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Teaching history without a history degree

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Obviously, the best case scenario for every teacher is that they have a degree in the subject or field that they are teaching.  But, for a variety of reasons, that simply is not always possible.  (I am clearly speaking about primary and secondary education, here.)  This post is addressed to those earnest educators working at museums, schools, home schools, historical reconstruction sites, memorials, and similar placements who seek to teach history better, despite a lack of training in the field.

First note, that this post is filed under the category of “Experiencing History” and that I have no “History Education” category on my blog despite frequently writing about it.  Simply put, I believe that “Experiencing History” should be synonymous with “History Education.”  By this, I mean that history education should comprise of history research, writing, and presentation on the one hand, complemented by experiences in historical reconstruction on the other whether it is through food, sport, drama, music, travel, presentations, or recreated experiences.  Naturally, this is revised according to level of learning, but experiential learning in history is far more rewarding and lasting than simply being told what happened when, and, oh by the way, kindly memorize that and regurgitate it for me later.  (I’m not castigating tests here, but I do firmly believe that some tests are far superior to others.)  Being a historian is also “experiencing history” because real historians stopped using textbooks the moment they entered real academic training; instead, they read scholarly works infused with passion about the subject (usually passionate, anyway), researched primary sources, and wrote presentations of arguments about their findings.

So, in order for the above to be possible, the teacher has to have certain knowledge and resources.  One thing I want to do in this post is recommend some resources and suggest the best methods for achieving the desired knowledge.  I also recommend you read the following two posts, if you are new to the field: “A metaphor to explain what historians do” and “Primary sources and getting some context” (these may also give you some ideas for exercises–many other “Experiencing History” posts will also recommend exercises).


If the books you read about your subject frequent the fancy display cases at Barnes and Noble–unless it is a university bookstore–you should be wary.  Popular history is written for entertainment and revenues, but seldom for peer review!  This is really important!  Peer review means that other experts in the field have reviewed it, as opposed to newspaper or magazine reviewers who are not historians.  One of the values in getting journals (or getting access to journals) is that they include the peer review, such as the American Historical Association’s The American Historical Review, which has the benefit of covering the vast range of historical sub-studies and eras.  Going to university library and accessing a database such as JSTOR allows you to search for reviews specifically on topics.  This effectively gives you a list of quality history books on your subject (along with their strengths and weaknesses).  It will also give you an introduction into historiography which is the history of what historians have argued regarding your topic and an important insight into how history works and how our understanding evolves.

Another avenue is to skip Barnes and Noble and go to peruse the catalogs, online or print, of publishers who specialize in academic books.  These include university presses, of course, and also academic publishing arms such as Bedford’s, Palgrave, Blackwell, Modern Library (their “College Editions”), and Penguin (though, they publish a lot of popular stuff, too, so be discerning or look for their academic publications–they also have many useful translations of primary sources).  I would still avail yourself of reviews, especially if you are new to the field, but these should be safe for their information.  Once you’ve got good books, start paying attention to their footnotes/endnotes and their sources, both primary and secondary–this is literally your paper trail, and while you probably cannot replicate or follow every lead practically, you can cross-reference and learn about the subject’s evolution in our understanding.

Some of you may ask why you can’t you rely on the history textbook?  At least two reasons: 1) textbooks aren’t very good (for a full explanation of this read the following: “Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks”), and, 2) your students already have the textbook, so you aren’t providing anything that they can’t already teach themselves if they simply read the textbook–admittedly there opportunities for refining reading skills, but that is not enough of an excuse as you can do that with any reading assignment.  Some of you may be faced with required texts that you are assigned and that’s fine, but don’t be a slave to them.  Once you have educated yourself, the inherent limitations of the textbooks become mind-expanding teaching tools themselves.

But, before you really get into your subject learn more about the field itself.  Some of the books I am about to suggest, are aimed at students.  If you do not have extensive formal training in history, then it is worth considering yourself a student, too.  (Actually, the best teachers never stop thinking of themselves as students, no matter how many years of experience they may have.)  I should clarify why it is important to learn about the field itself: have you ever heard of teaching science without also teaching the Scientific Method or performing experiments to learn chemistry or physics?  Of course not!  Science counts on transparency of method so that each experiment and its findings can be reproduced.  Academic history functions, more or less, the same way–except that history involves a lot more grey area and interpretation of findings–but for some reason history is limited in the early years of education to the very dry transferal of “historical facts” (which, as we see, are often not fact at all–read the link about textbooks above!).

So, this is why your job requires getting good information about your subject and demonstrating transparency of method for your students.  Once they learn the methodology, you will find it makes them more critical readers who grow into citizens requiring a trail of evidence not just random assertions by someone claiming to know something.  (In other words, you are teaching them the skills that will remove them from the gullible e-mail chain population and make them critical of political spoutings and commentary.)  The books below will help get you initiated into the field, but it will take your own leg work to discover the books you need for the history subject you are teaching–by the way, your reading requirement doesn’t end as long as you are teaching: historiography!  What we know is constantly evolving!

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives On The Past), Sam Wineburg–*Anyone teaching history, should read this book, even with historical training!

From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Martha Howell & Waltern Prevenier

A Student’s Guide to History, Jules R. Benjamin

A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, Mary Lynn Rampolla

Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History, Jim Cullen

Writing History: A Guide for Students, William Kelleher Storey

Reading History: A Practical Guide to Improving Literacy, Janet Allen and Christine Landaker *Use this book with an eye to any reading assignment–not textbooks.

Thinking History, Peter N. Stearns *This was published by the American Historical Association along with countless other useful booklets on historical thinking, comparative history, historiography and teaching history.

There are other good books, of course, but this a good list to get you started!


The web provides far less reliable secondary source material about most subjects than it advertises.  (This should not be a surprise!)  If you are trying to find accurate historical information written by competent historians online, your best bet is to pursue academic sites, National Park Service sites (although the quality is variable and lacks an academic standard to be universally applied, these websites are still the product of folks with an intimate knowledge of their Park and often who have some historical training in their background), preservation sites, and those of professional historical associations.  The most difficult area, at least for American history, will be the Civil War, which is awash with amateur historians, often infused with regional prejudices; this would be followed by our colonial history which has become overwhelmed by modern day, political commentary, and is, thus, propagated by amateurs with a modern political agenda.  (Note: I am abstaining from commenting on modern politics and merely discussing the quality of the history.)

Search engines also complicate things.  When you type a query into your search engine, you get the most popular sites–not the best sites–at the top.  Most search engines will let you refine the url type you are searching.  In other words, you can search for your subject but only among .gov or .edu websites, for example.  Some of the sites below include useful secondary information, while others specialize in primary source information.

Of course, there are also documentaries online (and TV), but here especially be critical!  Documentaries often include valuable information and interviews with historians, but they also are usually directed and produced by non-historians in the entertainment industry.  The film genre, more than any other(!), is for entertainment–even National Geographic will emphasize treasure over good history because people will be more interested in gold!  The minute someone sets about making a film, the first goal is always entertainment.  This is the nature of supply and demand for film: busy people, inexperienced people, or lazy people who still have an interest in history are targeted, because they want to know about the subject via great footage and in the space of an hour. Furthermore, they tend to portray a unified interpretation of a subject, which is fairly impossible in history.  Scholars come to well-reasoned, but different conclusions, so the films tend to perpetuate the myth of cold-hard historical fact.  I’m not saying they are useless, but documentaries have inherent flaws because of their goals that you should understand in advance.

The websites below will build on the reading I recommended above and augment individual subject studies.  They will do slightly different things for you which I attempt to clarify.  There are other websites out there, but these are a good start.

A Student’s Online Guide to History Reference Sources – This is an online source that goes with the Jules R. Benjamin book above.

Resources for Teachers at All Levels – American Historical Association, teaching resources–they really serve teaching and pedagogy, so take advantage!

The AHA and K-16 Teaching – American Historical Association, teaching resources.

teachinghistory.org – National History Education Clearinghouse: includes exercises, primary sources, and historian interviews.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project by Paul Halsall of Fordham University – Primary sources, with some secondary source reference material and maps.

And some useful blogs:

History Tech – Teaching resources blog with an eye to technology.

The History Channel This is Not… – Great posts on pedagogy from a trained historian who is teaching.

Brush off the Dust! History Now! – This blog.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Helping students read and write better

At the end of the semester it is worth reflecting on what has passed and what one would do differently.  Fall 2010 was less than smooth for me–some of it was very much in my control and other aspects were simply not.  (Friday, I will write about the glamorous life of the adjunct.)  One of the things I introduced this past semester were workshops associated with the midterm specifically intended to improve reading, writing and understanding of the historical method.

Studies have concluded that the social sciences and hard sciences are better mediums to teach reading because students have to grapple with the content.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have already created a bit of confusion in my design.  I refer to the first class of the week, or the first part of class depending on the weekly structure, as a “workshop” which is a carry-over from my Close Up days.  In this formula, a workshop is used to examine important concepts centered around questions pertaining to the subject.  At Close Up, these were questions about democratic governance; in my history classes, these are questions about historical method or challenges with those methods.  This is separate from the workshops I assigned this semester with the midterms which were intended to help improve students’ reading and writing skills.

In the case of the midterms, I assigned three questions that required two-page essay responses with two options for each question.  The first question asked the students to analyze an anonymous passage, to find the clues that would place the text in our course chronology and make an argument for their conclusions.  The second question asked students to make a historian’s argument dependent on four primary sources provided with the exam.  For both of these questions, the students were allowed to use any primary sources handed out in class and their textbook to supplement their answers and the provided material.  The final questions were based specifically on methodology: either they answered a how-to about specific a question we touched on during the first half of the semester or they made an argument about whether or not they believed there was such a thing as historical fact.

Notice that they are asked in each instance to make an argument and that in at least two of those instances these arguments are dependent on their ability to read and extrapolate the content for their argument.  While we have worked on these skills in class, this is the first time where I do not hold their hand through the process.  I graded the midterm with a firm hand and then assigned the Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop assignments when I handed back the midterms.  These were designed to force the students to revisit their work and improve upon it.  The major drawback with the system was the time it took for me to tailor assignments to each student and each student’s work.  Now that I have done it once, it would be easier for me to reproduce it a second time because of the experience granting me some anticipation for the sort of problems I can correct.  Once graded, the students earned back points on their midterm–in some cases, extra credit–but the workshops were also counted as separate assignments to insure that students took it seriously.  The earned back points made a big difference for many of students’ midterm grades; it is my hope that the workshops made a difference for their reading and writing.

For the Reading Workshops, I assigned tasks meant to get the students to reread the sources and find what they needed.  The amount of work varied depending on the quality or strength of the original submission.  For example:

Workshop assignment.

For the assignment, I want you to compile a list of quotes from the text that show it is a) from the Queen, b) English and c) Reformation-era.  This should be literally a list under the appropriate heading (i.e.: “From the Queen”) made with each quote getting a bullet point.

The intent was to go back and find the clues that they missed and or that they mis-attributed and correct their mistakes.  In each instance there are many clues that provide a direct link to the time period and the culture that produced the text.  In the above exercise, for example, there is little difficulty in going back and recognizing that the piece is English because of references to Parliament and to the decree that all prayers and preaching be done in English.  In the case of each answer, students had to demonstrate the skills they had learned as well as their acquired knowledge about the era in question.  With Queen Elizabeth’s edict, referred to in the above example, one had to be able to take the clues provided (the queen, the language of the Reformation, the reference to Parliament, etc.) and recognize it as a document from the English Reformation during Elizabeth’s reign.  So, it is not as though they are only being tested on historical method.  They are demonstrating their knowledge through their use of the methodology that we have also addressed in coursework.

In the second question, the texts were meant to work in harmony and provide evidence for a larger case.  So, reading the texts as being in dialogue with each other was essential.  In most cases, the students simply did not deal with each of the provided sources which often produced a one-sided perspective.  For example, one option asked students to evaluate the changes in English culture as a result of the Industrial Revolution, but many ignored the document provided by the manufacturers who owned the factories with the new machines and limited their focus to either child labor (from primary sources referenced in class) or hand-workers who had lost their profession to the cheaper machines.  So, in this instance I needed students do grapple with the content of each provided source as with the following assignment:

Workshop Assignment.

Being sure to cite the sources as you use them—even where you don’t directly quote, but nonetheless paraphrase—write four paragraphs that follow the provided outline.  This is in essence the body of the essay without an introduction or a conclusion, but also tightly focused on the provided sources.

I.  First piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the William Radcliffe text, what type of document he writes and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what it was like before the development of the textile machines
  3. Point #2 about what it was like after the development of the textile machines

II.  Second piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Leeds Woolen Workers Petition, 1786 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about why the workers say they have written the document
  3. Point #2 about what they say about the impact of textile machines on their lives and livelihoods

III.  Third piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Letter from Leeds Cloth Merchants, 1791 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about what the merchants say has changed (you can note that they have a different take than the authors of the petition above)
  3. Point #2 about what change the merchants propose to enable in the future

IV.  Fourth piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the final text, “Observations”, what type of document it is and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what change the author observes (first point)
  3. Point #2 about what change the author observes (second point)

(Note: Roman numeral = a paragraph; number = 1-3 sentences.)

In this example, the point was to ask the students to provide evidence from each source–not necessarily to change their conclusion.  In some cases, this meant simply rereading the sources with the benefit of my notes on their exams.  The outline is set up so that they now know what each source is supposed to provide them, even if they could not figure it out when they read through the texts on their own the first go ’round.

For the Writer’s Workshop, I was often asking students to address organization or their argument’s structure.  Sometimes this meant refining the above structure to include an introduction and conclusion.  Often, students skip introductions and conclusions to simply “answer the questions” without realizing how an introduction and conclusion benefits the clarity of their answers.  In some cases, students provided good information, but understanding it required extra work because there was no logical order to their answer.  This was also when they frequently would contradict themselves.  So, in some cases the assignment was to produce a refined outline of their content and to make sure they were really answering the question as in the following sample:

Workshop Assignment:

Write an outline for a new essay answering the question showing steps a historian would take to answer one of the provided questions.  Consider the things you have been asked to do previously in the exam and review the material from our first week if classes to help you think about what it is a historian does and how one uses the historical method to answer questions about the past.

The outline should show consideration for the following points:

  • What types of sources are available for the era and the people involved?
  • What are the limitations of these sources?
  • How can answers be found with the sources we have?
  • How does the historian make an argument to answer this question [you selected]?

Getting students to approach the material in a more organized way helped them to better understand their own arguments and the material in general.  In the best-case scenario they make new connections that they had not realized before–in other words, the exam itself is a learning tool.  In assessing the success of the workshops, I am inclined to be optimistic.  While some students were still not able to make some of the connections I hoped, their was improvement in every instance.  For some students, the improvement was significant (indicating either that they better understood on the second attempt or that they put more time and effort into the second attempt).

The Readers' and Writers' Workshops helped bump up Midterm grades--but they had to work for it!

For the final, I assigned less work, dropped the third question regarding methodology and asked them to answer more guided questions for the first anonymous passage.  It was also worth more than the midterm to hopefully reward them for having taken some risks in the first attempt and to have refined their approach by the second attempt.  In order to make use of this method in the future, I need to plan it out better so it is not such a time-consuming process on my end, otherwise it is not worth it for the students.  Still, once I saw the results it was hard to argue against doing it.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Teachinghistory.org had my great idea first!!

And, here I was thinking I was so original and creative!!


Click on the image to get a closer look at all the brilliant stuff in this poster--a great breakdown!


I was visiting a great site and resource called Teaching History and came across this poster that they offer for free.  This has a lot of stuff that is straight out of my introductory classes each semester.  I thought I was pretty clever, but apparently I am not that original after all!!

Check out the poster and then check out my earlier blog on introducing the subject and the field each semester: “A Metaphor to Explain What Historian Do.”

Clearly, I am on to the right track!  I just received the free poster in the mail yesterday and it is fantastic.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

A metaphor to explain what historians do

An Introduction for history classes

Each week when I teach Western Civilization 101 or 102, I pair a question with the material for that week’s unit.  This question is designed to introduce students to the field of history using that week’s content as a way to teach how historians do their thing, as a way to drive the methodology point home.  (I do this both to introduce students to historical method and to introduce students to the fallibility and controversy of the field–something lost in most history textbooks, museums and documentaries, but useful for citizens in the U.S. where there is an information overload.)  For example, in the week we study the Greeks, I ask, “What are a historian’s sources?”  Thus, I can introduce the literate society of the Greeks that recorded earlier oral tradition and really introduced history, drama, philosophy and political discourse to Western Civilization.  In so doing, it is also possible to introduce the methods historians apply to these different primary sources types.

I begin with this concept on day 1, where I introduce the course with the question, “What is history?”  The purpose being to introduce methodology to separate history from other studies of the past.  We read a brief excerpt from Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking) about the importance of studying history, in an ever-shrinking world, where one is taught the skills to recognize that the context of a document may be foreign and require research and careful consideration ahead of assumptions.  (Note:  Whether Wineburg is read in class actually depends on the class format–it is hard to fit him into a 50 minute class!)  We also read a brief excerpt from Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources in which they explain that history is something people write about the past–it is constructed and requires reliable sources to be reliable, itself.  This is the point where I generally introduce a metaphor to help students understand what a historian does and what those sources are.

The Detective

Today, on TV you can watch fictional detectives at work every night: NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, Castle, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Bones, etc.  The popularity of these shows has contributed to reality TV shows and regular shows dedicated to following actual criminal cases.  So, people, including our students, are acquainted with the methods (more or less) by which detectives collect evidence to build a case against criminals.  Using this fairly common “knowledge”, I set up some comparisons to explain how historians do their research, such as seeking clues from witnesses by reading primary sources.


  • Investigation
  • Crimes
  • Interview witnesses
  • Training and experiences
  • Evidence
    • Clues
    • Observation


  • Research
  • Questions
  • Read primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Evidence
    • Realia
    • Names, geography
    • Events

The Prosecutor

Just as detectives investigate in order to build a case for the prosecution (or Matlock!), so, too, do historians investigate in order to build a case for a paper or book.  So, where the historian’s research is to detective work, the historian’s written argument is to the prosecutor’s court case.  The publication, the written case, is the presentation of the evidence that has been gathered to convince a jury of one’s peers about what actually happened, and why one’s sources are most reliable and should be considered in a certain light.  It is remarkably similar to the process the prosecutor follows–even needing to consider other points of view and address critics, just as the prosecutor must do with the defendant’s case.


  • Opening statement
  • Interviewing witnesses on the stand
  • Presentation of physical evidence in exhibits
  • Closing statements
  • Oral arguments
  • Rebutting the defense’s case


  • Introduction
  • Citing primary sources in your text
  • Citing archaeological evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Written arguments
  • Taking into account critics and opposing view points

The Workshop

For each week we spend a class (or in accelerated courses and once-a-week courses, a portion of class) working specifically on the content that helps demonstrate the point that the question is teaching.  This typically means looking at specific primary or secondary sources.  For example, in Week 3 of Western Civilization 101, the question, “Is research the story of the victors/elite?” is asked.  This week’s content is Egypt and to a lesser extent the Hittites.  When considering this question, we look at the monumental evidence left behind by the Egyptians–covering a general history of the culture.  The homework includes reading excerpts from The Book of the Dead, so we discuss the Egyptian afterlife.  The PowerPoint ends with a look at the archaeology of the tombs and worker cities built around the tombs.  The rest of the week, the content continues to circle back to this question and demonstrates how the losers and lower strata of society can be found and accessed by historians (and archaeologists, too), while also showing that it takes a slightly different approach in order to get there.  This helps to provide some context for the students so they can try their hand at some of the detective work.

The Practicum

The practicum is either done on Wednesday, or in the middle of class (again, depending on format).  This portion of class is dedicated to working with sources to investigate a particular aspect of the culture.  It is a specific attempt to get students to try their hand at the detective work.  We will often draw up outlines, initially as a class and later in small groups, to begin practicing building and presenting a case.

The Discussion

The week ends with a discussion that, it is hoped, will help students retain and be more capable with the skills and content that historians use and learn.  It is the opportunity for students to practice being the prosecutor, often by presenting cases that were built in small groups during the practicum and other times discussing and debating controversies.

* * *

An additional wrinkle that I will be testing this semester is a homework assignment to bring in three documents.  The point is to try this detective work with a familiar context and to get to know each other a little better.  Examples of appropriate material includes a birthday card from a relative, a certificate of achievement, an e-mail or a to-do list.  (If you try this, be sure to also be very clear about what is not appropriate for the assignment.)  The metaphor, thus, introduces concepts of historical method in a recognizable way that is reinforced weekly.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning