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Makeover Column V: Engaging Students to Continue to Think About the Past Once Class Is Over

James A. Diskant, Ph.D.


     In my previous columns, I argued that the creation of community should be at the center of any history class, that its central focus helps students understand political choices people make to meet their community-based needs, that students need to consider the values people hold which both helps students to understand themselves and others better, and that a possible way to accomplish these intertwined goals is in a truly world course that includes the United States. Yet at the same time we need to teach reading, writing, and thinking skills. But how to accomplish all of these goals in the midst of often competing goals of school priorities, local pressures, and/or state testing while keeping students motivated and engaged to participate in class when they might want to be somewhere else?

     Two of the presentations at the World History Association's 16th Annual Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (June 28-July 1, 2007) provide thoughtful starting points to answer this essential question: Jean Fleet's Keynote Address: "Reconstruction and World History: Theory and Practice" and the panel on "Historical Literacy" co-facilitated by Linda Black ("Using Children's Stories to Teach Point of View and Historical Context in History") and Sharon Cohen ("Using Memoirs in Teaching World History). Fleet, Black, and Cohen challenge us to engage our students in meaningful ways. Collectively they remind us of the underlying importance of history education: to engage students to think critically.

     In her thoughtful keynote address Fleet emphasized that in thinking and planning to teach history, it is important to understand how the past is reconstructed by a variety of factors, including current historical knowledge, theories about knowledge acquisition, and our own perspective. In other words we—as teachers—need to find ways to allow our students to appreciate and understand historical complexities. She suggested that an excellent way to accomplish these important goals is through the use of art and architectural projects. In so doing, students can both come to enjoy and critically analyze visual images, as well as tap into their creative side.

     In a highly useful panel discussion/workshop Black and Cohen presented strategies to improve literacy. Black argued that students will be able to become historically literate if they do something many times to retain it: she quoted the thinker Barry Beyer (Practical Strategies for the Teaching of Thinking, 1987) who argued that high school students need to do something at least 55 times to actually learn it! Since the most significant learning occurs when learners tap into what they already know, Beyer argued, teachers need to scaffold what students know. In consequence, Black creatively developed the idea of developing a lesson around reading different versions of the children's story "The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs" so that students will be able to analyze loaded words, bias, point of view, frame of reference, and historical context. Cohen used a different focus, that of reading historical memoirs to teach emotional empathy. She used Richard Kim's memoir Lost Names, Scenes from a Korean Boyhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) about the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II to show how students can learn evidence about how Koreans maintained traditions, sustained based loyalties, and resisted external challenges posed by Japanese colonization while at the same time learning to put this evidence in a historical context.

     Fleet, Black, and Cohen collectively demonstrated the importance of tapping into students' pre-existing knowledge to gain student interest, whether for the purposes of a class project or to improve reading skills and retention. Such thinking and planning is obviously at the core of all good teaching and yet I continue to be struck by a conflict between what we as teachers think we are doing to teach well and what students actually absorb about the past. In this column I will take Fleet, Black, and Cohen's insightful arguments further and discuss strategies for students to continue to learn—with enthusiasm and motivation—once the class period is over. What I am trying to address here is getting students to do something more than simply what is expected of them so that they learn things that matter to them. In this task I'm reminded of two fabulous books: Robert Fried's The Passionate Teacher (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) and Katherine Simon's Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply about Real Life and Their Schoolwork (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). Both Fried and Simon argue that students want to grapple with difficult issues about their lives, and that one of the primary purposes of teachers is to guide this process carefully, cleverly, and passionately.

     In my experience it is difficult to tease out content and method, since I would suggest that for many students that they are in fact inseparable. These conclusions come from what students told me, my own observations of a successful class, what I heard students talk about with their peers as they left the room or—even better—later in the day over lunch, and what some students wrote in their end-of-the-year evaluations: namely the value of role playing activities, an architectural project, and debates. As one student put it at the end of the year, "Debates helped us go into depth," while another wrote that in the future I should do more "physical activities such as the triangle trade activity (sic)" (this was actually an activity about trading in the Indian Ocean; see Addendum #1).

     All of these activities that worked to retain interest for a diverse group of students had a variety of components in common: problem solving, movement-based, and student-driven. First, all of these activities had problem solving and sharing components that tapped into students' desire to participate in uncovering the "truth" or possible interpretations of the truth. Second, they all allowed, in varying degrees, for kinesthetic learning, or as one student graphically wrote, "for us to do something more than sit on our butts and take notes." Finally, they were all student-centered, not teacher-centered, which allowed students to take greater ownership of their learning. I realize that in the midst of all of our competing goals for teaching these three things are easily forgotten. However, we neglect them at our peril, because while some students will do what we expect of them, they may not really retain material. And what about those who learn best by doing, like half of all learners?

     Second, the kinds of content that were needed for all these activities were comparative, they tapped into students' pre-existing knowledge, and they resembled a real situation that allowed students to use the information they had to work together, like people do in real situations. While the activities involved reading, they had other materials to use, from artifacts to poster board. These activities are described in detail in the three addenda at the end of this column.

     First, the Indian Ocean Trading Activity is one of my favorite activities and was developed by my friend and former colleague Lori Shaller (Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School). It is a role playing activity that involves figuring out one's identity and one's role in the trading process of the 14th and 15th centuries, and then participating in the trade itself. Students are given reading material from each of the five groups, as well as artifacts and illustrations about the particular group of traders, whether they traveled (the Chinese or Muslims) or whether they welcomed outsiders in exchange for goods that they wanted or needed (the Cambodians, Indians or Kilwanese) in Southeast Asia, India, or eastern Africa respectively. Students liked it for several reasons: they used artifacts they could touch, they enjoyed looking at illustrations, they enjoyed acting like detectives or historians, they liked doing something where they could move around the classroom, and they liked seeing how people were able to get what they wanted or needed. It culminated in a writing/journal entry where they wrote about which of the participants they would have liked to have been and why.

     Second, my former colleague from Northeastern Whitney Howarth (now at Plymouth State University) developed the activity, "Building a Legacy: 17th Century Architecture" as a way for students work together to design buildings that represented cultural values of one of five different 17th century places: Bohemia, China, Mysore, the Ottoman Empire, and Tibet. As a class they had already studied Versailles and the Taj Mahal. Great decisions ensued about what kind of structure to build, how to design it, and what to do when "fate" intervened—that is when they had to adjust their plans due to a war, revolt, or natural disaster. As a group they had to create the blueprint for their structure, both inside and outside, and then present it to the class. This activity culminated with a quiz on what they had learned from their classmates about the five different places.

     Finally, the debate: "Revolution or Evolution?" was a creative way to end the year. As a class students were used to debating, particularly in the form of an inner/outer seminar and kept asking that we do more of them. In this one—unlike previous ones—there was no moderator and the listeners (more than half of the class) listened to the debaters (who volunteered to do so) make their points. In order to make it more exciting, I pretended at the last minute that Napoleon was unable to attend the meeting and that they—as his advisors—had to take good notes and vote accordingly. It was a superb way to conclude the year and in almost all of my classes, debaters did an excellent job and the listeners understood that Napoleon may have accepted pieces of three groups (the exception being the former slaves) and used ideas of gradual change to legitimize his position. Their participation—whether as debaters or listeners—counted as a test grade.

     In all three of these activities students—from the most conscientious to the least motivated—shared positive comments with me. But more importantly I observed—after class, in the cafeteria, after school—was that many students genuinely cared about the outcomes. They were truly engaged in the learning process and were willing to do all of the things I required—like coming to class prepared, doing their homework (!), listening or talking, reading, taking notes, working together, and thinking creatively, imaginatively, and historically—to do so. Yes, learning came to matter to them; it made a difference to them. Our challenge as teachers, I humbly suggest, is that we design more and more activities so that students will continue to think about the material once the class is over and before they go off to their basketball game, listen to music, or go to their part-time job. As teachers we often forget that without this spark, most students will refuse to learn the skills they need, because the course work is boring. Our job is make it come alive in meaningful and engaging ways.

Addendum # I:

World and U.S. History I

Class work on Indian Ocean Trade

     Using the background reading that you did over the weekend, the materials in this packet, and the artifacts at the different tables, your job will be to use your excellent investigative skills to figure out answers to questions about who your group is. The overarching key question for today and tomorrow is: "What factors made the Indian Ocean trade so effective for almost 3 centuries"?

I. Modern Connections, Comparisons, and Contrasts:

     1.) What are the purposes of a trade system if it works correctly?

     2.) Does such a trade system exist today? Why or why not?

II. 14th Century Trade:

     1.) What are your initial thoughts to answer the Key Question for the next 2 days: "What factors made the Indian Ocean trade so effective for almost 3 centuries"?

     2.) Group Activity:

Step 1: Look at the maps of the trading area.

     o What were the most important goods are traded?

     o How were they traded?

     o Who did the trading? Why?

Step 2: Look at the five sources of traders that are identified by a symbol: circle, hexagon, rectangle, square, and triangle. Your group will be assigned one of these groups -- people from China, Eastern Africa, India, Southeast Asia, or Southwest Asia. You will need to figure out who your group is, where they come from, where they're going (if they go anywhere), what they're bringing to trade, what they're getting in exchange, the time span of their trip, and their religion.

     o Use the Source Questionnaire on the reverse side to answer the questions.

     o Once you have determined who you are and answered the questions, the trade will happen.

Step 3: Tomorrow we will put the pieces of the puzzle together to explain the effectiveness of this trading system.

Addendum #II:

World and U.S. History I

Dr. Diskant

Weekly Assignments #17

For Tuesday, December 5:

Read over the project description, "Building a Legacy: 17th Century Architecture" and, if you are not the ruler, decide the part you would like to have. On Tuesday you will need to work through all 5 of the planning steps, so that you will be ready to design a rough blue-print of your building on the provided poster-sized paper on Wednesday.

For Wednesday, December 6:

Come prepared to continue working on your building project.

For Thursday, December 7:

Present your plans to the class and individually answer the following questions:

1.) How does the building you designed reflect your cultural values?

2.) What were your greatest challenges in planning the building?

3.) How did the FATE card affect your project?

4.) What would you have done differently if you had to do it over again?

For Friday, December 8:

Make a visual representation that answers the following question that shows the significant shift of power in this period and the change towards European influence:

Given that four powerful 16th and/or 17th century Asian empires—Ming, Mughal, Ottoman, and Safavid—had similar and cooperative economic and political interests in Africa and/or Asia, how could four European empires—the English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish—begin to gain economic and political power for themselves there and in the Americas?

This could either be a cartoon, map, picture, or combination thereof. Be sure to include relevant caption(s).

For Monday, December 11:

Reflect on the presentations that you heard and the different kinds of buildings that were designed to show off the greatness of 5 places in the 17th century and answer the following questions:

1.)   What do these designs collectively show about the values of 5 different societies: Bohemia, Ming, Mysore, Ottoman, and Tibet?

2.)   Were they realistic? Why or why not?

3.)   In what ways do buildings show cultural values of a particular society?


Also fill out the Self Evaluation for your role in "Building a Legacy: 17th Century


Addendum #III:

World and U.S. History I

Dr. Diskant

Debate: Revolution or Evolution?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Imagine that it is 1810 and the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte has invited Chinese government officials, English merchants, French peasants, and former slaves from the newly created country Haiti to learn different views of how to make changes to meet peoples' needs. They will need to answer the following questions:

1.) What is your theory of social improvement?

2.) What do you think about the social and political events of the last 50 years?

3.) How have members of your social group (however you define it: by caste, by class, by tribe) benefited by those changes you discussed in the previous question or failed to benefit by those events?

4.) What advice do you have for others in the same situation?

5.) What do you value the most: social cohesion or social upheaval? Why?

Once the debate is over, you will need to reflect on what you've heard:

I. Did each group provide an accurate view of the ideology that they were presenting and answer the above questions? Why or why not?

Chinese Government Officials:

English Merchants:

French Peasants:

Former slaves from Haiti:

II. Imagine that you are Napoleon: which viewpoint would you have found to be the most persuasive? You may vote for one or two positions. Explain your vote.

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, writing curriculum, 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




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