17 December 2010

What do you do with history?

Two New York Times efforts ran in parallel this past week, and emphasized all that we might do in schools if we move away from the bizarre subject divisions imposed on us in the late 19th Century.

One, running for some time now, has been an effort to watch the build up to the United States Civil War 150 years ago. I cannot recall the Civil War Centennial, but I'm old enough to have grown up with the aftermath - that is textbooks and lessons which often emphasised a "morally neutral" vision of that war. "In these sensitive times [the 1960s] we need not offend the South," I came to presume before I knew of the bizarre power of the Texas State School Board over American curricular content.

The view the Times is offering this year is much deeper, much more conflicted, much more interdisciplinary, and much darker.

Slavery Visualized: from The New York Times
The county-by-county demographic mapping of slave possession, a map-making work of 1860 census workers, tells us much about the times, and even the sciences of the times, if we embrace this opportunity. But so does this tale of "Jim Crow on West Broadway" regarding race relations in the "free" states. For a nation which actually believes that slavery ended in the United States on "Juneteenth" it is important to discover what really happened [actually: "Legally, the last 40,000 or so slaves were freed in Kentucky by the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. Slaves still held in New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Washington, D.C. also became legally free on this date."].

In this series you will find ways to lead your students into history, literature, geography, map-making, statistics, music, art, political theories, calculus if you wish (can't discuss artillery without calculus), all based in fantastic stories.

This week that series has been joined by a story from a hundred years later, December 16, 1960, when two airliners, a DC-8 and a Lockheed Constellation, collided in fog-bound skies above New York Harbor.

This was a traumatic moment for New Yorkers, even those of us too young to really recall it...

Years later "older kids" would scare us with stories about planes "falling from the sky" - or worse - "boys falling from the sky." The event was a critical marker - where jet travel became something other than simply glamorous - a little taste of the loss of RMS Titanic48 years before. More than that, for those raised after World War II, but with the constant threat of 'death from above,' this was a frightening manifestation of that.

You can start here and follow this story. One of inexact sciences, yes, and mathematical equations, but also a depiction, in words, sights, sounds, of another time. A depiction of both the apparent simplicity of the 1950s and the complexities our nostalgia hides.

Stephen Baltz
Especially with the link to a child's story, you could build a fascinatingly complex set of projects around this bit of history, from glide paths and gravity to the march of technologies ["As hard as it may be to imagine today, it was standard practice then for a jet hurtling over the metropolitan area at more than 350 miles an hour to be left to find its own way for minutes at a time. When the controllers on the ground were tracking planes on their radar scopes, using grease pencils to identify them on plastic strips called “shrimp boats,” they could not judge altitudes."] and the patterns of racism, classism, and urban decay patterns.

Now, take a minute and imagine how boring any of these topics - James Buchanan, the speed of a falling object, block-busting in Brooklyn - might be if separated from other stories which give them context, which create avenues for student interest. You know, like the classes we've all attended.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Only a little related, but I thought of you when I saw this, and especially the math videos by Vi Hart.