What do I do when I teach history?

What do I do when I teach history?

So this post it not necessarily what you experienced going to school and it’s certainly not a blanket statement of what all teachers, history teachers or not, do day to day. Some teachers suck; some should retire immediately or should have been let go years ago. This is not a defense of shitty teaching. Hell, this isn’t even a defense of MY teaching, although it is what I strive to do in the classroom.

Education has changed a lot over the decades.

And I am very glad it has changed, too! With the advent of accessible internet, history teaching could finally shift from the “drill and kill” memorization method of the past. Because you can now Google “when did the industrial revolution begin?” if you want to know that date. With this technological shift, however, the purpose of teaching and learning history has to change too. Rather then know the when, it is more imperative to the causes and effects of movements in history. To understand the nuance of the past & how it is shaping our future is, albeit, a much more difficult task then just knowing the “facts.”

This is area though that some older teachers have yet to catch on, which is a detriment. How can you, for example, engage in meaningful discussion about World War I if all you know are memorized dates of battles and names of leaders? Reading a multitude of sources that talk about the causes of the war, and have the students parse out which do they think is the most important cause, is way more useful than them memorizing the details of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. But it is also much harder to do, which means it takes way more effort on the students AND teachers.

Teaching history is never a-political.

I’ve seen people on social media, saying history teachers need to stop teaching things “politically.” And, well, that doesn’t make sense. Now I am NOT saying a teacher should inject their political bias into the classroom, but history has always been political and it can never really be successfully a-political. Confused? Fair. Let’s work through an example: whenever a history teacher picks primary sources for the classroom, it is technically a “political” decision. If I include more black and minority voices then finding those sources and bringing them to my students is a inclusive choice. On the other hand, if I want to continue an anti-minority narrative then I can choose to only include majority perspectives and specifically choose those that talk negatively about minorities.

Neither teacher in that scenario is technically “lying” about history (of course that is assuming the documents they pick actually are historical), but to some folks the first teacher is now “a crazy liberal” and to other folks the second teacher is “a racist.” To be perfectly honest, I lean towards teacher #1 because continuing to ignore voices that have historically been silenced is problematic and wrong. This year I am going to be extra diligent to include more diverse voices in my world history classroom.

Read more: The First Amendment & 2020 America

Women’s history & minority history is just history.

I mentioned to a friend the other day that the 19th and 20th century feminist movements is something I teach in AP World History and he was surprised. He, nicely, said that he didn’t really think of those movements as “world history.” I get it. For too long underrepresented voices have been systematically left out of the “canon” textbooks or relegated to gender/race specific courses (African American History or Women’s Studies). There is nothing wrong with a hyper-focused minority history class but those stories are supposed to appear seamlessly in the mainstream history class, because, well, they are history, too.

A history teacher is supposed to present the past to students to help them understand its complexity. But what events to highlight? Whose stories to tell? What events to spend more time on? These are just some of the many decisions a history teacher has to make every single day. History should never be presented as a white man’s story just peppered with the stories of minorities. It is OUR global history.

Read more: Lesson Plan: Global Feminism through Visual Culture

Discussion is not fluffy learning.

Walk into my classroom during a discussion and if you just looked at me, the teacher, you would think I’m not “working.” Heck I’m just sitting there listening, popping in occasionally to make sure a variety of voices are heard, but you would think to yourself “why are we paying her to babysit them?” But here’s what you don’t see from your 10 second walk through:

  1. I had to find the documents. I had to find good documents that came from multiple perspectives and sources, that sometimes contradicted each other.
  2. I had to teach my students the skills on how to read documents and how to analyze sources.
  3. I had to formulate guiding questions and assist kids at various reading levels.
  4. I had to know exactly what I wanted them to get out of these documents so I can be sure to stay on track.
  5. I had to create an assessment to make sure I could accurately understand if all my students understood the material.

Lecturing is much easier. It’s easier for all of us for me to stand at the front and click through a PowerPoint. But to you, an outsider, that probably looks more “teachery.” Now don’t get me wrong, some topics work better as a PowerPoint & my students still get a lot out of them. But a discussion is not a day to kick back and just have conversation. It is a place of intense learning, and personally I think we need to do a better job of teaching people how to talk about difficult topics. From what I’ve seen of adults on social media, we could all use more civility and understanding of the veracity of sources.


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