Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spoiler Alert: Game of Thrones and China's Cultural Revolution

Are you a book-before-the-movie person? I usually am. I had to read all the Game of Thrones books before we started watching the TV series. I read “The Book Thief” and now don’t want to see a movie version of it (there’s no way a movie can get that right!). I did read “The Fault in Our Stars” and I can’t wait to see that movie. I had to reread “The Hobbit” again before the first movie came out and I’m glad I did. I was rusty before that!

So, Game of Thrones is a fictional, medieval-ish, fantasy TV show based on a book series. It’s known for being gory and racy and unpredictable and terribly addictive TV. The going joke is that “some old guy has been publishing Game of Thrones spoilers” (referring to the author and the books he wrote years before they were adapted for the TV series). When the TV show is based on a book, there are a lot of people out there who know what happens next.

As I thought about the problem of spoilers in the Internet Age, I thought about the problem of spoilers in our social studies classes.

Have you ever done an activity in class where kids are supposed to choose what to do in a historical situation? You know -- “Should Truman Drop the Bomb?” or “Valley Forge: Would You Have Quit?”

Invariably, the kids want to know THE Answer. Should Truman have dropped that bomb? Did he? Did all the soldiers at Valley Forge quit? Would YOU, the teacher, have quit? I used to tease my kids by calling those answers “spoilers” and tell them they wouldn't get the spoilers until the end of the lesson/unit/DBQ. Of course, often a resourceful kid would check Wikipedia or the textbook and “spoil the ending” for everyone. I mean, it’s not like the “ending” isn't findable.

I kind of think of our textbooks as spoilers. They give away the ending without making us emotionally work for it. It’s like giving away the ending of the movie before we've gotten involved with the characters and made it through all the plot points.
*Spoiler Alert!!* (Wizard of Oz)  

Like, if you had never seen the Wizard of Oz and I told you, “Never seen the Wizard of Oz? Oh, Dorothy just has to click her heels three times and she can go home. No big deal”  

Sometimes our textbooks really do act as spoilers. Hey -- don’t know much about the Haitian Revolution?  Haiti ends up free but poor. Or-- What about Alexander the Great? He conquered a LOT of land from Greece to India. Or What happened in China’s Cultural Revolution? Well, it was a political, social, and economic mess. But it’s over now. End of story.

There’s something matter-of fact about our textbooks, which is part of what appeals to us. They make history sound neat and settled, black and white. Alexander the Great was Great. That’s why we call him Alexander the Great. Get it? It’s done. It does make it easier and simpler for teachers and students.

But history isn't neat and settled. It’s messy and debatable and full of grey area. Historians still quibble about whether Alexander was great. They still argue about the effects of the Haitian Revolution. They are still trying to figure out China’s Cultural Revolution.

How can I get a kid absorbed? How can I get him or her engaged in the story of post WWII China?

You really wouldn't care if I told you the end of the last Game of Thrones book -- unless you were already a Game of Thrones fan. Unless you were invested in the characters and plot. Along the same lines, a student is unlikely to care about the China’s Cultural Revolution unless he is already invested in China’s Communist Revolution, unless he can get absorbed in the major players and historical characters.

How can I engage a kid in the characters and the story?

The answer is documents. Good ones.

Through well-chosen documents, students hear the voices of the actual participants in history. They can become absorbed in an individual or group’s point of view. They can make history real and not just a spoiler for something they don’t care about.  Letters, speeches, advertisements, newspaper articles -- these things can tell the story, absorb the kids, and engage them.

Part of a speech from Chairman Mao and an excerpt from Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin makes a kid really wonder how that whole Cultural Revolution thing turns out. It makes him or her curious and interested and maybe look up that whole "spoiler" thing in a textbook or online.

Use the idea of your textbook as the spoiler that tells the "ending" -- and the documents as the story itself. Think of good ways to "tell the story" through documents. 

At this time of year, I tend to get tired of the same-old, same-old and go hunting for new strategies. Although most of us already have tried and true ones in use, if you need a new strategy for examining and analyzing documents to mix things up, try the Six Cs. 

The Six Cs (by University of California Irvine's History-Social Science Project)are just one more tool to help you and your students analyze primary or secondary source documents. 

The Six Cs are:
1. Content (What is it about?)
2. Citation (Who wrote it and when?)
3. Context (What's going on at the time and place this was created?)
4. Connections (Link this doc to other things you know)
5. Communication (What's the point of view or bias?)
6. Conclusions (How does this document contribute to the understanding of history?)

Try to keep your kids and yourself on your toes as the year starts winds down -- see how the 6 Cs work for you and for them. The goal, as always, is for kids to internalize the strategy and be able to analyze a document without a worksheet. So, maybe the Six Cs are a great way to do that. 

Game of Thrones Fans are constantly avoiding spoilers. Students of China's Cultural Revolution should be avoiding spoilers, too -- because they're too engaged in the story through documents.

Either way, start thinking about your textbook as a spoiler. How can you get your kids engaged so that they will WANT to find out what happens next? How can you get your kids to get mad at spoilers in the textbook?  

Have you thought about this before? Do you have a tried and true document analysis strategy you love? Or will you try using the 6Cs (and let me know how it goes)? 

As always, I love to hear from you! Email me at

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