About 15 years ago, I had the chance to drive James Loewen around for a couple of days. He was in town for a two day workshop and afterwards had to get to Kansas City for a flight. As his chauffeur, I got the chance to pepper him with all sorts of questions. And much of what I wanted to know revolved around his most recent book at the time, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
I was especially curious about the first few sentences in the book:
High school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history always comes in last. They consider it “the most irrelevant” of 21 school subjects, not applicable to life today. “Boring” is the adjective they apply to it. When they can, they avoid it . . .
Once I got him started, Loewen went on to describe the incredible amounts of money being made by movie producers and book publishers who focused on historical topics. At the time, the viewing and reading public was fascinated with movies such as Dances with Wolves, JFK, Saving Private Ryan, and Gone with the Wind and books like Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and David McCullough’s John Adams.
He was very clear about it:
Kids don’t hate history. They hate the way we teach it.
I couldn’t agree more.
Kids don’t hate history lectures. Not if it’s done in an engaging style with images and great questions and small groups and problems to solve. What they hate is required, graded outlined notes without context or purpose. They hate 45 minute monologues without a chance to ever interact with the content. They hate listening to what Loewen calls a list of stuff presented as “one damn thing after another.”
Kids don’t hate historical characters. Not when we tell them stories of actual people and how they survived the Kansas winter of 1874 or a teenager’s experience during the Montgomery Bus Boycott or a trip from Haiti to the Florida Keys on a homemade raft or an escape from a World War II concentration camp or . . . well, just about any event well told. What they hate are long lists of people that show up on the matching section of chapter tests for no reason at all.
Kids don’t hate maps. Maps tell incredible stories. They draw the viewer in with what Robert Lewis Stevenson called the power of “infinite, eloquent suggestion.” Miles Harvey, author of The Island of Lost Maps, understands what a good map can do:
Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory or the fantastic landscape of dreams.
Kids hate adding all of the major rivers and bodies of water to a bare outline map of the United States. They hate being graded on whether they used the correct color for labeling the 108 counties of Kansas.
Kids don’t hate reading and writing. My older son and his friends are huge fans of The Game of Thrones. They’ve got the books, they write fan fiction, they read and comment on blogs. They read immense amounts of non-fiction and informational text. What they hate is not having any choice in what they read and write about. What they hate is writing for just their classroom teachers and not someone “real.” They hate using paper and pencil when computers and mobile devices are everywhere.
Kids don’t hate doing homework. Ask them to do something authentic like making an iMovie trailer or playing a video game or talking to Iraqi war vets and they will jump all over it. What they hate is dragging home packets of worksheets that are basically copy and paste with a pencil. They hate having homework count as 50% of their grade and being called cheaters if they work with others to solve problems.
Kids don’t hate memorizing stuff. Are you kidding me? They memorize stuff all the time. Songs, video game walk-throughs, movie plots, the names of every one of the kids in the 4th grade class they visit once a week for Big Brothers / Big Sisters. What they hate is memorizing stuff that they know they will never actually use. What they hate is that they know we know they will never use that stuff. They hate being graded on their ability to memorize stuff that they can find on Google or with Siri in 60 seconds.
They don’t hate history. Not when it’s done well – with relevancy and choice and small groups and engaging problems and interesting documents and outside experts and technology and authentic products.
They hate the way we teach it.
(Thanks for the reminder, John Spencer.)