Narrating History

Alzar School | 15.10.15

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Many high school students equate the study of history with the rote memorization of facts and dates, which are seemingly disconnected from a larger context.  Remarking on this problem, sociologist James Loewen concludes that most students learn to dislike history as a subject simply because it seems too boring.  This perception can be exacerbated by long lectures, endless textbook readings, and tests consisting of  vaguely-worded, multiple-choice questions.  Therefore, a central question for teachers to answer is, how can a history curriculum simultaneously provide a broad and complex understanding of the past while still maintaining student attention?

Here at the Alzar School, we endeavor to counter the prevalent notion that history is inherently uninteresting through a variety of means. One way this is accomplished is by presenting historical processes and events through a narrative lens. This strategy enables students to understand social, cultural, and economic shifts as interlinked phenomenon, rather than isolated occurrences. Instead of relying upon the exhaustive descriptions of relevant  events and figures presented by our textbook, students are challenged to conduct independent research, examine period-specific primary sources, and  situate complex ideas in a larger context during class debates and creative writing assignments. The objective of these various activities is to allow students to gain a nuanced understanding of the subject, eschewing the reductive view that history can be told as a single story.  

A concrete way that students are encouraged to consider multiple perspectives and the contingency of the historical process is through the Avatar Blog project.  This assignment challenges students to adopt the identity of a specific historical actor during a given period of time. After they have chosen their identity, students then create a narrative about their “avatar” which is grounded in a firm foundation of historical plausibility.  While they are writing, students are pushed to consider the everyday concerns of their “avatar,”  as well as the overarching social, political, and economic forces influencing their opinions and actions.  By personalizing historical events, this assignment aims to make the study of history more engaging and accessible.  Not only does this give students a more nuanced understanding of a particular moment in time, it also helps them cultivate relevant research and writing skills.  

Several weeks ago, Alzar’s US History students were given a prompt that required them to simulate the first contact between Amerindians and European explorers in the New World.  The parameters of this assignment stipulated:

Imagine you were present for the initial contact between Native Americans or European explorers (or one of their servants) somewhere on the North American continent. In this writing assignment you will describe this encounter, as well as your perception of the people you are meeting. Although this entry should be loosely based on historical fact, you are allowed some creative license in crafting your entry. Things to consider would be your reaction to seeing new social structures, geographies, cultural practices (especially beliefs about property rights), and anything else you feel is noteworthy.

Students responded to this in a variety of ways, with some adopting the identity of native Americans,  while others chose the perspective of European explorers.  Here are two excerpts created by our students, Darron and Sierra:

Eight of May, Fifteen Hundred forty one,

6:34am, dawn

It has been an exhaustive journey in the Americas. Since the initial reaching of the mainland coast, exactly two years earlier, we endureth much. Out of many, only 20 reach the end. An unfortunate attack occurred just 350 miles northeast of this reference near Mabila. Foreign civilians of the new world, sprang up, surrounding our army and the other Spanish-men. Desoto, our troop leader, cognition couldn’t have fathomed such an unfortunate incursion on these loosely populous lands of the new land. Apparently, word travels rather quickly in these parts. But just as quickly as death encroached our men, the entirety of these Indian-men soon lie before us lost for eternity. We search endlessly for riches in precious ores and resources for the crown of Spain. Pizarro and Hernando Cortes’ successful conquest in North America began the envious nature of Desoto, thus prompting his action to become a conquistadors.

For the beginning, I reluctantly take part in these act of injustice.  Injustices seems to reside in the very fabrication of our being. I fear my attendance of such injustice has surely preserved me nuck in hell. Just look. Desoto’s continual usage of orange shackles enslave the Indians on their own land. His longing to be of the great obscures his cognition and judgement. Why shall these indigenous people suffer and die because of a pitiful game of tomfoolery? The unsuccessful journey that lie around-absence of water,harsh weather conditions, and scarcity of food-complicates my perspective of living and progressing forward even if resources are ahead. I know resistance to any command from Desoto will result in immediate execution. Yet, just as God said in Ecclesiastes 12:14, “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” The injustices brought Upon these people will not be overlooked. I will posses a repentant heart and have continuous faith in God, Hoping for the best of us sinners.

                                                                       James Phillips

Gender- female

Age- 14

Date- 1517

Tribe- The Iroquois

Name- Chooli Doli 

I am a Native American living in the Northeast, and I am part of one of the subnations in the Iroquois Confederacy. I’m a Mohawk, and I live in the village of Unadilla. We believe in the Great Spirit, and that he created human beings. It guides our lives, and we cannot communicate directly with the Great Spirit, but we say prayers while burning tobacco in order to send him messages. Our constitution gives us unity, and we call it the Gayanashagowa. My tribe, the Iroquois, have begun cultivating crops including maize, beans, and squash. Our community is a balance between an agricultural community and a hunting and gathering community- depending on the season and availability of resources. I help farm, and since we have started cultivating crops, our population has increased, and chiefdoms have started developing. Since the arrival of the Europeans, we have created a confederacy with the attempt to control violence. Our chief, Deganawida, spoke through the orator, Hiawatha, to convince the five nations to create a confederacy, and to stop the violence and fighting. Since we are united now, we have more protection against the Europeans and other Native tribes. We have a gift giving system, but the Europeans tend to take advantage of it. Most of the time we trade with the Europeans, it does not end fairly for my tribe. Also, we believe land to be free, but the Europeans view it as a commodity, so we have been forced to start viewing it the same way as the Europeans.

– Chooli Doli

Historical Foundation:

I used multiple sources to gather information to write this journal entry. One of my sources was an overview on Iroquois culture and history. Another source I used was about Iroquois beliefs, religion, and traditions. The last source I used was information on the overall Iroquois tribe; it explained what the Iroquois went through as time went on.

While students submitted narratives with varying points of emphasis, temporal and geographical settings, and vastly different characters, they each delved deeply into a particular moment in time.   This complex insight transcends the superficial understanding of history that drives many students away from the subject initially.