Educator Spotlight: Tracing the Footsteps of the Vikings

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Colleen Dunn, this week’s Educator of the Week, teaches 10th-grade humanities at the Barrie School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her students examined the origins of place names in England, and pieced together their observations to trace the path of Viking invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries.

Colleen Dunn
Colleen Dunn teaches at the Barrie School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Photo by Paul Leistra

For your Nat Geo Educator Certification Program capstone, students in your ancient world history and literature class used clues from place names to discover the invasion route of Vikings in England. How did you design this activity?

I was inspired by an activity called The Politics of Place-Naming. I really liked the idea of tracking history by looking at the origins of place names. While preparing for a unit on Anglo-Saxon history, I wondered whether place names in England had changed during the Viking invasion. I did some research and saw a clear pattern of Viking place names in areas they had attacked.

Referring to lists of Viking and Anglo-Saxon place-name endings, my students used Google Maps to identify places in England with these endings. Simply by looking at these names, without knowing where the Vikings attacked and where they stopped, my students tracked the path of invasion quite accurately.

It was neat to see them put together the story—and it gave them a chance to own the history because they were creating their own knowledge rather than hearing it from me.

Students located place names with Viking or Anglo-Saxon origins, mapped them, and compared their findings. Maps courtesy Colleen Dunn

Do you think the way students engaged these historical events affected their understanding of them?

Part of the lesson’s success, in my opinion, was the little bit of mystery involved. Students knew they were looking for a pattern, but they had no idea what the pattern would be. It felt like a puzzle to them, a puzzle that they really wanted to solve. That changed the way they learned the material. They were piecing it together bit by bit, zooming in closely to find the place names and then zooming out to find the larger pattern as they compared findings with each other.

Students also related their learning to their own local history. Most of them had no idea how their hometown got its name. They started questioning the history of their hometowns, working down from the city level to street names and school names.

That sounds like a great way to help them connect the past to the present. What else do you do to help historical events feel relevant to your students?

That is really one of the biggest challenges. It’s easy for students to feel removed from history. When I develop lesson plans, I focus on showing the connectedness of different places and different time periods. Sometimes the connections come from themes that students recognize in their own lives. We just started a unit looking at empires and persecutions, and they can easily relate to what happens when you have a powerful group that treats others as outsiders. History hasn’t changed quite as much as we like to think it has.

I also try to help students connect to different places around the world. We have a very diverse student population, and many students have living memories [of different places] from their families and communities that they can bring into our lessons. Students from other countries are more of an authority on those countries’ history than I am, so as much as possible, I like to leverage their knowledge by having them present to the class and take on leadership roles in related projects.

What is your teaching philosophy?

I want students to take ownership of their own education and create meaning for themselves. I use a lot of the thinking routines developed by Project Zero, which help students slow down and engage with material more deeply. I hope there’s an element of fun in most lessons I create so students feel engaged and are learning something they genuinely want to know. 

Colleen Dunn with student
Colleen Dunn works with a student. Photo by Paul Leistra


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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