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The History of History during this Academic School Year (1 of 4)

Looking Back in Order to Move Forward

~ Brandon Grunden, Upper School Humanities Teacher, History


It never fails, and people close to me probably get sick of me saying it, but at the end of every school year, when I look back, I am amazed at how fast it went. As one of my colleagues said, “The days are long and the years are short.” What a true statement. With that in mind, I am now finishing up my fifth year as a history teacher and as I look into the rearview mirror of this school year, I have to say this was definitely a fruitful year for my students and for me. But, before I begin to look too forward into planning for next school year, I’d like to take some time to unpack the “sparknotes” version of what was done in history class this past year and, in some cases, provide subtle hints at themes we will be focusing on next year. Due to the lengthy nature of reviewing six courses, this post will be split up into four separate posts, one for each trimester and one that offers my takeaways from the school year. As you read these please do forgive the inconsistencies and often rushed feel in narrative structure as I reflect on the year. You see, each class forced me to think about and write about each class differently.  

For the first trimester, students in 8th grade get a taste of the limits of historical knowledge while learning about the time period just before what we consider to be the Modern Era. Next, the seniors travel west with the Joads during the Great Depression and are alarmed at how people took advantage of others during that time period though we ultimately focus on the hope that exists not only in that novel, but in other written works that highlight the selfless acts of others.  The last course in focus is Modern World History II, where we see humanity at its worst while drawing attention to, and shining a spotlight, on a couple of humanity’s best.

Medieval/ Renaissance History, “What do you mean you don’t know how Stonehenge got there?”

The above quote was uttered in that wonderful, music to our ears, annoyed kind of tone, in response to me telling a student that I didn’t know how the Stonehenge Monument was placed in the fields of Wiltshire, England. Of course, we read King Arthur and according to Arthurian legend, Merlin is responsible for placing the giant stones there. For Geoffrey of Monmouth, from King Arthur, the answer wasn’t good enough though. Evidently, neither was mine, apparent when I gave my response that I, a history teacher, didn’t know a fact about something in history. This lesson will always be a success because it forces students to search for those elusive answers that still plague historians and archaeologists. In an educational climate dominated by standardized testing, these types of lessons are an undervalued commodity because these moments spark the flame of curiosity that should follow students to other subjects and future school years.  

The curiosity sparked in that lesson continued as we spent time learning about and discussing Feudalism in Europe as we took part in a trebuchet catapult competition, highlighting changes in military technology brought on by the Crusades. Though in the classroom we had marshmallows flying around as opposed to the historically preferred lit or unlit projectiles. We finished with mini-research projects on individuals who made a contribution in the Renaissance time period in their respective art form. By the end of the course students still didn’t know exactly how Stonehenge was erected. However, they gained insight into this time period through the many novels and activities they participated in. Of course, there were moments where I was able to tell students I knew how something happened during this time period.

U.S. History II (Civil War – Present), “I’m telling ya’ll, The Grapes of Wrath ends on a hopeful note.”

Ah, the discussion that ended our reading of The Grapes of Wrath, which is one of the pieces of literature that is part of the US History curriculum. Some students had a hard time seeing the hopeful tones at the end of this dynamic text. However, this particular student saw hope and argued it quite well. Hope is another undervalued and, maybe more appropriately, devalued commodity. Hope wasn’t the goal of a theme for this course at the outset, but by the time we got to the Civil Rights Movement, we saw that hope is what propelled the Freedom Fighters through. Hope was what kept the Joads forging westward. Hope needs to be a part of our daily lives so that we too can benefit from pushing and challenging ourselves to do and be better, despite the many hurdles that are in front of us. As a class, we made sure to discuss those small movements, those people who become overshadowed by the big names and big events in history, because it was their hope that was the foundation for any, and all, exceptional movements for the rights of minorities in this country.

These small movements that make up big movements are reinforced by the text, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. This text walks us through a historian’s life from the time he takes his first teaching job in the South, in the year 1956, through to the eighties. The book also circles back to his early life in New York City during the Great Depression, encompassing his service as a bombardier in World War II, then brings us to the present day (1992), the moment he decided to write this book. Howard Zinn, the author, reminds us that democracy is not a spectator sport, that there are moments when one must be active in order to hang on to the rights and liberties afforded to us by the Constitution and by the Supreme Court. We also saw the importance in fighting for the rights of others. By the end of his autobiography, due to his experiences in the struggles for rights and freedoms, he leaves us with the notion of being hopeful during difficult times.

World History and Christian Heritage II (WW I – Present), “Seeing ourselves as we study history.”

During this school year, this course became a combination of the individual history and theology courses, led by Michael Hornbaker (Upper School Lead Teacher and our theology and Latin teacher). As we were reading and discussing The Heart of Darkness and All Quiet on the Western Front, it didn’t take long to begin talking about the idea of seeing ourselves as we read about and learn more about things that happened in history. We read and discussed the White Man’s Burden, while learning about the Scramble for Africa, and spent most of the trimester discussing the impact of the World Wars on global society, then and now. While learning about the major events of the 20th-century students also traced their ancestry back four generations, which culminated in creating a family tree with pictures and stories to accompany the tree. This project helped create a familial context for students so that while they were learning about their family lineage and global events in the 20th century, they could easily make the connection that all of these events happened in the lifetimes of the family members they were learning about. Students used Ancestry.com and, with the help of Michael, were able to learn a lot about their local family history.  

During the course, and largely throughout the end of the course, the theme of forgiveness kept coming up. Having learned from the tragedies of the 20th century, and thinking about what we do with this information, we kept coming back to the need for forgiveness. True forgiveness, we learned, is extremely difficult but extremely necessary, especially for a Christian in a broken world. Reading from, and discussing, the works of giants in modern Christian Theology, Bonhoeffer and Tutu, helped to make more clear what it means to forgive though that particular challenge is still very much in front of us.

To conclude, the first trimester was extremely valuable in ways beyond students learning the facts of history. Facts are simply just facts, but I want each of the students to go beyond the facts in understanding how history has the ability to shape us in various ways. The first 13 weeks taught students to seek out those difficult answers, ways to see hope in difficult times, and the need for forgiveness in our lives. This trimester would serve as a springboard into the second trimester where students in 9th and 11th grade would be studying the same time period but from two different perspectives: Modern World History I and U.S. History I. Both time periods begin with the Age of Exploration. However, in U.S. History we learn more about the lives of the indigenous people and in World History we focus on the motives of the Europeans. Stay tuned for this next blog post!

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