For the first 6 years of my high school teaching career, I prepped 3 different courses each year, two of which were AP-level courses. I enjoyed teaching a variety of subject areas, especially European history, but hindsight being what it is, I can see now that having to prepare so many different courses did stretch me rather thin. I read widely since I taught European history and American history as well as government and politics, but I was unable to read as deeply as I would have liked or probably needed in order to be at my best in the classroom.
When I began my new position a year and a half ago, my preparation time decreased considerably since I only teach American history now. I teach different levels of American history, but the subject matter does not change from one level to the next. While I at first missed teaching European history terribly, I have come to see the loss of that course as a blessing.
Generally, my students fall into three major categories when it comes to their attitudes towards studying American history. The first group, and the one that I probably fell into myself as a student, consists of students who like and even love history, but only non-American history. Whether because they are tired of American history after having had brushes with it since elementary school or whether because European and world history just seem exotic and fresh, they see American history as boring and unfashionable. The second group consists of those students who come to American history ready to see the United States as the very devil having been told by popular culture and the mainstream media that America “sucks.” They are the ones who are ready and willing to blame America for every problem that the world has ever had since 1776, and sometimes even before. There is nothing exceptional or altruistic or honorable about America in these students’ minds, and they bring to their study of the United States a disdain and disregard that is terribly hard to combat. The final group consists of students who come to American history as they come to any history class, with the belief that none of this really matters. Whether American or European or world history, history is just a bunch of dusty facts to memorize and forget. They do not believe it has anything to teach them about their own world or that it affects their daily lives in any significant way.
None of this is new to me, by the way. I have been teaching American history for nearly 10 years now, and I have seen these same groups of students year in and year out. What is new for me is the ability to zero in on these particular issues with regards to the study of American history. And I’ll be perfectly honest, I have not taken advantage of that as much as I could have this last year and a half.
In order to convince a student to fall in love with American history, or at least to “fall into appreciation” of American history, the teacher needs to be in love with the subject matter herself, and even then there is no guarantee that students will adopt that appreciation or love themselves. I knew since high school that I loved, loved, loved European history, especially British history. As I wrote above, however, throughout high school and college, I would have fallen into that first group of students who found American history rather dry and unexciting. A book on American history was not the first work I reached for off the library shelf. Over the last several years, however, the more I have taught American history and seen how little students actually know about their own nation and seen too how little students actually appreciate – dare I say it – American exceptionalism, the more I have fallen into a deeper appreciation of American history myself. In all honesty, this newfound appreciation and love for American history has caught me a little by surprise since for so long my professional and personal focus was on English history, and the challenge for me now is twofold. First, reading deeply enough to be able to show my students how truly remarkable United States history is. Second, finding ways to share this with all three categories of students in unique ways that will reach them where they are.
Fortunately, I now have the time to immerse myself in American history in a way that I have not been able to immerse myself in any one kind of history since graduate school. Since leaving school, the bulk of my reading and writing has been geared towards education, not specifically history education or history in general. If I want to convince even a small group of my students to love my subject matter, however, I think I have to show them through my own actions how much I love it too. I can think of no better way than to be a devoted reader and writer of history and to share this reading and writing with my students whenever possible. The bulk of what I have read and what I will read will never make it into a lecture or assignment since a one-year course barely scratches the surface. Yet it will be there in the background to add nuance to a discussion when needed, to add color to what may appear a black and white issue on the surface. Of course, there is always the problem of time; there is never enough time to share all we want to share with our students. Sometimes I want to tell my students about this really good history book I read or this news article I came across that relates perfectly to what we studied a month ago. I’m able to do this sometimes here and there, but not nearly as often as I would like.
So, as the great Monty Python troupe would say, “and now for something completely different.” This blog is changing course; we are taking a detour or perhaps the train is permanently speeding off the rails never to return to the original track. I am no longer going to be using this blog to write about education or my daily experiences in the classroom. Like Forrest Gump said, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”
No, now this blog will serve a different purpose for me, and by extension, for my students. Here I am going to write about the latest history books and articles I am reading and how they are informing my own understanding of United States and world history. Here I am going to write about what I think about the latest history and culture wars, and believe me, they seem to be everywhere lately. Here I am going to share the odd little anecdotes of history that I come across in hopes that others share my interest and amusement. If I gain a few student followers and commentators along the way, I’ll be happy. If I don’t, I’ll still be able to use what I’m reading and thinking through here to hopefully reach a student or two in my in my classroom. And if I don’t even manage that, I’ll still be richer for the knowing.