High School History Doesn't Have to Be Boring

From there on I have most students hooked. They want to learn more about Cortés, and why and how he went to such lengths. And because students want to learn, they care about retaining and building upon their understanding.  

When teaching the early American republic, I have my students examine landmark Supreme Court rulings, including McCulloch v. Maryland, which affirmed the supremacy of the national government over the states. At the same time, I cultivate a deeper, more accessible understanding of federalism by covering the topic as it exists today. Students consider how California’s more relaxed marijuana policy stands in contrast to stricter federal laws. I also introduce students to the No Child Left Behind Act, so that they can decide what role, if any, Washington should play in education.

Two years ago, of their own volition, several of my United States government students put their knowledge (and opinions) to good use while learning about blogging: They launched a website titled Making a Difference: Give a HOOT about Learning. The project consisted of only a few posts, but human beings learn best through sharing ideas and knowledge, whereby the learning also becomes deep and lasting.

I had sharing in mind again this year when my European history students learned about the millions of lives lost in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II. In class, upon discussing similar atrocities in more recent history—and a long list of horrors that still haunt our world today—students wanted to make a difference. To do that, they created websites dedicated to raising awareness of crimes against humanity. By researching and voicing how to stop violence in Darfur, Uganda, Syria, and Venezuela, students took ownership of the learning—and they didn’t learn for the mere sake of learning. They produced something with their newfound knowledge, all while harnessing essential 21st-century communications skills.

I treat the subject of history as a conduit to teach important modern competencies like writing, critical thinking, reasoning, and technology skills. This makes the content more relatable, useful, and engaging. I allow and encourage students to retake assessments. I don’t penalize failure or missed deadlines severely. The end goal is mastery, and I’m not nearly as concerned about when an individual masters a concept—just that it is in fact mastered. My students know that, and it encourages them to keep on trying to reach their fullest potential.

To make history even more accessible, every Wednesday I dedicate most of class to discussing current events. I find it worrisome when students can explain the finer points of lesser-known historical events, like the Teapot Dome scandal, but then have little clue about major world events happening in the present. To address that deficit, I assign weekly news articles for students to discuss in class. For instance, my students apply their knowledge of Brown v. Board of Education, and the 1960s civil rights period, to inform their views on affirmative action­—particularly as the policy relates to college admissions practices.

When it comes down to what the best history teachers do, and how they can really help students succeed in the world of tomorrow, Lesh puts it best: “I always tell [students], my job is to help them convince their parents that when they came in late after curfew, they shouldn't get in trouble. To do that, you have to make a logical, thoughtful argument that uses evidence and examples.”

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David Cutler teaches history and journalism at Brimmer and May in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He writes regularly about education at SpinEdu.

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