Monday, August 25, 2014

Teaching History through Different Perspectives and Lenses

I recently read a blog post by Chris Lehmann titled “American History — American Story” (  I appreciated Chris’s reflection on his conversation with Matt Baird, Science Leadership Academy 11th grade American history teacher, about making history more than just “dusty dates of history, but about their lives – our lives – our country today.”  The idea is extremely powerful and worth pursuing, but I really focused in on one line in the blog:

“What if we asked students to examine present day society through several intersecting lenses such as the political lens, the demographic lens, the economic lens and the geo-political lens.”

As a former social studies teacher, this is an area that I am extremely passionate about.  In order to make history an engaging experience for our students, there has to be a connection to their lives.  So, the question becomes, how can we make history relevant and meaningful to our students?  Being that the Science Leadership Academy’s 11th grade American history course consists of the 1900s-present, starting with a current look at the U.S. and World today would provide a reference point throughout the school year with an underlying theme of; "how did we get here?"  What a great way to start the school year.

I love the idea of studying history through lenses.  I taught 8th grade U.S. history (First Inhabitants (i.e. Native Americans) through the Civil War).  I started the school year with a definition and discussion of Eurocentrism and ethnocentrism and how history (i.e. textbooks) was/is often written from the white European point of view.  I challenged the students to find examples in their text books, which we found numerous.  I would then teach portions of some events from a different lens and perspective.  For example, I taught the Christopher Columbus story from the Native American perspective.  The students were shocked at this perspective, because for so many years, elementary school teachers taught the "Columbus is a hero and discovered America" version of history.  It certainly provided an opportunity for all students to think critically about history and what they read.  We looked at the Constitutional Convention from non white male European perspectives such as women (Abigail Adams "remember the ladies") and slaves (3/5's compromise).  By the time we reached the end of the school year, students were well-versed in critically thinking about history and understanding the story through multiple perspectives.  A good starting point for history teachers to question history textbooks and consider history through various lenses and perspectives is the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.  The book certainly make one pause and question the way history is taught and has been taught for so many years.

I think it is our role, as history teachers, to allow students to learn the multiple perspectives of history and not just take the written word in a textbook as the only factual perspective of an event.  We must allow our students to challenge what is written and discover multiple ways of understanding historical events in history.  History teachers should be creating “hands-on” experiences and inquiry/problem/project-based learning opportunities for our students.  Less time needs to be spent on covering names, dates, events, and places that can be “googled,” and more time on in-depth critical thinking and analysis.  It’s time to shake the stereotype of history being boring, to one which students make meaningful connections to the past in order to embrace and be prepared for THEIR future.

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