Written by Julie Weiss and John Maguire
For students: We hope this two-page guide will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles.
For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers at any level, whether working in a classroom or through home study.
Analyzing Visual Images
Usually this section of the “Reader’s Guide” has you looking at a photograph, analyzing its composition, and exploring its symbols. This month, we’ll try something a bit different. We’ll explore what it means to adorn objects and to decorate surfaces.
Read “Masterpieces to Go.” According to the article, why do truck drivers decorate their trucks? List the reasons. Look at the photographs. What do they make you think of? Las Vegas? Times Square? The Crown Jewels? Come up with your own list. Think about other reasons people decorate. For example, sometimes decorations—like bright-colored stockings or tattoos—simply make a surface more visible. Sometimes they announce status. Add any reasons you think of to your list of why truck drivers decorate their trucks.
Get a magazine that has lots of pictures of celebrities (musicians, athletes, actors). Cut out three pictures of people. Glue each to a piece of paper. How do the people in your pictures decorate themselves? Think about makeup, tattoos, jewelry and types of clothing. Identify the adornments as if you were identifying a lab specimen. That is, make lines that point to the decorations. At the end of each line, in the space outside the picture, name each decoration. Next to each image, write a hypothesis that answers the question, “Why does this person decorate himself or herself in this way?” Are any of the reasons similar to those that inspire the Pakistani truck drivers to decorate their trucks?
Now think about decorating objects. Look at the places and objects around you. Which do you decorate? With a disposable camera from the drugstore, take pictures of your decorated objects and places. For example, do you decorate the inside of your locker? The walls of your bedroom? The covers of your books? Make a display of your photographs. To accompany the display, write about what the decorations mean to you. Why decorate those specific objects? Why these specific decorations? Finally, if you were given a truck to decorate, how would you decorate it?
The activities in this section are designed to engage students with the material in this issue of Saudi Aramco World while encouraging them to connect it to the larger themes they explore in their other studies. This month’s activities revolve around two basic concepts: A Historian’s Tools and Identity.
Theme: A Historian’s Tools
Professional historians define history as the study of continuity and change over time. Historians have tools, just as carpenters have tools. In “The Model of the Historians,” you can see the tools in action. These activities give you a chance to get acquainted with, and to try out, some of the tools in the historian’s tool box. As you complete them, think how a carpenter had to pay close attention to a hammer or a saw the first time he or she used one. You’ll be doing the same sort of thing. Only you won’t be building objects; you’ll be telling stories.
What is chronological thinking? How important is chronology to historians?
The word chronology comes from the Greek chronos, which means time, and logos, which means knowledge. Chronology is the science of time. Do you use chronological thinking? To find out, try this: List, in order, what you did last weekend, or today, or the details of a recent adventure. Number your list, identifying what happened first, what happened second, and so on. Now tell a partner about what you did. How do you want to tell the story? Do you want to tell the details in the order that they happened? Or maybe you want to start with the most interesting details and leave out some of the duller stuff. After you’ve both told your stories, discuss whether you told them in chronological order. If you did, what did you like about telling it that way? If you didn’t organize your story chronologically, did your partner feel that anything important was missing?
Now let’s think about chronology as historians use it. Find at least one history textbook, and look at the table of contents. How are the chapters organized? Pick a chapter from the middle of the book to read. Does it make sense when you pull it out from the chronological order? In other words, when you think about history, how important is chronology to your understanding of what happened in the past?
“The Model of the Historians” reports that before al-Mas‘udi, historians “collected vast quantities of material and set it down in roughly chronological order.” That word “roughly” is interesting: What if it weren’t entirely chronological, or maybe not chronological at all? What if the result were more like a collage, a patchwork of information that you couldn’t put on a timeline because time wasn’t the organizing principle? Think about a society of people that write about events that way. If they don’t think about time as a straight line, perhaps they think of it as a circle. Agriculture, astronomy, and religion often view time as circular. Try writing about part of your own life story as a circle, rather than a straight line from past to present. (It might take some imagination!) Then move on to this exercise: With your partner, hold a conversation, with one of you taking the role of someone who lived before al-Mas‘udi, while the other lives today. Explain to the other person how you think about history. Use the questions above as guidelines. Look for similarities between your worldviews. Try to help each other understand the differences.
What sources do historians use?
The people who wrote your history textbooks got their information from someplace—and we hope it wasn’t just another textbook! Historians study objects and documents that were created in the past. When it’s possible, they also talk to people who lived during the time period they’re studying. According to “The Model of the Historians,” how did historians before al-Mas‘udi get their information? List the sources al-Mas‘udi used to get his information. Which do you think would be the most useful? The most credible? Rank the sources from most to least valuable.
Working with a small group, come up with a list of sources you would use to answer this question: How did television change people’s lives when it was first introduced in the late 1940’s? Rank your sources just as you ranked al-Mas‘udi’s. If time allows, assign different people different sources to pursue. Report back to your group. Discuss which sources turned out to be most valuable. What made them so valuable?
How do historians gain credibility? Why are people willing to believe them?
Do you believe everything you read in a history book? Do you ever wonder what might have been left out? Do you believe what Caroline Stone has written about al-Mas‘udi? After all, she’s writing a piece of history. With your group, look back at the activities about historians’ sources. Identify the sources Stone has used to write this brief history of al-Mas‘udi’s life and work. Are they sources you trust? What about Stone herself? Does she have knowledge, experience or credentials that make you willing to trust her work? Write a classified ad, looking for a historian. In your ad, identify the skills and abilities you are looking for in the person you will hire. If al-Mas‘udi applied for the job, would you hire him? Why or why not? In a group or pairs, conduct a “job interview” in which one person takes the role of al-Mas‘udi and the others ask him to defend his qualifications.
Theme: Individual and Group Identity
We all have many ways of identifying ourselves. We are citizens of a country, members of a religion. We play roles in our families (brother, sister, son, daughter and so on) and in our communities (student, employee, library patron). “Of Stories and Storytellers” looks at a group of Arab–American writers and how they identify themselves, as individuals and as a group of Americans with a more-or-less common ethnic background.
How do group affiliation and individual identity affect each other?
On page 29, Egyptian–American Pauline Kaldas is quoted remembering that until she saw her first RAWI newsletter, “who I was and what I wrote about was not something I saw reflected in the world around me.” Kaldas implies that the lack of group identity posed a problem for her. Choose a group you’re part of that’s important to your sense of who you are. Write a journal entry addressing these questions: What does it mean to you to be part of the group? How does membership in the group affect your sense of who you are? Do you remember a time when you weren’t part of the group? What was it like? If you can’t remember such a time, imagine it: How would you be a different person if you weren’t part of the group?
Why would—or wouldn’t—a writer want to claim an identity as Arab–American?
Think about what Evelyn Shakir means when she says, “In the early 1980’s, I don’t think such writers necessarily thought of themselves in this way… These days they and those who follow in their footsteps are almost forced to identify themselves in this way, Arab–American writers, or else explain why they refuse that label.” Make a T-chart. In the left-hand column, list reasons the writers would want to identify themselves as Arab–American writers. In the other column, list reasons they might not want to identify themselves that way. Using the chart as a starting point, think about your own identity. What is one way you like to identify yourself? Is there some part of your identity that others might expect of you but you don’t want to claim? For example, do you not want to be known as “your kid brother’s sister”—at least when you’re in school? Write a statement that begins: “I am proud to claim my identity as…” List as many things as you can. Follow it with a statement that begins: “I prefer not to claim my identity as…”
How do groups maintain their stability? Why is stability important to group identity?
Part of “Of Stories and Storytellers” explains RAWI ’s history. It’s filled with information that seems, at least at first glance, not to be nearly as interesting as how people think about their identities. But think again. What actions did rawi’s leaders take to assert the group’s identity and to ensure that the group would survive? Look at a group you’re more familiar with, such as a religious congregation or a sports team or a club. What does the group do that helps maintain its ability to go on from year to year without falling apart? What do you think would happen if the group didn’t take those actions? Write a brief imagining of one of the groups without the structures that help stabilize it (e.g., a congregation without a building to meet in, a team without a coach or a game schedule).
||Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Lowell, Massachusetts. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies and develops curricula and assessments in social studies, media literacy and English as a Second Language. John Maguire is a college writing instructor and curriculum designer. He holds an M.F.A.
in English and has taught media literacy, science journalism and literature at colleges and universities in the Boston area.