Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to Make History Come Alive, or the Dilemma of Teaching a "Dead" Subject

I once had a history teacher play a word association game with the class at the start of a new school year. The stem word: "history". There were many responses that dealt with famous events, famous people and famous places, but the word that stuck out most in my mind was the word "dusty".

When the student who tossed out "dusty" was asked to explain their reasoning, they presented the following train of thought:
"Well, whenever I think of history I think of an old man sitting in a dusty old library, poring over dusty old books, wearing a tweed coat, and glasses that sit half way down his nose...smudged with dirt and dust."--Anonymous

The picture this student painted was that of an antiquated, stale, decrepit..and dare I say it, "dead" subject.

Let me be the first to present a rebuttal: history is not dead.

In fact, I cannot thing of a subject that is more relevant to the on going interactions and decisions of our daily lives. Every thing we do, every decision we make is informed by past events. Whether we are talking in the context of a person, nation, or international community, the past is inseparable from our daily lives. I could provide numerous examples grounded in psychology, historiography, sociology, etc. to further my point, but I fear that we would be here much longer than I planned if I were to do that.

However, it is not this oversight that irks me the most about this student's assessment of history; rather, it is the fact that in some ways the student is right in his characterization of history. For centuries, the study of the social sciences was "an old man sitting in a dusty old library, poring over dusty old books, wearing a tweed coat, and glasses that sit half way down his nose...smudged with dirt and dust." Only is this starting to change now as the twenty-first century unfurls before us. We now have resources that can take those dusty old tomes of time and make them come alive for students. There have been major advancements made in digitizing history in the past two decades, and this trend has opened up a world of possibility for teachers and students alike. It is now just a matter of finding ways to use those resources in new and exciting ways.

This semester, I am taking a lab class called Teaching with Technology as part of my teacher education program. Each week, we play with a new set of teaching tools that help us create new ways of incorporating technology into our humanities classrooms. For this class, we each have websites chronicling the projects and thoughts that we have about incorporating technology into the classroom. If you're even slightly interested, you can follow my progress here.

My greatest challenge in the coming year will be to figure out how to make history come alive for my students, and I hope that you will join me here and revel in that journey. I'm excited to play and challenge myself and my own creativity. As always, if you have ideas of your own on this subject, feel free to chip in at any time. In doing so, you just might find your ideas memorialized in my lab's final project!

Explore, Dream, Discover--CW

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