August 09, 2005

Teaching, and learning, history with passion

I just had a chance to read Dave Broder's column from the end of July about author and historian David McCullough's testimony before the recent Senate hearing on "U.S. History: Our Worst Subject?", called by Senators Ted Kennedy and Lamar Alexander. I also found a blog by Betsy Newmark, a teacher at Raleigh Charter High School in North Carolina, with some of her thoughts about Broder's column.

McCullough, who knows a few things about making history engaging and readable, places the blame on poorly-written textbooks and uninterested teachers (who probably weren't taught history well when they were in school, either):
McCullough said that the problem starts with the training that teachers receive. "Too many have degrees in education," he said, "and don't really know the subject they are teaching."

"It is impossible to love a subject you don't know," he said, "and without a passion for history, the teaching of history becomes a matter of rote learning and drudgery."

Without personal knowledge of history and enthusiasm for the subject, "you're much more dependent on the textbook," and, with rare exceptions -- he mentioned the great one-volume American history text by Daniel Boorstin [his Landmark History of the American People, now available new -- surprise, surprise -- only from the homeschool curriculum company Sonlight], the late librarian of Congress -- "you read these texts and ask yourself, 'Are they assigned as punishment?' " ...

The schools, he said, are also denying them "a source of infinite pleasure," a pastime that can enrich them throughout their lives. "I think we human beings are naturally interested in history. All our stories begin, 'Once upon a time . . . .' To make history boring is a crime."

Mrs. Newmark, who sounds like an especially able and passionate teacher in the public school system (though we definitely part ways on U.S. politics) adds her own thoughts on American students' dismal knowledge of their own history, but in the end, as with McCullough, it all comes down to putting the story back into history: "Another source of the problem started 30 or 40 years ago when we stopped teaching 'history' and started teaching 'social studies.' Feh! It is as if teachers and administrators had gotten together and plotted how to suck all the joy out of learning history. Gone were the many stories from history that can excite a child's imagination and inspire that child to want to learn more about an event in history. Instead, the classes became endless exercises in coloring in maps and labeling tables of exports from various countries."

Newmark also cites the lack of time in the school schedule: "Unless you're willing to throw out some of the tedious curriculum, teachers don't have time to spend on the subjects that will excite kids....Those kids will be coming eagerly to class every day wondering what stories they're going to hear and without their even realizing it, they'll learn the rest of the history and enjoy it. History classes should be the most interesting ones in the school, but too many times those classes are the dullest."

She closes with some recommendations on find elementary school teachers who have a passion for history: "[G]et teachers who loved history so much that they majored in it college. Hire people who in their spare time read books about history for fun.... If I were interviewing for a history teacher for middle school, I'd want to know what history book the candidates most recently read and what stories they learned from that book that would be most likely to share with their classes to excite kids' interest in the subject. If I can't get a good answer for that question, bye-bye." Bye-bye indeed! That Mrs. Newmark is one tough cookie. Good for her, and good luck to her this coming school year. Her students are some of the lucky ones.

Tom and I heard some interesting thoughts on the same subject, of the importance of history as story, from professional storyteller Jim Weiss this past spring at our homeschool convention. Of course, as far our family is concerned, Weiss was preaching to the converted. Interestingly, Weiss said he gets many of his history stories from Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization series; my family's set, with their colorful covers, are still on the shelf in my old bedroom, and I can't wait to bring them here for the kids to use when they get to upper-level history. That's one reason why we chose WTM, with its emphasis on a chronological and narrative approach to history (and one of the reasons we decided to homeschool, because history -- a subject our kids adore -- is reserved by the educrats at Alberta Education Ministry for students in grades 4 and up). When we started with the first volume of The Story of the World in January 2004, Laura looked up at me and asked, "These stories are great -- are they real?" When I answered yes, she enthused, "I like the stories so much, but knowing they're true makes them even better!" After we'd read a chapter, about Alexander the Great or Cleopatra, I'd hear her retelling the tales to her brothers. And always, as a postscript and a sort of guarantee, she'd end with, "And it's all true -- it really, really happened!" It doesn't get any better than that.

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