Curriculum History

Returning to History

Lately, it seems, we are always returning. Returning to school, returning for a new term or to an old format that feels new. Like many folks, inside and outside of education, the past twenty-two months have disrupted time my sense of time. Transitions dominate my mental state, and judging from teacher Twitter tonight, I am not alone.

My school began a new term (second trimester) in early December, and I met many students while continuing with others. I shared the Tweet below with them, one of two that crystallized some of my thoughts during pandemic teaching. I have shared Dr. Chris Emdin’s thought with all of my students since I saw it in the depths of the pandemic eleven months ago, and like Ms. Tarvin’s, its insight extends beyond the particularities of these plague years.

Living in Remarkable Times

I show this to students so that they know that their lives are remarkable. Their experiences and the artifacts that they generate can form the basis for the histories that will be written of era. It’s also a small push against the notion that school is not the real world. In a history classroom students might feel that their lived experiences are in stasis between a distant past and a nebulous future. But, we can help them to make connections.

One way to do this is by helping them to see how historians construct knowledge about the past from artifacts. To begin the term I ask students to consider what artifacts or records from their lives would be useful to future historians of our plague years. Many students offer masks and Google Classrooms as possibilities. My favorite, so far: a student’s Spring 2020 final project for a Ceramics III, made at home from styrofoam. I then have students consider what these artifacts will tell future historians

I also show them this picture from the less remarked upon influenza pandemic of 1957.

Only three of the 31 members of a seventh grade class at Grebey Junior High School in Hazleton, Pa., were present for classes, Oct. 16, 1957 (AP Photo) Source

Students, especially in 2020, have shown curiosity about pandemics in the past, including whether they generated sharp disagreements over response. I slide this image in to remind them that everything continuing as normal was never an option. If too many people are sick, schools close. The image also shows how our everyday experiences generate useful artifacts for historians

Student Voice

A week into my new World History A class last month, I asked my students what the wanted to know about the world and what perspectives they had to offer. My fabulous World History colleagues generated the questions in the fall of 2020. Students respond via Google Form (click here for a pdf with the questions).

I also made sure to respond to each student individually, via Google Classroom from which I linked the form, to thank them for sharing and to make a specific comment so they know that I read their responses. Honestly, reading their responses two weeks ago got me through our short week before break. When we return, I will share a wordle of student responses with the class. Some themes emerged, and students should will see that many of their peers hope for a world with less conflict.

These questions encourage students to incorporate their concerns with the present into their questions about the past as part of a digital humanities project. Students create a story map through Story Map JS using artifacts from our studies of the ancient and medieval worlds.

Beyond connections, I hope that students feel a sense of accomplishment from their projects. Identifying artifacts and manipulating the story map platform challenges some students. Pushing them through these challenges, however, has provided me with more of a sense of accomplishment than keeping track of work completion does.

Teaching this school year, and previous one, has been exhausting. Like many teachers I find myself expending a lot of energy to engage students. My new class of students, thirty eleventh graders meeting first period (7:40 am) for on-level World History, has not been an exception. I wish that I could report that the interventions discussed here transformed my class. No. I start each class by encouraging students slumped over their phones to look up, to engage. It discourages.

All of the bright spots in these gloomy times, however, have come from connections. Times when I see that students are considering their place in the world. When we know that we are all living in remarkable times.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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