AP World: Teaching Imperialism in Unit 6

Unit 6 is one of my favorite units to teach, and is arguably one of the most important for understanding contemporary global issues. As I approached the unit this year I had the benefit of reading the many posts from Liberating Narratives, a site run by a former history teacher. The unit’s content demands thinking about how we teach imperialism as much as what we are teaching. Student engagement is important, but also building historical empathy and training students to think critically about sensitive issues. What follows is not a day-by-day unit plan, but an overview of how I approached the unit with some of the resources I used.

Setting the Stage: Intro Day

Day one of the unit is a little heavy on direct instruction. I rationalize it because I want to establish the framework for how I want students think to think about empire and what makes “New Imperialism” different from what we covered in units three and four. The Slides I use are available on my AP World Resource page.

I begin by reviewing different types of empire as well as some of the differences between the terms colonialism and imperialism. I also emphasize the concept of “New Imperialism” and what makes it distinct from earlier examples of empire. At this point I conduct an image analysis activity that lets students begin exploring some of the justifications of and issues around empire in the 19th century. A few of the images are political cartoons; throughout the unit I rely on these and others.

After debriefing the image activity, the second part of the introduction lecture involves handling the following questions:

  1. How were societies in settler and non-settler colonies different?
  2. How did economic imperialism function in the 19th century?
  3. What role did missionaries play in empires?
  4. How did so few control so many?

Each question is intended to get at some of the content in the CED and introduce key concepts about how imperialism functioned that will be relevant throughout the unit.

My wrap-up activity for this lesson is to have student do a quick analysis of the ABC book for Baby Patriots, a primary source children’s book that is both nationalistic and imperialistic. I ask students to HIPP/HAPP the book and conduct a running count of how many of the letters apply to military power, economic power, and cultural power. Usually, the cultural power category wins, which helps me reinforce the answer to the question “How did so few control so many?” Empires were not capable of enforcing complete despotism, and had to rely on strategies other than military force or the threat of force. This is where so much of the complexity in this unit lies.

Harkness Discussion

Last semester, I introduced the Harkness discussion to my AP World classes. It went great! I wanted to do plan for another one as part of a goal to get more structured discussion happening in my classes. General classroom discussion ranks fairly high in John Hattie’s Visible Learning research in terms of its impact on student growth. As a meta-study of studies on pedagogical strategies this represents a lot of research that points towards greater student growth when they actively discuss and engage with content in a relevant context. In AP World, this helps me both push students towards towards the pinnacles of the “complexity” point, and encourage them to make connections across time and space.

With this in mind I wrote my guiding question for the Harkness: To what extent were colonies and empires maintained through force alone. I did not give the question time limits, hoping that students would pull from earlier and contemporary examples of empire in the discussion. I provided students with the graphic organizer below to help prepare for the Harkness. This was in addition to their normal reading notes and any lecture notes from direct instruction. I wanted them to discuss all of the strategies of colonial maintenance and all aspects of power. These categories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive; Students also developed some of their own categories to help answer the guiding question.

An LEQ is the perfect follow-up for a Harkness discussion. The exchange of ideas and evidence pushes more students to complexity than any other activity I’ve done.

Group DBQs

By this point in the year, my students have written six full DBQs. I am quite confident in their skills am now more interested in using DBQs to teach content and practice historical thinking rather than as summative assessment. The group DBQ allows students to practice the skills collaboratively and work through content in a slightly different way. Sometimes, choosing a topic that I have not extensively pre-taught allows students to questions the sources deeply and engage in historical inquiry. I allow other resources while they work together, but timing prevents getting bogged down in outside research. I like to incentivize it in some way other than just a formative grade, and we always debrief the next class.

For this unit, I chose the 2009 DBQ on African resistance to empire after the Berlin Conference. It is important for students to see that there was resistance to Imperialism in many forms. Likewise, making deals with Europeans was not always about submission, but was an act of strategy. Imperial power was not monolithic, nor did it flow in only one direction. The ways that colonial peoples held on to their identity and retained their agency were numerous. This activity provided a perfect philosophical framing and transition to some of the illustrative examples in the CED that I had not yet covered and were not in the reading homework. Engagement is not always about simulations; traditional resources combined with a touch of creativity and teacher excitement can create outstanding learning experiences.

Historiography Connection

Imperialism of Free Trade

When the opportunity arises, I like to have students read some scholarly articles that help them see historians using the skills they are learning. In this unit, I sometimes use excerpts from John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson’s Imperialism of Free Trade. It is useful in helping establish that empire is more than just formal empire, and this article, originally published in 1953, is one of the first to open up the definition of empire to informal economic spheres of influence.

Opportunities to get into historiography are great enrichment, though, smaller excerpts work better. Time permitting, I like to work in excerpts from some post-colonial historians in order to emphasize resistance and cultural power. Done well, students can see the arc of historical interpretation about imperialism from its original use as a tool of empire to a force for anti-imperialism and criticism. These resources help make a Harkness extra interesting.

Image: Lady Elgin in India – Accessed from a New York Times article

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