History is not there for you to like or dislike... It is there for you to learn from.
That said, it's also well-known that history is the first core subject that teachers drop in elementary school with the excuse that they don't have time for it and that they are mandated to focus on "more important" subjects like Reading and Math.
How is that mindset working for us now? It may be one of the reasons our world is facing civil unrest, protests, and anarchy. In fact, as we feel ourselves squeezing our own defining moments, this year, our hope is that generations can learn from the mistakes currently being made and how those mistakes are fixed.
History is boring.
The first claim in an article about why history is a failing subject in education says that History is boring. To that, I respond using one of the favorite words of the day: this is a systemic problem. It is generational, passed on from teacher to student, parent to child.
Let's just say that History is Boring should rarely be true in a classroom. Here is what we do in our fourth grade class to make sure it isn't:
- Don't give away the ending. I like to let students discover things along the way. I try to start with some academic rigor, showing a piece of art or playing some appropriate music to get students thinking. In many cases, I will also ask two questions to start the conversation: What do you notice? and What do you wonder? I want to get students to go beyond what they already know and start to discover details about something they don't know. Academic rigor is not about making things more and more difficult; it is about activating knowledge and applying it in a new direction. When done properly, students enjoy the challenge, and their advanced conversations can be very rewarding for the teacher in the room. As the teacher, you may also choose to guide the thinking once you have their initial thoughts. There are ways to do this with paper and pencil that are not just worksheets on which to answer questions, but tools for students to collect their own relevant thoughts. Watch John Spencer's explanation in the short video below.
- Start in a mysterious way. Learning about history is not boring when students enter the room to find something different in the morning. Why not teach with a simulated archaeological dig in the center of the room or give some clues to a mystery for students to mull over when they arrive? Why not present an early morning building challenge or play a character for a few minutes? Dave Burgess has collected lots of "hooks" in his book Teach Like a Pirate. Many of his hooks involve presentation skills - not content, not methodology, but style. Applied at any level, such presentation skills can be a really good friend to the teacher. Any time you can ignite your lesson to make it more shocking, more beautiful, more intriguing, you will draw your students more deeply into the concepts you are presenting.
- Use video and movement. With the availability of online video content, there is no excuse for teacher not curating support for a lesson. We do watch videos in our fourth grade classroom, but we do so with purpose, and if it's not presented or produced well, I leave it be. That being said, we don't always rely on video products to present the core of the lesson, but they often do support various aspects of a lesson to provide clarity. We use them to provide a foundation for creative projects, as well. These videos keep our eyes moving and our minds engaged. We're using our ears to get a feel for the events of history. I want my students to consider more than just the facts of the lesson; they must consider what a scene must have sounded like, smelled like, looked like. I want them to "feel" the emotion, the agony, the struggle, and the victory.
- Find a musical connection. Music in our classroom is not always relegated to the background. Instead, it often moves to the forefront. I have preselected musical writing activities called Mood Music. I play the music, true to the period or the mood of the historical event we will learn about, and students sketch a scene that comes to mind. Of course, the scene is probably not the one from the upcoming lesson, but it gets us into the right mindset to carry through to the history. Once we have shared our sketches, I give students time to write the scene to go with the illustrations. This can become a part of a Writers Block to carry through with the theme during other parts of the day. Another way we use music is something we call Music Appreciation. This is a collection of lyric videos for a variety of songs. I have selected some of these to embed with the history lessons in order to tie the past with the present. Plus, this allows us to work on reading fluency as students read and sing along with the video as the words appear on the screen.
- Connect with real places. The locations of historical events still exist. I've been fortunate enough to attend some teacher institutes in recent years at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, George Washington's Mount Vernon, and Fort Ticonderoga. I've also been accepted to attend the next institute at Colonial Williamsburg. While at each of these, I took hundreds of photos, hold even more memories, and gained a whole lot of knowledge about the events that took place in those locations. Remembering one of my favorite middle school teachers, I know the value of bringing those places to life for my students. Miss Ruminer was her name, and she conjured great images of ancient Egypt due to her personal visits to Tutankhamun exhibits there. When I get excited about my personal experiences and bring those into the classroom, my students naturally pick up on the excitement, and the whole teaching experience becomes more enjoyable for us all. I would encourage every teacher to attend these type of institutes whenever possible and start building your own repertoire of materials and ideas collected along the way.
- Make it real and relevant. It is not boring when students can see how the events of the past connect with the events of the present. That's easiest to see with the racial injustices that have prevailed in our nation and around the planet throughout history. When we connect the delivering letters to the West Coast of the United states by ship, delivering letters via the Pony Express, the advent of telegraph, telephones, radio, television, and internet, and cellular technologies, we better understand the power of the media and the advancement of other technologies and cultural standings in society. That timeline advances exponentially in the 21st century! My students (nine-year-olds) usually don't have much experience with any of these thoughts; it's new to them. They see the ugliness of history at an early age - the massacres of indigenous peoples, bandit attacks on wagon trains, the greed debauchery of the gold rush, for example - and they understand the need to understand how those events occurred. Right or wrong, our history is our history, and it must be studied to help us in our current situations.
- Go big. Think beyond the book. We'll talk about this more later, but suffice it to say that if you're sticking to the textbook and not bringing in primary artifacts and original documents, you are doing your students a disservice. Too often have we left history to biased textbook publishers who have hunted for the prettiest pictures and made sure to tick the boxes of state requirements, and packaged everything up with nice bows. Students deserve to see real representations of what they are studying. That means you have break out of the "four walls" of a textbook, find some original documents and material culture with which everyone can interact. Of course, you're not going to acquire the real things, but representations and models, even photographs or video connections with people who do have that kind of access, will bring everything to life for your class - much more than the uneventful pictures, graphics, and authored paragraphs of a traditional textbook. Don't just make history class into another reading block with comprehension questions at the end of a reading!
Please do not allow your students the luxury of sleeping through your history lessons. I know much of the problem here is systemic in that the subject has been put in the dusty corner in favor of "more important" subjects like reading and math, and I realize many, many educators are unfamiliar with their own standards and information (Translation: colleges have focused more on processes and have turned teachers into the profession without the knowledge they need to be experts.). We'll have to address some of these excuses and reasons in later posts. Please check back here in for more History Mythbusting to come.