In March 2007 I was finishing my second month of student teaching at Charters Valley High School in suburban Pittsburgh. I had completed drafting a lesson on the early effects of the Cold War in Europe and felt pretty satisfied with my efforts. I had all of the elements of a great lesson, in theory: a hook, discussion, visuals and even a multimedia clip from CNN’s “Cold War” series. It was a compelling story: the introduction to a half-century struggle for control of the world’s geopolitical future. I was sure the students would love it.
Then I actually taught the lesson. By the end of it, I knew it had flopped.
Every teacher knows the collective look that I received that day, the one that says, “When is this period over?”
My cooperating teacher pulled me aside and asked, “What did you learn today?” I responded that perhaps I should have used a different video clip or projected another visual. His response made me re-think everything I thought I knew about teaching: “When students walk in here, they don’t know how to love history as much as you do.”
Fast forward 11 years. I had just received a phone call from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, informing me I was named the 2018 National History Teacher of the Year, one of the greatest professional honors I could ever hope to receive. Cliched as it might sound, I began to think about how I got to this point. I thought of my own history teachers and professors, the many colleagues who helped me to improve and the many inspiring students who have walked through my classroom door. And then I thought of my old cooperating teacher’s words of wisdom, how do history teachers inspire students to love history as much as they do?
Emotion. Personal narratives. Human connection.
When we teach history with only lists of facts, with blank maps to be filled in, with endless outlines of names and events, we leave out what makes learning history so amazing: the stories of people to whom our students can actually relate. The global success of the musical “Hamilton” is clear proof of that.
Learning history is not a “spectator sport” in which students are passive observers. It is an essential experience that should develop personal connections, foster critical thinking skills through analysis of primary sources and partner students with other communities to augment their own voices. Students should be encouraged to insert themselves into the historical narrative and own what they create. As stated in the musical Hamilton, “When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game.”
Providing these creative experiences for students doesn’t just happen. History teachers must connect with each other, bounce ideas around, remind each other what made them want to be history teachers themselves.
I was fortunate to have two dynamic high school history teachers. I remember the time I had to research and play the role of Elijah Lovejoy alongside my other AP U.S. History classmates, each giving soliloquies of our own personas. Or the time I put myself into the role of a Civil War soldier on the frontier, creating journals of my experiences. That’s what I remember, not lists and PowerPoints.
Without connection, there is no true learning from history. These are the connections that allow us to empathize, compromise and see common bonds rather than differences and divisiveness in all aspects of our lives.
“What did you learn today?” asked my fellow teacher 11 years ago.
My answer: “I need to help students love history as much as I do by teaching the firsthand emotional and personal stories that exist within it.” And I try to do that, every day.