As many of you in education know, the cold of winter is a tough time to teach and learn. The days are short. The dark is long. We wake up and go into school early, before the sun has arisen. We leave the building at 4PM and the sun is setting. We go from a warm bed to a cold car, to a crazy temperature building where it is too hot or too cold. And then we go home, starting our journey in a cold car, on ice or snow covered roads. We arrive home and have snow in the driveway. Let us also not forget about the Germs! The virus and bacteria wandering around our petri dish classrooms of children. Noses, hands, coughs, sneezes, occasionally vomit or bowels let loose as some sort of bug infects us. And if we are so blessed to have children at home, another and differing set of bugs!
Have we thought about using the cold and the germs for teaching tools? There are two great books out there which can help us capture student’s attention and understand how the climate and the micro-fauna impacted history. Lets start with the cold:
Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age explores how the world, especially Europe, was impacted by a precipitous drop in temperature in the 1300-1800s. This is an easy read for many students grade nine and up. The author makes the history of climate accessible and interesting. By using anecdotes from people’s lives from the time period, we are captured as readers in the drama of day to day life. For instance, one chapter: the Summer that wasn’t portrays the depth of climate’s impact on the farmers, villagers, and merchants who live through the coldest, wettest period of European climate on record. The book ties in well with earth science classes for high school students, so they can see how weather and climate affect people’s daily lives. In the C3 and NCSS social studies standards, geography and how it influences people is one of the 10 themes that the Council recommends all students learn. In my home state of New York, the Geography and how it influences people is a near guaranteed question on the Regents Exam. Reading excerpts from the text in a Regents or middle and lower level classroom will allow students to see how climate influenced history. The discussion could then broaden into how climate patterns are now impacting people- start with the Dust Bowl in the 1920s, and move into the drought which is gripping most of the US. Discuss how air conditioning made living in the south more tenable. Examine the great lakes effect snow and how that impacts New York, Ohio, PA, and Michigan. My home city, Buffalo NY has great ski county because of the lake effect snows. The ski resorts have helped rebuild Ellicottville NY from a sleepy village to a vibrant area. The Adirondacks and Catskills also have a number of winter weather venues. As the United States is moving away from resource extraction to tourism, the dependency on reliable climate continues to grow. No snow makes for a difficult winter sports environment, and will dramatically impact farming in a state which is dependent on a wetter, mild climate.
The second book, Guns, Germs and Steel, examines world history from the perspective of case studies. Its in depth look at a variety of major changes in world history as technology advanced or failed to advance is a great introduction for readers at the high school level. This book really digs into technology, the influence of technology on people in locations, and how their cultures reacted to adopt that technology or not adapt. Its readable and engaging for students who may not see social studies as engaging or interesting. My home state of New York has many such examples of technology advances within its borders. This stretches from the Erie Canal to the use of Iron by the Burden Iron works. The mighty Niagara is an example of the raw power that nature can offer to a civilization when it harasses the water for use in manufacturing. The Cooperstown museum does a great job of exploring a wide range of technology. The societal impact of technology is clearly examined in the Brooklyn Tenement museum. There is a number of amazing Native Culture museums that explore the world our Native cultures exist in. These museums are excellent partners for teachers who seek to have students see the results of the book and class. Specifically teaching about germs should always involve a discussion of the small pox virus and its devastating effects on Native Communities in North America. New York is also blessed with the Cloister, a museum which examines the middle ages, here in NYC. Large museums, especially in our biggest cities often do a wonderful job covering the role diseases play in human history. If you have a passport, I would strongly recommend traveling to the ROM. This Toronto based facility houses a number of amazing collections on the history of humanity in a fantastic curated facility.
I hope you enjoyed these thoughts and two resources- one on the cold, and another on the Germs and technology we use on a daily basis. Now, I am going to go drink tea, eat chicken soup, and take some cold medicine for this acute viral nasopharyngitis, or common cold I suffer from!