Over the next several weeks, students in my Upper School class will begin teaching the class on their self-selected topics. Teaching the class is part of the cumulative project for the class. Students have been researching their topics and interviewing an expert about the topic. One of the challenges of asking students to select topics that interest them is to help them incorporate not only current controversy and their personal opinions/experience, but also dig into the history of the topic and view it with an analytic eye.
Before students began teaching their lessons, I wanted to have a discussion about the types of topics they’ve chosen and their place within what has traditionally been thought of as material integral to history courses (aka what gets covered in textbooks). This year students’ topics include the history of…
transportation and commerce
role of firearms in war
government involvement in healthcare
organization of political parties
race and sports
religion’s influence on political issues
popular literature’s reflection of culture
sports and the economy
information sharing, storage and usage
race and film
regulation/safety of household products
I distributed a set of US History textbooks, which provoked surprised exclamations from students, since we’ve yet to touch a textbook up until this point in the year. I asked students to use the index and skim to see how much coverage their topic was given in the textbook. Afterward, we used todaysmeet to have a conversation about how much discussion there was on their topics in the textbook and what the reasons for that might be. It led to some useful reflection on how historical importance is assigned to various topics and the point of view of textbooks. You can read a transcript of the discussion here.
When I was in high school, I so desperately wanted to keep my US History AP textbook that I reported it lost and paid for it to avoid having to return it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have plenty of access to books. We even had the internet at our house, despite it still being a bit of a novelty. But I wanted to keep my textbook because to me it represented order, 300 years of history neatly explained and bound.
Now that I teach history I struggle every day with the messiness of it. I worry that I don’t bring enough voices from the past into my classroom and that I’m not giving students enough since of the variety of perspectives. The next day I worry that I’ve overwhelmed students by not helping them develop frameworks to think critically about the variety of narratives that I’ve brought into the classroom and that they’ve explored in print and digital resources. Even though we don’t use a textbook in our class, we are constructing a text, and I think it’s just as important to be self-reflective and critical of that process as we would be of a hardbound book.