The Next Generation of History Teachers
Karen Halttunen, November 2007
Why did it take me nearly 20 years of teaching to begin asking who among my students were planning to become a K–12 history teacher? The next generation of history teachers was seated right in front of me, but I rarely registered their presence. I tended quietly to divide my students into two groups: the tiny minority who were both qualified and committed to pursuing doctoral work in history, and the vast majority who were not. The former I nurtured as future scholar-teachers like myself (though with a greater emphasis on scholarship than teaching). To the latter I tried to offer more generic intellectual skills such as thinking critically and writing persuasively and well. Even for several years after I became involved in K–16 collaboration—initially with the California History-Social Science Project, and then through a succession of projects supported by Teaching American History grants—I didn't connect the teachers who enrolled in the History Project summer institutes at the University of California at Davis and the year-round curricular workshops with the undergraduates in my own classrooms. Those teachers—who included some of the finest I've known—sometimes voiced regret that their college education hadn't adequately prepared them for their demanding jobs. But only after several years of working with them did I realize that some of them had been—theoretically, at least—sitting invisibly in my own classrooms, unnoticed and unserved by me as future teachers.
This myopia—one shared with many other college and university teachers—is creatively addressed in "The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities" (a report that has been posted on the AHA web site at http://www.historians.org/documents/historyteaching.pdf). It is the product of a national conference held at the University of Virginia and Monticello in the summer of 2006 that drew together historians from a range of colleges and universities; master teachers from high schools; representatives from the AHA, the OAH, the National Council for History Education, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History; and educational specialists in the teaching and learning of history. The conversation initiated at that meeting has since been carried forward at roundtables at a range of professional meetings. And the authors of the report—led by Edward L. Ayers, formerly Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History at the University of Virginia and now president of the University of Richmond—have expressly challenged departments of history throughout the American academy to consider how they might "play a more central role in the training of the next generation of history teachers." I think that each of us should read this excellent report, and begin to take on the challenges it presents.
As challenging as it is to train the next generation of scholar-teachers for careers in colleges and universities, it is far more difficult to offer effective preparation to future K–12 teachers. K–12 teachers are held to rigorous state-mandated content standards, and rising expectations for "accountability" in the form of high-stakes, content-based testing. They are held to these demanding standards at a time when the pressures of "No Child Left Behind" legislation—focused initially on reading and math, and now science as well—tend to compress the amount of curricular time allotted for history instruction, especially at the elementary level. At the same time, many school districts encourage teachers to move beyond the textbook and introduce primary source materials into their classrooms; and Advanced Placement exams include document-based questions that challenge students to exercise critical interpretation and analysis. The teachers' own pedagogical standards for teaching primary sources often prove even higher than their school districts', since their daily classroom experience repeatedly underlines the near-impossibility of engaging students in historical thinking based exclusively on the district-assigned textbook. These difficulties—and many more—help explain why K–12 history teachers have been so responsive to the recent boom in opportunities for professional development.
But such opportunities are, in a sense, remedial. The central point of "The Next Generation of History Teachers" is that college and university departments should be more actively engaged in training future history teachers before they enter the K–12 classroom. The report offers a rich variety of suggested strategies for effectively mentoring future history teachers. We can begin by asking our students whether they plan to become teachers, and are becoming acquainted with our institutions'—and our states'—pathway to that end. We can evaluate our curricula to ensure that students are exposed to different historical interpretations and research methods, and to a broad range of historical times-and-climes. We can consider implementing special classes for future teachers or a K–12 track through the history major, making a place for state or national standards in shaping our curricula, and offering department workshops on teaching. We can work towards establishing institutional recognition and rewards for those of us who engage in teacher-training. Those departments that have abandoned the Master's degree can consider reinstating it to serve future (as well as current) K–12 teachers. And we can move beyond taking responsibility for mentoring those who have already decided to become K–12 teachers by actively recruiting some of our best students to the profession.
One of the greatest strengths of "The Next Generation of History Teachers" is the creative variety and calculated flexibility of its recommendations. The authors write, "We believe that the changes historians undertake should be departmentally focused, institutionally tailored, and community minded." Theirs is not a cookie-cutter approach to a complex problem. They continue, "We do not believe that historians need to revolutionize their teaching, their departments, or their institutions to accomplish these things, but that they do need to approach this part of their work in a more self-aware and coordinated way." They thus encourage small steps along a spectrum that stretches between one extreme—ignoring entirely the next generation of history teachers sitting in our classrooms—and the other—actively engaging in teacher-certification programs (an option that the report does not address). Many AHA members, it should be said, already are deeply involved in teacher-certification; many of our departments work in partnership with schools of education to prepare future history teachers. For those scholar-teachers, "The Next Generation of History Teachers" may well be preaching to the choir. But the rest of us (perhaps a substantial majority) have much to learn from a careful consideration of its recommendations.
One of the most compelling suggestions of the report is this: whatever we do to meet the needs of the next generation of history teachers in our classrooms will improve the learning experiences of all our students. Theorists of learner-centered education have been urging us for some time to place not just the student, but the learning process itself at the center of education. They recommend pursuing classroom discussions of such metacognitive questions as how students learn, their individual strengths and weaknesses as learners, and the varieties of possible learning modalities (auditory, visual, kinesthetic). They encourage teachers to engage in less content-delivery and more modeling of problem-based inquiry; to design collaborative projects in which students generate their own knowledge and teach one another; and to give students some choices among assignments and activities. Such practices not only require students to take more responsibility for their own learning; they invite them actively to become teachers—of themselves, their peers, and even their presumed instructors. Learner-centered education, in deliberately blurring the distinction between Teacher and Student, provides an excellent model for mentoring future K–12 teachers, even as it helps prepare all our students for a lifetime of learning.
I now regularly teach a seminar called "Approaches to History," which is required for history majors at the University of Southern California. My version of this course focuses initially on academic history, then explores public, popular, and personal histories, and asks students to consider what's at stake in all four of these approaches to the past. My purpose in designing this course was to invite my students to recognize the range of media that convey some understanding of the past, and to assess the varieties of cultural work they do, without necessarily privileging academic history. Sometime early in the course, I ask my students if any of them plan to become K–12 teachers. Two years ago, a student named Tina decided for her final project to design a high school course on comparative genocides in the modern era. Upon graduating, she went to work at the Shoah Foundation, disseminating Holocaust testimonies and curricular materials on genocide to middle and high school teachers, as well as various historical groups. In a few weeks, at my invitation, she will return to my classroom to lead a discussion of Edward Linenthal's Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum. This semester, my student Andrea has just requested a letter supporting her application to Teach for America; and Julia is planning a class project in which she will videotape an elementary class she will teach on the history of American foreign relations. These days, when I look at my students, I see at least some future teachers, and "The Next Generation of History Teachers" assists my efforts to serve them, now that I know they are there.
—Karen Halttunen (Univ. of Southern California) is vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division.