The Simplest Questions

Which events should we place on the class timeline? It was an incredibly basic lesson plan – one question posed to the class.

While decidedly simple in design, I was not sure what I would get. Would all students be able to come to a consensus? If they could not agree, would they lose interest and give up, leaving me to make the final decisions? Would they decide too quickly leaving me with precious class time available and no activity to fill it? For the majority of classes, I had students working on themes, in small groups or with partners discussing what they thought were the most significant events for any given time period. By the time we got to the last chapter, I just posed the question to the class.

What I did not expect was the sophisticated discussion that resulted from the admittedly artificial direction that we could only include 10-13 events from each chapter that we read. At first there was some resistance about having to choose when we could just put everything on the timeline. Then, as we moved through history, making choices as a class, some interesting things happened. My students began discussing the criteria for inclusion – should it be something that we know was important in hindsight or something that people at the time thought was important? How should we balance political, social and cultural history? Could we use a single event to symbolize a larger episode or trend in history? Does global impact matter, since we are in a US history class? As students wrestled with these questions, they argued passionately for including Earth Day as symbolic of the environmental movement, Title IX for its impact on women, sports, colleges, and as a reminder that the ERA was not ratified, the fall of Saigon as symbol of US failure in Vietnam, and the Coup in Chile to signify US interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.

timeline

My fear with so broad and quick an overview (we have “covered” all of US history in a month) was that it would be too superficial. It turns out that the discussion was anything but superficial. Whether or not they realize it, my students were articulating their views about history and their sense of who we are and should be as a nation by the arguments they crafted.

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