Opinion: 13 tips for teaching, learning U.S. history

In honor of the Thirteen Colonies and the graduating Class of 2013, here are thirteen ideas from a teacher on what and how to think about United States history:

1)      1491? When to start is among the starting questions in putting together a year-long U.S. History course. 1491 is the provocative (like “September 10th”mindset) title of a Charles C. Mann book. Start before 1607 Jamestown, give the 35,000 B.C. Siberia land bridge a mention, and do justice to American Indians with better than a comparison of diets and home construction.

2)      Set an example and send a message by not overly structuring and filling your course with presidents and wars. Everyone can “do” democracy. Seek a some-gave-all, give-peace-a-chance balance.

3)      Don’t presume knowledge, including by student age. Over the past year, I taught students ages 13-63 at a summer enrichment program, college prep school, and small college. Fifty years is the time between the Battle of Gettysburg and Woodrow Wilson, or JFK’s assassination and now. (Reagan said freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction; two generations is the difference between my grandfather born before nationwide women’s suffrage and me several years into Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership of a supposably inflexible empire.) Some of my youngest students were knowledgeable, with perspective—wise even. Older adult learners honest about the unknown have my utmost respect too. Students of all ages are woefully ignorant of the Cold War; contemporary adults recall bomb drills under their desks but can’t talk Khrushchev.

4)      If people vote their pocketbooks, teach economics with stories that impact everyday kitchen-table budgeting. When you get to the Great Depression, compare unemployment rates to today (here and in Spain) and when the teacher was in that level of school. If you allow a class of students to introduce their own testable current events article, you may find the news about a cool company like Apple includes terminology like market capitalization. Saturday Night Live made the sequester funny. (Watch sketches and read The Onion so you can be in on the jokes.)

5)      “Trick” students into asking and answering their own questions. A logistics assignment on the Mayflower – how do you get here? plan & present – inspired some solid research. In the interest of time – especially if you’re covering hundreds or more years – be prepared to provide, or direct to, a resource like Nathaniel Philbrick’s book on point for this lesson. Also time permitting, read – not just about – Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle; any specific observations will be advanced insights. Multiple-choice questions about books no one reads are ludicrous!

6)      Trevor Packer, Senior Vice President for Advanced Placement at the College Board, found AP U.S. History test-takers performed best on questions on the Colonial-1789 period and worst on 1915-present. Is the early material refined with time? Interest rekindled by the Tea Party? The notion of the Revolutionary War as the “Second American Revolution” should still be emphasized—i.e., we came together as a nation first. Students are rarely expert when they profess “did it last year,” but there’s something to Founding Fathers fatigue. Educators should take it as an opportunity to reorganize curriculum to afford more time to more recent history—the people and institutions, perhaps still alive and shaping the world, known to parents, grandparents, and employers. Don’t enable students to skip over new funny-looking words, which are often the key concepts. When you endeavor to teach everything three ways, you minimize the chance your students will botch the pronunciation of “Eisenhower” or “Lyndon” Johnson or Douglas MacArthur’s return to the “Philippines” in a Jay Leno Jaywalking segment.

7)      Offer anonymous mid-course evaluations. Ask students what they think your favorite and least favorite thing about America is.

8)      Establish rapport day one by vowing not to drill dates (Does anyone do this anymore? Did anyone ever? Not even Kingsfield in The Paper Chase.). You’ll have credibility and see results when you later assure them that December 7, 1941 should continue to live in infamy. Understanding relative and cause-effect chronology is essential. Assess regularly, otherwise Civil War and Civil Rights Movement material will blur. Ban the word “nowadays” until youngsters show that they really know about any earlier days.

9)      Name 10 countries currently in existence. The typical, geography-averse American will tense up. Sure, we’re bordered by just two, peaceful countries, so it’s not surprising that the least chosen and lowest scored essay on this year’s AP U.S. History exam was about foreign affairs. Unfortunately, maps are next to dates as social studies scourges.

10)  Don’t rely on international students as your foreign correspondents. I’ve had many who can’t name the head of state of their current or past home country. You can assess baselines and can work with or without George Washington cherry tree mythology familiarity, and I have met native born students who hadn’t heard or immediately recalled the 1492-ocean-blue diddy. It’s easy to malign stats on Americans who can’t name the vice president or three branches of government, but too many politicians wrongly assume the existence of requisite high-school civics courses. Ensure your international visitors and potential citizens learn how American government works…to the extent that it does. (My top student this year in Greater Boston, from China, couldn’t identify the 20-year mayor of the city in the spring.) I had one near great class discussion this year about American exceptionalism; a modern global U.S. History course could get comparative on metrics and milestones in volunteerism, equality, and other societal standards.

11)  Effective next year, the AP U.S. History exam will by design demand less content coverage and improved essay argumentation. Regardless of the context in which you are studying, do not rush the basics. Among the worst historical analysis I have ever read was as a TA tasked with reading 50 essays on “Whys” and “Hows” of the Great Depression before students had much on the “Whats,” “Whos,” “Whens,” and “Wheres.” (If you can luxuriate on that unit, see Frances Pohl’s Framing America on the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.)

12)  Differentiate instruction with different reading and writing lengths. In classes with English language learners, provide excerpts as well as the full text of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster speeches on the Compromise of 1850. Tweet the Preamble of the Constitution and State of the Union Address in 140 characters or under.

13)  History compounds, like investment interest. Show literal history on top of history like a World War II era photograph of New York’s Grand Central Station with a Gettysburg Address line in a towering war bonds fresco. The reference might have been over the heads of the average passers-by then…but it was at least over their heads!

Happy Independence Day! Stars and Stripes Forever.

Alex Talcott, J.D., teaches college, high school, and middle school history and international studies and is an academic advisor to undergraduate and continuing education students. He lives in Durham, New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @AlexTalcott

Author: Alex Talcott

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