Revising History

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I keep waiting for someone to tell me why an 11-year-old should be interested in the economic system of ancient Rome.

Or why a 13-year-old should care about the War of 1812.

How much do you know about the War of 1812?

Has that held you back at all?

Me neither, and I’m a history teacher.

We teach history in the wrong direction. We start with the past and work forward.

We need to turn around.

We start off teaching social studies well.

In kindergarten we teach about the thing immediately around the child, the family and the classroom.

This is one of the kindergarten rooms on the f...

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In first grade kids learn about the neighborhood and in second the larger community.

In third grade kids learn about the various countries in the modern world.

Then it stops making sense.

In 4th grade NY students learn all about NY, from the earliest Iroquois days forward. Fifth grade that expands to the early explorers of Canada, Mexico and the rest of the North American land mass.

Sixth grade starts with studies of three countries in the eastern hemisphere, usually only Asian countries are included because the next unit is on ancient Egypt and the rest of the year is spent in ancient Rome, Mesopotamia and more, ending up somewhere around the Renaissance.

The seventh and 8th grade curriculum, my current assignment, is American history.

In 7th we start with the native civilizations before Europeans arrive and are supposed to get through the Civil War.

American Civil War

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Eighth grade is supposed to start with Reconstruction and end somewhere around 1976.

Here’s one idea. 7thgrade American history should start in 2010 and work backwards to try to unravel how we got into our current miasma. By the end of 8th grade we should have worked our way back to Columbus’ “discovery.”

But even that isn’t optimal. I object to teaching history as a linear series of events whichever way we run through time.

History is not about time or events; it is about ideas and how people deal with conflicting ones.

Ideas excite people, even 8th grade inner-city students. Ideas have meaning to them that dates, names and events do not.

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I don’t want to follow a curriculum map.

I want to explore with my students as they discover the themes and ideas that make their life what it is and try to figure out how those patterns can be changed so their lives improve.

I want to help them make their world make sense.

Maybe then I’ll understand mine.

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15 Responses to Revising History

  1. I wholeheartedly agree, Deven that our students need to understand the world they currently live in before they can make connections to events of the past. When our students don’t know what state they live in or the history behind the million (billion?) dollar war we are fighting then we are doing them a disservice.

    As for the linear timeline, I remember my History teacher running out of time for current US History because of the way the curriculum was laid out and paced.

    I wish we could all be Edupunks all the time!

  2. Deven Black says:

    What’s stopping us?

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Angela Cunningham, Deven Black, Sgt Ret, Scott Smith, Mary Beth Hertz and others. Mary Beth Hertz said: Revising History: @spedteacher's objections to how we currently teach History […]

  4. I have to disagree here. The reason we are a fighting a billion dollar war today is because of the events of the past…so the present just isn’t going to make sense until you have the background. How can one fully understand the Arab-Israeli crisis without any knowledge of the Roman Empire? Rise of Islam? Crusades? Ottoman Empire? Post-WWI mandate system? Holocaust? You wouldn’t be getting an accurate understanding. History is our story….and presenting it like a story can be very interesting to the children. I agree it’s good practice not to teach everything and rather focus on the story-lines that have the most relevance (most helpful to understanding our world today).

    I don’t want children to just think about today….I want them to understand that actions have consequences, both intended and unintended. And that things take time to develop and our opinions about them change over time. We learn about the past to help us prepare for the future.

    • Deven Black says:

      I don’t want children to just think about today — or tomorrow — either, but the past does not have meaning unless one can connect it to something, anchor it in something that already has meaning. Frankly, my students couldn’t care less about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the holocaust in Africa, or the Holocaust of the 1940s.

      History can be told as a story, but it can also be approached as an inquiry, a question of why what is happening — or what has happened — is the way it is. Perhaps some students prefer history as a story, but the students I teach don’t want to hear those stories because they don’t see where they make a difference in their lives.

  5. Enjoyed this post. I too have been playing with the idea of teaching a history survey backwards (in my case, at the university level): See

    I think it’s challenging, but worthwhile to think about.

  6. TFT says:

    I want to explore with my students as they discover the themes and ideas that make their life what it is…
    Yes, yes, yes.

    Kids need to be interested in what they are studying, and linear won’t necessarily get you there. Teachers need to be able to be a bit spontaneous.

    Great post.

  7. I’m thinking along the same line. I’m not a teacher myself, but I began school in 1968. Man kind was about to set foot on the Moon, and in school we learned about the Stone Age. Living in northern Europe, I began watching newscasts and science on TV largely thanks to the American Apollo program. When the Olympic Games in Munich were interrupted by a terrorist attack, history lessons in school were about medieval kings and peasantry. When the Watergate scandal made headlines, we studied 18th-century mining industry. The subject of “contemporary history” was an abstract concept we were supposed to address “later”. For most of my school years, history lessons seemed to have little if anything to do with the real world. Fortunately, geography and language was there to fill the void.

    Inspired by the work of my mother and by participating in a family reunion when I was a kid, as a teenager I began studying my own genealogy. My grandfather had died already when I was eight, but my other grandparents lived on several more years. It’s fascinating to see your own parents, aunts and uncles photographed as children, often in surroundings familiar to you as the places where your grandparents or other relatives live today. It creates an immediate connection between the present and the recent past. I can’t relate to WWII myself, but it took place when my father went to school. Likewise, WWI happened when my grandfather went to school. In the homes of my grandparents, there were photos of relatives who died before I was born, and gradually I could connect to individuals, places and events further and further back in time.

    In genealogy, you always have to start with yourself and work backwards. Only when you have identified some early ancestor will it be possible to trace the descendants of said ancestor forward in time, but that’s literally a “side issue”. I was fortunate not to have to start from scratch; there was plenty of work already done that I could build upon, but also go back and verify when I found the time for it. The advice to every beginner genealogist is “go interview your grandparents”. Not so easy if you are already retired yourself.

    What a learning experience it could have been if I had been able to ask my grandparents to help me with my history homework – not having them do it for me, of course, but interviewing them as living witnesses! But as the years pass, grandparents tend to grow older and die, or you don’t get to meet them as often when you expand your own social circles. Eventually, when 20th-century history is brought up in 8th or 9th grade, your older relatives may no longer be there to tell you about their part in it.

    Or do we really want every kid to first ask the obvious question: “Grandpa, were there dinosaurs when you were young?”

  8. ldorazio1 says:

    Honestly, I think its best if history is taught in both directions. To be fair, the linear view of classical history education provides a good framework for understanding historical underpinnings of events and ideas, since nothing we do springs out of a vacuum. That said, there’s nothing wrong with departing from the narrative and exploring connections found today, or in the recent past, that connect students with the linear narrative.

    I see nothing wrong with the line…as long as you’re not married to one direction.

  9. I love the questions you ask. Some more ammunition for you: there has never been a single study (at least as of 2004) that showed any benefit to teaching history chronologically; there are tons that show students learn more and gain deeper understanding from teaching history thematically. That is how I arrange my courses (have done it with both US and Global). And for the most part, each of my thematic units tend to start with today, and then work backwards from essential questions. Some examples: my US unit on Foreign Policy starts with the question, “Why are we at War in Iraq/Afghanistan?”. In my Global class this year, our unit on Belief Systems is starting with a look at various current religious conflicts (India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Christianity vs. Islam) and students will work backwards fo trace their causes. Happy to share more if you’re interested.

  10. edtgraff says:

    Great post. I have often thought that we actually teach history backwards, instead of starting with what we know and working our back. Our curriculums fail to really connect history to the present day. I would like to see history presented as an investigation of why the world is the way it is today.

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  13. Vera Rulon says:

    I love the outside the usual academic box thinking, Deven, that we should understand where we are and work our way back — connecting the dots — to see from whence we came.
    We need to find ways for learning to be a collaborative experience for students (no matter what age), teachers, and parents (although this piece might take longer). Thanks for your insight.

  14. Jamie says:

    It makes me laugh that you mention the War of 1812. I wish you had seen me posting last week about how the hell to make that interesting because I sure as hell didn’t care about it!

    I would absolutely LOVE to re-do my classes to be thematic, like Stephen above, but I feel so overwhelmed by it without other teachers that want to do the same, and standards that worry about minutiae.

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