Thursday, March 21, 2019

Building empathy through history

Lately I have been working with a team of social studies teachers who all teach a course called World History. As this curriculum evolves from a western traditions course to one with a global focus, it is vital to curate resources that invite students to explore a range of perspectives and experiences. Our most recent challenge was re-visioning the approach to studying imperialism.

The Set-Up

We started with a QFT process so that each student could develop a guiding question that would govern his/her/their examination of the content. They measured their best question as one that requires multiple perspectives be understood in order to arrive at a meaningful answer.

Enter Geography

After a couple of days of instruction by the classroom teacher I returned to facilitate a geography exercise. We divided the class into groups and used Google Classroom to push a map rendered in Google Draw to each group. In fact, I created three different maps. Each was the same land mass with different information provided. One map showed land forms, another showed natural resources, and another showed patterns of ethnic settlement.

We explained that the map was of a continent; they could see from the lines of latitude and longitude how expansive it was and what climate zones it occupies. Their first direction was to work on their own to divide the continent into countries. And they did, without asking any questions.

After a few minutes of independent work we asked them to share with their small group (all of whom had the same map) how they divided the land mass and why they made those choices. Then, as a group they had to create one map which they agreed was a reasonable compromise between their ideas about what was best for the continent. And they did, without asking any questions.

Each group submitted their collaborative map to Classroom so we could project them. We started with the land forms map, and the group that created the map talked about why they divided the land as they did and then we asked the rest of the class to decide what the priorities were that informed those decisions. For example, when the land forms group presented, they might have said that they used natural borders like rivers and made sure that every country had access to the coastline. Then, the class might decide that open trade routes were the priority that underscored those decisions.

Next we projected the natural resources map and followed the same procedure. Some classes tried to give each country a resource. Some tried to give each country some of each resource. And other groups consciously created resource-rich and resource-poor countries. After they presented we downloaded the Google Drawings as .png files so they had transparent backgrounds and layered the resource map over the land forms and asked them how the combination of information might impact their decisions. One thing they always noticed was that the large oil reserve in the southern portion of the continent was now beneath the mountains minimizing any chance that the country located there could access it. And so it became a resource-poor country and changed the economic balance of power on the continent.

The third map we showed was the ethnic map. These groups struggled. Generally, upon first review of the map, they said, "we don't have anything to do. It's already divided." Then they wondered, squeamishly, if they could move groups around so people of the same ethnic group were together. And that caused debate. They referenced past forced removals of people as historical precedent and as justification for not moving anyone. Then they questioned whether a multi-ethnic country is more or less stable than an ethnically homogeneous country which led to a discussion of civil war vs. international war. When we presented these maps we began by saying this is the hardest map to talk about it, because these are people. Overwhelmingly, their priority was continental harmony and when we combined the land forms map with the resource map and the ethnic map they became very frustrated. And that is when the class began to question why they were imposing their priorities on this place.

Their final reflection was about the choices they made and how the accumulating information complicated their decision-making. In each class, they realized that they fell into familiar historical patterns. That none of the fictitious groups on the ethnic map were a part of the process and they started to ask about the people and their history.

Primary Source Artifacts

Ultimately, the students used their guiding question from the QFT process to examine an instance of imperialism and create a museum exhibit in response to their question. Our goal was not to teach museum curation but some practice telling stories with artifacts was necessary.

The class was again divided into groups and each group was given a collection of 5 objects. They were told to arrange the objects to tell a story. All the object groupings were selected because they came from a fairy tale the students would know. Now some groups caught on quickly to the "real story" of their artifacts and others composed elaborate tales to explain the connections between the objects they had been given. Then the class discussed how accurately the artifacts told the story and the difference between an artifact that was of the character (like straw for The Three Little Pigs) and an artifact that was about a character (a scientific diagram of a wolf). This time they caught on quickly to the notion that a meaningfully selected artifact, at least for this purpose, was not filtered through someone else's lens or experience.

Building empathy is a challenge and a necessity. This is a description of how we tried to embed that practice into content examination. I would love to hear from you about how you do this work with your students!