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From the Letters to the Editor column in the March 2001 Perspectives

Student Journals and History in the Classroom

Brant Abrahamson, March 2001

To the Editor:

I agree with Antonio Cantu on the importance of student writing (which he discusses in his September 2000 Perspectives article, "The Role of Journal Writing in Historical Thinking").

During my years at Riverside-Brookfield High School some of the students' research writing is what I remember most clearly—and still maintain in my files. I also focused heavily on the "Classroom Discussion Journal," although we assigned "classroom notes." Most specifically, my world history grading was divided into three equal categories. A third was based upon classroom discussion and note-taking, a third on projects, and a third on formal testing. (Some of the projects were oral presentations.) Once I consistently began using this formula, the classroom atmosphere became noticeably more positive. Students had more of a sense that they could control their own destiny. (This was many years ago. I used variations of the system for 20 years.)

I have two cautionary notes on Cantu's article as it relates to high school students.

The first cautionary note relates to what happens when one actually has students prepare "Classroom Discussion Journals" on a consistent basis. One has mountains of booklets at the end of a unit that must at least be scanned for seriousness of purpose if nothing else. Especially at the beginning of a course, there will be students who don't think a teacher will actually look at the journals. They'll write comments they know are not appropriate—just to see if the teacher really looks at what they do.

The second note relates to the "Primary Document Analysis Journal" and holy book material—most often the Bible. In my judgment, a public school teacher who has students analyze sacred literature is asking for trouble.

Even high school textbook authors and publishers have great difficulty in this area. Specifically, we are disturbed with how they explain the origins of world religions. On a more general level, we are concerned with those groups that pressure public school history instructors (and administrators) to teach sectarian historical interpretations that are at odds with academic understanding.

—Brant Abrahamson
The Teachers' Press