Want to Learn About History Teaching?

If you want to learn a lot about history teaching, just do what I did on my summer vacation–spend two weeks in a seminar with a group of very talented high school teachers from around the country.

I was fortunate enough to host fourteen high school teachers here at CHNM for an NEH Summer Seminar called Making Sense of 1989. Our teacher participants came from twelve states and ranged in experience from 23 years to someone just finishing her first year of teaching. Each of them brought to the table fantastic ideas and insights and it was really energizing to spend two weeks with them doing nothing but talking about the events of 1989 and how one might teach them.

Too often I think that post-secondary faculty members think that the teaching we do is somehow different (or different enough) from what happens in the high school, middle, or elementary school classroom that we don’t have a lot to talk about when we meet with our colleagues teaching history at the K-12 level. Sometimes this attitude probably comes off as elitist, but I think it’s really based in misperceptions about what is actually happening in the teaching of history in the schools.

I’ve met plenty of college faculty members who assume that K-12 history teachers are all teaching rote memorization of facts (as though college faculty never do that!) and are so bound by “teaching to the test” that they can’t be imaginative even if they want to be. Four years of participation in various Teaching American History grants, a lot of involvement in my local schools, and now this summer seminar have convinced me that these urban legends, while certainly true in far too many cases, mischaracterize what is actually happening in the schools. There are some amazing history teachers out there, whether they are teaching fourth graders or eleventh graders, and we in “the academy” could learn a lot by spending more time with them.

Three years ago, Robert Orrill and Linn Shapiro wrote an essay for the American Historical Review titled “From Bold Beginnings to an Uncertain Future: The Discipline of History and History Education” (AHR, 110/3). In this essay the authors argued for a return to the early traditions of the American Historical Association, when such lions of the field as Frederick Jackson Turner could address  a group of K-12 educators as “we teachers”. [You can read the online discussion of the article here.]

While I don’t agree with everything Orrill and Shapiro have to say in their essay, I do agree that it is time we all begin to see ourselves as part of a K-16 educational process. If we do, and if we include others like local historical societies and museums in that more capacious view of what history education means and can be, then I think the possibilities of a vastly improved educational experience are significantly improved. And, for those who spend their lives worrying about metrics, I think there is a strong likelihood that “objective measures” of results from standardized tests will also improve.

One of the main objections that is often raised to thinking about history education as a K-16 process is that there are significant political issues involved because each state has its own standards. For college faculty to involve themselves more in K-12 history education would mean wading into that morass. My answer to this objection is that if we don’t take part in the process, we leave it entirely to those who we might not agree with. If collegiate historians sideline themselves from the start, then we’re stuck with the outcomes of a process we might not like. The only solution is to get involved.

So, if you want my advice (and your probably don’t), the first step is to find a local high school or middle school or elementary school history teacher, invite him or her out for coffee, and just chat about what happens in your classrooms. Get some ideas. Give some ideas. Get the ball rolling in the right direction.

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