We all know the refrain: “History is boring, especially Canadian history.” As someone who has studied and written about history for almost my entire adult life, few phrases have irked me more. “History is not boring!” I would retort and yet the truth is the way it is taught so often justifies the accusation.
I have always prided myself that the way I taught history in university was not boring and that students would see not just the intellectual value of engaging with the past, but would come to enjoy it. As I have been making the move to the elementary and secondary level, I have been challenged to rethink how I would teach history to younger students who required to be in the classroom, learning about a past they knew very little and probably cared even less about. At least at the post-secondary level, students came with some buy-in since in a lot of cases, they had chosen the class and were their of their own free will (at least to a degree).
My previous teaching experience is the fields of medieval and early modern Europe. This to me is what history is about. Exploring how philosophical thought in the 13th century shaped the nature of political institutions or how the religious wars of the 16th century reshaped and reconfigured the religious, cultural, and social worlds of European societies in ways that are still being felt in the 21st century, is thrilling (which also may explain why I can’t get a date for Friday evenings). However, the grade 7 history curriculum starts with the Seven Years War and goes up to Canada’s involvement and aftermath of World War II; topics that I have not found all that interesting when I was a student.
So the challenge is: how to teach grade 7 history to adolescents in such a way that they become engaged and maybe come to realize that history can be exciting and, even more importantly, relevant to their lives. I wanted to avoid the traditional name and date approach. Sure they could memorize a few facts that serve no purpose beyond answering trivia questions. I also wanted to avoid simply colouring in maps. Maps are vital to the craft of a historian, but to colour in the boundaries of territorial possessions is a sure way of killing any interest in why those territorial possessions matter.
My solution then focused more on having students more actively involved in their learning. Over the past few months, I have become a real supporter of vertical learning where students are away from their desks and on their feet. Thus my aim was to integrate vertical learning within the curriculum. The first two lessons during my practicum were the origins of the Seven Years War and Mercantilism (and if you think students will yawn at the Seven Years War, just try talking about Mercantilism).
For the first lesson I decided to divide the class into three groups; the French, English, and Indigenous peoples. The French and English were assigned to specific areas in the classroom and the Indigenous were instructed to sit anywhere in the room they liked. The idea was to emphasize that though the French and English battled each other for territory in North America, the land belonged to the Indigenous and that their nations’ boundaries were independent of European map makers. Throughout the lesson, I gave each groups a series of instructions designed to follow the basic chronology of the initial stages of the Seven Years War. As part of the exercise, I made a map of the Ohio Valley on which the different groups were to put their forts as they vied for control of the Ohio Valley. At one point, the French group was instructed to build Fort Duquesne (which today is modern-day Pittsburgh). I did not tell them where to build the fort, rather, I consulted with them where they thought it should go. Using the geography of the area (the fort was built on the confluence of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers) and inferring why the French would build a fort there, the students worked out for themselves why the fort was located where it was. In addition, some of the students used prior knowledge of the Treaty of Utrecht to explain why the British were keen on eliminating the fort.
As this was happening, the British group was instructed to attack and the French to counter attack. The students crumpled up paper and on my mark threw it at each other in a mock battle (I have a video of this, but because I was unable to blur the faces to preserve their privacy, I have not uploaded it. But trust me, it was pretty fun). We did this about 2-3 times. Students really like the idea of throwing things at each other and I had to repeat the parameters several times to avoid things from devolving into an actual war. The exercise led to some rich discussion that helped the students understand the causes of the Seven Years War. In fact, one of the students as he left the class said that it was a fun class. Another student who almost never participated in class, participated in a meaningful way offering insights and contributions that most likely would not have occurred if I had kept them behind their desks.
The following lesson on Mercantilism was more challenging. After all, how do you make economic history interesting to 12-13 year olds. I thought why not have them act it out. It worked for the Seven Years War, why not for trade. Again, I divided the class into 3 groups (French, English, and this time Spanish). After a brief lesson about what Mercantilism was, I project a map of Canada and told each group to separately decide which parts of the country they wanted for themselves and why.
After they did this, I had send up one representative from each group to make their claims on the land. Not surprisingly, it did not take long for the “nations” to start fighting over the same areas. Again, the conversation that followed was rich. One of the first questions I posed was all through this, what was missing. After a bit of prodding, it dawned on the students that the peoples of the First Nations were not included in the scramble for land. This led to a good, though brief conversation about the relationships between settlers and First Nations. This conversation was important as it will serve as the basis of the remaining lessons when we look at the history of treaties between Europeans and Indigenous peoples and how so many of the problems that occurred in the 18th and 19 centuries are still with us today. History is almost rarely, if ever completed.
This exercise turned out to be a great way of illustrating how an economic system could lead to major wars as nations competed to collect as much gold through exports as possible, while reducing their imports. Using a KWL chart, I could see how students’ knowledge developed throughout the class. As an experiment, I would say these classes were a success and have convinced me to do more to integrate vertical learning into my own teaching practice.
I don’t know if any of these kids will become scholars of the Seven Years War or even history majors, but I hope that they are now less likely to groan when the next teacher says, “Today’s history lesson is….”
Dr. Jason Sager holds a Phd in French History and is currently working on his B. Ed. At the moment, he is teaching a grade 7/8 class.