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Makeover Column: Engaging Students to Think Locally and Globally

James A. Diskant, Ph.D.

    As a longtime reader of World History Connected, I am thrilled to have been asked to take over the Makeover Column, now that Deborah Smith Johnston will move on to write another column. I am a former colleague of Deb's and have grown as a thinker and teacher by discussing with her strategies both to redesign history curriculum to make it more inclusive thematically, as well as to reach students' diverse learning styles. This column — I have planned the first three already — will discuss both content and pedagogy, since they are, I believe, inseparable. This first column focuses on how to engage students to think comparatively about communities at the beginning of a history course; the next one connects these seemingly local topics to state and empire building, and the third moves on to popular cultures. Before I turn to communities and community building, however, I want to share a little about my background and perspective.
    Since September 2001, I have taught history in a large urban school: one of Boston's "exam" schools (students in grades 7-12 take a test to be admitted) which is truly representative of the city's demographics. Although I was hired to teach high school students, this year I have also been teaching 7th grade. While I began my professional career in 1979 as a middle school teacher (of English to German and French students at a bi-national school in southern Germany), the bulk of my educational and professional life from 1979-1995 was been spent studying, researching, writing about, and teaching European history (particularly in the field of German labor). I received a doctorate after writing a dissertation that explored the redevelopment of Dortmund's community leaders after World War II. During that period I gradually moved away from traditional European history and moved towards global history, looking at communities and peoples' abilities to grow and change within them. I also moved towards a more interactive mode of teaching and left college teaching for high school teaching. Finding it hard to land a teaching job in the mid-1990's I returned again to school to study special education services, specializing in teaching the visually impaired and blind. For a number of years I worked in that area, until I returned to history teaching full-time to adolescents.
     All of these educational experiences have led me — as a world history teacher — to understand the importance of teaching locally and globally in a way that inspires students to care about history and, perhaps more importantly, the world around them. Having a background in historical content and knowledge of diverse teaching and learning styles helps me to teach global history locally. No, I do not think that is an oxymoron; rather, I believe that the only way students can latch on to content completely out of their lives is if it somehow is made to matter to them. This came home to me this past week: while we were studying oppositional movements to militarism during World War II, I shared with students my mother's personal story of escape from occupied France. Later, a student complimented me on my "passion" (her word, which was gratifying, because I had hoped that I am a "passionate teacher"). This comment made me realize how profound local and global connections can be: in this instance a 16 year old Vietnamese-American girl appreciating the passionate teaching style of her history teacher, a European-American man, and the child of a privileged and extremely lucky Holocaust survivor.
    Enough of introduction, and onto this column's topic: communities. After all, throughout history people have been creating communities to meet their needs. Looking at these communities allows students to appreciate the value of coming together. Through a series of activities that are content-based, students ponder their own values, as they build or recreate a community to meet those needs. I start off the year by asking students two open-ended questions for homework: "What do you think makes a perfect community? What reasons explain why you chose these characteristics?" Students then come prepared to class to argue with each other in small groups about what goes into communities and what they each want. Students have developed thoughtful lists that include classical liberal kinds of freedoms, as well as modern liberal, socialist, and even communist values (even if they don't know the labels!). Most students are very inclusive in their understandings of community, while other students have been more exclusive, focusing on more narrow views of national or even parochial kinds of community. 4
    As you can see from the attached class work from the 10th grade, students are then ready to tackle an investigation of divergent communities and to investigate real communities of the past. This work culminates with a journal writing assignment where students evaluate which community would have been the best place to live. Most choose China, arguing that its values included more peoples' needs. Most also come to understand what took me more almost 20 years to understand, namely that the French view of community is not necessarily so "progressive" given how exclusive it came to be. This is a great exercise in any world history class, which can be modified to different grade levels. First, it allows each student to present his or her own ideas in an open non-threatening manner to the class. Second, it allows students to share and listen to each other. Third, it encourages consensus building without demanding it or diminishing differences. Fourth, it builds on where students are now, and given the very diverse make-up of my classrooms almost forces a real exchange of ideas. Fifth, it encourages students to think both locally and globally simultaneously. Sixth, it shows how ideas are fluid and how people are complicated beings who are capable of critical thinking without searching for a "correct" answer. And, finally, it sets up a classroom environment as a cooperative enterprise where we — the students and teacher — work together to learn together in a community. 5

World History II

Dr. Diskant


Eighteenth Century Communities and Peoples' Values:

Stable or Changing?

            Today's class work has two purposes: 1.) to see whether you and your partners can come to an agreement over your values to create a "perfect community" and 2.) to learn whether the late 18th century was a period of agreement or conflict over values and whether any of these communities were "perfect" by any of the criteria you had used in the first part.

      I. Creating a Perfect Community?

            1.) Compare your lists.

2.)   What aspects can you agree need to be a part of this community?

3.)   What aspects did you have to give up to come to a minimal agreement?

4.)   In what ways was this process difficult or easy?

II. Eighteenth Century Communities, States, and Empires: Stable Places?

Group #1: China,

Group #2 & #3: France,

Group #4 & #5: Great Britain,

Group #6: the Ottoman Empire,

Group #7: Russia,

                        Group #8: West Africa

1.)   What appear to be the traditional values of this empire or region?

2.)   How did these values appear to be changing in the 18th century?

3.)   Which people — by social class, estate, gender, or age — tended to agree with traditional values of this area? Who tended to support new ones? Why?

4.)   How significant does this clash over values appear to be for the stability of this society? Do you predict whether such a clash would it lead to widespread change?

5.)   Does this region appear to be stable against changes forced from within it or from without it?

            By the end of the period you should be ready to summarize the answers to the above questions so that you can share your findings with the whole class on Tuesday.

Reading Preparation for Groups 1-8:

Group #1: China:

Material from The Human Record, Volume II: Since 1500, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998) ed. by Alfred J. Andrea & James R. Overfield, on George MacCartney in China and Emperor Qianlong's Letter to King George III, pp. 239 ff.

Group #2 and #3: France:

Material on the French Revolution: Readings in European History ( Dubuque: Kendall Hunt, 1994) ed. by John L Heineman, pp. 1 ff.

Group #4 and #5: Great Britain:

Material from Western Societies, Volume II (NY: Alfred Knopf, 1984), ed. by Brian Tierney and Joan Scott, pp. 82 ff & pp. 94 ff.

Group #6: Ottoman Empire:

Material from The Human Record on Mehmed Pesha, pp. 208 ff.

Group #7: Russia:

Material from Western Societies on Catherine II, pp. 115 ff.

Group #8: West Africa:

Material from The Human Record on Olaudah Equiano, pp. 198 ff.

Biographical Note: James A. Diskant, Ph.D., teaches at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts, and was a Program Associate at the former World History Center at Northeastern University in Boston, from 1999 until it closed in 2003. He continues to keep the Center's ideas alive through teaching, facilitating workshops, and participating in a Book Group, and hopes that the Center will find a new home in the Greater Boston area in the near future. He can be reached at 7

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