Teaching and Engaging Students about History

Being told what to do and how is a precarious position. This is especially true for younger people, sitting at their desks in a classroom. In my teaching days, witnessing a student tweeting on their phone or falling into a pseudo-sleep is nothing new. Unfortunately, that situation is difficult for both student and educator. I always had thoughts running around on my mental racetrack on how to shock them back into attention. Should I yell or scream? Threaten their grades? Make some vague reference to a future test question? All good and viable options. However, both educational and personal professionalism demand something more. An approach that galvanizes the audience to want to learn. The greatest wisdom ever bestowed to me in graduate school was one simple question: ‘Why should I care?”

Well, think about it, why should I care? This question compelled me to analyze not only why I study history, but how it was possible to convert my students to the same philosophy. Back in April 2014, I posed that question to my U.S. History since 1877 class. Initial reactions were somewhat tepid, whereby they returned lukewarm answers; ‘because it’s a required class for my major’ was the common denominator. A few gems stood out, such as ‘because history helps me understand where society went wrong and teaches us where to not screw up.’ Sitting at my desk, I decided that night to seriously contemplate on the fact that changing how we present information in the classroom can have a twofold approach: increase student engagement and stimulate their motivation to learn the material. Professors, teachers, and other educators develop customized lecturing styles over the course of their career which plays to their strengths. Here are some tips to have an attentive classroom:

Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris, circa 15th century

1. Active questioning: I define this as opening every lecture with a board question on the subject matter that every student needs to answer by the end of class. Openings like these send the message that the source material contains themes, subjects, and important material needed to understand the broader narrative that you’re teaching everyone. For example, open with a question about the causes, weapons, or major actions during World War I depending on the context of the WWI lecture being taught. I asked my students why would Great Britain ingratiate itself with affairs on the European continent, such as the July Crisis, and how that further led them down the path to total war? Provide such information throughout the lecture and you might be surprised over how they respond.

2. Related material: People find it easier to comprehend something when they can relate it to something commonly referenced or understood. This opens up multiple paths for students because this familiarity can prove crucial while studying. Example: using the geopolitical problems existing in the Middle East and Africa and relating them back to the European colonial historical period. You can think of any modern context to connect to the lecture, but it helps students in the long run.

3. Popular culture: this can be a slippy slope and a majority of students consume a large amount of information from social media and popular culture. I remember when the ‘Beowulf’ movie was released at the same time we were reading the epic poem in my senior English class. My teacher, Mr. Smith, said outright that if anyone saw the film and tried to pass off the plot in class, they would immediately receive a ‘F’ grade. I believed him too; he was not a teacher to trifle with in the slightest. That being said, some pop culture references can yield good results, but only if used in an educational and informative matter. How it’s presented in a popular view is not necessarily historically factual.

4. Learning yourself: We’re all still students when you think about it. We learn something new everyday and being any degree of educator is no different. New discoveries, documents, sources, or anything can not only interest you (being your area of expertise) but can interest your students as well. If you’re excited about something new, there’s a possibility they will reciprocate those emotions.

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509

There has never been a more nobler experience than teaching in my opinion. Minds are shaped by your words and actions everyday. The world is greatly impacted by the students who enter the working world everyday and the teachers who shaped them have just as much impact on the world themselves. Don’t let your students snooze through a lecture or spend their hours glued to a smartphone. A plethora of knowledge is waiting to be seized and utilized for all of humanity. Who knows, maybe we’ll finally build those colonies on Mars in my lifetime so I can go Total Recall on my neighbors.

Thinking Critically About History

Have you ever taken part in a conversation where you have an epiphany? Recently I sat down with some folks and while we talked about a great many things, the most poignant was why we thought history was important. Common answers we exchanged pointed to studying in understanding our past, or looking into how we’ve changed as a society. Just read the news and one can see the turbulent forces we face as a society today (and with the COVID-19 pandemic, historians in every succeeding generation will discuss it in-depth). Many people look to history as an afterthought, but there’s something to be gained by seeing the past.

In the past 40 years, our society has homogenized through popular culture. We find new interests to keep our attention focused until the next pop culture cycle. A hundred years prior, before Netflix and even radio, people gathered as communities of all types to preserve a common identity. Whether they be churches, cultural groups, or fraternal organizations, community and history were blended together in a social setting. People shared a history that they could learn about together and it bonded us together. Slowly through, we moved away from that communal discourse. Institutions that had significant community involvement are aging with almost no new members to replace them. History is unfortunately a casualty from this slow decay. How can that collective historical and public memory survive without a younger generation to carry on?

History is infinitely layered and complex that it’s impossible to find a simple answer to anything. There’s no perfect response to why the Confederacy fought the Civil War, or how the Cold War ended. In an time when we want immediate, simplistic answers, people begin to dangerously misinterpret history. Therein lies the danger; as cultures change, how we interpret history changes. Critical thinking about our historical narratives are crucial. By examining a narrative in a multitude of lenses; economic, political, racial, gender, ethnic, etc. we develop a complex, but intensively rich knowledge that’s central in understanding a people’s history. We should continuously ask ourselves ‘why is this important?’ ‘why should I care?’ and ‘how will studying this improve our lives?’.

Remember that history happened and there’s nothing to change our past. It exists so that we can understand and learn from mistakes. Should we change street names, remove statues, or rewrite narratives? Only as a society should we think critically about decisions that impact our belief in history’s purpose.