Thinking Historically in the Classroom: Robert Gutierrez
Robert Gutierrez, October 1995
What can teachers do to impress upon their students the importance of history? Current pedagogy emphasizes the need to make today's classrooms relevant and exciting. This is a troublesome concern, given the influences of popular culture. The experience of the producers of the feature film Malcolm X testifies to the problem. Here was a film expertly marketed, with the mass media bombarded by enticing promotions. The result, though, was poor movie attendance, particularly among the very youth targeted by this marketing. If all these well funded efforts could not make comparatively recent and dramatic history relevant and exciting, what chance does the classroom teacher have?
There is no surefire formula for success, and much of what makes some teachers successful might be attributable to personality factors. But I think there are some ideas and practices that can enhance the ability of individual teachers to encourage their students to think historically—that is, to gain an understanding of the past through the construction and communication of the human story, an understanding that only the holistic nature of stories can provide.
Most textbooks, it seems to me, are of little help. They are not sold on the basis of their liveliness or their relevance; they are devoid of controversy and are organized around the survey approach. Because of the contemporary concern for including as many minority groups as possible, the number of pages has increased, but without really enticing students to engage in the challenges that confronted those groups. And while the pictures in these books might be colorful and the overhead acetates elaborate, both the format and the writing are simply not interesting; they do not tell the stories of history.
Instead of relying exclusively on textbooks, teachers can adopt L. S. Stavrianos's view, "Each generation must write its own history, not because past histories are untrue but because in a rapidly changing world new questions arise and new answers are needed." (Lifelines from Our Past .) This advice ought to be extended to students.
Teachers should strive to have students develop their own stories of history, stories they can construct based upon the questions they believe are pertinent to their lives. Creative class projects that can take a multitude of formats are the perfect vehicles for inspiring students to develop such stories. For example, in studying the acquisition by the United States of territories after the Spanish American War, a class with many Hispanic students could easily become interested in how the subsequent relations between the United States and, say, Puerto Rico were established. Or, students could be asked to take the role of a Puerto Rican 3rd grade teacher and develop a skit that symbolically portrays what happened to the youngsters. Students' projects can be written, drawn, constructed, or acted out, and they can be presented and defended in front of peers. Within the class, either individual or small group settings are highly suitable for these kinds of activities.
Teachers can also begin units by asking their students what relevant concerns they have and then by allowing them to research and create their answers through projects. These projects should reflect questions that are truly meaningful to students. For example, when studying the era of industrialization, a relevant question could be, "How did people become rich?" Or, when examining unionization, a question can be, "How did people avoid being taken advantage of?" These questions reflect adolescent concerns, the real problems and ambitions they face and have.
This is not a call to be oblivious to the fact of history. All high school students should know basic information. The point is that the list of such facts need not appear endless, but instead should be relevant to the creative inquiry students are conducting. The purely factual approach, which characterizes many history classes, does not have a scintilla of hope of being received favorably by students. To get students to think historically is to have them act as historians. Historians define their own purposes; students need to do likewise.
Classroom teachers have before them a changing parade of perspectives as the issues of the day and the focus of our popular culture change. If the need, in order to learn, is to transcend the material and incorporate it into self defined meaning, then the learner needs a part in identifying the questions under investigation.
—Robert Gutierrez has been a teacher of social studies for 18 years in Florida, most recently at Miami Sunset Senior High School. He is currently a doctoral student in social studies education at Florida International University.