My Historical Backpack – An Exercise in Teacher Education

Since 2016, the teaching exercise My Historical Backpack has been established as part of the teacher training program at Örebro University in Sweden. By focusing on historical artifacts, the purpose of the exercise is to stimulate students to present an account of their respectively their family’s history and to offer an opportunity to discuss and reflect over the diversity of historical narratives. This exercise is part of a larger close-to practice research project based on collaboration between the teacher training program and several upper secondary schools (gymnasieskolor) in the region. The aim of the project is to develop effective methods for an inclusive history teaching in a multicultural context that takes into account students’ historical experiences. In this sense, the development and integration of an exercise for our teacher education was a significant milestone introducing our students to involve in and facilitate elaborate discussions on history in the classroom. This contribution presents the exercise and shares the authors’ experience of using the exercise as a teaching method.  

Izabela A. Dahl, Jimmy Engren

Both the exercise and the project My Historical Backpack have been carried out by three senior lecturers in history, the authors of this contribution and associate professor Henric Bagerius. Since the beginning of the project, the complete exercise (with teacher students and high school students) has been conducted five times, involving in total almost 170 teacher trainees and close to 450 upper secondary school students. Regular recording the outcomes of the exercise allowed for interesting insights into practical work with students’ personal narratives of the past. However, as teacher educators and researchers, we also encountered some challenges related to using personal and families’ pasts as a vehicle and a catalyst for learning history. 

We have used the backpack picture in the exercise instructions provided to our students.
We have used the backpack picture in the exercise instructions provided to our students.

The idea and activity in the classroom 

The My Historical Backpack exercise is built on the premise that every individual is part of history and has a personal story about the past to tell. Although this story may focus on our own lives, we are never alone in creating it. Each personal story is a link in a historical chain that adds to shaping our identity. At the same time, these links collectively form the tapestry of the world. In our personal histories, we may find significance in the lives of family members or relatives, certain places, or significant events. 

In My Historical Backpack, the teacher trainees were assigned the task of creating and sharing their own stories about the past. They were encouraged to consider how their stories could be contextualized in relation to larger historical narratives, such as the development of the Swedish welfare state in the 20th century or the impact of globalization in the post-war period. By doing so, the trainees were able to explore the ways in which individual experiences intersect with broader historical processes, and to reflect on the complexities of historical interpretation and representation. 

Before the exercise, the students were instructed to pack a backpack. They had to select an object that they deemed significant and that was connected to an important aspect of their personal history. The object chosen by the student had to be linked to the student’s family history, to a place that had shaped the student’s understanding of belonging, or a process or event that was significant to their past in some way. The students were then asked to prepare a presentation, in which they would explain the significance of the object and how it was connected to their personal history. 

Among the items were letters, books, photographs, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, artifacts symbolizing aspects of the family history etc. In the case, the student did not bring a “real” object or when it was difficult to bring it to the classroom, they could instead share a picture of it or something that symbolized the object. The artifacts themselves are in the exercise considered as symbols of significant aspects of the students’ personal history and identity.  

In the classroom, the students unpacked their historical backpacks – they carried out the exercise by sharing personal stories in a way that could lead to a deeper understanding of each other’s backgrounds and personal past experiences . They talked about the item of their choice in a group of five or six, in which each participant had a prepared backpack. Each of the students shared their own story and then answered questions posed by the other participants. Telling the story, the students also explained the choice of item. Thereafter, the students were asked to reflect on the larger historical context of the objects and stories presented.  

As a final part of the exercise, the lecturer encouraged students to think about how their personal stories are connected to historical processes and events, and to consider the impact of these on their own lives and identities.  By activating the historical knowledge already acquired during the education, the teacher trainees could reflect on how their personal stories are part of a larger historical context, and how these stories can be used to facilitate learning in the classroom. In this way, the exercise encouraged the students to think about the ways in which history is constructed and to see the relevance of history and historical knowledge in their own lives and in society at large. 

The teaching exercise as a model for inclusive teaching 

Many contemporary school curricula include the mediation of ideals of democracy and equality, and have increasingly become focused on citizenship education. The My Historical Backpack exercise offers students a model to reflect on and construct their own teaching methods that align with these values expressed in the curricula.  

At the university, the exercise was introduced during the second semester of history studies within the teachers’ training program, in a course called Historical Narrative that is devoted to narrative perspectives in and on history. After having participated in the exercise at the university, the teacher trainees would carry out the exercise at the upper secondary schools. This teaching exercise was a part of the third semester devoted to their practical training. At this stage, the teacher trainees took on the main responsibility for conducting the exercise and leading discussions in the classrooms. While facilitating the Historical Backpack exercise, the teacher trainees followed the instruction in a similar manner as at the university. Supported by experienced upper secondary school teachers with all necessary practicalities, the teacher trainees facilitated the discussions with their upper secondary students. 

Back at the university, the exercise-related activities of the teacher trainees were finalized by a feedback activity that addressed their experiences both as students and as teachers. As it turned out, the exercise offered the teacher students several rewarding challenges (Bagerius, Dahl & Engren 2023). The exercise helped the teacher trainees to develop important skills for teaching history in an inclusive way. By listening to and valuing each other’s stories, the teacher trainees learned to recognize the diversity of experiences and perspectives in the classroom. They also learned how to create a safe and respectful learning environment that promotes dialogue and understanding. In this sense, the exercise offers an effective and engaging way for teacher trainees to develop skills for teaching history in an inclusive and meaningful way. 

The exercise as part of the teacher training program: advantages and challenges 

As recent research shows, high school students tend to reject nationally framed historical narratives that do not sufficiently represent the diversity of the classroom (Carretero, Rodríguez-Moneo & Asensio 2012; Grever, Pelzer & Haydn 2011; Hawkey & Prior 2011; Epstein & Schiller 2005). The My Historical Backpack exercise lifts students’ multiple, hyphenated, and layered identities to an asset in history lesson. It also provides a general model based on student participation that uses students’ personal stories of the past and develops students’ historical thinking skills. At the same time, the exercise supports active learning in a history class and underlines the importance of the cultural diversity surrounding and pervading students’ understandings of the past. The strength of the exercise is the simplicity of the concept and its adaptability to different educational contexts. We have considered these aspects when introducing it in our teacher training program.  

For us, as researchers and teacher educators, the exercise is primarily a way of teaching our teacher trainees how to handle two major challenges in their future careers as history teachers—i.e., helping students to develop the complex understanding of the past that the curricula require and creating an inclusive history teaching in the context of a multicultural classroom. 

Response received on the exercise is in general very positive from both trainee teachers and upper secondary school students. Our trainee teachers emphasized that it offered them a rare opportunity to lead elaborate discussions on history with high school students in an exercise that deals with parts of the curriculum that many regarded as challenging to teach. 

The teacher trainees also responded positively to the opportunity of estimating the work of the high school students in making the connection between their own individual history and larger historical processes. They emphasized that the exercise worked so well for them because it addressed a topic that is constantly discussed in their history didactic classes but that is seldom supported by learning activities, namely the relationship between the history of the individual student and the history presented in high school.  

Many of the trainees experienced leading the elaborate discussions in the classroom as the most difficult part of the exercise. It was especially difficult when the subject of a student presentation did not deal with commonly taught historical topics such as Asian History or presentations that dealt with challenging subjects such as how an imprisoned grandfather or a former relative who was recruited to the Nazi cause during WWII had shaped the family history.  

When working with this exercise we observed how the teacher trainees both trained practical skills necessary for inclusive teaching but also how they gained insights into historical thinking skills. An interesting effect was also the involvement of the students’ families in the construction of the story. This, we realized, can potentially engage family networks in the teaching of history.  

Despite the fact, that the historical timeframe of the student stories seldom extends beyond contemporary or modern history, the individual accounts can often be related to various long-term historical processes. Hence, urbanization, industrialization, democratization, and migration are common themes that help students to contextualize their individual narratives. 

One of the interesting outcomes of the exercise is that some students’ stories challenge the history provided by the textbooks. These students’ narrations of the past represent collective memories shaped by identity formation that empathizes the distinction between “us” and “them.” As a result, these stories sometimes conflict with the narratives provided by the textbooks and this opposition has consequences for the relationship between students’ stories and textbooks. The exercise illuminates that the students’ backgrounds lie partly beyond the frame of the textbook narratives, which can be one of the reasons why the students disregard the textbooks’ value. What we can see is that the students’ stories enliven history, and that the exercise as a whole has the potential to supplement or even challenge the textbooks’ common narratives. 

We understand these individual accounts of history as a way for students to problematize historiography and to contrast their own story with other narratives of the past. As it turned out, the self-reflectivity of the exercise is meaningful not only to the high school students but also to the teacher trainees, some of whom made the explicit connection between history and identity formation. At the same time, it is essential that the teachers help students to embed their artifacts, and the stories surrounding them, in a historical context. This is even more important when upper secondary students unpack their backpacks. Otherwise, the exercise entails the risk to only provide a general popular knowledge that does not necessarily extend students’ historical thinking in relation to the narrated past. 

Opposing or intertwining perspectives on the past provide insightful ideas that make history education more in tune with the intercultural reality at school and beyond. The exercise offers students the time and space to share and re-evaluate a personal past, often already formed and negotiated in the student’s personal surrounding (families, friends etc.). In this sense, students’ understandings of the past contrapose or complement the type of history taught at school. During the exchange about the historical items in the classroom and by connecting personal stories to more general historical narratives, the students’ stories of the past, including their understandings of this past, involved a variety of perspectives provided by the participants of the exercise. At the same time, from the perspective of history education itself, the exercise meets schools’ and universities’ endeavors towards an inclusive history education, as it involves articulation of a variety of perspectives on the past in a constructive and intercultural dialogue. 

According to the collected feedback sheets, both the students of the upper secondary schools and the teacher trainees widely appreciated the exercise. One of the oft stressed effects is that the exercise introduces the students to their own family history that not only increases participants’ intrinsic motivation to learn more about the past but also strengthens personal bonds and social relations beyond the classroom. Moreover, the feedback shows that the sociocultural process of the identity formation taking place in the families was not even reflected by the participants up until they engaged with the exercise in the classroom.  

If carefully conducted and historically contextualized, the My Historical Backpack exercise can provide positive effects in the process of teaching history, both at university and in schools. Not least, it adds a nuance and opens new perspectives on the past. The exercise gives voice to ordinary people focusing on their pasts. 

References 

Bagerius H., Dahl I. A. & Engren J. (2023). “My Historical Backpack”, The History Teacher, 56 (2), 1–24. 

Carretero M., Rodríguez-Moneo M. & Asensio M. “History Education and the Construction of a National Identity,” in History Education and the Construction of National Identities, ed. Mario Carretero, Mikel Asensio, and María Rodríguez-Moneo (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing 2012), 1–14. 

Epstein T. & Schiller J.T. “Perspective Matters: Social Identity and the Teaching and Learning of National History,” Social Education 69, no. 4 (May-June 2005), 201–204. 

Grever M., Pelzer B. & Haydn T. “High School Students’ Views on History,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 43, no. 2 (2011), 207–229. 

Hawkey K. & Prior J. “History, Memory Cultures and Meaning in the Classroom,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 43, no. 2 (2011), 231–247. 



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Andreas Frings (2023, 21. März). My Historical Backpack – An Exercise in Teacher Education. Geschichtswissenschaftsdidaktik. Abgerufen am 3. März 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/peiv

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