Constructing History in the Classroom

Author: Madhuvanti Anantharajan

Posted by Alythea

In Spring 2012, I conducted an independent study at Critical Explorers, as part of my graduate course work. I had previously studied with Eleanor Duckworth and Elizabeth Cavicchi, and when I began this study, I was captivated and confused in equal measure by critical exploration. I was, and continue to be, deeply interested in how we learn and teach history in schools, and how we can recognize the classroom as a place where historical knowledge is produced. At Critical Explorers, I assisted Alythea McKinney in her ongoing work of developing a curriculum unit on the Greek and Persian Wars (499 to 479 BCE) with classroom teachers for 7th graders at a Boston Area middle school. I helped identify primary sources that could serve as rich historical texts for students to engage with. I also helped document the conversations and interactions in the classrooms. In the brief time I spent in these classrooms over the course of the unit, several things seemed striking, even extraordinary, to me. I will briefly talk about some of them below, without repeating the details of the unit that are posted on this website.

Madhuvanti Anantharajan discusses this student drawing below, in the section “Changes in my own thinking.” The note in the lower left corner (now almost covered with white-out) reads, “Not here — should be other side.” Click the image for a zoomable version.

Text and evidence

One of the shifts I perceived in the students’ process was moving away from a broad area that they drew evidence from (personal experience, anecdotal evidence etc.) to gradually looking for support and evidence in the text. Below is an excerpt from my class observations in one of the first sessions. The discussion was about the handout “The Persians discuss three types of government” an adapted excerpt from Herodotus (The Histories, Book III, 3.80-3.82).

“One student made the observation that the discussion was supposed to be among seven powerful Persians but only three spoke in this section.

“One student said it seemed like our society now. When the teacher asked him to elaborate, he said, it was similar to how we now vote.

“Another student said this was an early form of democracy. Now however, even though everyone votes, places with more people have more power. For example, if he voted in Alaska his vote doesn’t count as much as if he lived in California.”

In this class, the students were prompted at several points to indicate where in the text their idea was reflected. The students’ ability to do this changed dramatically over the subsequent weeks. In the last class, this was a conversation about an excerpt from a play by Aeschylus called The Persians:

Student: I think this is from the Persian perspective. In the first column it says, “We’ve been led off the mark.”

Student: I disagree. It says “the Greeks.” It could be the Persians talking about the Greeks.

Student: It says “At first the wave of Persia’s fleet” and “our own strakes.”

Student: “The first thing we heard was a roar, a windhowl, Greeks singing together, shouting for joy.” It sounds like the Persians are talking about the Greeks.

From the earlier conversation to the later one, I see a remarkable shift in the students’ tendency to ground their arguments in the text, and look for textual evidence. This was a very strong impulse, which became clear at another point on the same day. One of the students was hesitant to accept another’s argument because it was drawn from a different text and not the one they were then reading. This suggested not only that the students were learning to work with texts, but also that they were learning to synthesize ideas across texts. As I noted in my journal:

“The class was also able to bring what they had learned until then to reading the Oath [The Oath of Marathon], as in the observation about Darius’s religion. [Darius was the king of Persia.]  This was also, I felt, well supported by the teacher’s prompts to recall what they had done before and bring it all into the conversation.”

Historical authorship

I was continually amazed to see the growing sophistication of the students’ thinking. In class observations after the students discussed the handout “Darius resolves to take revenge against the Athenians,” an adapted excerpt from Herodotus (The Histories, Book V, 5.105), I wrote:

“The students were asking extremely complex questions to do with the process of writing history itself. When they spoke of the discrepancy they perceived in Darius addressing Zeus instead of Ahura Mazda [the highest deity in Zoroastrianism], one of them at least was able to see it as a possible bias of the writer, making the clear distinction between the writer and what was written about. A similar distinction was apparent when they were talking about the fact that the text may have been written after the war, when they spoke about the fact that the oath had in it two different voices, and when they referred to the historian who was recording the events of the war. This I felt was a particularly sophisticated realization – that the events may be recorded after the fact, and cannot be taken for a ‘live’ report. Their concern over authorship was also apparent when they wondered whose perspective the oath was written from. I found it incredibly impressive that they resisted the idea that the text was a transparent means to access ‘true’ historical knowledge.”

What they ‘ought to’ learn

Standardized curriculum usually has learning objectives – a sense of what all students ‘ought to’ understand in any given unit or lesson. Critical exploration curriculum is more open-ended and does not seem to have fixed or highly specific learning objectives. In spite of this, I was amazed to see certain broader themes that the teachers were hoping for emerge quite spontaneously in the class conversations. For instance, after the class studied the Oath of Marathon, I wrote in my journal:

“This class also made me realize that in the course of these conversations around the oath, the theme of loyalty was emerging fairly strongly in both classes. The idea of desertion and what it meant to stay on, and the possible motivations to stay on after their leaders and fellow soldiers died, were discussed in great detail.”

This again makes me think about the importance of choosing the right materials, with a deep understanding of the potential they hold for different lines of inquiry.

Learning together

Overall I perceived a growing seriousness in the students’ inquiry – they seem to voice more carefully thought out ideas. It indicates to me a sense of investment in the work and that they take their own thinking seriously. It also makes me wonder if they are becoming more aware that their classmates’ opinions are shaped by things they may say, and that their ideas will be challenged if others disagree with them. Just in terms of the methods and steps of critical exploration, the students seem to have grown increasingly comfortable with the method and work with it spontaneously in the classroom.

There were also extremely interesting instances when students changed their minds about certain ideas they held, after listening to their classmates. I recorded in my class observations of the students discussing Darius’s personality:

“The teacher asked who he is respecting in this instance. The student said he respects the Athenians. The teacher asked if she meant the people who were burnt at Sardis. Another student said he (Darius) wants to avenge them. The teacher asked what this means and to explain what avenge means. The student said they did wrong and he now wants to do them wrong. The earlier student (I think this was the student who thought he respected the Athenians) said she was now changing her mind.”

Finally, it was heartening to me that by the last time I sat in on the two classes, which I was told were at different learning levels, conversations about the materials were far more similar than they were at the beginning of the unit. They were reading an excerpt from The Persians, the play by Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright. A question that puzzled both classes, and led to interesting conversations, was who was speaking in the text – the Greeks or the Persians. Similarly both classes talked about the brass ‘nose’ of the triremes (Greek war ships), and what purpose they may have served in the battle. More generally, in both classes, a lot of connections were made between this text and others they had read – they drew upon a variety of texts they had previously looked at, including “Xerxes plans to conquer Greece and punish the Athenians” (Herodotus, The Histories, Book VII, 7.8, 7.19) and the maps of the Battle of Salamis, to better understand the Aeschylus text.

Changes in my own thinking

The question I came into this study with was how multiple perspectives and historical narratives can be incorporated into the curriculum. I see this question somewhat differently now. I see that merely incorporating texts that seem to reflect these perspectives is not enough. The curriculum rather has to evolve in response to the learner’s understanding. Incorporating a seemingly appropriate text by itself does not ensure a shift in the learner’s understanding. It is in this context that I have developed a deeper appreciation for the ability of the curriculum planner and educator to understand the confusions students express and to respond appropriately. Thus, it is a constant process of interpretation of students’ work, which informs the choice of texts.

Related to this, when I began I did carry a degree of anxiety about whether the students would ask questions that could lead us in the ‘right’ direction. My time in the classroom has given me a lot of reassurance that not only do they ask extremely complex questions, but also that it is important for me to understand the questions they do ask and build a coherent sense of how their thinking is developing.

I also found myself a little confused about the apparent fact that the students were looking more and more to the text to find support for their thinking. I wondered if this in some way diminished the value of other experiences that they could base their understanding on. This question has not yet resolved itself in my mind. However, I do feel differently now in that I no longer perceive a conflict between grounding their arguments in the text and drawing upon a range of other experiences. For how could their understanding of the text be divorced from the other experiences that shape that understanding? It seems rather that the text can be a common field which gives expression to the varied and evolving understandings of each member of the class – the text can perhaps be a reference point that enables their thinking to become visible to each other.

A more specific concern I had in the beginning was with the drawing activity. I realize now that when I began, I thought of the drawings as a product of the children’s thinking. Conversations in the course of this study, as well as watching the students’ thinking develop in the process of drawing, helped me see drawing as in fact a process of thinking, evident even in the erasures in the drawings, as Alythea McKinney points out in her blog post Strategies for Ancient (and other) History Explorations Part II. A wonderful experience for me was during an activity where students tried to draw and reconstruct the triremes. I watched a student struggle with an idea in his drawing and realize finally that he had placed the ‘nose’ of the trireme at the wrong end of his drawing. What was truly incredible was how persistently he wanted to change it and make it ‘right’!

Finally, while I earlier thought of learning as an ongoing process, I now came to view the curriculum itself as a work in continual progress, if it is to be truly responsive. I have also come to regard curriculum as, for want of another term, a composition. I remember on more than one occasion describing curricular materials as ‘elegant’, when they seemed particularly well chosen and arranged. In other words, I am developing an aesthetic appreciation for curriculum which meets the students’ understanding with nuance and insight, and creates opportunities for what Eleanor Duckworth calls “wonderful ideas.”

Madhuvanti Anantharajan earned her Ed.M from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2012.

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