Terror about my first lesson with high-school students was offset by an intriguing topic: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the end of the Second World War. The content’s arranged over two classes. Next week we’ll examine Japanese perspectives on the atomic bomb; this week we posed the curliest of historical questions: why.
As a history teacher, I’m interested in using secondary sources well. Sure, timelines and textbooks can’t match the wow-factor of objects and images from the period, but they’re unmatched for analysis. In this class, adapting an idea of my history seminar leader, I took a timeline of the lead-up to the end of the war and dispersed it among the students – one piece each. Then I asked them to form themselves into exact chronological order according to their fragment. A human timeline.
This already made us think about causality. A student with the Potsdam Declaration answered a question from a classmate holding the decision to attack. An enquiry about public resistance went to the student with a decision about secrecy – how could citizens debate what they didn’t know? But the real thinking came in the next section, when each student became a historian of a single moment. The question: how did your event cause the bomb?
Collecting the ideas formed a high-quality historical analysis, with separate causes crowding the image of a mushroom cloud. Everyone was keen to have their theory on the board, forming an image of sufficient complexity to birth an awareness: that somehow the shocking events that ended the War in the Pacific might be explained, if not understood.