I had a nearly perfect class first period today. It was the wonderful combination of everything that I hold dear in teaching students through history: a socratic method of questioning that leads students through a guided inquiry process; using primary documents (in this case, all visual ones) to enable students to make their own conclusions about historical events; helping students to recognize multiple, complex causations to historical events; and most importantly, enabling students to make connections and recognize patterns throughout history.
Necessary Background Info
I essentially teach a comprehensive global history course to 11th grade students. There is a state-wide test at the end of it that students must pass to graduate high school, which I hate. I teach thematically. Our current unit is on Revolutions, with a focus on the French (because it is very popular on the state exam), but also examining the Haitian, Bolivar/San Martin, and Industrial Revolutions. To hook students for the unit, and to connect to the current world, we started the unit spending two days looking at Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and will spend the next couple weeks looking at how the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment set the intelectual groundwork for the French Revolutoin. Which takes us to today’s class…
When students walked in, they began class by answering the question, “What big ideas helped cause the Egyptian Revolution?” After having a few minutes to write down answers, I asked a series of questions to solicit the following responses, among others:
- Individuals have value.
- This life matters.
- We should use reason in arguments.
- Governments should be democratic.
- Unjust rulers should be removed.
- The people are above the government.
I then asked students whether or not they felt most of these ideas were commonly held. I asked them to imagine a world where these ideas were not commonly held, then explained this was the world 800 years ago. Each of these ideas came from a historical moment: the first two from the Renaissance, the third from the Scientific Revolution, the rest from the Enlightenment. At this point, my usually talkative students were in the palm of my hand.
I then explained that to understand the how much the world had changed in 800 years, we needed to understand how peoples’ lives changed starting in the 14th century.
Using part of a visual discovery activity from History Alive, we used images depicting the Black Death, Hundred Years War, Commercial Revolution, and the city of Florence, to examine how certain events and geographical conditions led to the start of the Reniassance. Led through the thought process by nothing but questions, students recognized how the Black Death loosened feudal/religious power structures and drove people to cities; how the Hundred Years Wars increased the power of governments; how the Commercial Revolution made money and trade more valued; and how Florence’s geogrpahic location made it a logical center to trade and banking.
The greatest moment was one I had not anticipated: upon seeing the riven running through Florence, students made the connection to our unit on Geography and the Birth of Civiliazaiton at the beginning of they year, recognizing that the conditions that led to the Renaissance were very similar to the ones that helped lead to the birth of civilation in the first place. As soon as the student said, the word “birth,” i knew I had the perfect end to class: I asked students to guess what they thought the word “Renaissance” meant, emphasizing the first syllable, and a half dozen students or so got it immediatley, shouting our “rebirth” just as the period ended.
(When I set my goals for the year, this is the type of post I thought I would write more of. I need to do this more, for both good and bad classes.)