Monday, November 30, 2015

Teaching African History

My students, of all people, have complained that I am not blogging enough.  The recent personal unpleasantness left me behind in grading and what not, and fall is just generally busy.  In an effort to spend more quality time with family, I've tried to cut down on my computer time.  And on top of that, current events have had a way of making me want to avoid my computer of late.  (Side note:  as the ever wise family matriarch says:  there are three ways of telling history:  the world is going to hell in a hand basket; the world is getting better and better; and, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  You can guess which one is foremost in my mind right now.) 

Anyhoo, another reason I've been blogging less is because I have two new preps which means I'm doing a lot of work.  One of these is Ancient World History, which I've taught a lot but always to Honors and never to College Prep kids.  Since it's been a while, it's a chance to reinvent the course somewhat.  But that's not too bad.  The course that is kicking my butt is a course in African History for Honors 10th graders.

I got the assignment last spring.  The last time I studied African history in any systemic way was 1988.  The last book I read on African History was The World and a Very Small Place in Africa which was published in 1997 (although I think I read the M. E. Sharpe, 2nd edition).      So I was going to need help.  I reached out via Facebook to Tim Burke who helped me put together a pretty decent outline of a syllabus.  The first quarter involved an introduction to geography and some historical methods.  Our first real unit was on the Bantu migrations and our guiding question (or EQ which in school speak is essential question) was "How can historians do history in the absence of written sources?"  We looked at three approaches to the first.  First, the students used an older account of how to do linguistic research.  Second, they looked at how an archaeologist used ceramic evidence that was somewhat newer.  (Sorry, both those links behind JSTOR paywall).  Finally they looked at some very recent genetic research.    This was very tough going for the kids.  They had never read an academic journal article before so we had a lot of reading together in class.  I did a lot of interpretation.  We also talked about how to find the cheats in the articles:  the linguistic article had an abstract at the end; the ceramics article had great topic sentences, the genetics one had a popular write up that summarized the findings and so on.

But the kids were burnt from reading, and the illustrations on the ceramics article were crappy and hard to understand.   So, to get a better understanding of what the article was talking and to take a break from intellectual heavy lifting while working on the papers, I contacted our ceramics teacher for help.  She had her advanced ceramics kids teach my African History kids (some of whom were the same kids) the various techniques depicted in the article.  You can see some pre-fired examples of the work below:  

One of the important points that the article made was that although techniques might be shared among different ethnic groups, styles were not.  Ethnic groups repeated the same styles and did not adopt new ones.  Rather, they might create new variations using new techniques but in terms of motifs, usage remained endogamous.    On their practice slabs, however, my students mixed both techniques and styles.  After firing the slabs looked like this: 

All in all it really helped both the students and me understand the work that archaeologists did in tracing migrations using ceramics and it also gave us a very small taste of  how long it would take Africans to create even the most basic of ceramic wares.  I think it was one of the more rewarding projects I've done in a while and not something I necessarily would have known to plan for at the beginning of the year.  Thankfully, my schedule is flexible and I have awesome colleague and mentors.  And none of this would have been possible without the help of my friendly local academic librarian who helped me find the articles to use in the first place.

And by the way, the student papers that were written before and after this project? They were pretty darn good.

What projects have you done of late?