With the new push towards Common Core and requiring students to cite sources I've questioned how much of a role guessing should be playing in my classes. What do students actually learn when they make guesses about a historical document or artifact? What is the value in having them make guesses about things which even historians can't agree on? I was getting so frustrated that I even started doubting some of the lessons I had used in the past to great success. I came within minutes today of not doing the Heuxotzinco Codex lab I put together last year.
I did it anyway. (Mostly because I couldn't think of anything better to do... great reason huh?)
I'm so very glad I did.
After only a week of instruction on the Aztecs (and two more on the Mayans) my students made some incredible connections. Were they guesses? Absolutely. They were, however, guesses with reasons. They, for example, guessed that somehow it was related to the mass sacrifice we had discussed last week. They reasoned that if they document was showing many numbers and many different objects it made sense that they were for a religious festival. When later pages showed skinny looking humans with more large numbers they assumed they were captured slaves waiting to be sacrificed. Others reasoned that the document was showing Aztec history in full. The first page was showing how much they had when they were stuck on Tenochtitlan. The next couple showed how much they had when they started conquering the other tribes. The 4th and 5th showed the war with Cortez and the last showed how many cities they had at the time.
Were they right? Not even close.
The picture that many thought was Cortez was actually Mary holding the baby Jesus.
The symbols that they thought might be axes used to chop off heads were flags representing the number 20.
Or were they?
History is all about interpretation and consensus. While I am not one of those who believes there is no truth (quite the opposite) I accept that there are things in life that we simply do not know for sure. I think allowing kids to guess at meaning in historical documents is a safe way to teach this. I believe that picture is Mary because a consensus of historians whom I trust tell me so. Their guess fits the narrative well enough that I accept them to be true. Teaching our kids to guess in those ways does have value, even if it will never truly be measured on a test somewhere.
So, let them guess. Let them be wrong. Just make sure they have a reason to do so.
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