The Importance of History

Over the course of this semester and given the current climate of the world, it has become increasingly evident that history and historical thinking skills are extremely valuable. While working to become a teacher and being extremely passionate about history, this seems like an obvious statement. However, with online learning, our students may be struggling to see the importance behind these skills or they may just see history as a ‘busy work’ subject with little real life application or substance. That is why its important to use history as a way to teach students to think critical thinking and challenge dominant perspectives.

Project Showcase

For my final project, I chose to look at a time period where students were empowered to bring change, however, in terms of the Cultural Revolution in China, it wasn’t good change. As shown by the events that occurred, a single narrative can be manipulated and have major consequences when its intentionally controlled and taken advantage of. Almost as a warning, but also a point of inflection, students used primary source documents to examine how narrative controlling through media and texts can really impact the way people think, especially students. This point is important to highlight because students today are exposed to just about everything thanks to the internet. It can be a very powerful tool, but it can also be extremely misleading when users don’t think critically about the content.

Another lesson that follows this type of outline, was the activity I created about the Red Scare. In this lesson, using Google Forms, students were assigned roles and looked at Red Scare propaganda. Each student had specific guiding questions to think about and were asked to figure out what people at the time were concerned with in terms of communists. Coming together in a town meeting, they were instructed to come up with a plan of action, but were also made aware that anyone at that meeting could have been a communist. This has students trying to figure out the world view of people at the time so they can see exactly how the narrative was controlled to foster that perspective.

When teaching history, as highlighted above by two of my activities, I like to teach it from different perspectives. In my student teaching now, I try to have students think critically and challenge the dominant Eurocentric historical narrative. While some people believe that ‘history is written by the winners,’ that disregards other people’s stories, thoughts, and feelings which holds immense value to our society today as it is more diverse than ever before. Through this method, I hope that my students remain resilient against just accepting what they are told as well as curious about other people and their experiences.

Source Image

The East is Red When You’ve Been Indoctrinated

Feature Image Source

For my final project, I wanted to look at China’s Cultural Revolution period with a focus on the Red Guard. Since this happened in the 1960’s to 1970’s there are numerous primary sources available that have been translated as many East Asian historians try to understand exactly what happened in China during this period. I believe that this would be an interesting period to teach about because this movement heavily involved students and it emphasizes how media can play a large role in controlling a narrative. This lesson would be best for an 10th or 11th grade world history class.

Essential Question: How do we know what to believe in media?

Student Task: Students will close read the documents and analyze how images are used to convey the main message of the Cultural Revolution as Red Guard members understood it. Then students will create their own ‘big character’ posters promoting a social justice issue of their choosing or criticizing Mao’s personality cult.

Cultural Revolution Context: After China’s civil war, which ended in 1949, the communist party had successfully taken power while the nationalist party fled to Taiwan. Mao Zedong was the leader of China and had created a cult of personality in which he was idolized as China’s savior. Wanting to bring true communism to China, he attempted to ‘force it’ with his Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) which was meant to restructure China’s economy, but ultimately led to one of the greatest famines in world history where about 43 million Chinese people died. Because of this, the communist party was becoming increasingly unstable as the people started to distrust the party members. Mao, fearing that he was loosing power over China, turned around to blame his other party members by calling them capitalists corroborators. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in order to destroy idols that represented China’s ‘old ways’ of feudalism and a class-based society, while also using this revolution as a way to weed out capitalists, eliminate political opponents, and maintain his own power.

Source Activity One: China Reconstructs, March 1968

This is an excerpt from a magazine which narrates how the “Red Guards’ Battle Song” was created. The battle song was created by middle school students who were a part of the Red Guard.

How the “Red Guards’ Battle Song” Was Born. By the Red Guards of the Middle School of the Central Conservatory of Music. 1968 Source This is an excerpt from the article explaining the origin of the song
  • What is this source trying to narrate? Write a list of events that this source walks through
  • What claims is the author making? How do they support these claims?
  • What key words convey the tone of this excerpt?
How the “Red Guards’ Battle Song” Was Born. By the Red Guards of the Middle School of the Central Conservatory of Music. 1968 Source This is the battle song
  • What imagery is being used in this song?
  • How is language being used to convey the tone?
  • What is this song trying to convince you of?

Source Activity Two: Propaganda

Throughout the Cultural Revolution and even the period before, students were being exposed to highly politized propaganda that emphasized Mao’s way of thinking. This was done through posters, songs, and even party approved plays that were created by Mao’s wife.

The Whole Family is Red from Chinese Pictorial May 1969 Source
  • What is going on in this picture?
  • How does this picture target the younger generation?
  • What do you think is the importance of having Mao’s picture in this photo?
Chairman Mao gives us a happy life, 1954
Chairman Mao Gives Us a Happy Life, 1954 Source
  • How is this poster similar to the previous picture?
  • How are they different?
  • Notice the years that each of these were created. How might that impact what the pictures are trying to emphasize?

Source Activity Three: Big Character Posters

Throughout the Cultural Revolution, one of the many ways that students got involved was by creating ‘big character’ posters. These acted as large posters where students wrote grievances or accusations against people in their communities who were suspected of opposing Mao’s revolutionary ideology and were labeled as capitalists. They are called big character posters because these posters were written in Chinese characters. Many of the claims on these posters were unfounded and students would often write about people that they barely knew, or their own teachers with false claims. Students were eager to participate in creating these posters and holding struggle sessions (which acted as humiliation trials) in order to prove that they were the most revolutionary. These types of posters would show up all over China in large quantities.

Red Guards Destroy the Old and Establish the New, Peking Review 1966 Source
  • How were big character posters being used?
  • What were the Red Guard doing in Peking at this point?
  • What was the Red Guard’s role?

This slide show shows how big character posters appeared in China, students creating them, and how many people were exposed to these posters as they were displayed in public places. Eventually, the Cultural Revolution would move to incorporate more than just literate students as young students who could not read yet, would also aid in creating these posters by copying the characters that were pre-written by Red Guard members.

Image Source 1, Image Source 2, Image Source 3

  • Why is it important that these posters were displayed en masse in public places?
  • What were the Red Guard trying to convince people of?
  • How do these displays relate to the previous documents you’ve looked at?

After working through the sources, students will discuss their answers in groups. Then as a group, we will have a discussion about how media and a single narrative can prove to be extremely dangerous as it propagates only one way of thinking which can be taken advantage of. Using the Cultural Revolution as an example, students should see that in China, the only narrative that students consumed was Mao’s ideology as they were indoctrinated in Mao’s personality cult from a young age and enabled towards violence by Mao’s writings. After this source analysis, students will be asked to create their own ‘big character’ posters which can be targeting Mao’s personality cult or promoting another social justice issue of their choosing.

Alternative History of the Black Death: You probably would have died… but what if you didn’t?

The Black Death was one of the most influential pandemics that could have ever struck Europe. While it was a massive tragedy and several millions, potentially even hundreds of millions, people died, it ultimately allowed for several modern ideologies to come around to Europe, as well as weaken the existing, repressive forces in Europe. Not only did it result in several social changes, this may tend to happen when massive populations are subjected to look at death every day, but also political and economic change that would led to Europe becoming a world powerhouse. It brings to question, what would have happened if the Black Death never came to Europe?

Image Source

Was the University of Portland always like this?

When looking for something to look at in terms of the 1940 Census and Mapping Inequality, I had never lived in any of the areas highlighted in either application. Therefore, I decided to look around the University of Portland campus. As we know from attending UP, the campus and its students are typically seen as upper middle class. Given that UP is a private, Catholic, university, the tuition is more hefty than a state school or a community college, and is only rising. While UP does give out decent scholarships, the tuition price tends to discourage incoming students. After spending 4 years on this campus, I decided to look into if UP and the area around UP has always been the way it appears now in terms of class and social community. First I looked at the census information for the people living at UP in 1940. This was when UP was still a male-only university, and based on the census information, the majority of people who lived at UP were white professors and almost all of them were not from Oregon. While this is interesting information, most of the Census sheet was not filled out about the income of these professors.

The Census information for the University of Portland in 1940 Source

While I found this really interesting, I wanted to look more into the surrounding areas which has become known as the University Park. Today, students that live off campus typically have 3-5 roommates and live in what is considered now, larger houses. Based on the Mapping Inequality information, the University Park are is classified as yellow, which is considered “Definitely Declining” however, in the Clarifying Remarks, it claims that there are new developments in the area which could categorize some parts as low blue, making it “Still Desirable”. Parts of the North Portland are are graded blue. The Mapping Inequality also points out that many of the houses are multi-residential homes, which kind of mirrors the situation that off-campus students live in today. The average income from the time was $1,200 – $2,000 for the area as well. The area was also predominantly white without many other foreign born families.

Mapping Inequality Source

I decided to look at the Census information around Lombard, primarily North Bowdoin St. off of Portsmouth because a few of my friends shared a house on that street. While the houses in that area were primarily built in the 1980’s, one house there still stands. It was built in 1927! It is a 2 bedroom, 1 bath, 1,029 sqft house that is estimated to be worth around $395,000 today. Thanks to the magic of Zillow, we can see that it is slightly more affordable than the houses nearby, except for the newest townhouses that were recently built.

Zillow Source

Looking at the 1940 Census information, we can also see that the family that lived there were not as well off as their neighbors. Being a 3 member household, composed of a husband, wife, and their daughter, they had a salary or wage of $880, probably a yearly income and the father worked as a Turner for a barrel manufacture. They were a part of the lower income group in this area as most people made over $1,000.

1940 Census Source

Overall, it is interesting to see exactly what existed in 1940 and to learn about the area. A few commonalities still exist the area of UP today. In the Mapping Inequality, it points out that the projected desirability of the area would only increase in the following 50 years which it has, but today, we see this part of North Portland as a diverse area where you can walk down a few blocks and see a disparity between the overall quality of the area. This was highlighted in the Census and the Mapping Inequality website by showing the differences in people’s earning as well as highlighting the projected development in some parts. While in the 1940’s it was a predominately white area composed of people who had moved from other states, today we can see that it has diversified somewhat. I think walking around on campus, one can really see that our population is still mostly white people, but it is also reflected by the area. This is really telling of the lasting impacts of Portland’s history of red lining and the limiting of where people of color could live. We should still strive for diversity in our communities but as seen by the rising cost of living and housing costs, the trajectory that we are on will extremely limit who can live in North Portland. Unfortunately, the one of the cheapest houses in the area is one of the oldest which brings on a whole other host of potential bills and costs of what it takes to be a home owner. Either way, society as a whole would need to make some serious changes to obtain some level of true equality that acknowledges the history of the area.

Source Image: This is a picture of the University of Portland in 1937, there are a ton of digitalized UP memorabilia like the Log (which I had to personally digitalize while working in the library, it dates back to when UP became the University of Portland in the 1930’s)