by History Faculty Penny Steele
On a Tuesday evening in the Fountain Valley School of Colorado Hawley Library, World Societies students gathered to place a Skype call with a classroom in Mongolia. They connected with former FVS faculty Heather (Domangue) Caveney, who now teaches at the American School in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The World Societies classes, taught by Jed Haupt and Penny Steele, had just wrapped up a unit on Genghis Khan and the effects and contributions of the Mongolian Empire.
In the classroom, they discussed the various schools of thought regarding the brutality and tolerance of the Mongol empire, what their own misperceptions and stereotypes are of other cultures, and what constitutes “great” when assessing an empire or leader. Many students were fully aware of their stereotypes that derived from Hollywood legend and were open to thoughtfully assessing the character and impact of this empire. It was clear that many students lacked a modern context and knew very little of contemporary Mongolia: Do all Mongolian students ride horses to school; do they all live in yurts; do they all wrestle to prove who is right?
“As I saw students reshape their thinking and form a deeper understanding of the Mongolian empire, I wanted to provide them with an opportunity to ‘test’ these new perceptions with real life experiences,” Steele said. “I reached out to Heather, with a 14-hour time difference, and she was more than excited to extend this opportunity to her Mongolian students.”
The first step in this exchange was for Steele and Haupt’s students to complete a homework assignment on a Google doc in which they had to form a well-crafted question regarding Genghis Khan and the Mongolian empire, and another thoughtful question about contemporary Mongolian life. Steele then passed this on to Caveney, who had her students answer these questions as their homework.
On the nighttime Skype call, FVS students were greeted by their Mongolian peers waving in their blue school uniforms with sunshine lighting up their whiteboard. It was a surreal reality that modern technology presented. They exchanged names and ages; they, too, were 10th graders. They were shy, FVS students were not! The Mongolian students were quick to share their answers to questions. They had typed up polished responses, and it was evident the time and work they had put into answering curiosities.
One of the more authentic pieces of learning came when Erkhem, a Mongolian student, answered Joey Dixon ’19’s question, “As Genghis overthrew more and more enemies, how did his tactics change?” Erkhem shared a story that Haupt and Steele would never have been able to provide to their students: “One tactic that Chinggis used involved the Mongols collecting all of the cats in the surrounding area. They then set fire to their tails and herded them into the village, causing the whole place to burn to the ground.”
History isn’t always pretty, but it sure is interesting. And in that moment, the FVS students laughed, the Mongolian students laughed, and a cultural exchange and understanding of the absurdities of history took place.