Teaching Space, Place, and Environment in the American History Classroom

For the past couple of years, I have taught my students to understand the role that nature played in historical events. Viewing the past from the perspective of the natural world helps students to check their biases by thinking about how different people, groups, and organisms understood the spaces they inhabited. Each semester I introduce my classes to the concept of “space” and “place” during the first week of the course. By orienting my students to the study of “space” and “place,” they can utilize these concepts each week.

My first goal is to teach my students how to interpret the landscape. To do this effectively, I situate each member of my class within a particular landscape so they can compare and contrast their perspectives with their peers. I teach in a building with classrooms that have large windows. The building design allows for a view of the nearby Wasatch Mountains as well as surrounding residential and business areas. On the second day of class, I ask each student to look outside the window and describe in writing the landscapes that they see.

When I look out the window my eyes orient toward the distant mountains. My description, therefore, includes sentences about what the mountains look like to me. After my students have the opportunity to record their impressions, I ask them to share their descriptions with the class or with a small group. My students discover that “landscape” is a fluid concept. Some students notice the mountains, while others describe residential areas or a business park that is nearby. Others identify clouds and the color of the sky. I explain to the students that we each have unique ideas about what physical space means to us. And just like us, people in the past also had different ideas about physical and imagined landscapes.

After the class has a general understanding of landscape as a socially constructed concept, I then proceed to explain to them the concepts of space and place.  French philosopher Henri Lefebvre argued that people create definitions of “space” based on their economic, political, and cultural intentions.[1]  In short, space is not neutral, but instead, infused with different meanings to establish and maintain control. To help my students relate to this idea, I identify the objective that our college campus is expected to fulfill.  I explain that the school as a physical space is designed as an institutional location to help students gain an education.  The campus, therefore, is considered a physical space designated to produce productive members of society by instilling in them specific educational ideas.

Place, on the other hand, is the way that a person understands and relates to his/her/their physical surroundings. To demonstrate this idea, I describe what our classroom means to me. The room is a “place” where I guide my students through American history, to develop critical thinking, writing, and verbal communication skills, and to enhance digital literacy. I then ask the students to discuss what our classroom means to them. Then we compare and contrast.

Teaching space as a social construct can be tricky. Since our birth, our parents or guardians, and our society, and/or our religious or other social or cultural communities have told us how to think about our physical surroundings. These ingrained definitions of “space” and “place” make it difficult for every person to realize that not all people think about their surroundings the same way. By challenging my students to describe their ideas about their immediate landscape and our classroom, I help them to see how we all perceive physical space in different ways. They are then prepared to think about how people and organisms from the past defined physical and imagined space and places. Because I introduce these concepts during the first week, we follow these themes throughout the semester.

For example, when I discuss the Great Awakening, I refer to the founding and spread of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since I teach in Utah, I find that connecting physical space to the past can help students begin to humanize historical actors by establishing a common ground with others who occupied the same space.  One of the dominant historical narratives of the region where I teach is that of Mormon migration to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.[2]Many students in my courses are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As such, most are well-versed in the Mormon exodus story and identify Salt Lake City as “the place” that second prophet and president of the LDS Church designated for its members.[3] For many of my students, the Salt Lake Valley represents progress and a haven for the Mormon people, and they are quick to share this perspective in class. I encourage them to share this narrative, but then I ask them to look out the window and think about how other people living and moving through the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 interpreted the landscape. I then introduce Native American perspectives to the narrative to push my students to reconsider the history of Utah from the perspective of the region’s original settlers.  In other words, I encourage them to think about how the Utes, the Shoshone, the Paiutes, and the Navajo defined their relationship to the Salt Lake Valley. I can then introduce settler-colonialism ideas by discussing how Mormon settlers cared little about the Native American groups who already lived in the area. I find it useful when I can find ways to get students to think about their immediate surroundings once meant to different people from the past.

No matter what topic, I challenge my students to think about how different people understood and defined different spaces and what those areas meant to them as places.  By participating in this semester-long activity, my students learn to connect the environment directly to the human experience. They also think about the ways that definitions of space reinforce power structures. The most rewarding part of this activity is when a student spontaneously questions or discusses how the environment contributed to a person or to a group’s experience.

How do you describe your immediate landscape?  What does your classroom mean to you?  I would love to read your perspective! Feel free to answer these questions in the comment section below!

[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992).

[2] Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

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