Thursday, September 11, 2014

Do Dates Really Matter? Historical Thinking & the French and Indian War

Before I move on to the American Revolution, I feel compelled to say a few words about the French & Indian War.

This is a topic in which I veer from my usual inclination to focus on content first and skills second. While I could focus on some of the dramatic action of the war itself, I prefer to use it as a way to teach the historic skill of cause and effect, and the related skill of determining an event’s historical significance.  It is early in the school year, and these are skills that need to be introduced early and often. The Common Core describes this skill (more or less) here.

Whenever I tell anyone that I teach history, I often hear, “Oh, I never liked history all that much...I hated memorizing all those dates.” Are there really any history teachers left that actually make kids memorize dates?

On the other hand, aren’t there some dates that, really, most Americans should know? 1776? 1861-1865? 1941-1945? September 11, 2001? But let’s go a step further and consider why we want people to “know” a particular date. What do we even mean by “know”?

I might start a lesson on the French and Indian War by asking students those very questions. You could even ask them to consider some key events in their own lives: the year they were born, the year a younger sibling was born, the year they moved to where they live now, etc. What is significant is not really the date, is it? It's the meaning ascribed to key events in our lives, or in our nation.  Anyone who lived through the events of 9/11/2001 understands how much the world would never be the same afterwards.

Major events are major because they are turning points.  

So try teaching students to think about what is significant about the year 1763 and the outcome of the French and Indian War in that context.

Here are a few ideas:

1. Start (or conclude your lesson) by applying the French and Indian War to a common expression:
The British won the battle, but lost the war.
Ask students, what is “the battle” and what is the “war”?
or you might prefer this one:
The fall of Quebec led to the rise of the United States.
2. Here's a technique I like to help students understand the gist of a key event without getting bogged down in detail. There are times for going into depth and telling great stories, but I have not found the French and Indian War to be one of them. And if I am trying to keep my class focused on broader themes, then sometimes this technique is just the ticket. 

I call it the "X term essay." It's a great, simple writing exercise that you can have students work on in class individually or in groups. Or it can be homework, but I like it best in groups and having students produce one essay. 

You pick 9-13 names, dates, places or facts and give them to students in the order--more or less--that you would use if you were putting together a story. So for the French and Indian War, I might use these ten, and call it a 10-term essay:

conflict between Britain and France
Ohio River valley
George Washington
Fort Duquesne
Albany Plan
Treaty of Paris
Proclamation of 1763

This is one of the few assignments where I really just want to use a good, general textbook; I do NOT want them to do all kinds of research. Give the students an overall question, e.g. "What led to the French and Indian War and what was the result for Britain and the colonies?" The essay should mention all 10 terms (ask students to underline them when they use them to assist in grading), more or less in the order given, and the essay should 
1. Answer the broad question.2. Be as brief as possible.

The key is to not go on and on about Fort Duquesne, but to mention it only to propel the narrative. While this is not the most exciting assignment ever, it is a great tool to help teach students how to sift through what is important and what is not. You can make the activity a little more exciting by trying it as a whole class/group exercise, where each group offers up a sentence and then the next group continues the thought. Have groups "challenge" another if they think there is an unnecessary sentence. 

Again, the point isn't the understand the complexity of the French and Indian War itself, but rather --here's the essential question--the role the French and Indian War played in leading the American Revolution.

What I like about this exercise is that it builds students' writing skills while helping them learn to think historically using one of the key "tools" of historians: cause and effect. And it avoids the pitfalls of having students answer a bunch of separate individual questions, e.g. what was the Albany Plan and did it succeed? Instead, students have to figure out for themselves what the Albany Plan is and how to include it in their essay to answer the overall question. Very cool.

Also, very Common Core, if you're trying to work on that. The standards I think this assignment meets are listed below.

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.3 Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.2.A Introduce a topic and organize ideas, concepts, and information to make important connections and distinctions/

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