Any good teacher focuses on teaching students how to think. But how do you do that? Even more specifically, how do you do this with American history? US history is typically taught to sophomores, although in many schools juniors or even seniors have access to US history classes and if you’ve never taught US history before, the process can be very intimidating. In many cases, your class is the only time a student will study US history. To allay this fear, I’ve detailed five principles that have helped me make US history more accessible. Remember that you will not be able to teach all of US history with sufficient depth. However, if you teach students how to appreciate US history, they will have the tools to delve into complex topics on their own as informed and thoughtful citizens.
1) Start by defining history and address presentisim.
Many students assume history is just names and dates that require memorization, and that’s part of history, but not the whole thing. I start off by having students answer the question “what is history?” War? Invention of the television? Brushing one’s teeth?. After they’ve thought about it, I provide a specific definition: “history is the process of analyzing and interpreting important political, social, and economic events in our past.” The key point is that history is a process and that important varies from person to person. Students don’t accumulate historical knowledge; they become better at the process of history.
Once you’ve defined history, discuss the dangers of presentisim (applying today’s standards to historical time periods). This keeps students focused on analyzing the period in more detail as well as removing some of the judgmental nature of our current society. Today we can look back and say that slavery is horrible, however in the context of the 1860s, this issue was much more complicated. Give the students the chance to wrestle the details without feeling like politically incorrect.
2) Give them the baseline.
Students need the traditional, patriotic version of American history. They need to know the chronology of events and traditional key events in American history. They need the basics: the Revolution, Articles of Confederation, Writing of the Constitution. Washington the hero, Jefferson the visionary, and Lincoln the savior of the union. Students want to feel pride in the United States and it is ok to teach them the feel good story…initially. Fresh out of graduate school, I was very liberal, and felt that students would see the injustices I felt were evident in American history. I glossed over the traditional story and moved directly to the oppressed and disenfranchised elements of American history: big mistake. They had no common baseline for analysis. Assume they know virtually nothing about American history. Anything you want them to assess, you must assign and walk them through.
3) Hit them with the opposition.
Once students have the learned the flag-waving, nationalistic view of American history, present opposing viewpoints. “Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he also owned slaves. How does this impact your view of Jefferson?” “Yes John D. Rockefeller built an incredible business empire, but he did so by abusing workers and using his influence to destroy other competitors. How does this impact Rockefellers place in American history?” One of the keys to teaching history is to challenge the conventional story. Be relentless in this process. Make sure to teach that there are more than two viewpoints on an issue. One of the fallacies in our society today is that there are two equally valid and opposing positions on every issue. This is not the case. Most issues are nuanced and complex. Start simple and then add the complexity.
4) Play devil’s advocate.
Always disagree with a student. Push their line of reasoning. Ask probing questions. If those fail, a simple “I don’t buy it, give me a better explanation” pushes their thinking. You must be the master of all arguments. When you push a student to a point where they say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure,” you know you’re on the right track.
Also, be careful about disclosing your personal beliefs. While some teachers disclose their personal opinion, in my experience it only creates problems. Parents tend to dislike, administrators are wary of, and kids get confused by disclosure. After you’ve taught for several years and the community is familiar with your practice, taking a personal stance is less detrimental. You’ve got to build the trust with the community that you are not some radical communist or reactionary conservative before you can offer up your own thoughts. The thing I was most happy about this school year is that my liberal students thought I was conservative and my conservative students thought I was liberal.
5) Teach the political spectrum
Students tend to want to know how to label themselves politically. Helping them in this process is both rewarding and important for depth of understanding in US History. While Democrats and Republicans are our modern parties, they don’t really teach students anything as they are just labels for political philosophies. A good suggestion is to use two different spectrum: economic and social. Each spectrum has identical poles: total government control and no government control. When you set these on an X and Y plane, students can place themselves in relation to their classmates. Once students understand that principles and philosophical values underlay party labels US history becomes much more accessible.
An alternative (or complementary method) is teaching the difference between liberals and conservatives. I use five different parties (based on history in the French Revolution): radicals, liberals, moderates, conservatives, and reactionaries. The more toward the radical end a student is, the faster they want to change society. The more toward the reactionary end, the more a student wants to preserve societal institutions.
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