Saturday, December 13, 2014

History--Facts to Opinions (Dear Katie V3 #14)

Dear Katie,

In class, I am nearing the end of my unit on the Byzantine Empire.  We began a few weeks ago discussing the failed launch of New Coke in the 80's and used that as a launching pad to discuss "New Rome", the city of Constantinople.  Through weeks of reading, discussing, and yes, memorizing facts, we are now ready to have fun (at least in my eyes), developing the ideas of why this was important to learn in order to better understand our world.

We began looking the recent Ukrainian/ Russian crisis and use that as a springboard to discuss other times in history there had been a clash over the balance of power between Western & Eastern Europe.  For a history teacher, this is the fun of the course, as students take the previous knowledge you have "drilled and killed" into them and use it to make new connections.  My students were comparing and contrasting past divisions seen in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and making connections to the divisions seen in the past 100 years between Western Europe (The European Union/NATO) and Eastern Europe (Warsaw Pact/Russia).  And as a teacher, you stand back  with pride as you listen to your students tell you connections and opinions that you never even thought about.

When students see how the past related to the present is when
History becomes Real.

You don't get there without impressing on your students the importance of learning facts that they may find irrelevant.  Before these classes on the modern day tensions between Eastern and Western Europe, we spent days reading about and memorizing events such as Diocletian dividing the Roman empire into East/West, the building of Constantinople, the Great Schism, and 4th Crusade.  Events that for many if not all of my students seem so distant and irrelevant you have to give the students praise for even attempting to retain these facts when they are hammered with a worldview that de-emphasizes anything outside their personal experience.

Without the retention of these basic facts that we went over in class by what some would deride as rote (using daily "game" quizzes) students would not have historical evidence behind their opinions.  Rather they would have a visceral  reaction, "I agree with the Russians/European Union because I feel they're right".  The argument would become emotional rather than logical.

Why are they right?  

You need facts to back it up.  My students' supports for their argument wasn't at their literal fingertips (doing a Google Search) but at their figurative fingertips.  They had transferred enough knowledge into long term memory that the discussion was both brisk and insightful.  A student who can understand the proper format of a word problem, yet fails in their ability to compute simple math in their head has the same result as a student who cannot understand the format but can do the computation, a wrong answer.  Both parts have to be correct.  Imagine watching a presidential debate where a candidate is "Googling" topics after the moderator's question and then formulating a response.  We would see that as a weakness, not a strength.

Without background knowledge, 
you limit your comprehension 
and ability draw connections with new ideas.  

And History is fun when your students make those connections.

Uncle Kevin