Friday, November 22, 2013

History is the process of leaving things out

One of the first lessons I try to teach my students, and one they often have the hardest time with, is that history (at least modern history history) is the process of leaving things out.  For so many years, students think of history as a building process.  They add, add, add, knowledge by memorizing facts.  But eventually (for my students it's right around 9th or 10th grade) they hit the point where there is too much information to memorize.  They feel overwhelmed.  It's at this point that I start with the "History is the process of leaving things out" mantra.  Often they don't believe me.  But there's a fairly simple exercise to prove it.

About two minutes ago, give or take, you started reading this blog post.  Let's think about all the things that need to go into what would make for a complete history of that time.   There's you, reading the post.  And your internal monologue while you read it.  Ok, that's easy enough.  There was me writing the post.  That's still not too much information.  But you are reading it on the internet.  You found the post somehow.  You have to include that info.  And how did I come to have a blog?  And what about the history of the internet?  And of course, there is the whole intellectual history that informs this.  We've got a lot of stuff to think about now.  Too much.  We have to decide what questions are most important and limit the information we seek out to answering those questions. 

So in most of my 9th and 10th grade classes I'm trying to guide my students away from trying to get right answers to trying to get to the right questions.  If you have the right questions, the answers are relatively easy. 

This process tends to make my students very unhappy in the short term.  There are no study guides before tests (you need to make your own) and increasingly I don't even ask questions, I make them ask the questions.  They find it very frustrating.  And yet, as the year goes on they get better and better at leaving out the irrelevant, at focusing on key concepts and figuring out those concepts for themselves. 

Getting them to make that shift is hard, but it's worth it.

Unfortunately, a lot of teachers don't get this.  When I was on the AP World listserve there was a post that used to pop up about once a month that was some variation of this:  "Hi, What are the 100 facts my students need to know for the AP Exam".  And no matter how many people responded with "Make your students figure that out and justify their choices, it's excellent review" and other such kind suggestions, the query would come back again and again.  Sometimes from the same people.  They really believed there were 100 facts in World History that were the top 100.  They couldn't start with a question.  And their students will continue to think in terms of names and dates and stuff to be memorized.  Poor students. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Serpent and the Song or is Bobby McFerrin the Most Dangerous Man in America

They say Sunday is for Church.  They say Sunday is for making a joyful noise unto the Lord.  They say Sunday is the day when you get forgiven for your sins.  And although I have always been a Friday night/Saturday morning kind of guy, for once They might be right, because tonight I got to see Bobby McFerrin in concert at the Kimmel Center singing in support of his new album Spirityouall.[1]  If all you know of McFerrin is Don't Worry, Be Happy and his one man Oz and the Ted talk, you are short-changing yourself.  It's true McFerrin is a human freak with a musical range than encompasses not only octaves but centuries of music histories and genres.  He's a multi-instrumentalist who, in this concert, played keyboards, his voice, and on various numbers, the audience.

The new album is Americana and Gospel filtered through McFerrin's musicology lens.  McFerrin knows what the Gnostics knew, what so many forget.  There is no salvation without sin, no garden without a serpent, no Heaven without a Hell.  All these songs are about salvation, but the threat of sin is always lurking.  It gives the songs an energy and a vibrancy, and yes, let's say it, grace.  "He's got the Whole World in his Hands" and "Wade in the Water" and "Jericho" and a half-dozen other songs I knew from religious school, and well-intentioned elementary school teachers, and summer camp were reclaimed and reconsecrated.  The words spoke of heaven, but the music throbbed with temptation.  There's a reason why Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren banned singing and dancing.  And there's a reason, too, why various churches brought it back.  To sing with feeling is it's own form of Pentecostalist snake-handling.  It's a dangerous act.  To acknowledge our sins and still seek redemption as individuals and as nations is a dangerous act.  It's why Jesus was a revolutionary and it's why Woody Guthrie sang about him.  It's what might make Bobby McFerrin the Most Dangerous Man in America.

At one point in the evening, McFerrin had the microphone tight against his throat, vocalizing heartbeats while one of the instrumentalists (was it the drummer or the bassist? in the ecstatic moment, I was mesmerized but now I can no longer remember) riffed.  And there McFerrin made plain what we all should know.  At the base of the music, below the rhythm, below the bass line, is the human heart itself throbbing with desire.  Sometimes it's the desire to do good.  Sometimes it's the other kind of desire. 

The Kimmel Center is a cold and soulless building but tonight it was rather a warmer place.  

[1]  This was thanks to the lovely Loretta Witt and Janet Lippincott, my wife's bosses at the Witt/Lippincott team of Realtors who were celebrating the 10th anniversary of Witt/Lippincott by taking the team and their spouses out for the evening.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner, many gifts, including the gift of the company of the aforementioned Loretta and Janet, and the concert. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Oral History and the Vietnam War Pt. 2

Oral History and the Vietnam War Pt. 2

Now that we've established some of the theory of using oral histories, let's talk about where to find them.  There are three main ways to find oral histories.  First, you can pull them out of books like Bloods or Everything We Had.  Second you can find them in online archives like this one at Texas Tech.  Third, you can collect them yourself.

I'm going to focus on the third part here.  If you and your students collect oral histories you want to do it right.  That means following the guidelines established by the Oral History Association.  Briefly, there are three main things you should do:  1. get a release 2. record the interview in some format  and 3. make it publicly available for other researchers.    1 is pretty easy to follow.  You can find sample forms here or here.  You can strip them down to even more basic forms as found at the back of this guide.  2 used to be pretty complicated but is comparatively easy now.  You should not try to take notes.  Rather, record the interview using a cell phone or laptop.  (A digital video recorder is great, but if you don't know how to use it, it may not be worth it).  If you can get video do it, audio is fine though.  If you can provide a transcription, that's fabulous but raw footage is wonderful too.  After you or your students complete the interview, make it publicly available.  You can upload it to   Make sure you use useful tags. 

In doing interviews, it's best not to work with an interview schedule.  Instead, ask the subject open ended questions starting with some basic ones.  Where were you born, where did you grow up, what is your earliest memory.  Get them talking.  Gradually steer the conversations to what you are interested in.  Try not to ask yes or no questions.  Remember that you want the subject talking.  So "how did you come to be in the Army?" rather than "were you drafted."  It's the stories that make the difference!