Timelining Mythologies

Timelining Mythologies

There’s rarely a time in my classes where my students read something or hear something for its own sake.  Instead, the reading or listening is a first step in some bigger activity that asks them to take the information they’ve learned and apply it a some new way, making decisions about the significance of events, people, and actions.  One example of this kind of processing is to have students build a collective timeline.

Yesterday, in Power and Inequity in America to 1865, I gave every student five large post-it notes.  Their job was to select five events from the period 1600 to 1750 that they’d want to add to a timeline, write one event on each post-it note, and then go stick it in the appropriate spot on the whiteboard.  The finished product looked like this:

A whiteboard with a timeline on it that reads 1600 to 1750.  Below the timeline are many multi-colored post-it notes.

After all the post-its had been applied, everyone walked past the board to see what the timeline looked like in all its complicated glory.  And then came the analysis:

  • Where had they largely agreed that an event was significant? 
  • What were the outliers, and why? 
  • Whose stories had made it up there?
  • Whose voices were absent, and why?
  • How did their own social identities show up in the decisions they made about what should go on the board?
  • What patterns did they see?

I circled some places where people had been in agreement about the significance of events – the founding of Jamestown; the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia; the slaughter of the Pequot in 1637; the Virginian law that said children should follow the condition of their mother in 1662.  When I asked my students to explain why they thought these events were so important, they had great answers that showed respect for nuance and took on multiple perspectives.  The murder of the Pequot at Mystic River, for example, went up because it exemplified the worldview of the Puritan immigrants; because it pointed to the disruption of traditional alliances between Native nations; because it was linked to processes of enslavement and the industries of the Caribbean; and because it demonstrated white supremacy in action.

Nevertheless, when we stood back and looked at the timeline as a whole, what we saw was a story of white, powerful men and the political and military choices they made over time.  Even where we had agreed, as a class, that the story of other groups was important, we had largely learned about those moments through the documents left behind by white, powerful men.  In looking at those documents, we had learned to read between the lines for the voices of people left silenced by brutal labor regimes, illiteracy, a lack of leisure time, poverty, and gender identity.  But we had still recreated a very white, male narrative.

This was a wonderful teaching moment.  We had spent the second day of class earlier in the term listing dominant narratives about American history on the board and then noting exceptions that disproved every single one.  We committed ourselves to doing better than these received myths – and yet we didn’t.  So yesterday, we talked about the power held in archives, in whose documents were preserved.  We talked about the crushing power of mythology and the pressures of socialization.  We talked about the influence of the familiar, and how long it takes to really absorb new, decolonized ways of looking at the world.

If you don’t have post-it notes, there are other ways to do the timeline exercise.  At the most sophisticated end, you can have students contribute to a digital timeline tool like Timeglider.  At the more rudimentary level, you can rig up a washing line with string, and hand out notecards, and bring a pile of binder clips to class for students to clip up their timeline events.  The important thing is to give each student agency to pick their own events, and to have a visual means of spotting holes in the story.  It’s a lot easier to see a dominant narrative when it’s represented by a string of notecards or post-it notes that overlap than when it’s an abstract idea in a book.

(You can also color-code your timeline. I’ve done timelines before where I’ve given one group of students yellow post-its and asked them to pick cultural events, another group green post-its for economic events, etc. This works well for producing a very thorough timeline, but less well for making visible some invisible presumptions about the past.)

(If you really want to blow up the idea of the timeline, I suggest having students create 3-D timelines that try to express overarching themes of cultural change as well as dates and key events.  I’ve written about that for The History Teacher – it’s a really fun way to get students to think about significance as well as change over time.)

Yesterday’s class was really fun.  It involved retrieval practice, it embedded a review of what we’ve learned this term so far, and it externalized implicit bias.  A great way to spend a Friday afternoon!

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