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Crafting a Love for History

Today my students were assessed by the state of California on their knowledge of “the major turning points in American History.” After the test a few students came to tell me their reactions. One student said, “I think I did well, but you didn’t teach us about Jimmy Carter or what happened in the 1990’s.”

It is doubtful that with six weeks left in the school year I will teach my students about Jimmy Carter, the 1990s or the internet boom. Nor did I teach them about Tippecanoe or Bull Run and I am ok with that. A high school history course is not intended to provide the minutia of battles, dates or treaties. It is intended to inspire a love of history and a desire to learn more about the stories of history through the voices of real people.

I structure my yearlong US history course with 3 goals in mind: students do the work of a historian, they envision themselves in the history of this country, and they develop a desire to learn more.

The first day of school I tell my students that they are HIT MEN/WOMEN (Historians in Training). We begin the year discussing what it means to study history. I tell them that they will learn to do the same work that historians do: investigate by reading the words, studying the photos and images of history, formulating opinions about history, questioning what they have read, and writing about history. The past three years I have collaborated with the Stanford History Education Group and their development of the Reading Like a Historian curriculum. Each lesson in this curriculum begins with a debatable historical question that requires students to formulate answers based on their reading of historical evidence. My students leave my class with confidence in their reading, writing and understanding of how the story of history is told. They develop skills they can use beyond high school.

An average class at my school represents as many as ten different ethnicities. Unfortunately an average U.S. History textbook only discusses five. It is important that the Chinese experience in the U.S. is discussed throughout the curriculum, not simply related to the building of the railroads and the Exclusion Acts. Women should not only appear when discussing Seneca Falls and the ERA, but throughout the year. Equally important is that the lessons are about the achievements of these groups and not solely about their struggles.

A successful U.S. History class inspires students to learn more. Nothing pleases me more than when a student says, “Can we get more sources on this topic?” A budding historian has been born. I admit I don’t cover many events in history—instead I highlight the recurrent themes. I focus on building the skills and passions for learning history above the memorization of facts. Students will have the opportunity to study specific historical topics in college—my job is to imbue the interest to sign up for those courses.

In my end of the year survey I ask my students to reflect on the course. My favorite comments go something like this, “Doing the work of a historian is hard but fun. I always thought it was about memorizing facts in a textbook. Now I know that is about the people of history and their story. It is pretty cool.” A budding Howard Zinn.