INTRODUCING THE TEACHING PRACTICE:
In the “Letters from the Past” assignment, the students will face different perspectives of past events in Africa. There is a specific historical situation at the core of the task that serves as its foundation. Students are then presented with two very different perspectives of the same situation. This situation revolves around two very different perspectives and requires two groups of students respectively.
Thomas took the context of the First World War, as experienced on the continent of Africa and thoroughly prepared two example perspectives of that time.
The historical situation introduces the following perspectives: Firstly, the view of an Egyptian soldier in the British army, fighting the Ottoman empire in the name of Britain during WWI. This soldier has mixed feelings of loyalty, since the Ottoman Sultan is also his Caliph. On the other hand, this historic situation is contrasted with the perspective of a British officer in charge of a group of African soldiers. This officer is concerned about the loyalty of the troops. Both characters write a letter to their families, expressing their concerns, feelings and experiences.
Writing this letter is the task at hand for the groups of students.
As part of the assignment text, Thomas explicitly reminds his pupils to always “be sure to include events, people and developments that actually happened” and “to find historical evidence that can support your diary entries”. This ensures there is a foundation of historical truth and that the letter isn’t a mere fiction.
The principal assignment of drafting a letter from the point of view of a different individual is subdivided in multiple tasks that include research, recognizing, constructing a narrative and allowing for multiperspectivity. Furthermore, these tasks build upon each other in a logical order. The process of writing this letter teaches students how to look at the same conflict or historical matter but from different perspectives, in this case from a European/coloniser and an African perspective. This engages students at a different level and helps them to deal with the complexity of dilemmas that real life individuals in these situations face. This also creates awareness of the very different narratives and perceptions that can emerge from the same basis/set of facts.In terms of didactical approach, this confrontation with two seemingly opposite and yet shared perspectives enables students to have a deeper look into historical experiences. Here, the value lies in the resulting assumptions that these perspectives change depending on context, that there can be different groups within a country or even within larger groups, leading to a firmer understanding of what historical narratives are and how they can be recognized.
Another educational pillar of this teaching practice, is that it provides students with research skills in locating high quality source material. This practice offers a sound basis to learn research skills in the form of a pre-selection of relevant sources and trusted platforms to use as tools for research. This not only saves time – especially for the teacher preparing the lesson – but also greatly helps students to first find a footing when getting into more elaborate research.
Research might seem simple at first, but finding valid sources is a difficult part of the challenge that can be confusing and frustrating to many students.