person and the culture in which he lived?

Students need to access the same kind of information that you would find in a formal research paper. It’s just done in a different way. One of my goals to get kids to understand that the same legitimate research has to go into any project no matter what the product is that you are creating.

Renaissance Smartphone

During this interdisciplinary unit, all core subject matter areas are teaching about the same time period. So students are meeting people in every class and they keep a keep a list of all the different people that they meet – scientists, mathematicians, writers, etc. This running list of all the different people is the raw material that they can use for the information in their smartphone.

At the end of the second week of the unit I explain the smartphone assignment and students are really psyched. “Wait a minute, we get to do what now? This will be cool!” The technology piece really motivates them to do the research and to do the learning.

When I did this project two years ago, I had drawn on some ideas from other teachers. I had students create Google docs based on templates of the five components: contact list, text messages, music playlist, calendar and apps. I gave them a few rules of realism such as only communicating with somebody who was alive at the same time. Students really delved into who these people were as they considered what they cared about and how they might spend their time.

Renaissance Smartphone 2.0

This shows a smartphone homescreen where many of the icons can be clicked on for further information.
Raphael’s smartphone. This student focused on Chrome apps as a way of exploring the Chromebook app store.

This year I wanted to add an element of having it actually look like a smartphone where they could touch different buttons and it would open up to the information. So I made a template on Google Draw of the smartphone screen that students modified by adding the icons for the various apps that they were using. After customizing the picture of the smartphone screen using Google Draw, they saved it as a JPEG and then imported that into ThingLink, where they linked in their documents for the five components.

In addition to linking to the five Google documents, some students did extensions such as linking to YouTube videos or lyrics of the songs on their playlist, or creating an Instagram photo album for their person. One student even created an actual Instagram account!

The Power of 1:1

Part of the reason that this project was so successful this year is that we just started 1 to 1 Chromebooks. Kids come to class everyday ready to go with their Chromebook, so sharing and creating Google Docs, Google Drawings, and ThingLinks was quite easy.

Students were able to use the Snagit Chrome Extension on the fly to gather screenshots of app icons, fake text message conversations, or other pictures. I couldn’t have done this project if I had been competing for lab time with other teachers.

Since we had just gotten the Chromebooks, I asked students to investigate the Chrome web store so that they could get used to what was out there on Chrome. I would say maybe half the kids really did that and other half just used apps they knew of.

This is a smartphone home screen where icons link to information about Da Vinci.
Da Vinci’s smartphone. Curious what the model thought about the dress worn in the Mona Lisa? Click on the text icon!

Evidence of Learning

The percentage of completed assignments and quality were better than usual. The ones who did a particularly good job were the ones that understood what I was trying to get at with “wouldn’t it be cool if you knew this guy had a smartphone.”

Different students did great at different things. Some students really got into the contact lists with lots of detailed information about a number of people, including funny yet plausible observations such as “he’s an old man who thinks we are friends.” Others focused on the music with a range of songs that related to their person in interesting ways. And some of the text conversations were amazing. There are websites that students used to make the text conversations look real. Using modern language to talk about history, it’s like West Side Story, blurring the lines of time.

I was pleasantly surprised with so many students. Some were more engaged and productive than I expected. And some of my students who usually do pretty well showed a lot more creativity than I had seen from them in the past.

One of the best things about this project was that it was fun to grade. Some of the stuff my students came up with was hilarious. And I really learned a lot from them about history and contemporary connections.


Lori Morse

Lori has been teaching social studies (or as she calls it, “Life”) to 7th and 8th grade students at Crossett Brook Middle School since it opened in 1997. A proud Ivy League dropout, she searched for meaning in many jobs, until she realized that teaching was one of the few areas that provided what she needed to be happy: creativity; working with kids; a degree of autonomy; and most importantly, doing something that had the potential to make the world better. Lori wants her students to believe that progress is possible and that there are actions that lead to that progress. She is a 10th generation Vermonter who loves the ocean and pandas, neither of which are easy to find in her native state.

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