The year has gotten off to a pretty good start. I am enjoying all of my classes, especially the Lincoln class. The biggest challenge has been adjusting to the new approach that I am taking in my US survey courses. As I mentioned earlier, rather than utilizing the standard history textbook as a basic text we are reading individual secondary sources. The first book on the list is Love and Hate in Jamestown by David Price, which we will read through the month of September. The book is well written and the students seem to be enjoying it so far. The challenge has been in how to use the book in class. The textbook approach is clearly content driven and the job of the instructor is to find ways to think through or synthesize what is covered. With a secondary source the challenge is in finding a balance between the ideas that drive the narrative and the relevant content. I am coming to realize that we are not going to cover nearly as much content as we would with a textbook and I guess I am feeling a bit uncomfortable about that. At the same time I am questioning why all of that lost detail really matters in the end. Do our students remember it once the summer rolls around? If not, perhaps we should be focusing on essential material along with critical thinking skills. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should be trying to inculcate an interest in historical studies that will outlast high school. I actually have a few students who are more than half-way through this book. Do any of you out there ever remember a student reading ahead in a history textbook and actually find it enjoyable?
Today we discussed the prologue. Price introduces the reader to some of the main players and a number of themes, including the tension between a belief in a strict social hierarchy and John Smith’s more pragmatic approach to leadership. He also spends considerable time discussing the Virginia Company of London and why it is important to understand that the primary motive for this expedition was profit. I showed my classes some of the popular images of the Jamestown landing depict triumphant Englishmen planting the cross in the sand. It is safe to say that most on board were simply content on getting off the boats onto solid ground. This idea of spreading Christianity as a primary motivator for the Jamestown settlers is pure nonsense. It will be interesting once we have an opportunity to compare Virginia with New England where religion clearly did prove to be a primary force behind colonization. Still, my students are usually surprised when they attempt to get their hands around the Puritan concept of religious freedom, which seems alien. We tend to think of religious freedom along Jeffersonian lines or as a negative concept. The Puritans understood religious freedom as the freedom to practice a certain faith. The idea that any kind of freedom could come as a result of not practicing Christianity was alien; individuals gained freedom through religion and God’s word.
While on my afternoon job I came up with what I think is a pretty cool essay assignment which should help my students make sense of Love and Hate. The idea is to have each student write an essay from the point-of-view of the president of the Jamestown colony. The essay will take the form of a report to the board of the Virginia Company of London in which the student must lay out a plan for carrying out the directives of the colony. A number of issues will have to be addressed, including plans to bring profit to the company, maintain order in the fort, and peaceful relations with local Indian tribes. The report will have to be dated with the date determining what kind of background information leading up to the report is relevant. So, a report dated a few weeks after arriving at Jamestown in April 1607 will look very different from one written in 1610. I have to work out some of the details, but I like the fact that this will give students room to be creative but will also demand that they deal with the history as they understand it. What do you think?
Oh…and we are taking the entire junior class to Jamestown in October.