There I stood, with a harpoon in hand. On a perfect summer day, I had what my colleagues thought was an unenviable task: make a group of teenagers, all of whom would have rather been at the beach, engage with Nantucket’s whaling past. Luckily, I had an almost endless array of material at my disposal. A sperm whale skeleton hung from the ceiling. A range of material objects, like scrimshaw, relayed not only the daily drudgery of being onboard a whaler but also the incredible artistic skills of sailors who, under less than ideal conditions, produced great works of beauty. Then there was the ordeal of the Essex and its crew (the story that inspired Moby-Dick). My job as a museum educator taught me valuable pedagogical lessons I have been able to perfect in other educational settings: always open strong; be flexible; and have a good story to tell.
Having taught high schoolers, undergraduates, and Master’s students, I have become an experienced history educator with clear goals for my students. In introductory courses, like U.S. History surveys, I ask students to make connections between key events, people, and institutions by developing clear and coherent historical narratives. This helps them understand two hallmarks of the historical discipline: chronology and change over time.
Digital timelines are an especially powerful tool for helping students develop these historical thinking skills. As a supplemental instructor for Introduction to American Indian History, I developed a digital timeline assignment that combined the best parts of history education with the core components of digital humanities pedagogy. Students wrote 150-200 word timeline entries for any person, place, event, movement, or piece of legislation from the midterm to the end of the course. Students had to incorporate one outside source in their short write-up. In order to earn full credit, most students had to revise their entry one or two times. The timeline was a tool that helped students see which event came before the next. This assignment had its desired result: students displayed a sophisticated understanding of chronology and change over time on their final exams. After seeing the timeline’s successful outcomes, I want to refine this assignment and turn it into a semester-long formative assessment.
As a historian who researches controversial contemporary topics, I also push students to understand the connections between the past and the present. Accomplishing this objective has depended on a range of strategies. For example, in 2008-2009, as the mortgage crisis turned into the Great Recession, I revamped my curriculum for an eleventh grade U.S. History course to focus on economic issues. This involved some tough curricular choices. I spent less time on the civil rights issues that are dear to me, instead developing in-depth units and lessons on the Jacksonian Bank Wars; the financial panics of the late nineteenth century; the creation of the Federal Reserve; and the causes of the Great Depression. Students read Keynes, Friedman, and Hayek to gain exposure to the most influential economic thinkers of the twentieth century. For their final assignment, students composed a policy paper with suggestions for creating — or eliminating — financial regulations. Placing the Great Recession in historical context was a crucial component of this summative assessment.
These types of assignments require a fair amount of scaffolding, a strategy I have incorporated in large and small classes alike. When I taught the modern U.S. survey at the University of Texas, for example, I ensured that my students gained the necessary skills to read and analyze academic articles. I devoted a fair amount of in-class time to pair and small group work where students (re)read the introductions and conclusions of assigned articles. I asked them to annotate the source, trying to decipher where the historian made their argument(s). As students did this, I went around the room to refocus those who were having trouble. Over the course of the semester, I continued to push my students. At first, this involved a next level skill: paraphrasing a historian’s complex argument. After students grew confident with this, I challenged them to critically engage with the sources historians used in the articles. By the end of the term, students grew more comfortable in their ability to not only read and engage with academic articles but also in recognizing, analyzing, and constructively criticizing historical arguments.
Helping students engage more deeply with texts brings me to the most challenging part of being a history educator: teaching historical interpretation. Many students have learned one master narrative of the American past, often relying on an uninspiring textbook for information. Even though they don’t like textbooks, students often come away thinking they should trust every published source. To teach critical reading skills, I have assigned book-length works with competing interpretations of the American past. For Honors U.S. History, my high school students read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People over the course of the school year. Nearly every student liked Zinn’s book better, although they thought he was inherently biased. I pushed them to read Johnson’s more closely, especially as the academic year progressed. Once Johnson moved into the twentieth century, students, with careful questioning from me, were able to see Johnson’s conservative beliefs. The rise of social media, not to mention “fake news,” make these critical reading skills more important than ever. Teaching historical interpretation has the powerful ability to assist in the development of media literacy.
As the activities I’ve described demonstrate, my classroom is as student-centered as possible. In addition to opening up time and space for plenty of discussion, my courses have relied on a range of constructivist lessons and activities. When I taught historical teaching methods courses at Teachers College, Columbia University, I modeled a range of gallery walks and historical thinking mini-lessons. The Master’s students, who were required to critique what I had done, learned by doing. Not only did these students acquire new content knowledge about a diverse range of topics, they were also exposed to a range of pedagogical strategies they could incorporate in their own teaching. Because of the myriad historical interests in these classes, I set up weekly online surveys where students collectively chose the content they wanted to learn about the following week.
I pushed myself further the next semester in U.S. Constitution and Civic Decision Making. I came to the first class meeting with only the first half of the syllabus completed, informing students that they were going to be integral for what the second half of the class covered. Their first homework assignment was to brainstorm three-to-four topics they wanted to explore that semester. I blocked off half of the second session for the students to share their interests with the whole class. We asked each other why we should know about those topics. That evening, I went back to my office, set up an online survey, and waited to see which topics the class was most interested in. By the end of the week (and after every student had responded), I constructed and emailed the remaining syllabus based on their feedback. We used the hallmarks of democratic education to create a course designed around students’ interests.
Having such a deep devotion to a student-centered classroom has helped me earn a reputation as a caring, dedicated teacher. Being a fearless experimenter in the classroom is a crucial trait to advancing the rigor and relevance of what we teach in our courses. I recognize how important this has been to my development as a history educator. I used to rely on a harpoon to get student buy-in. Now, I am able to engage students by making meaningful connections and through a wide-range of visual analyses, primary source activities, and historical anecdotes.