Category Archives: History

Week 36 – A Pop Essay to Make You Foam at the Mouth


As the year is winding down, I’ve been wanting to assess my students on the writing process when left totally up to them.  I also wanted to know what they took from the movie “A Knight’s Tale” that we watched in class as part of our unit on the middle ages.  (We watched a safer, denuded, and cleaned up “airplane” version.)   So when they came back from recess, I said, “Okay, Pop Essay!  Get out binder paper and your notes.”


Using your notes and the True/False list you made while viewing the A Knight’s Tale, outline and write a first draft of an expository essay.  You have one class period only.

 Here is your prompt:  How historically accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”?  Describe the most important moments that are accurate and explain why, and then describe the most interesting  moments that are inaccurate and explain why.  What conclusions can you draw about our popular notion of the middle ages based on the film?

Do your outline here.


The students never batted an eye.  They all got out paper and their notes, and we looked at the prompt.

We took a minute to “deconstruct” the prompt.  First I asked them where we would find our thesis statement.  We underlined the first question.  I explained that they would need to turn it into a statement, but clearly I need to go over it again because one student used the question as it was written.

Then we numbered the jobs that the prompt was asking to be answered.   We put a 1 at “describe” and drew an arrow to what we were to describe and circled it: the important moments.  Then we put a 1a at the word “why” to remind us to give examples and reasons.  Then we put a 2 at the second “describe” drew a circle around the words “interesting moments” and drew a squiggly line under the word “interesting” to make it clear that “important” and “interesting” are two different concepts.  Then we put a 2a at the word, “why”.

Then we looked at the last sentence, and students were relieved to see the word “conclusions”. They accurately connected the word to a conclusion paragraph.  You don’t need to do it that way, but it does make a nice way to wrap up your thoughts.

Then I introduced the idea of the magic number 3.  They need two sets of moments.  Emphasis on the plural.  I told them that it is always useful to pick three ideas to support their thesis.  This meant that with a topic sentence they would be looking at about seven sentences for their body paragraphs.  Each moment must be supported.  The three moments plus three examples plus one topic sentence equals about seven sentences.  That gave them an idea of the length of the paper.

I wanted them to give me strong outlines, and so I told them that they needed to make the outline specific enough that if they didn’t finish the paper, I could still give them credit based on what they were planning to say as shown in their outline.  One the other hand, I warned them that they didn’t want to make the outline so specific that they didn’t have time to write it.  Only one didn’t get to write.  But his outline is amazing.  (We’ll work on it.)  Some finished early.  I told them that in this case, they need to check that they were on topic, then do as much revision as possible before the essays are picked up.  They needed to think about legibility, grammar and mechanics, idea and content, organization, word choice, and voice.

It takes time to master timed writing. They should not beat themselves up because they didn’t finish, but to consider why they hadn’t.

Instead of posting several essays, I thought I could get more student’s work up if I cherry picked some paragraphs and moments that I found to be most interesting.

Here are some openings:

The movie “A Knight’s Tale” focuses on medieval times.  But is the movie accurate to history?  In this paper:  What is accurate?  What is inaccurate? and why?

How accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”? This movie is about a squire, the helper of a knight, named William, and how he changed his stars.  Which means that he went from squire to knight.

Is “A Knight’s Tale” historically inaccurate? Or is it both?  Let us find out.

And some 1st body paragraphs:

This will be the accurate section of my paper.  Training daily is a huge part of a knight’s  life.  That is how they have lots of power to hold these huge swords (not always big swords, but heavy).  Courtly love is love in the nobility.  One of the rules is when you speak to your lover, you will foam at the mouth.  The Black Prince is a real character.  His real name is Prince Edward.  He is famous for his victories.  He does help other kings and, yes, he does tournaments.  There is still many more. 

First of all, this movie had a lot of accuracies, some unexpected.  There was, in fact, daily training for all knights.  William wasn’t doing a lot of extra training. All the rules of jousting and the stuff that happened (including getting hurt) did happen.  This is important because it was actually unwarped despite how silly it sometimes seemed.  William also followed the rules of courtly love.  That is very important because to some people could see that it would be crazy how one would follow and constantly think about another.

Now I will describe a few accurate parts.  Most of the dances were accurate, but not all of them were.  This was important because William got closer to the girl he liked.  Only widows having men’s job (blacksmithing) was accurate.  William needed a good blacksmith.  People were hanged.  Roland uses this to show William what could happen to him.

First, I will discuss the accuracies of this movie. First on accuracies is Knights.  Knights had to have people pay them taxes so they can go to a tournament.  Also, in Europe, if you are not of noble birth, you cannot be a knight.  Next is Ulric von Lichtenstein.  Ulric was an actual character from history who was a knight.  Next is apprentices.  Most children were apprenticed around the age of 7.

And some 2nd body paragraphs (I didn’t give the whole paragraphs for some of these because there was a lot of repetition.)

This next paragraph is about how inaccurate it is.  They filled the lances with pasta.  The makers did that so they could have an effect.  The blacksmith put a Nike symbol on the armor.  First, they didn’t have Nike, and second the blacksmiths did not put a symbol on armor (as far as we know).  They did not know what people looked like back then.  For example, the Black Prince, we don’t know what he looks like.

Now I will explain three false moments.  One of them is that David Bowie did not exist then.  He was born very recently.  The outfits for women were very inaccurate. They looked like “Star Wars” clothes!  The lances broke.  They wouldn’t have been able to afford so many.

Next,  the inaccurate moments.  They had no trial for criminals.  When William got arrested, he went straight to public humiliation.  They also filled the lances with linguini.  I would not expect to see that in the middle ages, but it did add pop to the jousting.  Finally, the women used hair dye.  We know that women would dress their hair elaborately, but did not color their hair. 

Finally, roses were pink and white, not deep red.

They did not eat turkey legs.

First, in the middle ages, there was no hair dye and women would have worn their hair up and covered.  I know this because we have watched many middle ages documentaries and they said exactly that.

And for some conclusions:

Not thinking historically, this movie was funny and exciting.  If we had not learned about the middle ages, everyone in the class would think that the middle ages wasn’t all that bad.  They also would think most knights were mostly too snobby and proud to congratulate anyone else.  If everyone had thought these things, they would be totally wrong.

I learned that some movies are accurate and some aren’t.  Example, this one was more accurate.  I learned and saw some of the rules of courtly love. Like when the two lovers, William and Jocelyn, are talking and William is tripping over his words and you can hear him.

I am very pleased with the results.  The students’ voices come out loud and clear while strongly reflecting what we learned in class.  They also had little problem transferring the writing process to a quick essay test.  So, yay, yay, and yay.

So, here’s to Heath Ledger (god rest his soul), people having fun with History, and whoever created the essay.  Add them all up, and you get statements like “when you speak to your lover, you foam at the mouth.”



Week 32 – The Medieval World (It’s only a flesh wound!)


It’s been such a long time since I’ve written about what’s going on in our History classes.  Let’s catch you up.

The Middle Ages has got to be one of the most difficult units to teach. (I’ll admit that, mentally, I add the word “properly” as an addendum.)  Historically, the age varies by country in Europe depending on when the Romans left, if they left, when the Renaissance started, etc., so you have to be specific about who and when you are talking about.  Not even this is simple.  People moved a lot and one group invades another with astonishing rapidity.  You really can’t say the English fought the French because of the moments when the king of England was French, and vice versa.  Not even the popular monikers make it easy.  Is it the Medieval Period, or the Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages?  Many historians are coming to argue against the idea that there even was a “dark age” despite the History Channel’s gratuitous offering.  (Watch that video with a bucket, because their main idea is to make you vomit from all of the blood, screaming,  and general grossness.)

As a teacher, you are constantly swimming uphill against what the Victorians did to the stories and histories of Medieval England and France.  I have just about out-and-out banned fairy tales at this moment.  Never mind the damage that Shakespeare did.  I’ve explained about thirty times that Shakespeare’s History Plays are more like Shakespeare’s Trying to Get in Good with The Ruling Monarchs and Not End Up Dead or on The Rack Like Christopher Marlow or Thomas Kidd Plays, no matter how much I love him.  Then, there is the question of two major characters of the middle ages who simply didn’t exist except in fiction, King Arthur and Robin Hood.  People have wanted them to exist so badly that they selectively present research to feed into the idea that they did.  Again, enter the History Channel, in cahoots with Ridley Scott (more shame to them).  And let’s not get started on the crusades, all five of them.  Let’s face it, most educators don’t.  Or they talk about them as if some great tragedy wasn’t being played out.  You couldn’t even call it genocide.  It was just killing anybody in the way. And along the way.

I think I understand why teachers focus more on the fairy tales, the castles, and the fictional characters.  The middle ages were without doubt the apotheosis of wildly violent behavior in European history.  As soon as you ask the question, “Why did castle walls have to be so damn thick?” you have fallen down a rabbit hole of bad behavior and bloodshed.  Explaining the arms race of the middle ages is explaining why the armor had to be stronger, and it ain’t because it was pretty.

Sometimes, I really envy my friends who are of Asian extraction.  They get Kong Fu Zi, and Daoism, and the Hundred Schools of Thought.  I know that much of these developments came out of a period of strife, but it seems that the Chinese didn’t seem to absolutely revel in breaking each others’ heads open.  Who have we got?  Charlemagne?  Richard the Lion Heart?  Pope Urban of Cluny?  Bastards to a man.  Especially William the Conqueror.  As a person with almost all Germanic and English ancestors, when I look at all of the bad behavior, I worry that it might be genetic.  (Nobody give me a broad sword, just to be safe!)

Still, it is so exciting.  So fascinating.   My word, there are some wonderful documentaries, and texts, and ballads, and images.  The most exciting part is doing the research to set the record straight.  For example, for Literature, we read one of the very first accounts of Robin Hood from the 1300’s.  It was amazing how different it was from the versions we know today.  Little John could be a better archer?  Little John and Much could murder in cold blood a little page-boy?  Huh?  And then to go back to the documentaries and take them to task.  The History Channel’s The Real Robin Hood states that Robin was put in an oubliette, but we read the story, and although it does say he was put in the deep dungeon, we know he would be expected to stand trial, which is a little difficult if you are forgotten down a hole.  In the words of Poirot, “Non, mon ami, non.”

I’m enjoying studying this unit with my students.  We read from the BBC history magazine about the Black Prince, and we read an article on Hildegard von Bingen from Fordham Universtity.  We are comparing historian Mike Loades’s “Going Medieval” to historian Terry Jones’s “Medieval Lives”.  We watch Brother Cadfael mysteries, and read ballads from the 1400’s.  We will be looking at an ancient Irish poem about a cat written by a monk.  We will look for truths peeking through pop fiction.  But more on that later…

Like all teachers, I’m trying to shield my students from the worst of the violence and mayhem.  But I do not believe that this is a reason to avoid the hard questions.  Questions like, “What’s up with the women wearing traffic cones on their heads!?  Seriously!”

Week 28 – A Good Day for Peeps!


My students don’t need me anymore!

And that’s just how I like it.  Except for history lectures, at this point, students are working almost completely independently, keeping pace with each other, and helping each other out.  Occasionally, I answer a question, or I help them find where to get the information, or I intervene when two students are at loggerheads about how to move forward, but mostly, I let them lead.  In small groups, I hear questions like, “What do you think we should do?” directed at the quietest member of the group.  Or I hear, “I don’t mean to be rude, but can we move on?” in response to someone getting off track.  I’ve heard, “Go get the dictionary,” this week.  And I watch over it all, keeping an ear on each group and listening for the place where they might need me to step in.  I feel a little like a mother hen looking over my industrious little peeps.

Once, many, many years ago, a vice-principal asked me how my day was going.  I remember telling her how each class seemed to be on its game.  The time was flying, and I was really enjoying teaching.  She looked at me and said, “Mark this day in your memory because not all days are going to be like this one.  You may need it to help pull you through the days that aren’t like this one.”  I didn’t quite know how to take the comment.  I was only in my second year of teaching in the US, so I knew how precious these days were.  But I was also a little annoyed that the assumption was that most days would be crappy.  I began to wonder how to make each day more like that one.  It became clear to me that the more students were independent learners within the classroom, the more likely it was that we would all have a good day.

Right now the class is all abuzz because they are writing questions for their History game.  The game happens tomorrow, and if they do well, they don’t have to take the test.  It’s worth it to them to write good questions and to study them.  It is worth it to them to work together to find questions that are test worthy.

Just before, they were in PE.  It is a rare, beautiful day here in the Puget Sound.  It didn’t make sense for them to be in the gym, so they went out in the forest and played capture the flag.  They used the blue and the red Nintendo Toad stuffed critters of course, but it is the same concept.  Other than helping them vote on the game they wanted and splitting them into teams, I did little but walk out with them, and stand around in case anyone tripped on a tree root.  They defined the rules of play.

In writing class, we are reading My Path Leads to Tibet and writing out Reading Journals for each chapter.  Students work together to read through the chapter, brainstorm the synopsis, and find transitional words and phrases.  (We’re working on Organization.)  I sit here listening to them, putting all their game questions into a single document, and making sure that they are engaged.  But there is little worry about that.  They don’t want homework and they know that this activity can take only 20 minutes.  They also like turning their thoughts into coherent paragraphs which say what they want the world to know.

This might sound like I have achieved the impossible here, but, darn it, we’ve worked for it.  First of all, students had to learn how to be independent.  To be independent, they have to be clear on the tools they need.  They need to have the confidence to use a dictionary if they need one and to admit that they don’t know what a word means.  They need to have clear boundaries.  This allows them to stand up for the sacred space of learning and to be able to admit that they want it, no matter how dorky it might make them look to the others.

And all the work is paying off.  They know the how-t0-do-it-ive-ness of being a scholar.  They are independent learners and thinkers as proved by the risks they are willing to take in the reflections they write.  They make me proud and oddly nostalgic for the days when I was the center of their attention.

On the other hand, I have time to reflect on the progress they’ve made.  And to realize that today is a good day.

Week 27 – What Goes In…


As I prepare to pass the reigns to another teacher, I’m reflecting upon the literature my students and I have read over the past two years. It is interesting to look back at the readings and think about what was successful, what was just fun, and what I would like to do differently.  Some of these books we have as class sets, and so future teachers can read them, if they so desire.

Last Year:

  • selections from Aesop’s Fables +  We read this as a way to look at the structure of a fable.  Then, we wrote fables.  I use a lesson from Beat Not the Poor Desk by Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen to help us write them.  It is also a great way to learn how to write quotations.  Single copy.
  • selection from All Things Bright and Beautiful: “The Cow That Wouldn’t Get Up No More”, James Herriot  +  We used this as an opportunity to look at Word Choice.  Students picked words they liked and made a word wall.  Single copy.
  • Black Ships Before Troy, Rosemary Sutcliff  +  We used this in conjunction with studying Greek History.  This is an accessible version of the Iliad and the Odyssey for young people.  It does not “dumb down” the story at all.  We pair this with learning about the gods and goddesses.  It’s good for many writing assignments.  Mine. Get your own. 🙂
  • Farmer Giles of Ham, JRR Tolkien  +  We read this as our first piece of literature.  I wanted all students to have a common story from which to work.  I photocopied the piece (it’s not short 😦 ) and asked student to do notation in the margins.  We also defined words as we read using context and dictionaries.  Then I taught the writing process by guiding students through an expository essay on the story.  Mine.
  • selections from The Greek and Roman World, W.G. Hardy  +  I guess this is really History, but I wanted students to do some non-fiction reading as we were delving deep into fantasy. We paired it with Greek History. Mine.
  • From Grimm’s Grimmest, Aschenputtel, Brothers Grimm  +  Idea and Content.  We looked at three different Cinderella stories to see how they were different and how they changed over time.  Mine.
  • Motel of the Mysteries, David Macauley  +  This was a read-aloud that happened at the beginning, more for History than anything else.  It’s a funny story.  We were about to embark upon early man and Ancient Civilizations, and I used it as a cautionary tale about making inferences about ancient civilizations.  This is a great story about a man who gets it really, really wrong.  He resembles Howard Carter in a big, big way.  Student did some creative writing to wrap up.  Mine.
  • The Signal Man, Charles Dickens  +  It was close to Halloween.  What more do you need?  We tied it to Organization.  Greatest scary story — ever.  Get it from Project GutenbergThree Ghost Stories.
  • Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson  +  Read-aloud.  These are just meant to be good stories.  This book is very difficult as an independent.  Single copy.
  • The Romance of Tristan and Isolde, retold by J. Bedier  +  Read-aloud.  The students had read an expository essay on the story and decided they wanted to read it for themselves.  Mine.
  • Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare  +  A major part of our program.  Students learned poetry scansion, then wrote poetry, then read the story in class, learned about Elizabethan England, and then performed the play.  Class set.
  • Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett  +  Pratchett is a huge part of our reading list.  Many, many students love his work, everything from Diggers, Truckers, and Wings to Feet of Clay.  Do not be afraid.  Students are in good hands if they can manage it.  The adult stuff flies right over their heads and the humor is real.  His children’s books are just as entertaining as his adult books.  Since we had been studying fairy tales, Witches Abroad was a good choice because it is a send-up of Germanic fairy tales like the ones written down by the Grimm Brothers.  Mine.
  • Where’s My Cow?  Terry Pratchett  +  Read aloud.  This book shows up in another Pratchett book that the students had been reading.  Since it was a real book, and it is really short, we gave it a read.  It is very, very funny!
  • Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak  +  This was a grammar lesson.  I asked students to take pages of the text and tell what the parts of speech were for each sentence.  Mine.
  • From The World’s Best Fairy Tales: “Cinderella”  +  Another look at the Cinderella story. Mine.
  • From Very Good, Jeeves: “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit,” “Jeeves and the Song of Songs,” and “The Ordeal of Young Tuppy”  + Voice!  These are great stories to read for highlighting voice.  Wooster has such a clear voice that you can see him a mile away.  Once I put up a number of quotes and asked student to tell who the speaker was.  They saw Wooster right away. Mine.

This Year:

  • A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas  +  I like to read this to students because I love it, but also because it is poetry, and has such wonderful imagery.  So, it works really well for Idea and Content. Mine (but you can get it from Project Gutenberg Australia).
  • selections from A History of Rome: “Greeks and Etruscans in Early Italy”, M. Cary and H.H. Scullard  +  This is heavy-duty scholarly work.  I like for students to play with non-fiction of this caliber.  It is very, very difficult, requiring the most erudite of middle school students to go to the dictionary.  When I have students tell me they know it all already, I pull text from something like this and let them go.  To scaffold it, I put them in groups, hand them a dictionary, and ask them to annotate thesis statements and topic sentences. Mine. Seriously, mine.
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo  +  This was a real risk.  I read this book to a group of 7th graders many years ago, and I was pleased by what the students got out of it.  Since we would be looking at the Muslim world later in the year, I thought I would try it again.  This book is a fable and can be understood on many different levels.  It was the first novel we read this year.  Students were each given a book to keep in which they were expected to make annotations.  Once they were done, we used the story to write our first expository paper.  The returning students from last year lead the writing of the paper, moving us on more quickly than I would have thought.  The students all loved the story.  They thought deeply about its meaning and felt a real connection to the boy.  Mine.
  • The Aeneid for Boys and Girls, Alfred J. Church  +  Do not be fooled by the archaic title.  This is a solid translation of the classic by Virgil.  (Dido is respectfully drawn.)  It is useful to pair this study with the history of Carthage.   My students really enjoyed it.  We made a map of his travels on 11 by 17 inch paper.  We also had a good time comparing it to the  youth literature books by Rick Riordan who relies heavily on the myths for his story telling.  At 110 pages, its got a lot of bang for the buck.  A class set is on the shelf.
  • “Cat on the Go!” James Herriot  +  This is a wonderful little short story.  We read it as an introduction to narrative essays.  Once we read this and one other, students wrote some lovely essays of their own.  To see four of them, flip back in the blog.  In the Literature book.
  • “Click Clack the Rattlebag”, Neil Gaiman  +  We read this through our ears.  It is a short story.  Students then wrote a suspense story of their own; examples are also on this blog.  It’s almost as good as “The Signal Man.”  Download for free (for now, at least) from (via the official Neil Gaiman Tumblr page).
  • Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Lady Gregory  +  This is another class read-aloud.  I try to do very little with these books other than just read them.  If a student makes a connection between them and the curricula, all the better, but I find that if I do anything with them, it kind of takes the joy out of it.  In this case, I’m reading this because we have looked at other epic stories, and this is one I feel gets short shrift.  It is a wonderful story even if the writing is somewhat archaic.  Through reading it to my students, I’m seeing the places where it doesn’t relate to modern, mostly American kids.  Mostly though, it does.  Mine.
  • selections from The Greek and Roman World, W.G. Hardy  + See above, except for this year we were reading the Roman section as that was what we were working on in History.  Mine.  Very hard to find.
  • From High Tide in Tucson: “The Not-So-Deadly Sin”, by Barbara Kingsolver  +  I talk a lot to my students about the fact that it is okay to lie.  Fiction means “made up.”  I love how Kingsolver explains that you need a healthy imagination in order to write fiction.  She also helps us understand that sometimes we don’t write from our experience, but rather make the lie a mental exercise.  If you can get other people to believe you, you might want to be a writer.  Don’t try this with non-fiction.  Mine.
  • The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien  +  Class read-aloud.  I put up a map from the book on the wall and students followed it.  We finished it just in time to see the first movie.  Mine.
  • selection from Metamorphoses: “Pyramus and Thisbe”, Ovid  +  So this has its fingers in English and History.  We were studying Rome while we were moving toward our school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I wanted the students to have a sense of what Shakespeare was doing when he made the story comic.  Mine.  Project Gutenburg.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare  +  See Twelfth Night and Ovid above.  Class set.
  • “Mighty Macedonian: Alexander the Great” from Smithsonian magazine  +  Students had already studied most of Alexander’s history when we read this article.  They compared it to the writings of other writers and found it to be full of propaganda and half-baked ideas.  They looked for topic sentences and found them lacking.  They found just what I was hoping they would find.  Mine.
  • My Path Leads to Tibet, Sabriye Tenberken  +  We are currently reading this autobiography in class.  We read each chapter and write a Reading Journal.  The students are working in small groups reading out loud to each other, looking up words, and keeping each other on task.  The reading journal requires them to give a five-sentence synopsis, show examples of the writing traits we are focusing on, and write a ten-sentence reflection.  The sentence count is only important because I want students to be concise for a summary and dig deeper for a reflection.  It’s going well.  Class set.
  • selection from Yarn Harlot: “The Beast”, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee  +  I paired this with “Cat on the Go!” as an example of the narrative essay.  You can argue that this is really a humorous essay, but honestly, it fits the format for narrative essay; it just happens to be funny.  It’s one of my favorite essays – ever.  Mine.

So, if I think if anything I missed, I’ll add it.

Week 26 – Studying Ancient Arabian History


Hmm.  Sounds different than saying, “We’re studying Islamic Empires,” doesn’t it?

This is not my favorite unit to teach, which is such a shame because it is one of my favorite units to teach.  The reason why it is not my favorite is because I spend a lot of time swimming upstream against “The Middle East”.  (In my mind, the there was a “Dun-dun-duuunnn” sound effect in my head.)  I don’t teach modern history, thank goodness.  I wouldn’t have the patience for it.  Ancient atrocities and general bad behavior are fun.  Modern ones? Not so much.

To some extent I feel like I’m teaching German history in the middle of World War II.  This analogy is totally inaccurate and yet totally correct.  Students can come in with so much trash in their heads about what it means to be Muslim, with little to no respect for the culture’s history, and with offensive epithets ready to spit out at a moment’s notice, most of which they learned from Facebook and Fox News.  Islam is the new “bad guy.”  (I feel like I need a shower to get the yuck off just from writing that.)

You have to put your foot down on that crap from the get-go.  I tell them that I love people.  When you love people, you do not disparage them.  I have friends who are Christan, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Zen Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Shinto, you name it.  I have taught Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Palestinian, Saudi, and Yemenite children. I have never taught a “bad child” yet.  I tell my students that I will go to the mat to protect those children just the same as I will go to the mat to protect the ones sitting with me right now. I will not allow those people to be generalized into one group of “bad people”.  It stops at the door.  So once all the students are clear on the rules, we can start with the lessons.

The next thing I tell them is that, as a historian of ancient civilizations and societies, I base all of my curricula on texts from both historians and archaeologists.  I do not make up information or make inferences.  I try hard to keep my bias as a modern reader of the news media from coloring my reading of historical sources, so that what is happening today does not interfere with or obscure my understanding of what was happening 1,500 years ago. I bring in the texts that I have studied and show the students what I thought was reliable and what was dubious. (I’ve been doing this all year, but it is really important here.)  If a reliable text does not give me an answer, I put that question in my “unanswered” box and keep looking for research that can answer my question.

In this way, I show my students how I can move from Theology to History and back again.  A historian of ancient civilizations must be familiar with the theological tenets and with the traditional stories of the culture they are studying, but scholars call those concepts “History” at their peril.  (I’m talking to you — you people who believe Julius Caesar was writing history and not propaganda. So why am I picking on the Romans? For the Romans, their all-encompassing belief that they were the best, and deserved to be the best, essentially was a religion, a theology of sorts. So a historian has to be able to separate the propaganda that Julius Caesar wrote in his role as a political historian from the rest of the historical record that shows how he was busy knocking over the Celts for their gold.)

I think it is of supreme importance to begin with Pre-Islamic Arabian societies, and I look to Karen Armstrong to help me here.  Her book, Muhammad, is very, very useful.  I distilled it into a PowerPoint presentation that teaches students words like badawah, ghazu, muruwah, asibiyyah, karim, and hajj.  (If you want to know what these terms mean, go look them up.  You might learn something.) These words help my students begin to understand that the ancient Arabian culture was very different from anything we have studied before.  Also, having those terms helps them feel less lost.  When students feel less lost, they feel less scared, and less threatened.  It also helps them be better prepared to understand who Muhammad was and how he changed the landscape of what is now the Middle East.

If you feel that you don’t know that much about Islam, I suggest this: The 72 Virgins Are A Lie (And Other Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Islam).  It’s by Seth Green, it’s short, and it does a nice job of giving you a quick, entertaining lesson from a fellow nerd.

Long live nerdy historians!

Week 24- A Superlative Letter to National Geographic (IMO)


The biggest!  Really?

The most powerful!!  Prove it.

The most important!!!  Please stop it.  Now.  No, I’m not kidding. 

This is the letter I am about to send the National Geographic, The History Channel, PBS, and the BBC. 

Dear National Geographic,

As much as I appreciate your dedication to history and your willingness to create documentaries on issues that may go overlooked by, say, A&E, I grow more and more frustrated by your egregious abuse of superlatives.

My class has benefited from at least two of your documentaries this year, and for that we are very grateful.  However, my students and I were appalled by the sheer number of “best”s, and “biggest”s, and “most influential”s  that we were regaled with.  It is also galling because we are educated.  We know that, say, the port in Carthage and the port in Syracuse, compared with the port at Caesarea, also used tufa rock (which your video doesn’t seem to think we need to know) to make amazing defense works.  Archimedes’ port easily rivals the work of Herod the Great’s.

I ask you, Where is your evidence?  I teach my students to defend their arguments.  I require that they do not take anybody’s word at face value.  I expect them to question authority, mine, yours, especially the text’s.  Is it that you feel that the information isn’t interesting enough?  If it isn’t, maybe you aren’t telling the story correctly.  Because, the story of history is far more interesting than any throbbing soundtrack or abundant list of superlatives can make it.  And if you are going to make comparisons, please don’t assume that I don’t know anything about any other place on the planet.  It’s offensive.  Maybe it was the best thing in Judea.  Maybe it was the best thing on the planet, at that time, that we know of.  But after a series of documentaries all saying that whatever it is they are presenting is the best, it rings hollow; sounds false.  Teeters dangerously close to propaganda.  The bad sort.

Again, I thank you for the work you do in bringing this information to the screen.  But I will ask the same of you that I ask of my students when they present me with research: prove it or don’t say it.

Thank you,

A History Teacher

If anybody wants to help me put together videos that show how big, say, Alexander’s Empire (at its fullest) was to the size of, say, the Roman Empire (at its fullest), please contact me.  Or, if you know of someone already doing this, please let me know.  I want to start the Intelligent Society of People Who Bust Superlatives.  Represent.

Week 12 – Toga! Toga! Toga!


As I’ve said before, we like to watch documentaries in my History class.  There are two very unlikely texts that go together so well.  One is a series of bombastic thrill rides from the History Channel, and the other is a few chapters from an old book by an old fart.  I love them both.

First we watch Cities of the Underworld: Rome, the Rise.  The idea is that you can dig down a few feet and see the actual structures of the Roman world.  It is fascinating!  I got to do a very little bit of that on a trip to Jerusalem, and man, it brings the history home.  And, for my students who have read Terry Pratchett, there is the connection with Ankh-Morpork and the underground chases in Men at Arms.

There are a few issues I have with these films.  The music just about knocks you over.  It’s loud, sometimes so much so that my students complain that they can’t hear the historians, and my copies do not have Closed Captioning for some reason.  (Grrr.)  And there is always the perennial problem of superlative abuse.  My students have gotten to the point that they shout out when they hear them.  Also, hosts Erik Geller and Don Wildman in their individual shows both have something of a potty mouth (tsk, tsk, tsk).  Thank goodness for bleeps.

But you get to see the old architecture, the building materials, left over bones, and artifacts.  You get to walk with them where the old Romans were.  Students can see CGI reproductions of the buildings and how they changed over time.  The directors and writers picked well in terms of showing the different elements of Roman architecture as well as finding historians who are very interesting.

Students take Cornell Notes on the information learned and will later study them for the test.

The text I pair with this video is The Greek and Roman World, chapter 7, by W.G. Hardy, published in 1960.*  Woo-hoo, is this man nerdy!  But he wrote great essays.  His word choice is fantastic.  Almost every paragraph has either a hook or a transition, and almost all paragraphs have a clear topic sentence.  In groups of three, students look up any words they don’t know as they read the chapter together, highlighting topic sentences, which they will later transfer into their notes.

Hardy puts the entirety of the Roman world in perspective, and helps students to see the big picture.  He clothes the world for students in a way that helps them to see it in color.  Even more so after they view the videos.

We will then turn back to the videos, this time watching Cities of the Underworld: Hidden Empire.  This installment has more on the major constructions and a real look at the Roman arch.  This one is also with Erik Geller.

Then we turn to chapter 8 of Hardy, “The Romans at Work and Play.”  This essay is probably my favorite.  It takes the students inside the homes and workplaces of the Romans.  It gives rules for behavior and walks you down the street.  A great companion for the videos.

Finally, we will watch Gladiators: Blood Sport.  This one is with Wildman (an alumnus of my alma mater, Earlham College.  Hee!).  He takes you under the Coliseum for a look at the sport from the competitors’ point of view.  It takes a little editing because of some sexual content, but there are so many questions from students about the sport and this video answers a lot of them.

And so we turn back to Hardy and his chapter 9, an essay on the excesses of the Roman world.  After seeing the gladiator video, students are primed to take in this text.

By the time we are done, students have a pretty clear picture of the depth and breadth of the lives lived by the ancients.  Gone are the cardboard cutouts and marble busts of the history books, and in walk the rich, the poor, the women, the children, the gladiators (both men and women) and slaves in the neighborhoods, the necropolises, the palaces, and the communal spaces they inhabited.

I’m so excited that I can hardly wait for them to finish the first chapter!

* Special thanks go to my mentor teacher for History, Jeff Day.  He introduced me to awesome history texts that have helped me up my teaching game!  Thanks, Yoda!