Teaching Innovations

In the Beginning: A Model for Providing Historical Background

Jo Francis, April 1994

No matter where a history survey course begins, students seldom have enough background to understand the first unit in its historical context. This can present a formidable challenge to teachers of "modern history" because so much occurred before the modern period is deemed to have begun. When I began teaching Advanced Placement (AP) European history, a college-level survey course that is technically supposed to begin with the year 1450, I became acutely aware of this problem since so many of the key issues of the Renaissance concern the period's relationship to its medieval and classical past. I wanted my students to operate as historians and grapple with major issues of historical interpretation right from the beginning. But how, I wondered, could they consider the question of whether the Renaissance can legitimately be considered distinct from the Middle Ages if they knew little or nothing of medieval history? How could they draw any conclusions about whether the Renaissance was indeed a "rebirth" of the classical past unless they knew something about ancient Greece and Rome? And how could they understand the Reformation of the sixteenth century if they knew little of the history of Christianity?

My students were college-bound seniors in a suburban high school, some of whom, as sophomores, had taken a one-semester course in the geography and history of Europe from ancient Greece to World War I. Not surprisingly, they remembered little from that course by the time they got to my class two years later. Others were new to the study of European history.

The first time I taught the AP course, I spent the opening two weeks of class presenting a chronological minisurvey of European history from classical times through the early fifteenth century. It was not a success. Little understanding of two thousand years can be gained in two weeks, and I became aware that "background" held little meaning for students who hadn't yet studied the Renaissance. Further, I discovered that to present so much information, I had to lecture most of the time, which meant I had to postpone not only teaching the content of "modern history" but also introducing the active methods of inquiry and discussion we would be using during the rest of the course. I also had to put off discussing historiography because there was no time to have students examine historiographical controversies. In short, I neglected most of my chief goals, so I searched for a different way to begin the course that would quickly involve students in thinking critically and in drawing conclusions from primary sources at the same time they were gaining needed background information that could be applied to their study of the Renaissance.

The Period A and B Exercise

My solution was to create what I call the period A and B exercise. It is similar in some ways to the Document-Based Question (DBQ) found in AP history exams. I ask students to examine visual and documentary evidence in order to compare and contrast the "High Medieval" culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the "High Renaissance" culture of the sixteenth century. I select art slides and primary source readings that help students discover that the Renaissance was, in general, more secular, more oriented toward classical culture, and more individualistic than the culture of the High Middle Ages, but I also want them to see that change was uneven, and that considerable religious emphasis remained, especially in northern Europe.

The twist to the exercise lies in labeling the periods "A and B," a strategy similar to the "yes or no" critical thinking approach in which students must find the rule that sorts examples into members or nonmembers of a certain set. Using the nondescriptive names A and B helps students look at the evidence carefully and put aside preconceptions. If I were to identify the periods by name immediately, some students' "knowledge" that the Renaissance was more secular than the Middle Ages might cause them to overlook the great number of religious paintings produced during the High Renaissance. Or their notion that the Middle Ages was "backward" might cause them to miss seeing that the political theories of major High Medieval thinkers are closer in some ways to modern democratic thought than are the politics of a Renaissance thinker such as Machiavelli.

I introduce the period A and B activity on the second or third day of class so students can be actively engaged in inquiry as soon as possible. I start the activity by giving students a packet consisting of a cover sheet with directions, a list of slides of art and architecture from the two periods, and a set of primary source excerpts grouped by period under the headings "Political Theory" and "Education." The directions explain the task: Students are to compare and contrast the culture of period A with that of period B by formulating two well-supported generalizations about cultural differences between the two periods, and one generalization about a cultural similarity.

The directions include a working definition of culture, which I describe as including the dominant ideas, beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, preoccupations, and interests of people in each period. I model an approach to drawing conclusions about periods A and B by guiding the class in a comparison of American youth culture in the 1960s with youth culture today. Together, we make a chart of comparative cultural generalizations, looking for those that sum up major similarities and differences and for which we have evidence from multiple sources, such as popular music, news reports, clothing, movies, books, and articles. While making the chart, we discuss exceptions and qualifications to our generalizations. Students enjoy being the experts on today's youth culture, and they understand the fine points of making cultural comparisons better when they practice with familiar information that has personal relevance.

Undertaking this comparison with the students gives me a chance to clarify the task for them, to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses they bring to it, and to answer their questions, many of which center on issues of historical analysis and methodology. (e.g., Q: "What makes one generalization more valid than another?" A: "Plenty of evidence and no attempts to ignore or misrepresent evidence." Q: "How can we be sure you aren't trying to trick us by choosing a small number of weird examples?" A: "You can't be absolutely sure, although it is logical to assume that, as your teacher, I want you to get as accurate a view of the history as possible so you won't have to unlearn misleading information. Nevertheless, you are wise to be suspicious of a small sample collected by one individual and to recognize that you need to have more information from a wide variety of sources to make firmer conclusions. For an exercise like this, you are doing the job if your generalizations fit the evidence you are given.")

Architecture and the Visual Arts

After we discuss the directions, I show the architecture slides—first a few Romanesque cathedrals (labeled "before period A" on students' lists) and a number of Gothic cathedrals (labeled "period A")—and I describe the technical innovations, chief among them the flying buttress, which made Gothic cathedrals possible. I also point out the religious symbolism of interior spaces filled with light and spires reaching to the heavens. That most of the cathedrals are French reinforces the fact that the Gothic style originated in France and spread widely in northern Europe, with reduced influence in Italy. I also show a few examples of medieval castles, emphasizing their defensive nature and their relative lack of decoration. Period B architecture slides and lecture information are selected to indicate that there were a variety of magnificent secular buildings, as well as churches, to show classical influences on architecture, and to illustrate that we know the names of many of the architects (which is rare for period A).

After presenting the architecture slides, I show slides of the other visual arts, again divided by period. Slides of the High Medieval (Gothic) art of period A illustrate the close connection between art and religion, with most examples coming from churches: stained glass windows, sculpture, mosaics, and carved reliefs, including the piously elongated biblical figures adorning the portals of Chartres. I include one tempera painting and note the relative scarcity of painting apart from church frescoes. Period B art slides are selected to show the tremendous increase in paintings, most of which were commissioned by wealthy patrons, and the inclusion of secular details in religious paintings as well as the appearance of completely secular themes.

During the class period when students view the art and architecture slides and listen to my commentary, I encourage them to take notes and make sketches of the slides so they have both a written and a visual record to which they can refer when comparing periods A and B. If, however, I were teaching in a college or university where students have fewer hours of class time but more preparation time outside of class. I would send them to the library to view reproductions on reserve, and I would provide a printed commentary. This would enable students to review particular pictures and explanations, instead of having to rely on memory, notes, and sketches. But such a method would not be practical for students who leave school right after their last class each day, arrive just before their first class each morning, and have no study periods. (My school also happened to have many slides but few good reproductions. Around such practical considerations do our lives revolve.)

Primary Documents

After viewing the art slides, students turn to the documents in the packet for homework. I coach them on reading carefully for meaning. Primary sources are often difficult because writers make many assumptions based on cultural norms different from ours, and because there are usually many unfamiliar words. I encourage students to summarize each document in their own words before they try to use them to compare periods A and B because many tend to skim to find evidence of similarities and differences between the periods without understanding what each author is actually saying. At worst, this will lead them to unsupportable conclusions; at best, they will get some accurate information but miss subtleties. As with poetry, the complexity and density of language and ideas can be unsettling to students until they realize they can state the main ideas clearly. To analyze a piece of writing, it is essential to know what it says. Although this might seem obvious, I have found that students often take shortcuts because they lack experience in approaching difficult reading in a systematic way. While summarizing is not the main objective, it is a useful first step. Also, when students know the instructor expects them to put complex ideas into simpler language, they often feel reassured that they will understand. I edit the documents to keep them short and focused; this, too, helps increase students' confidence that the task is manageable.

The documents are divided into two sections, by topic. The first section, "Political Theory—Period A," contains short excerpts from John of Salisbury's Policratus—Statesmen's Book and Thomas Aquinas's Concerning the Rule of Princes, excerpts which show these medieval thinkers' hierarchical yet cooperative, "organic" view of the state as a body created by God, dependent not only on the leadership of the prince, but on the work of all, including the peasants (the "feet" of the body, according to Salisbury). Since Salisbury and Aquinas offer similar descriptions of the state, an instructor might include just one of these excerpts because it is easier for students to notice the period to which the writer belongs if there is only one document in each category. I prefer to include both, however, because I find their similarity fascinating; students can see that two authors express nearly identical views, which might suggest that their picture of the world was widely accepted at the time, that they were primarily interested in describing what they believed to be a divine plan for the world, and that they were not concerned about developing ideas that would distinguish them from other writers.

In contrast, the period B political reading—a short excerpt from Machiavelli's The Prince on whether it is better for the ruler to be loved or feared—presents methods a ruler can use to gain and keep power. Citizens are not seen as an important part of the body politic but as a gullible audience the prince must deceive by pretending to be "altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious."

The second topic in the document packet is "Education." Here students compare Aquinas's argument from the opening pages of Summa Theologica—that Truth is not obtained solely by human reason but also through Divine revelation—with Bastista Guarino's practical outline of a humanist education from De Ordine Docendi et Studenti.

These readings reinforce the observation students will have made when viewing the slides that most of the culture of period A revolves around religion, whereas in period B there is a considerable body of secular writing, just as there is a great deal of secular art, and classical models are widely praised and imitated. Alert students will also note that in political theory, as in art, period B emphasized the role of the powerful individual, be it the prince or the artistic genius, in contrast to period A, which focused on communities of people working together for the glory of God.

Finding Differences and Similarities

For the written assignment part of the period A and B activity, I ask students to make sure that each of the two major cultural differences they articulate can be supported by evidence from both the documents and the slides. I tell them that they should not make generalizations about only one category of evidence, such as "The art changed" or "Political theory changed." Instead, they should look for important overall differences in outlook between the two periods. I ask them to use this format for their generalizations: major difference no. 1, generalization no. 1, followed by one or more paragraphs offering plenty of examples from the slides and documents. They must do the same for major difference no. 2 and for the similarity. Giving students a preprinted form with cue lines for each generalization and lots of lines underneath for the subsequent supporting paragraphs can help them concentrate on the task rather than on the format.

I tell them that a broad similarity may be more difficult to find than broad differences because I have chosen evidence that emphasizes contrasts, so they should not be distressed if they have less evidence, or less wide-ranging evidence, to support their similarity than they had to support the two differences. However, most are able to recognize and express at least one continuity between the two periods. They usually realize that although there was less emphasis on religion, period B was still quite religious, especially when compared to the twentieth century. Some notice that in both periods there is an emphasis on authority: the political authority of hereditary rulers and the authority of classical ideas about education.

The "Mountain Chart"

On the day I collect the assignment and we discuss their generalizations, I ask students if they have guessed the identity of periods A and B. Some usually say "Middle Ages and Renaissance," but most are startled when I ask them when in the Middle Ages and when in the Renaissance (pointing out that "Middle Ages" is a term that usually describes a period of about a thousand years). This provides an opportunity to talk about how historians have generally divided historical time. I draw for them what I call a "mountain chart"—overlapping curves above a timeline to illustrate conventional periodization: the "rise" and "fall" of the Hellenic, Hellenistic, Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods. Period A can be represented as a high point on the medieval curve, the so-called "Gothic" or "High Medieval" period. Similarly, the sixteenth century, period B, is considered by many historians to be the culmination and flowering of Renaissance culture.

Drawing the mountain chart provides a concrete way to present a short (one or two class periods) chronological overview of European history. I summarize major events and achievements preceding the Renaissance, and I briefly preview the course by indicating the conventional names of the periods we will be studying. Since all students now have some knowledge of two periods on the chart from the periods A and B activity, they have two reference points to help them understand and remember. I keep the chronological overview focused on the themes of political power and cultural achievements, since these will be the main themes of the Renaissance unit. I also assign reading about the period between A and B—the tumultuous fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries—and ask students to focus on these same two themes.

The mountain chart also allows us to discuss different bases for judgments about "rise and fall," such as cultural achievements and military power. The controversies over whether the Middle Ages was "dark" and whether any block of a thousand years can be expressed as one period can be addressed by discussing the merits of changing the modest hill I constructed for the Middle Ages into one long valley. Because of the students' brief but focused exposure to the art and writing of period A, many will have begun to have some appreciation for Gothic civilization and will understand why most contemporary historians have rejected the concept of the "Dark Ages," particularly as applied to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I also point out that the concept originated with Renaissance writers who emphasized differences between themselves and their medieval predecessors.

Spending time at the beginning of the course considering controversies surrounding periodization has proven useful. It has allowed students to become acquainted with standard period designations while fostering a critical attitude toward all such labels. It also introduces students to fashions in historical interpretation, which are influenced by cultural trends. I emphasize this theme again later in the course when we examine the eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers' generally negative view of the Middle Ages, and their generally optimistic view of historical progress. When we study the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, students see how the fashion reverses itself and Gothic becomes popular.

My "new and improved" chronological survey is much shorter than the two-week version I tried initially, and it is more effective as a result of several factors: the visual aid of the mountain chart, students' background knowledge of periods A and B, and my decision to discuss church history only briefly, saving the details for the introduction to my unit on the Reformation.

Using the A and B Exercise to Introduce Other Units

I don't use the A and B format again during the year; after the exercise is completed, students know what periods to expect, and they could check their textbooks if I announced a period C and D activity. However, I often use the principle of the A or B exercise when introducing subsequent units: I look for ways to have students begin with involvement in an activity from which they can deduce key concepts. For example, I have introduced imperialism by hypothesizing an invasion of the United States by an imaginary foreign power, creating details of the story to parallel some of the situations of nineteenth-century imperialism and asking questions to get students to explore possible consequences to the colonized and the colonizers: Many Americans might have mixed feelings about the conquest, and some might even work with the conquerors—under what circumstances, and why? For what reasons would many Americans be outraged, and what forms might their resistance take?

Similarly, I started a unit on the French Revolution one year by asking the students how likely they thought it would be for their generation to rebel. (Not likely, most thought.) Why? Could they think of anything that might spark a rebellion? After the spark, what factors might play a role in determining how widespread the rebellion became? What responses by authorities might fan the flames? What responses might cool things down? A twenty-minute discussion yielded a wealth of ideas which perceptibly increased students' involvement in the subject and provided a shared conceptual framework for our upcoming study.

The periods A and B activity and these unit introductory activities might be thought of as "guided hypothesizing." When students make educated guesses based on details representative of those they will be encountering, they become interested in learning more in order to test their guesses. When they study the unit after such an introduction, they are often just as interested in finding out what they were unable to predict as they are in verifying and extending those predictions that check out. If introductions are structured in a way that helps students become aware of main ideas, they become familiar with the benefits of having a "big picture" organizing concept when investigating and writing.

Best of all, these introductory activities allow students to engage in historical inquiry from the outset. Active involvement is a key element in genuine learning, on every educational level. Many students will be new to the demands of active involvement, so I have found it important to look for ways to make introductory activities as enjoyable, intellectually stimulating, and nonthreatening as possible. The periods A and B activity, lasting about a week, is my longest and most complex introductory activity because it is the vehicle I use to introduce both content and methodology. It provides a way for students to absorb a lot of information in a short time: factual background and historical context as well as information about what historians do and about what students will be doing in the class. For some, it has seemed intimidating at first, but this hasn't proved to be bad in the long run. I openly acknowledge that it isn't easy, and I offer encouragement.

Almost all students complete the assignment. It is the first, after all, and besides, most seem to enjoy being actively challenged right away. The few who don't do the assignment, or who do it but don't enjoy it, find out quickly what the course will entail so they can drop it in time to add another.

Listening to their classmates' ideas helps students appreciate the variety of legitimate comparisons that can be made about the two periods, and they frame questions which arouse their curiosity and guide their subsequent study. The preliminary writing they do can be used as a springboard for ongoing writing instruction. For example, I can point to the written part of the periods A and B activity as a good example of related topic sentences appropriately supported with evidence and explanation. Once we complete our Renaissance unit, students can expand the A-B writing into a full-fledged essay, complete with a thesis. One delightful side effect of this assignment is that the playful guessing-game element of A and B seems to reduce any DBQ anxiety that students may bring with them, and helps them enter with gusto into the task of discovery right from the beginning of the course.

—A teacher since 1973, Jo Francis has taught in Thailand and the United States at both the high school and college level. This article is based on seven years of teaching AP European history at Glen Burnie Senior High School, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.