Engaging Students in History–Guest Post

First, I’d like to say thank you to Dawn for letting me write this guest post. One of my passions is teaching history, so I’m excited to share some of my recommendations for engaging young minds in the study of history. First, I’d like to ask you to consider the best and worst teachers that you’ve experienced during your educational journey. I’ll wait.

Ferris Bueller, Anyone?

Over the course of my schooling; public school, community and private colleges, and a public university, I’ve taken classes and coursed taught by more than 100 different educators. Like most good bell curves there were great and not so great examples to think about, but most were ‘in the middle’ that mixed with a few years, has made the vast majority of them faceless, only few really stick out. So what made these stick out? It is possible to apply a rubric judging things like subject matter knowledge, importance of the course, influence on my life, use of technology, teacher/student interactions, student interest in the subject, ect. But, I really think, in hindsight, that two major components really made a handful of educators shine, or fail: passion and delivery. Think about it! Your great teachers were passionate, they wanted you to learn. They practiced and honed their craft, delivering well paced lessons that built upon each other, they knew, or at least had a working knowledge of their subject matter, and they engaged the student.

Trust in Physics

(You can watch Professor Lewin’s complete MIT Physics I course free:  Physics at MIT – the math gets a little dense, but this is a tremendous introduction to Newtonian Physics, suitable for upper middle and high school students.  His book is here:  For the Love of Physics, or the audiobook: For the Love of Physics MP3)

Of course, we all remember ‘bad’ teachers too.  Lessons didn’t build upon each other, the instructor stumbled over terminology, mispronounced words, delivered poor lectures (or even worse, just read from the text), favored certain students, or even wore too much perfume. Maslow teaches us that even the smallest distracting factor can ‘turn off’ the student’s learning. Now, some of us face other distracting factors that exponentially grow this problem, but in the most simple forms, if students are too cold, or too hot, or scared, or hungry, or have to use the rest room, their focus is off of the instruction.

So how do we overcome these obstacles?

First, you, as the teacher, must be engaged and interested in the topic. If your kids realize that you think the topic is unimportant, they will likely turn-off.  No amount of ‘good curriculum’ can overcome that. “Class, turn to page 38 and begin reading.” (newspaper ruffling)

What does that look like for you, at home, teaching your children? 

You, as a family, must work to craft an environment where learning is important.  Naturally, individuals will gravitate towards areas of interest. Our family likes history, we have friends that like nature, or art, or technology.  My kids can tell you about the royal governors of North Carolina or discuss the Tet Offensive, but would be hard pressed to write a simple computer code or identify cubist art.  Our prejudices influence how and what we teach, as an example, we spend a lot more time on history than art. Athletics is an area where this often becomes very evident. Unfortunately, once these interests are established breaking the cycle can be a huge challenge. This is often consolidated under the educational principle of predetermination.

I encourage you to take a moment and evaluate your approach to different topics as you teach them. Do your prejudices show through to your kids? Do you approach history (or art, or math, or literature…) by saying, ‘the pacing guide says we have to cover this material, but I don’t know why, you’re never going to use it.’ If so, those absorbent little minds will see your disinterest and mirror it, effectively putting a psychological wall between the material and themselves.

It’s a huge challenge to approach a wide range of topics with interest, even harder to approach with a true passion. Don’t be afraid to use your resources! Team up with other family members, friends, associates, and your community to find the most passion, for each topic, you can put in front of your kids. Maybe Dad likes computers and Mom can hardly turn one on – doesn’t make sense for the mother to teach C+ from a manual.  Maybe Mom loves basketball and Dad has ‘two left hands’ – who should teach free throws? Look at grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors…many would love the opportunity to accompany your kids on a field trip, using their experiences to engage your learners.

I have the passion, but they won’t engage!

The passion we’re talking about isn’t, and can’t just be, limited to the teacher’s interest in the subject. The teacher needs to engage in a pattern of behavior that shows passion about sharing the information-the passion for teaching.

Take the time to experiment with different approaches to ‘less interesting’ material.  I’m going to stick with history for this explanation.  Most topics are multifaceted. If lists of names and dates don’t trigger interest, change directions. Maybe an immersive living history experience, like Colonial Williamsburg, will spark some interest. Perhaps a historically accurate movie (like Apollo 13) or television series will engage the learner. Maybe a battle reenactment will stimulate their interest.  Use books with different ‘angles’ to find one that works for you. Some learners do well with first person accounts; others need the ‘big picture’. Most common historical periods are rife with resources and in many cases events.  Excellent historical accounts abound, find ones that meet the needs of your learner (from both a sequential learning and content perspective).  Historical fiction can be an easy way to engage your young reader in the period, hopefully stimulating them to read more ‘serious’ history accounts as they expand their base.

Passion? Check! Resources? Check!

Now, it is time to take a crucial step that I alluded to in the last paragraph, evaluate your audience. In discussion of historical events with my kids I tend to drift into hypothetical, what if type scenarios and controversial evaluations. This week our dinnertime conversations revolved around the Great Depression.  Last night I asked, “guys? Do you think the alphabet soup of federal agencies helped end the Great Depression?” We had just spent thirty minutes talking about those programs so of course both kids said, “yes!”  I realized pretty quickly that the question was loaded, my audience didn’t have enough information to answer the question authoritatively. I failed to ‘know my audience.’

There are loads of ‘formal’ audience assessment tools out there (see more from Scholastic here), they’re probably not necessary for your homeschool. Consider their ages, what foundational material they have been exposed to, and tailor the lessons/experiences to their level.  Math is an easy analogy here: no first grade student is ready for calculus- you (or your curriculum) built their lessons around fundamental math skills, numbers up to 20, addition, subtraction, ect.  In the Great Depression example above, I allowed my deeper understanding of politics, history, and economics (shaded by my political views) to lead them into a question well above their grade level. A question that I was then forced to answer on my own…which brings me to the next point.

Do I have to be a subject matter expert?

The short answer is no.  You don’t need to be a subject matter expert. BUT, and I’m sure that you as homeschoolers are aware of this, kids tend to see and evaluate things much differently than adults. When engaged and learning they will ask questions, sometimes very random, abstract, or specific questions. Occasionally, you can punt and assign a homework/research project based on their questions and drive them towards independent learning. Please play that card carefully. If you don’t know the answer don’t make it up either, they can smell horse hockey a mile away. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘you know what? That’s a great question, let me look into it.’  But do that! Research it on your own and share your findings.

I encourage you to get out there, engage your kids in learning.  Work to meet their interests and needs. Especially with history, there are so many fascinating aspects and levels to explore-find their angle and, if history isn’t your thing, you may find your own along the way.

Check out more from Chris Peluso with his new historical fiction novel about the Vietnam War at Heroes Next Door.

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This post may contain affiliate or referral links, including Amazon affiliate links. As always I will never recommend a product that I don’t believe in and you will never be charged more for purchasing through our links. It does help pay for the costs associated with the blog.

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