Dan Ragsdale, Grade Five English and history teacher, offers the latest installment in the From Theory to Practice series. A faculty member since 2010, Dan has coached Middle and Upper School basketball, served as a faculty advisor to the Middle School Student Council, and co-led Browning's Collaborative Learning Cohort.
Several years ago, a mentor offered what seemed a simple piece of advice: “Teaching history well is about the stories. You have to know the stories.” This appears straightforward (even obvious) at first, but the notion bears a complexity that humanities educators should grapple with throughout their careers. It immediately begs the questions: How do we decide whose stories to tell, and how do we go about telling those stories? These are questions for serious consideration, whether one is a celebrated historian, a middle school teacher, or an 11-year-old wading into the uncertainty of inquiry for the first time.
In a recent article about Americans’ fading understanding of the Holocaust, The New York Times’ Maggie Astor writes: “Thirty-one percent of Americans and 41 percent of millenials believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust...Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millenials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think that Hitler came to power through force.” Despite the belief of an overwhelming majority of Americans (93 percent) that all students should be taught about the Holocaust, many (and in some cases most) lack knowledge of the basic facts one needs to understand the nature of the genocide.
Why is this? There are no doubt many factors, but one that seems present in society at large and in education is an inclination to soften truths that are hard to fathom. From the euphemisms we employ to speak of death to our reluctance to fully examine the great accomplishments of people alongside their unmistakable flaws, we often err on the side of a sanitized narrative. Accounts of bravery, innovation, victory, and leaps forward in society are compelling and worthy, but the story is never as simple as we might hope. There are no perfect heroes.
The Grade Five history curriculum focuses on physical world geography and the Age of European Exploration, a fascinating time period from which myriad connections can be drawn to the world we know and inhabit today. It also features some of the harshest and most troubling narratives in modern history. In past years, I spent what I believed to be sufficient time discussing the impact of exploration on the native peoples of the Americas, but as our work shifted to research and inquiry during the second half of the year, student engagement shifted as well. Despite my efforts to provide a full and fair context, the remarkable feats and sheer audacity of exploration overwhelmed the boys’ appreciation of its consequences. While the boys always asked thoughtful questions about the merits of a lionized Columbus, something was clearly missing in the balance of perspectives.
A casual conversation about this challenge with Sarah Murphy touched off a brainstorm and, subsequently, the development of a unit of inquiry about the history of human life in North America. For seven years, Sarah and I have co-taught Grade Five media literacy, a class originally developed to support the research goals of the history curriculum. Through our collaboration on this unit, Sarah and I hoped to achieve two objectives: a comprehensive application of the skills and content presented in both classes, and the opportunity for each boy to create a piece of research-based creative writing that would demonstrate a deeper understanding of pre-Columbian history in North America.
The boys first worked in teams to complete guided research assignments about the nations that inhabited different regions of North America. They were then asked to choose one nation within their region for individual inquiry, and to explore how its people lived prior to European contact. From the physical features of the land to the climate to the many facets of their subject’s culture, the boys gathered the facts they would need to tell a rich story. A story based in fact but of their choosing.
The boys then wrote a series of journal entries, describing a year of life, from the perspective of an 11-year-old member of their subject nation. Drawing on their geographical literacy and knowledge of the Age of Exploration, they also wrote a single journal entry from the perspective of an 11-year-old European (a deckhand or member of a land expedition), contemplating the moment of contact with the same indigenous nation.
Throughout the research and writing process, we populated a timeline of human life in North America. Spanning from 18,000 BCE to the present, and stretching some 25 feet from the library terrace to the chess board, the timeline is a stark visual reminder of the vast pre-European history of our continent. The boys’ contributions to the timeline are complete, but there are more stories to tell. If you are so inclined, grab a Post-it and make your mark on this living document (shortcut citations required).
How do we decide whose stories to tell, and how do we go about telling those stories? These questions should inform an educator’s approach to controversial periods like the Age of Exploration as well as the ever-present complexities in the stories of events and individuals. And whenever possible, these questions should be placed in the hands of students.