Sunday, November 18, 2007

A few of my favorite things (pt. 1)

My favorite thing about history, I probably say to at least one class at least once a month, is that its really about stories.

I remember my ah-ha moment as a historian, sitting at our old kitchen table in Wellesley, working on a paper for my Alexander the Great class. I was a senior in high school and the paper was geared to nudge us towards ah-ha moments. We had worked from one central text for the past month, reading about Alexander the Great’s life as presented from one vantage point. Then, to change it up, our teacher gave us a chapter from two different texts. We compared, contrasted. Asked ourselves, why is this historian telling the story differently? Did they use different sources? Why? The assignment, as I remember it, was to write a paper arguing for one version over the other. Explain why we thought one history was more accurate. And while writing that paper, swinging my legs at my parent’s kitchen table, all my sources spread out around me, it clicked.

History is not about memorizing, reciting, swallowing facts. It’s a process, a science. Historians are actors, putting together pieces of great, impossible puzzles. “What is truth?” I ask my classes, after reading “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien (from The Things They Carried). “Does truth exist? Can we ever know it? How do we pin it down?” Then I tell them its their job to discover it. That being a historian, doing history is like being Indiana Jones (except hopefully with a lot less of the imperialist overtones).

Bill Bigelow is one of my favorite authors for curriculum to this end. I think I own every book he’s published – even the out-of-print ones. I’ve used Rethinking Columbus with 6th graders and 12th graders and am certain that it would be worthwhile for younger and older students, both.

The book is emblematic of Bigelow’s work and of the Rethinking Schools publications in general. It has easy-to-read background information for teachers and for older students, its chock full of primary sources that are usable across disciplines and the lesson-plan outlines come with commentary from teachers who have used them in their classrooms. Everything is there if you just want to teach straight out of the book, but there’s enough wiggle room to add your own stuff.

A lot of it is role-plays and hands-on. Doing while thinking, which rocks my socks. Its also one of the only resource that occasionally makes me wish I had more kids in my classroom (we cap at 15 to a class in my little Independent School) because the activities are so fun, I know it’s a case of the-more-the-merrier.

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