European History = Cities

I watched a video at TED.com earlier this week that dealt with the history of the 1853 cholera outbreak and the Ghost Map that connected the outbreak with the contamination of a single water well.  Once the water was shut off there, the epidemic gradually dispersed.  By the time cholera broke out again in the mid 1860s, public health officials understood that it was contaminated water, and not smelly air, that caused the disease.  It was the last outbreak of cholera in London, and the beginning of London’s unparalleled growth to be one of the world’s great cities.  Not bad for an old Roman market town barely a mile square that almost didn’t survive the Black Plague.

But tonight, as I did review sheets with my seventh grade history students, I realized: the history of Europe is the history of cities.  Rome’s fall meant the rise of Byzantium.  Byzantium’s decline meant the rise of Venice.  Venice’s decline allowed Florence to flourish, and Florence declined as Paris, London and Madrid had their day.  Amsterdam fits in there somewhere, too, ’round about the Scientific Revolution.

Next year, my seventh graders will each do a poster-board in the first week of class. Each will be on a major European or Middle Eastern city:  Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, London, Damascus, Jerusalem, Madrid, Aachen, Nuremberg, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bruges, Lisbon.   Each poster will have:

  • A modern map of the city
  • A map of the city from some prior era
  • Four modern images of the city;
  • four prior images of the city;
  • A brief written description of the city;
  • a timeline along the bottom, from AD 800 to the present day;
  • a sheet of paper labeled, “Additional Notes”.

Each student will then be responsible through the year for maintaining and updating their poster-board.  Any time they encounter that city in the textbook, or in research, they have to add that information to the board. Any time that city comes up in another student’s research, they inform the student, who adds it to the board.

Then, each student will do a similar board for a country — but not the same country as their city.  And a similar board for a century, but not the century in which their country or city was most prominent.   So a group of students might look something like this:

  1. Jerusalem — France — 14th century
  2. London — Italy — 11th century
  3. Amsterdam — Spain — 13th century
  4. Damascus — Germany — 15th century
  5. Nuremberg — Netherlands — 10th century
  6. Madrid — England — 17th century
  7. Istanbul/Byzantium — Belgium — 16th century
  8. Rome — Portugal — 18th century
  9. Venice — Byzantine Empire — 19th century
  10. Paris — Scandinavia — 12th century
  11. Florence — Ireland — 20th century
  12. Lisbon — Muslim Empires — 9th century

Each student is responsible for maintaining and keeping up the ‘database’ for their city, their country, and their century through the school year. The poster-boards serve as review tools, data collection points, and information sources.  In essence, each page acts like a wiki page — and indeed, each student could also be responsible for maintaining the wiki page that is at the core of the idea. One could take it one step further, and include certain organizations as a fourth poster for each student:

  1. Franciscans
  2. Dominicans
  3. Benedictines
  4. Crusader Knights (Hospitallers, Templars, Teutonics)
  5. The Papacy
  6. Heretics
  7. Guild of Scientists
  8. Guild of Artists
  9. Guild of Musicians
  10. Guild of Architects
  11. The Holy Roman Empire
  12. The Kings

Each student would be expected to redesign or re-do his poster from time to time to accommodate the latest information, and include new ideas that I’d introduce about graphic design and typography through the course of the year.

I think it’ll be a great way to teach.

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