Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eyewitness to the Past

I enjoy history. It is the tale of our struggle to civilize ourselves, human failings and the wonders that can exist. It is the story of freedom and independence and how it stumbles. It is the story of how we can be great, imperfect beings who triumph and fail sometimes seemingly independent of our efforts and  sometimes only as a result of focused perseverative work. Mostly it is stories. In college I did not pursue a history degree, though I did get a minor in it, partly because the AP US class gave me credits in a form of history I had deemed boring. The European and Russian histories fascinated me. As an adult who has read and listened to stories of our past, I have developed a fondness for the American past as well as the colorful past of other continents. When I encounter teachers and students who hate history, I know they have been poorly taught it.

Over the past few months I have read three tomes on teaching history: Lesh's Why Won't you Just Tell us the Answer, Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate, and now Joan Broadsky Schur's Eyewitness to the Past: Strategies for Teaching American History in Grades 5-12. They all address the idea of trying to make history come to life for students and do so in a way that provokes and requires higher levels of thinking than the memorization of lists of facts that comprise some history classes. As a trilogy, these books work very well together. Schur and Lesh wrote their books before the release of the CCSS, so they never refer to it, but both talk of using primary source documents to dig into the subject and require writing.  The standards document lists the main standards as including analyzing how and why individuals, events or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text, integrating and evaluating content presented in diverse media and formats and analyzing how two or more texts address similar themes or topics to build knowledge or to compare the approach the authors take (CCSS. R3 , 7, 9). History class is the ideal place to focus on these activities.

Schur presents six methods of using eyewitness viewpoints within the history classroom: diaries, travelogues, letters, newspapers, election speeches, and scrapbooks. Each is carefully detailed with a general explanation of historical relevancy, her general and then more specific application in a classroom, ideas for alternative time frames to use with the strategy, presentation ideas to share what was done and assessment rubrics. The rich appendixes offer a huge variety of sources for primary documents and tools to help students examine and learn from the documents.

Presenting the study of history as a mystery that needs to be uncovered from the variety of sources, comparing the conflicting viewpoints and writing and publishing the results for the class help bring history to life. It reveals how the individual stories are used to build the greater concept of what happened. Schur does not discount the textbook. She uses it as a source for big picture events. For example, a student may be writing a diary entry about his life as a New York publisher while another as a slave in Virginia, in 1776 and both need to include the minutia of daily life as well as thoughts and opinions about the Declaration of Independence. It is not an activity devoid of learning about the big events, it just frames the big events in meaningful ways. When they make their presentations, they get to analyze how they each address the topic of becoming a free nation. Further, since they only write after reviewing both primary sources such as other diary entries and the textbook account of the event, they ground their understanding in ways that are more meaningful.

This approach cannot be used for every topic over the course of the year, it is too time consuming. It can, however, bring interest and life into critical junctures over the course of the year. If our goal is for students to develop skills analyzing primary sources, develop individual knowledge and form informed opinions about events, this approach is valuable. Alternatively, if all we are concerned about is how many facts we can cram into their brains, the approach will be found lacking.

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