“Sometimes we are lucky enough in life to encounter teachers who get us excited about topics or studies that, until then, had little interest to us. For me, it was my high school history class with Dr. Jones. He seemed to have all the answers to our questions and would challenge us with questions that didn’t always have a right or wrong answer but instead forced us to think a different way as we brought our evidence to light with our answers. As I finish this week spent with twelve Concordia students I can’t help but think that they are very lucky to have two excellent teachers of history in Mark Johnson and Mike Burns who had students “doing history” whether they knew it or not!
The goal was for students to understand the life of Mao Zedong by visiting important landmarks in his life as he rose to lead the Communist Party in China. Most of the students were in 9th and 10th grade and had had Mark or Mike as a teacher for World History. In these classes they learned the elemental skills needed for understanding history: how to read sources, how to engage with questions and how to create an effective History Day project. This is all great, but what separates this trip out is that students had to bring their skills learned in history class to each site visited, each encounter with a Chinese university student and each video watched.
On our visit to the site of the first, formal communist meeting in Shanghai, students were challenged to think about how the museum presented the foreign presence in China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, general uprisings by the Chinese people and, finally, how communism began to appeal to certain groups in Chinese society. They could not be passive observers, mindlessly walking by taking photographs of artifacts; rather, the teachers’ questions pushed them to be actively engaged with what they found. Students scribbled notes in their journals, asked questions, brought their friends to look more closely at an artifact or consider why there were two foreigners at the table with the ten Chinese communists.
What we saw that day was revisited at night when students took in segments of a documentary on China in the 20th Century. Here students needed to reconcile things learned on our visits with a different narrative presented in the documentary. On the visit to Orange Island in Changsha, the group stood in a pavilion listening to Mao’s poetry being read out loud by members of our group. Students were asked not only to put the poems into context, but also to consider their artistic merit.
In Yan’an visits to the two headquarters of the Communists from 1935-45 presented students the opportunity to see the rustic conditions of the living spaces of the top party leaders. From the conversations I overheard, students were imagining the hardships the party leaders faced as they struggled for leadership over China. As Mark and Mike posed the questions for our final visit, to the Museum of the Revolution, students had five days of learning behind them. In the museum they recognized faces, made connections between events and people that played a part in the making of history in the 20th Century. Put together with their encounters with two groups of university students along the way, students walked away with a much better understanding of the complexity of Mao’s legacy in China. I imagine that this trip, under the patient guidance of Mark and Mike, will ignite a lifelong love of history for the students.”
–Emily, History Teacher, Lawrenceville, NJ