Practice history, then teach it

Practice makes perfect, the adage says.

Teachers who practice analysis of primary documents can better translate the study of primary documents to their classrooms, according to an article I found through the American History Association‘s online version of Perspectives magazine.

One of my concerns for teachers of social studies — economics, history and geography — is that “in-service” training most often revolves around issues not unique, and sometimes not germane, to social studies disciplines. District-sponsored courses generally involved new or different methods to do paperwork, sometimes new programs hoped to spur overall performance by students on tests. In Irving ISD, Texas, social studies coordinator Sherry Perkins frequently provided sessions specific to social studies issues, and they were wonderful even when they didn’t pertain directly to the courses we taught (someone who teaches economics only, for example, may not have a lot of use for history exercises on presidential elections; but such exercises may provide ideas for others more directly related to economics).

Courses that immerse teachers in the subject matter tend to provide big benefits in the classroom. Many teachers do not have majors in the areas they teach, even after certification as “highly qualified” under new federal guidelines. Consequently, there are areas of history, or economics, or geography, where teachers are not much better informed than the students. Think of when you have had to give a presentation on a topic — you tread lightly in those areas where your expertise is least.

Investigators Kelly Schrum of George Mason University, Eleanor Green of the Fauquier County (Virginia) Public Schools, and Sarah Whelan of the Loudon County (Virginia) Public Schools, found that teachers often used too many original sources in lessons, after attending summer training sessions in the sources.   So they focused on getting the teachers to get their students to use fewer sources, but more intensively.

As teachers worked through the activities, several notable trends emerged. At first, it was difficult for participants to take off their “teacher hats,” to avoid focusing only on how to adapt the activities for students. With gentle reminders, though, teachers began to engage as “adult learners,” and became increasingly adept at encountering primary sources. The methodology of noticing and questioning provided a comfortable formula that began to inspire confidence and allow for interesting historical thinking and questions.

Teachers also demonstrated changes in their understanding of the past. While analyzing runaway advertisements from 18th-century Virginia, teachers developed a stronger understanding of the meaning of freedom, and of the varying conditions for people who were enslaved and indentured.2 Teachers noted that the ads gave them a more human understanding of slavery and of the individual experiences of both slaves and masters. As one teacher noted, “[We get] this idea of this mass of unskilled workers who come on the field and pick cotton. The ads bring home the idea of the skills these slaves had and how they were really important to the success of the plantation.”3 By grappling with primary sources, teachers developed deeper historical understanding and skills for effectively teaching history and historical thinking.

Many good primary sources can be obtained on the internet, especially from the National Archives, and from government sources and colleges and universities. Turning the corner, and getting public school students to actually use and learn from those sources, is a greater problem than merely pointing to the sources.

History is so rich, and a school year is so little time!


5 Responses to Practice history, then teach it

  1. Kristen says:

    Sorry for the delay. Here are the links for the two history sites I mentioned earlier. Each of these includes topics that would be of interest to teachers outside the state as well (topics such as Exodusters, Bleeding Kansas, the Oregon Trail, Brown v. Board, etc…).

    Territorial Kansas Online
    Kansas Memory (beta version

    In Kansas, students take Kansas history in 7th grade, and then in 11th grade there is some Kansas history embedded in the regular U.S. history course. PDFs of the history standards are available here. Click on the grade level; note that the PDFs include all the “social studies” subjects (economics, geography, history, etc…).


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the suggestions — got links? How does Kansas handle Kansas history — is there a separate course for it? What grade?

    So, Kansas has on-line resources for teachers of the state history courses. What other resources do teachers have on other states? Please feel free to post them here, and offer links, too (though, if you go over five links in a post, your post will be held for approval by the spam filter — be alert to that, and warn me if a post gets stuck: edarrell AT sbcglobal DOT net).


  3. First time reader here. I can also vouch for the fact that high-school social studies teachers absolutely must get involved in the study of history through primary sources. A great primary source website that I wanted to mention is Territorial Kansas Online. This website has some great sources on such topics as John Brown, Bleeding Kansas, abolitionism, travel on the Oregon Trail, etc…. The Kansas State Historical Society is also in the process of creating another digital repository that will contain documents from all periods of Kansas history (called Kansas Memory), and these sources could be integrated into discussions of Indian removal, women’s suffrage, populism, the Dust Bowl, and Brown v. Board. These topics are covered in states other than Kansas (or at least some of them are), so this resource is not only for Kansas teachers.


  4. As someone who is also a ‘yellow dog New Deal Democrat’ I echo R. Becker’s comments about ‘social — pfui — studies.’ Even more, I’d suggest that — as a way of getting students to care, or even wake up, during History classes — there should be a return to the idea that ‘history is biography.’
    But then I’ve always had the quirky idea that the main purpose of a teacher, of any subject, is to get students interested in, and excited by, the subject, rather than conveying a bunch of unrelated facts that they can swallow, hold down until The Test, and then vomit up on the paper. (As with most vomited material, it is then lost forever.)
    History — not just ‘school history’ but the history of ANYTHING — is the record of human beings who were passionate about some topic, human beings who were frequently eccentric, quirky, and interesting in themselves. By conveying that passion, and the way it is expressed, by conveying that ‘quirkiness,’ by conveying the humanity behind presidents, scientists, artists, radicals, musicians, baseball players, even religious figures, you’ll give students an idea why they should — beyond the report card — care about what these people have done. From there, the students will, out of their own interest, do the research on their own into the ‘original sources.

    (Of course, the problem can occur that these people are not always ‘nice people,’ or ‘good Christians,’ or simply were eccentric — and eccentric scares school boards.)

    I wonder how many people got interested in math through reading Eric Temple Bell’s MEN OF MATHEMATICS, or science by reading Asimov’s books and essays — which always show the people behind the ideas — or law through reading a biography of an Oliver Wendell Holmes, or even baseball — as a spectator sport — by knowing about Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.

    But maybe I’m just being Procrustean here, since ‘it worked for me.’ What do you think?


  5. R. Becker says:

    OK, a few points [some on topic, at least one sort of not, but I’ll make it anyway].

    1. Social studies… from the POV of a U. history proffessor, decline in history preparation of the students who wash into my classes [and have for three and a half decades plus in three states] began when “history” as a public school curriculum was replaced by “social studies.” This card-carrying New Deal Liberal Yellow Dog Democrat stands with the much-admired on the right Diane Ravitch on that point. [That was the sort of off-topic one.]

    2. To the observation that teachers who are trained in document analysis, who “do” history themselves are better teachers of it, I’m tempted to reply: “Well, duh! What else is news? Sun rises in east?” Right up there with the report of the results of a multi-year federal study reported to us by a Dean some years ago indicating that students who spend time doing homework tend to do better in their classes than students who do not. [Film at eleven.]

    3. I don’t know about other states, but Louisiana has an excellent on-going program of summer teacher institutes, run by and funded by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities that does, every summer, for teachers across the state on a variety of topics, exactly what the study you cite recommends. And it works. [Full disclosure: for a time, I was a site visitor/program evaluator for the LEH for summer teacher programs that related to the American Revolution / Constitution]. I hope other states have similar programs, but I don’t know. Any state thinking of doing something like this for the first time, I would strongly advise to get in touch with the Louisiana Endowment for th Humanities and draw on its experience and field-tested programs which have been running for I think at least two decades now, possibly longer.

    4. Some years ago, NYT did an article on I think Yale U. which was looking for a way to bolster public education in the humanities in the New Haven schools. They started a summer teachers’ seminar, one each summer, entry by application only. And the leading lights of the department were recruited to run them. Ed Morgan, for example, one summer. [Yale proved it was serious by providing the teachers so accepted an on campus parking pass for the duration. Proof positive of seriousness in my book.] It got to the point that the local school district reported that teachers were refusing better paying jobs outside the district because they would not be eligible for the summer seminars if they left. I don’t know if other institutions do this. [Several attempts to interest various Provosts at the Enormous State University I worked at all failed.]


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