Students who enroll in my courses are often fixated on perfection. The meaning of “perfect” changes, as many words do, in different contexts. For many, “perfection” is the end result of achieving an ideal state, one absent of flaws. In grammar, when one refers to the “perfect tense,” they are referencing the way in which a verb describes the past, specifically a completed action that happened in the past. If these are the two meanings of “perfection” then one’s teaching is not and can never be perfect. In fact, the inverse is true. Good teaching is not the result of any sort of perfection, but continual work always progressing toward and always striving for improvement.
I bring this perspective into my history courses not only as I design and implement lesson plans, but as a model for my students how one becomes a life-long learner with an intrinsic desire to know and as a reminder that they themselves do not have to be perfect in my classroom. Over the course of nearly a decade in the university and high school classroom, I have met so many students who obsess about this unattainable goal. And in this relentless pursuit of perfection, they have buried and lost their self-esteem, they believe that they have failed in indescribable ways, and that the future might not be so bright for them. My principle aim in the classroom, then, is to show them that this is indeed not the case and that they have the potential to achieve those things that they know they are capable of achieving.
In order to accomplish this, I develop rigorous and engaging lesson plans that require my students to not only challenge their own thinking but the established thinking about any historical topic. Rather than give my students a long list of events in sequence, as if I were some stale medieval chronicle, I provide my students with the tools necessary to “do history.” As soon as my students enter the classroom, they take on the uncomfortable but rewarding burden of a historian. They must confront the past, they must engage with the past, and they must understand how different interpretations of the past shape the world around them. They must do history this way; it is critical not only to their development as adults, but also their survival in a world that is often hostile to them.
Approaching history in this way allows the students to become better critical thinkers rather than machines of rote memorization that recite verses from history that have no meaning to them or to their lives. The Gettysburg Address is a wonderful 270-word speech, but what does it mean to a student who crosses the border to get to school every day? And maybe that’s not even the right question – that student asks, “how is it possible that this can apply to me? It was so long ago, why does it matter?” And they are absolutely right to ask that question. But teach that same student about the promises that Lincoln made that cool November day, and they learn that this is a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and that this a promise that is owed to them, too. They learn that they are agents of knowledge and that they have the power to have some control over their own destiny. They learn that history gives them power that they never had before. And it’s that power that’s transformational.
The heart of each of my lessons, then, are pathways that allow my students to make history useful, usable, and unique. The cornerstone of each lesson rests on simple but elegant backward design. I ask myself what I want my students to know, to explore, and to analyze. And once I have done this work, the pieces fall into place. I find relevant primary sources for them to digest and interpret, I find them relevant reading for them to do outside of the classroom, and I engage them in conversations that feel like a real history seminar, one in which they are the experts and can take ownership of their own knowledge. In a recent class, I asked my students to render judgment on Texas declaring independence. They, based on primary sources that I had selected for them, had to determine the reason why Texans banded together and declared independence and also decide whether or not it was just for them to do so. In all, the students read four primary sources, including the Texas Declaration of Independence, cataloged the arguments that each source made, weighed them against the historical context, and developed an argument with their primary source reading groups. With my guidance, each student was able to articulate his/her own argument, write informally about that argument, and then use what they had developed as a part of a collaborative process in an essay about the Antebellum Era that I assigned later in the week.
While analysis and argumentation form the core of the ways in which I assess my students, I provide them a range of ways for them to demonstrate to me that they have developed the skills necessary to succeed in a history classroom. Not only do students write argument essays, they make regular presentations to their classmates about sources and events, they write informal pieces in their journals that get them to connect the dots of history or associate the past with the present, and they develop exhibits for the public to consume.
Online teaching presents a different kind of challenge for a history classroom run in this way. Since the majority of online courses are taught asynchronously, an instructor must take great care to develop a community of online learners that best replicates a face-to-face history course. And that means creating meaningful discussion of primary source material. Especially over the last year, I have tailored my discussions to reflect the need for academic conversations surrounding primary evidence. Rather than focusing on aspects of the historical context alone, I have my students debate over a question that derives from the primary source material assigned for that week. And much like an in-class conversation, I keep any discussion board writing relatively low-stakes, so that the students feel more inclined to take intellectual risks. Approaching online courses in this way has dramatically improved the level of writing that I read when students submit higher-stakes essay assignments during the semester. Since coming to an online setting as an instructor over two years ago, I have also incorporated more elements of universal design into my course layout and materials presentations. And as more pedagogy for online teaching is developed and refined, I will continually adjust my courses to fit best practice recommendations.
The process of developing face-to-face collaboration, online discussions, and assessments this way is one that takes constant refinement and rethinking as I make adjustment for different students’ interests, needs and abilities. An active history course requires that the teacher be engaged in active research of his/her own, whether that research is seeking out new primary sources to use in the classroom, different combinations of primary sources to use in lessons, or keeping up with the latest research in the field, to ensure that our students are receiving a cutting-edge education, regardless of the textbook assigned or the budget allocated. As a PhD in the field, doing this sort of work comes as a natural part of my routine, and I find it enjoyable and fulfilling. But perhaps the best part is that my students get to see that joy in my face as I’m handing them the source, or walking them through how to analyze it, or engaging their ideas about that source in a way that confirms to them that their thinking matters.