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“Learn More, See More”

Close-up of a blue human eye

Teaching our students to “see” our field is an essential aspect of what we do.  While I had a student recently express frustration with my midterm that tests for methodology as much as content–and, what would he need that for when this is a 101 class and he’s a computer science major–the simple fact is we want our students to see more of the world around them, not less.

History has a humanizing quality about it, but one cannot access that facet of the field unless one has an understanding of how history works.  Engaging humanity through another culture, even if it is a root for our own–especially if it is a root for our own–forces students to effectively open a dialogue with the people who came before.  But, that is impossible if we pretend to be the man behind the curtain and provide our students with a sterilized “history” that has already “answered” all the questions for the students.  Rather if we open the discipline up to students and encourage them to attempt formulating their own interpretations and engage directly with those of scholars, then we will expand their vision.

Perhaps, I should explain what I mean by “expand their vision” so it is not some empty platitude.  Neurologist Richard Restak explains that the eye does not operate as a camera lens, taking snapshots of “the world out there.”  Instead, it sees according to the knowledge of the scene already possessed, hence his expression which I borrowed for my title, “learn more, see more.”  If I, for example, brought a sailor, a marine biologist, an American historian, and a local businesswoman out to the point where Fort McHenry sits in Baltimore, each of their minds would seize on different aspects available in the scene, would be drawn to different subjects:

  • The sailor would likely notice the tides, the shipping lanes, and perhaps scan the port visible across the water;
  • The marine biologist would plausibly look for algae blooms, scan the fauna along the shore, notice the sea birds or other animals that the others might miss, and see the unwanted debris floating in the Bay;
  • The American historian would probably focus more on the Fort itself and scan the horizon for the landmarks during the War of 1812 or the Civil War, looking for the neighborhoods that were occupied or were battle zones;
  • The local businesswoman would doubtless take in the new developments in the surrounding neighborhoods visible from the point or, depending on what her business is, direct her attention to the port and its activities, BUT…

If she is a local, born-and-raised Baltimorean, she may well see many of the same things as her counterparts:

  •  Boating is such a big part of local Bay culture that she may be an enthusiast, herself, or have friends and family who are thereby having picked up something of their knowledge;
  • One cannot live on the Bay without being acquainted with the local animals and fauna, nor without being aware of the decline in its health and efforts to improve it, frequently hearing in the news, local radio, and PSAs about its conditions and what threatens it most;
  • The history of Fort McHenry is well known to locals who are proud of its place in American history and as the site where the star-spangled banner waved in the wind, inspiring Francis Scott Keys, held on a British man-of-war in the Bay, to pen the poem that became our national anthem.

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The more we can add to what our students and our children see, the more rich and nuanced the world they live in becomes–the more alive!  When a person can scan the horizon and see in his or her line of sight a teeming vision of the community around him or her (whether it is a positive and pleasant sight or one that insights frustration or anger), boredom and disinterest remain distant.  Citizens are thus engaged in their community and in the world in which they live.  As a result, they can share more with all of us.

This same argument applies to the skills the field requires, not merely the content.  Seeing is a verb with many meanings.  One can see the scene in front of him or her and one can see patterns in verbal communication (which can later impact how one sees the scene).  We are a culture inundated with verbal communication: ads, news, social media, entertainment, etc.  It is crucial that we learn to digest that material effectively and critically.  It is also expected that as citizens we are prepared to engage in the dialogue, but for that to be useful the output has to be intelligible and preferably intelligent, even if contrary.

Historians have to read critically, recognizing what questions a source answers (even if that question was not already in their head when they sat down to read the source!) and which questions still need to be answered–this active reading and developed curiosity leads to interesting and productive explorations.  It also fuels useful discussion.

It is further incumbent on historians to interpret what happened in the past given the available sources and make an argument defending that interpretation.  This argument requires developing verbal skills in both written and oral communication.  This in turn should improve ones recognition of the patterns of argumentation one encounters.  (Please note, however, that this is precisely what textbooks and most documentaries do not do!  Rather, these forums provide the interpretation as fact–a squirrely thing in the field of history–not as a single interpretation that has been developed through one’s research into past sources, which are themselves often interpretations of an event and thus subject to critical reading, analysis, and interpretation.)

If we can help students to see these things in what they read and write we are training them to be successful whether they are stay-at-home moms or dads, computer science professionals, local businessmen and women, or historians.  It trains them to see information with a critical eye and ask the right questions, recognize answers, and intelligently navigate arguments.

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Music, Sports, Games, Food — The things people like . . .

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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.

Feasting!

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.

Sporting!

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.

Gaming!

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.

Singing!

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.

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A metaphor to explain what historians do

An Introduction for history classes

Each week when I teach Western Civilization 101 or 102, I pair a question with the material for that week’s unit.  This question is designed to introduce students to the field of history using that week’s content as a way to teach how historians do their thing, as a way to drive the methodology point home.  (I do this both to introduce students to historical method and to introduce students to the fallibility and controversy of the field–something lost in most history textbooks, museums and documentaries, but useful for citizens in the U.S. where there is an information overload.)  For example, in the week we study the Greeks, I ask, “What are a historian’s sources?”  Thus, I can introduce the literate society of the Greeks that recorded earlier oral tradition and really introduced history, drama, philosophy and political discourse to Western Civilization.  In so doing, it is also possible to introduce the methods historians apply to these different primary sources types.

I begin with this concept on day 1, where I introduce the course with the question, “What is history?”  The purpose being to introduce methodology to separate history from other studies of the past.  We read a brief excerpt from Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking) about the importance of studying history, in an ever-shrinking world, where one is taught the skills to recognize that the context of a document may be foreign and require research and careful consideration ahead of assumptions.  (Note:  Whether Wineburg is read in class actually depends on the class format–it is hard to fit him into a 50 minute class!)  We also read a brief excerpt from Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources in which they explain that history is something people write about the past–it is constructed and requires reliable sources to be reliable, itself.  This is the point where I generally introduce a metaphor to help students understand what a historian does and what those sources are.

The Detective

Today, on TV you can watch fictional detectives at work every night: NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, Castle, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Bones, etc.  The popularity of these shows has contributed to reality TV shows and regular shows dedicated to following actual criminal cases.  So, people, including our students, are acquainted with the methods (more or less) by which detectives collect evidence to build a case against criminals.  Using this fairly common “knowledge”, I set up some comparisons to explain how historians do their research, such as seeking clues from witnesses by reading primary sources.

DETECTIVE WORK

  • Investigation
  • Crimes
  • Interview witnesses
  • Training and experiences
  • Evidence
    • Clues
    • Observation

HISTORY RESEARCH

  • Research
  • Questions
  • Read primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Evidence
    • Realia
    • Names, geography
    • Events

The Prosecutor

Just as detectives investigate in order to build a case for the prosecution (or Matlock!), so, too, do historians investigate in order to build a case for a paper or book.  So, where the historian’s research is to detective work, the historian’s written argument is to the prosecutor’s court case.  The publication, the written case, is the presentation of the evidence that has been gathered to convince a jury of one’s peers about what actually happened, and why one’s sources are most reliable and should be considered in a certain light.  It is remarkably similar to the process the prosecutor follows–even needing to consider other points of view and address critics, just as the prosecutor must do with the defendant’s case.

PROSECUTOR’S CASE

  • Opening statement
  • Interviewing witnesses on the stand
  • Presentation of physical evidence in exhibits
  • Closing statements
  • Oral arguments
  • Rebutting the defense’s case

HISTORY ARGUMENT

  • Introduction
  • Citing primary sources in your text
  • Citing archaeological evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Written arguments
  • Taking into account critics and opposing view points

The Workshop

For each week we spend a class (or in accelerated courses and once-a-week courses, a portion of class) working specifically on the content that helps demonstrate the point that the question is teaching.  This typically means looking at specific primary or secondary sources.  For example, in Week 3 of Western Civilization 101, the question, “Is research the story of the victors/elite?” is asked.  This week’s content is Egypt and to a lesser extent the Hittites.  When considering this question, we look at the monumental evidence left behind by the Egyptians–covering a general history of the culture.  The homework includes reading excerpts from The Book of the Dead, so we discuss the Egyptian afterlife.  The PowerPoint ends with a look at the archaeology of the tombs and worker cities built around the tombs.  The rest of the week, the content continues to circle back to this question and demonstrates how the losers and lower strata of society can be found and accessed by historians (and archaeologists, too), while also showing that it takes a slightly different approach in order to get there.  This helps to provide some context for the students so they can try their hand at some of the detective work.

The Practicum

The practicum is either done on Wednesday, or in the middle of class (again, depending on format).  This portion of class is dedicated to working with sources to investigate a particular aspect of the culture.  It is a specific attempt to get students to try their hand at the detective work.  We will often draw up outlines, initially as a class and later in small groups, to begin practicing building and presenting a case.

The Discussion

The week ends with a discussion that, it is hoped, will help students retain and be more capable with the skills and content that historians use and learn.  It is the opportunity for students to practice being the prosecutor, often by presenting cases that were built in small groups during the practicum and other times discussing and debating controversies.

* * *

An additional wrinkle that I will be testing this semester is a homework assignment to bring in three documents.  The point is to try this detective work with a familiar context and to get to know each other a little better.  Examples of appropriate material includes a birthday card from a relative, a certificate of achievement, an e-mail or a to-do list.  (If you try this, be sure to also be very clear about what is not appropriate for the assignment.)  The metaphor, thus, introduces concepts of historical method in a recognizable way that is reinforced weekly.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning