Teaching Innovations

Thinking Historically in the Classroom: Peter Frederick

Peter Frederick, October 1995

I approach this topic quite literally, describing several specific teaching-learning strategies I have used in the classroom to help students become more aware of what it means to think historically. Although variations of these strategies are applicable to upper-level undergraduate courses, my focus is on the first half of the American history survey course where most students get their initial experience in college-level history. My comments reflect my experience in teaching at two selective Midwestern liberal arts colleges (Wabash and Carleton), but I believe these strategies are adaptable to survey history courses elsewhere.

1. Connecting Self with History. On the first day of class I tell students that they are about to reflect on their own life—indeed, about to sketch an autobiographical fragment—and simultaneously experience what it is like to think as a historian. The activity is in four parts, each involving individual reflection and writing, followed by talking in small groups, and concluding with the whole class identifying and discussing the historical thinking issues in the exercise. To begin, I ask students to think back and actually begin the process of writing notes on their own life history when they were 9, 10, or 11 years old (the choice is to enable them to avoid what might be a particularly painful period). I next ask them to talk in groups of two to four about what they learned from the process. For example, I ask them how they would go about recovering the past; what written, oral, and material sources they might use; how they would take into account the role and dangers of memory; and how they would evaluate written sources. Then I engage the whole class in a discussion.

Second, I ask them to write the history of their life during the month of September (or August or October) three (or two) years ago, and to note changes from the earlier story. Same follow-up. Third, I ask them to write the history of their life yesterday. Unlike the first two parts, where issues of sources, retrieval, and change were primary concerns, here the problem is selection, presentation, and point of view (i.e., should they move chronologically through the day or pick a representative incident that illustrates a theme, or some combination of the two?). Finally, I ask students to conclude by writing a paragraph in which they define a theme (or thesis) that seems to connect or integrate these three disparate periods of their life. This activity, energized by students' personal connections to it, raises significant issues in the researching and writing of history. It helps students perceive, for example, continuities and change over time and the inevitability of selection and interpretation.

2. Interpreting Documents. It is important that teachers model for students how to interpret a historical document by leading them through a close textual reading. Although we all have our favorite sources, I believe it is important to use a variety of different kinds of documents that are brief enough to be shown in their entirety (either on a transparency, handout, or slide) as a common focus for discussion. I like to start with two lists of 17th-century ship passengers bound for Virginia and New England. Students are asked to compare and contrast the two settlements on the basis of the sex, age, occupation, and family status of the migrants. This exercise can be supplemented by photographs and descriptions of the interiors of typical houses (or tombstone inscriptions) in the Chesapeake and Massachusetts colonies. Students enjoy reading personal diary and literary passages on courtship, such as those by William Byrd, Michael Wigglesworth, and Anne Bradstreet.

No matter the document, we move from description to interpretation, from "What is being said?" or "What do you see?" to "What does it mean?" or "What do you learn about how people lived and thought?" Thus, over several weeks students get practice not only in the process of how to decode a document but also in noting differing interpretations (from other students as well as from historical interpreters). Moreover, students experience a variety of sources used in recovering the past: personal writing, political documents, material culture, quantitative data, and visual sources.

3. Detecting Interpretive Points of View. I actually start teaching historical interpretation with the textbook. It does not matter which textbook a teacher uses since all have an interpretive point of view and reflect varying emphases on social, political, economic, and cultural history. Good texts suggest conceptual themes by which students can organize the factual material. As good as my students are, I still find they do not know how to "read" a textbook, so I spend time early in the term doing that in class. We look at the preface and introductory material to detect point of view and approach, but mainly we look closely at the opening page or two of an early chapter. (Even if told, students will often not lug their weighty textbook to class, so I make overhead transparencies of the pertinent pages.) The key passage in most textbook chapters is the transition from the opening story, or personal anecdote, to the main parts of the chapter. I have found that by focusing on those transitional paragraphs in a close reading (out loud) of the actual text, students learn how to look for the three or four conceptual themes and a point of view that structures and organizes the myriad facts in a chapter. By modeling a reading skill, I have found we actually end up dealing with the content of the chapter, usually interactively.

By the time we get to slavery, students are ready to understand the definably different schools of interpreting historical phenomena. After brainstorming the words, facts, and images students associate with the word "slavery," I incorporate their ideas into a lecture on three interpretive schools: traditional white southern apologists, revisionist northern neo-abolitionists, and black-perspective autobiographers. I associate each of the schools with three places and times on the plantation: morning in the Big House, hot afternoon in the fields, and "from sun down to sun up" in the slave quarters. This imagery imprints the three schools for students and reinforces their awareness that history—in this case, slavery—is constructed over time by people with contextual reasons for the sources they use and the particular view of slavery they present. We look at illustrative examples of each school, pairing primary source material with passages from historical monographs. Another assignment is to have students write a comparative book review of two works on slavery (or on any topic) written at least 30 years apart.

4. Immersing Students in the Historical Situation. Students learn to think historically, ultimately, by getting out of their present time and into the kinds of real choices people faced in the past. Therefore, I often describe a historical context as vividly and accurately as I can, put students into it in a kind of role-play, and ask them to make difficult choices and explain the reasons for their decisions. The teacher's role is to discourage presentist reasoning and to affirm accurate historical thinking. For example, put students in the courtroom trial of Anne Hutchinson where they are forced to decide whether to banish her to Rhode Island; or in a Powhatan or Pequot village faced with the establishment of an English settlement on the edge of a game-bearing forest 10 miles away; or with Captain Parker's Minutemen in the tavern on Lexington green in the early morning of April 1775 wondering what to do when the British regulars appear on the road to Concord; or with Harriet Jacobs faced with sexual and emotional violation by Dr. Flint. Immersing students in historical time and context reveals for them the complex realities of the human experience in the past; it also engages them in the kind of active learning that just might motivate them to discover that studying history can be both meaningful and fun.

—Peter Frederick is professor of history at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, author of several articles and books on both American history and teaching, and a consultant on innovative course design, teaching strategies, and other aspects of higher education.