[NOTE: In my last post, I looked at the debate over standardized testing as the “end game” of the History curriculum, and I suggested instead that we need to–gasp!–inculcate a “love of History” in our students. I want to look this time at how that could be done, beginning with an autobiographical excursion.]
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My mother regularly read to us, and early on I was hooked by “stories,” whether these stories were true or fictitious. As a child, Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe were as “real” and as “interesting” to me as any of the “young Americans” whose early lives were portrayed in the orange-covered biographies, illustrated only with silhouettes, that I borrowed from the public library.
I think I committed myself irrevocably to the study of history largely because of the Civil War Centennial celebration, which was beginning as I entered high school. I was already conditioned to “like” the Civil War because of a series of novels by Joseph Altsheler, who showed how the war tore apart a particular family. During the Centennial, I bought a lot of paperbacks about the War, including a number of memoirs by participants, reissued to take advantage of the presumed interest of modern Americans in the nation’s travails between 1860 and 1865. I even subscribed to a new magazine, Civil War Times Illustrated. Despite the obvious allure of the past for me, however, I began ninth grade determined to be an engineer. Unfortunately, I was allergic to math and science courses–while I didn’t fail them, I didn’t do very well in them either, nor, most importantly, did I enjoy them.
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By the time I graduated from high school, I wanted to teach history at the secondary level. Yet, this decision was hardly the product of my having been exposed to an unbroken line of inspiring history teachers. I experienced both the best and the worst in history teaching between tenth and eleventh grades. In Modern European History, I ran into the energetic, eccentric, and supremely talented Miss Gertrude Weaver, who was new to our school after teaching for many years at high schools on U.S. military bases in Europe. It took me a while to get used to Miss Weaver’s approach to teaching History, but, once I did, I was captivated. She made the past–and its denizens–live; set high standards she expected all of us to meet; and projected such warmth and enthusiasm about her subject and her students that I was afraid not to give my best, lest I disappoint her. Miss Weaver was, hands down, the best teacher I had in high school, and one of the best I’ve ever had.
On the other hand, as a junior I encountered probably the worst teacher I had in high school, and what made this doubly distressing was that he taught American History, which I was already predisposed to love. “Big Bill” (the name has been altered to protect the guilty) was a large man with thinning blonde hair, who stood in front of his classes, jingled the change in his pocket, and spoke in a monotone. A typical class saw him leading us methodically through the questions at the end of each chapter in our very dull textbook. I just knew that this nation’s past was a much more interesting panorama than “Big Bill” seemed to think. At the ripe old age of seventeen, I vowed that I could–and, by God, someday would— do a better job teaching American History than he did!
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Because I was determined to teach high school history, I began college as a “History Education” major, but that lasted one semester. The dean of the Education School called all freshman Ed majors together early in the first semester and outlined our course of study over the next four years. I saw immediately that, in this program, I would spend more time on “Education” courses than on history offerings, and would not get beyond the survey level in any area of history. So, I soon transferred to the School of Arts and Sciences (or, as we called it, “Air and Sunshine”) as a History major.
What that meant was that I had the opportunity not only to take lots of advanced courses in history but also to explore other areas–and I did. As an undergraduate, I had several good history professors, others in the so-so category, and a couple of bad ones; but I also encountered a gem: Dr. David Healy, who taught a graduate-level course in the History of American Foreign Policy that I was allowed to take as an undergraduate. Professor Healy was an interesting lecturer with a sly sense of humor, and he treated me the same way he treated his graduate students, which, in the long run, was to my benefit.
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In grad school, I trained to be a college professor, yet, by the time I was finishing my dissertation, it was clear that there would be no college job out there for me, so I shifted to plan B. I began looking for a job teaching history in a private school, not a public one, because I had no “Education” courses and thought that I could teach in an independent school without them. (I was wrong, at least as far as the state of Georgia was concerned, but that’s another story.)
In grad school, I encountered a truly great history teacher, Professor James Z. Rabun, who taught graduate courses on the American Revolution and the Old South and served as my dissertation director. Dr. Rabun delivered interesting, thoughtful lectures; kept up in his field; was a first-rate story-teller; had a dry but engaging sense of humor; and graded student written work as though he were editing it for publication. As a dissertation director, Dr. Rabun was a proponent of the “give ’em enough rope” theory: the topic and the approach were pretty much left up to the student, as was the length. Dr. Rabun’s primary concerns were stylistic, which suited me just fine.
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Looking back on my education, then, it seems I was “naturally” inclined to “like” History and to struggle, but not fatally, with courses in math and science. Yet, that “natural inclination” towards history was also conditioned by my mother, Miss Weaver, “Big Bill” (in a negative way), and professors Healy and Rabun. In other words, I came by my “love of history” through a combination of nature and nurture, and eventually applied what I had learned in my own classroom. Based on that background and education, as well as on almost four decades of teaching high school history in an independent school, I believe that, to be a successful in that setting, a history teacher must:
- Be enthusiastic–if you are not yourself excited about the subject you teach, how can you expect your students to like it? By this, I don’t mean simply to come to class every day with a smile on your face, a few jokes, and loads of energy (though these help!). Enthusiasm grows naturally out of self-confidence: the better you know your subject, the more clearly you can explain it to your charges. Hence, never stop “reading in your field”–study all kinds of history, formally (in grad school) and informally (on your own or through “professional development” opportunities).
- Be flexible. Never let your students know what to expect from one class to the next. Okay, sometimes this is impossible (e.g., “Tomorrow we are having a test on Unit 2”); but often you can require reading or writing assignments, yet still take an unexpected approach to the topic(s) under investigation. The key here is to maintain the element of surprise, and, thus, to make your students actually look forward to coming to class. (I.e., “What’s he going to do today?”) Familiarize yourself with the advantages and disadvantages of the modern technology you have available to add interest and variety to your classes. The more enthusiastic and self-confident you are, the easier it becomes to modify your “lesson plan” on the fly, if you suddenly realize that your charges are mentally somewhere else on any given day. In other words, remember that, even as the teacher, you will not always know what to expect from your students!
- Feel free to be eccentric. Here, I took lessons from both Miss Weaver and Dr. Rabun. The point is to cultivate an approach to teaching History that will keep your students off guard and, on most days, anticipating your class. Your “eccentricity de jour” could be a funky necktie; a tagline (I had one that I used to good effect during the whole of my teaching career); a frequently expressed bias (e.g., “I don’t really like American History after 1800,” “Bonzo would have made a better President than Ronald Reagan,” “President George W. Bush. . . .[insert deprecating remark]”); or any other characteristic that will resonate with your students (e.g., I attacked the state of New Jersey on any number of grounds, and this became something my students looked forward to, don’t ask me why!).
- Try to make connections between the history you’re teaching and the contemporary world in which you and your students live. I found that this really wasn’t difficult in American History. In Ancient, Medieval, or World History, though, you might need to “reach” a bit to make these connnections, but remember that your students will not know nearly as much as you about the subject in question, so fire away!
- Textbooks? Sure, but remember that History textbooks tend to be dull–and, even if you don’t think so, most of your students will! So, if you are to excite your charges about what they’ve been asked to read, you must do more with the material than “Big Bill” did with American History in my high school. Over nearly four decades in the classroom, I became a big fan of employing a variety of ways to supplement the text(s), including videos, current events, popular culture (e.g., rock music, the Blues), even autobiography (my “Growing Up With Vietnam” lecture–see earlier posts), to enliven the study of the past. It is also important to hold your students responsible for such supplementary materials–in discussions, written assignments, or tests and exams.
- Do not “teach to the test,” whether it is a unit test, a final exam, or an A.P. Exam. When asked the inevitable question, “Is this going to be on the test?”, I found that one of two answers worked really well: 1) “Of course it is!”; or, 2) “Well it wasn’t going to be, but now that you mention it, . . .” When deciding what to emphasize in your courses, go with what interests you; if the topic bores you, it will surely not engage your students. If you “know your stuff,” and, more importantly, if your students are convinced you know your stuff, then you do not have to follow slavishly any “suggested” syllabus. Above all, remember that teaching history at the high school level is a two-way proposition. Your kids do not show up at the “history service station,” receive a tank full of “history knowledge,” and magically become”historically literate.” You have an obligation to present the most interesting, engaging history courses you can, but your adolescent charges are equally responsible, not only for attending your class but also for attending to what goes on in class, which brings up another point:
- The lecture method, while certainly useful in dealing with key periods/events, is not the be-all and end-all. Class discussions can also be quite valuable as a means to review important topics. Technology is wonderful, but should never be used as a substitute for discussion. Rather, give your students every opportunity to be exposed to supplementary material (reading, videos, music, power point presentations, etc.), use that material as a springboard for discussion, and don’t be afraid to include it on tests and exams.
- Finally, stress that mastering history may not be as immediately rewarding as doing well in math or science. Yes, knowing history will serve them well on AP or other end-of-term exams, but the real reward will come much later, when they apply what they’ve learned to the thorny task of understanding current events, and making educated decisions as citizens of the United States.
In short, the study of the past is learning how human beings faced the realities of their lives and tried to come to terms with the problems that faced them. Context is everything!
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: