By LENI DONLAN
Why do we teach or learn history? Is it important? Why? What role does the "textbook" play in teaching and learning history? What do textbooks include and what do they emphasize? Why?
Historians, publishers, congressional staff, teachers and students grappled with these questions for a day and a half, on May 12 and13. Organized by panel presentations, followed by questions and comments from the audience, the symposium allowed participants to explore such issues as the "ownership" of history and the political implications and repercussions of "who" and "what" are included in the telling of a nation's story. The diverse perspectives of participants in this international gathering revealed some of the challenges faced today in the teaching of history, as well as the tensions and conflicts within the history community itself.
Made possible by the generosity of the Spencer Foundation, in collaboration with the American Historical Association and the Library of Congress' Office of Strategic Initiatives, the event resulted in a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion of a timely and relevant topic. Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs and the John W. Kluge Center, moderated the event.
The Changing Context of the Historical Narrative
The first panel, comprising Joke van der Leeuw-Roord (director, Euroclio), Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago), Patricia Albjerg Graham (Harvard University), Hugh Heclo (George Mason University) and Romila Thapar (Kluge Center), explored how historical themes get included in textbooks, as well as what forces influence and change the context of historical narratives.
Gifford opened the session by pointing out that history is told in narrative through themes that have varying emphases over time. Historians strive to create narratives that are accurate, relevant and capable of passing information on to the next generation.
The European Standing Conference of History Teachers was the topic of van der Leeuw-Roord's presentation. She emphasized that history teaching needs to reflect both national pride and pain and should be cognizant of the tendency of politicians and governments to use national history for political purposes. Concepts of "multiperspectivity," and "inclusion" were key to van der Leeuw-Roord's presentation.
Elshtain stated that history is not fixed but documents streams and flows of events and circumstances that occur over time. Young people, who take their bearings from their own time and place, need to see the interconnectivity of past, present and future, according to Elshtain. A strong proponent of improving civic education, Elshtain called for the inclusion of more positive civic models in the teaching of history.
Graham challenged the audience to consider the public purpose of history education. How has it changed and why? She showed the correlation between what "sells" and what is included in history books. And she noted that what historians think and promote as "history" becomes what textbook customers prefer.
Graham shared a timely worry: that simply "passing tests" as required by the "No Child Left Behind" legislation is not an adequate expectation for American education. She pointed out the difficulty the nation faces in determining its educational expectations and finding the balance between what's good for the child and what's good for society.
"What is the role of religion in historical narrative?" asked Heclo. He stated that textbooks give religion a uniform treatment—they avoid, marginalize or politicize it. Heclo contends that religious belief must be put in its historical context, because without it the central role of religion in history is forgotten. Furthermore, understanding religious doctrines and beliefs is critical to comprehending the conflicts in the world today.
Thapar, the discussant for this panel, reminded the audience that history textbooks used to be impartial, telling the "story" with narrative balance. Now national identification and legitimacy are included in textbooks, and "perspective" is conceded while expecting history textbooks to transmit heritage and values. New textbooks are developed when cultural or political changes occur that cause history to be rewritten, changing the way that society sees itself. While there are some historical constants (such as dates), "history" changes as evidence and interpretation change.
So how, Thapar asks, can students evaluate historical statement? Since the analysis of events changes as evidence or understanding advances, students must engage in critical thinking which, when applied to political events, can result in effective learning.
Interest Groups in Textbook Writing and Production
The second panel discussed the trade-offs that occur among history professionals, textbook publishers, school reform committees and other interested parties as they decide how textbooks are written and edited. Arnita Jones (American Historical Association), Wolfgang Hoepken (Institute for International Textbook Research), Casper Grathwohl (Oxford University Press), Don Ritchie (Office of the U.S. Senate Historian), Joseph Viteritti (Princeton University) and Richard Cronin (Congressional Research Service) explored the question: "What factors, beyond professional history [the interpretation of historical events and actions by scholarly, professional historians], shape the content and presentation of history textbooks?"
Jones warned of putting "scientific history" in schools and worried that "history "is called upon to justify many "noneducational" issues. She chided textbooks and history teachers for their sometimes naive attitude that lacks acknowledgment of other versions of the "narrative."
Hoepken spoke about the character and outcome of conflict as well as the role history textbooks and teaching play in post-conflict societies. Education in war-torn nations takes place under extremely unstable conditions but can sometimes serve as a cultural resource for reconciliation and fostering peace.
Grathwohl offered an alternative to textbooks, citing Oxford University Press' publishing program for the K-12 audience. Grathwohl spoke of the power of pairing history with language arts and of rethinking resources and offering online content as well as published textbooks. He reminded the audience that publishing is all about revision and new editions and that it is nearly impossible for publishers to do this often enough to say current.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) visited the symposium briefly in the early afternoon to share information about the American History and Civics Education Act, which encourages the teaching of U.S. history and civics in American schools and offers summer residency academies for teachers and students. Lamar expressed his belief in American "exceptionalism," stating that the United States is different from other nations because of its founding principles.
Ritchie asked, "How do textbooks get published?" He cited the role of interest groups and the need for authors to speak up and tell the story while resisting the pressures of such groups. Ritchie said that the influx of immigrants to the United States has created largely multicultural student bodies, prompting the need to hear "more voices" in textbooks.
Viteritti asked, "Who is interested in history textbooks, and how do they articulate their interests? Why do we educate?" The United States has tried to cultivate enlightened citizens and nurture democracy since Jefferson's time. Horace Mann saw education as a vehicle for creating common civic culture (though the more pluralistic we become as a people, the more difficult it is to have a "common school"). Viteritti recommended allowing teachers to choose their own books while still preserving a necessary diversity.
Cronin, the discussant for this panel, was particularly sensitized to "how the American story" is told, pointing out that the United States is not alone in its national sense of "exceptionalism." However, Cronin said, in some ways the United States actually is exceptional—in its origins and in its diverse multicultural population.
History in the Classroom: A Discussion With Teachers and Students
Has there been a fundamental shift in the use and function of history textbooks inside and outside of U.S. classrooms? How are the historical narratives presented in textbooks actually used by teachers? Drawing on the experience of high school and middle school teachers and students, these questions were discussed on the second day of the symposium.
A video created by students from Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools provided the first look at history teaching in today's schools. A lively discussion about textbooks and other resources used for learning history, conducted in an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge class, captured the insightful comments of students.
Leslie Gray (Fairfax County Public Schools, Online Campus) and her student Kathryn Finegan; Robert Hines (Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville, Md.) and his student Saul Carlin; Cathy Hix (Swanson Middle School, Arlington, Va.) and her student Hannah Bauman; Rawiya Nash (Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Washington, D.C.) and her student Kayla Jones; and discussant Julianne Turner (University of Notre Dame) shared the strategies and materials they use in the teaching and learning of history.
Teachers and students were asked, "What makes history come alive?"
Hix said she connects history to present-day experiences, moving students from current events to past events. Gray said she places students back in time through "role" writing in diaries.
Bauman said that she is able to connect to history through studying the lives of historical figures when they were her age, while Finegan noted that she finds that connecting to the human and emotional side of the narrative makes history live for her.
Hines commented that he strives to capture his students' imaginations by using the drama of narrative and biography and delving into the multidimensional quality of human lives, and Nash said he tries to let students be decision-makers in their learning experience.
Guided by Gifford, teachers and students shared their use of multimedia, literature, art, poetry, music, Internet resources, the city and museums as classrooms, in addition to textbooks, as their "window" to history. When specifically asked about textbooks, all panelists claimed they are necessary to learning. But they agreed that they are not the only resource for learning. Textbooks were cited as helpful to "tie it all together" or as a starting place to provide needed background or a springboard for moving into deeper research.
"We live in a highly visual society, but do we also use sound in the teaching and learning of history?" asked Gifford.
Nash cited the use of museums and videos in which her students can hear speeches and voices from the past.
Hix said she has her students listen to speeches as they follow the text with overhead projections, and she uses simulations with sound and visuals to put students into historical environments.
Finegan said she learned a lot from hearing the "voices" of immigrants at Ellis Island.
Gifford then asked, "Why do we teach history? Why do you, as a student, think history is important?"
Gray stated that the history teacher's job is to orient students to the past through narrative.
Jones asked, "If you don't know your past, how will you know the future?"
Nash cited the African proverb: "Not to know is bad; not to want to know is worse."
Carlin reported that he learns about himself from historical characters.
Hines said he thinks that history provides an understanding of the diverse multiculturalism of the nation today.
Gifford's next question was, "As you teach American history, do you reference other cultures, people, values?"
Hix stated that primary sources help students see issues from different
perspectives and make students aware of perspectives on a world stage.
Bauman said she felt that learning about history had helped her understand issues of isolation and bullying.
Nash stressed the importance of presenting balanced information to students, allowing them to become informed decision-makers.
Hines said he directs students to "stand in the shoes" of others, which provides insight into the assumptions often made about other nations.
Gray said she finds that calling on prior knowledge and linking back to what students learned earlier helps keep a broader world perspective in place.
A timely question came from the audience: "How do activities you do relate to teaching for 'the test'? Is NCLB [No Child Left Behind] marginalizing history?"
Hix replied that some teachers make the mistake of thinking they have to go back to basics and employ "drill and kill." However, when you teach for understanding, you are giving students a foundation to which they can attach facts and dates.
Gray agreed with this viewpoint but commented that tests should use more than "multiple choice" to assess learning.
Bauman said she felt that a basic understanding of history provides a scaffold for correctly dealing with questions of "when" and "why," while Finegan stated that activities that allow immersion in a topic give students the bigger picture and a structure to which they can pin the facts.
Turner summarized what the teachers and students had shared. She reminded the audience that establishing value, relevance and meaning for students; that drawing from personal experience; putting students back in time and starting from the student's own experience are all effective strategies for teaching history. She noted that connecting students to history "emotionally" by tapping into their interests through the use of the arts and multimedia captures their hearts as well as their minds and provides powerful learning experiences. And, giving students responsibility and choices allows them to feel in control of their learning and encourages them to take responsibility for it. When students are "hooked" into learning in these ways, Turner said, they find themselves becoming more "able" (smarter). They see themselves as experienced historians and are spurred on to learn more. Teachers can help students move forward with challenges through analysis, synthesis and provision of the "big picture." Good teaching leads students to display their own best qualities.
At the conclusion of this discussion, panel teachers presented snippets of lessons from their own practices.
Gray said that she leads students from acquisition of knowledge, to developing the skills and habits of the mind of the historian, to the use of Socratic questions to explore ideas and values.
Hix noted that she guides her students to uncover essential understandings through lesson unit questions, through the analysis of primary source documents and through authentic assessment of student learning.
Nash said that she uses differentiated instruction, active learning, collaboration, community building and development of responsibility to help her special-needs students succeed.
Hines, an admittedly "low-tech person," characterized his teaching style as "a cloud of chalk dust and 'Hi Ho Silver'!" He uses the narrative hook, letting his students know that great people are human beings; sprinkles anecdotes in his discourse to make his teaching lively; and brings in "stuff" to encourage his students to develop the ability to see "history around us."
Leni Donlan is Learning Page project coordinator in the Office of Strategic Initiatives. The Learning Page is located at www.loc.gov/learn/.