The History of History during this Academic School Year (2 of 4)

Looking Back in Order to Move Forward

~ Brandon Grunden, Upper School Humanities Teacher, History

In the second trimester I was nestled in the same time period but from two perspectives: European and American. This was my second year teaching each time period and I feel as though the students definitely benefitted from that extra year. The big take away from early U.S history is the unique and wonderful founding of this country is sandwiched between some harsh realities; the dispossession of the lands of the indigenous people, the institution of slavery, and the treatment of women. Similarly, in world history, we began with European exploration, then the slave trade as it relates to the triangular trade, and finished up with the Reformation.

Second Trimester:

U.S. History I (Native Americans – Civil War), “This book made me cry.”

Tears in some form were a theme throughout this course, which sandwiched the Christmas break, and started with The Earth Shall Weep and ended with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. These two books highlight the dark side of American History (the treatment of native peoples and slavery). Taking a critical, yet honest, approach to the founding of this country allows us to make a little more sense of the country and the world we live in today. To appreciate a view of history that removes the lens with which U.S. history is often taught, a lens that, in my view, distorts the realities of our shared history of this country. This view doesn’t stop with the doomed encounter between Natives and Europeans or with the vicious practice of slavery in this country. This view also casts its shadow on the Founding Fathers. It is in this view that we see the Founders in what made them great but also what made them human and therefore fallible.  

In learning about the American Revolution, I couldn’t help myself, and again would describe myself as foolish, if we didn’t study and discuss the music and lyrics of Hamilton. Probably the highlight of the course, and possibly the school year, was listening to and discussing Hamilton, which brought this time period to life in a three-dimensional way. Saying to the class, “Today we are going to learn more about The Federalist Papers,” actually had students perking up because they experienced Hamilton’s heavy hand in that project through the musical. Without the musical, reading The Federalist Papers has the potential to be another dry and boring lesson without application to them today. We ended the Trimester by reading Douglass’ Narrative, which was a particular highlight in that the students were clearly affected by his story and some were even moved to tears.

World History and Christian Heritage I (Age of Exploration – Pre-WW I): “Is Gulliver a giant or is he regular size and its everyone else that is really small?”

This was a question posed to mostly 9th-grade students as we got underway reading Part I of Gulliver’s Travels. Trying to make sense of Swift’s satire on the time period helped to shed light on different perspectives with regard to the Age of Exploration. We acknowledged the explorers’ craftiness and bravery in attempting their explorations, but also recognized that as we study history it can easily fall into the trap of viewing this time period as an inevitable sweep of progress and civilization over indigenous people by Europeans. It is important to keep in mind that there were many negative consequences as a result of exploration. We read Olaudah Equiano’s story in full, which helped to bring in personal experience and the stories from those in Africa who were victims of the triangle trade, or more specifically, the Middle Passage. Equiano’s story is especially moving in that he writes his narrative as an argument against the slave trade while also using it as a testimony to his move to becoming a Christian. Upon completion of this novel students wrote two response letters to Equiano from the perspective of an Englishman in parliament; one letter was in agreement with Equiano in abolishing the slave trade and the other was in disagreement.

From there, we turned our attention to the lasting impacts of the Reformation and the delicate nature of disagreements regarding faith. In the unit on the Reformation, Michael, our Theology teacher, did a wonderful job of highlighting the significance of the break from the Catholic church: a sign that shows up today in how Protestant traditions and denominations are ordered and defined.  Not only is the Reformation significant today, but it led to bloody wars in the early 17th century as denominations and traditions jostled for supreme position throughout Europe.  Next year my goal is to highlight the current relevance of the Reformation further by having students look more closely at their family’s religious tradition.

The second trimester was extremely valuable, from a personal perspective. My challenge as a history teacher is always how to get young people to see beyond their situations, a difficult task due to cultural and societal norms, and help them reach back to see the influence of the past showing up in the events of today. If I can help to nurture that perspective of history, I am confident that young people will begin to have a respect for the past and will begin to gain a value in their own education while developing more empathy, more maturity, and certainly not least of all, a sense of gratitude for what they have in their lives. For my final post about the 2016-2017 school year, we will pick up where the Reformation leaves off and we will travel the whole way back to Ancient Greece and Rome.

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