Teaching History, Doing Research: Personal Perspectives from a Secondary School Teacher
Thomas Honsa, September 2011
The American historical community sits atop a veritable gold mine. There exists in its midst a vast, heretofore underused resource that can effectively introduce the public to stories, issues, and characters from the past that may otherwise remain overlooked. In fact, many people never deal in their lifetimes with any history authority other than a member of this too-often-overlooked group—secondary school history teachers. At a time when commentators lament Americans' historical ignorance and academics decry their apparent inability or unwillingness to realize history is an interpretation of conflicting sources rather than a mere recitation of events, public school teachers have a distinct opportunity to augment the bond between Americans and their past.
The mounting pressures on public educators—ranging from requirements of increased accountability to deployment of decreased resources—are widely reported, and many people believe this is hardly the time to burden teachers with additional professional expectations. What more can public school teachers do to make an enhanced contribution to the betterment of themselves, their students, the communities in which they work, and even the historical profession itself? There may be many answers to this question, but one that seems to combine all of these results is for teachers to conduct and publish original research.
Difficult as it might be to believe, public school teachers do have many opportunities to conduct and publish original research based on primary sources, without diminishing their time and efforts in the classroom. While the articles produced by such research may not grace the pages of the more prestigious historical journals, that need not be the secondary educator's primary goal. A teacher who spends 180 school days trying to make the past relevant and meaningful to adolescents probably develops skills necessary to popularize the local past, something many university historians tend to overlook while they conduct differently focused research.
Every community in America has its share of pioneers, eccentrics, and events that may be long forgotten, or even considered nothing more than local legend. Nevertheless, all these have left a documentary trail that a researcher can explore. Especially appropriate may be landmarks, whether long gone or still standing, that reveal broader understanding about an area's founding and growth. churches, government facilities and public attractions frequently offer ready archives, and are the kinds of places that generate natural civic interest.
The good news for public educators once they find appropriate topics is the final form of the published research findings. Since the topic may be too local or esoteric for national or even regional significance, articles must often be directed to a local audience. Many American cities and metropolitan areas have magazines that cater to limited community interests and that will consider unsolicited submissions. The City and Regional Magazine Association lists 70 such members in its directory. Many newspapers will also accept well-written articles from local professionals. Finally, there is an abundance of trade and limited-interest magazines, both traditional and online, that offer publishing opportunities to non-staff writers (for example, I have published in magazines as diverse as Florida Monthly, the Stained Glass Quarterly, and the UN Association's Interdependent). Such publications usually limit articles to 1,500 words. This is a perfectly realistic length for the harried public school history teacher. The educator may have to string out research over the course of the school year and dedicate a portion of winter and summer breaks to writing and the often more difficult task of finding a publisher, but shorter pieces mean that this is a realistic goal.
The tools useful to secondary educators conducting research are familiar to all historians. First and foremost are local public, college, and historical records libraries. Additionally, some localities have historical societies that collect everything from personal narratives to tourism publicity campaigns to local pageant results. The internet, of course, is another great resource, especially if one can access electronic databases. The greater challenge facing secondary school researcher, however, is finding publishers.
While local newspapers and magazines are receptive to their work, the economic realities of modern media present fewer publishing opportunities. One local publisher rejected an article of mine relating the history of a failed 1950s tourist attraction. He said the story could hurt present day real estate advertising from that area. The internet can help overcome these obstacles. Web searches often reveal print and, increasingly, online publications that cater to audiences interested in particular types of architecture, subcultures, or businesses that may be historically significant in a certain area. Publishing a 1,500-word article on an obscure vaudeville theater may not be financially feasible for a traditional magazine, but may be perfectly realistic for its online counterpart.
Although payment for outside submissions is rare (but not unheard of), there are significant benefits to such efforts. First, teachers will sharpen their interviewing, data analysis, document interpretation and historical analysis skills. These are exactly the types of skills that can bring history alive for students. Such activities also help teachers answer questions like "Why do we have to learn history? " Conducting and publishing original research, even if it is a 1,000-word article in a local magazine, can give their students concrete examples of what historians do, while demonstrating to themselves and others the teachers' proficiency in the field.
Perhaps the most important benefit that comes from publishing is that public school historians can sharpen professional skills they may otherwise lack opportunities to develop. Numerous recent studies have commented on the difficulties secondary educators face in contributing to the broader historical community. In 2004, Jacquelyn Hall, then president of the Organization of American Historians, pointed out that while Americans enthusiastically visit historical sites and watch cable television programs dealing with history, too few teachers have the chance to refine the research skills that can make classroom lessons equally engaging.1 Meanwhile, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik wrote in Social Education that conducting direct research can help teachers create more exciting open-ended lessons, "precisely the kind of activities that would result from the process of historical inquiry and interpretation."2
My own experience lends credence to such claims. Researching and writing local history has introduced me to local figures who have helped develop a student walking tour that highlights historical architecture, relate stories from local immigrant and minority communities and examine long forgotten documents of community events. I have been able to invite my students to presentations on topics as diverse as the desegregation of the Florida National Guard and the role the 1927 silent film Skinner's Dress Suit played in local history. Some of my students have used their knowledge to create personally meaningful State History Fair projects on local topics such as the construction of spring training stadiums and significant figures in the struggle for women's rights in the community.
While not every student has eagerly embraced the study of local history, all can benefit at least indirectly from the experiences of public school historians conducting research. Researching and publishing sharpens communication skills in a manner that helps provide the constructive criticism necessary to improve student writing. Dealing with editorial revisions and strict word limits imposed by the professional editor will help teachers to recognize and value crisp, efficient composition. Poring over primary sources helps not only individual analytical skills. Teachers can draw on their own intellectual experiences to develop classroom instruments that encourage students to consider documents in a systematic, progressive way, eventually leading to valid, defensible conclusions.
One additional benefit for the public school research historian can be community recognition. Successful publishing will hardly make a teacher famous, and the majority of educators certainly dedicate themselves to their craft out of love for what they do, not from a desire for celebrity. Developing expertise in a subject of local interest, however, can lead to contacts with news reporters, tourism officials, and fellow researchers. These acquaintances enhance not only the individual teacher's reputation, but the standing of history teachers, and their schools, in general. In an era when tight budgets force a reconsideration of all subjects, especially those not subject to the notoriety that comes from standardized testing, any improvement in the visibility of historical education is welcome. Successful research improves teacher credibility not only before students, but also with their parents and other stakeholders.
Many teachers will obviously find it difficult to undertake research and publishing, for lack of time, if nothing else; so it should never be a requirement for public school employment. Such activity should, however, be encouraged by groups such as the American Historical Association and state historical societies. While expecting financial incentives or support may be unrealistic, some acknowledgement, such as public recognition or formal professional development credit, should be extended to public school historians who successfully engage in research. Rewards such as these, along with the published research itself, would be worthwhile career incentives and would also enhance the standing of history teachers in a community. The teacher-researcher's work would provide, not only for students but also for their parents and community leaders, a clearer and more concrete explanation of why we study the past. Above all, such research and the subsequent publication will demonstrate that not all lessons are found in a classroom.
Thomas Honsa teaches history at Lakewood Ranch High School in Florida's Manatee School District. He also serves as adjunct professor of history at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, and at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
1. Jacquelyn Hall, "Don't Know History: Here's Why," Boston Globe, March 20, 2004. http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/4244.html.