Remember eighth grade history class? Watching the hand of the clock move, droning on through chapters of a History Alive text book, not caring what happened in America’s history. That was me in eighth grade, wondering why we were even bothering to learn about history. I remember memorizing facts and dates for a test, and as soon as I handed in the paper, the material I had worked so hard to remember, flew right out my brain. And up until this year, my sophomore year of high school, my view remained closed off to any enjoyment of history. I never thought one class could make my stubborn anti-history mind open up to the fascinating history of the world.
This year, I was excited to get a choice of which history course to take, and I enrolled in a class called Age of Exploration. From the course description, the class sounded time consuming. Kids would get to research a topic of their choice, and then present to the class. Although one of my greatest fears was speaking publicly, I knew I needed the practice, because in life things never get any easier.
From the first day of class, meeting my technology oriented, completely modernized teacher, I knew this class was not going to be the same as previous ones. He was relatable, funny, understanding and took the time to get to know our class. After the first two weeks of school, our first assignment rolled around. We were each to pick a topic of our choice, from the 15th century. We were not only supposed to research our topic, and understand it, but we had to place it in the context of the fourteen-hundreds as a whole. In addition to working on the project, we were also asked to read several chapters from Origins of the Modern World. Beginning to feel the pressure of my various school assignments, I became increasingly frustrated with these two separate, time-consuming assignments. However, as I dug deeper and deeper into my research, I began to understand that the two assignments were not separate, but completely interlocking. I was beginning to draw connections to my specific subtopic, and the context in which it rested.
We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” ~ Lloyd Alexander
The topic I chose was the political lives of Isabella and Ferdinand of Castile. One of the most pivotal events during their reign was their sponsorship of Christopher Columbus’s journey. In past years I would take this event and think about it no further, just accepting it as a historical fact. After all that was the way I had learned to look at history. However because of the requirement to place my topic into context, I had to investigate deeper into what motivated Isabella and Ferdinand to fund Columbus’s journey. This is precisely when my brain began to connect the readings from Origins of the Modern World with my topic, as it provided key background information to help me answer my questions. At the time that Isabella and Ferdinand were making their decision, trade was primarily centered around the Indian Ocean, leaving Spain and much of Europe largely isolated. I suddenly got why Isabella and Ferdinand would want to sponsor Columbus; they were desperate to find an alternate trade route to the West Indies. Just from knowing this bit of background information, I was able to begin forming various interpretations of my topic, based on connections I made with the broader picture of the 15th century world.
I found that this approach to teaching: primarily letting students discover on their own the connections between events, allowed me to and look at history on a deeper level and not just as a timeline of historical facts.