Once upon a time in the ancient civilizations, there were...uh...
December 16, 2008 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Ancient Civilizations Crash Course: I have to teach a course beginning in February...and I don't know anything!

I will be teaching a grade 11 History class next year for a month (substituting for a teacher) and have no idea what I am doing. In high school, I learned Canadian History and American History but learned absolutely nothing about ancient civilizations. I think the course I will be teaching is the one outlined in this document (starting on page 145).

Do I have to know Greek/Roman mythology? I never learned that either, and feel incredibly stupid when others pick up on allusions to a Greek god and I look like a deer in headlights. I can teach Canadian, American, and European history dating back until the early 1700s but before that, I'm lost.

What should I read to brush up on the subject? What will help me most? Any brief, straightforward texts I should have? Specific suggestions welcome, general teaching ideas also appreciated.

Throw away e-mail: teachitlikeyouknowit@gmail.com
Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Education (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to your administrators and department chair. Sometimes, teachers have a good deal of control over what they want to teach, as long as it fits in the course description. Other times, you are responsible for preparing them for a standardized test (such as the AP tests in the US) or a class they will take next year. The school should be pretty supportive of this. Once you figure out what you need to teach, you can figure out how you want to teach it.
posted by rossination at 7:18 PM on December 16, 2008

Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe series is a good, quick, and entertaining overview of Ancient History.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:22 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

A great go-to book (or pair of books) that could bring up to speed in a hurry is The Creators and The Discoverers, both by Daniel Boorstin.
posted by jquinby at 7:28 PM on December 16, 2008

Seconding Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe volumes. They're well researched, though not always based on the latest scholarship.

For a big picture account that emphasizes social, economic, and political structures, look at David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.

It would be useful to know what "ancient history" means for grade 11 in Canada. Is it Greek and Roman only, or are you doing the ancient Near East, early India, early China, the pre-Columbian Americas, etc.? If it's the narrower conception, you might find the relevant chapters of Norman Davies, Europe: A History, useful. If you have a broader scope, J. M. Roberts, and Odd Arne Westad, The New Penguin History of the World, is not particularly thrilling but it's concise and informative.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:10 PM on December 16, 2008

P.S. The curriculum document to which you linked is quite vague about what the world history to the 16th century course should address in terms of content; it's better on skills. You might also check out various world history textbooks published for university courses; they often have useful documents and exercises that you could use in your classroom.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:13 PM on December 16, 2008

Start with the Wikipedia civilizations category and brush up quickly on Sumer, ancient Egypt, Minoan civ, the Aztecs and the Maya, Mohenjo-Daro. I think you need to structure this class so that don't just impart "facts" about each of these, but talk about how we know what we know about them, how they differed from us but how they handled some of the same problems we have to handle, how their technology allowed them to preserve their culture (or not), how each civlization rose and fell (Jared Diamond's Collapse might be an interesting read here). Make the class an exercise in imagining life in each of these great civilizations and it'll be fun to do as well as effective.
posted by zadcat at 8:40 PM on December 16, 2008

The very greatest evocation of the ancient world that I know of - a book that actually gets beyond the scholastic stuff and really drops you into the world of the ancients - is The Ancient City by Fustel de Coulanges. It is a scholarly text, and I don't recommend that you read the whole thing. However, if you read the first forty pages, you'll be reading the best and most informative bit; moreover, you'll be getting a really good insight into the ancient world and, I think, be much more capable of picturing that world without holding on to the modern notions that almost all histories do nowadays.

And, wonder of wonders, the whole book appears to be available in pdf form right here.
posted by koeselitz at 9:02 PM on December 16, 2008

Let me just ask the obvious: Why are you teaching this course if you are not qualified? Seriously, I'll sub for you if you want.

On the flip side here's a few places to start:

Humanity's spread from Africa

A timeline of history from about the start of civilization onward

A bunch of articles on world history arranged by era

Just remember the basic timeline of any world history class goes like this:

- the Sumerians/Babylonians invent everything from the alphabet to the wheel
- China invents the same shit not long after
- Egypt is important for reasons never fully explained (though they did make a lot of beer and pyramids)
- Some brief mention of the Indus Valley
- Greek city-states invent everything the Sumerians missed: mostly social science crap like democracy, philosophy, and the concept of citizenship
- Persia moves into the Fertile Crescent (aka the Middle East) and kicks everyone's asses, then goes on to threaten the Greeks
- Alexander the Great (A Macedonian) conquers Greece, Persia, and Egypt. He eyes India, then dies
- Say something about China here, like how they're a progressive centralizied monarchy inventing things like printing and massive canal projects
- The Romans start kicking ass and establish an empire from the middle-east to the Iberian penninsula, thereby establishing the basis of Western Civilization
- Something about the Hebrews and the Second Temple (to please the Bible-Thumpers)
- Constantine converts to Christianity, making Christianity a state sanctioned religion
- OH NOES!!!1!!!!1 Teh barbarians and general corruption(and lead pipes) bring down the Roman Empire in the West, leaving only Byzantium (now Istanbul: Why did Constantinople get the works, that's nobody's business but the Turks)
- Europe is a general shithole for several centuries
- The Arabs get religion, spread Islam from India to Morocco, spreading the concept of zero, algebra, and various other subjects you were bad at across the Mid-East
- The Byzantine Empire remains important, for reasons known only to the Kevan Rus
- The French (!) stop the advance of Muslims into Western Europe at the Battle of Tours. Charlemagne goes onto establish the biggest, most bad-ass empire Europe has seen since Rome. Napoleon will do it better later
- The Chinese, under the Tang dynasty are too busy inventing gunpowder to give a shit about a back-water like Europe
- Marco Polo visits China, invents pasta
- The Mongols kick every ass from China to the Middle-East before just kind of sputtering out and reverting to being a buffer state between China and Russia
- The Renaissance! Europe re-discovers all the great ideas the Greeks and Romans had already written down, causing a great flowering of ideas. Modern states begin to form. Also, there's some sort of plague
- Now might be a good time to mention that India has a bunch of shit going on
- Christopher Columbus discovers the New World! Spain and Portugal kill a whole bunch of people in South American and get rich, France and England join the party later in North America
- Now would be a good time to mention the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca. Consider them to be one interchangeable mass culture that only existed to be killed by European smallpox. Do not mention the Olmecs, Toltecs, Moche, or any of the other civilizations that had existed for thousands of years before Columbus came.
- Oh hey, the Reformation! Europe spends a couple centuries butchering each other over theological differences
- Something about the Moguls in India, the Ming in China, the Qin in China, the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, and the Ottomans triumphant in the Middle East
- If you have time you can mention the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai in the Sahel of Africa. If you have lots of time you could even mention Swahili-speaking city-states and Great Zimbabwe, but really, you're better off ignoring Africa until the Slave Trade
- The Enlightenment! Europeans in France and England invent modern civilization, have a bunch of revolutions, and go on to conquer the rest of the world

Well, there you go, that should be your crash course catching you up to the advent of US/Canadian history. Email me if you have questions.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:08 PM on December 16, 2008 [65 favorites]

I've taken this course in the Ontario School System - it was under the old curriculum, but it looks like they probably haven't changed this course.

Most schools will have an established textbook - at least ours did (Etobicoke, mid-90s).

The course I did was organised by civilization - we did

Greek & Roman (for forever)
and a little bit of medieval (not enough, since that was why I was in the course)

another school I attended dropped the Western civilizations in favour of the Mayan, Aztec, Chinese and Japanese and maybe Indian. These were in our textbook.

It's all quite surface level compared to university - you just teach what happened, and then you get them to do assignments which develop their critical skills. If you've taught other history, same deal, just repeat with new facts. We got lots of lectures on Greece and Rome, and then were assigned to write essays comparing two things in each culture - I wrote on comedic theatre.

But the teacher you are subbing for will probably have all the curriculum/lesson structure planned out - they know what they want to be taught, what assignments, etc. You just need to read up on the history in question. It's much easier than modern history - the names are strange, but there are many fewer of them, and so many fewer documents so less to study.

/disclosure - I'm now a history grad student, specializing in Britain 1500-1800, but I've had to TA (leading discussions and answering questions) well outside my field. You just do the readings, and pretend you knew it all along.
posted by jb at 9:16 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sorry - you don't really teach "what happened" - that would be just a bunch of meaningless names and dates.

You teach what it was like:

Sumeria - irrigation, writing
Egypt - pyramids
Greece - city states, Sparta vs Athens, democracy, philosophy
Rome - toilets and Empire
medieval - what is feudalism, maybe get complicated and do some Church history like the argument over whether the Bishop of Rome gets to boss around the others

but since it's a year long course and you'll only be there for a month, you will only be teaching a tiny fraction. I think all of Feb when I took it was spent on Greece and/or Rome.
posted by jb at 9:20 PM on December 16, 2008

In the general teaching ideas category:

After the first few days of the class, for which you need to learn / covey only very basic background, assign specific topics to individuals or small groups. Have them do presentations. Follow these presentations with discussions. Allow some time in each class period for groups to meet and work on teir presentations. Repeat.

You'll have to do some fact-checking and of course critiquing / grading, but the bulk of the work (and the learning) will be transferred to the students.
posted by charmcityblues at 9:43 PM on December 16, 2008

Congratulations on the job! I've taught this course before in BC. It's a great course here. It's very wide open. You can spend as much or as little time per civ as you want. When I did, we divided it up into different civilizations (you could also divide it thematically, I suppose) and tried to cover 5-6 civs in the year.
I still have my bookmarks from my plans that I did, their on my delicious if you want to take a look. I can give you more links probably if you decide what civs you want to cover. Memail or email me if you have any more questions!
posted by pantagrool at 10:48 PM on December 16, 2008

I took this course in Etobicoke earlier this decade. My teacher new absolutely nothing of the topic either, so don't feel so bad about it. That's just how Canadian high-schools work.
posted by Evstar at 11:24 PM on December 16, 2008

I know that it will be easier to find more resources for the Greeks and Romans, but please please please include some history related to North and South America during these periods. There were advanced and complex civilizations right here that flourished for thousands of years at the same time the Greeks and Romans were rocking out in the Mediterranean. The Inca, Aztec, and Maya are the most recognizable names, but you could also branch into the Mississipian which may not qualify as ancient per se since it dates from 800 to 1500 CE, or the Anasazi whose culture began around 1200 BC. This is not to mention all of the northern tribes living in Canada and Alaska who have histories that go back to the first colonization of the Americas. And to be honest, these kids might really appreciate learning about the cool stuff that happened right in their own backyard since they've probably been learning the same Greek and Roman myths since elementary school.

Good luck teaching the class! History is so much fun :)
posted by Mouse Army at 5:15 AM on December 17, 2008

Since your subbing couldnt you just look in the text book or just ask the teacher that yoour subbing for?
posted by majortom1981 at 5:27 AM on December 17, 2008

I think majortom1981 has the right tack. You don't need to have an exhaustive knowledge of ancient civlizations, you just need to know what the teacher was going to cover for the month you'll be substituting. Magic 8 ball says 'Ask Again Later'.
posted by electroboy at 6:46 AM on December 17, 2008

When I was in 11th grade, me and a bunch of my friends wanted to take a World History course that wasn't offered by my school (the teacher who'd taught it had retired several years before). So we petitioned the administration and eventually found a psychology teacher who was willing to teach the class. She didn't really have the background to teach World History, but I thought she did a great job.

Basically, she let us work our way through the textbook, teaching each other. So, most days of the week, a student would spend 45 minutes giving a presentation on a chapter of the book. We were allowed to bring in just about anything we liked to help us present -- so when I did a presentation on European colonization of Africa, I brought in an excerpt from "Heart of Darkness" and showed a clip from "Apocalypse Now" along with my presentation of the textbook material. During the last 45 minutes of class, our teacher lead a Q&A, adding any points we'd missed and facilitating discussion.

At other times, she would also have us spend a week on some kind of primary source material --like Machiavelli's "The Prince," or Goethe's "Faust." We'd read and discuss it together and then write essays about it.

The class was a ton of work, but it was really fun. It was effective, too -- many of us ended up taking the World History AP test and performed well. I don't know what your students will be like, or if you think they'd be motivated to work this hard. But I know I really enjoyed this class -- it was one of the highlights of high school for me.
posted by ourobouros at 9:25 AM on December 17, 2008

A couple things that might be helpful—

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel covers a lot of the "why" of ancient civilizations. Which ones flourished, which ones died off, and what geographic factors contributed to it. It's a bit redundant in parts (he hits each point about a thousand times), but that's part of what makes it thorough. There are also pretty good criticisms that can be made regarding the totalization of his thesis, and there are a couple factual errors and misrepresentations (often in the sort of anecdotal framings that he uses), but it'd be a book that would have worked really well back when I was taking Humanities (which covered the same ground, only with History, Lit, Art and Music all taught as a bundle).

The Voyage of the Mimi 2 is an excellent series, I think from PBS (though maybe CBC) where a bunch of kids go on an archaeological expedition to the Yucatan and learn about the Mayans. There are a bunch of workbooks that go along with it too, though it was a middle-school class where we went through them. I'd assume there were similar materials for high schoolers.

I can't tell where you are, but usually local museums can be of some help.

As far as Greek and Roman stuff, well, I dunno, I find it kind of surprising that you could teach history from 1700 without knowing a fair amount about it, mostly because the writers from that time were steeped in it. I mean, I realize that the Enlightenment is 200 years out from the big rediscoveries of the Renaissance, but you may know more than you realize. In any event, please do have them read The Iliad (if you want, I can try to track down my profs for the best translation, as the first translations are in affected language that will alienate kids), and there are a bunch of cool books about Alexander the Great (Fox is one author).

Also keep in mind that one of the biggest challenges with talking about the American civilizations is that outside of the big couple, most of them didn't have written languages or leave a tremendous amount of archaeological evidence, which can either be good (you can challenge your class to think about what an absence of evidence means and encourage them to fill in the gaps) or bad (not a tremendous amount to work from, like Greece and Rome).

One final thing—one of the coolest things you can do with this is think about how people ate and share that with the class. That was always one of my favorite activities, even though (as a vegetarian) there wasn't always a whole lot to eat. But knowing things like how maize in pre-Columbian America was small like those Chinese baby corns, or how there was no sugar in chocolate drinks, for me, really helped ground me in what the actual lives of people were like then.

And you can always contrast that with the insane recipe books that survive from Rome (including the satire Satyricon by Petronius, which has hilarious descriptions of opulent banquets).

Something else to note is that because of a similar class, when I went to college, I had already read Plato's Republic, The Iliad, The Book of Job, and a handful of other great works that came up again and again. Having basic familiarity helped a lot because I could dive in more deeply on the second or third pass (or, with The Republic, I think I ended up reading that about six times in different courses in college).
posted by klangklangston at 12:00 PM on December 17, 2008

Whatever else you choose to do, you should get Panjandrum to let you hand out that timeline. I wish I'd seen it in 11th grade. So. Many. Questions. Answered.
posted by averyoldworld at 12:56 PM on December 17, 2008

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