Learning from the Experts
Learning in Both Directions
I deeply believe that college professors who complain about the students they get freshman year are in part responsible for not going out, not reaching out and talking to teachers on every grade level and sharing what we know. When you hear a complaint, "Oh, they’re still learning old stuff." Well, whose fault is that? So, I guess I have a little bit of a crusader in me that I really think that. And originally, I really thought I was going to bring these great gifts to teachers. I think all of us had this fantasy that we were Lady and Lord Bountiful, and we were going to say, "Oh, now, let me—" And it is true that we can share new historiography. We can share ideas about working with primary sources that are, after all, our stock in trade.
I deeply believe that college professors who complain about the students they get freshman year are in part responsible for not going out, not reaching out and talking to teachers on every grade level and sharing what we know.
But, as I said when I talked last year at the TAHG Conference, the truth is I've learned more, I think, than they've learned from me. That is, much to my surprise, and it shouldn't have been, the learning went really in both directions. And so it's spurred me to want to do really many more of these, because I view it as a learning experience for me, every time I get together, both with teams of teachers and pedagogy experts who I work with and with the teachers themselves.
Mutual Respect and Active Participation
I guess I would say any situation in which mutual respect is demonstrated over and over and over again, by everybody involved, by the teachers who attend to one another, by the presenters who are supposed to be experts to the teachers, that what's made them successful, the ones that have been really successful, have been a kind of sense of cooperation and a sense of respect for one another. I have done programs where I come in, "Ta da, and here's the historian," and I give a talk and then I leave. Maybe wonderful things happen after I leave, but I feel sort of cheated, because I haven't seen the process, and I haven't been part of the sort of collaborative process. So, I really prefer the ones where I get to participate not just as the person who knows a lot about the Constitutional Convention, but in the whole—everything that happens all day for several days.
It's exciting to see the teachers talk to one another because often they come from different schools, and it's for reasons I'm sure that have to do with budget and time. They almost never get to talk to each other. And I've sat through so many lunches where someone says, "Oh, did you have that problem teaching that too? I did. Here's what I did." And wow, that's a wonderful moment.
"Be sure to write down that you learned a lot from each other," because that happens often and it happens in the most informal moments.
So, just bringing them all together, a lot happens then, and it's interesting, because sometimes the teachers, when they do the evaluations, don't register that. They say, "Oh, I learned a lot from Carol." "Oh, I learned a lot from Fred." "Oh, I—" And I'm thinking, "Be sure to write down that you learned a lot from each other," because that happens often and it happens in the most informal moments. And I advise everyone who does a Teaching American History Grant, "Do not sit separate. No, sit at the table where the teachers schmooze," you know, get inv—because you'll learn a lot, and that's when they ask you the questions they've been dying to ask you. I give a talk and then I say, "Any questions?" You’ll see a few hands go up, but boy when you sit down for lunch it comes pouring out, and those are really good moments for me.
Improving Teaching Methods
New Light Teaching
Well, the analogy I always use, and it's a little obscure maybe to people who aren't in Early American History is the battle between the New Lights and the Old Lights. Old Light congregational ministers believe that you preached what you knew and your congregation either got it or they didn't, but that was not your problem. Your job was to be the expert. And you pretty—and I think this is the way many of us approach the classroom. We have a Ph.D. We know something our students don't know. Our gift to them is that we're going to tell it to them and it will sort of sprinkle down out of the air, and the smart kids will get it and the other kids won't, and this is how you sort the wheat from the chaff.
Old Light congregational ministers believe that you preached what you knew and your congregation either got it or they didn't, but that was not your problem. Your job was to be the expert. And you pretty—and I think this is the way many of us approach the classroom.
Working with teachers, I really learned to be a New Light minister. Over and over again what I heard from teachers was, "You have to start where the students are," and the goal of the classroom is to find a way to move them someplace else.
But you have to start not where you wish they were, and not where you imagine they are, and not where four of them are in the whole class, but you really have to know your students and begin there and work up, as New Light ministers used to say. And I think what teachers have really done is taught me to listen to and pay attention to where my students are, and to think that my job is to help them build.
When I walk into the classroom now, I think, "What do I want to do 'for' these students as opposed to 'to' these students?"
When I walk into the classroom now, I think, "What do I want to do 'for' these students as opposed to 'to' these students?" And it turns out to be things like help them improve the skills they have, help them, nurture in them an interest in the world around them and an interest in how we got where we are, which is sort of the essence of history, I think. And to make them, I guess in a sense, own their own knowledge.
Seeing "Wrong" as an Opportunity
The other wonderful thing I learned from teachers was that phrase that I know, every teacher knows, "teachable moments." I can only speak for me; I don’t want to condemn all academics, but I would read papers and my reading of their papers was, "No, wrong; yes, right; good, bad."
And now I've learned that things that students say are diagnostic tools for me in a sense. I learn what I haven't made clear, and I learn where they're coming from, but also I learn that you can make lemonade out of virtually any lemon.
And I've had students who've had biases like, "Gee, women didn't work in the fields because they're not strong enough." And that, instead of just saying, "You're wrong," and moving on, now I stop, and we have discussions about the social construction of gender and ideas about what women's place is and what men's place is. So that I've learned to take moments where students are wrong and turn them into sort of riffs on the subject, not on them being wrong.
Those skills came to me from teachers who, I must say, were very kind about it. They themselves did not say to me, "Well, listen, dummy, didn't you always know that?" which I much appreciated.
That is, I watched them and I realized that I was not doing something that they were doing and that they were doing well.