When History Becomes Contemporary: Teaching about the Crusades in the Wake of September 11

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Special Interest

I should have seen it coming, but I walked into my social studies methods course that day confident and unaware of the dilemmas that awaited me.

This case describes two memorable and troubling days in my course - one day in which we engaged in a simulation of a 7th grade unit on the Crusades, and the second in which we debriefed the fear and uncertainty that resulted from that day.

THE CURRICULAR TASKS AND GROUP PROJECTS: TROUBLING AND THOUGHT PROVOKING

I had reason to be confident. I had used the unit for almost ten years - with students, pre-service candidates, and experienced teachers. It was one of my favorites. I was knowledgeable on the content and considered an expert in the cooperative group work strategies it entailed.

The unit was originally designed for teaching 7th grade world history, to be used following the study of Feudal Europe and the series of Wars we called the "Crusades" and Muslims called the "Frankish Invasions." Its purpose was to have students delve more deeply into this period in history by using primary source documents and artifacts to explore the question, "How do historians know about the Crusades?" The issues were deep, and the historical artifacts troubling - including excerpts from Pope Urban II's call to the Crusades, eyewitness accounts of the siege of Jerusalem from both the Muslim and the Christian perspective, a page from a Crusader's handbook depicting the Muslims as inhuman, and music and art portraying events from that era. The artifacts and student discussion that stemmed from them invariably raised essential questions about why people go to war, the use of inflammatory speech and propaganda in shaping public opinion, and issues of perspective. I had always relished the unit's rich potential to connect 11th and 12th century primary source materials to contemporary issues.

Educators from the Program for Complex Instruction at Stanford University designed the unit for use with a specific set of group work strategies called complex instruction (Cohen, 1994; Lotan, 1997). This new teaching strategy is gaining wide popularity among teachers in the elementary and secondary levels. In complex instruction, students engage in highly challenging multiple-ability group tasks designed to foster higher order thinking skills. The teacher manages the class utilizing a system of cooperative norms and student roles designed to assist students in both working together and taking responsibility for completion of the group projects. A fundamental goal of complex instruction is to enhance access to learning for low-status students. One of the teacher's most important roles in complex instruction is to publicly acknowledge the wide range of intellectual abilities necessary for completion of the tasks and to recognize the specific intellectual contributions of low-status students. There are a wide variety of teaching strategies that a teacher can use to address the needs of low-status students.

I used the unit in my social studies methods course for pre-service teachers for a variety of reasons. Following a lecture on the theoretical components of complex instruction, I used it to model the group work strategies through a simulation. Following an introduction to the Crusades, including an exercise involving content reading from the text, I used the unit as an opportunity to show students the need to go deeper. I wanted them to experience the capacity of primary source materials and rich group work tasks to make history come alive, to make it relevant and real.

The simulation begins with a brief teacher orientation. I focused my orientation on the question, "How do historians know?" We compared the wide range of information sources future historians will have to examine events of today (TV, magazines, newspapers, computer images and text) to the comparatively meager information sources that exist for studying the Crusades. …