Thinking About Our Past in Order to Better Shape Our Future

What sort of an education prepares individuals for so volatile a run through the journey of life? How does a young person come to learn not only to listen and to communicate, but also to judge institutions, to see which technologies hold promise and which are doomed to fail, to think fluidly about state and market and the connections between both? And how can they do so with an eye to where we have come from, as well as where we are going to?1)Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 4.

The high school history classroom might seem like an odd place to ask such substantial questions. Indeed, when I pose them to my students on day one, I’m often left with the standard bewildered stares and concerns as to whether or not this will be on the test. But I encourage students to grapple with them, often uncomfortably for some time, before we begin to tease out the motivations behind the line of inquiry.

As a secondary educator at an independent school, I’m afforded a great deal of academic freedom in shaping curriculum—a luxury that I’m all too aware of when discussing and reading the circumstances faced by colleagues across the country, at public institutions, and in higher education. We too wrestle with thoughtful concerns over loss of content and just how much coverage is appropriate in a traditional survey course. And while many of our students will elect to sit for the College Board AP US History exam, our recent move away from the formal AP curriculum has further alleviated potential constraints. Yet we are still an intellectual environment so often defined by high stakes credentialism. Of course grades matter. So too do the SAT scores and even still, AP scores. In a recent letter to parents that has made its way around internet circles, Trinity Head of School John Allman eloquently decried this trend, calling on students and their teachers to recognize “the socially redeeming purposes their knowledge and skills could and should serve.” Of course all of us likely seek to foster these ideals every day in our work. But moving the needle can be difficult, particularly as we seek to balance the immediate demands of students and parents with the obvious, longterm needs of society.

In my own classroom, a realignment of learning outcomes and subsequent assessments derived from the American Historical Association’s 2016 History Tuning Project has been the clearest, most impactful change. Single-point rubrics with language taken from parallel competencies and tailored to measure specific outcomes have become commonplace. Adoption of the annotation software Hypothesis has given students an opportunity to reach a vast audience and to utilize their burgeoning historical expertise to become more engaged participants in a global conversation outside of traditional learning management systems. And lastly, a willingness to embrace aspects of what Guldi and Armitage describe as a “new longue durée” has provided a chance for students to better know their present in order to better chart their future not as passive content vessels, but as active impassioned citizens in an ever-changing world.2)Guldi and Armitage, 9-10.

Before New York: When Henry Hudson first looked on Manhattan in 1609, what did he see? (National Geographic)



References   [ + ]

1. Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 4.
2. Guldi and Armitage, 9-10.

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