Join in the Discussion: Teaching Kids Who Find History Boring
Surveys routinely rank history at the bottom of students' favorite subjects. To those of us who teach history that's almost impossible to understand. How can history be boring? But many find that it is, impairing their ability to absorb the important lessons teachers teach.
On this page teachers can share tips to get students interested in history.
All you have to do to participate is post a comment, below.
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Melissa Mannon - 6/29/2010
As an archivist, I have always found that original resources can make the past come alive for children. Teaching from documents, incorporating artifacts, and presenting in historic spaces allows children to put themselves in a particular time and place. Helping young people imagine what it was like to live as another lived and linking another individual's life to our own circumstances makes history seem immediate and important. I think, too often, history focus on things that are different from us rather than tying differing cultures back to ourselves. People (adults as well as children) identify with history when we can relate and compare it to what we know. I think the idea of teaching history backwards, just like teaching from archives, helps with this and makes history more immediate and important on a personal level. It's not necessarily the dates that are important, but the important part of history is the concepts of cultures that show how we got to where we are today. Sometimes, we need to de-emphasize the details in favor of an overall conceptualization of a timeline of civilization that leads us back to ourselves.
Jeremy Alan Perron - 10/29/2008
I personally would not use either Zinn or Johnson. Although I applaud the idea behind it, the problem with using such polar opposites creates an either/or mentality that frankly I really oppose.
Deborah Jane Kline - 2/14/2008
I am looking for resources for history backwards, in the following order of priorities - online courses, videos, correspondence courses, books, curriculum, anything. I am a parent of teenagers to whom I want to expose more history. They are already very interested in current events and politics and are taking both college and high school level courses. Thanks for any references.
Paul Mocker - 8/15/2006
I going to teach high school history starting next year and I'd like some advice.
In our teaching program, we are being taught to make a curriculum that is relevant and authentic. I agree with these aims.
However, I'm nervous that when a student says "Why do have to learn this?!?!?" that I won't be able to clearly articulate the purpose of studying history.
If anyone could scribble some thoughts about ways to address the issue of students who don't see a need to study history, I would appreciate it.
Gustavo Jos Herrera-Marcano - 3/13/2005
It is the teachers' hability to make any subjec interesting and to awaken the curiosity of their students in the subjects they are teaching.
If they treat history as a bare series of facts that happened on as series of dates; then the subjec becomes very boring.
Instead if they focus it as a tale and add some suspense to it, that could awake the curiosity of the students. It is also possible to resort to audio-visual support to make the subject more interesting
Lori A Diaz - 2/22/2005
I'm a little late to the discussion, but would like more information. I teach early American History (from colonization to the Civil War) and have thought about teaching it "backwards," but am not sure of how to sell it. Would you mind giving me a few pointers and do you know of resource materials?
David Lee Russell - 11/6/2004
Teaching Kids the Importance of History
I come from a long line of history conscious Russells and I have to say that growing up in Ken Russell's house was a daily journey down our family'smemory lane as well as journeys into historical facts. My father remembers
more historical facts than most people have forgotten. He can tell you the exact number of years from the death of, let's say, Abraham Lincoln to the birth of Richard Nixon. He knows facts, dates, and names that will boggle
your mind. I credit him to a large degree for my own love of history, and also to my pursuit of graduate level studies in history.
That being said, however, I began to look at history in a much more scientific and deeper level. It wasn't until my second year in college that I noticed the importance in studying history was found in looking at the
cause and effect process through the walls of time. Names, dates, and place are important to know as the foundation for a deeper study of the events of
history. If you're studying the Civil War, you should know the time frame and context of all the events that took place. The danger in merely memorizing names, dates, and places is that you'll never understand the hows
and whys of those events. Memorization of names, dates, and places is great if you're planning to be the next Jeopardy champion, but that alone isn't going to help you understand it.
Now I'm not attempting to pick on public education, but I have to say that in my research and study of public educational institutions, I am dismayed at how ill prepared most children are in the area of history. In all the years thatI taught first and second year college history courses, I can count on my right hand the number of students who actually expressed any enthusiasm about history methodology. Most of what I heard was to the effect of, "I find history boring, but it's a required course". Or, "Who cares about this stuff? Where does this attitude come from, by the way? It's not only reinforced in the schools, but in a society that has plunged into an
ahistorical mindset with the help of a post-modern spirit of the age. Unfortunately, it's too often reinforced by parents who fail to possess an historical conscience.
Let me use an example from a conversation I had with my son, Weston. He is an inquisitive boy and not much gets by him when it comes to current events. He was eight years old when the terrorists attacked our country on 9/11/01 and quickly began asking questions about "Why these people would do such a thing?" He began to ask questions about the history of the Islamic religion,
and what happened to make some of them terrorists. I took him on a journey back to the ancient world and discussed the events that have evolved this great family squabble. We discussed the emergence of Islam, the world and cultural out of which it evolved, and made clear to explain that not ALL Muslims believe terrorism is accepatable. In a simple way, I attempted to explain that the events of history need to be viewed as a series of causes and effects. I told him that history is important not for nostalgia sake, but for understanding the causes behind the events. This is how we learn (hopefully) not to repeat past mistakes, and to get a better picture of what molds and shapes people and societies. Teaching children merely names dates, and places will in no way help them to truly understand history. They need to understand that ideas have consequences and that history is shaped by philosophy whether it's good or bad. I like to say that studying history is like performing autopsies on culture. As we teach our children about history we need to show them the connective tissue that links events together, how ideas shape history. Discussing historical events, and
how they came about, will help our children gain wisdom, and teach how to keep their fingers on the pulse of society.
I love to discuss the importance of history with my children, and one way I have helped them to see its values is through the use of timelines. When they were homeschooled, we used to put timelines on the wall in the basement and then let them put their picture and personal information on the timeline with all the other events in history. It's amazing to see how a child takes an interest in the subject once they see themselves written into the story. You cannot get too deep with younger children simply because they haven't lived long enough to have a developed frame of reference, but we can still teach them the importance of "understanding history as opposed to merely knowing facts. An oft quoted line by the Historian Santayana that "Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it" should be drilled into our children.
Stephanie Kurth - 11/5/2004
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Glee Manguiat - 9/18/2004
Check out this TERRIFIC & UNIQUE learning resource book titled THE AMERICAN HISTORY DETECTIVE Book by STACIE HUTTON! This one-of-a-kind book was being featured and presented in Colonial Williamsburg over Labor Day weekend. It can be bought from www.piecesoflearning.com or www.socialstudies.com Hope this helps!!!
alicia curlew - 8/17/2004
I am preparing for the coming school year and am planning to teach history backwards. I teach in New York State- a global studies course for ninth and tenth graders. I am tackling the "second half" of the two year course from the present to the past. Also, I am coteaching with an English teacher.
My thoughts so far are to begin the year witha unit called "the hostory of our lifetime." I want to start with the fall of the Berlin Wall (which happened in the year of many of my students' birth) leading into an examination of the cold war, repressive societies, the nuclear age, Chinese communism, Tiananmen Square...Then onto the Arab-Israeli conflict, then South African apartheid and Africa today.
The next unit would be "how did we get here?" and would look at the progression from imperialism to WWI to the rise of facism/Bolshevik revolution/Stalinism to WWII. I want the students to be able to explain how these "events" brought us to where we are today.
The next unit would be "evolutions" and would show the progression of the rennaisance to the reformation to the scientific revolution to the enlightenment to the american/french/latin american revolutions and on to the agrarian and industrial revolutions.
I am interested in hearing from anyone who has tried this or wo has any ideas about this approach.
gordon bradford - 7/4/2004
Anyone out there have knowledge of available materials for US history and World history in the context of teaching backwards? Any suggestions welcome.
david lee paschall - 6/22/2004
I just responded to this article today...have been teaching this way for a few years and it really works for me. Do you know of any texts or supplemental materials available ? For an interesting read, treat yourself to Daniel Quinn's "The Man Who Lived Backwards".
david lee paschall - 6/22/2004
I have been teaching backwards for 5 or 6 years now. Like most of you, it was first an attempt to spur motivation in my at-risk students. Now it has become a useful tool for digging deeper in our research projects. I agree that my understanding of current events is heightened by knowing what has brought us to this point. For instance, as students peel off the layers of events in, say the Middle East, they can see how things have taken such dramatic turns.
I am curious if there are any textbooks or supplementary materials out there that would be appropriate for high school level History courses? - David Paschall
HNN - 5/27/2004
New York Times
By CHRIS LARSON
Published: May 27, 2004
IT'S the 1930's, and you have just been elected president of France on a promise to rebuild the French economy. But you learn that Germany is rapidly building its army, and your advisers are urging you to do the same. What will happen if you break your campaign pledge and divert resources and attention to building up the French military?
Or you're the British prime minister in 1938. Diplomats in Munich have reached a deal: Germany will be allowed to annex the Sudetenland if it promises that its expansion will go no further. What will the consequences be if you refuse to sign the agreement?
History is filled with such what-ifs, and a company called Muzzy Lane Software thinks they could help high school and college students learn about history and develop thinking skills. To that end, Muzzy Lane is getting ready to introduce schools to a technology that is already familiar to most of today's students: a video game, but one that is custom-designed for the classroom.
Making History is a multiplayer simulation that puts players in control of European governments before, during and after World War II. With a price tag somewhere between $25 and $40, the game is expected to be available in the fall from www .muzzylane.com.
Computer games have been used in education for years, especially at the elementary level, where there are thousands of software titles. At the high school and college level, though, strategy games are generally limited to stock market and election simulations, experts and teachers say. Muzzy Lane aims to change that.
The challenge is to "integrate the learning without preaching to the player," said Dave McCool, the president of Muzzy Lane. "You want to create an environment where they're learning."
HNN - 5/23/2004
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Beth J. Harpaz
Boston- My goal on a two-day trip to Bos ton with my children was simple. I wanted them to experience local history without hearing them say, "But history is boring!"
With the help of a Fodor's guide, "Around Boston With Kids," we managed to create an itinerary that entertained my family while glimpsing three centuries into the past.
We started with a tour of the city in a vintage World War II amphibious vehicle known as the "Duck" that plops into the Charles River after driving past famous sites such as the Boston Common.
The Duck is basically a boat on wheels. It was designed to ferry troops from ship to shore. The one-hour land tour took us past the Old Granary Burying Ground where Paul Revere and other patriots are entombed; Beacon Hill and the tony shops of Newbury Street; and Boston's Common. The last 20 minutes of the trip were spent in the Charles River, where every child onboard got a thrilling turn in the driver's seat.
We had a pleasant lunch in the food court at the Museum of Science. The kids had fun playing on a flight of stairs in which every step sounds a loud musical note.
The USS Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides," is at Charlestown Navy Yard. Launched in 1797, it is the oldest commissioned ship afloat in the world. Our tour guide, a uniformed sailor, explained that the Constitution was one of the first six ships ever built for the U.S. Navy, after George Washington asked Congress to fund a fleet to defend our merchant vessels against piracy.
The Constitution is still seaworthy and goes out five to 10 times a year.
The boat got its nickname, "Old Ironsides," during the War of 1812 when its oak hull withstood cannon fire.
The ship's 54 cannons still impress, but it's the stories you hear on the tour that make it so much fun.
Meat was so heavily salted to preserve it that seamen dragged the meat in nets in the ocean to desalinate it; the ocean water was less salty than the meat. And the term for barrels of drinking water -"scuttlebutt" - became synonymous for gossip because sailors gathered around the containers to chat.
From there, we headed to Walden Pond. Thoreau's legendary retreat from civilization is a mere half-hour from Boston, which is about how long it took my kids to jog the 1.8-mile trail around the water. I let them go ahead and paced myself, enjoying the newly budding trees and frog songs of early spring.
The fresh air made us hungry. My husband and I had lived in the area in the early 1980s, and we wanted to return to one of our favorite haunts, Rosie's Bakery. The cafe, in Inman Square in Cambridge, did not disappoint; we shared coconut-covered German chocolate cake, cookies and a gorgeous frosted cupcake.
On our second day in town, we headed to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, a stunning I.M. Pei-designed building of white stone with a dramatic glass front and a lovely view of Dorchester Bay. Two movies - one on Kennedy's early political influences and career and the other on the Cuban missile crisis - help children who know nothing more than the facts about JFK's death understand the impact of his life.
For grown-ups, footage of his speeches and live TV interviews fascinate as well. His intelligent discussions of complicated issues such as the Cold War stand in stark contrast to today's sound bites and glib banter. A film about his assassination is just a few minutes long; this museum focuses on his life without dwelling on his death.
We lunched at another of our old favorites, Legal Sea Foods, which has expanded in the two decades since we had moved, with 10 locations around Boston and others elsewhere on the East Coast. Our chowder, calamari and fish-and-chips were flavored to perfection and moderately priced, and the waitress was nice to our kids, who ordered from the children's menu.
Last stop was Purgatory Chasm, a state park an hour west of Boston and one of many attractions listed in the Fodor's guide that are off the beaten path. The trails here consist mainly of craggy granite rocks that wind up and down through the woods. They are steep enough to be challenging, requiring nimble feet and sturdy footwear, and when you're at the top or bottom of a 70-foot-high scramble, the views are impressive. Yet the hikes are so doable that my 6-year-old managed without assistance.
As we headed home, we agreed that our visit to Boston had been a success. We had seen plenty of historic sites, yet - surprise! -we somehow had managed to avoid all the boring ones.
HNN - 4/16/2004
Jesse Leavenworth, in the Hartford Courant (April 12, 2004):
History teacher Patrick Richardson will introduce his lesson on Holocaust denial by issuing students a press release from the future that declares Sept. 11, 2001, never happened.
"We would say that's ridiculous, and yet 60 years removed from the Holocaust, these things are gaining momentum," Richardson said Friday.
These "things" are claims that the Nazis' attempt to systematically eradicate Jews in Europe either never occurred or was greatly exaggerated. The most prominent figure associated with the revisionist line is World War II historian David Irving. But there are many others. A recent Internet search for the phrase "Holocaust never happened" got 6,160 hits.
Last year, while Mel Gibson's father was making news for his controversial views on the Holocaust, Richardson, a teacher at the Touchstone School in Litchfield, attended a workshop at the University of Hartford's Maurice Greenberg Center. He heard about a contest for curriculum proposals and decided to create a lesson plan focused on Holocaust denial.
The university announced last week that Richardson was one of three teachers in the state to win awards named after two Holocaust survivors, Joseph Korzenik and Joseph Zola. Richardson and the other winners, both from New Haven, are to receive their awards and $1,000 on April 20 at 7 p.m. in the university's Wilde Auditorium.
The awards have been given to scores of middle and high school educators over the past decade, according to a university press release.
"The award winners have reached tens of thousands of students in a five-state region, making this one of the most meaningful Holocaust educator awards in the nation," the release said.
Richardson won for his lesson plan titled, "The Truth Makes You Free."
"Some historians believe you cannot know anything for sure in history," he said Friday. "I decided it was important to show that the truth can be discovered in history. What a good historian does is weigh the evidence and see where it points."
HNN - 4/13/2004
From the Contra Costa Times April 12, 2004:
Kids question history texts
Talk about unintended irony. Back during the Cold War, a California teacher told her students that Russian kids studied commie propaganda primers at school, not unbiased textbooks like lucky American students.
Impressed, her little fourth-graders turned to their mimeographed California mission fact sheets, to read unquestioningly about the padres' noble efforts to tame the local savages.
These days, battles over overt textbook bias are fought around the world, from Dallas to New Delhi. After all, the writers of history are not only the victors, as the adage has it, but also fallible humans with individual passions and prejudices.
In response, today's California academic standards include analysis of historical interpretations at every grade level. By high school, students are parsing historical accounts for bias and prejudice.
Some local educators take the concept further, with assignments and classroom discussions specifically aimed at turning students into critical, independent thinkers.
It's not the old "Question Authority" gambit of the hippie generation, but the infinitely valuable exercise of questioning one's sources in the modern Information Age.
Campolindo history teacher Caron Brownlee's Advanced Placement U.S. history students, for example, spend their summer reading two dramatically different texts, Paul Johnson's conservative "History of the American People" and Howard Zinn's left-wing "People's History of the United States."
"My motivation was the old saying, 'You do not see the world as it is, but rather as you are,'" says Brownlee. "Being raised in the South and now living in California, I came to realize just how differently people in America interpret history, political affairs and current events."
Her students spend the summer months comparing vastly different interpretations of some very familiar territory -- Thomas Jefferson, the Civil War, the New Deal. Was Columbus a noble hero or a despicable bigot? Was Nixon a saint or a villain?
"The two different viewpoints breed great discussions," says Brownlee. "Throughout the year, we have seminars and debates in which students have to back up their arguments with specifics from either Zinn or Johnson. Most students agree with Zinn, but I do have a few loud and proud Johnson supporters."
It is the questioning and debate that offer the most valuable lessons. Which is it? Noble, villainous or something in between?
"These exercises reinforce to students that they should view the world through a 'gray' lens, versus a 'black or white' perspective," Brownlee says. "But more importantly, it will help them become critical and independent thinkers."
Critical, independent thought is key, agrees St. Mary's English professor Chris Stroffolino.
"As a student, I thought (textbooks) were written by an anonymous old stuffy professor somewhere or a committee," he says. "One of my big roles as a teacher is (saying) that's just one guy. This isn't truth."
It can be a difficult lesson, Stroffolino admits: "It's like saying there's no Santa Claus."
Straight A's appears weekly. Send suggestions and comments to the Contra Costa Times Education Team, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596. Reach Jackie Burrell at 925-284-6852 or email@example.com.
HNN - 3/20/2004
March 20, 2004
Competition caters to history buffs
20 students participating in challenge
By VANESSA McCRAY
Record-Eagle staff writer
TRAVERSE CITY - Students always have been able to flex minds in spelling bees and science fairs, but history buffs have been left out of the mix - until this year .
Now, they'll be recognized for their intellectual achievement, too. Two area schools are participating today in the Michigan History Day competition. It features more than 20 finalists from West Junior High School and Traverse City Christian School whose research projects will be judged by the Michigan Historical Society.
The competition is popular downstate but is just catching on here, said Inara Kurt, who has 14 entrants from her history class participating for the first time.
"This is the best thing that I have ever done, and I have taught for a lot of years," she said. "Not that all students love history, but they love their topic."
Students must first complete a documentary video, exhibit, research paper or other project. The best entries from each school qualify for today's district competition at West Junior High. Those winners go to the state competition in April at the Henry Ford Museum.
Gordie Rozga and Drew Nichols, ninth-graders at West Junior High, worked on their Pearl Harbor project for several weeks. The students' exhibit features black-and-white photographs of the attack and snippets of information about that day - Dec. 7, 1941.
"It was surprising how Japan made the attack so fast and sudden," Rozga said.
Nichols found it interesting that the United States knew about the attack but couldn't deliver a warning in time.
"It came four hours after it happened," he said.
Those intricate details are what excite Alison Wiebenga, a history teacher at Traverse City Christian, about the contest. Four teams from her school have advanced to today's competition.
The rules are rigorous, requiring a complete bibliography and primary sources such as diaries, letters and oral histories. Students can pick any topic, including local history events.
"I think it is an excellent opportunity in the study of history," Wiebenga said. "You really promote it and get excited about it, and there are so many things in northern Michigan, events that took place here that have great potential for discovery."
Kenn Hermann - 10/18/2003
I would like to hear from those who posted comments on the 'history in reverse' or 'backwards' link.
Mike Montgomery - 7/27/2003
I think this is a critical subject. I think all history teachers would be well served to spend some time at a national park service training session or even a well done state park training session for Interpretive Programming. While many of these folks may be naturalists at heart, those that have a kees sense of the cultural resource management understand all too well the importance of how to connect to differing age groups.
There has to be a local or a personal connection to make history compelling. Since that has not been a focus of education, to go out in to the community and make the local history a beginning step into what history is, why it's important, history loses. More and more historic societies fail. More generations grow up not knowing the importance of the cultural artifacts that are in their own back yards, or their own family histories. Most would be amazed how very lucky they all are to even be here were it not for some miraculous event in their ancestors lives that allowed their "tree" to continue. All those events have connections to a wider context.
While all teachers and professors cannot be equally entertaining, technology can certainly somewhat level the playing field. Cooperation with local historic societies, enterpretive naturalists at historic sites, national and state parks, all help. There is always a wider context than the classroom and the text book.
Al Hibler - 7/10/2003
As a teacher for 30 years I am insulted hearing that history is boring. It is not! Sure there are some red-letter dates and names we want our students to learn, but there are many ways to make these people come alive and make these dates seem like yesterday. Reading and discussing primary source material, often with opposing views, challenges most students to seek the 'truth'. Creating artifacts of various periods you are studying brings out the curiosity of our young people instead of putting them to sleep through long and laborious lectures. Early in my career I had to make a decision between teaching science or history and I couldn't be happier with the choice I made. Step out of the traditional method of teaching history through read, lecture, test and you will be amazed at the inquisitive minds that await you! Happy teaching...
Charles Mentken - 6/17/2003
Greetings Mr. Baker,
I would love to talk with you regarding your "backwards" teaching approach. I am also a U.S. history teacher and feel that this approach would greatly improve my students level of engagement. Hope to hear from you.
Charles A. Mentken
russell - 5/19/2003
beacuse know one is intrested in the past welcome to the 21st centery not the 11th centery.
what we are all interested about is the future about flying cars or somthing like that nothing so shity
Michael Baker - 2/23/2003
I have been teaching United States History in reverse chronological order for three years. After the first year, I added a twist. Kids absolutely love it.
Kenn Hermann - 1/3/2003
I am a U.S. history professor who was pressed into service to teach a section of world civ. II this past spring. One of the things that working up a new prep does is to free you from doing things like they have always been done. I asked myself the perennial question we all ask: what is that I want my students to carry with them after taking this single history class? Following 9/11 and the dismal level of historical understanding even news and commentators showed about the Middle East I decided that I would much rather have them know something about Afghanistan than remembering when the Spanish invaded South America. That led me to teaching this course backwards. In brief my syllabus was as follows: 1) 3-4 weeks on the history of a single civilization -- Middle East, China, Rwanda (Africa), Costa Rica (Central America); 2) they read a book on the contemporary situation in each civilization, e.g. Rashid on the Taliban; 3) my first lecture on each civ. set up the historical context of the post-WWII period; it ended with the question: what do we need to know about the earlier history of this civ. to better understand the present? -- always lots of good questions from them -- I then assigned them to find answers to those questions and bring to class; 4) each subsequent lecture went further back in time until we reached the 16th c., the 'beginning' of the course; 5) always plenty of discussion and lots of good connections being made.
Students loved this approach, even those whom we have all had who 'hated' history. It finally made sense to them. There are many pedagogical advantages to this approach that I am working into an article. If you are looking for a way to gain student interest and prepare a more literate generation, try this approach.
Jeff Layton - 11/25/2002
I was so excited to read your response today on the History News Network. I live in Los Angeles and have my MA in history from Pepperdine University and I have several years of teaching experience. I also have several years experience in the entertainment industry.
I also came to the realization that history has not been presented to kids in a fun manner. I decided to do something about that. I have written a script for a kids program that makes history exciting, fun, cool, and whacky. The program is aimed for 4th grade kids and up. It is the history version of Bill Nye the Science Guy or the Crocodile Hunter. These television programs made their subjects very "cool" for kids. And this one does too while still giving and reinforcing important historical information. The potential for this program is incredible.
Right now, I am working on getting my script in the hands of producers with the experience of getting shows made for PBS, Disney, Nickelodeon, Noogle, TLC, and other networks that have programming for kids. Please let me know if this interests you, or if you have any contacts who would be interested. Thanks!
Dr. Mike Halsey - 11/8/2002
David McCullough says that teaching history is easy, "All you have to do is tell stories." I think he was quoting Barbara Tuchmann.
Domonique Bastone - 9/23/2002
September 23, 2002
I am a documentary film maker. I focus on medical issues. My programs air on PBS. However, I have a thorn in my side that I need to satisfy ASAP. Having a 10th grader who "flunked" 9th grade history I am on a mission to create a PBS doc that will focus on the the problem of high school kids who know NOTHING and do not care to know anything about history. To me and anyone I know "history is a part of my life". Students need to understand that our future is created on the past events. Our conversations in life be it serious or funny are based on history. What I mean is comment like "My boss is a real Hitler". Kids have no idea what a comment like that means. What I am trying to relate in my program is that without a "knowledge of history" life will be limmited.When a kid grows up, who is void of history, his conversations, his itiot banter, his image to others, jobs, relationships will be effected not having basic information about the past. Don't we communicate to others our knowledge about life. History is an important piece to have. We must find a way to educate parents, children and schools. History has to be "cool" to know. Kids are wavings "red" flags saying "we don't get it the way you are teaching it" We need to make it a part of the ciriculam at an earlier age. First we need to EDUCATE how important history is, THEN teach it. We need to address it like we have drugs, smoking, drunk driving. I need help on how to present a package to a potential funder. Names of historians that can be in the program, etc. This will be a fun project and an opportunity to get a very important message across the country. It can be the "foundation" for a new approach. I am not a historian. I just have a venue and a incredable ability to raise money. Please respond...Thank you
Matthew Shapiro - 9/1/2002
I'm with an organization called the Mary Parker Follett Foundation (http://www.follettfoundation.org), and I'm exploring the idea of a project to create a history textbook or textbooks that would be written from the present "backwards". The reason I'm looking at this is because studying history this way may contribute to a greater understanding of the evolutionary shifts that construct the worldview and situation that the present observer finds him/herself in. This relates to one of the interest areas of our organization. If anyone is interested in discussing this further, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
jim cooper - 8/29/2002
I am a math teacher who "has" to teach one class out of my area this year and it happens to be history. Due to recent budget cuts our school had a reduction in force making it necessary for some of the staff to teach "out of their areas." Being a less senior teach I predicted I would end up having to teach outside of math. I quickly volunteered to teach American history as I enjoy researching local history, genealogy, military, etc. I guess you could say history is somewhat of a hobby of mine. All summer long I have been wondering about teaching it backwards and I am looking for more info and reflections from anyone who has had experience doing so. As a result, this article is of interest to me and would like more info
Clyde Griffin - 8/28/2002
I’ve always liked the Vassar History department’s emphasis on discussion, so what matters is my skill at that and at interspersed informal lecturing. My aim has always been to help students discover how historians practice their craft, how their sources, methods, conceptualization, and (conscious or unconscious) assumptions and biases shape their analyses and stories. Working with students on papers and theses, I tried to get them to apply what they learned from reading and discussing primary and secondary sources.
What was it in my own teaching style that may have helped them? Probably an openness to the varied possibilities in their contributions to class discussion, though I was guilty frequently of relating their contributions to ideas I had in mind at the moment. But mostly I’d guess it was my enthusiasm, born of genuine fascination with and excitement about particular subjects and interpretations of them. I remember how captivated I was as an undergraduate at Iowa by George Mosse’s relating of the design of Jesuit churches to baroque theatre.
Big theories about historical change (let alone philosophy of history) haven’t appealed to me for a long time, but I love novel approaches which may have wider applicability to manageable topics. For example, I’ve always enjoyed asking students to try to evaluate the success of McKitrick and Elkins’ in finding a new meaning for Turner’s frontier using a contemporary sociological contrast between two new communities with and without a structure of leadership.
By the 1970s if I remember rightly, my syllabi would preface the reading assignment with a question for discussion so students would be thinking as they read about what kinds of evidence, etc. would be needed to answer it. Inspired by Lucy Salmon’s gift for imagining historical uses for unconventional data – right down to the physical arrangements of your own backyard – I tried to introduce them in some assignments to what you can and cannot learn from different kinds of quantitative and qualitative evidence.
I also liked at times to make students confront the implications of present-mindedness and past-mindedness, e..g. using Boorstin’s Lost World of Thomas Jefferson to make them criticize their own (usual) presumption that Jefferson’s opinions and world view could be transplanted easily to our own time and choices. At the other end, Hofstadter’s Age of Reform made them puzzle about how his current concerns (explicit in his preface) may have affected what he “found” in the past.
In general, I think the discussion method – precisely because it considers multiple possibilities in interpretation and emphasizes critical evaluation of them – gives students a sense that the writing of history on topics of some importance is never finished. So the continual revisiting of the past as our present circumstances change challenges the historical imagination. My best guess – reinforced by student evaluations – is that my enthusiasm for pursuing that challenge on a wide variety of subjects was contagious and explains whatever success I had in the classroom.
Kara Coffey - 8/27/2002
I was fortunate enough to be one of Bill Gorski's students in A.P. U.S. History at Mundelein High School, and I cannot express in strong enough words what a difference it makes having an enthusiastic, energetic teacher who clearly knows and loves the material. Each and every single day, Mr. Gorski conveyed his passion for history and joy of teaching to his students, thus fostering a tremendous amount of respect for him by his pupils and peers alike. I will be the first to admit that history is not my best subject, but for the duration of my junior year, his contagious love of the material and enthusiasm for spreading his knowledge made A.P. U.S. History my favorite class. Thanks Mr. Gorski!
HNN Staff - 8/21/2002
From the Christian Science Monitor ... the story of a historian's innovative approach to teaching:
"Mark Carnes was convinced that his students were as bored as he was. His philosophy course on great books had all the right ingredients for a fascinating discussion, but something just wasn't clicking.
"His remedy? He threw his class into a mock trial of Socrates, to show how the philosopher's writings emerged from important, heartfelt debates. Eventually, a student suggested adding rules about who could talk, sit, or stand – according to the traditions of the time."
Click here to go to the rest of the article:
Bernard Weisberger - 7/19/2002
Above all I tried to make history “come alive” for the students, which I didn’t find hard because it’s always been alive for me. The men and women of the past—or at least that part of the American past that I’ve studied-- are as real to me as my family and neighbors. I simply conveyed what I genuinely feel as non-pompously as I could. And I did infuse my presentations with a little conscious storytelling art—pacing, transitions, images, climaxes. I didn’t write out lectures or “rehearse” them, but I really thought them through beforehand, considering the classroom hour as a chance to tell a friend a story that I really wanted him or her to enjoy and think about. In assigning readings I always concentrated on original source materials, and incorporated a lot of source quotations into my lectures, because the men and women who make history almost always are more interesting to listen to than the men and women who write about them later. Finally, I suppose, I always really liked and respected the students—yes, all of them, in addition to my inevitable favorites--and that made it easy to talk TO them, not AT or OVER them. I guess in sum, then, the “secret” was to like what I was teaching and who (all right, whom!) I was teaching, after which it was just a matter of following my instincts. I know I’m focusing heavily on lecturing here, but it is what I did best.
Bill Gorski - 7/15/2002
I have taught American History for 23 years at Mundelein High School.My BA as well as my MA are in History. History is a story, thus it is essential that the history teacher be a good story-teller. This can only be done by having a thorough grounding in your subject. With the knowledge base one can augment the text to make the readings come alive in the classroom.
Teachers also must have a passion for what they teach. Personally, I can think of nothing else I would rather do than teach history. As teachers we know that our love of the subject and the passion we exhibit in the classroom energizes our students to learn more and expand their own horizons.
Sal Mercogliano - 7/12/2002
This question has plagued many professors. As a new professor - having taught full-time for only two years, I believe it is not the material but the teachers who are boring.
Part of being a historian is being able to convey the importance of a topic. All too often, historians get weighted down with telling all the small points of a larger event. While these are important, they sometimes take away from the lectures.
This generation of students is bombarded by sound and visual stimuli. Teachers need to build on that. I personnally use multimedia: Music, DVDs, Powerpoint, and graphics to get my message across.
Additionally, relate the material to the present. Most students could not care about Egyptians, unless you relate them to the present day: ie the situation in the Middle East, their legacy to science, why they built the Pyramids?
Perhaps the biggest turnoff for students in history surveys is the vast amount of material. As most schools shift from Western Civ to World Civ, this even magnifies the problem. There is no way that a student is going to remember all the facts in a World Civ textbook. Very few professors could make that claim. Yet we hold the students to standard that they need to know key facts, dates, people, and places. And this is the root of the problem, all too often - and this is mainly due to growing class sizes and teaching load - professors are forced to turn history exams into an episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
What is more important, knowing when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place or why; yet the question that is typically asked is when. The when is important, but the why is crucial. This means that history exams need to be essays and short answers and not scantrons.
When students are faced with this fill-in the dot option, it is too easy for them to sit back and just focus on the dates and places and not the substance of what is being taught.
For the past two years I have avoided the use of multiple choice exams but I understand the allure. It would be nice to be finished with classes the last day of finals and just run the tests through the machine, but we expect the students to study, prepare, and perform; professors should do the same.
When teachers show effort, the students will follow.
Buies Creek, NC
Rick Shenkman - 7/10/2002
At the OAH meeting this past spring one historian got a great reaction when he explained how he had succeeded in getting students interested in history.
He teaches it backwards.
He explained that in a course on U.S. history he begins with current times and works backward to help make history seem -- pardon this bugaboo from the Sixties -- "relevant."
Audience members found his approach absolutely fascinating and peppered him with questions.
The approach is counterintuitive. Wouldn't students find it confusing to work backwards through history? It would be like watching a movie backwards. You wouldn't understand why anything happened. But the teacher insisted that it actually works. Students "get it."
And they really enjoy seeing the connections between present and past, connections they miss when a course begins, say, with the Civil War and ends with the Cold War.
If anybody has tried this approach, please comment.
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