I used to be that guy. The Trivia Crack guy. It was all I knew.
Lecture. Have kids outline the lecture. Grade the notes, hoping for just about any sort of organizational structure. Quizzes along the way. Maybe a worksheet. Throw in a map to color. Test at the end of the chapter.
Most of my own history instruction followed this pattern. And I was great at this sort of stuff. 105 Kansas counties? No problem. When did Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address? Yup. I got that. Causes of World War One? MAIN acronym. Boom.
And if you’re old enough to remember the analog Trivia Crack version called Trivia Pursuit, you’re gonna have to trust me – I owned that game. Seriously. Steve Schmidt and I were unbeatable.
(Don’t know about Trivia Crack? Stay away. Stay far, far away.)
So when I became a teacher?
I followed the same pattern. Lecture. (Though I did make an allowance for my middle schoolers by putting my notes on the overhead. And yes. It was the kind that had a roll of plastic that I cranked to bring up more of my carefully crafted outline.) Quiz. Worksheet. Test.
Because I thought that was what good teaching looked like.
But the longer I taught like that, the more confused I got. A few of my kids did great. Straight As. Most did average at best. And the rest? Poorly. Plus they were disruptive. Disengaged. Perfect examples of the typical middle school kid. Why weren’t more of my kids doing well?
It took me a while. And more than just a few conversations with some excellent mentors – thank you, Mike Ortmann – before I started to realize that there were multiple ways for me to teach social studies. And a whole bunch of ways for kids to learn besides copying down my carefully crafted outline. And almost of all them more effective than the one I was using.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, and certainly didn’t know what to call it, I began to find more effective ways of engaging kids in content. In today’s context, we call it historical thinking. Inquiry arcs. Problem-based learning. Using evidence to solve problems. It’s more than training kids to memorize data and be good at Trivia Crack. It’s more than dried up facts about dead people, boring events, and long ago dates.
Several years ago, I posted a quote from James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Teacher Got Wrong:
Kids don’t hate history. They hate the way we teach it.
I couldn’t agree more.
Kids don’t hate talking about history or even lecture. Not if it’s done in small chunks, in 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 105 counties of Kansas.
Kids don’t hate reading and writing. My college-age son and his friends are huge fans of The Game of Thrones. They watch the show. Read the books. And talk about the series in all sorts of ways. K-12 kids aren’t any different about their own favorite stories. They’ve got the hard copies, 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 that we too often teach history as if we’re prepping them for the Trivia Crack World Series.
And I think that sometimes, especially at this time of year, sometimes we forget what it’s like to be a student on the receiving end of the Trivia Crack instructional strategy. If you’re in the February rut, browse through some historical thinking ideas here. You might even head over to the Session Materials page from yesterday’s Kansas social studies conference.
But whatever you do. Don’t be that guy. You know . . . that guy. The Trivia Crack guy.