To Chart a Course
Helping Middle Schoolers Broaden Their Vision of History
“I wouldn’t care if it was a fantasy universe,” one of my eighth graders explained. “But they said it was Rome. So I think they have more responsibility that way.”
My students were critically evaluating the trailer for the video game Ryse: Son of Rome, debating whether portrayals of the ancient world in popular media mattered or if it was all “just a game.” They were animated as they critiqued the ways “civilized” Roman characters wore shining metal armor compared to enemy characters, whose clothing was made of fur and bone. As we talked, I wondered: My students were enjoying our discussion, but did they understand that what we were doing had a legitimate place in serious history education?
My approach to teaching history is rooted in a different professional path from that of many secondary school teachers. Nearly a decade in history museums had propelled me into a doctorate in social studies curriculum and instruction. As I moved through my program, I realized that this public history background made me particularly aware of how people found value in the ways they interacted with history in spaces beyond school—experiences like visiting historic sites, watching films set in historical time periods, and sharing family stories. Whereas most efforts at improving secondary history instruction focused on helping students mimic the work of academic historians, I realized that K–12 students also needed to learn how to engage the historical claims they will encounter in many parts of their lives.
Students’ responses made it clear they were starting to perceive history in many places beyond the classroom.
After graduating, I found myself teaching at an independent school dedicated to a classical education aimed at imbuing students with “a desire to lift up the world with beauty and intellect.” As the eighth-grade ancient history survey curriculum moved toward a unit on Greco-Roman history, I paused. In our current cultural context, I felt it would be irresponsible to teach such a unit without reference to the ways emboldened white supremacist movements frequently draw on Greco-Roman imagery.
This point seemed particularly relevant for this school’s students, who are required to take two years of Latin and two years of Greek as a foundation for a deep engagement with classical literature. For these students especially, it seemed essential that they know how to articulate the value they found in classics in a way that explicitly rejected the field’s co-optation by white supremacists. Therefore, to fulfill the school’s mission, we could not content ourselves with staying safely in the past (as it were). We needed to talk directly about the reception of this history and the ways it is often activated for contemporary political aims.
With this in mind, I searched for materials that would be appropriate for my eighth-grade classroom. While academic publications represented a daunting reading level, the efforts historians had been making to communicate their research in the public sphere offered a more accessible set of texts. So we opened the unit with Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s “We Condone It by Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy,” which prompted a discussion of academe and how students might evaluate the colleges to which they would one day consider applying. Then we paired Sarah E. Bond’s essay “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color” with coverage of its reception in Inside Higher Education, a duo that gave us a chance to learn more about contemporary outrage campaigns targeting professors who investigate the types of race and gender issues my students regularly found so compelling.
To add to our examination of representation started by the Ryse: Son of Rome trailer, we used Ben Davis’s “The New White Nationalism’s Sloppy Use of Art History, Decoded,” as well as Mary Beard’s public response to critiques of the BBC video showing an ancient Roman family with many skin tones. Overall, my goal was to help them understand the broader context of historical scholarship, how knowledge is produced, and how scholars debate with one another. Throughout, I hoped they would learn that history is an ongoing investigation rather than a recitation of unquestioned facts.
I wanted my students to articulate the value they found in classics in a way that rejected the field’s co-optation by white supremacists.
As we worked our way through these articles, I could sense that students were somewhat confused by this focus on contemporary scholarship and received history. Both cultural expectations and their educational experiences elsewhere contributed to their shared, unconscious assumption that “studying history” meant “memorizing a historical narrative.” While we hadn’t abandoned the traditional textbook entirely, it was a little disorienting for them to see the things they enjoyed out of school, like musicals and video games, suddenly appear in their classroom. I knew I needed to make my pedagogical reasoning explicit—we were likely seeing the very field of history differently.
So one morning I drew a chart that helped explain how I conceived of the field. My hope was to show how ideas about past events flow through the mediation of academic and public history to become beliefs that persist in our common historical memory. I also wanted students to understand that the questions of historical memory—which I identified as “Where do we think we come from? Who do we think we are?”—were fundamentally political questions. I drew a picture that was simplified but reasonably accurate. Then, because I regularly use Twitter as a way to make my teaching more transparent to parents (many of whom follow my account), I tweeted an image of the chart shortly before class started.
In the next few days, I was astounded to see how far the tweet traveled. I frankly did not anticipate the interest my chart would garner, even meriting a volunteer translation into Spanish. Many responded with generous insights on further items that might be included, something that made me reflect on how collegial and supportive the history community on Twitter can be. Over winter break, I sifted through the many excellent suggestions #Twitterstorians had given me and revised the chart.
I then re-introduced the chart to my students. I asked them to compile lists of the ways history appeared in their lives. Their responses made it clear that they were starting to perceive history in many places beyond the classroom. They reasoned through portrayals they had seen in movies such as the recent release Dunkirk and reconsidered online debates they had participated in on sites like Reddit.
I needed to make my reasoning explicit—my students and I were likely seeing the very field of history differently.
Most strikingly, though, they recounted family stories of relatives who witnessed revolutions and fled their home countries as refugees; as they put their family’s story in the context of history, they seemed sensitized to a disconnect between popular portrayals and historical experiences.
But it was family stories that came through the strongest. A Jewish student who had relatives who were murdered in concentration camps reflected, “In media, Jews are background characters who never fight back. The resistance fighters are very important to history and aren’t commonly shown or talked about. Real Jews who lived in ghettos were rebellious, and many died trying to bring food to their communities or stand up to authorities.”
These personal connections matter. At the end of the year, it makes little difference to me whether my students will have memorized a series of dates and names, or whether they will be able to recount a textbook-driven historical narrative. What they need to learn by heart is something different. In a time when we can look up facts so easily online, recalling the information that appears readily beneath our searching fingertips is of little importance. Instead, as history teachers we can endeavor to dedicate our students’ history education to developing the critical thinking skills needed to sort through landslides of information in a way that is consistent with the values that reside in their hearts.
Lisa Gilbert has taught in K–12 schools, universities, and museums in the United States and abroad. She holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction focused on social studies education from Saint Louis University. She currently works as an adjunct instructor for the College of Education at the University of Missouri–Columbia.
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