Some days ago, my world history survey course covered the First World War, and I came up with a new idea. I wanted to do something I hadn’t managed to do yet, at least not very explicitly: engage these students in building basic historical narratives themselves, in order to learn how narratives are constructed as vehicles for historical interpretation.
Before we met in class, my students had already studied a textbook chapter that focused on the war. So I set up a small-group activity to review that part of the reading.
I asked students to form groups of three or four, and I set a timer. (Four minutes seemed to be about right.) I showed each group a matrix that looked like this:
I asked each group to try to identify just one key thought they wanted to communicate about the war’s background (including either context or causes); one key thought about the war itself (in its nature, conduct, evolution, etc.); and one key thought about the war’s effects or aftermath. For each main thought, they should also come up with a few illustrative details—examples that would clarify or justify the thought or that would simply make it more concrete.
Toward the end of the time, I encouraged groups that had already finished in the matrix to do one more thing: Try to distill their three key thoughts into a single overall point to make about the war.
When the time was up, we compared notes as an entire room. And the answers were really, really good.
Each group, I pointed out, had explained what we need to understand about the First World War in the form of a simple narrative. This narrative had a beginning, middle, and end; it also had specific factual content. But its fundamental purpose was to convey a larger idea, not simply to describe a sequence of events.
With this exercise done, I offered students my attempt to do exactly the same thing. We spent the rest of the class period on my interactive lecture. That students had already gone through the work of constructing a similar narrative on their own made everything in my account more intelligible and useful—as well as easier to consider critically.