Today in Tricia’s demo we were invited to express a simple mathematical equation in words. Many of the groups wrote word problems and our group wrote a description of the communicative property. Some groups even drew pictures. As many of us spend less time working with math rather than other areas, this activity forced us to encounter a text (the math equation) differently than we might have otherwise.* By asking us, without a great deal of direction, to represent the familiar in a new way, we were forced to think more creatively about the text and the way our students learn.
The demo led me to continue thinking about how to make what my students encounter in history class fresh or strange, to problematize easy and potentially incorrect assumptions. My high students especially come to American history with some deeply help and often implicit assumptions about history.
Defamilarization was a term coined in early 1900s by Russian formalists to describe the process of making something familiar seem strange for the audience or reader for the purposes of enhancing his or her perception. Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge predates the term, I think he describes the idea well in Biographia Literaria:
To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar. . . this is the character and privilege of genius.
It’s that sense of wonder and strangeness that’s part of what I’d like to help my students cultivate when they approach historical texts.
*I’m resisting the temptation to call us English people (as opposed to math people) because I think, influenced by Carol Dweck’s Mindset, that those categories are ultimately less useful and limiting.