Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Middle Ages

We will be studying the Middle Ages this year, which causes a problem for me: It is my favorite period in history, and I have an over-abundance of material. I have materials for kindergarten through graduate school, so choosing only those things that are most appropriate for each kid and ignoring all the other really good things I have is tough; but if I don't, the kids will be overwhelmed. The over-abundance also makes it hard to organize the information; the list gets so long in places that it is hard to make sense out of it all. Should I spend a week on illuminated manuscripts? I have some really good books on it, and it lends itself to art projects. Or should manuscripts be a side-light when we focus on France, with the week used for the Scottish rebellion (Robert the Bruce and all that) instead? I haven't answered this one yet, but I'm leaning toward including the Scots.

Another challenge comes from the fact that most children's books on the Middle Ages lump together 500 years into one culture; or else show one 100-year period of the High Middle Ages as representative of the entire period. Finding age-appropriate books that show the development of the period, from the end of the Dark Ages in Charlemagne's court around 800 to the High Middle Ages in France around 1300, is difficult. Luckily, the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia does a good job of covering the developments, and I can usually find single-topic books to supplement it with details, biographies, and stories.

And then there's the fact that history was happening outside Europe - and not just in the Middle East. Finding the balance between the traditional western civ. story line, primarily concerned with French and British history, and the history of the rest of the world is tricky. Even getting the outlying edges of Europe into the narrative can be difficult: how do you deal with Russia when it was primarily a Central Asian culture? It's critical to cover the Byzantine empire and the growth of Islam, but in how much detail? China had some really interesting developments, and there is the samurai period in Japan, too... I finally decided to use parallel tracks instead of bouncing back and forth between "Europe" and the rest of the world.

The good news is that I get to revisit my favorite historical period and, because I am organizing the information for the kids, I'm learning the dates and timelines better than I've ever known them. Best of all, because I try to draw connections between events over time and space (where appropriate), I am having to make the connections first, which means I remember them. For instance, I always knew Charlemagne was important, but only last spring, when I wrote the week's text on him, did I realize that it is because he unified Europe and started schools at his courts, effectively ending the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. That kind of enlightenment is why I love putting together my history curriculum instead of buying one.

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