There are several popular things that I really enjoy: music, food, sports, games.
These also happen to be things that most students really enjoy. And, they are things that are often particularly unique to the cultures that create or adopt them. Looking at any one of these features opens a window into another culture and, thus, into what makes it strange or familiar. Later this winter I would like to run I a week devoted to each of these fine and wonderful contributions to society. For now, however, I would like to make a case for making greater use of these cultural institutions in teaching.
Arguably something we don’t do enough these days, feasting has had an important function in pretty much every culture. It is also something that can be duplicated with a certain amount of ease. A feast is a fantastic way to bring together students, families and the greater school community at large. What’s more, it is also applicable for virtually any unit in your social studies and history classes.
It doesn’t have to be an exhibition on the glamor of exotic or foreign culinary delights, though. Sometimes what is most powerful is the sense of deprivation. Thanksgiving on the western frontier is a very different experience from Thanksgiving in Boston. The food culture of a region depends on resources, climate, environment and access. Within that culture there are often variations that exist based on wealth. All of these are teaching points and all of these are often accessible in primary sources. Food traditions also often represent points of fusion and connection with other cultures and regions, making a certain emphasis on food a great way to experience cultural change through contact.
Spectator and participatory sporting activities have a long history in our human story. On the one hand, this is something that is easily recognizable and offers a familiar face to a foreign culture. On the other hand, the purpose these served for ancient cultures is often rather alien. Most students would be able to grasp the technical similarities that exist between the ball game of Central America with soccer, but most students will not immediately take hold of the idea that losers will be sacrificed on an altar and have their hearts removed. By starting with the ball game, you lead to other avenues, such as religion, ritual and beliefs.
Even with more recent sports, social issues, such as eminent domain and segregation, are put into a particularly accessible format for students. Certain international realities are also made plain when looking at international competitions such as World Cup and the Olympics. ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series is based to an extant on this notion.
There are a combination of factors that contribute to the relevance of games. Chess, backgammon, cards, dice . . these are games with a lot of history and there is the opportunity to put a student in the same shoes as a child, soldier, king from centuries beforehand and tell him this is the same way they past their time.
Some games are ones of strategy and others are of chance. Strategy itself has a history as chess enthusiasts will tell you. But, apart from that, there is also the appearance of games that are adapted to new cultures, such as with chess and its introduction of feudal symbols into the game. This can quite frankly be brought into the present when you consider modern video games and their increasing ability to create online communities around the games.
Music is often difficult to reproduce the further back you go and yet musical historians have made hypothetical reproductions of ancient music and instruments. The study of particular pieces and styles of music is extremely telling about a culture. Monks chanting the daily antiphon to each other morning, day and night speaks of the round the clock prayer that accompanied monastic life. Listening to the Blues speaks of the economic hardship in Jim Crow America. The triumphant tonal qualities of western national anthems speaks to the nationalistic fervor of the 19th century. The melding and blending of musical qualities in today’s modern music speaks to increasing contact and interaction through the internet, travel and trade.
Music is also something that can be [re-]produced by students who may be more in their element with singing and their instruments than with history–a point that is valid for all of the above categories as well, though maybe music and sports most.
Below is Stile Antico performing a 16th century piece. The piece is in Latin, religious and written to be sung by many voices.
Below is Benny More; largely considered to be one of the greatest Cuban singers, he fronted Cuba’s leading big band and was known to be gifted at both the fast rhythms and the slower ones.
Finally, Dylan. Well, ok, not Dylan–it’s a Dylan cover, because that’s what people do with Dylan songs. This is gratuitous, perhaps, but as such I need provide little introduction. In this case, I will only say that the cover is by Ani DiFranco, who is someone akin to Dylan in a post-sixties way.