Monday, July 18, 2016

July 18, 2016: VikingStudying: Elementary Explorers

[Earlier this month, I traveled to Iceland for the first time, a nation with recently discovered historical connections to the Americas. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the culture at the heart of those ties, leading up to a special post on a few takeaways from the trip itself!]
On a striking change in elementary school social studies, and what it might mean.
As part of his 4th grade social studies work this year, my older son had an extended unit on explorers and exploration. As with every aspect of the boys’ education to date, I was profoundly impressed by how much more nuanced and comprehensive was the unit than the equivalent from my elementary school days (which, at least according to my rapidly fading memories, largely focused on Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492). Yet when he brought home the extensive materials at the unit’s end, I was especially struck by one particular detail: the clear and straightforward emphasis on the Vikings as the first European culture to reach the Americas, nearly half a century before Columbus and his fellow Age of Exploration peers. If I had to guess (and as always I welcome more information from more knowledgeable folks in comments!), I would bet that even a few years back, such a unit might have at most presented the possibility or theories of a Viking arrival—but in these materials the Viking voyages were treated as historical facts, no different from the Silk Road journey of Marco Polo or the circumnavigation of Vasco de Gama.
This educational shift could have a number of meaningful effects, and I’ll focus on a couple in particular here. For one thing, including the Vikings can help emphasize for students the messy, dynamic, multi-faceted nature of the exploration and contact period and its histories. From what I’ve experienced and seen, too often the period has been presented to young students as a series of individual and isolated moments: Columbus “discovers” the New World, then some time later the Pilgrims arrive, etc. Besides the easily overlooked complexities within each of those particular histories, that narrative entirely elides how many different communities arrived throughout the Americas over a period of more than 600 years, how many different indigenous cultures they encountered there, how many European American communities and settlements were temporary or failed (and yet what each contributed to the evolving world of the post-contact Americas), and many other historical messinesses. Obviously elementary school social studies units are going to have their simplified or reductive sides, but those things aren’t necessarily the same as inaccurate, and to my mind presenting the exploration and contact period as messy and multi-part is far more accurate to that time and world.
Including the Vikings doesn’t just shift the historical narratives or images being presented, though—it also and just as importantly can shift the implicit but influential definitions of American identity that units like these can create. We’re in Massachusetts, so of course the unit still featured a good bit on the Pilgrims and Puritans and those origin points for post-contact America; but it very overtly did so as one of a collection of such origin points, a group that also included the Vikings, the Spanish, the Dutch, other English colonies such as Roanoke and Jamestown, and broader historical and cross-cultural factors such as the Silk Road and global trade. Moreover, the unit featured a great deal of attention to Native American cultures, a complement to an earlier 4th grade unit in which groups of students were given particular native tribes about which to create elaborate multi-part dioramas and projects. Taken together, these emphases can’t help but portray an America that has been as multi-cultural (and –lingual) from its earliest moments of existence as it is in the 21st century—and can’t help but lead, I believe, to follow-up questions about what each of those cultures and communities has added to the mix of who and what we are. This week I’m considering one particular such culture, but the addition of them to the roster of elementary explorers reflects and extends these broader trends as well.
Next VikingStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other ways you’d analyze the Vikings or Iceland?

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