Back to the Future: Rethinking History Instruction

As a history teacher, I spend a lot of time looking backwards. 

Yes, I do connect the past to the present – the study of history is about helping us understand how we got to where we are now. But, for much of my career I would begin this journey by presenting students with the ideas and events of the past and then find engaging and authentic ways to connect them to modern ideas. For instance, my students and I would explore the short and long-term impact of manufacturing technology during the industrial revolution and then I would challenge students to consider/predict the impact of AI. Historical content always drove my instructional choices. I wanted students to understand our past and that would lead us to any related modern ideas. 

Over the recent break I began to wonder if my backwards thinking was actually backwards.

What if instead starting in the past I started this historical exploration in the present? What if I developed a list of critical modern concepts and then reached back from there to help students understand human life in the past? 

Better yet, what if I gave my students the opportunity to build that list of modern concepts to explore? After all, I am a product of the past and that has unquestionably influenced the choices I have made. My students, on the other hand, are going to play a role in the creation of the future. They certainly have a clearer understanding of how that future will be shaped.  

Having considered all this, I understand that I can’t just sweep away my plans for the remainder of the school year. Part of my job is to prepare my middle school students for academic success in high school and beyond. While it would be cool to have students showcase their knowledge and understanding through music, TikToks, or Instagram posts, other teachers down the road will expect my students to possess particular skills, such as writing in cursive, knowing different citation styles, or creating lengthy and complex essays. 

Another change I need to consider moving forward is to scale back my role as the primary gatekeeper and deliverer of information. I need to provide way more opportunities for my students to lead their own explorations. A lot of this sage-on-the-stage stuff in my practice is a hangover of online learning. I taught a lot of students who, during and immediately after Zoom-based instruction, dealt with their anxiety and isolation by retreating into themselves. As students readjust to classroom life and rediscover their voices, I don’t need to play such a dominant role anymore.  

Lots to think about as I map out the rest of this school year. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Ed X!

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