Feeling history

Eighth graders at a Sacramento middle school will remember that teacher Emilio Moran announced fees on homework (10 cents), hall passes ($1) and tardiness (10 cents per minute). But will they understand the colonists’ resistance to “taxation without representation?”

“Ultimately, we got the outrage and upset we wanted,” (Moran) said.

“Part of the problem with teaching history is that it is hard to get kids into the proper mindframe. I could tell them what happened 200 years ago, but my colleagues and I believe that if students remember anything, they will remember the fraudulent classroom rules.”

Yes, but that’s not the point, is it?

Feeling history is all the rage, Education Gadfly points out.

The Detroit News, for example, recently praised a teacher who built a life-size replica of a World War I trench with his students to help give them ” a realistic feeling of being a [Word War I] soldier.” Sixteen-year-old Jessica Harbin, faithfully parroting the party line, told the News that once students see the trench, “there will be a great impact in their understanding and knowledge of war.” No word on whether rats, mud, influenza, dead bodies, and post-war mental problems are part of the lesson.

Actually, the paper trench does come equipped with model rats. But it doesn’t seem all that authentic. Perhaps the teacher should arrange for a few students to be shot each day. Or the class could go “over the top” to attack a trench in another classroom. Extra credit for creative use of the bayonet.

If students know history well, they may be able to understand the emotions of people in the past. But the knowledge comes first. Trying to learn by feeling is a dubious proposition.

It gets even worse when getting students to feel the approved way is the goal, not the means to an end. Students who sleep in cardboard shacks will feel compassion. They won’t wonder how housing will solve the problems of the addicted and mentally ill homeless. Via Interested Participant, courtesy of Number 2 Pencil.

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  1. If they want to learn how World War one felt like wouldn’t they be better off reading an account from a WWI veteran: Remarque, Graves, Owen or Cobb. How about the movie “Paths of Glory”? A good history book that handles the human side of the conflict is Alistair Horne’s Price of Glory.

  2. FRANK ZAVISCA says:

    Born in 1943, I saw plenty of war movies and read a lot of books written by prisoners of war and soldiers – I understood even at a very young age what war was about – and I just did not need anything like a school project to understand that “war is hell”? Who doesn’t?

    Personally, I just don’t need to crawl into a model trench to know that it is unpleasant.

  3. I have a 15-year old in the 9th grade that is almost continually involved with feel-good, artsy-craftsy school projects that teach little in my estimation. What ever happened to cracking a book?

    As far as the WWI Trench project, it’s missing one overwhelming defining element of that war. Poison gas, a weapon of mass destruction. Since WMD has been THE most controversial aspect of political discourse since 9/11, it is unforgiveable that the students aren’t taught about it in their study of WWI.

  4. If you want visuals of war, Hollywood has produced stuff that’s a hell of a lot more realistic than paper trenches and plastic rats.

    If you want to know what the hell Wilson was smoking in 1917, you’re going to have to study the period, including his own policies and speeches and how they changed over time, his opposition, the words and attitudes of influential people of the time, the reasons that U-Boats couldn’t attack other than without warning and couldn’t take the civilians away and how this was such a departure from previous naval engagements (using surface vessels that could take civilians off of the supply/cruise ships before sinking them) that the general public was shocked, and so on. Paper trenches won’t help you there, either.

    I can think of something useful to do with that cardboard shack business, though. Get them to plan out how they’re going to build that cardboard shack. Then tell them they need you to review the plans and give permission before they can build it. Then sit on the plans for several months. Then make them go before a planning commission and beg for permission. Then tell them that they have to meet a thousand pages worth of conditions. Then, just when they’re about to start building, put forth a “smart growth” initiative and rezone the spot as “greenspace”.

    All this while, until they get their cardboard shack built, they either sleep on the ground or pay wildly inflated prices to live in an existing cardboard shack.

    They’ll come out with a much better understanding of our “affordable housing” problem than most adults seem to have.

  5. A&E’s “The Lost Batallion” did a good job without the smell. I think Remarque is probably a bit much to ask of minor school students, but they seem to be pretty good at watching television.


  6. Properly done, a model of a WWI trench can have a real impact; I recall a WWI “experience” in the Imperial War Museum in London that had a model of a trench and a smell.

    However, much of the impact of the “experience” came only because I recalled Barbara Tuchman, Remarque, etc. and what they had written about the war.

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    They could duplicate the smell and the cold, wet feet, but the picture is not complete without the fear.

  8. I do think that this sort of thing can be very useful when not the primary source of learning – in seventh grade, in history, while we studied early Africa, one day we stacked desks to simulate mountains, made a ‘river’ out of sweatshirts, divided the class into two groups, and simulated a trading expedition that turned into a raiding expedition. It was excessively fun, and I still remember it much more than anything else I ever learned in that class. Then again, that was seventh grade, and nothing we learned that year was terribly important anyway.

  9. The card board shack… what feelings do I get… hmmm…

    The feeling that I should get off my duff and find a job.

  10. There’s legitimate concern about history curriculum that panders too much to fun. It’s a lot less intellectually rigorous to build a castle than it is to analyze feudalism.

    That said, go to any Open House night at school and it’s the classes with the whiz-bang, wildly decorated hands-on projects that get the oohs and aahhs. Parents will request a teacher for the kid based on the visible projects alone, and the teacher will have fulfilled his/her tacit duty to do cooperative projects and “engaging” assignments. Plus, it makes the school look good.

    That’s what our administrator said last year. “Make the school look good.”

    I have no problem with a reasonable workplace aesthetic, but there’s priorities and there’s priorities.

    I’ve seen too much of the opposite, too: history classes with rote ditto after ditto, and dull memorization of irrelevant facts.

    Question: Given a 45 minute class of seventh graders, how would you teach the context and concept of ancient Chinese ancestor worship?
    (Bonus points if there’s a fire drill.)

  11. jeff wright says:

    Well, at least these kids are recycling cardboard and paper, making them good little citizens. That Cincinnati story didn’t mention it, but I wonder if the kids will be outside. Cincinnati nights start getting fairly cold this time of the year, so that would be realistic. All that would be missing is having a crazy drunk guy come around and attack them or perhaps take care of a bodily function. Now there’s realism.

    BTW, if any of you teachers want to give your kids some good insight into what war’s like, show ’em “Saving Private Ryan,” “We Were Soldiers,” or “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Then go to a surplus store, pick up some C-rations and feed ’em those for a few days. Oh, and don’t let them bathe or change clothes. Any bets on how your administration and parents would like that? Faux trenches indeed. What’s next, digging slit trenches on the athletic field?

    These aren’t fun topics. They deserve more than a dilettante approach.

  12. My 13 year old daughter is going on a school trip to D.C. next week – it’s being touted as a trip through history.

    The money I shelled out for this trip and the anxiety I’m feeling over letting her go away for two nights is well worth the up-close-and-personal history lessons she will get from going to The Wall, The Holocaust Museum, etc.

    Far better than doing an arts and crafts project.

  13. Wait a minute… tax on homework? How does that make sense? Shouldn’t it be a homework subsidy? I mean, by this logic, you might as well tax root canals.

  14. Bill Mauldin once suggeted the best way that civilians could approximate the combat experience. It included staying out all night in the rain, having a neighbor come and take occasional shots at you, and periodically falling face down in the mud as you imagine artillery shells streaking in at you.

    Short of that, literature and drama represent the best ways to understand this (or any) experience.

    It seems that many educators want to reduce everything to arts & crafts products. I even heard of one school which (as part of a Holocaust studies program) had students pack a box with “things you would take with you if you were a Jew and you had to hide from the Nazis.” Made it all sound like a game…

  15. Mark Odell says:

    “things you would take with you if you were a Jew and you had to hide from the Nazis.”

    1 2 3

    Catching any general themes? 😉



    The building of a replica battle trench would most definitely provide the student teams with hands-on experience in designing museum exhibits. The article, however, indicates the purpose of the course is to learn history.