How a Meaningful History Class Could Look

by David Sherrin

In my previous piece, I described my dismay at the approach of the Social Studies Framework and my hopes that we move toward a more rigorous and authentic practice involving inquiry and questioning. But is this high-level work doable in high school? My ten years of experience teaching in public and private schools in New York City, working with both some of the brightest and most struggling students, has shown me that it is possible and feasible. The key ingredients are to provide talented and motivated teachers with the tools of inquiry and the freedom to strive for excellence. This is what my principal, Kate Burch, envisioned at Harvest Collegiate when she told her teachers to go out and create their “dream” courses. The result, as I have seen from colleagues and experienced myself, is more often than not the cultivation of impassioned discussion, curious students, rigorous thought, and core skill-building.

The two dream classes that I developed are called “Heroes and Villains” and “Sports, Fashion, and Politics.” In each, I sought to frame the class with topics (personal stories, sports, clothing) that are compelling to teenagers, especially those who are often frustrated and unmotivated when placed in traditional academic settings. But my goal was to do so in a rich, authentic way that resulted in real learning and the cultivation of strong historical thinking, reading, and writing skills.

“Heroes and Villains,” for example, uses in-depth study of fascinating individuals in history, such as Hernan Cortes, Martin Luther, and Galileo, as lenses to explore the agency people hold in the world and the larger historical transformations like the exploration of the Americas, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. Students read acclaimed biographies, compare competing primary sources, and simulate historical trials. “Sports, Fashion, and Politics” utilizes topics like cricket in India, soccer in Africa, the cultural diffusion of Victorian fashion, the role of Gandhi’s spinning wheel, the 1980 Olympic boycott and the “miracle” of the United States’ hockey victory against the Soviet Union to explore the meaning of colonialism and the Cold War. Each of these classes also includes a full research paper.

These courses cannot address the wide breadth of content required by the NYS framework because they search for depth, understanding and substance over a smorgasbord of forgettable superficial facts. They are also unique courses that would never be created or agreed upon by consensus even among a group of progressive educators.

Amazing things happen whenever strong teachers are given the opportunity to create and explore.

I am certainly not alone. All across the city, impassioned teachers are developing meaningful thematic courses, from the thought-provoking Genocide and Human Rights class at Facing History School to American Foreign Policy at Urban Assembly.  The caveat, of course, is that not every teacher is a star. Most, though, are perfectly capable of creating something valuable if allowed to pursue their areas of expertise and passion. More importantly, I think most of us are willing to endure a few subpar classes in order to have others that are inspiring. A unified social studies framework that requires certain core “facts” in global history to be drilled is destined to kill ingenuity in favor of dull rote memorization. It reminds me a bit of shopping for a mattress for my soon-to-be child and realizing that all children, by law, are exposed to harmful chemical fire retardants in order to possibly protect a few from a rare blaze.

Here’s the reality: these courses take time. A real unit takes about three to four weeks to unfold with another week or so to assess, especially if a meaningful project is incorporated. Students need time to process, repeat, discuss, and inquire about any complex historical event. As a result, six full content units over the course of the year are ideal in addition to a full research paper. The topics that the NYS framework requires are interesting and important; but they are not necessarily more valuable than others that are omitted and the main problem is that there is simply too much content jumbled up in the mix. Their product in 10th grade, for example, includes ten units jam-packed with ideas that require considerable time to unpack in a meaningful way with teenagers. One unit includes the study of World War I, nationalism, fascism, the Great Depression, World War II, and post-war alliances. This is too much, it is destructive to real learning, and it is simply unacceptable.

In the same way that I hope that the state will not require our students to learn history in the rote way that we did, I do not want to force other teachers to take a thematic approach if the traditional route works in their classroom. I don’t look down upon the contributors to the standards or dismiss their knowledge and skills. I just would not have accepted their task knowing what the outcome would be. I wish that those who value authentic historical education will create a curriculum with built-in flexibility in content in order to allow an emphasis on core skills.

David Sherrin is a Social Studies teacher and department coordinator at Harvest Collegiate. He has ten years of experience teaching in New York City schools. His passion is to engage all students in learning about the complexities of the past and in participating in deep historical, ethical, and historiographical debates, often through the use of role-playing and the analysis of key primary and secondary sources. 

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One thought on “How a Meaningful History Class Could Look

  1. By conventional definitions, the classes you propose here (at least in the way you’ve introduced them) are not history or social studies classes. They are cultural studies classes. By saying so, I don’t mean to suggest that they are any less valuable. I am not wedded to strict disciplinary boundaries. And I certainly believe that depth over breadth is important to developing the aptitudes of a historian. But students need a foundation. Even in college, students tend to take lecture courses before they take seminars. Perhaps a combination of a thematic approach with some sort of linear historical narrative would be the best of both worlds?

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