Complexity and Time: Letting Go of the Grand Narrative

I just finished listening to a recorded talk by a former grad school professor who is close to publishing his magnum opus about the Soviet Union in WWII. In listening to it, I learned how his research deep into Soviet archives debunks commonly held and taught theories about the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. It turns out that Stalin feared the British more, thought the Germans were the weaker power (at least until the fall of France), at one point sought to join the Axis, and had excellent intelligence about the impending invasion in 1941, but was unsure which intelligence to believe when they conflicted. Also, he did prepare for the invasion but tried to do so in a way that would not provoke one, if indeed the Germans were focusing on defeating Britain first, as both Stalin and the British believed. Much of the negative press about Stalin’s preparation came from his generals, after he had died, which itself is a reason to pause. Blaming a dead dictator for such a devastating war is awfully convenient.

I am rethinking how I will handle discussion of the Nazi-Soviet pact in class today. It will take longer to explain the complex reality than it would to stick to the old narrative, which I bought into until I saw this video. In speaking to a colleague about WWI, we were talking about how the conventional story of the harshness of the Versailles Treaty after WWI leading to the rise of Hitler and ultimately WWII is really too simplistic. The treaty was not really that harsh in context, and the road to Hitler and WWII cannot be explained without taking into account the Great Depression.

The simpler conventional narrative is easier and quicker. By diving into the more subtle complexity, we can help students see a more nuanced version of history. Ideally, they will question things that seems too simple. The cost here is in coverage. In order to teach complexity, we need to leave some things out. Whenever there is a gap in someone’s knowledge of world or US history who has been in my class, I feel a pang of guilt that I left something vitally important out. Of course, there is a lot that is important, and different things are important to different people.

At this point in the year, I feel the dilemma of breadth v. depth most acutely. There is not much time and so each choice I make seems that much more significant. I was taught a pretty straightforward narrative when I took history in school. I left thinking that knowing the narrative was understanding history. At some point early in my college career, I realized (after getting dinged on papers) that I had to learn to interpret and make sense of the history. Narrative was not enough because there wasn’t really a single narrative anyway, and the real purpose of history is to make sense of it. So I learned how to analyze.

In my classroom, I err on the side of complexity and analysis, rather than grand narrative. I hope I am making the right choice for my students. I always question myself in May.


Wikipedia isn’t the devil, is it?

Grandiose plans run up against real world time constraints. In planning the Cities project for US history, I envisioned this glorious accumulation and deepening of research skills, which would lead students to complex, subtle and extensive knowledge about the city they chose to research. They would do research into the whole of the history, learning about economic and demographic changes, able to trace the rise and fall of businesses and industries, the impact of different groups moving in or out, and how their city measures up to the national trends at any given point in time. After learning so much, they would distill something interesting and significant to share with the class in the form of a podcast or a TED talk.

Reality – with just a few weeks to go, most kids have only been able to commit a little bit of time outside of class and many only have used one source – Wikipedia. If the project were the only thing they were doing for my class, it would still probably be too much. But in addition to the city research, they are learning the economic history of the US as a whole. They have readings to do, blog posts and summaries to write.

Adjustment – I had to ask myself what I really care about the most with this project, and what I would do if I had their constraints. I mostly care about them uncovering the fascinating story, the important dynamic, the local history that captures the essence of their city and allows them to create an engaging presentation – either TED style or podcast. So – I am letting go of the multi-source, Digital Library driven background piece. I am actively encouraging them to use the Wikipedia page for the basic narrative, from which they can find some aspect of the city’s history into which they can dive deeper. I want them to spend the time investigating a particular episode or turning point through historical newspapers or primary source documents in the Digital Public Library of America.

In the interest of time, I want them to get the basic story and then zero in to focus on the podcast or TED talk. So – I am making my peace with Wikipedia, although feeling like I might get struck by lightning whenever I actually direct a student there, which is one step beyond simply looking the other way.

“Slow down, you move too fast…”

I have that Simon and Garfunkel tune stuck in my head. I’m feeling countercultural in my classroom these days. Not because I’m feelin’ groovy (Google the song.) Actually, the rest of lyrics don’t really work, but I digress.

My sophomores are pursuing answers to research questions they have crafted relating to the Industrial Revolution. My juniors are working their way through online Exhibitions from the Digital Public Library of America. In both cases, I find myself trying to prevent them from taking short cuts. I want them to start wide and then narrow. I expect them to think their way through the process of learning. Many students are impatient.

The sophomores are in an inquiry-based unit, where the goal and the end product are not identical. The end product will be a lesson plan of some sort that teaches others the answer to the research question. The goal is to learn what makes a good research question, how to find a variety of sources (including scholarly ones), when to modify or pivot the research in relation to the evidence or even a found passion, and then how to teach what you have learned to others. This takes time and a willingness to engage with the messiness of research. Not everything that you learn goes into the final product, but that does not mean the time was wasted.

The assignment my juniors are doing is different, but I find a similar dynamic. The final product will be to present a primary source from the exhibition and teach it to their peers. In order to do that well, they need to understand the context, not just the immediate but also the larger context. In other words, they need to read their way through the entire exhibition, not just the few paragraphs relating to the document. I told them that, and still found that their inclination was just to scroll through the documents so that they could pick one.

It has never been more apparent to me that I need to find ways to highlight and honor the process. If I can do more to hold my ground and insist on more thorough process, then the end products cannot help but be better. For the first time (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) I’m deliberately working with students on the process of creating a strong presentation. So far, we have watched TED talks and listened to a podcast and then discussed what made them more or less effective. Then, students created one slide presentations. The next class, I had them write what they remembered from the presentations and think about why they remembered what they did. We discussed what stuck with people and the reasons. Students thought about themselves as both teachers and learners. It slows us down, but deepens the learning.

I guess I should be grateful that students want to get the work for my class done. The problem is that I don’t want them to sacrifice the best learning along the way.

Authenticity = Key 2 Presenting

After having my juniors do perfectly acceptable Ignite or Pecha Kucha presentations last quarter, my goal this quarter is for excellence. My experience is that students spend a lot of time researching, some time putting the presentation together and almost no time rehearsing. Then, in order to improve their grades on the next presentation, they spend more time researching and putting the slideshow together and maybe even less time rehearsing. It’s all well and good to know your topic, but if you cannot convey it to someone else effectively, then you have not done a great presentation.

The assignment for today was to take an assigned topic from the first half of the 19th century in the US, create a single slide, and prepare a 1-2 minute presentation. The focus was on the presentation. We had previously looked at TED talks and discussed what made them more or less effective, so when I asked them to provide feedback for each other, the experience was fresh. Overall, I was impressed with the kindness and insight they demonstrated with their comments. Students saw and praised what went well in their peers’ presentations, and also provided some constructive feedback about areas that could be improved. This is always touchy because giving and receiving feedback is challenging. It also became clear that there were differences of opinions. Some students preferred some styles and others thought different ones effective.

In the end, I realized that there is no single formula beyond some of the basics on which we could agree – monotone is bad, organization matters, etc. I left them with the advice that they needed to be their best selves. They should be authentic in their presentation styles rather than imitate someone else. While everyone should seek to connect with an audience in a presentation, not everyone will do that in the same way. I shared the example of teachers – we may teach the same course, but our styles are very different. It took me a long time to learn that. If I can impart that in any way on my students, I think they are ahead of the game.


Escape Room Exam

I told my PBL/Inquiry-based Modern World History class they they would have a two hour learning experience during the scheduled mid-year exam slot, but it did not have to be a traditional exam. I asked for ideas. After a short discussion, students easily agreed that they wanted an escape room experience. They were really excited by the idea, so I said I would create that for them.

First decision – synthesis of what we have done or new material. I decided on new material. It would be a test of their skills and endurance, since there would not really be a way to study. Also, it would move the curriculum forward. I had hoped to have gotten a little further by exam time.

Second decision – what new material? I chose the Renaissance. It is what we would be studying next, and with so many different people to learn about, it would be easy to craft something with enough different components so that each student would have some individual responsibility.

My first iteration was really more of a video game model with tasks set by increasing difficulty. I was planning to give each student a person to research. Then, the next task would involve each person getting a date that they would have to match with an important event for one of the people researched. The final layer of research would have them each matching an image to the date and person it represented. Then, I was going to break them into small groups and have them write as many true statements about the Renaissance as they could. The final task would be to write a sixteen word history of the Renaissance (in the spirit of the six word novel).

Then, I set out to make my list of names, dates and then images to find. As I was assembling all of this, I thought about how it would play out in the classroom. I had two main concerns. First, I was worried that having everyone doing the same tasks at the same time would lead quicker students to become impatient with slower students, who would then become stressed. I wanted to foster a spirit of cooperation, and I thought I might be setting the students up for confrontation. Second, I was afraid that it would not be fun. Without enough elements of a game, it would be just another class activity.

So I decided to change the plan. I hid all of the clues – people, dates, and images – around the room. They spent the first several minutes gathering the clues. Then they had to figure out what they were supposed to do with them. It didn’t take long for them to realize that sixteen was the magic number – sixteen students in the class, sixteen of each type of clue. Each clue had a paper florin glued to it. I told them they needed to earn 100 florins to unlock the prize (cookies and an A). The final puzzle would be worth 50, and the clues added up to 48. They could earn additional florins for positive collaboration and lose them for negative behavior.

They set to work – each student researched one of the people. Then, they tried to find one of the dates that matched something significant for their person. Finally they looked for an image they could connect. Some got it right on the first try. Others needed to swap dates and/or images. When they thought they had enough information to explain and connect the person, date and image, they came to me to get checked. They earned a florin for each element they got correct. It was magical listening to them putting it all together. Some clues were harder to decode than others, so when students finished their own, they helped others try to decode and complete. Everyone had to complete this process before the class could move on to the final clue.

The final clue said:

Gather a sweet number of components

Combine them together Hemingway style.

Racconta la storia del Rinascimento.

They were to write a sixteen word history of the Renaissance. I had to help them a bit because they were not all familiar with the idea of the six word novel, but once I told them that they figured out what to do. At my suggestion, some students worked on their own and others collaborated on it. With five minutes to spare before the end of the two hour exam, they came up with the following two statements:

Rebirth, old ideas, reformation,

wealth disparity, new information,

literacy, arts and innovation,

betrayal, lies and rejuvenation.


Individuals flourished, innovated, created ties,

then broke them in an infinite loop of betrayal and lies.


It was a great experience, capped off with chocolate chip and Italian lemon cookies. Every kid was engaged. The room was alive with thinking and learning. They worked together and they worked independently. I can’t say for sure that every student loved it, but the room was filled with positive energy. I am looking forward to hearing their feedback on how it could have been even better.

History Heresy

Primary sources are essential to studying history. Or are they? My professional circles tend to see them as the Holy Grail of history. Going back to the actual words people used gets us the real story. Or does it?

Historians go to the archives and make use of primary sources to write their books. I went to the archives to find documents for my Masters thesis and my unfinished dissertation. So, clearly if we want students to do the work of historians they should work with primary sources. Or should they?

My concerns are many. Historians (and graduate students) never go to the sources first. They begin by learning as much of the context as they can. They immerse themselves in the era and the people. Then, they go to the documents.

The danger of holding up documents as “what people thought” is that any one document is woefully incomplete. I cannot imagine anyone piecing together my life, or even my day, from one piece of writing. It is always more complex. Students bring their own assumptions to the study of history, which is to be expected, but they also bring their own understanding of language. Words do not mean the same thing to people across time and space. Translated documents are even more problematic.

I realize that they provide an authentic feel for the past. Or do they? Can my students really get more from reading Tom Paine’s words in Common Sense or would they be better served reading the work of an historian who has placed those words in the context. At the very least, they should read the historian first. And then maybe another historian. Mostly the reaction when students try to read Common Sense is that they have trouble decoding the language and assume that regular people in the 1700s were either smarter than they are or had way too much time on their hands. I’m not sure that’s how I want to spend the limited time and struggle students are willing to give me.

While I think students need to read non-fiction regularly, I think they are better served by reading well-written engaging history. Then, if they are digging deeper with a research project, primary sources might be helpful. The skill of decoding documents becomes less onerous when you actually know enough of the background information. Are we spending too much time on a skill that is too difficult because of the way we design the learning?

To really support historical analysis, a whole series of documents is necessary. It’s not enough to read one newspaper and determine what was important to people in the past. To determine the impact of an event through the media, one would need a more sustained analysis. Historians do this. They also build on the work of one another.

We have held up some as more important than others. When we do that, we skew the history. We acknowledge seminal documents retrospectively. Doing so without the complexity of the context can create a narrow narrative. We like neat, clean, logical narratives. The problem with that is that people’s lives are neither neat, clean, nor logical.

To many of my fellow history teachers, this is heresy. Full disclosure – I am currently thinking of how I will teach the Reformation and Scientific Revolution in my PBL/Inquiry class. That may have something to do with my angst-ridden, iconoclastic, rebellious mindset at the moment.

The Smartest Person in the Room is… the Room.

It’s about five minutes before my Modern World class starts. I feel like I’m taking a risk with today’s plan. I am having groups present their models of how to measure power in the world in the early modern era and today. None of the groups have really finished, and I think there are some problems with each of their models. I decided not to intervene, but to allow students to work through the problems and discover them. They will present drafts today, gather feedback, and then have another week to improve/complete the project.

Now – class has started. I gave them my schpiel about how they will all learn more if they help each other. They will have fifteen minutes to prepare to present their draft to the class. Each member of the class will be responsible for filling out a feedback sheet for each group. There are specific prompts about visual appeal, information, complexity, and then overall commendations and recommendations. They will sign their names to those sheets. I’ll make a copy for me and then distribute the feedback to the groups. I really want them to come together on this. I’ll finish the post later, after the presentations.

Later – class is over. The groups worked very hard to prep for the presentations. Then, each group presented. It took me a few extra minutes to round them up to get started, so we ended up running a little short on time. Still, they were each able to articulate their models well, and they shared their content. At the end, they could ask for help with what they recognized as challenges. There was definitely positive response from the audience. They made some great suggestions. I just read the feedback sheets and clear patterns emerge for each group.They took me seriously – noting the positive features of each, the aspects that didn’t work so well, and ways that the groups could move forward.

From my perspective, it worked well – except that we did not really have enough time. I should have expected them to be prepared when they got to class, instead of telling them they would have fifteen minutes at the beginning of class. We could have used all of the time constructively for presentations and comments. There is a lot of quality feedback on the sheets, although some students were a little too brief. We will work on that.

Next steps – they have next week to make adjustments and finish the projects before we display them. I will work with the groups to help facilitate the revisions. I was going to provide feedback sheets from me, but after reading through what the students wrote, I don’t have much to add. I will provide my thoughts as they are making changes.

All in all – I’m really happy with how it went. We are on our way to becoming a learning community.