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Using the present to help you teach the past

Source: https://twitter.com/juliaioffe (Senior editor at The New Republic)

This is my favourite picture from a significant day yesterday. Yesterday as many newsreaders were gleefully saying ‘a protest turned into a revolution‘ as President Yanukovych fled the Ukraine and the opposition, which has been fiercely fighting in the streets of Kiev, took control of parliament.

But it is this picture which I am going to use in my class this week to introduce the events of this weekend. This picture is of a man, one of hundreds, who flocked into Yanukovych’s villa to see the opulence and discover where their money had been spent. This man found Yanukovych’s karaoke machine and decided to have a go. Look at his face though, it shows the joy of what has just happened.

Another half term holiday and another regime change (last time it was either Libya or Egypt) but sitting watching the events unfold on Twitter I was really struck that as history teachers we should all be talking about this this week. Using the present can help us teach the past in numerous ways. Below are a few that I came up with, although there are many more.

1. It makes the abstract concrete.

The past is often very abstract to our students who find it difficult to visualise or comprehend that the events  we learn about actually happened. Events like those in the Ukraine yesterday help to make the past more concrete. Yesterday was a classic example of the power of the people. How if you oppress a group of people for long enough they will rise up and demand more. This isn’t exactly the first time this has happened – the Peasants Revolt, the French Revolution, Peterloo to name a very few. Of course in each of these examples the people were fighting for different reasons but if you introduce these events by first discussing the present it helps students to realise the power and importance of what they are studying. You can use the familiar, a news story, to make the abstract, history, make sense.

2. It provides comparison to enrich lessons and improve historical thinking

Yanukovych was a totalitarian leader. The pictures like the one above show how he was using his citizen’s money. The personalised vodka bottles with his face on the label, the petting zoo complete with gnus and the large replica ship in his garden are further examples. He locked up opposition leaders, limited parliament’s power and violently reacted about protest leading to the death of at least 80 people at present count. All this knowledge was gathered by watching a five minute news report. Your students this week will come to your lessons with similar amounts of knowledge pre-built (OK not all of them, but a quick clip at the start of your lesson will do the same thing!) So why not use this? I’m going to. I’ve already decided I’m going to use this to ask my Year 13s which Soviet leader Yanukovych most reflects. There is no right answer to this, but this will provide an enriching debate and require high level historical thinking. Use your student’s curiosity and knowledge of the present to provide comparison to the past.

3. It shows how history affects us still today.

The events in the Ukraine are a long standing conflict of a country that sits between east and west. This is a country that was used and abused by the Tsars, ravaged by the Soviet Union, pillaged by the Nazis and has been deeply affected by post-Soviet corruption. The present day Ukraine is a product of its history and the events of yesterday show how raw this history for its citizens. Sitting in a classroom it is often difficult for a student to see the relevance of history, despite the best efforts of a teacher, yet using modern day events can show that history has created our modern world, for the better or worse and hammers home its importance and relevance.

If you decide to talk about the events in Ukraine this week you can’t go wrong by using the Guardian’s slideshow. The pictures are incredible, even if some do not make easy viewing: http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2014/feb/22/ukraine-protesters-remain-streets-in-pictures