Helping Students Appreciate the Journey
By Keith Harris, Historian, Teacher, and Guest Blogger
I teach in a highly competitive school. My students are wonderful — every last one of them. They are driven, studious, attentive, and care deeply about their futures. We should all be so lucky, to stand up before a class full of students who display all of these virtues. But, of course, this ambition can have adverse effects. Many of my students spend countless hours cramming and memorizing material for assessments, regardless of the weight, duration, or even level of difficulty. While these kids work harder than any I have ever known, I have also noted that some tend to feed into a harmful culture, where the only thing that seems to matter is the transcript and a nice shiny A at the end of the year. As an educator I understand the importance of good grades, but I am equally disheartened — the kids often miss the journey for the destination. And when they get to college, they quickly discover that reproducing material memorized from a study guide or textbook is hardly the formula for success.
In an effort to persuade students to think beyond the systematic study-memorize-reproduce approach to absorbing course material, I have developed an engagement model that works in tandem with my more traditional classroom lessons. I teach high school history: Western Civilization, United States History, and an advanced course on the American Civil War. My inspiration stems from my days as a college undergraduate — the most productive experiences were during office hours meetings, usually with course teaching assistants, at which we sorted through challenging material in a critical way — analyzing perspective, cause and effect, and historical change. When I found myself in the TA position in grad school, I noticed that my student who attended office hours more frequently tended to be more engaged and thus write better papers. Early on as a high school teacher, I thought this might be a great way to draw kids into the discipline to see what it is that historians actually do. If they understand how they arrive at their conclusions then perhaps they themselves will have a better understanding of the material. They will learn to think rather than memorize.
In the digital age and with the ubiquitous use of web devices, high school students have grown accustomed to short sound bites. Social Media seems the perfect platform from which to teach beyond the classroom in ways that can be both entertaining and engaging, and perhaps get the kids excited about more than just a grade. A few years back, I launched a YouTube series called — you guessed it — Office Hours. Each episode is the response to a question (or group of questions) from a student or students. It is an extremely low budget production, shot on my front porch with my iPhone, between two and four minutes, and done in a highly informal way — all in the name of making a brief, but informative personal connection. I have included a useful hashtag (#harristorian) and other social links to encourage lively chatter on the Internet. The series also promotes the use of my website for downloadable documents and access to more comprehensive web courses for sale to the public (my students can have them gratis). And since this is public, anyone can get in on the conversation.
A most recent example was a somewhat light-hearted take on a very serious subject: secession and the cause of the Civil War. I have also tackled challenging issues and historical events kids might have heard about in the Broadway hit Hamilton. Pretty much anything is fair game, and students studying for unit tests, the APUSH exam, or just ordinary history buffs have stopped by. My own students have found the videos very useful. We watch them together in class and discuss how I arrive at the conclusions I do, and we share relevant primary sources and talk them out, with an eye toward bias. And the best thing has happened — the kids enjoy themselves…and learn something along the way. Building on my own use of interactive video technology in the classroom, I am working on a project where students make videos of their own — where they ask questions, respond to one another, and debate in video format. Whether or not this will be a successful endeavor remains to be seen (as it were). But it will most certainly create a historical dialogue. And as far as I am concerned, this will help chip away at the “grade only” culture. They will still get the grades, most of them anyway…but at the end of high school, my hope is that they will have enjoyed journey as much as the destination.
Keith Harris is a historian, an author, a runner, a social media aficionado, and an animal rights advocate. He received his BA at the University of California at Los Angeles (summa cum laude) and his Ph.D. in United States history at the University of Virginia. He has taught courses in US history at UVa and UC Riverside, and currently teaches at a private high school in Los Angeles. His first book, Across the Bloody Chasm: the Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans, is available from the Louisiana State University Press. Check out his website below, or his podcast, “The Rogue Historian” here. Follow him on Twitter at @MKeithHarris.
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