Stop Saving History

I Call Them... "Foldables"!

Welcome to my podcast. My professional development session. My keynote address. My #edreform movement. My next book.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, everything sucked before I got here – especially how we teach history. All social studies-related education since time immemorial has been taught badly, usually by caricaturized coaches (whose good names we’ll implicitly besmirch throughout today’s presentation). They recited nothing but long lists of disconnected facts, usually in hours of monotone delivery, and demanded you memorize several hundred miscellaneous dates and the names of all dead white men – mostly warriors, kings, and presidents. When visuals were utilized, they were on transparencies, using the same overhead projectors they presumably received on their fifth birthdays when first chosen to haunt the living in this particular fashion.

They only assigned two things – infinite vocabulary lists or questions at the end of the chapter. On good weeks, though, you’d get a documentary on Friday. It usually involved an actual film projector so it could make that cool ‘rakkikikikikikikikik’ sound the entire time.

But no longer – I am here to save history and history education. I will speak of women, and individuals of color, heretofore unknown in all of publishing or pedagogy. I will tell of the ‘common man’ and hypnotize you with my colorful storytelling, a concept ne’er before dreamt of since before Horace Mann first established the Kingdom of Public Schooling. I will then engage you with what I call “activities” – you will speak to one another, and discuss multiple possible responses to open-ended questions, pausing only temporarily to weep with appreciative joy at what I’ve brought to your day. Finally, you will regurgitate – nay, reveal! – what you’ve learned through various multimedia projects, slathered in terms like “real audience,” “digital natives,” and, of course, “coding is the future.”

I hope you're not overly disoriented – I realize the level of #amazeballs I’m about to bring can be a bit daunting at first.

Do I sound bitter? More than usual, I mean?

Anyone? Anyone? Maybe I am, a little. I just can’t take one more podcast intro, one more author’s forward, one more introductory activity built around the assertion that prior to about 2017, all public education – particularly in subjects related to history – ran pretty much as portrayed in your typical 1980s teen comedy. (Bueller? Bueller?)

I just don’t think that’s true. Sure, there were boring history teachers – boring everything teachers – just as there probably are now, although I think we oversell their prevalence. I’ve encountered a few rather dry specimens over the years, and even a very stereotypical coach or two. But they’re not the norm, and I’m not sure they ever were. I think we tend to recall our public school years through crud-colored glasses, mostly because we’ve been told to so often.

In the same way your memory of an event will gradually evolve to fit the way you tell it over the years, I respectfully suggest we’ve been told the same few lies about public schools – then as much as now – often enough that we’ve started to buy into the clichés. Unless we stop and question it, at least with ourselves, we become one more purveyor of the same sort of shibboleth – thoughtless, foundationless folderol of the sort we mock when we recognize it from others.

“I don’t see color…” (Oh dear god, you poor dear – how are you with age, gender, or object permanence?)

“I don’t vote for the party, I vote for the person…” (That’s adorable. Yes, you’re totally above the rest of us, mere slaves to whatever single initial appears parenthetically on the ballot. I wasn’t even aware there were specific people running!)

“Deep down inside, people are all the same…” (Yeah, that’s why we all understand one another and get along so well – especially across cultures and throughout time. Maybe your history teacher did suck…)

“We don’t really watch much TV…” (Just keep telling yourself that; besides, those 47 hours a week on Facebook and YouTube are mostly educational, right?)

“History isn’t boring; history teachers are boring. Especially in high school. Damned coaches.” (We seem to have come full circle.)

I call bullsh*t. Totally and loudly. I’ve simply sat in too many classrooms, had too many discussions at too many conferences, to buy this even a little. And it’s not just the current generation – many of them got into teaching because of the passion and creativity their teachers brought to everything they did. And yet, when people tell me about it, they always couch it in how lucky they were to have that one capable, energetic teacher alive in 1962, or in the entire state of Iowa, or whatever. Even their own personal real-life experiences have been relegated to the “What are the CHANCES?!” bin thanks to the power of the “History Normally Sucks” narrative.

Stop. Saving. History.(Perhaps it should provide me some sense of continuity that the same basic phenomenon infects discussions of modern education policy, as the vast majority of people are quite happy with their child’s school and their kid’s teachers but remain nevertheless convinced that public education as a whole must still be a disaster.)

I’m glad you’re moving past “Great Man” history. I’m thankful you’re incorporating critical thinking or student movement or kinetic technological STEAM-worship or whatever. Yay for telling good stories in memorable ways. I genuinely love your podcast – for totes realsies – and I appreciate your professional development ideas. I might even buy your book. You know much that I don’t and have so many great ideas, all of which I’m ready to hear. 

But for the sake of all that is true, can we try a different launching pad than the conjured up corpse of history-education-ala-days-gone-by? You’re doing such a great job bringing historical figures and events to life, giving them personality and providing us with interesting context and perspective. Why do to the pedagogy of the past what you’re so effectively fighting against in regards to everything else?

Do keep going with the rest of it, though. Please. There’s enough history and enough ways to teach it that we’re unlikely to run out of content or tire of finding new ways to think about it. I’m sorry I got all snippy there for a bit – it’s just kind of a sore spot for me. Please, carry one with what you were saying after the annoying part. I for one, can’t wait to hear more.

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Over on the science wing we have heard virtually the same set of complaints, in large part, to set the stage for the next edu-savior: NGSS! The majority of the blame has been placed on imaginary science teachers who only require the memorization of definitions and (always) "disconnected" facts. Science teachers so in love with meaningless minutiae that they can't even find real world examples that make their subject interesting and appealing to their students. Science teachers that never ask their kids to think like a scientist. My god if only someone told me 30+ years ago that I could teach like a champion I would have stopped photocopying the mimeographed T/F tests I wrote in 1987. And thanks to the new NextGen science standards kids with be learning science that is one mm wide and deeper than project Mohole.


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