The unit is divided into three distinct sections: an exploration of historiography, the analysis of primary sources to discern the routes these travelers took and their impressions of the people they met, and finally, the creation of a computer generated video using Google Earth to trace the route of their explorer. While I have included sample lessons at the conclusion of this unit, to a great degree, I have built in a substantial amount of room for other teachers to improvise. Social Studies is a subject that can and is taught in a wide variety of ways. My sample lessons are how I would teach the lesson, but you may interpret my unit in ways that are most suitable to your own classroom.
By the completion of this Unit, students will be able to. . .
1 Distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
2 Analyze and evaluate the value of primary sources.
2 Discern the routes taken by explorers using their writings as a guide. Identify the biases of early explorers and assess how they affected their records.
3 Compare and contrast the civilizations found by early explorers with the structures, people, and cultures present today.
4 Use Google Earth to create computer-generated films tracing the routes taken by early explorers.
Section I - Fundamental Historiography
The most important aspect of my unit is exposing students to primary source material. One of the principal misunderstandings of many students who enter my room is that history is concrete and fixed. The Connecticut State Department of Education requires that students be able to "formulate historical questions based on primary and secondary sources, including documents, eyewitness accounts... diagrams and written texts." The first several lessons of this unit address that standard and lay a framework for understanding history for the rest of the year.
Helping students differentiate between primary and secondary sources is an essential historiographical skill if my students are to develop as Social Studies students. Robert Marzano, in his book Classroom Instruction that Works, researched what forms of instruction were most effective in ensuring student comprehension. His research found that comparing similarities and differences was the single most meaningful form of instruction, and this provides an ideal forum to explore the appropriate roles played by both primary and secondary sources (Marzano, Robert. Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: New York. 2001. p.7).
The series of lessons on the differences between types of historical sources begins with secondary sources. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, it is logical in that it is the more likely the form of sources with which the students are most familiar (as they have been using textbooks and prepared worksheets for many years by the time they reach me). Teaching about secondary sources will help my students understand how historians (and even their teacher) are unable to escape biases that shape others' understanding of the past.
Secondary sources are interpretive. The study of history is not a concrete narrative, but rather, a series of academic arguments supported by what we find in primary sources. The work of historians can be found everywhere, including students' textbooks. However, one would never think to state that a middle school social studies textbook contained the most thorough account of every historical incident ever recorded, so the human narrative remains incomplete. Students must understand that secondary sources are scholars' attempts to piece together the past, and that, consciously or unconsciously, their omission or interpretation of events cannot ever be considered definitive.
A clear way to explain this to students (as is outlined in Lesson Plan 2 in the Appendix) is to explain to students that history does include facts. Adolph Hitler was the führer of Germany in 1939. He did lead the German army into Poland in an attempt to annex the land for his country. However, his motivations - the "why?" question - are a matter of interpretation. Historians make many different arguments to this point.
Conversely, primary sources will allow us to see history unfiltered. Primary sources are documents of the time that are written by the subjects of history themselves. Diaries, travelogues, newspaper articles, statistical information, and other period texts are all considered primary sources. These are the subjects of historical inquiry. Historians use primary sources to justify their theses, and their use (or often, abuse) of these texts form the foundation for their explanations of why events occurred.
A compelling way to teach students to discern between primary and secondary sources is to stage and record on tape a "spontaneous" argument with a fellow teacher or a student (who is, obviously, in on the ruse) in front of the class. The topic and dramatic nature of the argument is at the teacher's discretion, but after the argument, immediately ask students to write down their interpretation of the argument, making sure to ask them to record details such as what they believed the argument to be about, how those arguing reacted, and what the result was. Then, after several minutes of writing, ask the students to share out some of their responses. Note the differences between student interpretations on your chalkboard or overhead. Afterward, watch the video of the argument with your students. Compare it against what your students generated, and describe how their interpretation of the event is similar to a secondary source, where as the video recording can be considered a primary source. A sample version of this lesson can be found in the appendix.
Fundamentally, students should learn from this series of lessons to be skeptical of the history that they are taught. Apart from the distinction between primary and secondary sources, the desire to seek out the raw, unfiltered information available to them as students of history should be instilled. Justification is required when explaining causality, and the students should leave with the inclination to be critical of explanations for why events in history have occurred.
Section II -Research in Sources
Once students understand that history is a series of interpretive narratives about why events occurred, they are ready to engage in the work of critical historians, themselves. The students will form several groups and be given the option to choose from one of the two historical sources described above. They will be given time to read the two sources and then be asked to identify where their explorer traveled, what their explorer found in each of those locations, and possible problems with the source they were given.
There are several distinct advantages to having students work with the original texts of the travelers themselves. The first is that it allows them to develop as historians by analyzing the biases and problems of their narratives. Ibn Battuta had a ghostwriter record his travels years after he returned from visiting Africa and Asia and lifted a portion of his writing from an earlier explorer, Ibn Jubayr, leaving room for a great degree of inaccuracy in his work. On the other hand, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal as he explored the new world, giving us a much more immediate account of his exploration. It is important for students to be able to discern the different shortcomings between types of sources, and this exercise would give them practical experience doing just that.
The second, is that it allows them to develop the text-to-self writing skills essential to their adequate passage of the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). The students are asked in this portion of the unit to identify with the explorer about whom they read. The students are asked to imagine what it would be like to explore a strange land without modern equipment or resources. Despite the vast distance traveled, these explorers did not have modern transportation, and it often took years to traverse distances that today can be covered in hours. Asking students to identify with the travelers invests them in the experience of their unfolding journey and gives them practice early in the year connecting the text to themselves and the world around them.
The third advantage of allowing our students to engage in their own historiography it that it helps them analyze their own biases and assumptions about other cultures. Travelers such as Columbus and Battuta often judged the civilizations they encountered as relative to their own. Battuta described cities as being particularly "holy" or "unholy" based upon his own assessment of their observance of Islam. Columbus made similar judgment about the peoples of the Caribbean that he encountered on his first voyage in 1492. And, more recently, our own students judge outsiders and each other based upon the judged person's distance from their own culture and beliefs.
These three aspects of the unit are addressed in three separate lessons that are designed to help students understand that the study of history is the study of themselves. In other subjects such as language arts, students are asked to evaluate whether characters in a novel are believable, or whether the author's prose is adequate. However in Social Studies those questions are irrelevant because the true subjects of history are not only the people of the past but us, as well. Ibn Battuta and Columbus were human beings with human motivations that manifest themselves even in our students, today.
Section III - Tracing routes with Google Earth
As was mentioned above, the key and final component of the unit will involve the students using Google Earth to create a virtual tour for their classmates to observe. Technology has opened up wonderful new opportunities for educators in America, and the software company Google has led the charge in creating new and exciting tools that are often provided free-of-charge to the general public. Google Earth, is such a tool.
Google Earth is a remarkable tool that allows users to view the entire Earth as a three-dimensional composite of satellite photographs. Available Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows on Google's website (http://earth.google.com) for no charge, the application allows users to use Google's powerful search engine to locate places on the planet. It is then possible to (in many locations) zoom in to the point where people and cars are visible on the ground. Using the
feature, users can place virtual pushpins on the Earth, then play them in sequence as the camera zooms out and then back in again, pausing briefly at each landmark.
The advantages of using Google Earth are twofold. First, Google Earth allows students to glean a conceptual understanding of the distance between places on the planet. Quite often, I find my students have little to no understanding of planetary proportions. Due to the lack of Social Studies skills taught in the primary grades, my students care little for the world outside of their neighborhood and, consequently, do not understand the vastness of the world in relation to Connecticut. To say to my students, "Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean" would result in shrugged shoulders or rolled eyes - they possess no understanding of the scale of such an accomplishment. However, to have the students measure the distance of one mile in their neighborhood, then compare that against the nearly 5000 miles sailed by Columbus, or the nearly 75,000 miles walked by Ibn Battuta over thirty years, gives them a much greater understanding of the impact of their travels.
The second advantage to using Google Earth is that, in the context of this unit, it allows the students to compare and contrast the description of the area given by their traveler with what exists in those places today. Our explorers were amongst the first from their home regions to describe the lands they encountered. But of course, much has changed since Ibn Battuta first wandered across Saudi Arabia on his Hajj to Mecca (for one, it wasn't air conditioned). Asking students if they think Ibn Battuta found skyscrapers at the time of his journey can highlight exactly how far humanity has come since the early days of exploration.
For the unit, the students will be initially asked to trace the route their explorer took using their primary account of their journey on a blank map provided to them. Asking students, without training, to plot their explorer's route using Google Earth would be foolish, and would leave plenty room for frustration and mistakes. However, just as we teach our students to make rough drafts of their writing before turning them in, they should do the same when tracing these routes. The writing of these primary sources can often be complex, especially for my students, and leaving room for teacher guidance is a good practice to ensure accuracy.
After finishing the two-dimensional map provided at the outset, the students will then be trained in the workings of Google Earth. Google Earth is user friendly, but features that are essential to the proper generation of the movies to be exported can require some training. Teachers should read through the additional section in the Appendix detailing the specific steps required for successful completion of the movie.
Finally, the students will be charged with the task of mapping out their explorer's journey using Google Earth. Certain aspects of the computer-generated movie's creation should be emphasized. Great care should be taken to show students an appropriate depth to zoom, as the
pushpin will not only record the location you specify, but also how far you have zoomed into a specific location. This is important because it will allow students to effectively demonstrate to their classmates comparisons between the civilizations encountered by explorers and the current structures and people that stand in their place.
The result of these efforts is a striking geography lesson that I have already pioneered with some of my students. The world is a vast and diverse place, and Google Earth will allow my students to become explorers themselves, discovering interesting information about new lands that they may not have previously understood.