10 June 2011

The American Story

George Chalich was a high school teacher who inundated the junior class with factoids. I loved the factoids he gave us, but hated the slow pace of presentation and the alienating absence of dialogue. We memorized, to the last comma, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution; lengthy definitions of socialism, communism, totalitarianism, republicanism, and democracy; salary schedules for the federal judiciary, members of Congress, and the President; and the eight characteristic behaviors of the "good citizen": I can recall the first two: 1) "a good citizen votes;" 2) "a good citizen votes intelligently." Chalich's stories evoked an alternative vision of good citizenship. Drawing on his Serbian heritage, his story of the beginnings of the First World War becomes a lesson in historiography: "Gavrilo Princip was a Serbian patriot, the newspapers never get it right." The so-called assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand was not a criminal act, but an assertion of the patriotism of a nation within.
Spring Wind Rising (1994), 185-186.

We sat in our straitjackets, took notes, and made efforts to memorize George Chalich's lists. Most of my classmates learned to hate history. Skill at memorization was not high among the talents of teenagers in the 1970s. Even those good at it rarely look back with fondness upon the experience. It should be clear that the pedagogy of memorization is far from an exemplary model for nurturing historical knowledge, let alone historical thinking in high school students. Nor does this failed pedagogy serve the adults who return to school in middle age.

Teachers who are passionate for history should infect students with their enthusiasm, not inoculate them against outbreaks of history mindedness. In a recent National History Center roundtable, the panelists agreed, "that instilling the love of history into students’ lives was the most important objective in a survey course." Salt Lake City, Utah teacher Fiona Halloran notes, "Students come to class hoping for pleasure but fearing pain." She suggests liberty in their writing assignments:
Offering students liberty means asking them to write essays about dissent, identity, and hunger. What do those things mean? Let them decide. As they struggle to match historical events and ideas to concepts like resistance, they will have to wrestle with the most difficult questions history has to offer. ... [Assessment liberty] invites students to tell you about the ideas they found most compelling and their work is therefore brighter, more forceful and more specific.
Halloran, "Historical Gardening"
San Francisco's Valerie Ziegler emphasizes teaching students the process of producing history, and also gives them room for decision. She draws from the Reading Like a Historian project of the Stanford History Education Group (a project led by Sam Wineburg whose Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts I have mentioned in "Reflective Thinking, Teaching and Learning" and other posts). She looks to students to create their own answers to historical questions.
Each lesson in this curriculum begins with a debatable historical question that requires students to formulate answers based on their reading of historical evidence. My students leave my class with confidence in their reading, writing and understanding of how the story of history is told. They develop skills they can use beyond high school.
Ziegler, "Crafting a Love for History"
Chalich's memorization scheme aimed at cultivating a sense of citizenship (voting, not assassinating heads of states). Today's emphasis upon teaching and learning (the lingo that replaced the term pedagogy) cultivates behaviors that are necessary to an engaged and effective citizenry. Several panelists emphasized historical thinking as central to successful democracy.
In the final analysis the effective U.S. history course fosters active citizenship. History education is the best way to reach for equity, social justice, and new hope. Sitting in our classrooms today are the century’s new leaders; within them the seeds of true equity, gentleness, compassion and service are sown.
David Mitchell, "Primary Sources: The Seeds for Student Growth"

By examining how previous generations of citizens grappled with the issues, students see that they too have a role in shaping the events of their time. They have a stake—more to gain—in looking at how we got to this point. The spirited debate over who should bear the cost of the national road two hundred years ago is the health care debate of today.
William E. White, "The Idea of America"
Andrew Johnson explains in "Let the Questions Guide You," his contribution to the roundtable, how his course is built around four central questions. Well-informed readers will recognize the sources of his questions in famous political speeches and poems.
Each quarter of the school year is framed with a guiding question. “Was this nation conceived in liberty?” compels a study of colonial times, the Revolution and the Constitution, and the Washington and Adams administrations. The question itself constitutes both a compelling essay question as well as a sorting tool for what content to include and what to leave out. Similarly, “Is our government of the people, by the people, and for the people?” compels a study of the abolition movement, the Civil War, and Progressivism.
Johnson, "Let the Questions Guide You"
Lendol Calder, whose "uncoverage" model clearly influences the other panelists, discusses an assignment he uses the first week of his college U.S. history survey.
In the first week of my course, students write a two-page history of the United States. I don’t allow them to look anything up, which makes students think I am testing their factual knowledge. In fact, I use the assignment to learn what students think the story of American history is. By “story” I mean the basic interpretive frame they use to make sense of the American past.
Calder, "But What is Our Story?"
Calder emphasizes that factual recall is not the forte of a well-trained historian so much as an inquiring mindset.
The mark of historical mindedness is not recalling that “this happened and then that happened.” Rather, it is a distinctive sort of questioning and a distinctive method of discovery supported by certain habits, skills, and dispositions.
Calder, "But What is Our Story?"
All of the panelists emphasize student engagement with primary sources. They each emphasize at least some of the processes Calder has called the cognitive habits of the historian: "questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, and recognizing limits to one's knowledge"(Calder, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," The Journal of American History (March 2006), 1364).

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