The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Teaching Through Narrative

For the past several weeks, my students have been engaged in a variety of guided inquiry projects on topics related to European exploration. They learned about pre-Columbian civilisations, they learned about specific explorers, and they delved into questions about why the Europeans were exploring the world in the first place.

I wanted to use today to wrap up this part of our unit and did so through a teaching practice that I haven’t used much of this year: narrative.

Pulling up Google Earth on my Promethean Board and pulling down my map of the world in my classroom, I told the story of European discovery, exploration, and trade. I emphasised that “discovery” is used to describe them learning about something that they did not know about before, not finding something that no one had ever found before. (The Europeans did not find uninhabited lands as they explored their world, they founds lands and peoples that Europeans did not know about before.) I shared how people before the 19th Century didn’t have refrigeration as we think of it today, instead relying on salt, smoke, and ice to preserve foods. I had the students think about what happens to food when it is left out for too long and how it tastes. We discussed the difference between something “going bad” because it tastes “nasty” and things becoming dangerous to eat because they have toxins within them. I asked the students if they knew why the Europeans were so excited about the spices from the Far East and they realised that the spices made it possible to eat food that otherwise would have made them sick because of the taste. (My teacher’s aide, who is from India, shared that her family did not have a refrigerator when she was growing up; instead, they simply bought all of their food fresh each day.)

I then moved into the narrative of trade routes being blocked by Arab traders or taxes that made it too costly and the novel idea of finding a sea route to Asia. We talked about Marco Polo and his journeys and his book that captured everyone’s attention. We talked about Christopher Columbus and many of the myths told about him (no, boys and girls, people in the 1400s did not think the world was flat). We talked about how other explorers took to the seas and sought out other routes, going around Africa, going around South America, and looking for a Northwest Passage that didn’t exist. We talked about the Vikings coming to a small, lush island and calling it “Ice Land” after they found a large, barren island that they named “Green Land” so that people would go to the less desirable land, and how the Vikings came to “Vinland,” were beaten by the indigenous peoples, and ran away, vowing to not talk about their defeat lest it tarnish their reputations as Mighty Fearsome Warriors.

I closed the narrative by asking the students why the Europeans flocked to what they thought of the “New World.” They examined the map and realised that Portugal, Spain, France, and England are all really small compared to North and South America. They recognised that the Western Hemisphere had more land but that there were also already people there. We talked about the sad death of nearly 90% of the indigenous populations.

Telling this story with pictures and questions helped my students put together all of the bits and pieces they have learned over the past several weeks. Tomorrow we will take a break from the history of it all and spend some time discussing geography. It isn’t enough for my students to know when things happened, who was involved, and why it happened; they also need to know where it happened and where those places are in relation to the rest of the world!


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