Reading into history

Lakshmi Rameshwar Rao

Most subject teachers handle reading as a process of acquiring information about the subject. But there is much more to reading – subject teachers too can help students discover the joys of reading, with little extra effort. A history teacher shares her experiences.

Efficient reading skills turn children into students, but subject teachers tend to use reading, at best, to help students acquire information, or at worst to get them to repeat the printed word. Good reading habits are accompanied by better overall understanding of all subjects in the language of reading, effective drawing of inferences and conclusions, making connections and anticipating appropriately. At this critical juncture in India, when questions about the rewriting of history and of fundamentalism have come sharply into focus, it is in fact effective reading into history alone that will decipher for us the ambiguities that swathe all historical debate.

History reading in class is what I will dwell on – a typical year in a class VII ICSE schoolteacher’s dairy. The text-book is my guide, but I believe that History encourages reading and reference work: and it is with these that I supplement the main diet. I teach “The Medieval World” so during the first class we look at the word “medieval” and all other “med” words (eg. “Mediterranean” further analysed into its etymology – middle terrain – middle of the Earth). Understanding the root helps the children guess at the meaning of other “med” words. We establish that there are periods in history and look into their last year’s reading on the ancient period projecting to the modern identifying “medieval” as the one in between.

reading-into-history First and foremost, I teach students how to consciously skim and scan – techniques they use out of laziness or neglect in their diligence to read every word. We look at the table of contents. (Unfortunately no textbook has the innovation of an index at this level or even references.) Then we skim or glance rapidly through the chapter we are to study, marking in our minds th section heads, and looking at the illustrations and figures. Finally, we scan the chapter for dates and names. This makes the chapter well begun and half done. The next effort is to read and discuss multiple connecting sections in historical or thematic sequence (often, though not always the sequence followed in the book). The whole chapter is then read at home from beginning to end for a test on the following day. This may be several days after the chapter was begun.

Second, controversy and surprise are at the root of interesting teaching that will be remembered by the students and help them think for themselves. There are for instance numerous examples of Akbar being a ruthless monarch and Aurangazeb, on the other hand, being benevolent. To locate interesting information and make it available for the students to read, the teacher has to do some initial reading herself. This comes in useful thereafter year after year with each new class. My favourite one is Akbar hurling his step-bother over the walls of a fort and murdering Bairam Khan on the one hand, and Aurangazeb’s donations to temples on the other hand. These I have written up without the names of the kings and at the end of the section on the Mughals I ask the children to read the two descriptions and name the monarchs. The bias seen in children’s answers is an indicator to them that it is important not to read with bias.

Textbooks enumerate the major sources of this period of history as books and monuments. Going to copies of books from this period, as well as illustrated manuscripts and reproductions on miniatures in a rewarding experience for the student and teacher alike. Monuments are another source that provide important insights. Hyderabad, where I teach, is a medieval city so the monuments and places of historical interest are unending but then we forget that many cities and towns in India re medieval – Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Pune, and Lucknow, to name a few. Good tourist literature is an easily accessible source of popular historical material.

The medieval period is also the time when currency came into wide use. Every class usually has more than one child who has an old coin. Looking at the coin with a magnifying glass and then discussing the script on it can lead to a lively discussion on scripts and languages.

In the last term the children study medieval Europe including concepts such as “feudalism”. Feudalism is explained as a social system where the king gives a “fief” or land holding to feudal lords who in turn give it out to vassals – all in return for military service. An interesting turn of phrase is thrown up here: “in turn” and “in return”, and I try to point this out. But though I do my utmost, the concept of a social system is difficult for the children to grasp even though the caste system and Rome have been studied the previous year.

The study of medieval Europe culminates in each student taking on to read individually in the library about one aspect or person of the Renaissance. The students are then divided into groups that have studied the same thing or something allied. The students in each group read each other’s notes and then prepare an oral presentation. This is different from the earlier unsupervised projects they have done at home where I insist on a table of contents in front, a list of references at the end and hand drawn illustrations. The students may use the Internet but the project must be completely hand written with at least three chapters. This usually ends with a special end of the year programme: we ended one year with a performance of an adaptation of Girish Karnad’s historical play of contemporary relevance, “Tughlaq”. In another year, teachers of music demonstrated and lectured on Bhakti traditions from North and South India.

All this depends on reading so encourage reading we must. These are some of the things that make for proficient and fluent reading, reading for pleasure, reading that will turn facts into information, information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom.

This article first appeared in Teacher Plus, May-June 2001, No.78.