[Note: Over two decades ago, I was asked to create a one-semester elective History course open to 9th and 10th graders. It didn’t seem to matter what area(s) of History it covered, so long as the course was rigorous, at least compared to other courses required at that time of freshmen. The result was “Introduction to History,” which took as its subjects Early Humans, The Rise of Civilization in the Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt, the Persian Empire, Early Greece, and Alexander the Great. I severed these topics from the History Department’s first required course, a one-semester offering that sailed under the titles of Ancient & Medieval History, Origins of Western Society, and History of the Ancient World during my time at the school. This meant that, thanks to the new elective, that first required course subsequently covered only the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, and the Fall of Rome; the rise of civilization in China, India, and the Middle East; and the so-called “Middle Ages.” (Yeah, it was still a case of “if it’s Tuesday, it must be a new civilization”–but just not as many!)
This new course lasted, and lasted, and lasted, evolving all the while, and in some ways it became my favorite course. “Intro” annually drew about half of the freshman class and perhaps 10% of the sophomores. Keeping in mind that, as the creator and “guru,” of the “Intro” course, I had a vested interest in its survival and success, I still believe that Intro, though an elective, played an important role in our History offerings. It aimed to build upon the sometimes rather rudimentary skills our students brought with them to high school, and to introduce new ones, so that Intro graduates would carry lots of intellectual ammunition to more demanding offerings, especially Advanced Placement courses, or at least so we hoped.
Finally, I am pleased to note that, following my retirement, Introduction to History ceased to be an elective, becoming instead a course required for graduation from Atlanta’s Finest Prep School. He said modestly. . . .]
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Our freshmen students in Intro came to us from various middle schools, including local public ones, other independent middle schools, and our own junior high. Regardless, the notion of History inculcated at that level usually involved lots of memorization–names, dates, dynasties, etc.–without a whole lot of effort to put this information into any sort of context or make it very engaging. Since I was still trying to resolve what I called the “lecture-discussion conundrum,” one issue I struggled with was how much “reflection” to include in this new elective course. For example, I had begun to experiment with various approaches to encourage my older students to reflect, including a “history journal.” I thought that perhaps Intro students might benefit from such an assignment, but I soon found that ninth-graders were simply not developmentally prepared for reflection of that sort. So, our discussions in Intro would have to originate in other assignments.
One early issue in Intro was what sort of text we would use. Eventually, we decided to require our students to purchase the college-level text used in the department’s first required course, History of the Ancient World. The idea was that students in our elective course would cover the earliest civilizations, reading only about 100 pages in the text, then carry it with them to the required sophomore course. The world history texts we used over the years were accessible to our freshmen and sophomores, with a little help from their teachers. This also meant, we hoped, that Intro students would begin to learn how to get the most out of a textbook, both on first reading and when reviewing the book for a test, skills that obviously would stand them in good stead in college.
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Another important mission for Intro was to present basic historical concepts to young historians. We began with several definitions of “history,” and we required our students to select and defend one of those definitions closest to their own, in a one-page essay, an assignment dropped on them the very first day of class.
Having established through this assignment that there were many definitions of “history,” we examined how history was understood in books by Herodotus and Plutarch and in a series of videos. Whether we were considering Herodotus’ treatment of Egyptian culture, Plutarch’s life of Themistocles, or videos by John Romer and Michael Wood on Egypt, for example, we insisted that our students try to grasp how these sources were—or were not—doing what historians should do. We also introduced a series of historical terms (e.g., “fact,” “interpretation”) and did an exercise on “dating the past” (e.g., BC/BCE and AD/CE). In connection with that assignment, we read and discussed an “op-ed” in Newsweek magazine about the scholarly dispute over the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth, which always elicited lively discussion.
Each new Intro unit opened with a discussion of geographical factors that proved pivotal in the development of that civilization. In conjunction with this topic, we used maps, either those in the texts or others furnished as handouts, to reinforce the importance of a knowledge of geography to an understanding of history.
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In Introduction to History, we probably did more with primary sources than in any other course in the department. For example, we used the Epic of Gilgamesh, and portions of The Histories of Herodotus, and Plutarch’s The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives. To aid our students in understanding the modern translations of these ancient sources, I created a series of “study guides,” which followed the main lines of the story (without worrying about having our students memorize trivia) and emphasized the character of the main actors and how the books did—or did not—represent the practice of “History” as we had discussed it in the introductory unit. (I especially enjoyed having students wrestle with the cliche that Herodotus was “the Father of History,” which, given how different his work was from any of the other history books they’d ever encountered, led to useful “reflections” and spirited discussions.) In addition to these full-length texts, our students also read shorter primary sources, like Hammurabi’s Law Code; the Mesopotamian creation story, Enuma Elish; the creation stories in Genesis; and the autobiography of King Darius of Persia.
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Intro used videos in an effort to develop critical thinking skills. Every time I showed a documentary, I instructed students to watch for, and take notes on, certain things, or to look for the answers to certain questions. These critical observations then formed the basis for class discussions. Furthermore, videos, and the students’ notes on them, frequently became required sources for major writing assignments.
Fortunately for us, there were quite a few informative, engaging videos available. For example, over the years we used as mainstays documentaries like The Iceman; Legacy: The Origins of Civilization (Michael Wood); Ancient Lives (John Romer’s take on the history of ancient Egypt); In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (Michael Wood again, this time channeling the great Macedonian); The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (mostly the history of Athens, told through biographies of Cleisthenes, Themistocles, Pericles, and Socrates); and The Spartans (Bettany Hughes. It was fun here to inform my classes that some reviews of this series published in Great Britain took Ms. Hughes to task, not for her approach to the material, but for the clothing she wore on camera—some of my female students were especially vocal during these discussions.)
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In Intro, we only had a couple of real “tests” each semester, because I believed that younger students derived more benefit from learning to write historical essays. In addition to the paper on “What is History?” mentioned previously, I required essays on several other topics, which, I reassured my students, counted as “real” tests, even though they were in essay form. Sometimes these exercises were straight exposition (e.g., every-day life in Mesopotamia, based on Hammurabi’s Law Code); at other times, they involved comparing and contrasting various sources (e.g., accounts of how Darius became king of Persia by Herodotus, in The Histories, and by Darius himself, in his autobiography).
After a few years, instead of an exam in the course, Intro had an, ahem, “alternative assessment” (which I called the “Big Project,” so as not to confuse my young historians with “educationese”) that was usually a research-based, extended essay. Required sources included the assigned texts, videos, and selected Internet websites. We generally spent a week or more in class near the end of the semester working on these projects–researching, planning, and word processing the essay.
Among the “Big Project” topics I devised over the years were “Heroes of the Ancient World” (Sargon of Akkad, Moses, Romulus and Remus, and Cyrus of Persia), and “The Battle of Salamis” (according to our textbook, Aeschylus’ play The Persians, Herodotus, Plutarch’s lives of Themistocles and Aristides, The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization video, as well as several websites on the battle). My personal favorite among the “Big Project” topics, though, was “(Hi)Story [sic],” which emphasized the idea of history as “story.” It required students to compare and contrast various approaches to the past, ancient and modern, in books (our main text and Herodotus) and on film (at least one of the videos mentioned previously), as well as in the classroom (i.e., they had to decide what my approach to the study of history was and work that into their answers!); then I asked them how their understanding of the nature of History had changed, or remained the same, as a result of the course, and to explain why.
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Intro also afforded an opportunity to expose young historians to comparative history. Every other semester or so, I assigned a group report as a way to introduce the concept. Under the general title of “The Human Mind in the Axial Age,” for example, groups prepared oral and written reports on the “minds” of ancient civilizations (e.g., China, Israel, Greece, India, and Persia), based on the textbook and on primary and secondary research in the library and online. These projects also consumed a couple of weeks of class time, and student presentations of the results counted as a major test grade.
Thanks to President George W. Bush’s penchant for intervening in the affairs of the Middle East, Intro also allowed us to introduce students to the historical roots of current events. This gave heightened significance to, for example, Michael Wood’s film, “Legacy: Iraq,” and his visit to Afghanistan in another series, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.
I offered occasional “mini-lectures” to my young historians. These usually lasted no more than fifteen to twenty minutes and were intended to fill in the background for major topics like archaeology, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Hammurabi’s Law Code, Greek drama, or the life of Plutarch. Nevertheless, such interludes, featuring their teacher as the “fount of all wisdom,” did not alleviate the disorientation most of the young scholars felt once they realize that I was serious when I said that our course relied heavily on discussion. Oh, I might break the class into groups to share information but, once the discussion commenced, no student was safe from my “inquiring mind”!
There also was an intangible aspect of Introduction to History that made it fun to teach: I felt no compunction to “cover” a set amount of material each semester. (OK, perhaps I should have, but I didn’t.) If I decided that we needed to slow down and smell the coffee while studying Egypt, the Persians, or whatever, then we did so. And, since the course had only “light” homework, students were expected to start on their next day’s assignment during the latter part of each day’s class, so there was no need to flog a dying discussion simply to fill in the time before the bell rang.
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In short, Introduction to History actually “introduced” our students to quite a lot that proved valuable for later departmental offerings, not to mention courses they might encounter on the college level. When I saw some of my former Intro students later, in my Advanced Placement United States or Modern European courses, I never worried about whether they’d “get” doing history at that rarefied level–I knew from experience that they already were familiar with the skills they’d need. Teachers of our other required courses felt the same way when they found Intro alums in their classes, and they continued to call upon–and reinforce–the skills their students first learned as freshmen and sophomores in Introduction to History.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: