Doing history


Imagine yourself at the head of an empty classroom. Your carefully prepared lesson lies on your desk next to activity sheets for each student. You breathe deeply and enjoy a brief moment of peace. Then a bell rings. Within a few minutes your room is teeming with teenagers; self-absorbed and self-conscious. You wave your hands to get their attention and begin your daily battle with the average American attention span.

A normal day. Then, you hear the question: “Teacher… Why are we learning about this stuff? It happened so long ago. Why does any of it matter?”

I’m an 8th grade history teacher interning at the Museum for the summer and like other teachers battling to get students to engage with history, I have faced this question many times.

Many Americans experienced history in school by attempting to memorize important dates, people, and places. For many, this experience led to a belief that history is an inflexible set of facts and figures. Students in classrooms that deliver history this way might be forgiven for wondering why history is relevant to them. In fact, these classrooms suppress curiosity so much that asking a meaningful question like “Why study history?” should be congratulated.

History is not a rigid list of events. History is a verb, a process, and way of understanding why the world is the way it is. More importantly, it is something students should practice. It sparks curiosity and puts students in a position to think. It reveals answers to questions about the world, sharpens reading and writing skills, and demonstrates connections between the past and the present. It can galvanize students to positive action, demonstrate the importance of real citizenship, and highlight the value of building local and national communities.

Of course, it is far easier to photocopy worksheets than it is to give students real opportunities to think critically or creatively. As a history teacher, I can attest to the difficulty of the challenge. Educators looking to go deeper must navigate unfamiliar territory like Web interactives, social media, and object or document-based teaching to find ways to make history real and relevant to students. (Not to mention additional obstacles like standardized testing and decreased seat time for Social Studies classes).

DSC_3926 (1) The museum’s education staff understand how difficult it is for teachers to find activities that provoke critical thinking and promote real understanding of American history. To address this need, they have developed a searchable database of outstanding educational resources, Smithsonian’s History Explorer. The activities, lessons, programs, and interactives on the site are based on the philosophy that students need to be engaged with history in order to learn it. They are excellent tools for creating lessons that foster critical thinking and engagement. Want to go beyond forcing your students to memorize the Gettysburg Address? Try engaging them with the Gettysburg Address interactive. Looking for a way to use social media in your classroom? Use the On The Water Snapshots in Time guide to help your students find evidence of maritime activities in their neighborhoods and to upload maritime pictures using Flickr.

During my internship, I have worked intimately with resources like these on Smithsonian’s History Explorer and have even had the chance to create some of my own. It is an outstanding resource for educators. That said, it cannot give you a neat one-sentence answer to the “Why Study History?” problem. What it can do is to help teachers give students the tools,the enthusiasm and the critical thinking skills to answer that question themselves.

Josh Desantis is an intern in the New Media program at the National Museum of American History and an eighth-grade American history teacher.