The March Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by Two Writing Teachers .
About a year ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a Content Area Institute in Social Studies at TC. Our large group sessions were led by the always inspiring and thought provoking Mary Ehrenworth, who encouraged us to teach our kids to be aware of multiple perspectives when reading texts, viewing art or print media, and studying reports of historical events and issues. We examined some narratives about the Pilgrims and the early days of American settlements, and were fascinated to find a wide variety of often diverging points of view as to what that experience had been like, and what the Pilgrims found when they so famously landed on Plymouth Rock. In one of our text selections, we were astonished to discover that the Puritans were the first people to ever set foot on Plymouth Rock, a fact that would have come as a great surprise to the Wampanoag people who had inhabited the area for many generations!
Mary challenged us to be more intentional about building a habit of historical thinking based on the following questions:
- what’s the story?
- what’s the other story?
- who is telling the story? who is left out of the story?
- how do you know the story?
- why know/tell the story?
- where is the power in the story?
These questions are posted on the wall at the front of my classroom, we call them our “historical thinking questions”, and they continue to guide the way we think about what we learn in history:
I think I feel a special urgency to teach this way because ours’ is a small, affluent and homogenous town. I have very few students of color, and there tends not to be much socioeconomic diversity. My kids do not know want, and theirs is a largely safe and happy world. I realized this my very first year of teaching, the year of Hurricane Katrina. The current events reports that my kids presented on Katrina were rife with misunderstandings about the lives of the poor residents of New Orleans. I was horrified at first, and then thought: okay, so let’s find a way to learn about the situation together. And, we did. We were using a version of “historical thinking questions” then, only I hadn’t thought of it quite that way yet.
All of this came to mind today, as my kids were putting together their Westward Bound photo journals – the culminating project for our Westward Expansion unit. Now that we’ve studied all about the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, the California Gold Rush, and the Homesteading Act, my students selected photographs and wrote journal entries based on what they’d learned. Photographs like these:
It was fascinating to see the variety of perspectives from which my kids wrote. In addition to the pioneers and homesteaders, there were entries from Native Americans watching the wagon trains encroach their land, migrants who toiled in the gold mines, children, pets, the weary oxen, and even the wild life whose grazing land was soon fenced off . Collected together, it was such a rich narrative – with each perspective adding a new layer of understanding. That’s the power in the story!