In Upper School history courses this fall, students explored the power of storytelling through art, written narratives, slideshow presentations, graphic novels, and political cartoons. Along the way, students discovered that history is not a single story but rather a series of overlapping narratives and perspectives that are far richer than they had imagined.
Storytelling through cave paintings
Much of what we know about prehistoric man comes from the art and artifacts that have survived from that era, so it was apt that seventh graders should create cave art to demonstrate their knowledge of the humans of the Neolithic and Paleolithic periods. Students used materials found around campus, or at home if they were in the Distance Learning Program, to make their paint, discarding some items as they discovered others, in the same kind of trial-and-error process that early humans might have experienced. To accompany their art, students wrote a two-paragraph story incorporating what they had learned about early humans and their daily lives. “We wanted students to get into the mindset of what prehistoric people were thinking about,” says Ancient World Cultures teacher Emily Gifford.
In Ancient History, eighth graders examined the Greek tradition of storytelling by reading two translations of the cyclops story in Homer’s Odyssey. The first was translated and edited over 100 years ago by A.T. Murray, a male professor of Greek at Stanford University. The second was completed in 2018 by Dr. Emily Wilson, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and focuses more on Penelope and women’s role in the epic. Classes discussed historical perspective and the role of a translator. “Students considered how a translator’s own biases and lived experiences play a key role,” explains Ancient History teacher Emily McCauley.
Inspired by the concept of the “hero’s journey” in the Odyssey, students then composed their own narrative of their journey through 2020 in the form of a slideshow, graphic novel, story, or video. In the style of the Odyssey’s cyclops, some students transformed COVID into a demon or a monster that they defeated, armed with masks and hand sanitizer, while returning to school was akin to preparing for battle. Students were able to creatively personify their “demons” and exaggerate their own successes in true Greek epic style.
Circles of stories
When seventh graders in the Distance Learning Program’s American History course learned about Native American tribes this fall, they explored the power that cultural stories have to teach and heal. Students also considered how these stories manage to survive for generations despite oppression and assimilation. Emily Gifford shared two stories written by Native Americans with her class: Kevin Noble Maillard’s “Fry Bread,” about the importance of preserving cultural traditions, and Carole Lindstrom’s “We are Water Protectors,” about environmental justice. Students then recorded a legend from their own heritage, describing how it has survived through the ages and explaining how it impacts them today. “This was an opportunity for students to look at themes of indigenous storytelling while sharing their cultural heritage and building community,” says Emily. Yat ka Luo ’23, who lives in Hong Kong, shared the Chinese story of Nan Guo and the perils of dishonesty. Roland Larbi ’23 shared a story of his home country, Ghana, giving classmates insight into its culture and values.
Making sense of history through storytelling
History Department Chair John Beloff is teaching Topics in Modern America to ninth grade students in person and in the Distance Learning Program. Students in both classes employed a range of storytelling strategies as they studied the 1948 presidential election and the Berlin airlift.
Ninth graders used political cartoons to retell the 1948 presidential race between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey. The race is fascinating to study, notes John, because Truman’s victory was unlikely despite his position as the incumbent. John asked TMA students on campus to choose three political cartoons to tell the story of the race, annotating the images with labels and explanations. Then they wrote a full explanation of the election’s outcome. Distance learners focused almost entirely on the political cartoons, selecting and annotating six cartoon images and writing an explanatory paragraph.
John flipped the assignments when students studied the Berlin Airlift. Distance learners retold the story mainly through writing, while in-person students relied on pictures, cartoons, maps, video clips, and very few words to describe the endeavor. By employing a variety of storytelling methods, “we’re helping students to develop their own voices rather than falling back on the voices of experts,” says John. “When students become storytellers, they become teachers.”