Allen Rozelle – Activities for the Study of History and Becoming a Historian

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Allen Rozelle

Allen Rozelle



What follows is a commented description of two activities from a longer series of activities, proposed at the beginning of a 12-hour, intensive workshop on the teaching of history, held on 22-23 October 1988 in Besançon. The workshop participants were all adults, but the exercises have also been used with students between the ages of 9 and 15 in school and during normal classroom periods. For the reader to understand what follows, I suggest he or she do the exercises proposed and simultaneously observe himself or herself doing them.

Activity 1

Ask students to take a piece of paper and in 10 minutes to write down their points of reference in history or whatever comes to their minds when they think of History.

At the end of the time, which may be shortened or extended depending on student response to the challenge, ask students, who are willing, to read their lists. Make no comments about the contents during this part of the activity.

After the lists have been read, ask the students to say what they noticed while their colleagues were reading.

Comments: One can be certain that all the lists will be different although certain reference points – “events” which belong to a certain collective, cultural past – may turn up in several lists. Some contributions will be lists of “events” without reference to time; others may be only dates with no reference to what happened. Others may include both. Some may be chronological; others may be random. Some may span the known history of the Universe; others may be autobiographical. Still others may be national, political, religious, cultural, literary, medical, social, geographical, military, diplomatic, scientific, etc.

Depending on what turns up, the teacher can either decide to move to the next activity or to focus student awareness on certain aspects of the lists:

  • do the items listed all concern the same “things” in history; do they involve the same aspects of life or existence; can they be put together in different groups; how many different groups can the students find (personal, scientific, military, political, national, prehistoric, industrial, economic, geographical, etc.); can the students give titles to their groups; can the students “guess” why one student has grouped certain events together; and so on.
  • can all the items be dated with certainty; can the group do it without outside assistance; do certain items defy exact dating; can they be fixed relatively (Antiquity, human prehistory, the Middle Ages, the Tang dynasty, Pre-Columbian America, when the dinosaurs existed, the Pleistocene, the American Civil War, etc.); do other images come to mind when you think about a certain item and can they help fix the initial “event” in time; etc.
  • which items stem from direct personal experience and which come from reading works of history or novels or stories or seeing films; does that make an item different; how; etc.
  • what parts of the world are included in the history created by the lists; which parts of the world are excluded; which epochs are included and excluded; etc.
  • which items, when dwelt upon, provoke many images of “that time” – dress, climate, social relations, political formations, points of agreement or conflict, wars, music, religious beliefs and customs, eating habit, sexual customs, games, poetry, living conditions, means of transport, etc.
  • which items evoke nothing more than the item itself.
  • and so on.

Activity 2

Have the students take any vaguely rectangular blank sheet of paper (for youngsters a fairly large piece of paper is best but any size will do). Ask them to fold it carefully in half lengthwise and to press firmly along the complete length of the fold so that when they open the sheet they can perceive the line of the fold. Ask them what they see when they open it; do not tell them. Answers may vary. The teacher should insist that whatever they express be true to perception.

Go to the blackboard and tell them that it represents your piece of paper. You may wish to draw a chalk border around the surface to trigger their perception of the board as a rectangular “piece of paper” similar to their own. Draw a horizontal line across the middle of the board and tell them that it represents the fold. You may want to dramatize the action by pretending to fold the blackboard (histrionics rarely hurt) before you draw the line.

To emphasize the point where the line meets the right edge of the blackboard, draw an arrow aimed at that one point and ask your students to label it today on their sheets of paper. (You could as easily so label the left edge, but since English and French reading moves from left to right and from top to bottom, there is an automatic advantage in placing the future to the right; in Hebrew and Arabic the opposite is true.)

Next, go the other end of the line, where it meets the left edge of the blackboard, draw an arrow aimed at the first point on the line, and ask the students to label it 12,000,000,000 years ago or il y a ans (or the equivalent expression in whatever language you are using). It is best to write 12,000,000,000 years ago or its equivalent on the board and then to ask the students to read the number; it will tell you whether anyone in the class knows how to read such a number or not. If a student knows, he or she will put the vocabulary into circulation. If no one knows, you, the teacher, can give them the word needed.

Then, ask them to look at the line and its two extremities and say what the line represents. Perhaps after different kinds of answers, which are unacceptable under the circumstances (a history lesson), someone will say that it represents 12 billion or thousand million years or milliards d’années. Ask them at that point how many years are indicated by the line. You should get the same answer.

Next, ask them to fold the sheet of paper in two vertically and to pinch it at the point where it intersects or crosses the horizontal fold. If someone folds it completely, do not worry about it but take advantage of the mistake to tell him or her that he or she was not listening carefully enough. Ask the class to open the sheet of paper and to say what they see. Various answers are possible but insist on the exactness of the students’ expression. Next, ask the class to give the point of intersection a name. Someone will say 6,000,000,000 years ago or its equivalent. Ask him or her how he or she found it. Various answers are possible, but one again you should insist on exactness. Have the students write the name on their papers.

Next, ask the students to fold their sheets in half vertically once again and then to fold them yet again in half and to pinch them at the point where the initial horizontal line crosses the new vertical fold. Open the sheets, look at them, and ask the students to give names to the new points of intersection. 3,000,000,000 and 9,000,000,000 years ago will be accepted. Ask the class how they found them. Various answers are possible.

If you or the class wish, another fold can be made and the names added to the time-line.

At this point you may wish to do a series of brief, mainly silent exercises to make sure that everyone knows how to name various points and segments of the time-line. This requires that students realize that the entire line represents 12 billion years, that any half represents 6 billion, that any quarter represents 3 billion, and that any three-quarters represent 9 billion. When doing these exercises with the students, avoid beginning each time with today; there are also 3 billion years between 9,000,000,000 years ago and 12,000,000,000 years ago! On the other head, mastery of the line also requires that students realize that when naming a particular point, they have to refer to the span of time in years between that point and today and use the word “ago” or its equivalent in another language.

Next, ask the students to take a colored pencil. If possible, get them all to use the same color (I prefer BROWN for this part of the exercise). Ask them to find the point on their time-lines, whose name is 4,600,000,000 years ago or its equivalent in another language, and to mark it in color with a short vertical line. Ask someone to come do the same in colored chalk on the blackboard. Then, as the teacher, draw a colored line on the blackboard from the top or bottom of the short vertical mark indicating 4.6 billion years ago to the edge of the blackboard labeled today. Do it carefully so that the new, colored line is parallel to the initial horizontal chalk “fold”. Ask the class to do the same with their colored pencils on their sheets of paper.

Finally, tell them to call this sheet of paper A, to write it in the upper left-hand corner of the sheet and to put the sheet of paper aside.


I have chosen 12 billion years as the current duration of the Universe, not because it is True, but because it is easily divisible. Given our present knowledge, I could have selected any figure between 10 and 20 billion years. Each teacher will do as he or she sees fit.

I have chosen 4.6 billion years for the same reason. I could have used 4.7, 4.8 or even 5 billion years ago for the formation of the Earth. Obviously, you could do as well.

Thus far, no discussion of the significance of the dates has taken place. Students may have certain ideas or information about the matter and propose their solutions to the class. If so, there is no reason not to accept them. Nor is there any reason at this point to accept them. What is important is to avoid a “political” argument about whether the Universe has “really existed for 12 or 10 or 16 billion years when no one in class has documentary evidence for his or her assertion. The students can do research on the problem once the whole activity is finished.

Activity 2 (continued)

Having put aside Time-line A, have the students take another piece of paper identical to the first and fold it horizontally just as they did before. Ask them to label the extreme right point today and the extreme left point 4,600,000,000 years ago if that is the point you chose to have them distinguish in color on time-line A. Then, ask them to fold the new sheet of paper vertically as they did for the first sheet and to five names to the points created on the new line. Depending on the age of the students in the class and their awareness of and experience with division, this part of the activity will take more or less time. Ask a student to come to the blackboard and mark the intermediary “folds” and their names. Ask the class if they found the same names. Ask them if anyone wishes to explain how he or she found the names. Ask them if anyone used a different method but found the same names. See how many different methods were used by the class.

Next, ask the students to take another colored pencil (perhaps GREEN) and to mark a short vertical line at the point named 3,200,000,000 years ago and to prolong one of its summits carefully and parallel to the horizontal fold line to the edge named today. At this point, you may want to get the class to do the same exercise in yet another color (perhaps RED) for the point named 340,000,000 years ago and its corresponding duration. (Note the change of scale from billions to millions and take care that the students note it as well.) Have students come to the blackboard and mark the special reference points and durations in color on the new time-line. Call the new time-line B and ask the students to label their sheets of paper in the upper left-hand corner.

Now, ask the students to place the two time-lines, A and B, in front of themselves and to look at them carefully. Ask them to make statements about them: -what is the same, -what is similar, -what is different, -what links exist between the two, -would it be possible to place the special reference points from Time-line B on Time-line A (have them do it, using the same colors), -what are the advantages of having two different yet similar time-lines, -what are the inconveniences, etc.

At this point, if the class has a series of books concerning the histories of the Universe, the Earth, Life (plants and animals) and the emergence of animal life on dry land, ask the students to use the books to find the significance of the time-lines and their special reference points and durations. Students, who say they already know the significance, can be asked to verify what they already know the historian-author of the book says. After whatever length of time is fruitful, ask the students to give titles or names to the time-lines and tell the class how they proceeded to find the information which inspires their titles. Answers will vary and can lead to a lively discussion.

If the class does not have a series of books in school but access to books at home or in a library, you could ask them to do the research suggested above before the next History class. If the class has to access to books whatsoever, you can tell them the stories of the Big Bang, the creation of matter, the formation of galaxies, supernovas, the formation of the solar system, the cooling of the Earth and the creation of the oceans, the beginnings of Life, the gradual increase in the quantity of oxygen in the oceans and finally in the atmosphere, and the emergence of animal life on land. Then you can ask them how they would entitle the various time-lines.

This latter information can also be provided by videotape if there is one in school. The remarkable Japanese-French series, La Planète miracle, in 12 programs of 50 minutes each could be used as could others produces by the BBC. Your decision will depend on the amount of time you have for History (La Planète miracle takes 5 hours to go from the beginning of the Universe to the emergence of animal life on dry land) and the age of your students (the language used in documentaries is often well outside young children’s experience and can lead to boredom).

Yet another exercise is to ask the students to place their personal points of reference from Activity 1 exactly or relatively on their time-lines. (I suggest you get them to do it in pencil because they may wish to erase them at the end of the exercise.) If someone has chosen “events” from the histories mentioned above, he or she will be able to place them. However, for those items which concern the history of mankind, the exercise will lead to remarks such as “There’s not enough room.” and “It’s too close to today.” This problem will give the students an opportunity to work on a number of questions:

– what would one have to do if one wanted to place all the items on time-lines;
– even if it is not possible to place recent events with a pencil, can one “see” them on Time-lines A and B and know that one is tight in placing them (virtual placement);
– what “events” can one situate on time-line A, using virtual placement;
– what “events” can one place on time-line B, using virtual placement;
– what “events” can one place on neither time-line even if one uses virtual placement;
– etc.


On my time-lines I have chosen to stress certain special reference points and ignore others. You may decide to ignore mine and emphasize others: for example, the emergence of plant life on dry land or the formation of multicellular life in the oceans. Or you may wish to include mine with yours. As you have 12 billion and 4.6 billion years of history to deal with, you are free to pick and choose according to your intellectual, historical criteria and your sensitivity to your students as younger historians.

In choosing their titles for their time-lines, students will probably offer very different solutions, all of which may be correct though some may be richer than others in terms of future investigations. Such varied responses are to be expected in the study of History for each student is an individual historian and understands and uses his sources individually. No one solution is correct, but all may be wrong.

In Activity 2, I have stopped after two time-lines, but I know that all the histories of the Universe, including atomic and molecular history, the stars, protozoa, infectious diseases, the dinosaurs, continental drift, the formation of mountain ranges, ancient civilizations, prehistoric mankind, the industrial revolution, the construction of the Great Wall of China, my own personal history, Marco Polo’s, the Incas, the Kings of France, etc., all those histories are available to me and my students in one form that I have chosen and my students have accepted and mastered. Whether we come back to our time-lines to add new special reference points or include relevant drawings or maps or graphs or whether we move on to develop new time-lines from special reference points placed on A and B, all these decisions depend on me, my inventiveness, my reading of the “Program”, student questions, and time. If I can find the time then the learning of History and learning how to learn History should oblige me both to take my students back to what they have done to do more and to move on to new challenges, which would be better visualized on time-lines of different scales. Having done the latter, we could then go back once again to see what the new challenges look like when placed in a longer, larger context. And do on and do forth.

Reflections on Activities 1 and 2:

Before delving into the value of these activities for the learning of History and the learning of how to learn History, I must emphasize that 1) they are only two activities among an infinity, 2) I do them because I thought of them as something to do with my students and they “worked”, 3) I did not extract them from my conscious, intellectual reflections on what History or the teaching of History is all about (but others might be able to), 4) they are rather the result of my intuition over time, 5) the time of this article, like the time of the Besançon seminar, is only one “moment” of my time, and 6) I am very much aware of the danger of justifying them ex post facto. Having said that, I can proceed.

Both activities permit students to be who they are: persons, who have lived a certain number of chronological years in certain conditions and who have created their pasts by living and integrating an infinite number of presents (which may include a cordial distaste for the study of History). Neither activity demands a prior study of History, fruitful or not; neither refuses it, fruitful or not. My 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, could participate alongside Georges Duby and Barbara Tuchman, each according to her or his “level” of awareness, each with her or his knowledge of the Past (Sarah might have to dictate her historical points of reference rather than write them down herself just to speed things up).

Both activities permit the use of what persons have learned through awareness and mastered through experience by the age of 6: to look, to act on what one can perceive, to perceive the effect of one’s action, to evoke the perception of the action, the action itself and its effect, to reiterate the action (checking its correctness by comparing it with the evocation of previous “identical” actions), to act virtually, to stress certain aspects of a problem and ignore others, to change the stress within the same problem, ignoring what one had stressed before, to recognize that others are different from oneself and thus perceive and act differently, to suspend judgment, to concentrate one’s self, to enlarge or restrict the field of concentration without altering the concentration itself, to transfer what one has learned with or without transforming it, according to the demands of the new challenge, and so on.

Consequently, I state that the two activities are for everyone over the age of 6, but I do so having extracted what I have written in the preceding paragraph from images I have of the work students have done in the two activities. To verify my statement, the reader-historian-teacher will have to work from images evoked from his or her own experience, acquired either by actually working in the ways I propose or by producing adequate images from what he or she had read in this article and comparing them in either instance with what he or she knows “becoming a historian” means.

In addition, even if the activities offer access to virtually anyone (so do reading a recipe and making a chocolate cake), do they have anything to do with History or the learning thereof? The study of History is

  1. being at ease with and, in the pursuit of what is true, “frequenting” images one has of “things” that one “knows” no longer are as they were at a time before and
  2. ordering them in chronological time with respect both to themselves and to today.

Thus, I can easily evoke certain images of myself typing the previous paragraph, knowing that the search for words and images has already taken place for that paragraph and that the evocation of the “thing” (the composition of the text) does not have the same “feel” as the “thing” did before. If I wanted to write the history of my last few minutes, I would want to be with my memories of that time, my images of the “feel” of composition and the English language in such a way as to force the reader to evoke images of my “struggle”. I could also use the paragraph as a guide to putting the events of composition into chronological order, knowing all the while that, since I could have come back and modified something already written (and indeed did), I would have to call on memory and images to check its exactness.

Finding myself in the presence of a chopper from the Paleolithic, the pyramids of Giza, a monolithic Olmec statue, a Song porcelain, a Rembrandt painting, a Minié ball from the American Civil War, the film of Ivanhoe, or my grandmother’s chocolate pot, I can also evoke images which I associate with the triggering object or word. I also know that the associated images are of times previous, although, used in this way, “knowing” means having accepted what I have read, seen or been told for want of any reason not to accept it. At the same time, I know which evocations are least rich and why: my experience in those realms is most limited. Therefore, I know where in this list I have to work in order to grow as a historian.

By changing my focus when contemplating the list above, I realize that even if I do not have as many images as I might like about each item, I can nevertheless place them chronologically in relation one to another and to myself. Some evoke precise dates, others vast epochs. Each tells me in which time frame of history I would have to look to know more. Each tells me which items might have influenced others in the list and where no influence could possibly exist (it could be demonstrated that the Paleolithic chopper influenced my grandmother’s chocolate pot but not the contrary). Consequently, knowing the chronology (when) of one item permits me to know where to search for associated items since time past can only be presented visually as an unfolding space. By searching there, I can discover, handle, read or look at unexplored documents and resources and create new images, which I can then frequent in different ways to further my growth as a historian of one time period and one civilization. Knowing the relative chronology of several items and, if I have done the necessary, different civilizations, I can compare images to strengthen my understanding or discover new questions concerning a certain breadth of History. These vertical and horizontal movements in time made space (the actual or virtual time-line) and space in time (historical geography, which I have not dealt with), when combined with the creation of and frequenting of historical imagery, constitute the work of the historian. I have asked my students to do the same during the two activities.

The tracks these “physical” and mental gymnastics leave in the mind in terms both of history and of how to study History explain why historians of a given field learn nothing by heart in their field. Just as farmers work their farmland as farmers, historians simply work their historical fields as historians: the first time they plow a new piece of land, they learn where the historical rocks, stumps, ditches, bogs and so on are; they do not memorize their locations by heart; they simply retain them in the form of images; they also simultaneously begin learning how to deal with them, learning which will evolve and produce more “knowledge” for as long as they as farmer-historians work that particular field; they will be able to transfer some, but not all, of that learning and knowledge to planting hypotheses, but only time and the quality of the historical harvest will tell them if they were correct, an experience which, regardless of the results, will produce more learning of a different sort and more knowledge. So to the question, will students working this way learn the Kings of England or whatever, the response must be yes, at the very least, if they work that field. This awareness and all the awarenesses which lie beneath it represent, it seems to me, the best hope for the future of teaching and learning History today.

© Allen Rozelle
October 1988, Geneva (CH)

The Science of Education in Questions – No 1 – Une Education Pour Demain, France. April 1989.

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“Activities for the Study of History and Becoming a Historian” by Allen Rozelle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

A brief biography

Born and educated in the United States, Allen Rozelle emigrated to France in 1968. Teaching in the English Language Program at IBM-France, he first encountered the Silent Way and Caleb Gattegno’s work in 1971. He met the author in Paris in 1973.

In October 1974, Allen Rozelle participated in his first Silent Way seminar at Educational Solutions, Inc. (New York). In July 1975, he took his first awareness workshop on Intuition in Bourg-en-Bresse.
Between 1974 and 1977, he collaborated on the elaboration of the video series, English ,the Silent Way, and Hebrew, the Silent Way.

Between 1979 and 2004, while continuing to take part in courses and seminars in Europe and America, he worked as a teacher using the Silent Way at the International School of Geneva.

He also developed material to allow him to work with young students in History and Geography in the spirit of “the subordination of teaching to learning.” During this time, he also gave workshops on the Social Sciences at UEPD, using these materials.

In 2007, he directed a literacy workshop using the Silent Way in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) for the Dounia Don Kalan association.

He officially retired in 2007 but continues to practice the Silent Way in the Santa Cruz Literacy Program in California where he now resides.