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.

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.

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.

An Introduction to Decolonising the History Curriculum

Rebecca Jackson Articles ,

Decolonisation, while not a new concept, has increasingly been given light in public and academic discussion in recent years. Maybe you have seen calls to “decolonise your classroom” or “decolonise the curriculum”, but are not sure what this really means, or how to go about it. In April and May, EuroClio is focusing on decolonisation - most notably with a dedicated webinar series on the topic. This blog post we hope serves as a first introduction to the concept decolonisation in the history classroom and the history curriculum more broadly, with background information and resources for how to put these ideas into practice in classrooms across Europe. 

What is decolonisation?

Decolonisation can refer to the historical events in which many former colonies became independent countries. Decolonisation as we discuss here refers to a wider movement to address and decentre hegemony established by colonisation. 

In history teaching this results in two main aims:

  • Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples. 
  • Challenging how Western and European history is traditionally constructed and taught 

Scholars emphasise that one cannot be done without the other. For example Canadian scholar Sarah Nickel criticises an “add-and-stir” approach, in which indigenous peoples may be acknowledged in Canadian history, but the conventional narrative of the country which privileges a primarily White and British story is not seriously challenged. Methods are as important as content when it comes to decolonising the history classroom. 

Why decolonise the curriculum? 

The aims and methods of decolonising history dovetail with EuroClio’s wider mission for responsible and innovative history, citizenship, and heritage education by promoting critical thinking, multiperspectivity, mutual respect, and the inclusion of controversial issues. Here are some key points for why decolonising the curriculum is important for European history education.  

Breaking down the ‘natural order’ of current (historical) hegemony. 

History has and continues to be a powerful force in European society. Traditional national narratives may ignore or not fully address the history and lived experiences of colonised people. Critically questioning what stories are left out and why helps to dismantle systems that can privilege some groups over others.

Allow for greater critical thinking.

A decolonised history curriculum, beginning from younger ages, can improve discourse at higher levels. Often ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’ topics relating to colonial history are left out of the curriculum for younger students. However without a baseline knowledge, such important topics cannot be properly interrogated at secondary or post-secondary levels. 

History skills building

A key component of a decolonised history curriculum is questioning how history is formed and taught in the first place. This offers an excellent setting for students to critically engage with history as a discipline, and gain skills in history methodology and practice.   

How to decolonise history?

It is key to point out that decolonisation does not necessarily mean an outright rejection or erasure of European history and disciplinary methods.

Lawrence Meda describes two main approaches to decolonisation: “The first is a radical approach where Western knowledge is fully rejected. The second is an integrative approach which seeks to accommodate both Indigenous and Western knowledge.” 

Many countries in Europe have national-focused history curriculums. An integrative approach in European history education would see these integrated with new content and methods. This decentres the primary place of a Eurocentric perspective and works towards decolonising the curriculum.

What might this look like in practice? Here are some examples under our two key headings.

Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples. 

  • Examining sensitive subjects such as slavery, colonisation, persecution.
  • Highlighting people of non-European descent in European history.
  • Bringing in primary sources and testimony of non-Europeans

Challenging how history is conventionally taught. 

  • Bringing in multiple perspectives and primary sources on one historical event
  • Question how narrative history has privileged one story or group over others
  • Examining resources not conventionally used in the European historical tradition. For example: oral history, legends, modern art and media.

Contact us!

  • Would you like more information on the upcoming webinar series?
  • Do you have a great lesson or practice that you would like to share with the EuroClio Community?
  • Have you read a beautiful book that can be used to teach about colonial history, or to make our way of teaching the past more representative of minorities?
  • Have you listened to a great podcast?
  • Do you know where we can find sources to make our lessons more representative?

If your answer to any of there questions is yes, we would like to know more! Please, reach out at secretariat@euroclio.eu with the subject line “decolonising history”. We will be in touch as soon as possible. You can also find more information on the webinar series on the event page.

Online Classroom Teaching Resources

Below you can find a selection of online resources and lesson plans that you can integrate into your classroom relating to decolonising the curriculum.

Resources in English

  • Zinned Project 
    • The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of people’s history. They offer a wide variety of teaching materials, and have a good search function to filter by time period, theme, or keyword. Registration is free but required to access the teaching materials.
  • Facing History's Educator Resources
    • Facing History’s resources address racism, antisemitism, and prejudice at pivotal moments in history. Their online resource collection includes primary sources, videos, teaching strategies, lesson plans, and full units. Good search function which clearly labels the type of resource it is.
  • Teach Native Histories - Lesson Plans
    • The primary focus of this website is on developing curriculum resources for the United States, but its extensive lesson plan list offers inspiration for new methods as well as content for history education.
  • Teaching Black British History: A Teacher Training Guide
    • Discover how to best teach and embed Black British history into the national school curriculum with this informative course. From pedagogy in the classroom to the history of ethnocratic and eurocentric narratives, this comprehensive, three-week course equips you with all the tools you need in order to best teach and embed Black British history into your school curriculum.
  • The 1619 Project Curriculum 
    • The 1619 Project is a challenge to reframe United States’ history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as the USA’s foundational date. It offers eleven free full lesson plans relating to this topic.
  • Learning Resources — The Black Curriculum 
    • A social enterprise that aims to deliver black British history all across the UK. Offer short lesson plans based on eight topics, supported by a video. Lesson plans are geared towards England’s groups of Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) and Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). Also can be booked for virtual and in-person lessons, teacher training, and assemblies.
  • Critical Analysis: Apesh*t Music Video
    • Full lesson plan centred on a critical analysis of the music video “Apesh**t”, The Carters (Beyonce and Jay-Z) and the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of black people in museums. 
  • The Decolonization Group: Practices & Techniques In Decolonizing Teaching, A Short Guide
    • Eight-page PDF that summarizes the discussion at an October 2020 seminar. Offers classroom level examples and perspectives, and lists sources of further reading. Available in English and Dutch.
  • Historiana webinar - Colonies' Contributions to WW1
    • EuroClio webinar conducted in February 2021. Highlights reasons for teaching colonies’ contributions to WW1 and how to teach Historical Perspective-Taking (HPT). It also presents an e-learning activity using Historiana resources. You can read the article about the webinar here
  • Decolonising the curriculum one step at a time: lessons on race in the early British Empire
    • In this blogpost, Jen Thornton, Head of History at Loreto Grammar School, shares her recent work to improve the history curriculum. Jen started by listening to students, she has gone back to the scholarship to gain the knowledge she needs, she has consulted and worked with colleagues, and she is clear that this is work in progress. Her description of this work and her generous sharing of resources will be encouraging and helpful to colleagues planning to make changes too.
  • Richard Kennett's YouTube channel
    • Richard Kennett is a specialist leader of education in History and head of History at Redland Green School in Bristol. In his YouTube channel, he offers various video resources on topics such as slavery and the Holocaust.
  • Native Land
    • Interactive map of indigenous groups. It predominantly focuses on the Americas, but it also lists some groups in Northern Europe.
  • #PastFwd: "Do Students know what race is? Do we? Does it matter?"
    • Alistair Dickins makes a very compelling argument on the importance of people's understanding of the concept of "race" and its actual meaning before engaging with racism, slavery and discrimination in history.
  • Decolonising Europe: Decolonising the curriculum
    • Online lecture of the ACES (Amsterdam Centre for European Studies) on Decolonising Europe in International Politics. The focus of the discussion is on the practical applications of decolonial theories: how to decolonize the curriculum in practice, and how to apply a decolonial approach to our teaching and researching.

Resources in Dutch

Resources in French

Resources in Italian

Resources in other languages

  • House of European History
    • The museum is based at the EU parliament in Brussels, and four lesson plans relate to their permanent exhibitions. The lesson plans are made to connect the teaching of European history to the contemporary world. Available in all 24 EU languages.
  • Samer.se/skola
    • Lesson plans on Sápmi and the Sami people (in Swedish)
  • Reaidu
    • A website for teacher students on the history, language and culture of Sápmi and the Sami people and how to use it in the Norwegian curriculum by the The University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway (in Norwegian)

Additional reading and relevant initiatives

History Extra: What Does 'Decolonise History' Mean? 

Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945-1950 

The Black Archives 

Facing History Organization 

Indigenizing the Teaching of North American History: A Panel Discussion 

EuroClio: Teaching the Ends of Empires

EuroClio: The 1619 Project: a very European history

 

Teaching Historical Perspective-Taking: Delve into Bridget Martin’s Webinar on Acknowledging and Understanding Colonial Contributions to WWI

On February 17th Bridget Martin, History Teacher at the International School of Paris, continued the Historiana webinar series, an occasion to dive into the platform’s teaching and learning tools and to discuss historical critical thinking skills. By using Historiana’s e-builder, Bridget was able to create a valid and purposeful eActivity on contributions to WWI. This article will focus on the reflections that Bridget delivered and you will get inspiration on how to use Historiana in your classroom. Watch the recording of the webinar here.

Historiana is an online portal developed by EuroClio, Webtic and UseMedia with Europeana for and with history and citizenship educators from Europe and beyond. On Historiana you can find ready to use learning activities, multiperspective historical content and digital tools that are all free to use, adapt and share.

Questioning our assumptions

Bridget started off with a challenging, imaginative request: she asked her audience to picture a soldier serving for France or Britain in the First World War and to build a mental picture of what this soldier looked like as detailed as possible - what is he wearing? What kind of vehicle does he have? Is he holding a weapon? 

[1]

The answers she got agreed on a stereotyped image of a young, white soldier wearing a dark green, muddy uniform and boots holding a rifle or a gun. She then dismantled any cliché by showing pictures of soldiers on camels, wearing turbans or conical hats.

“We often forget the contributions peoples have made over time and I think it’s important for us to questions our own assumptions and be aware of our own biases when we imagine these kinds of events.”  Bridget Martin

Bridget explained that teaching about colonial contributions to WWI represents an attempt to move away from a Eurocentric view of a particular period of history which often becomes massively focussed on the Western front. Colonial contributions have been historically significant, as over 4 million of people from the British, French and German colonies directly contributed. She argued that history education would benefit from a transnational and holistic approach that incorporates broader perspectives into teaching. She gave the example of the popular belief that the first shots fired were British, while in truth the very first shots were fired in colonial territories.

 

(Click on the image to watch) 07:37 - 13:12 In this segment, Bridget Martin explains why it is important to teach about colonial contributions.

Points for attention

Bridget made us aware of some crucial points we should consider when teaching about colonial contributions to WWI. If you are teaching this topic, it might be good to know that there is an entire Source Collection on Colonial Contributions to WWI which is freely available and ready to use on Historiana.

[2]

Bridget highlighted the racial hierarchies and stereotypes employed by the colonial powers when assigning combatant or non-combatant roles. In fact, races that were considered inferior were given labouring non-combatant roles, and even soldiers were not equally treated. There were also specific rules about where or where not they might be allowed to be sent. Troops from the colonies were stationed in the middle east or in the African theatres of war rather than in the European theater, as the European side was concerned that if peoples from the colonies became too used to using violence against Europeans, they could have become a threat. 

The manner in which colonial peoples were recruited into the war effort varied: sometimes it was voluntary, but there was also a huge amount of conscription - most often colonies were deceitfully promised greater political freedom.

(Click on the image to watch) 13:13 - 22:36 Bridget points out what is important to keep in mind when discussing colonial contributions to WWI.

“All of those colonized groups did not have the same experience and there were huge amounts of variables which would determine the nature of their experience […]. When we are taking perspectives, we should also appreciate that there are a diversity of perspectives and there’s not just one colonial view of the war or colonial experience of the war.” Bridget Martin

Reflecting on why colonial contributions are seldom mentioned when discussing WWI and on the reasons why they were involved in the war in the first place provides students (but also teachers) with food for thought. Trying to consider how colonial peoples’ experience of the war differed to those of Europeans (and how different colonial groups experienced the war differently) is the first step to historical perspective-taking.

What does it mean teaching Historical Perspective-Taking (HPT)?

Drawing on Seixas definition, Bridget described it as the attempt of understanding the minds of people who lived in worlds so vastly different from ours. It is indeed very hard not to see the world through the lenses we wear today - and it represents one of the main challenges teachers encounter when teaching HPT.

Tim Huijgen, Professor at University of Groningen, broke down historical perspective-taking into three key elements: historical contextualization, historical empathy as “identifying with people in the past based on historical knowledge to explain their action” (Huijgen, 2014), and avoiding presentism by providing students with sufficient primary source material and evidence in order to let them draw valid conclusions.

(Click on the image to watch) 23:38 - 31:00 Bridget discusses the meaning of HPT.

How to implement all of this into an eLearning Activity?

Bridget Martin concluded the webinar by explaining how she combined her insights into a meaningful eLearning Activity on Historiana called “Different Experiences of WWI”. This specific activity requires roughly two hours, but the platform allows you to make all the changes you need, shorten it and adapt it in a way that makes sense for your students.

Bridget structured the activity in a way that students can elaborate their thoughts on colonial contributions, which initially might be shaped by a retrospective view of the past times. She provides them with primary sources and also lets them do some active research to then discuss their findings in small groups, making sure that they justify their opinion using evidence.

On Historiana you can very easily adjust ready-to-use learning activities or create your own activity - and let the students engage with primary sources and both audio and visual material!

(Click on the image to watch) 31:04 - 42:25 Bridget walks us through the activity she developed on Historiana.

 

Learn More

Want to learn more about teaching about contributions to WWI and historical perspective-taking? Watch the full webinar here!

This article is part of a webinar series, in which teacher educators who are experienced in using Historiana show examples of the eLearning Activities that they created, while also diving into a specific topic and discussing a critical thinking skill to teach students. 

On December 9th, EuroClio ambassador Helen Snelson kicked off the webinar series: she talked about using sources as evidence and illustrated the eActivity on post-war Europe that she was able to create on Historiana. Watch the full event or read the article to know more.

These are the upcoming events

  • On April 21st, Jim Diskant (History Teacher retd.) will be looking at Visual Representation of Women (Thinking skill TBA). (register here)
  • On June 16th, Gijs van Gaans (Teacher Trainer, Fontys Tilburg) will be examining Schisms within Christianity and discuss change and continuity. (register here)

This article is written as part of the Europeana DSI4 project co-financed by the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union. The sole responsibility of this publication lies with the author. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Written by Giulia Verdini

 

Sources

Main image - Source: The breakthrough of the German East Africa Confederation over the Rowuma, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

[1] Source top left: Annamites à Saint-Raphaël, Bibliothèque Nationale de France via europeana (Public Domain). 

Source top right: Types de soldats indiens, Bibliothèque Nationale de France via europeana, (Public Domain).

Source bottom left: Troupes indigènes avec chameaux, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Agence Rol) via europeana (Public Domain).

Source bottom right: Revue du 14 juillet 1913, drapeau sénégalais, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Agence Rol) via europeana (Public Domain).

[2] Source: Digging Sand, National Library of Scotland via Europeana (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Historiana Featured Resources

Historiana, EuroClio's online alternative to a European History textbook, is a constantly growing platform gathering hundredth of resources about various topics and time periods. This virtual learning environment offers a flexible and well-suited approach to an ever evolving subject. It provides free historical content, ready-to-use learning activities, and innovative digital tools developed by a team of history educators from across Europe and beyond. Historiana’s development is informed by the EuroClio manifesto and seeks to provide resources that are complex and multi-perspective to promote critical thinking.

There are over 50 source collections available on Historiana and more than 100 eLearning activities. Below you can find some of the favourite resources of our network.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of material that is particularly appreciated and used by our network.

Historical Content

Teaching and Learning Content

Michael A. Sant Memorial Lecture

The History Teachers’ Association (Malta) organised its annual Michael A. Sant Memorial Lecture on 22nd September 2020. This lecture has been held uninterruptedly for the past eighteen years but due to the current international circumstances this year it had to be held remotely. The guest speaker for the webinar was Helen Snelson, from the University of York. Helen Snelson is also a EUROCLIO ambassador and chair of the UK Historical Association’s Secondary Teachers’ Committee. Snelson joins a string of international history educators who have presented at this memorial lecture.

The presentation was entitled, The personal and the particular: Stories to add intrigue, interruption and intensity to the History that students learn. The key argument was that well-chosen stories of individuals at specific moments in time help enrich learning in the history classroom. Highlighting the power of stories in helping students to understand and remember more, Snelson argued that stories can be a motivating factor in learning.

 

Using intriguing examples of life stories, Snelson showed how personal and particular stories can add complexity to historical narratives, ensuring that students learn that there are multiple perspectives on the past. Snelson added that stories help students understand how the past was experienced by different people in different ways. The presenter also discussed the centrality of stories in supporting students to connect topics.

This was an insightful presentation which contributed to the professional development of Maltese history teachers and educators. As a first, this webinar was well attended and the participants’ questions and comments showed that the array of examples brought up by Snelson to illustrate key ideas sparked off pedagogical ideas that can be developed and implemented in the classrooms.

 

Annual Conference Keynote Lecture: Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the Classroom

Alicia Rijlaarsdam Association, EUROCLIO

Maarten van Alstein, Flemish Peace Institute

Why is it important that we learn to disagree with each other? How can we teach young people to disagree in a democratic and peaceful manner? Maarten van Alstein from the Flemish Peace Institute contextualized and answered these questions during the opening of EuroClio’s 27th Annual Conference. His lecture Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the Classroom built on empirical research, democratic theory, and insights from conflict transformation. Based on his research, Maarten van Alstein came to the understanding that schools should be seen as a place where students can explore differences in a constructive manner. Through a wide diversity of methods ranging from dialogue to artistic practice, he made a case for conceptualizing the school as a laboratory for democracy.

Democracy as dialogue

Central to the idea of tackling controversial topics in the classroom is dialogue. As tensions are rising in our society in the form of conflict and polarisation, dialogue is a method which can facilitate deliberation about societal topics and acute questions. Van Alstein illustrated the extremes of democracy with two concepts relating to the digital sphere. The first is the echo chamber, the idea that the digital sphere creates one single voice and erases multiperspectivity. The second concept describes the chaos of tweets in which polarisation and chaos become the norm. As in society, we should take these extremes into account when facilitating dialogue. In the classroom, educators should create space for democratic dialogue ranging between these two extremes.

The meaning of conflict

“Conflict is like oxygen” (Bickmore, 2007 )

The quote illustrates the inevitability of conflict. Both Maarten van Alstein and Kathy Bickmore argued that conflict will always be present in society. The danger lies in the explosion of conflict. The group polarisation theory illustrates how, due to confirmation bias mechanisms, putting a group of likeminded people together will generally lead to polarisation. When people in groups polarize this can be very dangerous, think of hate groups or terrorist cells. However, polarisation and conflict can be used for the better, an example is abolitionism. There are numerous examples of positive change stemming from conflict, the women’s vote or the more recent Black Lives Matter movement. It can be, on the one hand, destructive and dangerous. But, if we are able to manage it well, we can create a force for good. Then if conflict is an ambivalent phenomenon, how do we deal with it?  

Suggestions for pedagogical practices

When dealing with controversy and disagreement in the classroom, recognizing that conflict is inevitable is the first step. When recognizing that conflict is normal, creating dialogue around it becomes easier. How do we translate this concretely to the classroom? At the Keynote Lecture three main suggestions were given.

Tailor your approach in function of what is happening in the classroom

While this may sound like kicking in an open door, the big challenge for educators lies in tailoring the approach to what is happening in the classroom. Finding good techniques for discussing controversy and polarisation requires making a distinction between different scenarios. Each scenario calls for a different approach. First, when the class is in turmoil, a more provocative or extreme discussion may call for depolarizing strategies. Second, controversial issues in the curriculum sometimes steer the educator into a certain direction complicating multi perspectivity. Finally, controversy as pedagogy means looking for multiperspectivity and controversy in the subject matter. This scenario allows for a more open discussion in which artistic pedagogical practices can be used, such as painting.

Defuse harmful forms of polarisation, but keep the space for discussion as open as possible

Creating an open classroom helps students express their opinions freely. When students are comfortable discussing controversial topics their generalized trust increases. Generalized trust means their trust in society and in others. This, in turn, has positive effects on citizenship attitudes as students are able to recognize that conflict is normal in a democratic society. In the classroom educators should be intent on teaching students to disagree. However, it is crucial for students to recognize polarisation. Of course, dialogue has certain limits and the emphasis should be placed on reasonable arguments. Maarten van Alstein advised that the teacher, especially initially, should focus on the language used during discussions. 

A good conversation often starts with a good question

The final suggestion was that a good conversation often starts with a good question. The use of open-ended questions is something educators themselves can train. Safety for all pupils should be guaranteed. It is a good idea to be impartial as a teacher, but not necessarily neutral, reflection is, of course, needed on positionality. Additionally, van Alstein advised not to start discussing the most controversial topics first. Start with a more safe and so called colder topic. When students feel more comfortable discussing, one can move on to hotter topics. Actively facilitate the discussion, it might be polarising otherwise. 

Conclusion

At the opening of EuroClio’s 27th Annual Conference, Maarten van Alstein argued that conflict is inevitable. Teaching students this notion can help facilitate dialogue and prevent polarisation. Van Alstein provided three suggestions for pedagogical practices when dealing with controversy in the classroom. First, tailor your approach in function of what is happening in the classroom. Second, defuse harmful forms of polarisation, but keep the space as open as possible. And finally, a good conversation often starts with a good question. 

Would you like to read more about Maarten Van Alstein’s work on Controversy & Polarisation in the classroom? You can find the full publication here