Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tales from the Bottom: A New Approach to History

The narrative of American History is a complex one. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Although I have spent years immersed in its study, I still find myself reflecting on it and engaged in a consistently agonizing battle between what American History is, what it should be, how it should be told, and how it is told. In terms of where I am now, I would say that my emphasis is attempting to articulate a more complete vision of it that emphasizes the story told from the top down holds equal value, if not a bit less, than the one narrated from the bottom up. I think that one of the major challenges in American History, and in teaching it, is this idea that the approach from "top down" outranks all else. The notion of American exceptionalism becomes as valid as British exceptionalism, or Greek exceptionalism, or Indian exceptionalism. That is to say that it holds its own with others, but the notion of "top down" exceptionalism is a moot one. I think that our students in the upcoming weeks are going to have to wrestle with this same collision between these two paradigms of American History.
The seventh graders have started this process. In analyzing the Constitutional Convention, we have begun the discussion of how slavery was addressed, how representation was proposed, and how warring sides of Federalists and Anti- Federalists stood in opposition to one another and then in arms with one another. Students have had to make critical decisions such as what they personally agree with and what they personally oppose. In this light, we begin to see the seeds planted of top down versus bottom up. Such a start will set us up quite nicely for the study of the Constitution which officially starts this Friday.
The eighth graders have been active agents in this process for some time now. The battles of Howard Zinn and the textbook have been duplicated in the study of Progressivism. Students will be working on identifications at home and completing their Chapter 19 Assessments in class. Both will require students to critically analyze ideas from the chapter and configure their findings in multiple and varied forms. If students require more time with the computers, I will be in the First Floor Computer Lab this week during lunch. Engage your eighth grader in a discussion of how they feel power is constructed- from top down through government and legislation or bottom up through social mobilization and protest. That'll be interesting.
As we approach the half way point of the year, please do not hesitate me through email or at my home if you have any questions or if there is anything I can do to make your emerging scholar move multiple steps closer to the pantheon of scholarship and academic glory.
All best.
Mr. Kannan

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