Teaching Innovations

The State of Teaching: Rich Ideas and Insights

Mildred Alpern, December 1988

Two Former Editors Share Their Thoughts

The column was "Teaching History Today," before it was renamed "Teaching Innovations." and Mack Thompson, former AHA executive director, appointed me co-editor in June 1981 while I was serving on the Teaching Division. I was pleased that an Association largely composed of college and university members was visibly recognizing the contributions of a high school history teacher.

My seven years as co-editor has been a respectable term of service. I have enjoyed a congenial partnership with my co-editor Jeanette Lauer. We have collaborated by mail and by phone, confessing mutual relief each year when we had our necessary quota of columns.

Surprisingly, the manuscripts barely trickled in. I never thought that we would have to solicit articles with an organizational membership of 13,000, yet we sometimes did. AHA annual meetings, AP national readings, and other professional gatherings provided opportunities to make acquaintances and to encourage them to submit articles. Good friends proved even better ones when their manuscripts arrived. Once, after reading a journal article, I contacted its author who agreed to write for the column. He delayed for three years, sending me letters every few months explaining the postponements. His article, however, proved worth the wait.

I have pondered sometimes why so many faculty members bypassed the opportunity to share the highlights of their teaching and their views on instruction with the large readership of Perspectives. I suspect two reasons.

First, even though we profess the vital importance of classroom teaching, it is clearly understood that prestige lies in writing about history rather than writing about teaching history. What counts for annual meeting awards and college promotions are the inventive books, not the creative strategies for shaping and deepening historical sensibilities in the students in our classes.

Second, and it follows, history teaching techniques do not generally arouse deep concern. The class lecture is by far the most popular and carefully crafted instructional form. A professor once told me, "When I put my lecture together, it's like writing a book chapter." In class, he read us that "chapter" as we struggled to record his words. This method must now be archaic. Or is it? From editing the teaching column, I know that there are imaginative college and secondary school teachers who design hands-on writing and discussion exercises to train their students in the distinctive skills of historical analysis and criticism and engender a love of history. Are their numbers legion? Perhaps. Yet, as a former AHA committee member, I faced the task of creating teaching sessions because proposals in that category were so few.

Texts, articles, documents, and films may be excellent sources of information for overall course design, but the question remains—how will they be used in the classroom? What strategies of instruction will be devised to convey their meaning and significance? What exercises will be created from these sources that will sharpen students' understanding of the forces and factors that shape human events? Will students be engaged with techniques they can then apply to other sources of information?

I contend that teaching history in the schools and colleges suffers from generally uninspired methods of instruction. Teaching columns can motivate and improve classroom instruction, and I thank the authors who have written and shared their teaching strategies in articles for the "Teaching Innovations" column. I have enhanced my own classes with the rich ideas and insights gained from reading and editing the column's articles. My students and I have benefited.

Although I am leaving the editorship of the teaching column, I will continue teaching history at my high school and teaching teachers at Advanced Placement workshops and other institutes. This fall, I will also be teaching a course, The Teaching of Social Studies, at Columbia University Teachers College, where I intend to practice what I've been preaching.

—Mildred Alpern is a social studies teacher at Spring Valley Senior High School in East Ramapo, New York. She was named one of the top five teachers in New York State for the 1987–88 school year.