Conference feedback — Big Spiral History Stories

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Continuing to share and comment on the feedback I received at the delightful IERG 2015 conference! For the original posts I've made on our Big Spiral History (BSH) curriculum see these posts on the scope and sequence of BSH, and these on the actual story-telling.

Big Spiral History Stories

Kids need these, because they long for heroes.

Huh — I actually hadn't brought "heroes" into my thinking of the BSH stories. Which is funny, because I've thought a lot about the need for heroes (and the dangers of heroes) in the curriculum.


All right, I'll think about this as I actually begin to make these!

History from whose perspective? Perhaps you should do a change in context — e.g. the colonial vs. the aboriginal perspective.

Yes yes yes! Brilliant, beautiful. I had already been thinking of things like this, but hadn't quite landed on this so neatly. I'll generalize this idea:

When we're telling a story of a struggle between peoples, tell the story first from one side, then from the other. 

I've done something like this when teaching American history — I've had my high school classes read a very liberal book (Howard Zinn's People's History) at the same time as a very conservative book (Paul Johnson's History of the American People). For each historical period — slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, etc. — they've gotten both perspectives.

This is good — great, really — but it's not the same thing as what this commenter suggests: I had my classes engage different ideological perspectives, but not different participant perspectives.

I suspect engaging different ideological perspectives may be better done with older kids (though now that I say that I'm not so sure). Engaging different participant perspectives can be done when kids are quite small.


Why do we teach history?

My usual stump speech:

History isn't a subject, it's the subject. All the subjects are history, to some extent: math and science are the guided re-discovery of ideas that were first mastered by the ancients; art and literature and music are guided encounters with what past people created.

So everything we learn in school in some way comes from history. The difficulty is to understand them all together: to get the big story.

That is: history allows us to understand how all our studies fit together.

Of course, it's not just that we study things that come from the past: we live in a world shaped by the past. Faulkner (I believe) wrote, "The past isn't dead — it's not even past." The things that bedevil us — the craziness of modern parenting, religious conflict, environmental destruction — are just slivers of much bigger story.

That is: history allows us to make sense of everything we encounter.

Also — crucially! — history can be fun. It's fun to enter the heads of other people, especially ones whose minds were shaped in contexts so different than our own.


Who is telling the story?

Initially, the teacher (with help from me, who'll be crafting a "here's some material to tell this story from" kit for each story). Then, after the story has been told, the students take it on themselves, as an activity in their independent work time.

We are storied into existence, our sense of meaning derives from the narratives our forebearers laid out for us. Consider the ethical dimensions of the stories to tell & re-tell. They are the foundations of reality.

Focus on ethical choices — will do! I love it.


Whose story is important?

An epic question!

I suppose the answer is something like "everyone's, but some stories are more important than others." That might sound fighty, but I just mean it to state the obvious. To pick an easy example, my story is not as important as, say, Mohandas Gandhi's. (And if you disagree, well, thanks!)

Gandhi's story is more important because it changed so many other people's stories. So there's one metric for how important a story is: how many other stories did it change?

That's helpful, but educationally it's not enough. One goal for our history curriculum is to understand how the world has been shaped, but another is to understand something of the wild diversity of humanity. So another criteria of inclusion will be whether a story gives insight into minds different from our own.

"Diversity" has become a flashpoint in the culture wars, which it's sometimes (tragically) been flattened into "ethnic diversity".

Ethnic diversity is important, but it's not the only important diversity. Our history stories should also include religious diversity (Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and seculars and Zoroastrians…), ideological diversity (conservatives and liberals and socialists and fascists…), personality (extroverts and introverts and sociopaths and altruists…), economic (rich and poor and middle class…), social (rulers and outcasts and serfs…) and a flurry of other considerations. (I wrote up a list of all of these at some point, but I'm not sure I can locate it again!)


The following are from the same commenter:

Love this idea because I've seen from experience how much more students remember from stories. Things to think about:

  • How will you train teachers so they are comfortable doing this?

I don't know. (Great question.) I'm currently looking into curricula that train people to become storytellers. (I assume that virtually anyone can become a great storyteller.) I think this will be a large part of our teacher training.

How wlil you ensure there is enough of a debrief that students know it was more than just a fictional story (historical empathy)?

Wow — hadn't thought of this at all! I'm not sure — Lee, let's be on the lookout for opportunities to talk about the truth value of these stories (which will get complicated).

How will you ensure the "stories" are historically accurate (not embellishing for dramatic effect — which is what students end up remembering)?

Hmm — I know how do this, but I haven't thought about how to pass along my convictions to other teachers. A very helpful question!

This is all made more complicated by the next question.

Some clarity on history vs. story?

You might expect that, in telling history stories, we'll hew to the facts. No make-believe! We'll only tell things that we have good reason to believe actually happened.

I, too, once assumed we'd do that.

We're not going to.

At present, I'm planning to include a number of mythic stories in Big Spiral History: for example, the Iliad and the Mahabarata.

I'm doing this in part because it's hard to find historically accurate stories from the ancient period: so much of the best stories are fictional.

But a larger reason I'm willing to mix historically accurate and non-historically accurate stories is because it allows us to neatly avoid some impossible-to-navigate choices when teaching religions. Did Abraham exist? Scholars disagree. If we limited ourselves to teaching accurate historical stories, we'd have to have an opinion on the existence of Abraham. No thanks.

Saying "this is a story that people have told for thousands of years, opinions vary" allows us to duck out of a debate that can only hurt us.

And there is, also, a pedagogical reason I'm wiling to mix historically-accurate and non-historically-accurate stories: it gets students wondering what's true, and what's not.

To some important extent, it's not my job as an educator to settle these issues, because that rips a crucial task away from the students.

I'm very open to persuasion the other way on this topic, by the way. What are y'all's thoughts?


Are we losing contextual recitation and a sense of "time" by swapping characters, etc.?

This refers to my statement that, when students re-tell stories, one of the fun things they can do is swap out characters (for example, Gilgamesh for Pericles).

Short answer: yes! By swapping out characters, students will be losing the sense of how a specific character fits in their historical story.

Long answer: no! Switching characters (I suspect) can call attention to how different characters do fit inside their contexts.

For example, swapping out Aristotle (who asserted that some were naturally born as slaves) for Gandhi (who fought to end the caste system) could — at least I hope — get students to recognize how dependent our beliefs are on history.

Or maybe I'm wrong? Maybe a student wouldn't naturally see this? Hmm — I suspect that's right. There really is a danger to lose the sense of history by doing this.

So I propose that, when we have students do this work, we prompt them to consider exactly this question, and give them lots of guidance in answering it!

Thanks, commenter!


Some stories can be very brief — just give a hook!

Thanks! Because of this, I won't insist on four-day stories for everyone — I'll be more bold in spending those four days on a sequence of related characters.


Tomorrow, I'll share the feedback I got on Cooking lunch together.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA