Back in 2002, Lee Formwalt put together a great list of what he called “Seven Rules for Effective History Teaching or Bringing Life to the History Class.” I enjoyed it so much that I buried it deep in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet.
During a recent and massive desk reclamation project, I ran across Formwalt’s list and remembered why I saved it in the first place. It talks about stuff that we often forget about or take for granted.
So . . below is Part II of the list.
Rule Three: Use well-written secondary sources
As social studies teachers, we spend a lot of time talking about using primary sources as ways to engage kids in content and to provide the chance to “think like historians.” Nothing wrong with this but Formwalt wants us to remember to include secondary sources in our unit design.
Secondary sources are critical for contextualizing and making sense of those rich firsthand sources. It is your job to prepare your students by giving them the background they need to fully understand the primary sources. And secondary sources provide that framework or context.
It took me a few years to figure this out, I was too focused on using just primary documents. It’s not one or the other – it needs to be both. One of the things I tell teachers is that we need to provide kids with “data” and train them how to use that data appropriately. And that data can be both primary or secondary information.
This could include excerpts from both classic and current historians: Herodotus, Voltaire, Francis Parkman, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Joseph J. Ellis, Stephen Ambrose, Daniel J. Boorstin, Lucy Dawidowicz.
I especially like the idea that by sharing great historians with kids, your students can begin to get a sense of not just how to read history but how to write it as well.
Rule Four: Look at the things that matter today
Formwalt suggests that we
stop thinking of history as battles and wars, kings and presidents and start thinking in terms of race, class, and gender. Today, these things matter very much in our lives. This is how we identify ourselves.
The recent “Beer Summit” at the White House tells us that we still have work to do in learning how to get along with others. And, yes, we need to teach the foundational stuff of the past but it has to be weaved into stories that kids care about.
When my kids are learning about the interactions between Irish potato farmers and their English landlords, Japanese Americans and the American government of 1942 or the leaders of World War II Allied powers, I also need to find ways for them to see similar relationships between groups that actually mean something to them.
When we do it right, we get the chance to create an emotional connection to historical content that is difficult to break. And isn’t that the whole point?
Tomorrow – Local History and Multimedia
Yesterday’s Part I – Passion & Rely Less on Textbooks