Lesson 1: Defining Place
The unit begins with a day of defining place. For class discussion at the outset I will ask my students the simple question "Where are we?" This question allows for all level of answers and therefore works well as a beginning point. With a certain amount of prodding, it will be possible for the class to generate answers on every scale conceivable, from the classroom, to the address of the school, to the order of the planets in our solar system, to our galaxy.
With this discussion in place it will become possible to define place. It is important to keep in mind the four elements that go into our formal definition, Climate, Culture, Architecture, and Geography. It would be a mistake to simply list these on the board and ask the students to memorize them, in that such a decision would eliminate the necessity of the students taking ownership of their definition and ensuring that it represents their thought process. It will be vital however to ensure that these elements are represented in our ultimate definition.
This can be achieved by referring back to the previous brainstorming activity. Different elements of place will be represented by the various answers that the students put forth. For example, while Architecture is represented by the discussion of the school, Climate may be discussed by asking what elements went into that architecture. Furthermore, while geography may be represented by the discussion of the school's location, culture may be approached by discussing how the school got its name, or what language the address is in on school stationary. By carefully questioning the students on matters such as these; it is possible to create a definition that is both unique to the class, and in keeping with our broad, formal interpretation of the concept.
Once the term is defined, it will be necessary to revisit it and take a deeper look at the place in which the class exists at that moment. With culture, architecture, climate, and geography on the table, the original question "where are we?" will take on a whole new angle, and meaning. The students can then, individually or in groups create a description of the place that they inhabit at the moment, focusing on any element of the definition while ultimately addressing (as will be the instructions) all elements of the definition. This activity will allow for a great deal of creativity and need only be bounded by time and the resources available in the classroom. Certainly written descriptions function well, but pictures, artwork, poetry, and many other media might be used to fully approach the topic.
Lesson 2: Home as a Place
With a sound class definition in place, and descriptions of my classroom in multiple mediums, I intend to head home. The next step in the process, and the next day in the unit is an assessment of home as a place. To begin, it will be useful to review the work from day one, which dealt with what place is and what our definition of it was. We will also use this opportunity to discuss the various attempts at describing our classroom, or indeed our place as described by the class.
Having completed the review, I will put the word home on the board, and home will be the topic of brainstorming today. Most students have a place they consider to be home, and that will be an adequate beginning. This section, especially in an economically diverse community may require a certain amount of sensitivity, but the most important thing to remember is that a class definition of home should not be so specific as to limit itself to a house or an apartment block.
In this case it will be important to define home as a place rather than simply as a thing. For the purposes of this unit, home acts as our prime example of what a place is, and the elements that can go into a place. It is therefore important to ensure that your students, through guiding questions if necessary, arrive at an understanding of home that includes Architecture, Culture, Climate and Geography. These four elements will require each student to delve deeply into what they consider to be their home. Beyond the structure they live in, does home include the Spanish market on the corner, the hair salon up the street, the park, the basketball court, the school, or the church? All of these places and more are possible components of what a student considers to be their home.
More over, all of the places have atmospheres and qualities that it might be useful to discuss. The qualities that go into a place, and the elements that make it up, all have value in such a discussion, and should not be squashed. Each of these elements will be valid and useful later in the unit.
A good method of achieving the goal of defining place might be to ask students to list all of the elements that make up their home, and couch the activity extremely specifically. The question could be framed "List everything that makes up your home, leaving nothing out that could be left out of your home, and adding nothing that doesn't make that place your home." The wording is extremely specific and would most probably be adapted, but in the end the point is to create a list of things that are vital to the student's home. It may be necessary to include guiding questions here such as, where do you get your groceries? Or where do you go for fun?
The main goal of this discussion of home is to prepare the students to create a cognitive map of their lives, and their city. Given that I work in a magnet school, I have enormous leeway in terms of this mapping project. Some of my students will have an intimate knowledge of the area surrounding the school. Others will only know the road that leads into the school, and the area surrounding their dwelling. This will allow for extremely varied maps in the end.
The process of cognitive mapping tends to work best with adults, or at least students who are old enough to know the names of regions and streets. For example, if a student takes the M2 bus every single day to get to school, they may understand that it runs down Willow Street on its way downtown, but they might not know the name of the street. That is acceptable, given that a cognitive map need not have all of the names of all of the streets in place.
The process will begin with an explanation of the assignment. The assignment itself will be to create a map of your home, including all of the elements that surround your home, and also includes our high school. Given that I work with freshmen, it is probable that in the first 3 weeks of school they do not consider our school as part of their home, but it should be included anyway.
The students should include whatever elements landed on their list in their map, thereby allowing them to explore the geography of those places. This activity will not only give us the chance to explore common places, but also allows us to explore disparate understanding of the term home, and the greater New Haven area.
Ideally this project will result in maps that expose both geographic and cultural differences in an area. Though the maps will likely be based only loosely on scale if they are at all, differences in lifestyle should become obvious. Especially for those done in magnet schools, the differences between suburban and urban life should become readily apparent in the size, scale, dimensions, and places included in the maps.
It might be useful here to look at the maps critically making use of actual maps, such as those available at maps.google.com. Such a view will allow students to compare what they have created to actual maps. Google maps also allow users to look at aerial photographs of the region, and maps made up of satellite imagery. These types of resources can be used to great effect in discussing the actual makeup of the region mapped. One should be careful not to allow the use of the maps in advance of creating cognitive maps however, in that access to actual maps would rob the cognitive maps of their individual character.
Lesson 3: How does home affect an individual?
The next step, and the next day in the unit will be devoted to asking the question "How does your home affect you?" This is the point at which it is important to take a critical look at both culture and commonalities in the student's previous work on their cognitive maps.
First, I will start by reviewing the qualities of the students' homes. Geography, architecture and climate will be primary purposes of the review in that the whole lesson is devoted to culture and how places affect it. It will be especially relevant to figure out how geography, architecture and climate influence the culture of the students.
This task will be accomplished by brainstorming culture in general, and specifically what elements go into a culture. It will be necessary as the teacher to expand on specific ideas, or allow the students to expand on these ideas as they pertain to the other three aspects of place. For example if a student mentions fashion as part of a culture, one might link it to climate, or if a student mentions food, one might link it to geography and climate.
Once a solid framework exists in terms of what culture is and what comprises it, then students must look into their own lives, and determine what aspects of their culture derive from place or places. This is of course an individual idea, but students who actively list similar cultural traits in their own work might work together in their discussion of how a place has influenced their culture.
Each student should be able to accomplish this task, but if they are having trouble, or need coaxing, they may be paired up, or guided by the teacher. Culture is a sizable topic, and some would say it is the whole story when it comes to understanding history, but this process breaks it down into slightly more manageable parts.
Partly as a means of moving in a different direction for the students' willingness to participate, partly as a means of later introducing perspective, the lesson will progress to group discussions of common places. Students will be broken into groups based on what areas they have in common and instructed to discuss experiences of the common place together, with the ultimate goal of creating a "fair" description of the place that circumvents the biases that individuals may have. This may require a good deal of compromise, but should illustrate that while in some cases the students will have similar experiences and view points, in others, points of view will be at odds. This will also serve to illustrate how differing homes and differing points of view influence opinions and descriptions of a place.
Lesson 4: What is the value of home?
With an understanding of home, culture and place under our belts, it is now time to evaluate places critically, to determine their worth and discuss the idea of preserving them. With this section the unit has moved up the ladder of Bloom's Taxonomy, to a point where the students are critically determining what is of value to them and their homes, and ranking those aspects according to what is most vital to pass on to future generations. It will be necessary to couch this lesson in terms of the place's importance to them now, as well as the importance to the future, given that the future itself is sometimes a nebulous concept to a fourteen-year-old whose chief concern is what is going on this weekend.
The lesson will begin by creating a list. Each student will create a list of 10 things that are most important to the place they call home. This need not be a list of 10 places, just 10 things that make the place they call home, home. In my case the list would certainly include people, smells and abstract ideas, all of which will be useful for the purposes of this unit. This need not be a list of 10 buildings most in need of saving from the viewpoint of the students. It is however entirely possible that the students will have a list of 10 buildings that are more important than anything else to them.
With the list complete the students will be asked to think about and discuss with the class, what aspects of that list should be saved for future generations, and how would one go about doing that. This discussion should include all of the qualities and elements that go into a place, and should not ignore anything, even though the goal will ultimately be the preservation of a specific place, in a specific way.
The students will then have to choose one thing on the list, the one most important aspect of a place that needs to be saved above all others, and work in a group to plan a means of saving it. The goal is to create a plan to pass a specific place on to future generations. It may be necessary, if the lists are too ethereal and philosophical, to create new lists of places that make up home in order to allow for the creation of a plan for preservation of something more concrete than a recipe, or an idea. This section will ultimately answer the question "What is the most valuable aspect of your home?"
Depending upon the character and skill level of the class, it might be useful at this point to allot time for presentation of the work completed by the students. In many cases this work could be extremely valuable in exposing the values of a student, the importance of specific places, and the impact of these places on the student and their culture.
Lesson 5: Place as a Concept in a Foreign Environment
The next phase of this unit moves beyond developing our original framework to actually put that framework to the test. It is my intention that an initial discussion of place in terms of home, can progress into a discussion of place as a concept. I also hope that this discussion of place, and the elements that go into a place can serve as a framework to view history critically. The unit itself will be assessed based on the student's ability to take that framework and apply it to completely different situations. If this task succeeds, then place has become a concept that can be used time and time again to help students to understand perspective, and the physical place people inhabited. If it fails, more scaffolding will be required to initiate the students into the understanding that we seek.
In the second phase, the assessment phase, of the unit, we will turn our discussion to human roots in East Africa. We will begin this section by setting the stage through the use of specific descriptions applied to our framework. The teacher will review what a place is before seeking to allow the students to explore the specific place that was East Africa thousands of years ago.
With the framework and definition in place, the students will be given descriptions of the place in question, and asked to fill in their framework. The descriptions can come from anywhere but they need to be accurate enough to fully flesh out a place. I have chosen to use non-fiction narrative description, poetry, and images, however many other mediums might be chosen (Documentaries, films, fiction, etc.)
The students will begin this section by applying their recent work in describing place to East Africa. They will use the provided resources, selections from various East African poets, selections from Ernest Hemingway's
Green Hills of Africa,
and images, both ground level and aerial from a Google image search, and Yann Arthus-Bertrand's
Earth From Above
, to create a description of the place as a place. The process of creating this description will both allow them to develop an understanding of the place, which will be useful later, and to demonstrate their understanding of place as a concept, and the process of describing a place.
I have chosen human origins in Africa for two reasons. Firstly, there is little evidence, beyond archaeology, of actual human events. Most of our information is based on large-scale trends not small scale, human scale life. This allows for a deep discussion of the place, and many hypotheses without fear of corruption of the process through the use of an accurate modern historical perspective.
Secondly, and equally importantly, I am seeking to use this as a framework throughout my course. I am creating an opening unit, which will allow me to revisit the framework throughout the year for the purposes of visualizations, perspective, and understanding.
Thus the class will take a look at travel- writing, images, and poetry to help the students create a solid idea of what this place was like in terms of geography and climate.
Lesson 6: Hypothesizing Lifestyles and Culture in Ancient East Africa
The next step, and one of the last, will be to discuss what we know currently about the culture of these early humans. This will require exploration of the Hunter-Gatherer lifestyle, including diet, challenges, habits, and so on. The students will research this topic through the inquiry process to complete a description of the culture of hunter-gatherer tribes.
The students will make use of the inquiry process, whereby they research the answer to a specific guiding question to gain a better understanding of the hunter gatherer lifestyle. With this deeper understanding they will describe that lifestyle through discussion of the challenges that faces hunter gatherers. They will then make use of this description to hypothesize one aspect of the culture of these people. They will choose one challenge and suggest how ancient East Africans might have dealt with it. Then for homework they will come up with five separate arguments, or pieces of evidence to support their hypothesis.
For the purposes of this inquiry process I will be making use of our class textbook, which is Mcdougal Littel's
Patterns of Interaction
, which has some excellent information regarding the hunter gatherer lifestyle. This particular text however is by no means the only resource that would work in this situation. The goal is to allow the students to explore the hunter gatherer lifestyle, and therefore any research materials or processes that allow them to do so would function here.
In this lesson the students' will explore and demonstrate their understanding of the interaction between place and culture by creating hypotheses regarding the lifestyle, the challenges and the attitudes of these people. It will expand to encompass hypotheses in terms of cultural choices regarding clothing, food, relationships, and language. The students will make educated guesses as to what choices might be made, and seek to test these hypotheses through research and the creation of a sound argument.
Lesson 7: Culminating Essay
Finally the unit will culminate with a discussion of the influences at play among the earliest humans. The students will be asked to write an essay in which they choose one characteristic, challenge or trait and explain how they think these early humans might have handled the challenge. Their essays must demonstrate an understanding of the influence of place on individuals and cultures, and it must adequately prove their hypothesis rhetorically.
Rather than include a lesson plan here, in that each class will start from very different places where writing skills are concerned, I will simply include the essay assignment. With different classes, different levels of scaffolding will be necessary in terms of writing skills. It is therefore my intent to use the various written assessments embedded in the unit to determine what the expectations of this lesson should entail.
The assignment itself builds of the work of lesson six, asking the students to write an essay proving their hypothesis from the night before. At this point the students should be ideally situated to complete this task.