Recreating History

I will try to keep this short as this experience spanned 5–7 days & the numerous insights, quotes, aha! moments would necessitate a huge post. But I’ll trade-off length for readership as I believe teachers who feel that creativity & gadgetary are easily available only to STEM subjects would benefit from reading this. I come from a background of STEM (been in computer science for 14+ years) & I work diligently at dispelling that myth.

tl;dr:

A lesson in history takes a route of urban design & planning mixed with some hands-on excavating & simulating an excavation to bring home a learning experience quite unlike what was considered possible at the outset. Most of History is available to re-create & is candidate for creative facilitation of experience.

Not only did the children learn about historically significant discoveries, these sessions also created a space where:

  1. There was no competing against one & another
  2. The so-called weak/slow/dumb kids were actually at the forefront of coordinating activities (and you can read here my views on labeling)
  3. They were responding in a variety of ways with a range of capabilities/intelligences
  4. They were owning their learning. They were in class because they wanted to be in it. What was historically (pun unintended) one of the most boring subjects in school was now up ahead of others
  5. Without even calling it design thinking, they demonstrated a lot of it

With unplanned ease they demonstrated that the thinking process of 5000 years ago was largely intact in these kids of 10 & 11.

Background:

I was with a rural outreach school (Isai Ambalam) in Auroville, India. I was seated in the 6th standard class with the kids gathered around me eagerly looking forward to interacting with me. I had the advantage of a very good rapport with the kids. I adored them but not to the extent that I was lenient. In another post I will discuss the mood with which I entered this class. It should suffice to know that it wasn’t the appropriate one.

Surfacing Intent:

Hoping to warm myself out of this low, I asked the kids to vote on the lesson they wanted to pick for discussion. I was buying myself time. They voted & picked Chap 4, IN THE EARLIEST CITIES. I asked them why they voted for a particular chapter. Initially, they had picked one at random. When this question was placed before them, they asked to revisit their vote. I agreed. Simply based on the title, they made judgement calls about what the chapter might entail. What I thought was buying me time to emerge from my slump was exciting me with insights into how the children interpreted the titles. Each one had a different reason but more important than the reason was the exercise in being conscious & mindful about any act, even a seemingly trivial one of picking a lesson.

Subconscious knowledge:

I asked them another warm up question of how many had been to a city & they responded eagerly with their accounts. That was infectious enough to get me out of my weariness. I asked them to shut their books because they already knew the contents of the chapter. They denied & were shocked at such a claim. They were afraid I might test them & wanted to issue disclaimers! I reassured them that they did know the contents & I needed 5–7 days to prove it. They seemed to love this game.

I asked them if they could recognise a city from a village. They said they could. I asked them what would help them recognise & they struggled to articulate it. I asked one child to come over & shut her eyes. I spun her around & stopped her & began describing a city in which she is. I described the roads & people around.

“Is this what you saw in Chennai?”

“Yes, Anna.” Eyes still closed.

“And then there was cowshed & many cockerels alongside…”

“No, Anna. I don’t remember seeing something like that.”

“So…”

“Cities don’t have too many free animals roaming around”

“And then we walk a little more & see a lot of commotion. What do you think is happening there?”

“Traffic jam.”

“Yes, or…”

“Movie stars! Vijay!”

And in gradually leading a few of them through the streets of cities in their minds eye, we came up with some rudimentary characteristics of cities vis a vis villages. On the next iteration, they developed those into 10 characteristic differences between cities & villages (as per their experience). Some of them included (a) better transportation infrastructure (b) higher political & administrative presence ( c) better water & waste management, etc. I will dwell on the latter to paint the evolution of such points. On first blush, the kids said that villages have more lakes & rivers than cities, to which I asked “So how do city-dwellers live without water?”

“They have water tankers supplying water to them.” (this is perhaps specific to cities in India, esp. South India)

“Where do the tankers get water?”

“From outside the city” & a boy jumps with “Anna, they will have long pipes, too.”

“So there are tankers & long pipes in a city. What are they achieving by this?”

“Ensuring that everyone gets some water”

“But where does the city get money for this?”

“They must collect some extra tax or something”

“Let’s assume they do. So with tax collected, pipes laid, water routed with tankers as well, what are you seeing in that city.”

“There is a lot of process & plan for getting water?”

“Yes, which you don’t see in villages?”

“No, we get it from our wells & pumps & lakes”

“So what do cities need that villages might not?”

“A good mechanism to ensure water is not wasted & reaches everyone?”

“Yes. Sounds like a good water management system.”

“Yes, Anna. A good water management system.”

Sometime, I would summarise it for them. Sometimes, they picked the words. Eventually, those 10 differences felt sufficient for a quick filter. What helped most was that this list came from the children’s experience & iterations of making it more generic or specific as per the need. Hence, I witnessed no struggle in any of the children recalling this list.

Applying Acquired Knowledge:

By surfacing what was latent & releasing the feeling of owning that knowledge, it was time to have them apply it. If the reader is uneasy with the question “All this is fine, but what has this to do with Chap 4?” I would assure him/her that while I did have a scheme at the back of my mind, I couldn’t be certain of its manifestation yet. So please read along with the assurance that it all does indeed tie up at the end.

“All of you are on a boat out in the sea. This world has no countries, no cities, no factories & no one else. It is only you. Each one of you is skilled in whatever you wish to be skilled in. All of you carry your definition of what makes a city. Where will you go & establish your city?”

Being from coastal villages, they all piped in with the idea of setting up their city along the coast.

“Why the coast?”

“Cool air, Anna”, “We can always have fish to eat, Anna”, “Coconuts!”

“Good points. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place with cool breeze. What will you eat with the fish?”

“Rice & kozhumbu, Anna”

“Where will you get the rice?”

“We can grow it, Anna!”

“But is the seashore good for growing rice?”

They didn’t know. They looked to me for an answer & I shrugged.

“Where do you think rice will grow?”

“Fertile soil. Lots of rain”

“Where would that be?”

“Cauvery (a river in Tamil Nadu)?”

“Or any river…”

“Then we’ll setup our city near a river.”

While they could have well setup a city along the coast & justified it (like the Romans & Greek did), I wanted the children to be confident of their choice. If they had stuck to it, this exercise would have been done along the coast.

While they were discussing amongst themselves about what they would want in their city, I quickly drew a river snaking diametrically across a board.

“To make your life easy, I have cleared this area around a river for you. This could be the site of your city. Fill it with illustrations of what you would have in your city.”

They attacked the board as if it was their latest play thing. They were completely unrestrained in their creative ideation of how that city would be.

When they were done, this is what their city looked like:

Iteration 1

All these activities were timed. I’d typically give them 3–5 min to discuss amongst themselves & 5 min to work on the board. This gave them a sense of rush & excitement.

I loved what they created & hugged them.

“You have a car there! That is so neatly drawn!”

“I drew it, Anna”

“What does it run on?”

“Petrol, Anna”

“Where will you get petrol?”

Pin-drop silence! They realised that they had thrown in elements which were impractical or plain impossible. I wiped out what they had drawn (strangely, none of them felt bad about losing their illustration) while they discussed priorities & they went at it again.

Iteration 2 & 3

I loved the fact that they were mindful enough to connect the bridges to the roads. They simply didn’t draw them to check off a list. They were making their elements functional.

“Are you happy with this version?”

“Yes, Anna!”

“Ok, so I wake up in your city & have to brush my teeth. Where do I get water from?”

“In the river”

“If I have to go to the river every day, I am going to give up on brushing my teeth!”

“Fine. We’ll build water pipelines for you.”

“I have now brushed my teeth & am hungry. What do I have?”

“Fish!”

“With?”

“Rice”

“Where are you getting your rice?”

They realised they hadn’t drawn any fields (though you see it, the rectangle with crows for crops, in this pic as it was added later).

“Lovely lunch. Ate a tummy full. Now it hurts. I need to see a doctor.”

And in this manner, I walked them through my day in their city helping them see the many things they had thought of (and appreciated them for it) & had missed out (and they made notes of it without my asking them to).

“My day in your city is over. But did you notice one thing?”

They offered many guesses but none that I was looking for.

“I have been naked throughout. You people never made any provisions for clothes!”

They laughed away & got back to the next iterations of their city with a clothes shop. Mixing contextual humour in the midst of their learning helped a lot. Not for once did I see on their faces an undue strain. Not once did I have to remind them to pay attention.

I seem to have lost a few pictures of the subsequent iterations. Here is one with which they came up.

One of the final iterations

Note in the above picture, 2 fields. They drew this to build in redundancy — in case one field got flooded by the river! That gave me the idea for the next bit.

Before their last version, I added one more challenge to the list.

“I see your city is getting better with each revision. Good! We’ll do one more iteration before we wrap this up. In this iteration you have to focus on placement of each facility in a city. Why is your factory placed here & not there? Why are the residential zones here & not there? I love that you have 2 fields for redundancy. Stunning foresight. But where should they be placed? Justify each and every one of your choices.”

They attacked the board anew. I was so lost in their work that I must have forgotten to take a picture. Soon they had a beautifully laid out city with pipes & roads & bridges & bullock-carts & boats & factories & markets & residential zones & a hospital (for my tummy ache). Each & every one them could defend the placement. I tried grilling them with all kinds of questions & scenarios but they stood strong with their choices. The had one field near the river & one away from it. It was such a delight. Another round of hugs.

Hands-on Experience:

Let’s not lose focus of the objective — Chap 4.

Nearby, in Auroville, there was an excavation underway. After the 1st day of these sessions I contacted the person in-charge of the excavations & requested his permission to bring the kids over. He was very kind & gave it in full. The kids cycled over & were excited to be allowed in the cordoned area. It was filled with ghost stories until then. Now they were standing in a cairn circle amidst burial urns (a word they were happy to learn & use regularly). With rapt attention they heard stories of the pagans of 2500 years ago. They also learnt about the technique of dating artifacts (either by carbon dating or pattern matching).

At the excavation site

They were thrilled to weave their own stories based on what they heard. They were even more thrilled to see the photos of artifacts unearthed — pots, jewellery, beads, arrowheads, swords, tridents & much more. They were fascinated to know that all this came from under the earth they stood on (well, not all of it, but that is how they summarised it all). They watched the workers slowly scrapping away in the grids trying to extract another artifact. I requested the gentleman if the kids could enter the grids & scrape a little. He granted them permission. The next visit was to be this surprise.

When they returned the next day, they were thrilled beyond measure to know that they would be handling the scalpels & brushes & actually tickling the dead! Initially, they worked very gingerly till the workers had to assure them that a little force was ok.

They loved it more so when they actually extracted a pot. They simply would not stop talking about it back in school!

Wrapping it all up:

After having identified the signs of a city, designing their own city & participating in an excavation, we had just one thing left to do — bury our city!

On the last day of the week, I announced that their city was now buried in 5000 years of mud & trees. This class was now a group of expert archeologists (a word they always uttered slowly & carefully) who are going to dig this up because someone reportedly found some artifacts while fishing in that river.

“Amongst yourselves, discuss & identify what will your dug up city look like. What will you now see? What are the things you will find?”

They soon realised that their farm was gone but that there were two farms will still remain. While the plants & trees they drew were gone, the seeds might still remain indicating the kind of foods they ate. Their boats would remain. The bullock bones might remain. The cart, too. Perhaps clothes. Their water pipelines will. They drew up what they were likely to unearth & the various interpretations that one could draw.

“So will they know that a sweet boy called V liked to wear silk?”

“No”

“But would they know that silk was worn?”

“Yes”

“How will they know that K worked the most in the fields?”

“They won’t”

“What of A, here, wrote texts & in them wrote that A toiled hardest in the fields?”

“They’ll think that A is the one who worked most because the texts say so!”

“So, Anna, how will they ever know the truth?”

“Sweetie, history can only indicate. Factual truth is rarely something that can be established.” (more on this in another post)

After a long discussion, they settled on the uneasy reality of the unreliability of historical records & how they best suited the objective of creating a likely narrative.

“So, now, let’s open to the chapter. A, will you read it for us?”

As he kept reading, each one kept exclaiming:

“They were at a river too!”

“They had drainage systems too”

“Bullock carts!”

“We never thought of coins. Yes, we would need money to transact.”

“We had better jewellery! And much better clothes!”

The chapter was extremely easy to consume as they could relate to the minds of 5000 years ago. They were stunned at the similarities of the roads & drains & walls & how much it matched the pictures in their heads & on the board. Certainly we could have spent more time & created much more clarity around the simulation but it was sufficient for them to connect to the topic.

On the following Monday, I walked up to these kids & told them that in 15 min they need to present to the school. These kids who hate surprise tests & always demand time for preparation, barely blinked an eye & agreed to do so. In a few minutes they were huddled around a table discussing how to chunk up the presentation & the narrative which would be most coherent. They confidently presented to the school (about cities, peculiarities of cities, archeology, cairn circles, different ages (copper, bronze, iron) & fielded questions with expertise. They even acted like “teachers” & cross-questioned the audience on their understanding. I was most pleased when the teachers & headmistress acknowledged the amazing confidence & command that the “slow” students demonstrated (without calling them that).

“So, do you agree that you knew the chapter contents without opening it?”

It was time for another round of hugs!