Call for best practices: Global dimensions of national history and postcolonial history

Andreas Holtberget EUROCLIO , ,

EuroClio is looking for teaching practices centred around global perspectives of national history and postcolonial history. The practice collection is part of the project Critical History, led by the University of Tallinn in partnership with three other European universities.

Global dimensions of history are indispensable for the teaching of history in the 21st century.  The crucial challenges of our time, including the changing role of the nation state, digitalization and the worldwide internet, growing socio-economic inequality, migration movements as well as the climate crisis, have - whilst of a global nature - clear and tangible local impacts.

Traditional history education, centered around national history and its narrower contexts, can hardly adequately reflect these local-global complexities of today's globalised world. Identifying teaching practices in this field will therefore be an important step in inspiring colleagues to include such global dimensions in their own (national) history teaching and we hope you can help us!

Do you have a teaching practice to share that tackles these local-global complexities? That illustrates global perspectives with the history of your own country/region/nation as a starting point? As opposed to treating ‘national history’ and ‘world history’ as something apart and unrelated? 

We are looking for practices that are low-cost and easy to replicate. Please contact Birgit Göbel (secretariat@euroclio.eu) with a short description of your teaching practice and we will reach out to you to set up a brief interview. 

The collected practices will be made available on the EuroClio website in a blog format, with a selected number also included in a study guide published at the end of our project. Due credit will always be given to the interviewee. The overall aim of the Critical History project is to prepare future history teachers for a critical history education more attuned to the realities of 21st century societies.  Identifying good teaching practices will be crucial for the success of our project and we thank you in advance for sharing your ideas with us.

How to bring heritage to the classroom: A teaching practice from Belgium

By Joris Van Doorsselaere

Joris Van Doorsselaere has been a history teacher since 2011 and he is doing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Ghent investigating how cultural heritage relates to history education in Flanders, developing a didactical framework and good practices. Last April, he tried the following teaching practice as a first attempt to bring the concept of heritage, and as it surrounds students in their everyday life, more explicitly into his classroom.

As heritage is conceptualised rather implicitly in the curriculum framework, this activity seeks to introduce the concept to students and make them understand the difference between heritage and history. With it, not only history is addressed, but also the value of the past and the emotions that different monuments or figures provoke.

“Heritage is not an important part of the curriculum explicitly, but there are certainly opportunities for it. I think it can make the curriculum more relevant for students. That is the reason why I wanted to find a way to introduce the concept of heritage to children.”

To exemplify this teaching practice, he introduced us to the case of Gravensteen Castle, in Ghent.

Joris used this example in his class in the wake of a controversy over the Council's intention to adapt the castle. The aim was to add a tourist office and an elevator to make the entrance more accessible. Given this proposal, an important social debate was instigated about whether ancient monuments should be adapted to modern needs.

Although the castle is located about 25km from where most of the students live, they indicated in advance they had no strong connection with it. However, debates about heritage in the present can help students understand why other people attribute meaning to certain aspects of the past. Therefore, the students were introduced to comments on social media that citizens of Ghent made regarding the plans to adapt the castle. These remarks were quite fierce, thus making the students aware that, for other people, the building is more than just a meaningless remnant of the past.

 

The method used is as follows: First, the case was introduced to the students and acted as a concluding part of a lesson series about the middle ages, where the students ought to reflect on the relationship between past, present and future. It began by investigating the context of the monument and some historical questions were raised, while the students were provided with clear instructions, and an online database wherein pictures could be found that prove that the monument was previously used for different purposes, and in fact, is not exactly a medieval building as it underwent different adaptations after the middle ages. Then, the students made a timeline - from the construction and the adaptations it has gone through - to the current situation.

Besides the assignment considering this historical dimension, the situation in the present was investigated. The students were provided with recent news articles from which different perspectives on the renovation could be filtered. The Articles were read - with arguments for and against - and the different opposing voices, such as architects, civil movements, the City Council or historians, are placed on a continuum. Subsequently, they made a one minute video (pitch)  explaining their opinion individually. Finally, the students also placed themselves in these debates to see the different opinions that they and their classmates have.

APPLYING THIS TEACHING PRACTICE:

The students in whom this practice has been tried are between 14 and 15 years old, and have practically no prior notion of the concept of heritage, as the pre-test indicated. For this activity, they are divided in groups – in this case, in a class of 10 students, they were divided into 3 groups.

The duration of this practice is 2 or 3 lessons.  If you consider it necessary, you can also do a previous class to explain the concept of heritage. Otherwise, you can start with a short introduction asking students about “what is heritage”, and then move on to the historical context and use a second class for the present and multiperspective part. Since the case still has some limitations to serve as a good practice, Joris plans to repeat this practice in the coming schoolyears in order to finetune the assignment, because in the Flanders’ curriculum, the concept of multiperspectivity is quite fundamental.

These lessons can be done both online and offline. He has tried it online, and the only necessary equipment would be a computer per group – so the students can enter the database to see the information and images. However, it is also possible to do this activity outside the classroom, taking the students to the monument itself.

ADVANTAGES:

This teaching practice is:

  • Easy to transfer to other cases and cities. It can be a castle, a new purpose for a church,  a reconversion of a  factory site, or monuments that can be found in any European city.
  • Easy to transfer to other teachers. This could be done through a shared database with other teachers on a national level or even a wider scope. 
  • Low cost, as it does not require investment, and it can be done without leaving the classroom itself  (avoiding transport costs).
  • It does not require advanced technological equipment.
  • It can be done both online and offline.

LIMITATIONS:

  • It can be a complex activity in classes with many students.
  • It requires having one computer per group so that students can access the database.
  • In some cases, it is difficult for students to know how to use a database or find the information / images they need. 
  • Make the search for information interesting and attractive: The collection of newspaper articles on social debate may seem difficult to understand or unattractive to students. A solution could be to adapt the articles so that the vocabulary is simpler and more appealing.

“Most of the time, heritage is approached as contested but I also want to approach it as something that unites, using local or small-scale  traces of the past that students feel connected with.”

Ultimately, this activity aims for the student to understand what “heritage” means and how it differs from the concept of history, as well as to be aware of the transformations that these remnants have undergone over time.

* The information presented in this blog post is extracted from an interview between Joris Van Doorsselaere, Andreas Holtberget, and Adriana Fuertes Palomares as part of the Critical History project and the collection of best teaching practices on heritage education, and which took place on July 1, 2021 in an online format.

Source image: Gravensteen Castle (Ghent). Image by Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29026605

 

EuroClio is mentioned in the new report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education

Adriana Fuertes EUROCLIO , ,

The new report of the Special Rapporteur ​UN OHCHR on the cultural dimensions of the right to education or the right to education as a cultural right is now available, and EuroClio's input is mentioned six times in the document.

The UN Special Rapporteur, Dr. Koumbou Boly Barry, calls for the right to education to be viewed as a cultural right – that is, as the right of each person to the cultural resources necessary to freely follow a process of identification, to experience mutually rewarding relations, to deal with the crucial challenges facing our world and to engage in the practices that make it possible to take ownership of and contribute to these resources. This cultural dimensions of the right to education is crucial to ensure that the universal right to inclusive and quality education is realized, as called for in Sustainable Development Goal 4.

Some of the contributions that have been considered from EuroClio are that intercultural education is important to address issues of national minorities and indigenous communities, as well as migrants and refugees. However, the situation varies by country - sometimes with a very small curriculum - where existing multicultural realities are not covered.

Moreover, some submissions emphasized the importance of giving schools a degree of freedom when it came to defining their learning program, with standard requirements for each subject by compulsory common topics but without defining specific learning content, which allows schools to take into account the cultural diversity of its students appropriate to their specific context. However, in many cases, education systems remain highly centralized and local actors are deprived of the opportunity to develop curricula that take into account cultural diversity and the local situation. Nevertheless, there are countries where alternative historical narratives have developed as a result of national policies on minorities.

In any case, what is unique about this approach is its conception of educational life as a living relationship between actors (students, educators, organizations, and other associated actors) and collections of knowledge that form shared cultural resources, vectors of identity, values and meaning, without which action is impossible.

 

Sharing European Histories through stories of the past

Helen Snelson, the Curriculum Leader for History Teacher Training at the University of York and a teacher of 11-18-year-olds with 20 years experience, sat down with us to discuss her role in the development of the Sharing European Histories project and the inspiration behind her strategy – Using stories of the past to teach students about its complexity.  

I was very excited when I first heard about the Sharing European Histories project. For me, the project is an example of history education at its best. It is focused clearly on supporting real teachers, in real schools, teaching real children about history and the past. At the same time, it is a project that is not afraid to acknowledge that the past is a very large ‘place’ and that history is messy and complex.

You will hear a lot of people say that we need to look back at the past in order to understand where we have come from, and in order to learn how different people interpret the past to construct historical identities. I agree! But it makes history a hard subject to teach well in schools. Thankfully, it also makes it a rich and endlessly fascinating subject when it is taught well. In addition, young people who know about the past, and about how history is created, are able to join in contemporary debates and discussions with informed perspectives of their own.

At the heart of the strategy of stories of the past is the idea of focusing on people. These people might have lived through the same time period in Europe, but they all responded to the events and other people around them in different ways. Allowing this similarity and difference to be centre stage in the study of the past is a good way to avoid ahistorical over-simplifications about groups of people, how they thought and how they acted. At the same time, personal stories of real people are relatable and concrete. They enable students to engage with stories of the past in order to draw out bigger ideas and meanings.

Each story from the past tells the story of a different person relating to, or during, a specific event or time period. A set of stories has the event or time period as a common focus. However, a successful set draws on stories of people of different ages, gender/sex, backgrounds, locations and perspectives. That is, a diverse group of people. By engaging with a range of personal stories, students are able to identify similarities and differences between their thoughts and experiences. They are able to see that lives and responses are often full of complexity and nuance. They are better able to understand the context of actions taken and views held. They are also able to read about people whose voices may not usually be heard, and about the ordinariness of past life that may not be dramatic enough to warrant a history textbook chapter.

Stories of the past can help students to gain a sense of what a period was like. This then supports learning about major events that may be specified learning for assessment. They can also gain a richer understanding of these major events by reading about the nature and scale of the impact they had on people at the time. And it is possible to consider the stories as source material in the form of oral histories, particularly if teachers choose to engage students in adding to a set of stories of the past by interviewing friends and relatives about their memories of the time period being studied.

For the collection of stories from the past for the Sharing European Histories project I chose to focus on the topic of ‘After the Cold War: how do different people remember the years 1989-2000?’ The EuroClio network made it possible to contact people across the continent who were willing to share their stories. I would recommend working on developing a set to any colleague as a wonderful way to get to meet other people. However, it is also possible to use ready-made sets of stories from the past, for example, stories from 1945-49 are available on historiana.eu.

Students were asked to read the stories and to compare the similarities and differences between them. They were then asked to think about how easy or difficult life seemed for people, how much change was happening in people’s lives, and how much people were focused on wider events in the world. Having become very familiar with the stories, students were then able to suggest the impact of location, personal factors, and other factors on people’s experiences and memories. Using that discussion they could then make more general suggestions about life for people in the period 1989-2000.

The stories of the past strategy provides an accessible way to teach about complex ideas. It makes a virtue of the plethora of perspectives and experiences that humans have, in order to develop a richer knowledge and understanding of events and changes.

Helen’s strategy – Using stories of the past to teach students about its complexity – is part of a five-part teaching strategy series designed and tested by teachers for teachers. The aim of Sharing European Histories is to help young people understand the complexity, multiplicity, and transnational character of European history and recognise how history can engage everyone in understanding Europe. For more information, go to sharingeuropeanhistories.eu.

Seminar on heritage in history education

Organised in partnership with EuroClio for our joint Critical History project, the University of Tallinn invites to a three-day online seminar on heritage in history education. The seminar is open to the general public and target students at teacher trainer colleges, practicing teachers and other educators interested in using heritage as part of history education. The seminar will be organised on Zoom with morning and afternoon sessions and is free of charge benefiting from funding from the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.


Programme

Thursday 8 July

09:30-11:30 CEST - Public History & Heritage Education by Joanna Wojdon, Associate Professor at the Department of Methodology of Teaching History and Civic Education, Institute of History, University of Wrocław

14:00-15:30 CEST - Things are more than just dead things. Using heritage to enhance historical thinking by Dr. Maria Grever, professor em. Theory and Methodology of History and founding director of the Center for Historical Culture at Erasmus School of History, Culture & Communication (ESHCC).

Friday 9 July

09:30-11:30 CEST - Integrating digital cultural heritage by José Ramón González Quelle & Rafael Montero

14:00-16:00 CEST - Bringing local history to life (presenting project Meetup-Meierijstad) by Hellen Janssen, History teacher and Board Member VGN Kleio

Saturday 10 July

09:30-11:30 CEST - Introducing Emotion Networking (Case: Food as heritage) by Jonathan Even-Zohar, Reinwardt Academy

14:00-16:00 CEST - Everyday life as a part of heritage on the example of food culture by Dr. Anu Kannike, Estonian National Museum

 

 

Safeguarding a Pluralistic Approach to the Yugoslav Wars through History Education

Learning History that is not yet History II - Blogpost #1

The wars in the Balkans that marked the end of Yugoslavia are ever-present in the collective memory of the countries in the region. The highly sensitive and divisive events left behind their scars and influence societies that both include citizens who have lived the events, as well as the younger generation perceiving the wars as history. This blogpost is the first contribution to a series of blogs, dedicated to our project Learning History that is not yet History II (LHH2). The series will grant an insight into the project and an array of topics related to it, with contributions from the project partners and EuroClio.

Contributing to strengthening stability in the Balkans

The aim of Learning History that is not yet History II is to promote a pluralistic approach to teaching the 1990s Yugoslav wars. No topic is more sensitive or divisive in the Balkans, which makes teaching about this a challenge. We strive to offer a balanced view of the historical events that will lead to mutual understanding in the region, and will ultimately contribute to strengthening stability in the Balkans. However, this is not an overnight process. LHH2 is the embodiment of the special relationship between EuroClio and the region. EuroClio and its members have been working in the Balkans for more than 20 years, strengthening the capacity of the history teachers’ associations, developing workshops with and for local teachers, creating a repository for historical sources and creating resources about common regional history.

The crown on the work of years of trust building

All the results of these past efforts combined will help us create teaching materials which can be used in the classroom and provide teachers the resources to implement the materials as smoothly as possible. Through our previous experience working in the Balkans, and closely collaborating with project members throughout the whole region, trust was established between the people. This allowed us for a strong network to be created, along with the skills in making educational materials. Building this special relationship was crucial in order to tackle the sensitive topic of the 1990s wars. Our strong connections in the region serve as a foundation for the project and the time has arisen to create lessons about the Yugoslav wars. Conclusively, making the LHH2 project the crown on the work of years of trust building in the region.

Follow-up on the award-winning project and broadening the scope

The project is a follow up on the award-winning Learning History that is not yet History (LHH) project. Many steps have been made and successes achieved, and as a crowning of the work the LHH team was awarded the Global Pluralism Award 2019 by the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP). LHH2 will continue the efforts in the Balkans and with the award money, we were able to get started with making lesson plans about the 1990s wars, developed by local educators from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. With additional support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was possible to bring all 7 countries on board. This considerably broadens the project’s scope to the dissolution of the 1990s. Multiperspectivity is imperative to tackling the 1990s wars and being able to include all 7 countries in the project, provided us the valuable partnership to do so.  

The outputs of the project

Building on the results of its predecessor, the outputs of the projects will be 18 ready-to-use lesson plans. In order to safeguard multiperspectivity, the lesson plans will be made in cross-border teams. The themes of these lesson plans will yet be defined, depending on the needs and expertise of the authors. An additional Teacher’s Guide will similarly be part of the project’s outputs, equipping teachers with the accurate knowledge on how to smoothly implement the lesson plans. Teaching sensitive topics can be confrontational, therefore, themes such as dealing with emotions and controversies will be included in the Guide. Along with the lesson plans and Teacher’s Guide, LHH2 aims to reach as many teachers as possible in the region, to bring about the biggest impact. In order to achieve this, a new redesigned LHH2 website will act as a hub for the project initiative. To further promote the project and the activities in the Balkans, a promotional video will be made to give an insight into the project’s discussions and varying views and experiences of everyone involved in the project. Lastly, to complement this, local partners will launch a communication campaign to reach local stakeholders. This way, the mission of LHH2 to increase mutual understanding and strengthen stability in the Balkans will be broadened.

Decolonising the History Curriculum: Considering National Narratives in History Textbooks from a Global Perspective

Written by Tina van der Vlies

Tina van der Vlies is an assistant professor of history at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In 2019, she successfully defended her PhD dissertation ‘Echoing Events. The Perpetuation of National Narratives in English and Dutch History Textbooks, 1920-2010’. Since her research provided a better understanding of the potential mobilizing power of national narratives in societies, it was awarded with several prizes.

 

Decolonising the history curriculum is a topical issue.[1] Decolonising in this context means a call for what Meera Sabaratnam describes as a "better historical awareness of the contexts in which scholarly knowledge has been produced".[2] Especially since the nineteenth century, knowledge about the English and Dutch nation has been built on colonial and racial structures. Sabaratnam asks us to look at our shared assumptions about how the world is.

One way to achieve this aim is to challenge traditional frames in which history is taught and understood. The most well-known frame in which history has been presented in history textbooks is the national one. This is understandable since history is a compulsory subject in many national curricula. National regulations and public discourses about school history are often connected to debates about citizenship and values, in attempts to attribute specific characteristics to the nation and its inhabitants. However, stories from different countries that emphasize national unique characteristics often share interesting similarities. For instance, various politicians stress ‘national features’ in their speeches, while perpetuating nostalgic and heroic images of the nation as well as implicit colonial world views. Hence, this article considers national narratives in history textbooks from a global perspective in order to shed light on some of these resemblances. Transnational narrative structures are easily overlooked when national contexts and their accompanying stories dominate the history curriculum.

National narratives can share the same underlying interpretation pattern. Memory scholar James Wertsch makes a distinction between specific narratives and schematic narrative templates. Specific narratives are uniquely situated in space and time and deal with specific events, persons and periods. These different stories about the past can – although they vary a lot in their details – look like replicas as they share the same underlying narrative structure. Wertsch describes this shared storyline as a schematic narrative template, as a basic building block of collective memory that connects various specific histories.[3] However, Wertsch warns that these schematic narrative templates are not universal archetypes; he explains that certain narrative templates are part of a specific cultural tradition. For example, the “triumph over alien forces” template dominates Russian collective memory and although this template is available to members of other cultural traditions as well, it is not as prevailing as in Russia. For example, it can also be found in the American tradition but will be outweighed by the dominant American “quest for freedom” template.[4]

During my PhD research, I discovered how national narratives in English and Dutch history textbooks overlapped and interfused, and how certain national frames of references were perpetuated over time. Textbook authors narrated different histories as ‘echoing events’ by interpreting them in the same way and by using the same combinations of historical analogies. They gave meaning to history with these recurring connections.[5] Next to the fact that this mechanism was visible in history textbooks from both countries, my research revealed some transnational narrative structures as well.

A first example is interpreting history as a fight between freedom and tyranny. This interpretation is visible in Dutch history textbooks, but also in English and American history textbooks. This interpretation can dominate sixteenth-century war narratives but also stories about the two world wars. Dichotomies often have a great effect on national narratives: the rhetoric is simple, recognizable, and appealing. Sometimes the dichotomy between freedom and tyranny is related to the contrasts between ‘light’ and ‘dark’, or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. However, in both countries the history textbooks hardly questioned the meaning of freedom and tyranny during the colonial period.

Another similarity is the David-Goliath narrative structure, referring to the Biblical story of the shepherd boy David who courageously fought against the giant warrior Goliath who was twice his size. Although the shepherd boy was armed with nothing more than a few stones and a sling, he defeated the heavily armoured and weaponed giant. It is a classical story about how the underdog can champion over a major power. This structure is present in several national narratives as well. For example, Dutch national narratives are often presented in line with the phrase ‘small but brave’. The Netherlands is a small country and its founding narrative is located in the sixteenth century: the low countries revolted against the mighty Philip II and this resulted in the independence of the Dutch Republic. It is interesting that the same narrative structure is present in the southern low countries, nowadays Belgium. In 1999, ‘the three Belgians’ released a modern musical version of the Belgium national anthem and the phrase ‘small but brave’ plays a key role in this song.[6] More recently, in 2014, the Belgian author Mark De Geest published his book Brave Little Belgium.

In England the same narrative structure is visible, although the exact phrase differs from Belgian and Dutch national narratives. English history textbooks emphasize how England had repeatedly ‘stood alone’ against a superpower, for example against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars or against Hitler during World War II. The latter interpretation was reinforced by the British prime minister Winston Churchill’s wartime speech on 20 August 1940 in which he stressed: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’. This myth of ‘standing alone’ has dominated in various English history textbook series. Although the myth is debunked and various new textbook series have been published without the myth, it still appeals to people and continues to play an important role in English collective memory. That is why the well-known expression also surfaced several times in the Brexit debate, which is based on nostalgic images of Britain as a colonial empire: "Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves”.

A third similarity between history textbooks from various countries is the “quest”, such as the quest for freedom, tolerance or progress. The idea of a quest is a well-known storyline of several novels and films, such as Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan. A hero needs to overcome several problems during the journey to reach the ultimate goal in the end. It is certainly not my goal to downplay history textbooks – it is extremely hard to compose a textbook that suits a certain age-population and their interests. Next to contents, textbooks need to be pedagogically in line with the audience and – also important – the text and the assignments need to be read and accomplished in a limited time frame. Moreover, politics and society are demanding as well. What I would like to stress in this paragraph is that the story-form of national narratives can intertwine with ideas about history itself. (National) history can be defined as a process towards freedom, tolerance, or progress. This is also visible in academic historiography: in 1931, Herbert Butterfield published his well-known book The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he criticized historians’ retrospective creation of – especially national – progress.

This article discussed the decolonisation of the history curriculum by showing that ‘unique’ national histories in textbooks from former colonial empires often share remarkable similarities: the stories often include implicit colonial references and images, and contain the same underlying storyline or interpretative structure. It is important that pupils understand how national histories are framed by the selection of specific persons, topics, periods, and sources – while ignoring others – and by the underlying interpretative structure. Although this is a difficult skill, it is necessary to obtain insight in national narratives’ frames in order to genuinely decolonise the history curriculum.

 

References:

[1] I would like to thank the founder and special advisor of EuroClio Joke van der Leeuw-Roord for her valuable comments.

[2] https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/decolonise-history-curriculum-education-how-meghan-markle-black-study/. May 10, 2021.

[3] James Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; James Wertsch, ‘Specific Narratives and Schematic Narrative Templates,’ in P. Seixas (ed), Theorizing Historical Consciousness, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, 49-63.

[4] James Wertsch, ‘The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory,’ Ethos, 36 (2008), 120–135, 124.

[5] Tina van der Vlies, ‘Multidirectional war narratives in history textbooks,’ Paedagogica Historica 52, no. 3 (2016), 300-314; Tina van der Vlies, 'Echoing national narratives in English history textbooks,' in M. Carretero. S. Berger & M. Grever (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 243-258.

[6] De III Belgen, Zwart geel rouge (1999): ‘O dierbaar België, klein maar dapper, van stad tot vlakke land’.

Book review: Hard Questions – Learning to Teach Controversial Issues

Matej Matkovič Reviews , ,

In this book, Judith L. Pace examines the work of four teacher educators from Northern Ireland, England, and the USA as they show their graduate students’ different approaches to teaching about controversial topics. The author claims that the area of preparing preservice teachers to teach controversial topics is not sufficiently developed. This is why one of the key questions in modern teaching is “How can new teachers learn to teach controversy in the realities of the charged classroom?”

The book also compares how the teaching of controversial issues is interpreted in different national and educational contexts. It demonstrates how risk-taking can be contained, constrained, and supported in a wide variety of classroom and school settings. A limitation pointed out by the author herself is that the research centred on national contexts of countries with less restrictive political systems.

In the beginning, the author highlights the importance of dealing with controversial issues and introducing them in school lessons. Referencing various sources, she points out the lack of adequate preparation of beginner teachers for exploring controversial issues with students. The introduction of conceptual and practical tools that teachers can adopt in the classroom, modelling the use of these tools and creating opportunities to rehearse them are all crucial for preparing to deal with controversial issues.

In the following chapters, the author presents four different teacher educators and their graduate students from Northern Ireland, England, and the USA.

  • Mark Drummond, a teacher educator from Northern Ireland and his Citizenship and History courses. Mark has encouraged his preservice teachers to try different tools such as walking debate and role-play, political murals, and analysis of primary and secondary sources. Student teachers faced various challenges such as students’ reactions to controversy, their own emotions sparked by teaching controversial issues and limited time. But they experimented with various ways to get post primary students to consider different perspectives on history, human rights, and politics. Mark’s preservice teachers learned the most from his example and his principles of practice, such as developing a trusting classroom environment, using evidence to think critically, and using rich resources and dialogic pedagogies.
  • Paula Barstow, a teacher educator from Northern Ireland and her Citizenship course. Paula stresses that potential risks of teaching controversial issues can be contained through careful planning proactive communication, and thorough reflection to keep both students and teachers safe. Teachers need to use inclusive discussion such as a walking debate, deliberation (Structured Academic Controversy), carousel conversation and written conversation that encourage all students to participate. Preservice teachers reported they learned the most from structured small group activities, careful curriculum design, preparation for teaching, and exploration of the teacher’s role. The student teachers’ efforts were constrained by limited time and low status of citizenship, the pressure to cover curriculum and mentor teachers who interfered with their autonomy.
  • Ian Shepherd, a teacher educator from England and his History course. Ian’s approach to preparing preservice teachers to teach controversial issues chose to embed the practice in class sessions rather than addressing it discretely. His idea was that everything in curriculum had the potential to be sensitive or controversial. The overall approach to preparing preservice teachers was to integrate controversial elements in course sessions and assignments. He believed that when preparing to teach controversial issues, preservice teachers first need to develop their subject matter knowledge, be willing to experiment with provocative sources and experimental methods, and to reflect on teaching and learning in their classroom. Preservice teachers learned that teaching controversial issues first demands structuring a progression of conceptual change in which the teacher elicits students’ prior knowledge, gets students to deal with inquiry questions that often are moral, and helps students to arrive at new understandings. Although student teachers were constrained by their timetable, curricular demands, and traditional school culture, they were supported by SoW (scheme of work) assignments, encouragement from peers, mentors, and department heads.
  • Liz Simmons, a teacher educator from the USA and her Social Studies course. Liz believed that teaching controversial issues and teaching difficult history are distinct practices, but both are served by making classroom discussion the central pedagogy and content of a teacher preparation course. Tools that Liz introduced to her students were Structured Academic Controversy, Socratic seminar, Town Hall, and Case Study, as well as curricular programs such as the National Issues Forum and Brown University’s Choices. Liz stressed that preservice teachers need explicit modelling of discussion facilitation, opportunities to practice discussion preparation and facilitation, and feedback as well as self-assessment of their practice. Liz’s students most appreciated practice teaching and discussion of issues in the methods course. They used Structured Academic Controversy and other discussion methods in their teaching, but in one case, teaching controversial issues was constrained by the teacher’s professional learning community and evaluation of first year teachers.

In conclusion, the author emphasises that all four teacher educators, although working in different contexts and school subjects, emphasised three cornerstones for open classroom environment – issues content, pedagogical methods and tools for modelling democratic inquiry and discourse, and creation of a supportive atmosphere. They taught eight strategies to prepare novices for contained risk-taking: cultivation of warm, supportive classroom environments; thorough preparation and planning; reflection on teacher identity and roles; proactive communication with parents, other teachers, and administrators; careful selection, timing and framing of issues; emphasis on creative resources and group activities; steering of discussion and dealing with emotional conflicts. Preservice teachers agreed good preparation of lessons, choosing right pedagogical methods and tools, and creating supportive atmospheres were crucial for addressing controversial issues. The biggest constraints they had were time restrictions, mandated curricula and exams, and lack of support in schools.

Judith L. Pace believes that the book brings new knowledge on how to strengthen practices at all levels of schooling. She believes that addressing controversial issues would be most impactful with students from different communities. Also, her research indicates that more structured university involvement during student teaching could be a vital source of support. Ideally, teacher educators should be working with mentor teachers in the school to jointly support novices.

I agree with most of the conclusions the author wrote in this book. Teaching controversial issues is important for strengthening democracy, especially in a time when manipulation of facts and violation of human rights is done on a daily basis. But it can only be done with well-educated and trained teachers who have support in their schools and communities. A responsible society should do its best to support young teachers. Also, teacher educators should have a bigger role in guiding the teachers not only through their preservice time, but also during the first few years of their career. The research presented in this book shows mainly conclusions derived from the teaching in Northern Ireland, England and the USA, but in many cases, they can be linked to other countries in Europe. In my belief, it is very important to know who you are teaching. However, although controversial issues may vary from country to country, they should all be addressed in a way to strengthen democracy.

Decolonising Literary Canons and Fostering Multiperspectivity through Fiction: why Nella Larsen’s “Passing” should be used in history education

Giulia Verdini Reviews ,
Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ was first published in 1929. The title refers to the practice of “racial passing” which meant crossing the colour line between blacks and whites: the attempt to claim recognition in a different racial group than the one people belonged to was a quite common practice in the US of the 1920s. 

Background

The novel belongs to the heyday of the African American literature in the 1920s: after the disillusionment of World War I and in a milieu of racial segregation, the black community stood out and developed its art through the motif of "Négritude". Intellectuals of the New Negro Movement claimed their roots and did their best to represent their ethnicity: what followed is what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, which gave voice to a new African American consciousness. Passing reflects upon African Americans' crisis of identity in a white environment and their need to retrieve their ethnicity, but at the same time it also calls into question the very notion of race, which is represented more as something ambiguous rather than a defining feature. It depicts the complicated intersection of race, gender and social class, and the clashes between personal freedom and social obligations.

The epigraph

The reading of the novel begins with its epigraph. Before diving into a story, the reader is confronted with a short poem. Passing’s epigraph is an original paratextual element and it is an allographic epigraph as it was written by Countée Cullen, one of the most representative authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The short poem introduces the theme of Africa, the meaning of roots and ethnicity: the speaker asks himself "What is Africa to me?", a question which guides the poem and its ongoing reflections. The original, full-length poem is part of a collection, Color, published in 1925. The decision of omitting the original title of the poem, Heritage, hints at an understanding of the act passing as a loss rather than a gain, in particular the loss of heritage - the title of which the poem appearing in Passing is deprived of.

Plot

The story is set in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City. The plot revolves around two African American women who see each other again after a long time. Irene Redfield is the mother of two sons and the wife of a black husband: as he is too dark to pass, she occasionally passes as white when she is alone. She is passing as white when she meets her old friend Clare Kendry: the two women pretended to be white to enter a Chicago hotel and enjoy the sunny day on its rooftop. Clare immediately recognises her friend and her ethnicity, but Irene cannot the same. From the novel’s opening, race is slippery and terribly unstable.

Irene learns that Clare is currently living her life mostly as a white person and that she is married to a rich, white husband who is unaware of her racial roots. Irene would like to avoid further engagement with Clare, but she is too intrigued by her: eventually, the two women dangerously resume their childhood friendship.

Despite being a novel, the narrative is built as in a theatrical piece, where chapters can be understood as different acts and characters constantly perform a role and act as actors of comic yet dangerous scenes - until Clare Kendry dies, leaning backward in a window, in the final act. Whether she fell accidentally, committed suicide or was pushed by Irene or someone else, is up to the reader’s imagination and interpretation.

And so is the question of whether the theatrical piece is a tragedy or a farce.

Crossing the colour line: a tool of convenience?

Why would an African American pass as white? Making a political statement? Defying white supremacy? Or more simply, gaining a better social position?

People were undeniably passing as white in order to obtain something better, something that they would never get by 'staying black': crossing the colour line meant being eligible for a well paying job, living in a fancier neighbourhood, being allowed in whites-only environments, enjoying a multitude of privileges. 

The character of Clare Kendry embodies a different perspective on the practice of crossing racial boundaries. In the novel, passing is framed through Clare’s sense of playfulness. Her life is a theatrical piece and she is the protagonist on the stage, performing whatever identity she needs or wants to perform. Whilst Irene comes to wish she had not been born black, Clare does not take race seriously: she doesn't feel burdened by the yoke of race as Irene does. Clare plays with her own identity and laughs at danger.

After her father’s death, his bigot aunts treated Clare like a servant and forbade her from seeing or even talking about 'Negroes' - this is how African Americans are referred to in the novel. She was consequently also forbidden from revealing the truth about her race. But what is the truth about her race? Throughout the novel, Irene’s black perspective reminds the reader of how white Clare is. When she says that she desperately wants to see Negroes and be with them again, she is somehow acknowledging her belonging to another world - and she sounds irremediably white. She does not want to socialize with blacks because of racial belonging and solidarity, rather for the sake of excitement. Clare did not hate being black, nor she hated being white. On the contrary, she loved being both.

Passing was generally perceived as the required practice to gain opportunities for personal advancement, and it was consequently often dramatized as a mere class question. Larsen frees herself from the conventions around the theme of passing and its sole interconnectedness with climbing social classes. Passing is a tool of convenience, but for Clare it is not merely driven by material ambition. The term ‘passing’ itself usually refers to passing for white, whilst it is never used to mean ‘passing for black’: Clare is the one character that enables this shift in meaning, as she rather dreams of inhabiting different social classes at the same time and she is not concerned about moral implications. Moreover, here the focus is not on how the person passing is perceived by whites, but on how he or she is perceived by blacks. 

The novel revels in this ambiguity and does not clearly take a position: passing is a symbol of gain and loss at the same time - gaining respectability but also losing any bound with your ethnicity. The character of Clare suggests that race is something that can be manipulated and also acquired: the narrative ultimately perceives race not as a matter of identity but of performativity. By questioning the meaning of belonging and the idea of loyalty to a race, the narrative raises a problem of representation but more than anything disrupts the conventional way of thinking of them.

Decolonising literary canons

The theme of passing was a very recurring topic in American popular literature since the mid-19th century. Most of the fiction available was written by white men and told the story of an unfortunate black girl born from a tragic event. This girl was usually compelled to pretend to be white for her entire life; an aristocrat would fall in love with her beauty and marry her unaware of her racial status, but he would eventually find out or the girl would just confess. In the end, the girl usually dies of fever - but also of deep internal suffering, discomfort and social uneasiness. This regular path of the novel contributed to the creation of the leitmotif of what is known as the tragic mulatta figure”, a stock character in early African American literature. These types of accounts highlighted the feeling of social exclusion of the ‘Negro girls’, as this exhaustion would be the main reason for depression and suicide.

Nella Larsen’s novel portrays passing as a choice, and not as a constriction. Furthermore, the act of passing is neither condemned nor praised. There is no real judgement: the reader is enabled to make his/her own statement. This is reinforced by the unexplained death of Clare: it is the reader’s duty to make sense of what he has read and understand the conclusion of the novel as an act of crime, fate or suicide.

Clare Kendry’s character does not correspond to the tragic mulatto figure: she is a provocateur and a manipulator. Ultimately, she is a performer. Passing successfully for her means having no restraints. She is never hiding, but “stepping always on the edge of danger” (Larsen, 1). Does her race doom her to an already written fate?

The theatrical piece might have the form of a tragedy, but turns out to be a farce. Clare is not scared and does not demand pity, her death is not the consequence of her fear. Clare dies because fatalism must be at the core of Larsen’s work: the author acknowledges the literary tradition and yet breaks the boundaries, canons and limits. On the surface, the novel seems to conform to the stereotype of the mulatta figure. Nevertheless, the narrative resists the conventions of the genre and gives innovative treatment to a very worn racial subject.

How does the novel help decolonise history and why should it be included in history education?

The novel can be used in history education to teach the history of African Americans and to tackle the issues of race, social boundaries and belonging. More specifically, the novel deeply engages with the question: “where does race reside?” and suggests different plausible yet equally incomplete answers - blood, emotion, ancestry. The concept of race is ultimately understood as a function of science as much as of law and politics. It is primarily a function of history and as such, it has been subject to Western biases.

The novel should be included in the curriculum as

  • it is written by and focuses on a black woman, but more broadly on the lived experiences of African American people in the 1920s;
  • it promotes multiperspectivity via the two characters of Clare and Irene;
  • it reflects on the meaning of race and racial belonging;
  • it decentres hegemony established by colonisation and westernisation by challenging Western constructs;
  • it offers a new perspective on the practice of passing and disrupts the concept of identity;
  • it can be read by students, adults and young adults;
  • it questions how narrative history has privileged one version of the story and dismantles systems that privilege certain widely accepted narratives over others.

From fictional characters to historical accounts

Passing is a work of fiction, but it is also the telling of a world that truly existed, the world where its author lived. The fact that Nella Larsen has a lot in common with the character of Clare comes as no surprise. Larsen’s parents were Danish immigrants- her father specifically originated from the Danish West Indies and died when she was young. Her mother remarried, but her new family members disregarded her heritage and the ties that bound them. Furthermore, Larsen grew up in the vice district of Chicago, where there were very rigid boundaries between blacks and whites. 

For history educators who are interested in using the author’s life story, more information about Nella Larsen can be found here.

Specifications about the book:

  • Date of first publication: the book was originally published in April 1929 - USA;
  • Genre: Novel;
  • Sub-Genre: African American;
  • Age Range: Adult and Young Adult Literature;
  • Suggested edition: Chemeketa Press, 2018.

Written by Giulia Verdini

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Larsen, Nella. Passing. Chemeketa Press, American Voices Collection. 2018.

Rafia Zafar, “Black Modernism.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature. 1st ed. Vol. 6. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 348-352.

Wertheim, Bonnie. Nella Larsen - A Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage informed her modernist take on the topic of race. The New York Times.

About Giulia

 Giulia Verdini is a trainee at EuroClio from February 2021 and she is working at the Secretariat on outreach and project management for Football Makes History, In Europe Schools, Contested Histories and Historiana. Giulia holds a BA in Western and Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of Macerata and a MA in English Literature from Uppsala University, where she graduated focussing on questions of representation and specifically addressing the derangements of scales and the ethical challenges that the advent of the Anthropocene and globalization have unmasked. She previously interned as a teacher in Sweden and she is currently doing a Master in Global Marketing and Communication.

Contested Histories: ‘Muralling’ and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland

On city walls, political contestation and artistic expression intertwine as hundreds of murals provide a stark representation of the anger, fear and hope felt by the communities which paint them. This case study examines the role of public art in the conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland. First, the context of conflict in Northern Ireland is explored. Second, the history of ‘muralling’ as a practice of ungoverned expression is traced. Third, contemporary contestations surrounding murals are discussed, with emphasis on exploring how engagement between new and old murals may be facilitated. Lastly, the case concludes that the practice of muralling is inseparable from discourse and responses of wider communities, from opposition, and that negotiating this line between controversy and freedom of artistic expression serves as an opportunity to work through tensions and convey solidarity with broader themes of oppression.

Read the full case study here.