Teaching American History badly

Teaching American History badly – Part 1

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Just to clarify, this post isn’t intended as a how to. The scope of this entry is to reflect upon what conditions tend to encourage a person to find relevance between his or her life and past events and personalities. With few exceptions, the traditional means of teaching American History fail to establish a systematic method of connecting the student with an accessible past.

Assess student interest first

In defense of my profession, teachers of American History do a great job of assessing prior knowledge before beginning a unit of study. Whether or not a teachers then differentiates how a unit will be taught based upon the results of a pre=assessment is a matter for another blog post. What doesn’t happen often, though, is teachers regularly employing interest inventories to determine potential gateways for making those meaningful connections between the past and the student.

Assess your delivery model

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Unless you see teaching as a means to punish students for less-than-skillful instruction by past teachers, there’s really not a credible rationale for delivering a history lesson the success of which is based upon skills you know the student doesn’t possess. Yes, I know your American History teacher didn’t differentiate and strictly enforced grading standards that had nothing to do with understanding the past, but don’t trap yourself in the belief that he or she didn’t expect you to be a better teacher with your class.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have a professional obligation to personally ensure that 17-year-old with the 4th grade reading ability is receiving intensive reading skills intervention. The implication for you as a history teacher is to select a delivery method appropriate for the student. No one said differentiation is easy – unless they knew nothing about differentiation.

Pre-teach the basic skills every student of American History should know

Any listing of basic skills necessary for accessing the past and then interpreting the material will be both subjective and incomplete on some level. Still, I propose these five basic- but essential – abilities any student of history must have:

  • Personal concept of historical time
  • Bias recognition
  • Strong search strategies
  • Organizational skills (for evidence/data)
  • Ability to generate essential questions
The Language Arts Department was supposed to teach research skills!

The Language Arts Department was supposed to teach research skills!

Yes, all of the standards applicable to these skills fall under other teacher domains, specifically that of Language Arts. No, “that’s not my job” has never been the mark of a great teacher. Get over it.

You’ll have to assess in you students the level of competence for each skill and then provide the needed scaffolding for attainment of these skills. By implication, you the teacher cannot afford to be anything less than an expert on these skills.

Preview of Part-2

All teachers want their students to learn how to work smarter, not harder. The truth is we know that for students to obtain the skills necessary to work smarter, they have to put in the hard work first. Unfortunately, we American History teachers, for reasons including many beyond our control, have settled into a practice of teaching that is neither smart, nor worthy of our present efforts.

In the second part of this topic I’ll elaborate on how and why we American History teachers have to accept the promise of even more hard work – at first – to reach the level of effectiveness all of our students deserve.

Mark Thomas

About Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is a former active duty Marine, now a veteran teacher working in the Indianapolis, Indiana area. A professional writer in both print journalism and digital content writing, Mark combines his love of teaching history with his passion for the written word. His personal blog, History as Prologue, http://dmarkthomas.com/, reflects his deep interest and knowledge of how the past influences the present. Mark can be contacted at Mark@dmarkthomas.com

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