Tag Archives: Sam Wineburg

A festive lesson plan (via Mental Floss)

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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World – Mental Floss is a quick review of the various other Christmas characters in the western world.  I teach Western Civilization and am well aware of the connectedness of European and American culture.  Given that fact, the variety of the theme is remarkable.

Sadly, Mental Floss is not in the habit of citing their sources on these lists.  Still, universities in this country teach about these cultures in their foreign language departments and may well provide some additional information.  I think it is worth it–this is a nifty cultural lesson.  It relates back to an old theme shared by Sam Weinburg and this blog, among many others, about the challenges of grappling with the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Below, I describe a lesson plan emphasizing these things.  It is written for a classroom, but easily adapted into a homeschooling lesson plan.

Suggested lesson plan (outline):

Introduction:  Have each student describe their family’s Christmas traditions (note, these do not need to be religious traditions, obviously, if you feel more comfortable you can phrase it based on what students’ families do on their winter breaks)–do this by having each free write for five minutes or break the class into small groups and have each share with his or her group, then have someone from each group describe someone else’s family tradition. (It is worth keeping in mind that a student may not have a family tradition for the Christmas holidays because of religion, personal tragedy, or different cultural background.  This does not mean you shouldn’t do the exercise!  This is as important and valuable a learning experience as the others!!!  The greater diversity in your classroom the greater the opportunity students will have to learn from each other!  Also, remember that Santa Claus is almost entirely secular in the U.S.)

Activity 1:  Assign the reading from Mental Floss, provided in the link above.  Ask students to each read the whole article, or break it down so that each student reads one of the descriptions, or make small groups in which they each group reads three of the character descriptions.

Activity 2:  If you haven’t already, break the students into small groups.  These can be the same as the previous activity or entirely new groups.  Unless they all read the same thing, have each student describe what they read.  Then have each group answer these questions (adjust as needed for age or experience):

  1. Which continents do these traditions come from?
  2. What religions celebrate Christmas?
  3. Is there a connection between the answer of question 1 and the answer of question 2?
  4. What do these characters have in common (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?
  5. How are these characters different  (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?

Reflection:  For either a brief reflective essay or a brief reflective discussion ask students to answer the following: Why do you think we have so many different traditions for the same holiday?

Santa on the sleigh

From here a homework assignment could be made for further research into the different cultures and the character featured–and other cultural Christmas characters could be added, perhaps even as the result of the student discussion of Christmas (or winter break) traditions.  Ideally, this results in a feast with information about the cultures represented and their winter holiday traditions, such as games, music and songs, etc.  One might also just as easily make the next assignment about the class’s research of itself by having each student share more about their own family traditions and history.

American culture came out of European culture and for all of their similarities this reading helps illustrate the limits of the cultural similitude while nonetheless emphasizing the cohesion in comparison with the rest of the world.  This is an important point to learn from the exercise though it will probably resonate more with older students who have had more history exposure or to a particularly diverse class that is roundly international.  The follow-up exercise options described immediately above will be more appropriate depending on the class age and level of exposure, so adjust accordingly.

This lesson plan is designed to work on the following skills:

  • reading
  • writing
  • oral and aural communication: speaking and listening
  • historical thinking: making connections based on history knowledge
  • cognitive thinking: drawing conclusions based on provided information, cause and effect

If you try this or variant of it, or if you have your own already existent lesson plan, please, share your experiences, below.

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Cultural Illiteracy and the History Vacuum

I recently read a couple of articles that I thought were poignant and related.  (Special thanks, here, to Gleb_Tsipursky for bringing them to my attention via Twitter.)   The articles come from CNN’s “Subject Matters” column, by Sally Holland, and Insider Higher Ed’s guest editorial, “Sorry”, by Stephen Brockmann.

Read the articles by clicking on the links below:

Subject Matters: Why students fall behind on history,” Sally Holland, CNN.com

“Sorry,” Stephen Brockman, InsideHigherEd.com

These two articles are both talking about the struggle within our society to engage our young citizenry in history (and the humanities) and the vacuum of cultural illiteracy that has developed in recent years.  The two articles point to different causes, but they are addressing the same effect.

Cultural Iliteracy

Western Civilization has certain traditions and assumptions that inform our society; these influence our legal system, political system, moral and ethical codes and educational approaches.  It differs significantly from other traditions; it has flaws both historically and currently; it often neglects other societies and traditions or looks down upon them.  It is also the culture from which we emerged.  Learning about our civilization’s heritage is also a means for acknowledging its shortcomings and provides a stable platform from which to contrast alternate traditions.

Unfortunately, however, traditions that are not passed on from one generation to the next die. If an entire generation grows up largely unexposed to a particular tradition, then that tradition can in essence be said to be dead, because it is no longer capable of reproducing itself. It does not matter whether the tradition in question is imagined as the Western tradition, the Christian tradition, or the Marxist tradition (and of course both Christianity and Marxism are part of the Western tradition). Traditions are like languages: if they are not passed on, they die. Most traditions, of course, have good and bad elements in them (some might argue for Christianity, some for Marxism, relatively few for both), and what dies when a tradition dies is therefore often both good and bad, no matter what one’s perspective. But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.

~ Stephen Brockmann

Teachers in high school and middle school notice the problems at a young age.  Students do not retain material, nor do they make necessary connections between time and space as they learn.  We have moved away from memorization drills, which seems to lead to a greater enjoyment, but, while it opens the door for greater opportunities in developing thought processes, there clearly are problems with retention and cognition.  On top of this, students seem to have a lower common-denominator of shared knowledge which requires more teaching than the curriculum may assume necessary.

At Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas, teacher Jeff Frazer said he’s surprised by how many of his incoming students know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 but don’t know that it was a list of grievances against Great Britain.

“I think they learn information by itself, in isolation,” Frazer said of his students. “But putting the big picture together is not happening.”

And during the comparative religions unit at Rutland Middle School in Rutland, Vermont, Ted Lindgren regularly asks students, “What is Easter about?”

He said they invariably bring up the Easter bunny but don’t know the significance of the holiday to Christianity. It shows a lack of cultural literacy, Lindgren said, that they have to compensate for during class.

~ Sally Holland

The field’s potential impact on how we think is itself born out of Western Civilization’s traditions.  This is relevant not only to cultural literacy but cultural fluency and is an important asset for one’s ability to participate in our cultural institutions–not least in our participatory-based political system.  As Brockmann says, we fail to adequately learn even its shortcomings or to understand precisely how this tradition and society contrasts with others.  Without the ability to learn about our own past and its own strangeness and differences we will fail trying to learn about other cultures and traditions.  This also leads to failure in progressive attempts to break from the supposed tyranny of Western Civilization and create a successful inclusive curriculum.  As Sam Wineburg has written in his explanations of historical thinking as a curriculum goal, lacking engagement with our own culture’s foreign attributes will necessarily stunt our ability to deal with the contemporary foreign cultures around us with which we are in ever-increasing contact.

What’s the cause of the current set of circumstances?

Holland’s article focuses on the perspective that is twofold: on the one hand, the amount of content is overwhelming for teachers and, aided by crummy textbooks, often reduced to trivia; on the other hand, history has been deemphasized in schools at an ever-younger level because it is not part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing.  Even in cases where state-mandated tests exist, there is often a large gap between the testing and the period of learning.

World history teacher Troy Hammon of Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, said he is constantly weighing how much “trivia” he teaches, like names, dates and places, and when to try to help his students relive history.

For example, Hammon had his students take on the roles of individuals who may have taken part in the Crusades of the Middle Ages. The students then answered questions based on their knowledge of that time. Hammon believes this helps his students better understand the Middle Ages.

History grows every year, no matter what,” said Jennifer Kravitz, who teaches world history, civics and economics at Rutland High School in Vermont. “So with this ever-expanding content, teachers are trying to balance teaching history content with helping students learn the essential skills they are going to need.”

~ Sally Holland

The resources provided to teachers at the secondary level emphasize “facts” but not thinking.  (I actually open classes by telling my students that we will not be studying facts, but interpretations of sources–hopefully reliable sources.)  Even so, the challenge of retention and engagement remains.

Brockmann opens his discussion much earlier than NCLB with the cultural wars in the 1980s.  He argues that these were not only counter-productive to either group’s goals, they also gutted the humanities of its respectability and dignity in the minds of the general public.  It created the image of the liberal arts as a bastard child in the academic arena, subordinate to more vocational majors such as business, which is a completely topsy-turvy understanding of education and its roots in Western Civilization.

A quarter of a century later, with the humanities in crisis across the country and students and parents demanding ever more pragmatic, ever more job-oriented kinds of education, the curricular debates of the 1980s over courses about Western civilization and the canon seem as if they had happened on another planet, with completely different preconceptions and assumptions than the ones that prevail today. We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.

The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

~ Stephen Brockmann

What is lost?   Perhaps it is irrelevant to you that America’s children are limited in their thinking about Easter to a basket full of candy and gifts delivered by the Easter bunny, but it is a tragedy regardless of whether those children are raised as Christians.  This reflects an unfortunate reordering of our values and mores–and I am not insisting on a Christian society, here.  The questions are broader than religion or life viewed through a religion’s perspective.  How do business courses prepare students for the cultural interactions of the modern world?  How do they replace philosophy courses that ask us how to think about how best we should live?  By what means do they teach the next generation to communicate, argue and understand rhetoric?  In fact, business schools must add such tangential courses to their programs because they recognize that their students are not getting a well-rounded education beyond the major.

How is it solved?

Indeed, how?  It requires a re-commitment to our society’s roots, even if we dispute the value of it’s ideals and practices.  It is not necessary to glorify it, but it is necessary to learn it.  We cannot possibly expect students to understand the conflicts that exist today or the necessity for self-education and participation in the community and civics without some grounding in what got us here–and I understand this to extend beyond our Founding Fathers, just as they looked beyond their British heritage in the founding of a new American civilization.  The value of testing-based education has been questioned long before NCLB and the idea that a multiple choice test can adequately evaluate a student’s ability to think historically is, naturally, absurd.

Brockmann believes that we have truly lost something, which is why he entitles his op-ed, “Sorry”.  Holland’s teachers appear to have few answers as well, though their myopic  concern about NCLB and state testing requirements smells like a scapegoat.  Naturally, students‘ lives have changed from the 1980s–not just their habits and activities, but also the way their brains develop as a result.  Will instructors be able adapt as necessary within the systems that exist–those systems born out of Western Civilization?  Probably.  When and what will be lost (and need to be recovered by later generations)?  Good question.  Students of the breadth and depth of Western Civilization will recall that the Romans looked back to the Greeks.  In succession, the Carolingians, 12th Century scholars, Renaissance Europeans and Enlightened thinkers all looked back to the Greeks and Romans following a decline in such interest and remembrance.  Enlightened thinkers looked back to the Renaissance, as well.  So, perhaps we are due for another flourishing in the long history of ideas from our extensive heritage.

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Local History in our Cities’ Museums

In the U.S., our cities have certain stories of their past to tell:

  1. Life before the European–the story, told mostly through archaeology and treaties, of the American Indian in a particular region
  2. Settlement–a story that often includes conflict, with the previous inhabitants, the landscape or both; sometimes this is a story of innovations, sometimes a story conquest and often it includes stories of tremendous will and perseverance; this is also told through archaeology and occasionally federal and legal documents–under more fortunate circumstances, it includes first person accounts
  3. Growth–a story that explains how a settlement of a few pioneers became a town and then a city; this is usually a story that builds through multiple phases: first as infrastructure improves and again as local industry develops; occasionally these stories include periods of economic and population regression–sometimes it is how they culminate
  4. Local industry–this story features the prominent (usually) men about town that created jobs and economic growth through commercial means and typically effected politics and society, such as Heinz in Pittsburgh, the race track in Saratoga or the ship yards in Baltimore
  5. Local events/catastrophes/individuals–these are uniques stories and major events unique to the region, from cataclysmic natural disasters to military battles to political show-downs or epic instances of courage; they provide much of the local color and show up in any phase along the way
  6. Prejudice and civil rights–these are stories that recognize the local region’s particular participation in our country’s greater history of having failed to live up to our own ideals, tempered with the stories of courage and risk in which those shortcomings were overcome–most of these stories appear in the past tense, often around slavery, Jim Crow or urban renewal, and with the sense that we have overcome those periods and issues
  7. Sports–these stories can also encompass a wide range of periods and are part of the local lore, trial and triumph; these often include a discussion of prejudice at some point, usually looking at the Negro Leagues or desegregation in sports and the impact on society

These cases are often the focus and model for local museums.  As with historical textbook authors and documentary directors, curators are often knowledgeable about either one particular facet of the museum’s exhibits or are specifically gifted in their field and happen to be at a history museum (as opposed to art, for example).  Thus, it is frequently the case that museums, as with textbooks and documentaries, do not always deal with the method behind the displayed knowledge, nor thus the disagreement that often exists regarding historical interpretations.  So, in the same sense there is often the perception of the provided information as being HISTORICAL FACT as opposed to an interpretation of evidence–often the result of hard research, I am sure–but not reflective of historical method, which is itself an end in one’s historical education.

So, the question arises: how do we use this as curious human beings and as educators?

For the curious:

Whenever we visit these museums, we have two options in our approach: we can simply take in and enjoy–a passive edutainment approach–or we can consider what is missing, what evidence is provided for the assertions, what implications arise, what other interpretations exist or other questions–an active thinking approach.  This is all really dependent on one’s own interests.  While visiting the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh I was really intrigued by a small exhibit that acknowledged the various religious women orders that had been active in Pittsburgh despite a prevalent suspicion for foreign-born Catholics.  The exhibit explained that the nuns earned respect by providing health services for orphans and poor factory workers in the growing steel industry.  An example of each habit was provided and a brief blurb about the order, but little other information or evidence about their accomplishments and relationships in the city.  I was particularly interested because few of the orders had an education–mission which is the stereotypical role, today.

In the sense that the exhibit brought the subject to my awareness it was positive, but that I left with more questions than answers is an outcome for which the merits must be judged by each individual.

For the educator:

These same challenges can be turned into opportunities by educators.  In fact, tapping into the local industry or sports lore may be a really useful way to engage students in challenging concepts surrounding both historical method and content.  Relationships can be fostered between local institutions encouraging students to engage and research the content in the exhibits and learn more about how historians know what they claim to know.  There are, thus, many opportunities not only to engage students with the physical objects of the past, but to engage their attention to the construction of the content.  Local histories are often exhibited in a predominantly positive way, with the darker points of history usually (but not always) relegated to the more distant past, and this also creates opportunities to prompt thought about other perspectives and more balanced understandings of human past and human nature.  (Incidentally, I think it is often the threat of the darker side of history that makes the accompanying sports history that much more appealing and triumphant!  That is unless, of course, there is something inherently unavoidable about the loss, such as the Baltimore Colts packing up and leaving town, or the utter racism that left the Washington Redskins as the last team to desegregate.)

In short, there is opportunity in our local field trip availability that can trigger really useful active thinking–historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg would call it–that we can tap into as educators at all levels.

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Facing the challenges of the high school pastime of dehumanizing your peers

 

AP photograph of suicide victim Eric Mohat, 17 years of age.

 

“1 Ohio school, 4 bullied teens dead by own hand”

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101008/ap_on_re_us/us_bullying_one_town

The photo above goes with the Yahoo! news link below it.  They are further evidence that somewhere in our society we’ve messed up.  As a historian, my brain creates unsettling parallels.  As a human being, my heart hurts.  I see several problems.  In the above story, the particulars of one school’s recent tragedies is laid out, but no apparent progress seems forthcoming.  In the last two years, Mentor High School in Ohio has seen four suicides and currently has two independent law suits laid against it for its neglected responsibility in two of the deaths.  The most recent young lady, Sladjana Vidovic, 16, was an immigrant from Croatia.  Before her two students, friends, ended their lives within three weeks of each other; Eric Mohat, 17, whether he was gay or not, was mocked as though he was, and his friend, Meredith Rezak, 16, a well-liked athlete had recently confided in friends that she thought was gay.  Jennifer Eyring, 16, was “developmentally delayed and had a hearing problem.”  All were harassed, sometimes physically.  All came to the same conclusion that they just couldn’t go forward.  As much as the students responsible for tormenting these victims are guilty, an even greater responsibility lies with the people in their lives who should be mentors.  Teens make mistakes–horrible ones, sometimes–adults, parents, teachers, coaches have the responsibility to correct these mistakes.

 

AP photograph of Mentor High School--less than excellent.

 

Why do teens lash out at other teens?  Whole books have been written on the subject and I am not an expert in that field.  I do, however, worry that our society reinforces the wrong things, poisonous things, that do more harm than we may wish to acknowledge.  In this post, I want to cover some ideas I have about what we can be doing (and what challenges our ability to do it).  To do this, I want to cover some things I have mentioned in the past–Sam Wineburg’s belief that history can humanize us, and the creation of the “other” or the use of dehumanizing language to undermine our obligations to each other–and a new program I read about a few years ago founded by Erin Gruwell–the Freedom Writers Foundation.

The History-Humanizes-Us Argument

One of my first concerns is the unrealized potential in many history classrooms across the country.  Sam Wineburg has pointed out the inherent value in teaching history as a subject by teaching historical method.  Question:  What do the historians we admire most all share in common?  Answer:  A deep knowledge and understanding of past peoples and experiences.  Even if that knowledge is not entirely correct, the act of engaging someone distant, foreign and strange and getting to know there culture is an important task–something every education should provide and very difficult to achieve.  Most of the history curriculum at schools and even to extant and colleges and universities emphasizes a survey format that is really about packing one’s head full of trivia, but not really learning about another culture and people that different, even strange.  Amidst that difference and strangeness there is similarity, too, but even if there is not it is irrelevant!  It is especially beside the point in this country where we are, in our founding, flawed though it might have been in its acceptance of slavery, committed to a society that lives in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, not fear.

To realize history’s humanizing qualities fully, to draw on history’s ability to, in the words of Carl Degler, “expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human,” we need to encounter the distant past—a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization.  It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth.  The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race.  Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.  ~Sam Wineburg

I think a focus on this skill-building, methodology-based approach could really help open the eyes of young people–even if it only plants a seed that take a few years to blossom.  The best teachers find ways to do this even with obstacles such as survey courses, testing-directed teaching and unimaginative adminstrations.  They challenge students to try to step out of their boxes and see things from different perspectives.  Developmentally, this is a challenge for teens, but it is good to push them to the edge of their abilities–sometimes you push and they go beyond the point they thought was their limit.

The Freedom Writers Argument

 

"The Freedom Writers' Diary" by the students of Erin Gruwell

 

Erin Gruwell was a student-teacher when she was assigned a high school freshman English class of students everyone expected to fail.  Maybe they would have if a student had not passed a caricature of another student emphasizing racial features in a crude way.  Gruwell snapped.  She did not hesitate to compare the act to the Nazi caricatures of Jews and other undesirables.  Her English class started down a path of personal journal writing inspired by Anne Frank’s and investigated the way society’s turn on their own.  She took them on field trips and arranged to have speakers that would speak on the issue–most of what she did initially she paid out of her own pocket, because she cold not get funding.  Realistically, most teachers probably cannot do all the things she did, but she has set up a program to help educators do the most important part: in teaching her students to read and write she taught them about the historical atrocities born out of racial or religious prejudice.  It was extremely poignant in this inner city school in Los Angeles with many mixed influences on the youth, few of them positive.  Her students learned self-confidence not because she praised them but because she challenged them and they succeeded.  She cared enough to challenge them and they took that and built a strong and positive community, helping each other deal with troubled home-lives, difficult economic situations and their own demons.  In the end, a class of students that was never suppose to make it out of the ninth grade and was regarded as a criminal element graduated, a group of young people unafraid of others’ differences.

The cases in the article above are not from a “ghetto” school, they are from a suburbanite public school.  The very safety and comfort is sometimes the biggest challenge for students who do not really understand questions of hunger, suffering or danger.  When I worked at the Close Up Foundation with students from every demographic, the kids who were the most difficult to reach about citizen-involvement were often some of the ones from comfortable suburban schools.  I do not mean to say that all suburban schools or high school students are like this!!  Nor am I saying that we should deprive our children of comfort, but I am saying that we should be aware that it is often difficult for a teenager to grasp troubles that are foreign to them, or for that matter to accept people who are different from them.  It is why we–all of us!–are there to educate and, again, plant seeds that will eventually bring forth fruit: healthy, compassionate citizens.

The Society-is-letting-itself-down Argument

 

Brennan's "Semantics of Oppression"

 

But in the meanwhile, we have to acknowledge our failure as a society.  The students in the article above who were bullied to death represent the same demographics that the law fails to protect, today: the disabled, immigrants and gays.  These are our society’s failings:  The disabled, so often labeled as burdens to their caregivers and to themselves as having low-quality lives, are frequently aborted or euthanized, legally.  The range of  disabilities that are targeted is expansive.  Immigrants are being targeted by private citizens and increasingly by governments, currently more at the state level than the federal level.  Finally, the persistence of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Domestic Marriage Act, not to mention the various state same-sex marriage bans, continues to establish a second class status for gay citizens and their families.  What do these issues all have in common?  They are not all in the same party platform!  But, they all reinforce the notion, established by the government–so, in other words, our society, us!–that certain groups of people should be treated differently–not just differently, but beneath the rest of society.  In a society founded on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we cannot expect to be successful and rely on future generations if we continue to tell our children, “there is something wrong with these people and they need to be treated differently.”  Is it any wonder that our children, in this society, follow this pattern?

 

AP Photograph of Sladjana Vidovic's (remembered in the framed picture) grieving family.

 

HOPE:

Suicide hotlines:

http://suicidehotlines.com/

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/?gclid=CKnKjvqfzKQCFUNM5Qod1Wf8iw

For gay teens:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/It-Gets-Better-Project/158071744210603

http://www.glaad.org/

http://community.pflag.org/Page.aspx?pid=194&srcid=-2

http://ellen.warnerbros.com/2010/10/donate_to_the_anti-bullying_organizations_ellen_supports_1005.php

For disabilities rights and protection of disabled or elderly:

http://www.dredf.org/?gclid=COWzjqKgzKQCFc9L5QodIlf7iw

http://www.ada.gov/

http://www.dredf.org/?gclid=COWzjqKgzKQCFc9L5QodIlf7iw

http://www.nrlc.org/medethics/index.html

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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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