Recent News - Reflections from the College Classroom

BHH in College History Classrooms!

July 14, 2010 - 4:07 PM

Dr. Catherine Denial of Knox College has been the BHH lead historian since the project began in 2001.   She uses the BHH Five Processes in her own classes at Knox, and has now provided descriptions and examples of her strategies for teaching history at the college level.  We're excited about this resource for history TA's, new faculty, and seasoned historians seeking to invigorate their teaching and engage students in history as an interpretive, evidence-based discipline.  It may also be a helpful resource for TAH grant directors and guest historians as they plan professional development for K-12 teachers. 

Thank you, Dr. Denial!


Classroom Conversation

October 16, 2009 - 1:54 PM

One of the courses I'm teaching this fall is First-Year Preceptorial - a class in which every first year student is enrolled.  Through three texts and a series of films with which everyone engages we consider the major global, economic, political, religious, and cultural questions that our students stand to inherit when they graduate, and explore the way in which the tools supplied by a liberal arts education can help them find the answers they'll need.  There are roughly twenty sections of FP a year, and each faculty member assigns their students other readings specific to their group.  The course aims to strike a balance between building a common experience for first year students, and allowing faculty flexibility in how they teach.

A month ago my FP students read an excerpt from Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture, a 1998 book that explored the dynamics of antagonism in political, economic, and cultural speech.  Tannen spends a great deal of time focused on education, and the adversarial roots of most western systems through which knowledge is imparted, tested, and proved.  My students recognized their education in Tannen's words - recalled the formalized debates they'd been expected to enter into in history class, and the overarching goal of winning, not understanding, as their task.  They remembered English classes where people established themselves as intelligent by savaging authors, and civics courses where articulating the failures of government systems constituted the only meaningful measure of success.

Everyone talked in high school, my students suggested, but no one really listened.  I wondered how to be sure their college experienced would not be more of the same.

My challenge to the students was to come up with a better set of guidelines for the way we'd communicate in our class.  What would be acceptable, as we tried to learn about each other and our world, and what would not?  How would we deal with inflammatory topics and ensure our discussions were just?

This is what they decided:

1) Keep an open mind.

2) Respect each other, and each other's ideas.

3) Be aware of emotional distress, your own and others'.  Know your limits.

4) Be willing to communicate your feelings about the way a discussion is unfolding.

5) Extend the benefit of the doubt to each other.  If someone says something with which you disagree, or that makes you angry and uncomfortable, ask, "Why did you say that?" or something similar.  Don't assume the worst, but do insist that people take responsibility for their words.

6) Don't make assumptions about each other, or why someone holds a given belief.

7) Participate.  Listen; allow time for people to respond; reflect on what others are saying; ask questions; be prepared for class (mentally and physically); find a method of staying engaged that works for you; acknowledge other people as they speak.

8) Don't take things personally.

9) Remember we are all from different places and were raised in different ways.  Value these differences.

10) Remember that discussion is not a competition.

11) Allow expansiveness of discussion.  We are not only interested in "facts" but in theories, ideas, and possibilities.

12) Think before you speak.

13) Don't hold grudges.  Every new class period is a new beginning.

14) What happens in FP stays in FP.  Respect the trust placed in you when others share something difficult or personal, and keep it confidential.

15) Have courage.

A month later and the guidelines are firmly in place in our classroom.  We reference them frequently - especially the last - and my students have not raised their voices (except in warm, well-placed laughter), or shut each other down, or approached discussion as something they might win, or taken offense at another's words.  We've navigated the slings and arrows of Malcolm X, of Kwame Appiah's Cosmopolitanism, of conversation about Islam, Hinduism, Catholicism and Voodoo - and in each instance we've listened, considered other points of view, reflected, and we have into a delightfully messy host of ideas.

My students, in essence, have taught me how to talk.  I'm looking forward to asking my other classes what their guidelines for conversation will be.

Teaching Across the Curriculum

August 22, 2009 - 11:57 AM

Over the past couple of years, the college at which I work has become more and more focused on issues of sustainability.  There have been numerous changes around campus - more recycling stations; a retrofitting of energy-efficient light bulbs; trays removed from the cafeteria; and the founding of a student-run community garden - but to date, the greatest share of teaching about sustainability has fallen to the faculty in Environmental Studies.

This week, twenty-two faculty members attended a two-day workshop to consider ways of integrating the principles of sustainability into our curriculum.  We came from a dozen departments and programs - Biology, Dance, Classics, Computer Science, Creative Writing, Economics, History, Journalism, Modern Languages, Political Science, Physics, and Psychology (as well as our colleagues from Environmental Studies).  Through readings, speakers, spirited discussion, and collaborative workshops, we each worked to create an assignment we might use in an existing course, meeting both the goals of our discipline and our college-wide commitment to teach our students to be stewards of the world.

Layering the skills and subjects that our students learn in a single class period is common to almost all teachers.  Part of my job, for example, is to teach my students to become better writers in every class they take.  Elementary school teachers perhaps face this challenge even more acutely - it's hard to find time to teach social studies when No Child Left Behind puts such pressure on schools to improve reading and math scores above all else.  Bringing History Home tackles this problem head on, working with teachers to enable them to meet their literacy goals through social studies - to have read-aloud books that reinforce historical thinking; to have students write about history as a way of learning vocabulary, sentence-structure, and organization.

I thought of this summer's fifth-grade teachers often during the sustainability workshop and their creativity in finding ways to teach literacy, science, and math goals using Columbus' 1493 letter to the King of Spain.  I needed a jolt of their creativity, since it was challenging for me to find a way to honor the importance of educating our students about sustainability while maintaining the values of my discipline.  While communities in the past grew and retracted according to their relationship with the natural world (which didn't always include respecting it - many cultures have tried to dominate their local environment, or harness resources in ways that, with hindsight, we can see were damaging) 'sustainability' is a twentieth-century concept.  'Sustainability,' as a movement, is also rooted in a specific time and place, and the principles we discussed in our workshop came out of a western framework of looking at the world.  Applying 'sustainability' to non-Western cultures - like the Arawak or Carib of the fifteenth-century Caribbean - seemed to be to be another instance of trying to make non-Western cultures bend to Western desires.  Handled badly, it could be colonialism all over again.

In the end I found a way to accommodate both the promises and pitfalls of consciously thinking about sustainability in the classroom.  In working with fifth-grade teachers this summer on Columbus' letter, I asked them to think about what Columbus' words told us about Europe, instead of the Caribbean; to consider how we learn about organization of Europe's cities, harbors, fields, and homes by the comparisons Columbus makes to what he sees in what - to him - is a new world.  I tweaked this idea just a little more to make an assignment for the students in Introduction to Latin American History:

What does The Columbus Letter of 1493 tell us about the natural resources most prized in Europe, and the way in which the social, political, economic, and religious systems of that region were determined by both the presence of those resources, and their lack?

I hope that in answering this question, my students will become more conscious of the way in which human societies choose to use the resources around them, and the way in which political events are often linked to the search for more of what a country or community deems necessary to support their way of life.  That's a transferable skill that will serve them well as they think about their own lifestyle, and the issues of sustainability that face us today.  Still, the question is rooted in the past, and asks students to think critically about a major shift in world events from within the context of that time.

My experience teaches me that we can reach untold combinations of goals in our teaching, provided we're given the time, intellectual support, and sometimes money necessary to make it happen.  I needed two days of intense discussion with my colleagues to figure out how to make this particular challenge work for me.  The same is often true of our Bringing History Home teachers, and it's a delight to be part of that process from a different perspective - to brainstorm with smart, inventive teachers how to have students compare the foodstuffs of the Caribbean and Europe to meet the science goal of 'understanding nutrition', or to consider if there are math goals we can reach by having students calculate the distance Columbus thought he had traveled with the actual distance he did.

At the heart of all of these challenges met is collaboration - collaboration between teachers of all levels, between mentors and new learners, between non-academic experts and students of every age.  Perhaps that is the greatest unexpected reward of any experience of teaching across the curriculum - the sense that we are part of a team, and can rely on one another's creativity and imagination in providing the education our students need.

The Power of 'Why?'

August 8, 2009 - 12:38 PM

"[A]s a teacher I can no longer take the easy way out, insisting that I am only responsible for conveying the facts of sociology or theology or whatever the subject may be. Instead, I must take responsibility for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formulative pressure on my students' sense of self and world. I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills. I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world. That way, reinforced in course after course, will remain with my students long after the facts have faded from their minds."

Parker Palmer, To Know as We are Known: A Spirituality of Education. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983. 30.

When I was eleven years old, I took my first physics class. The subject was fascinating, promising the means to understand my own world and the universe beyond it - but the practice of the discipline quickly frustrated me. After one experiment into the properties of electricity I asked my teacher to explain why electricity behaved the way it did. His answer was vague and unsatisfying, so I rephrased my question and asked again. My teacher huffed impatiently and said, "Go get a Ph.D. in physics, come back, and we'll talk." The subject was closed. There was nothing that I, a lowly eleven-year-old, could add to the conversation.

In contrast, History was a subject where the question "why?" was never inappropriate. Especially delightful to me were the occasions when my teacher replied to my question by asking, "why do you think it happened that way?" There is no overstating the pleasure I felt when I realized I could figure out the answer for myself.

These memories returned to me this week as I worked alongside a group of smart, dynamic elementary school teachers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa - the newest educators to join the Bringing History Home program. Their questions and ideas about social studies education reminded me just how much of a difference a good teacher makes in the life of a child. (I have no doubt I might have loved physics more had my teacher been more committed to the process of inquiry than the seemingly unassailable domain of facts.) In talking to mentors and looking over student work from classrooms where the BHH curriculum is already at work, I remembered the heady rush of empowerment that history supplied when I was eleven. In timelines, think-alouds, maps, and essays I saw a similar buoyant energy reflected in the work of children from kindergarten on up.

All the work we do as part of Bringing History Home rests on a central idea - that history is not something you passively receive, but something you do. This is as true for kindergarteners as it is for the college-aged students I most usually teach; as true for fifth-graders as it is for professional historians engaged in research, going to conferences, and working on their books. For all of us, the question of "Why?" is the fuel for our work, for our constantly changing sense of the world. "Why?" is one of the most precious questions we can allow others to ask, and as educators, "Why do you think it happened that way?" the best question we can ask in return.

The practices at work in BHH are intuitively part of what professional historians do - but it's in making those practices explicit to our students that we reveal history as a dynamic human enterprise in which they can take a full and vital part. I hope this blog can foster conversation about how to model history as an enterprise of doing - how to teach our students, at every level, to seek out and analyze primary sources, to select and assess secondary sources, to use maps and timelines as visual organizers that aid them in identifying patterns of change, and to synthesize all of these parts into evidence-supported narratives about the past. Thinking about how to do this has made me a different teacher, thinker, and student - someone who has learned as much from elementary school teachers undertaking these same practices as she can hope to have shared. I'm looking forward to learning even more.

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