The study of history should create informed and responsible global citizens. My teaching methods are thus oriented towards two metagoals for my students. I want students to be able to: (1) identify and discuss the relevant historical context of complex current issues; and (2) be able to analyze primary sources, synthesize secondary sources, and write history. I want them to understand the relevance of history and be able to “do” history, both of which are skills necessary for individuals to better navigate the increasingly globalized information age. To reach these goals in both entry level surveys and upper-level courses, I believe teachers must carefully balance content with analysis, maintain a commitment to responsibly using methodological innovation and technology, and foster a student-centered democratic classroom environment.
Building a democratic classroom environment means creating a climate of mutual respect in which everyone feels that they have a stake in the learning process. It means acknowledging that learning is a social process that should involve the entire class, not just the teacher. There is no simple key to fostering a democratic classroom. It takes experience and constant adjustment, and it begins with a good rapport between the teacher and the students. Teachers should cultivate relationships with students based on trust and accountability. They should trust that students want to learn and will give their best effort, and students need to be able to trust that the teacher is doing his or her best to help students learn. This both keeps the professor from entirely blaming the students when the class does not understand a concept, and it creates an atmosphere in which rigor is both expected and appreciated. I utilize small group discussion exercises and unguided class discussions in order to remove myself from the center of conversation. For larger classes, I use strategies such as taking polls and soliciting answers to low-stakes questions in order to engage the class and stimulate their curiosity.
In order to balance content and analysis, I organize my classes around central themes and questions. This creates a consistent and dependable framework for analysis with which students can practice analyzing historical events and sources throughout the course. For example, I organize my modern American history survey (since 1865) around the themes of freedom and citizenship, which helps to both provide a relevant context for current political, economic, and social issues and narrow the content to avoid overloading students with excessive material, all while stimulating critical thinking. My lectures are highly interactive and are organized around a clear thesis—which I explain at the beginning of each lecture—that ties into broader course themes. I also use regular, more sustained discussions as a class and in small groups, typically involving primary sources, to help students see the interconnectedness of historical events. This ensures that students can always answer the question of why we are going over a particular topic, and they can more fruitfully analyze each historical fact we cover. I also like to use assessments similar to the Document-Based Questions utilized by Advanced Placement exams, which assesses both content knowledge and critical thinking.
My teaching methods are a careful balance of innovation and time-tested techniques. Lectures, discussions, and the Socratic mMethod still have value, and I use them all regularly in my classes. However, I regularly experiment with new models and technology. I have experience teaching with a few intriguing classroom models, including the flipped classroom and Reacting to the Past and have taken ideas from them. I have taught with technological applications like Kahoot and Pear Deck, which facilitates greater student participation in discussion. I like using online learning platforms like eLearning Commons and Blackboard because they promote greater communication between teachers and students; their online discussion forums can extend classroom discussions outside of class; and they can be an effective vehicle for providing additional readings, handouts, and detailed instructions on assignments. These technological applications can create a more engaged and student-centered classroom.
As tools of historical analysis, technology can be useful but only if used carefully and with an eye to student-learning objectives. In order to avoid the trap of using innovation for innovation’s sake and technology for technology’s sake, I evaluate them carefully according to their ability to help reach these objectives. Perhaps the most effective use of technology in my history classroom involves the use of the many digitized databases of primary sources easily accessible to students. I have assigned projects, for example, in which students do genealogical research using ancestry.com and oral research methods and then, utilizing digitized newspapers and periodicals, they place the stories they uncover in historical context. I have also used smaller-scale assignments in which students find newspaper articles in a database and simply bring them to class to discuss how they support or challenge textbook interpretations of history. These projects help me to both reinforce the idea that history is open to interpretation and push them to a higher level of analysis. I have found that creating products like Facebook pages, blogs, and Wikipedia pages with these digital resources can help students take control of their own learning, and the public nature of these products push them to do good work. However, they should not entirely replace the old-fashioned research paper. The research paper is still the most effective way of teaching students how to analyze primary sources. In entry level classes, I use assignments scaffolded over the course of a semester to help students learn how to analyze historical sources before requiring them to write history. In upper-level classes, I prefer using drafts, feedback, and revisions to improve students’ analysis and writing.
In terms of reading assignments, I think that it is important for students to read both primary sources and secondary sources. For weekly readings, I assign textbooks that provide concise introductions to classroom lessons. To that end, I prefer textbooks that focus on general themes and narratives and do not overload students with heavy content. George Tindall and David Shi’s America: A Narrative History, James Henretta et al’s America: A Concise History, and Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty work well for this purpose. I also assign weekly readings from a reader of primary sources that directly relate to the central themes of the class. I’ve found Eric Foner’s Voices of Freedom to be a good collection aimed at the theme of freedom. I also assign from two to five books, depending on the level of the class, that include both primary sources—oral histories, memoirs, etc.—and secondary sources. For example, I’ve found Peter Jenkins’s memoir, A Walk Across America, to be helpful for analyzing the turbulent social and political climate of the 1970s and the transition toward conservatism. Good entry-level secondary monographs include Scott Nelson’s Steel Driving Man and Philip Paludin’s Victims. These books, although rigorous scholarship, are aimed at popular readers, so they are helpful at drawing non-major students into the world of history scholarship. Generally, the higher the level of the class the more secondary sources I assign that are written primarily for scholars.
As one final point, being an effective teacher, above all else, takes experience and continued humility and self-reflection. Learning from past mistakes and successes is absolutely necessary, as teaching involves doing a million little things right but often not knowing what those things are until you gain the benefit of hindsight. Lectures can always be tweaked. Concepts can always be more clearly explained and framed. Discussions, readings, and assignments can always be aligned better. Learning more about the subject itself can reveal new connections and new ways of conceptualizing the material that helps me explain the subject matter to classes with varying dynamics. Thus, good teaching means being a dedicated and lifelong student.