Tuesday, August 09, 2005

School's Back in Session

Today I return to school for a week-long inservice before the kids come back. Also, next week I start another semester, my last semester of doctoral coursework in history, at the University of Houston. It was a busy, fun, and quick summer, and on this day of new beginnings I'm in a bit of a reflective mood. Thus I'd like to post some thoughts about my trip to Morocco this summer. I penned these mediatations for a little publication that will go out to the parents of some of my students. For what it's worth.....

Meditations on Morocco: Finding History in Africa and Africa in History
By: Phil Sinitiere

I always wanted to go to Africa. This desire originated when I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in college (though I reject the imperial and racist outlook of Conrad's time and the hubris of his age that continues to rear its ugly head in our own time) and continued with teaching about Africa in world history classes. More recently, graduate classes in African history at the University of Houston and my involvement with last year’s Interdisciplinary Core program on Sudan inspired my interest in Africa even more. I got a chance to visit Morocco during the summer of 2005.

Interestingly, the occasion of my visit involved Second Baptist School (SBS). I presented a paper on teaching Sudan at the annual World History Association (WHA) meeting held at Al-Akhawayn University in the resort town of Ifrane. My paper summarized SBS’s Core program from the 2004-05 year and offered five additional ways to teach Sudan in a world history context. Thus the paper integrated uniquely my teaching experience at SBS with my doctoral work at the University of Houston. Fittingly, one theme of this year’s conference was “Africa in World History.”

Started in 1984 and currently based at the University of Hawaii, the WHA aims to bring high school history teachers into conversation with professional academics and historians. Meetings not only canvass the latest theories of academic world history, but also offer innovative ways to teach world history; international presenters are both college professors and high school teachers. In addition, to reflect the global nature and importance of teaching world history, the WHA annual meeting is held at an international location every three years. The WHA chose South Korea and Italy to hold previous meetings, and will convene in London in 2008.

Though I’ve known about the WHA for several years and regularly read the Association’s publication, Journal of World History, this was my first time to attend an annual meeting. I’d like to share four things that stand out about my visit to Morocco.

The first notable thing about this year’s WHA meeting was the truly international flavor of the conference. Not only did I attend sessions that covered the history of North Africa, Europe, India, Latin America, and the Caribbean, for example, but I also met other scholars and teachers from Brazil, Australia, France, England, Pakistan, Turkey, Norway, New Zealand, Morocco, and of course a large contingent from the United States. It was a joy to both share with and learn from such a diverse group of scholars and teachers.

Another notable aspect of the WHA meeting was the focus on teaching. Professional academics often receive criticism for lack of engagement with the “real world,” but this did not characterize the attendees at all. The conference struck a balance between the latest scholarly trends in world history and the most effective ways to bring such perspectives to the classroom. For example, I heard presentations and had discussions about the creation of textbook assignments, ways to assess student achievement, the integration of technology in the classroom, and how to make history “relevant” to students. With the global nature of today’s world and the rapidity at which human communication now occurs, I am more convinced than ever that teaching world history is one of the best ways to inform students about the past and engage them with the present. In addition, I will be working with the history department at SBS to explore ways in which U.S. history and Government and Economics curriculum might continue to reflect a more global outlook.

Another highlight of this year’s WHA conference was the opportunity to meet Professor Jerry Bentley, the author of Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, the textbook used in SBS world history classes. Professor Bentley teaches at the University of Hawaii and is one of the pioneers of the academic field of world history. He helped to spearhedad the WHA, he’s authored one of the leading world history textbooks, he’s the editor of the Journal of World History, he’s a College Board consultant for the AP World History curriculum, and he’s a regular reader for the AP World History exam. One top of this exhaustive work, I can attest to the fact that Professor Bentley is eminently approachable and ready and willing to offer his wealth of knowledge about teaching world history.

Finally, WHA conference organizers arranged a tour for attendees to the ancient trading city of Fez. Situated several thousand feet above sea level, Fez is considered the spiritual capital of Morocco. Arab Berber settlers founded Fez in the early ninth century, and the city still displays impressive varieties of merchant activity. Another striking feature about Fez is the narrow streets. This means, of course, that transportation comes by walking or with the use of animals and visitors often have to negotiate space with cart-drawn donkeys. In addition business transactions, residents of and visitors to Fez encounter over 365 mosques and a number of important madersas, schools where students learn the Koran. Sights (and smells and sounds) likes these give the city an ancient feel. Interestingly enough, my visit to Fez reinforced a theme from this year’s WHA conference: “Africa in world history.”

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