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From Architecture to Yams: Professional Reading for the Busy World History Teacher

Tom Mounkhall


     From my own experience of thirty-three straight years as a Social Studies teacher in the public schools of suburban New York City, I am all too aware of how little preparation time most high school teachers have with a program of 2-3 different courses to be taught daily, papers to correct and building assignments to be carried out. However, I also believe that professional teachers are responsible for continuing their development and world history education as time and energy allow. This is what I hope will be a long series of articles for World History Connected by myself and others designed to help hard pressed teachers of World History to achieve this end by maximizing the efficiency of their limited planning time by identifying useful chapters in books, journal articles, films etc. that could be used to teach high school World History. Each essay identifies the relevant time period, themes and thinking skills addressed in each source so that high school teachers can best identify and utilize the information they desire for their own lesson plans.

     For teachers who want to address multiple perspectives on a controversial topic from ancient World History, I strongly recommend the article "The Convergence of Logic, Faith and Values in the Modern Creation Myth," by Craig Benjamin in World History Connected 6, no. 3 (October), 2009. The author has created a sensitive classroom atmosphere in which to address the topics of the Big Bang Theory and Genesis.

     If you want to develop the important themes of imperialism, flora diffusion and long distance trade early in your survey course, take a look at "Pliny's Natural History and the Flavian Templum Pacis: Botanical Imperialism in First-Century C.E. Rome, " by Elizabeth Ann Pollard in the Journal of World History, 20, no.3 (Fall, 2009): 309-338. The notion of imperial gardens as a tool of imperialism is one that could be used to inform the entire survey course.

     Those who wish to develop the relationship between the themes of cultural diffusion and imperialism in Medieval/Post Classic World History, I recommend the article "Islam and the West," by Peter Draper in Architectural History, 48 (2005): 1-20. This article deals with the Islamic origins of the pointed arch and its transmission to Post Classic Western Europe.

     You can find very helpful information for a lesson on the Counter Reformation, missionary work and cultural synthesis in an article about the Jesuit Matteo Ricci working in Ming China: entitled "The Intricacies of Accommodation: The Proselytizing Strategy of Matteo Ricci." by Yu Liu in Journal of World History 19, no. 4 (December 2008): 465-487. If you want to develop a lesson on Early Modern westernization in Peter the Great's Russia, I recommend chapters 18 (on social changes) and 59 (on economic changes) in Robert K. Massie's biography of Peter the Great: His Life and World (New York: Knopf, 1980). For those who want to use painting to teach World History, take a look at any chapter in Timothy Brook's Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. My favorite is chapter 1 in which the author relates details from Vermeer's painting of Delft harbor to cross-regional processes of the period. See also the interview with the author by

     Those wishing to locate a source for the diffusion of flora may wish to use the example of sweet potatoes and yams post-1500 C.E., which is the topic of an essay entitled, "You say Potato-I say Yam," by Jessica B. Harris in the New York Times (November 24, 2009): A 31. This article is archived at

     If you want to address the importance of the oceans in Modern World History and the influence of a blue water navy on the "New Imperialism", I recommend chapter 18 in Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (New York: HarperCollins, 2004). This chapter has excellent data on the influence of the steam driven gunboat on the creation of the British Empire.

     For an Eastern European example of modernization, consider using chapter 11 of Mark Mazower's Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (New York: HarperCollins, 2004) reviewed by Steven Goldberg in World History Connected, 6, no. 3 (October 2009) at

     For those teachers who want to include environmental history in their survey, I recommend "A Conversation with John McNeill," by Tom Laichas in World History Connected 6, no. 3 (October 2009): 1-10. This article has a very helpful treatment on the influence of soil in World History, which is a novel unit of analysis for me.

     In reference to efficient classroom teaching ideas, take a look at "Architecture and Visual Literacy: Reading the Indian Colonial Built Environment," by David A. Johnson and Nicole F. Gilbertson in the World History Bulletin 25, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 21-23 for techniques about using architecture to develop student ability to focus on details. If you would like to include food as a teaching vehicle in your course, take a look at Gregory Cushman's "Cooking a Cuban Ajiaco: The Columbian Exchange in a Stewpot," World History Bulletin, 22, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 9-13.

Tom Mounkhall is an Adjunct Professor-Secondary Education at SUNY New Paltz, possesses thirty-three years experience in the teaching of World History in the secondary public schools of suburban New York City. Upon retirement from high school teaching, he received his Doctor of Arts degree in Modern World History at St. John's University in New York City and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in World History at SUNY New Paltz for the past seven years. In addition, he has directed fifteen summer institutes for high school teachers in World History in New York City, Suburban Atlanta, Eau Claire, Wisconsin and at SUNY New Paltz. He can be contacted at


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