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Today’s history geek question – what is nature? Why should we care?

Since the fall of 2010, I have had the incredible opportunity to work with 40 middle school teachers as part of a three-year Teaching American History project. Funded by the federal Department of Education, the TAH grant program was created to encourage and support the teaching of American history.

We’ve spent our time tracing historical events through the 1800s and talking about how best to teach those events to 8th graders. And it’s been awesome. Great conversation. Useful lesson plans. Teaching materials. Famous authors. Primary sources. But suddenly, it’s almost over. We’re in the last four days of the project.

The best of times. The worst of times.

So while I’m documenting the sweet learning going on this week, it will be with a bit of a sad heart.

This week’s focus? Environmental History in the West.

We’ve got some great scholars this week – Mark Fiege with his The Republic of Nature, Elliott West of The Contested Plains, and Thomas Andrews with Killing for Coal. All incredible environmental / western historians. These guys define the phrase “history stud.”

Plus we’ve got Gilder Lehrman’s 2010 National History Teacher of the Year, our very own Nathan McAlister. Very cool. So it’s a huge history geekout this week.

Today we started with Mark Fiege. If you teach US history, this guy’s book is one you need to read. He basically documents the impact that the environment has had on historical events.

He started with asking us to define the concept of environmental history. After some discussion, we came up with this:

the study of the role and place of nature through time

Mark continued with a series of very basic questions:

What is nature?

Are people inside or outside of nature?

Is nature an actor in our lives or are we actors in it?

Are nature and environment the same thing?

Some great questions that we often don’t think about when we’re working with kids.  We often talk about people being separate from nature but we don’t often talk about how people are actually part of it.

A great exercise to do with your kids – ask them to draw an answer to the question “what is nature?” They have to draw their version of nature. Almost none of them will draw a picture that includes people. Ask them why. Why are their no people in your pictures?

Dr. Fiege is clear about it:

Nature is not a backdrop. It is a part of the events, an actor in history.

Environmental historians try to collapse the boundary between nature and people. We have always assumed that we impact nature and nature impacts us. But we need to understand that people are a part of nature, not separate from it. And we need to work to get our kids to understand that.

Dr. Fiege continued:

What use is environmental history? What good is it?

Nature is present in most historical documents. Fiege used Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France as an example. Burke’s discusses the conservation of nature and estates, how people would pass those on to their children is the same as passing on freedom, government, democracy to future generations.

Another example?

Ask your kids questions such as why did slavery expand in the South but not the North? Couldn’t Northern factories have used slaves as workers?

It’s been a great day – learning more about how the environment is part of who we are. Need more? Head over the the Colorado State University library site. Some great stuff.

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