Rethinking How to Engage History Students

Four years ago, a returning senior asked if she could retake the final exam in my United States history course in September. She had earned a solid “A” just three months prior, but after a long and eventful summer, she wanted to know how much she remembered.

As it turned out, not much. My once-shining star had devolved into just an average student, earning a “C” on the same exam. She couldn’t recall the plethora of historical intricacies that once rolled-off her tongue, nor effectively articulate the main arguments for American territorial expansion from 1820 to 1860, and the impact this had leading up to the Civil War.

Little deep or lasting “learning” had taken root, and I began to understand why. As well as my student had performed during the year, she really didn’t care about the content — at least not enough to put any real effort into retaining and growing her knowledge. And why should she have resorted to these measures?

Without question, it’s very important to have a basic understanding of past events, especially if teachers hope to foster an informed citizenry. But I question the value and purpose of having students memorize large amounts of intricate historical data, especially if our best and brightest find no intrinsic motivation to become professional historians or quiz-bowl champions. Instead, we should place a greater emphasis on skills driving content, not the other way around.

In this setting, I think that an increasing number of students want to learn more about how the present connects to the past — here as well, not the other way around. My students discuss current events each Wednesday, and last week they spoke about the crisis embroiling the Middle East.

“Why can’t we have an entire course on this subject,” one student asked me. “I had no idea that this was going on around us, and it’s much more interesting than learning about old dead guys. Last night, I also discussed Syria with my parents, and they were so impressed with what I had learned in class. I’m even watching the news now.”

To the best of my ability, I rely on current events to inform my instruction. How else could I help foster such enthusiasm for learning? More and more, I acknowledge that my efforts are entirely inadequate.

My ultimate goal remains teaching critical thinking, reading and writing skills. I strongly believe that because kids prefer learning about current events as a conduit to accomplishing such a lofty goal, I would be foolish to resist. That history student who wanted to retake my final exam remains one of the most gifted individual’s I’ve ever taught, but all the same, I can’t help but believe that had I done more to excite her about content, she would have gained far more lasting and meaningful insight.

If history teachers hope to help mold interested, informed students in an increasingly flat, digital world, we must rethink teaching history as a “sacred” discipline that, for whatever reason, cannot be changed or challenged.

I kept this in mind when, last week, I posted a question about the continued relevance of teaching traditional, chronological history on NAIS Connect, an online forum moderated by the National Association of Independent Schools.

“There is something tremendously unsettling in that many students — I would imagine — know much more about Louis XIV or Thomas Paine than the very real problems enveloping our global community in the here and now,” I write. “Certainly, there is tremendous value in learning history, especially with respect to not repeating past mistakes . . . . But maybe we should offer more courses that focus on teaching history only in so much as they inform an understanding of what’s happening right now.”

I’m thoroughly impressed by the quality of feedback, as well as the myriad views represented. I enjoyed hearing from Andrew Webster, Head of School at The Wardlaw-Hartidge School in Edison, New Jersey.

I strongly agree with Webster that the fundamental values of teaching history include fostering skills in asking good questions, as well as “accessing a range of evidence and weighing it carefully, and creating coherent and persuasive arguments, orally and in writing, about causes and effects.”

Webster also references the age-old skills-versus-content debate, and that understanding concepts like democracy, the industrial revolution, and imperialism remains critically important. “The crisis du jour can be incorporated within this framework,” he says, “and a teacher who does not make a consistent effort to relate the past to the present is probably not a very good history teacher.” Still, he cautions teachers about going too far. “Someone teaching the Peloponnesian War, for example, or the French Revolution, has ample opportunity to connect to current events,” Webster writes. “But to cast the framework to the wind — and just chase whatever the current crisis is — would lead to a very spotty historical understanding.”

I appreciate Webster’s logic, but I’m unconvinced that teachers cannot do a whole lot more to connect the past with today. Along these lines, Alexander McCandless, Director of the Center for Global Studies at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, contributes some intriguing remarks about teaching United States history. He believes that a majority of students are most interested in learning about the here and now, and that to enhance excitement about the year ahead, it makes sense to teach content backward.

“In my experience, it certainly helped the students see the connections much more clearly than I ever achieved with a standard (chronological) approach,” McCandless writes. “For example, the number of instances where students would come into class with excited commentary on some current event that they saw connected with a historical event simply skyrocketed. And, when discussing events increasingly distant in our past, their sense of the relevance of the subject, and their desire to seek the connections to today was much more pronounced.”

I recently reached out to McCandless, who sent me his U.S. History Syllabus:

McCandless’s creativity astounds me, as does his daringness to embrace something entirely new. I also applaud the variety of primary and secondary sources he employs, as well as his emphasis on teaching skills. He also shared with me his “Find a Primary Source Assignment,” which asks students to compose one page of written analysis based on the period under discussion:

For an alternative test, McCandless asks students to “[link] four primary documents with two different time periods in [their] study of U.S. History (two with each).” Here again, he is eager to share his work.

McCandless serves as a terrific example of what the most effective and creative teachers can accomplish and help inspire — a profound love for understanding history that lasts a lifetime . . . and doesn’t fizzle after just one summer.

A high school history and journalism teacher from Massachusetts.

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