Essay About How I Made My Class a Story

As the 2014-2015 school year draws to a close, it’s a time to reflect on what went well, and what we can improve for the next year.

One of my favorite innovations this year was the creation of  a running narrative, centered around a few themes, that tied all of my disparate units together. As any English teacher knows, theme is the central idea that runs through a story. The “message” or “moral”, if you will. Good versus evil, faith versus doubt, everlasting love, i.e., are examples of common threads we find running through our books and movies.

Now, I’ve had a few “enduring understandings” (in eduspeak) that I emphasized each year:

  • Geography influences civilization
  • Always question your sources
  • Never start a land war in Asia

I would throw these in where appropriate as I plodded from unit to unit. That changed this year. And like the slinky, it all happened by accident. 

As a 6th grade geography teacher who is passionate about history, I delve into one or two historical eras of each continent that help explain the world today a little better. And as a man who spent his childhood and much of his adulthood playing board games, I try to create simulations for the class to play to understand these historical events. 

So it is that in Africa, we simulate the trans-Saharan gold trade and Mansa Musa to help explain why Europeans thought Sub-Saharan Africa was so wealthy from medieval times on, and shed some light on the economic reasons Europe was so eager to divide it up at the Berlin Conference into the countries we see today. For Asia, we simulate the Pax Mongolica and Silk Road and then compare it to today’s current globalization, and on and on.

About the time I was putting my Pax Mongolica Simulation together, I looked ahead to Europe and the Americas and realized my class would contain a few reoccurring motifs: the importance of trade in spreading goods and ideas, the role geography and latitude play in making trade easy or difficult, the economic mystique of China and Sub-Saharan Africa and the lasting consequences of Europe’s attempts to access their wealth. 

So at that point, I decided to create my story. This year 6th grade geography wouldn’t be the study of different continents one by one, like in the past. This year would the story of The Power of Trade and Geography: explaining the world today through the geography and history of the continents. So instead of jumping from continent with no rhyme or reason, I would use the geography and history of each continent as a lens to understand our world today. 

The plot goes like this.

The story begins in Africa, we learn about the difficulty in trading goods, ideas and religion across longitude and vastly different climates via the trans-Saharan gold trade. Europe begins fantasizing about African wealth, ending it its colonization.

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The action builds in Asia, as the Mongols sweep from east to west across the vast Eurasian Steppe, facilitating trade and exchanging goods, ideas and technology all over Eurasia.

In Europe, we simulate the Renaissance, where Asian goods and ideas met African gold. A flurry of knowledge, discovery and a desire to get to China quicker ensue, setting the stagefor the discovery and conquest of the New World.

In South America we didn’t play a game (to the students dismay), but use Jared Diamond’s* excellent Guns, Germs and Steel as the climax of the story. How did 168 Spaniards manage to capture the Inca emperor in the middle of 80,000 soldiers?! Jared Diamond answers it in his own way, recapping much of what we learned previously from Africa, Asia and Europe. Students were able to look back and find other examples supporting his theory from our previous units.

*Jared Diamond’s theory really is the inspiration behind all this.

In North America we will wrap up the tale by looking at the other legacies of European colonization like slavery, and the continued desire to trade with the east through things like Lewis and Clark’s journey and the Panama Canal.

(Sorry Australia, I don’t think I can fit you in this year.)

The great thing about making my class a tale of trade and geography is that it naturally created references to past units and lessons. To understand any story, you have to know what happened before. For example, we started the year by learning about the Berlin Conference and European colonization of Africa, and ended the year with explaining the geographical reasons for the European conquest of the Inca. Geography like the Sahara Desert wasn’t just relegated to the unit of Africa, but came back again and again as we discussed the importance of latitude and trade. By returning to big ideas in different contexts, students gained a deep and lasting understanding of their importance and significance. 

In reference to curriculum, my story provided a great framework to talk about many different, current topics, from the cuisine of Europe, to the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, globalization, the movement of peoples voluntary and involuntary, and as simple as to why though I was born 5,000 miles away from England I speak and am writing in English.

On the whole, I’d like to believe my class was much richer, much more interactive, and the knowledge I taught much more lasting than before. 

Could you do the same? Probably. You already have themes and motifs running through your curriculum, find a way to stitch them together. Everyone loves a story.

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