Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Passion for History: the Key to Great Teaching

For years, I have ruminated on what makes a teacher great and what makes some classes better than others. I ask my student teachers to reflect on their favorite teachers and think about what specific attributes those teachers had that they can emulate.

One of the best K-12 teachers I ever had was my high school chemistry teacher. Science was never one of my favorite subjects, but chemistry was different. It was different because my teacher was passionate about chemistry and she knew her stuff. She had a reputation for being hard, tough, and even a little scary.  But she had a lecture that was so good, it was actually famous throughout the school. It even had--get this-- a title! (Do you remember the title of ANY lesson you had in high school? college?!) It was called "The Truth and Beauty Lecture." When you told other kids that you had Ms. Mueller for chemistry, kids who had already taken her class would ask, "Have you had the truth and beauty lecture yet?" and then exchange knowing looks among themselves.

Years later, I still can remember hearing that lecture.  I didn't realize at first that it was That Lecture.  I was taking notes as fast as I could to keep up, and as I wrote, I thought to myself, wow, this is pretty interesting. Actually, this is really incredible stuff. This is really amazing! And then, as she started to conclude, I realized, this is it! This is the truth and beauty lecture. And Ms. Mueller would finish by explaining that everything she had just gone over demonstrated the truth and beauty of the periodic table. And while I have completely forgotten every detail, I know that for at least one moment in my life, I understood the Truth and Beauty of Chemistry. Of Science. Of the Universe. And that is a pretty impressive feat to accomplish as a teacher.

I believe that the study of history makes for a richer and more meaningful life. I really do. But I know that not all students will agree. So I hope that even the ones who really aren't all that into history will--at least every now and then in my class--think, wow, that is pretty interesting. And maybe, if only for a moment, I hope a lesson I teach will make a student appreciate the truth and beauty of history.  I hope they will see that something that happened years ago, like a butterfly effect, might be responsible for what the world is today. And that it happened that way because real, live people made choices.

This is NOT an easy task, of course, so I hope this blog will continue to you some good ideas on how to at least strive for that.  If you've read some of my past posts, you may have noticed that it is very "content-driven." That is because I don't think we can get students excited about learning history unless we who teach it are really excited about history.  A lesson could be student-centered, full of innovative technology and inspired by the latest in education research and learning theory. But if it is not about something then what purpose does it serve? And how can you teach a history lesson about anything if you have not done your research about that historical topic? And how will it be interesting if you don't think it is interesting?

I don't think enough administrators and school reformers and politicians always realize how integral that is to great teaching. And I'm not even sure enough teachers realize it.  With so much emphasis on using technology, learning styles, standards, and other Latest Things, sometimes the most basic things are forgotten. 

Parting thought:

I hope that this blog entry and the links I am about to give you don't suggest that I am only advocating lectures as a teaching method. But the links below--from an excellent blog about teaching U.S. history at the college level--has some useful thoughts on beginning and ending a lecture. I think you could substitute the word "lesson" for "lecture" and the ideas would still work. And they work for middle school and high school history teachers just as well as college professors. The ideas in them echo something I have been telling my student teachers for years: all good lessons--just like good papers--have a beginning, a middle and an end. (summer update: I have since written at greater length on this topic. Check out my post on the 7 things all good lessons should have here.)

Check out these two blog entries by Ben Wright, an assistant professor of history at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia. 
Teaching Like We Write: Introduction and Conclusion in the Lecture
Opening lectures and teaching attention-getters

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