Lectures and the High School History Classroom: Why do We Do It So Much?

Grant Wiggins asked on Friday, “Really, why do HS teachers lecture so much?” An interesting question. And one I’d like to take up from my own experience as a HS teacher.

Where and when do I lecture the most? In my US History class (for juniors).

Where and when do I lecture the least? My freshman World History I classes (maybe twice per month) and in my senior elective, Violence in America (almost never).

In my senior elective, I give reading to students; each night a group of them is “on duty.” It is their job to write discussion questions prior to class and then to facilitate small and large group discussion, based on that reading, during class the next day.

In World History, I strive to bring in primary sources, projects, games and other activities to keep my freshman moving or discussing. They cannot sit still for a lecture. So I don’t even try.

In US History, I rely on lecture. Why?

The only answer I can come up with is that I feel an INCREDIBLE push to teach the narrative in US History. What happened? When? Where? List, list, list, event, event, event.

But why?

In World History I, the material I am supposed to cover spans from early hominids to the Renaissance. I functionally CANNOT cover everything. As a result, I’m forced to be creative. What do we cover? When? Why? How? I’ve begun to approach the course thematically (religion, empire, etc), and work chronology within those themes. It is not a perfect model, but it allows me to privilege historical skill development (close reading, verbal analysis, written analysis, argument making).

I set the curriculum in Violence in America. I am not hamstrung by the needs of a survey course. Instead, I treat it far more like a college seminar in which we closely examine one topic over a series of weeks.

But in US History? Got to get through that narrative. Got to get through that narrative. That happens, in part, because my teaching team includes colleagues who also teach in the AP curriculum (which, in spite its best efforts, is still narrative focused). And their concerns trickle into our class. But there is also a common assumption amongst all of us — and I don’t know where this comes from — that we should be teaching ALL of American history. So content becomes the driving factor. But we can teach ALL of American history no more than I can teach ALL of world history! So why do we think we can? And how can we free ourselves from that?

This is, perhaps, a bigger question than the focus of this blog post. And one I hope to take up later (as soon as the sound and the fury of end-of-year commitments calm). But I do think that the main cause behind HS history teachers lecturing so much is that these courses — consciously or unconsciously — privilege the narrative over historical skills.

History is a discipline rooted in questions. We ask how and why did change happen over time? But we spend so much time teaching students the answers to that question, rather than having students find those answers for themselves. Next time I’ll try to have some thoughts on how to change this in a US curriculum.

But for now, the end-of-year melee calls.


Writing Your own Textbooks, or, How Format Changes Everything. 

I hate textbooks. Tertiary sources are boring. But we often feel the need to use them so that our students have a written explanation of course content. I especially hate high school textbooks. They are almost always too patriotic, too simple, and flatten out the complexities of how power has operated in American History. But college textbooks have too few pictures, no reading guides that help less experienced readers, and can be super dry.

Students hate the textbook. Full Stop. It’s boring. Full Stop.

My most recent solution? I wrote my own. Before you dismiss this as a ridiculous idea, read on and see how practical this really is …. and what the payoffs can be.

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Breaking down barriers with online discussions

Facilitating a lively and intellectually fruitful discussion is tricky business, and heavily dependent on our skills as moderators in choosing the best fodder for conversation and, of course, asking the right questions. But often the dreaded deadly silence owes to circumstances far beyond our control. Each class has its own particular dynamic, especially with high school students, because they have such close-knit and complex relationships outside the classroom that naturally shape their interactions within it. To help level the playing field and create a “safe space” that is conducive to a free and honest exchange of ideas, I often turn to online discussion boards. Continue reading

A blueprint for history curricula from high school to college: our goals

One of our goals in organizing this blog and our AHA panel was to bring high school and college history teachers together to create a more seamless experience for our students and to support each other in our efforts to be effective teachers. To that end, we’ve pulled together a blueprint for what our classes try to do at various levels. These are the goals we kept in mind as we crafted the blueprint: Continue reading

Louis XIV’s résumé: an exercise in inductive reasoning

One of my biggest challenges is how to effectively teach the logical process of inductive reasoning so that students can learn how to use specific historical evidence in order to make their own arguments about the past. (The bigger challenge here, of course, is getting them to understand the difference between studying history and doing History.) My students often seem to lose the forest for the trees, because memorizing facts seems like a safer cognitive proposition than analyzing those facts in order to draw general conclusions. These challenges become especially evident in my tenth-grade Modern European History course when we are intensively studying the policies and actions of several different monarchs in order to understand different models of exercising royal power. I’ve found that the construct of a professional résumé is particularly well suited to this kind of reasoning because it distills specific experiences into general skills and qualifications.  Continue reading