Connecting our lives to a bigger human story

As a former history teacher I have an ongoing interest in how young people think about the past. I am particularly interested in understanding how they think about themselves in relation to the past  – and how educators might tap into those ideas to help make history and social studies curricula more engaging and personally relevant for students.

My doctoral dissertation – which I completed last year – explored how 16-18 year olds living in the Boston area relate their own lives to the past and use it to talk about their identities and values. As part of my research I gave 179 students a blank piece of paper and asked them to draw a diagram to show how the past helps explain ‘who you are and the life you are living or hope to live’. After some initial consternation, most students reported enjoying this ‘mapping’ exercise and the chance to reflect on their personal connections to the past.

As you will probably appreciate if you do a quick mental exercise right now, being asked to represent your own relationship to the past is not an obvious task. Unsurprisingly, I found that there was huge variation in terms of how students responded to the activity. For example, about a fifth of students only included their own past—such as starting a new school or breaking a leg or welcoming a new sibling into the family. In contrast, others only included ‘big’ events or themes of history, such as the American Revolution and the Irish Potato Famine, or migration and struggles against racism. The majority, however, included both ‘personal’ and ‘historical’ items.

In my research, I was not just interested in what students included in their diagrams but also in how they included what they did. I found that about two-fifths of the young people in my study explicitly linked their personal life or family stories (history with a small ‘h’) to what I would consider to be historically significant narratives (History with a big ‘H’).  For instance, some students tethered their personal stories to the story of a group to which they felt belonging, such as the African American community or the American people as a whole. Others provided a broad historical backdrop to their own family’s story, which was often presented as a chronological timeline. Still others presented themselves as being at the confluence of various unfolding historical stories – such as the development of religion or technology or a more tolerant American society.

I have since used this mapping activity in various contexts, including in our Out of Eden Learning Community. Next week, Carrie James and I will engage educators in a close examination of three student diagrams as part of our new mini course at the Project Zero Classroom. I will share some of the insights that emerge in an upcoming post.

For now I will close with a few comments based on the many different representations I have seen. Despite tinkering with the wording of the instructions, the range of students’ diagrams has been fairly similar each time I have set the task: I have variously asked young people to show how their lives are connected to “the past”, “the past or history” or  – as was the case for this learning community – “a bigger human story”.  I expected that students would be inclined to include fairly distant events or themes from “History” in the context of our Out of Eden project, given the choice of wording and the premise of Paul’s walk. However, I found that most students restricted themselves to fairly recent or even contemporary items in their diagrams. As Jessica noted in her piece STORIES WE INHERIT, STORIES WE CREATE, students’ particular national histories or identities also featured prominently – although this is maybe not surprising given that we had drawn attention to their different geographic locations.

These observations raise lots of questions for me moving forward. For example: In what ways is it difficult for young people to make an association between their own lives and a past that happened decades or centuries or even millennia ago? To what extent have young people been conditioned to think of the past in terms of their own nation’s history – and are there interesting variations to this pattern across different nations? Does our online learning community encourage young people to feel enhanced appreciation for their national identity – or does (or can) Paul’s wide-ranging, cross-border walk encourage them to think more broadly about a common human story? What might be the effects of such a shift in narrative?

One comment

  1. […] Our home organization, Project Zero, recently held a very successful conference in Memphis, Tennessee – organized in collaboration with the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education (CASIE). There was a tremendously positive atmosphere during the three days of the conference and we really enjoyed it. Carrie James and I ran three two-hour workshops to introduce participants to Out of Eden Learn, making it a point to engage educators in some of the activities that we ask young people to do on our website. In particular we asked teachers to try out Footstep 8: Relating our own lives to the past. For some background on this activity, see a blog post that I wrote last year: CONNECTING OUR LIVES TO A BIGGER HUMAN STORY. […]

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