Once more unto the breach...
September 8, 2014 4:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm making a collection of ideas and best practices for history teachers. If you had an amazing history teacher, in either middle school or high school, what did they do that captured your interest? If you teach history, what have you seen work?

To narrow this down more: I'm looking for ways to help history comes alive for these students. Assume limited access to technology (so only occasional documentaries) and a strong desire to avoid making things "relevant" by connecting history to current events.

Ideally, I would like to hear how other teachers brought history alive for students on a daily basis, and not one particularly memorable lesson. What are the day-to-day mechanics of teaching history successfully, besides making organized lesson plans?
posted by kingfishers catch fire to Education (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite history teacher had lots of anecdotes about events in history - little bon mots that kept kids focused. (This was 10th grade history.) He covered the big points, but the little points were SO interesting, we all listened hard.
posted by heathrowga at 4:49 PM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

- be a good story teller of historical events
- try to focus on topics you are particularly passionate about
- mystery - students love mysteries, let them ask questions, don't always have an answer to their questions, let their minds wander on the possibilities of unknown knowledge
- make history fun - makes jokes, laugh about events, persons, etc
- let them see what you are interested in- tell them about your own pursuits of history without getting on a soapbox about it
- provide diversity in history - for example, don't just do wars or presidents - provide different themes or approaches so you can capture the attention of more students

12 yrs of teaching history... hope it's worth something to you. Good luck!
posted by dealing away at 4:52 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ok, so I am not a history teacher, but, while doing genealogy I have read many, many newspapers.
While I'm reading my local newspaper I've come so many of the big stories of this country. The wars, civil rights, etc.

It always made me wonder why a history teacher didn't print up some of these old newspapers. Seeing familiar town/city names with interesting stories and headline seemed a great way to connect the kids to these events.
posted by beccaj at 4:52 PM on September 8, 2014

Echoing heathrowga - People are intrinsically more interesting than events. Throw in the odd seemingly irrelevant anecdote.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:53 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

First person accounts. I'm not a history teacher but I live in prime Civil War territory and that war completely came alive for me when the local historians with NPS would weave first person accounts of the battles into the presentations. Civil War tactics are boring, a 19 year old in a trench penning a letter to his sweetheart because he doesn't know if he'll survive the day is riveting.
posted by COD at 5:04 PM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can still remember the first essay exam I wrote for AP American History in eleventh grade (all about Alexander Hamilton) because Mr. Murphy had made the man come alive for me in that pale green painted classroom. It was as if I'd watched a really great movie and then had the opportunity to share the story with someone who'd not seen it (that is, the "reader" of the essay).

He started every single class with a narrative about a historical figure -- often someone whose name might never have come up in the history books. (In AP European History the next year, we had days and days of tales about the various members of Madame de Stael's salon.) Throughout the day's lecture, at the transition point between sections, we'd hear (and talk) about how the preceding moment's issues might have (or did) impact the person about whom he'd spoken at the beginning.

I'm a voracious learner, but prior to these last two years of high school, "Social Studies" was a long litany of learning the dates of wars, the order of explorers' travels, and the chief export of each nation. But for these two years, history was captivating because it was always -- every day -- about real people with whom I could identify, in whose place I could imagine putting myself. When I got to college, I found that the best history professors had those same skills at narration, of telling a story where the dates merely help you figure out the order of the "scenes" as the movie of history played out.

Find those personal stories and your students will be fans of yours, and of history!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 5:05 PM on September 8, 2014

My best history teacher in high school did two things that stuck with me:

One was having people who had lived through or participated in historical events come to class to talk to us. We talked to soldiers and nurses who had been in WWII and Korean and Vietnam wars. We were also tasked with finding and interviewing people who had lived through some of the (then) more recent historical events, including grandparents who had lived through the Great Depression.

For other historical events, she would assign us sides and we would then re-enact things like early labor union negotiations between business owners and laborers. That was one of the more frustrating and enlightening things that we did, actually.

Oh! I just remembered: She also had someone come in (this was in our junior and senior year of high school) and register students to vote if they were old enough (which I wasn't, but I still appreciated it).
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 5:25 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Regarding the day to day mechanics: Be prepared to teach historiography as it comes up. When your students become curious, or critical thinkers, or want to engage the material outside the bounds of your state agency's narrow curriculum, be prepared to go with it. Be conversant enough to handle "off script" discussions. Be knowledgeable about additional resources your students can read to learn more. Offer extra credit to students who watch films or read literature on their own time that relates to the subject matter.

If you don't know the answer to a student's question, admit that you don't know but discuss where you could go to find some answers. Be authentic.

As someone else said, please don't just teach war and presidents. Teach about labor, women, the economics of slavery, the politics of segregation. Teach the history of the black middle class. Or whatever other untold stories there are in your particular area/era of history.

To be frank, I surely do not understand your wish to avoid making history relevant. Is it because you'll get fired for being controversial? Best of luck.
posted by Schielisque at 5:32 PM on September 8, 2014

Agree with personalising history, and letting your passion show. Though only up to a point... I remember doing AP European History and it was essentially AP Renaissance Italy because that's what the teacher was mad on. I still don't know how I pulled off a 3 on the exam, which also featured questions on the French Revolution and not just Renaissance Italy...

Anyhow, the best history teacher I had told us about his actual experiences in Vietnam. Older now, I realise he would have censored and edited heavily, but it still stands out in my mind as a point when I realised history isn't just something that happened a long time ago, it's happening all the time.

I have always thought that some of the civilisation-building games (Civ the computer game is perhaps most sophisticated, but there's also Advanced Civ the board game, History of the World, a host of other Eurogames) would be a fantastic way to actually explore the interrelationships between things like developing your culture and technology vs developing your military; concentrating on making the most of local resources but also trade with others; different forms of government, religion and entertainment and their effects on the people you're governing; the relative merits of diplomacy and militarism when dealing with others. Random events like floods, earthquakes, barbarian hordes. And new civilisations rising and being built on the bones of those gone before. For me it makes history a lot more interesting to understand these things better. Don't know if you can get away with playing board games in class, and you'd have too many players anyway. So maybe an extracurricular? Just an idea.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:33 PM on September 8, 2014

I hated history. HATED. Loathed. Despised. Until there was Mr. Fry.

Until Mr. Fry, history was stuff that happened a long time ago, and had absolutely no bearing on my day-to-day existence. Mr. Fry made history relevant, not in the traditionally accepted sense, but in the sense of "Oh, hey, this thing you take for granted? Somebody who's been dead for 100 years invented that."

The one that stuck in my head was traffic lights. Mr. Fry always told us, "It's not what you know; it's what you know how to find out that matters." Before every major test, he'd give us a list of events to put in order - like the invention of the traffic light - and take us to the library for one class period. For each item we had in the correct order, we could circle one question on the test to not answer.

It had seriously never occurred to me that traffic lights came into existence in 1868, and had been in use ever since. I just thought that was so neat - that there'd been enough traffic way back then that there was a need for traffic lights, so someone invented them, and we still used them.

Mr. Fry also pointed out, when I was expressing how much I didn't like history, that as a student of genealogy, history should have been one of my favorite subjects. He pointed out that my ancestors LIVED THROUGH HISTORY. Again, it was mind-boggling. It had never occurred to me that the Civil War had directly impacted people I was related to. Or the French Revolution. The Trail of Tears. Any of it. It wasn't until Mr. Fry that I realized that history wasn't just dry, dead facts; it was the stories of people's lives, what they did, and how, and why.

I love history.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 5:52 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Echoing everyone else and suggesting personalizing history.

My favorite middle school history teacher (Texas history, specifically) used to have us discuss battles like we were generals, coming up with alternate methods of attack and discussing the impact modern weapons or politics would have on past situations. For example, she had us compare modern day media coverage to the newspapers at the time. This was a great way to really understand how slowly communication worked, and what impact it had on history.

My favorite high school teacher (AP Euro) was just ridiculous. He had a historical anecdote for nearly every situation, and spent a lot of time making sure we understood who was writing the history we were reading. Personal accounts, popular opinion, examples of popular culture at the time, things like that. He also held a salon every month, where we were assigned a character from history and had to hold discussions as them for a whole class period. He also set up a risk board, and divided us into groups and we had to vote on moves we could make each class. It was really, really hard to get anything done based on a democracy so he'd let try different forms of government and he'd let people defect to different teams- but you could get caught defecting and your group would be mad, you could refuse to vote, sometimes he'd declare a plague and take our troops off the board, things like that. He also let us earn extra credit by discussing how to fairly distribute a limited number of points. Weird to describe, but it was fun and I still remember the game. (And somehow, we all got 4s and 5s on the AP Test. Go figure)
posted by Torosaurus at 6:00 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had a history teacher and a geography teacher who were both great in the same year with very different approaches. The geography teacher let me explore and follow my interests with her explaining new stuff as long as I had covered the basics in the course. The history teacher refused to let me go beyond the syllabus and made me go deeper into the material instead. She graded during class against each student could do - I got a B or C for what another student would have gotten an A because I didn't try hard enough. She would push me to think harder and connect concepts, because she taught history not as an objective narrative of events and people, but as a collection of materials that we were capable of analysing and understanding within different frameworks to find patterns and stories - you took the same historical period and looked at it through editorial cartooning and period politics, or you looked at it through economic statistics and personal diaries, and so on. Before that, I liked history well enough but didn't realise how much history is created and the responsibility and active decisions historians make are intrinsic to history. I think she was one of the most significant teachers of my life, although I didn't like her much and found the class tough - hindsight makes me grateful!
posted by viggorlijah at 6:07 PM on September 8, 2014

History was my favorite subject in high school.

My favorite teachers were more like storytellers, rather than teachers. They approached every class as though they were telling a story, and inserted enough bits of trivia and lesser-known facts to make even the most boring event/person seem interesting.
posted by invisible ink at 6:11 PM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another vote for anecdotes about historical figures. My 11th grade US History teacher did this very well and really made things interesting. It's been 25 years and I still can't read anything about George Washington without thinking of Mr. U saying "Hands as big as toilet seats!" when describing his stature.

The other thing I love is going beyond the textbook and bringing in things like newspaper or magazine articles written about events at the time they happened, examples of pop culture of the time, etc. It really makes the events come alive.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:12 PM on September 8, 2014

Dittoing the Genealogy aspect. When I was in school/taking history classes if I had been doing my family history at that time I would have felt history related directly to me/my life and I would have been infinitely more interested and paid attention.
posted by goml at 6:30 PM on September 8, 2014

Mr. Fry also pointed out, when I was expressing how much I didn't like history, that as a student of genealogy, history should have been one of my favorite subjects. He pointed out that my ancestors LIVED THROUGH HISTORY.

Seconding this.

Okay, I helped co-create a pitch for a kids' history TV show that I still think would have ROCKED - and it was entirely based on things in people's attics. (I swear this will be relevant to your question, and applicable to your work.) The premise was that each week a kid would write in to the host and talk about some weird thing they found in the family's attic/storage unit/etc., and ask "so, tell me about this thing," and the episode would spin a whole history lesson inspired by that thing. So, like, one episode would be a kid writing in about "my mom has this picture on the wall she says was my great-grandma's, that's a picture of a plane and talks about 'the first trans-atlantic flight' or something". And the episode then is all about early transatlantic commercial travel, or the history of commercial aviation - you can get into Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, airplanes v. zepplins, all that. And then the next week is another kid writing in about Dad's tie-dye shirt and then that's all about hippies, and the next week you've got a kid whose uncle has a weird doohickey that turns out to be a particular kind of early manufacturing tool, and yadda yadda yadda.

The reason that my company was convinced this would work - and the reason I am convinced this is an idea to try in the class - is that it started when I brought in news about a weird box of stuff my family had in our attic; I'm related to Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren, aka "Mr. And Mrs. Tom Thumb". And it just opened this whole flood of research about the Thumbs and Barnum and their impact on 1800's pop culture and a host of other stuff. (The Tom Thumb wedding was the ONLY thing that pushed news of the Civil War off the front page of newspapers, and that may be why people were so wild over it.) But the thing was, the next day all three of my co-workers came in with their own "I checked and found something in my attic too" - and they were finding things like, "this is a samurai sword my uncle got from the translator for the Japanese army during Hirohito's surrender and he gave it to my uncle for safekeeping" to "I just found a few of my great-grandpa's letters where he's talking about The Black Hand, so I now think maybe he was an early mafioso".

So that must mean that all those kids must have similarly weird shit in their family's collection, and those things have stories and those stories can fit into the context of history. And they can't deny that history has something to do with them now, because "dude, the stuff we're talking about is stuff that your great-uncle lived through, and that bowie knife PROVES it."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:53 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Loved, loved, loved my AP US History teacher. She started us off by having us read The Jungle, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and then complementary chapters of A People's History of the United States and some excerpts from a book that was essentially "No, the robber barrens were totes good people". It was really a great introduction to the fact that history depends on who's telling it. We got lots more of that throughout the year- learning about WWII and all these happy things that happened with the soldiers- GI Bill, expansion of the middle class, etc., and then, bam, a screening of The Best Years of our Lives (this was also when public knowledge/discussion of PTSD surrounding Afghanistan/Iraq was ramping up, so there was some connection there). Bottom line, expose your students to multiple viewpoints!

And, as others mentioned: be passionate. She loved Teddy Roosevelt.
posted by damayanti at 7:16 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a history teacher in junior high who held the occasional seance. He'd make us all be very quiet but would generously ignore minor giggling. The lights would be turned out. He'd light a candle, and call into the flickering dark for some historical figure to visit us. There would be a knock at the door, and a student in costume would slowyly shamble in, playing the role of, say, John Brown, and tell us some of his story, answer a few questions, and shamble out.

This same instructor was a gun collector, and actually fired a civil war rifle in class (with what was, I'm sure, a very small charge of powder).

He also kept a framed photograph of his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, on the wall by the door where we'd all see it as we filed out. He was once relating some story about TR, and actually cried a little.

In retrospect, he was considerably more awesome than i realized at the time. He didn't work that job, he lived it.
posted by jon1270 at 7:48 PM on September 8, 2014

i had a high school history teacher who had a pack of gold stars that were given very sparingly for evidence of exceptionally astute thinking. Sometimes it was just a few in a year, sometimes perhaps 10. I think that sense of very high standards earned him (deservedly, he was an excellent teacher generally) a great deal of respect.

Also lots of writing. E.g., a one-page reaction, with a specific question, in response to a primary source reading every week. (Actually this was the same teacher, but in a senior class that he co-taught with another great one.)
posted by spbmp at 8:16 PM on September 8, 2014

There were two teachers at my high school that taught US History. You could do AP US with the guy who made you memorize lists of important dates, or you could do non-AP US with the Economics instructor.

I had had quite enough with Mr Memorize Dates for freshman year history, so I took my heavy AP schedule and lightened it up there. It was significantly changing for me. I went from 'history is nice, but I'm going into biology' to 'I guess I'm in school for archaeology now'.

Anyway, the Econ teacher's approach to history was fundamentally different than memorizing a bunch of dates. He pushed the idea that you can look up facts, but the thing to understand was the formation, the structure - what caused what. Why did the Civil War start, not when. From there, of course, you could have a discussion as to causes and contributing factors, small or large. And from there you'd end up knowing the dates of things, just through repetition or knowing approximately what happened first and being able to sequence them.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:26 PM on September 8, 2014

My freshman history teacher was a diminutive, yet imposing man, who often lectured from a La-Z-Boy placed on a dais in the front of the room next to his desk. His class was mostly tough and always fascinating, but the days I remember best and loved the most were slide days. Think of the cliched groan that tends to greet a full carousel of someone's vacation photo slides: this was the exact opposite. Mr. Hallen could sit in that recliner and talk for hours about his personal travels and experiences, weaving them perfectly into the period of world history about which we were currently learning. I had undiagnosed ADHD and was starting down the path of a slacker dropout, but honors world history was the only class in my entire high school career where I got a better grade in the SECOND semester.

It's been over 23 years, but I still remember so many things I learned in that class. And every time I correctly answer a trivia question at a pub quiz or on Jeopardy I think of Mr. Hallen. Which sounds trivial (ha ha) but I don't remember much else from high school. And ultimately, I think if you're passionate about history and you connect it to your own experiences and bring it to life in even the smallest of ways, it helps your students relate to it personally, and that makes a huge difference.

Mike Hallen died in 2010 and as I was writing this I found that these comments and ratings at Rate My Teachers encompass him perfectly. He definitely wasn't easy, but he was clear and engaging, he was passionate about history and teaching, and he treated his students like adults. And I think most of his students knew that and responded accordingly.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:45 PM on September 8, 2014

Primary sources. Seconding letters, or other formats that are more immediate, such as courtroom speeches. But also, non-written things. Students love ancient Greek and Roman history because it usually includes some element of archaeology. Greek vases, Roman coins. If you are not prepared to teach these things you can have an archaeologist or art historian come in. Classes I recall as very effective had, not long slideshow types of things, but say one or two pieces of art or the plan of a house.
posted by BibiRose at 9:01 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I taught World History last year and a lot of it comes down to good curriculum that like others have said, is story telling.

I would go look at World History for Us All, the Stanford History Education Group, the Big History Project and Primary Source. All are great resources with great lessons.

All emphasize thinking historically, recognizing bias, and go way beyond facts and boring things into cultivating critical thinking skills.
posted by kinetic at 3:11 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

In high school: showing how history leads up to the present. At that age children care passionately about global and societal injustices and learning how the past creates the present is fascinating. Obviously this doesn't work for all topics.

In my case, for example, I made myself an expert on colonialism in Africa - this was a few years after the Rwandan genocide.
posted by tavegyl at 10:44 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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