Reading Like a Historian: Text, (Math) Textbooks, and Ideology

Reading Like a Historian: Text, (Math) Textbooks, and Ideology

Textbooks as History

As a historian, analyzing textbooks from different places and time periods is fascinating to me. I love being able to dissect the ideology of the time and place by looking at the decisions of textbook writers (and often governments)… and I love being able to share this experience with students in my history class. I remember a fantastic lesson in Dr. Dan Davis’s History Methods of Instruction course at Boston University. Dr. Davis provided four different textbook examples about the American Revolution – an American textbook, a Soviet textbook, a Vichy French textbook, and a Maoist China textbook. We examined how ideology and governing philosophy affected school curriculum. While I don’t have the resources anymore (10 years later!) – and I don’t teach American history – the idea of using textbooks has stuck with me.

Math under Mao

Last year, while doing research on the Cult of Mao, I read a superb dissertation about Chinese mathematics textbooks during the Cultural Revolution (see here). The authors provided examples of math problems middle school students completed in schools during the Cultural Revolution. I realized this would be the PERFECT supplement to teaching Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, a memoir about a woman’s experiences as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, because Ji-Li talks about her math classes.

Using examples from the dissertation research, I created the following lesson for my students:

As you can see students complete actual math problems from Chinese textbooks, likely the same ones Ji-Li completed when she was in middle school. The students compute math problems and answer questions related to ideology. After completing the packets in groups (including an optional extension activity), students complete the following short writing assignment:

Common Core Connections

This is probably one of my favorite activities of the school year because it’s an incredibly creative approach to CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9:

 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

The students use Ji-Li’s description of her school experiences in “Red Scarf Girl” and excerpts from actual Cultural Revolution era textbooks to analyze the Cult of Mao. I think this is a more authentic approach than my traditional textbook and document approach because the students get to experience a bit of Ji-Li’s life and draw their own conclusions about the propagation of Communist ideology.  The linking of these two texts have proven an amazing way to bring the standards to life in a new and creative way.


*This year I plan to amplify student voice and engagement by adding in a whole-class discussion. I think this will allow me to push students to also demonstrate “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details” because of the rich content.



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