Revolutionary China: Art and Literature in Times of Dramatic Change
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Social Science Education Consortium
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Revolutionary China Curriculum Unit Review - Phil Bohn
Phil Bohn, Freshman English/Music, Central Catholic High School
As an English and Music teacher, seeing historical context for literature and the arts is something that makes me sit up and take notice. Cross-curricular learning is a big thing this year at Central Catholic and finding a curriculum plan that talks about literature and the arts and the turmoil that surrounds and creates them was just the thing I wanted to see. This curriculum plan, created by Mary Cingcade, Marco deMartino, and Kelly Long for the Social Science Education Consortium in 2002, attempts to make a cohesive series of lessons that describe the literary and artistic scene during a 150-year period in China’s volatile history. The one that I looked at was Part 3 of this series of curriculum units. It begins in 1839 and the first lesson deals with China’s entrance into the modern revolutionary period with discussion of the Opium War. There is also an introductory essay to the entire unit by Timothy B. Weston from the University of Colorado that sets the scene for the entire period of discussion. This essay seems to be almost entirely geared towards the historical aspect while not really mentioning arts or humanities that much. I understand that it’s designed to set the scene, but introducing major historical figures involved in the arts and revolution would be important in a curriculum based around historical artistic context.
Each lesson in the unit talks about various time periods and revolutionary ideas and couples it with some works of literature and art. This seems to help limit the influx of information (which can be overwhelming) while giving an easy to understand explanation of why the author/artist felt it necessary to create what they did. Regardless of accessibility, the entire curriculum unit is based primarily on in-class lessons supplemented by readings to seemingly be done independently and seems fairly high-leveled with blocks of text not really suitable to students who either can’t focus on it or don’t have the ability to comprehend it. I would use this curriculum unit for either juniors or seniors in a World History course or for any age in an Honors Course. Depending on each classroom, students learning abilities, and scope of course, this unit could very effectively augment their understanding of the subject. As the teacher, one would need to be effectively prepared to talk at length and help student understanding on the subject, but there are plenty of teacher resources within the unit and teacher background info that can help in readying the lessons for your particular classroom. Handouts are provided for each lesson and sources are provided as well. The unit is very well put together and seems easy to implement. If I taught a history course I would more likely than not use this in a unit on China. If you teach a literature or arts class, steer clear, as the unit is focused much more heavily towards the historical side. For literature and arts, supplementing this unit with some of the works or related works in your own classroom would be the ideal way to do implement this unit into your teaching.
Review of Revolutionary China: Art and Literature in Times of Dramatic Change
According to the unit’s introduction, Mary Cingcade and company’s “humanities approach to Chinese history” seeks to help learners understand this complex, tumultuous, and defining revolution through an understanding of the art and literature of the period. As a high school English teacher, I was attracted to this unit for its potential connections to the English classroom. To be sure, Revolutionary China’s approach is comprehensive and diverse, integrating poetry, literature, visual art, and social criticism into its study of “how Chinese people have perceived and defined themselves and their nation throughout history.” While the relations to critical reading, writing, and even media literacy are myriad, Cingcade’s social, political, and historical focus make this unit more relevant to the social studies or world history classroom.
The unit’s eleven lessons feature pivotal events within China’s revolution, each exploring how these events shaped China’s identity and its position in the international sphere. A helpful introductory essay by Timothy B. Weston of the University of Colorado, which could be used solely by the teacher or by students also, places these major events in context and establishes connections and patterns among them. Each lesson includes an introduction, objectives, clearly delineated lesson procedures, and accompanying materials (both in print and electronic format). Assessments vary from formal essays analyzing historical events to feature articles and accompanying images inspired by historical documents to critical image analyses. This plethora of source material and variety of activities would make for a rich study of revolutionary China. In spite of this variety, though, the unit’s over-reliance on a multitude of handouts and subsequent questions creates a sense of monotony that could be perhaps alleviated with additional integration of technology.
Lesson 2, for example, focuses on 20th century literature and social criticism, using the story of Ah Q as a primary example. Over the course of this 1-2 class period lesson, students review relevant historical events through whole-class discussion, read excerpts from Our Story of Ah Q, and then complete a handout listing the parallels between details from the fictional text and actual events in China’s history. While a structured, prescriptive hand out such as this one is a great tool for organizing information and gauging reading comprehension and historical understanding, some 10th-12th grade students may find this task tedious and mundane. More complex assignments, like the post-lesson essay (essay questions provided), offer students the opportunity to synthesize and evaluate the information they learn through studying the documents.
The eleven lessons of Revolutionary China effectively work together as a whole; the lessons cannot be used in isolation, or at least not without providing a significant background China’s Cultural Revolution. Thus, rather than using this unit in my English classes, I will probably share it with the Contemporary World History teacher. In the English classroom, I could elaborate on the literature- and writing-based topics and perhaps supplement this study of China’s revolution with a relevant novel. Hopefully, this unit could be the start of a fruitful English-history cross-curricular partnership.