15 January 2016
5 Shevat 5776
Before the winter vacation, I visited a class where students were engaged in a high energy debate, talking passionately with one another, and, occasionally, even yelling across the room at each other. I saw that it was a ninth grade history class, but it took me a minute to figure out what they were debating. In fact, it was an historical simulation, a debate not between Gann ninth graders but between members of Roman society, specifically, members of the two major social classes in Roman society, Plebeians and Patricians. Students were playing the roles of plebeians and patricians, each with a Roman name they were required to use when addressing one another, debating an issue from their different perspectives and based on how the issue would affect them and their society.
The class was awesome. The students were fired up, nearly everyone participated, and they were not regurgitating facts and ideas (as so many history students do, even at the highest levels) but rather applying their knowledge in new and creative ways. The discourse in the classroom was driven almost entirely by the students, while the teacher, who had clearly taught them both the knowledge and skills that the students were enacting, served as artful “debate moderator” and facilitator of learning. This is what a high school history education should be.
And this was only the beginning. Yesterday, as we brought the semester to a close, I again found myself drawn into a ninth grade history class by the energy in the room. This time students were writing on the whiteboard walls in different color markers. They were concluding a “chalk talk” or “silent conversation,” a methodology that invites learners or participants to respond to a question or prompt by silently writing on the walls, reading other people’s written comments, responding to those comments in writing, and reading the responses. Imagine how different this is from normal spoken conversation, in which one person speaks at a time and in which the most outgoing, fast-processing voices tend to participate most confidently and most often. The silent conversation is an amazing way to hear (or, more precisely, to read) all of the voices in the room and to accelerate the exchange of ideas.
However, what excited me most was the teacher’s framing question. It was the conclusion of the Roman debate unit. “Was this history?” she asked them, a question that prompted deep reflection about the simulation itself and, more importantly, about the nature of history and what it means to learn it. (Pedagogically, this is an important way to give students independence, ownership, and self-awareness of what, how, and why they are learning.)
One student answered that the simulation was history because they needed to use historical facts and ideas to participate in the debate. Another challenged this answer on the grounds that, while the students were playing the roles of historical characters, they were actually speaking with their own contemporary voices, and, therefore, it was not actually history but a conversation in the present. A third student’s answer highlighted one of the most important cognitive and social-emotional goals of teaching history. The simulation was history, he said, because the students needed to practice “historical empathy” to play their characters. They had to enter the minds and hearts of people who lived in the past. Historical empathy combines the emotional capacity empathy that applies to any person at any time with the knowledge and understanding of people and the historical context in which they live.
This discussion was an extraordinary educational coda to the Roman debate-simulation exercise. And the question, “Was this history?”, itself illustrates something profound about our connections to the past, present, and future, shining a light on the interplay between past, present, and future. This interplay resonates strongly as we read this week’s Torah portion about the Exodus from Egypt and the Passover ritual.
The dramatic conclusion of the story of the plagues is interrupted by the command to “tell your children” this story. It was a command given to the Exodus generation but it was to be observed by every generation throughout time. I have to believe that the Israelites at that time were asking themselves the same question we ask ourselves as we read this parsha and every year at the Passover seder: “Is this history?”
Are we remembering the story, or are we living it out today, or are we creating the story of the future? The classically Jewish answer to this timeless human question is YES.
Rabbi Marc Baker