The setting in which history takes place is never simply a backdrop to the human drama, rather it is a potent influence in and of itself. Throughout history there are examples of timing, weather, or geography greatly influencing the course of events. From the destruction of the Spanish Armada, to the success of the early Islamic armies in North Africa, to the failure of Viking settlements in Newfoundland and North America, the pages of history are rife with the influence of place on specific events.
It would however be a mistake to assume that the setting of an historical tale plays simply the role of fortune, that setting involves good luck or bad luck and nothing more. Aside from the influence that a storm, or geography, or a subtle climate shift can have on specific events, setting has been the guiding hand that has influenced cultures, molded nations, and even, at times, shaped the course of human evolution. Cultures nurtured in warm climates may develop social norms based around being out of doors, like Aristotle's classes taking place in courtyards of Athens. Colder climes on the other hand develop styles and norms more conducive to dark winters and cold weather.
As in literature, setting is an undeniable force throughout history and no understanding of history can be complete without an adequate understanding of setting. It is therefore imperative that any study of history contain a study of setting. As history teachers, we are constantly wrestling with this concept, seeking ways of presenting the setting of history that will help our students to understand.
History takes place on a human level, and the goal of any exploration of setting has to be an understanding of setting at a human scale. Unfortunately many of our tools for exploring this concept fall short of this goal. A true experience of history needs to include both a human level and a global level understanding of events.
On the global scale, teachers make use of maps and geography lessons. We study gulfs and peninsulas, and panic if our book of blank maps is lost. We might study latitude and longitude, or climate. This leads to wide global assumptions, which may or may not be correct. For instance, one might draw the conclusion that London is cold based on its latitude, or that the clothing of Saudi Arabia would be scant, given its warm location. Global assumptions such as these are useful in some measure, in that they allow students to make some assumptions, but they can be dangerous.
On the human scale, teachers are constantly striving to find examples or illustrations that can bring history down to the human level. We will show video clips, read primary source documents, or simply describe the topic at hand. While we might accomplish the short-term goal of helping students "see" the setting in question, these efforts rarely result in a wider understanding of that setting.
All of these strategies have their place, and might further our student's understanding of the immediate concept, but they do not accomplish the goal of a total history experience. These strategies expose the weakness in our repertoire. The tools we use demonstrate the piecemeal nature of our approach to the setting of history. Though each tool and each strategy fills an immediate need, they do not tie the concept of setting together in any coherent way.
The solution to this problem may be a change in the way we as history teachers view the concept of place. Most history teachers lack the knowledge and background to do justice to the concept of place. It is not enough to ask our students to "picture yourself in a field full of buffalo," or to read a first hand account. We as history teachers must build a deeper understanding of place for ourselves and for our students.
Unfortunately many teachers lack a full grasp of place as a teaching tool and therefore do not give adequate time to developing an understanding of place with their students. In spite of this, we make use of place every day in our classes without actually knowing it. If as teachers, we embrace a broader view of place, we can take this idea which we use every day and turn it into a cornerstone of our teaching in a way that strengthens our courses and our students.
If place is used consistently throughout our teaching and we strive to discuss place in new terms, we can bring history down to the human scale by giving our students the framework to help to put themselves into history, and imagine themselves in situations that were previously alien to them. This framework can be another lens through which our students view history.
This revised understanding of place begins at the most basic levels for the teacher and the students. Every person has a unique and preexisting notion of place. If properly discussed, or led, every student will be able to identify this notion and discuss it in some depth. The right leading questions, such as "What makes this place?" or "What qualities go into a place?" can lead to a lengthy discussion. In doing so we as teachers can make an extremely abstract concept into an extremely concrete one.
The difficulties that historical settings pose do not exist when discussing modern places that students deal with every day. A student's home or school possesses sensory characteristics, layers of understanding, and abstract attributes that make them the place that students know. Any class discussion can center on any aspect of a place and still have relevance if it contributes to the class understanding of place.
Place is after all the convergence of the natural environment, the social environment, the physical or built environment, and the time period. These four parts make up the framework of place, and exist in every place. So we as teachers can use them to frame our discussion of history within our classes. They are also critical in understanding individuals, and individual perspective. This framework allows us to literally ask the question "Where was this person coming from?"
Though it is always important to understand where a historical person or account comes from, this kind of study cannot begin without a student understanding where he or she comes from. To fully understand another's perspective, one must understand one's own. Thus it becomes extremely useful to discuss the elements that contribute to one's own perspective, before attempting to understand the perspective of another.
So we return to the question, "Where is this person coming from?" The question in and of itself is a tricky one. For students it can be extremely difficult given all of the factors that go into the answer. Where did the person live? What was the society like at the time? What did they eat for breakfast? These are all extremely relevant questions when seeking to understand the perspective of another. Some questions however are more meaningful than others. The key to this whole process is helping students to determine which questions are meaningful and which questions are not. Though it is possible to discern all manner of important information from a discussion of breakfast foods, it is not necessarily practical to answer every question one might have when time is limited.
Without a critical understanding of perspective, it is easy to fall into the trap of treating history as simply a collection of facts. While in some measure such an assessment of history is true, it also removes the depth and beauty from the subject. If our sole task as history teachers is to force the memorization of facts, using the textbook as the chief arbiter of what is true and what is not, then our whole subject has become little more than an annoying elective, rather than the means to an educated citizenry.
The argument could be made that in some schools we are already reaching that point. It is our job as teachers to change that fact, and perspective is one of the keys to that change. Perspective is not only important in terms of what the reader of history brings to the table, but also it is important in terms of what biases the writer of history includes, and what actions the actor in history takes.
Furthermore, the ability to weigh different perspectives and come up with an individual point of view is arguably all that matters in terms of social studies in the eyes of the State of Connecticut. The CAPT test has no section detailing American History, nor does it test an understanding of geography or world civilizations. The CAPT test does however measure our student's abilities to read various sources and come up with their own point of view on an issue, which may or may not have any meaning to our students.
Given that perspective in all its forms is an important part of any history education, it must be one of our primary concerns as history teachers. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Those who would have us simply teach to the test would perhaps suggest that we as teachers need only give our students many opportunities to read multiple sources on matters they do not care about, and write many CAPT responses to those situations. While this may be effective in teaching our students to pass the CAPT interdisciplinary section, it is not an effective means of developing deep and critical minds.
I am not suggesting that that kind of instruction has no place in our classrooms, rather I am suggesting that the class environments we wish to create require a deeper discussion of perspective. This brings us back to my original question, "Where did they (meaning the writers and creators of history) come from?"
As teachers we must find methods that allow us to bring perspective down from the lofty pillars of weighing disparate points of view on the same factual evidence, to something more meaningful and literal. The words of historians and the actions of the ancients are often filled with subtleties that are lost on the uninitiated. In terms of this discussion, it is useful to begin with the student. Since history occurs on a human scale, such a discussion should begin on one. It is possible to achieve this at the outset of a history course, with a discussion of place.
I am not suggesting that one simply discuss what place is and hope for the best. This idea begins with a very specific place for each student, their home. In doing so we teachers can take this nebulous concept and make it concrete. In stead of discussing "Where did they come from?" we should begin by asking, "Where do you come from?"
Such a discussion begins with physical descriptions. Students will describe the physical building they live in. The class could discuss architecture, urban planning, or differing materials. Then this discussion would naturally move to the block, or neighborhood the students live in. Eventually the class would move to a point where students were discussing and mapping the geographic region they call home.
Initially this kind of activity may seem elementary, and I admit it would be, however the beauty of an activity such as this is that in the end a teacher and a class may delve as deeply as they wish. Some classes might simply discuss the physical structures that students live in, while others might explore fully the history behind a neighborhood, block or place name.
In any case and in any depth, this kind of discussion can easily segway into a discussion of the student's points of view. Something as simple as discussing residential architecture can lead to a discussion of ethnocentrism and bias. The Connecticut Mastery test recently featured a section on a person's home, including elements like basements, attics and backyards, something that a child raised in an apartment might not be familiar with. Examples such as these abound, and can be used with great success in the classroom even on the most basic levels of this topic. If for example, property value is linked to test scores, and the tests favor suburban students, bias and point of view become readily available as classroom topics.
The question "Where do you come from?" can become a standard in the classroom beyond this unit, but for the purposes of this unit it is the starting point. Architecture and neighborhoods are only the first step. Each student has his or her own point of view, and with proper guidance it is possible to turn this simple question into the touch stone for the entire course of study.
Especially in a diverse community students will have many different answers, but the key to teaching the concept is exploring as many as possible. When bringing this concept up with students it is important to expose how the student's points of view might differ. As teachers we should find common places, and common points to discuss through student experiences. Any place that many students have experienced will be experienced differently.
For example, one might use varying experiences of the New Haven Green as a starting point for common discussion (though any common place would serve just as well for the purpose of exposing difference). As a freshman in high school in the mid nineties, my first experience of the New Haven Green was to be offered drugs by a stranger there. This is abnormal when compared to my later experiences with the Green, however, it is relevant in terms of the discussion. Undoubtedly there will be some students in the class who will have had largely positive experiences with the Green, and others may not have ever seen the place.
So, with a short, though progressive discussion, it is possible to bring a class that may have no prior experience discussing place, to the initial stages of understanding the effects of place on perspective. This is of course only the first step on the road to a greater understanding of place, but it has enormous value in and of itself. This step takes what could be a foreign concept, or at least an unidentified one, and quite literally brings it home to the students.
This step also allows us to initiate the framework of discussing history in terms of setting, and historical figures in terms of their perspective. Such a framework can allow for a discussion of history that is inclusive of perspective rather than exclusive. With a framework of understanding of perspective in place, it becomes possible to take the whole topic to a deeper level of understanding.
That deeper level of understanding is achieved by using the framework outside the concept of a student's home, and outside of the places that they actually know, and into places that are foreign to the whole class. Making this leap requires some scaffolding, but in the end it is entirely possible once the students begin to think in terms of perspective.
Once achieves however, an understanding of place, as it is tied to perspective will allow our students to attain the understanding we strive to lead them to. It will allow them to determine what questions they must ask of history, and what questions they must ask of the actors and the writers and their influences, to develop a deeper understanding as critical thinkers. This allows us to circumvent the objectivity that many historians aspire to, and many simply feign, and dig to the core of what history really is.
This unit seeks to achieve that jump by first setting the stage. The unit itself allows ample time for discussing the student's homes and their lives and their perspectives. We begin with defining place, and we move up Bloom's Taxonomy, from the basic level of defining the concept to the advanced concept of applying and evaluating the concept. The unit then progresses to hypothesizing the impact home has on the student's point of view, and evaluating what parts of home are worthy of preservation. With this framework in place the unit assesses understanding of the concept by testing the framework and its application on a completely foreign environment, East Africa and the beginnings of humanity.