Teaching History

Philosophy/Principles in Teaching History:

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Civic competence and historical knowledge should command a prominent role in America’s educational system.  Throughout the twentieth century, however, a disconnect developed between the goal of education and the pursuit of an enlightened and empowered citizenry.  America’s political institutions responded to troubling trends in mathematics, reading, and standardized testing by promoting a rigorous yet narrow-minded approach to educational outcomes.  The political solutions created, or at least enlarged, the incongruences between historical study and the desired educational outcomes.  As the divisiveness of the 2016 election illustrated, American society needs a knowledgeable body of citizens to withstand the overt negativity, especially in regards to the media.  As an educator, I began to notice that students’ disengagement from history often involved its foreign nature.  It is often repeated that the past is a foreign country and for many students this trope is all too accurate.  Consequently, I connect local history with the national currents from our class.  In that way, I hope to familiarize students with the way our rural locality affects and participates in the national narrative.  Students believe that they possess all the required information at their fingertips, but the power unleashed by the study of history does not come from the memorization of dates and random facts.  Rather, my goal, every day, is to make history both relevant and challenging in the hope that they are better prepared for the twenty-first century.  In order to accomplish this, primary source analysis and contextualization form the cornerstone of my teaching practice.

I appreciate the varying methods and strategies that educators use to impart knowledge, but my foundation is in the interpretation of primary sources.  The ability to recite facts, dates, and events is important, as every student must start from a factual base; however, in my view, the greatest benefit, from my classes and most history courses in general, is the development of historical thinking skills.  From my courses’ outset, I establish these critical skills (such as sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, and close reading) as my central aims.  Students that can interpret and contextualize primary sources are infinitely more pliable in an ever-changing and evolving world.  From a historiographical standpoint, interpretations are in constant flux, but the ability to unravel sources, provide an argument, and defend it will remain invaluable.  My primary source approach informs my teaching in several ways.  Depending on the topic and available sources, students might be grappling with written correspondence, laws or legal opinions, political illustrations, or primary source videos on many themes.  The educational outcomes for these activities vary, but they are designed to provide a link between the historical actors and matters of critical civic importance in our modern-day society.  My classroom relies heavily on written assessments and oral discussion to gauge student learning and provoke critical thinking, but I believe debate and active participation is critical as well.  I often incorporate Socratic Seminars, Structured Academic Controversies, reenactments, simulations, and other forums to build student engagement that come directly from the primary and secondary sources.

Connecting students to living history is important and provides context to their lives and their ancestors’.  I established a close working relationship with our local museum curator in order to connect my students with their local history.  As a small, agricultural community, many students are the second, third, or fourth generation to reside in our community.  Therefore, seeing their community’s history provides relevance.  From this platform, I introduce many of the critical themes, events, and people from America’s past.  By placing these topics in context, students learn to distinguish causation, change over time, continuity, and other critical skills.  If I can help students develop historical empathy and critical thinking through local and national history, then they will be better prepared for the instability and unpredictability of their lives in the twenty-first century.

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