The unit reflects a constructivist approach to student learning as well as a social history approach. “Social studies from a reflective inquiry orientation is grounded in the belief that people must interact with ideas and things in order to make knowledge for themselves, thus the knower and the known are closely intertwined.” Instead of working forward from distant events preserved in the pages of the textbook, we will examine what remains today from the past, and look at a variety of cultural landscapes: historic landscapes, designed historic landscapes, and vernacular landscapes.
A historic site might be the Alamo or Gettysburg National Battlefield, or Mark Twain’s home or the Tenement Museum in New York: “these special places reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development through their form and features and the way they were used.” A designed historic landscape did not just emerge from function and useit was consciously created. Examples can include Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, Central Park, Grove Street Cemetery, and the monuments and landmarks we erect to capture memory. A vernacular landscape is shaped by people and it reflects the everyday physical, cultural, traditional, functional activities of those people. Examples could include the Kennecott Copper Mines in Alaska or the rural Hanalei Valley of Hawaii; a vernacular landscape might be the Lakota Reservation or a working class neighborhood in a hundred cities. These landscapes can be contemporary communities or heritage sites. They reflect life.
The lines between these ‘definitions’ are blurred. The distinctions are set only to encourage the students to see value in a variety of public and private spaces, either contemporary or historic. A history class that focuses only on the great plantations of the South or famous Revolutionary meeting halls, or the well-worn trails of western expansion, might miss life in the alleyways of 18th century Philadelphia or in the carriage factories of New Haven. We will look at smaller less familiar settings: a fort, a harbor, a main street, a town green?
I’d like to develop the theme of landscape and human/environmental interaction not only by considering the geographic definitions, but by looking into social history: how did the people living the history – building the towns, mapping the frontier, moving to the cities – feel about what was going on? Social Studies should help students understand connections, especially cause and effect and influences over time. Again Spirn explains it so well: “speaking and reading landscapes are by-products of living – of moving, mating, eatingand strategies of survivalcreating refuge, providing prospect, growing food.” The language of landscape is the language of people and the places they touch. Using the American Memory collection at the Library of Congress as an example, I know it is possible to find the primary documents that will speak to us about the past.
Studying the Columbian Exchange, the Colonial Period, the Federal Period, and other topics will be more meaningful to the students if they appreciate that history ‘happens’ to real people. We will learn from these ‘real’ people by reading from journals, travel diaries, letters, documents, and newspapers. We know from our own lives that the places we live in, work in, grow up in, have an affect on us. I’d like to begin at this same point with my students and help them refine their perceptions of their own world, so that when we move backwards through time, they can be successful in our goal to explore and appreciate the ‘world’ of others.