At its best, history is a living, breathing record of the past. Much more than a timeline of events, government structures, and historical figures, the study of history explores how societies function and culture evolves. Above all, a well-rounded study of history helps students better understand how we live today. But at the high school level, how do you move past the typical Eurocentric view of history and dive deeply into the major cultures of the world? Upper School world history teacher Ms. Hannah Tompkins is bringing object-based learning to her classroom to do just that.
Building Knowledge Through Art
With a double major in history and art history, Ms. Tompkins brings a unique perspective to her world history classes. Her approach uses art, artifacts, and media as jumping off points to make in-depth discoveries about society and culture. With this student-centered approach, her classes analyze art and make observations to understand social connections, building knowledge about different cultures in very authentic and memorable ways.
"You can look at sculpture from different regions and not only see the evolution of art and technology, but also what they valued in society. For example in Chinese art, the representations of people are very realistic. In Egyptian and Indian art, people are more stylized. One of the main differences between those two and China is that they are religious-based societies while Chinese society developed based on government fundamentals and philosophy. Egyptian and Indian art often includes deities, whereas Chinese art often has scenes of nature, court life and poetry. Art is an easy access point for my students to understand those more abstract cultural ideas." — Ms. Tompkins
Making Sensory Connections
Ms. Tompkins takes the study of objects a step further with hands-on activities like a recent collaboration with art teacher Ms. Mary Ellen Carsley. While studying Confucianism in Ancient China, our upper school historians practiced Chinese calligraphy using a brush, ink, inkstone, and rice paper. With the help of international student Christopher Fan '23, Ms. Carsley demonstrated how to properly form Chinese characters while teaching about the history of scholarly art in that region. The class transcribed the poem "Thoughts on Still Night" by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, while Christopher and Ms. Carsley circulated the room to offer suggestions. Through this sensory experience, students made connections between the physical act of writing calligraphy, the meaning of the poetry, the context of Confucian philosophy, and the historical period in Ancient China.
Scroll through the photos below for a peek at the lesson in action!
The Impact of Cross-Cultural Experiences Today
In another example, while studying the caste system in India, students listened to the podcast episode, "How to Be an Anti-Casteist," produced by the show Rough Translation on NPR. From the show's website, "In this episode, host Gregory Warner and NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer take us into a debate over a system of privilege that is coded in one's career, last name, religion and dietary restrictions. We meet Indian Americans who are considering how their experiences with caste relate to the American pursuit of racial justice. How far does caste discrimination go inside South Asian communities in the U.S.? And how far should companies and individuals in the U.S. go to combat it?"
Ms. Tompkins gave students a set of guiding questions and encouraged them to listen to the podcast with a parent. They then shared their thoughts on a discussion thread in mySevern. This was not an assignment where students were expected to solve a problem or even identify who, if anyone, is in the wrong. Rather, they explored the implications of working in groups with different cultural norms. As our students grow to be the kind of leaders that the world will need in the future, understanding and honoring different cultures will be essential. They will need to consider how cultural norms intersect as our global society becomes more connected. This type of study is their path to that understanding.
"This is a way to make world history truly global. We are spending an entire month each on China, India, and Africa — that's not typical for a 9th-grade history class. Studying this way gives more equal weight to different cultures instead of focusing so much on Europe. Dates and names aren't as important to me. What's important is that my students understand how a culture functions and affects our lives today. They start to make these little comparisons and connections on their own, and that's how I know it's sinking in." — Ms. Tompkins
About Academics at Severn School
There’s what we learn in school, and then there’s the impact that knowledge can have on ourselves and those around us. A Severn education is contextualized for the real world, so each student can explore new ideas and make meaning of what they learn. We prioritize intellectual engagement and a lifelong growth mindset as foundations of an excellent education. Ms. Tompkins's approach is just one example of the many ways our faculty set the stage for our students to become intellectually agile, responsible citizens of the world.