This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.
When the last day of the 2016-17 school year loomed and everyone at my school rushed to ensure that everything was wrapped up, I had the bittersweet knowledge that I wouldn’t be there to welcome my students back the following August. It was bitter because I would miss a year of their adventure and wouldn’t be able to share in their accomplishments, but sweet because I was going to spend a year at the Library of Congress. Now I find myself having the same feelings: bitter that I have to leave my colleagues at the Library and miss out on the exciting new and ongoing projects, but excited to rejoin my teaching colleagues and meet a new group of students.
During my time as Teacher in Residence, I’ve had the joys of working with specialists and experts to expand my own knowledge and discover new ways to introduce primary sources into my classroom. I’ve also had the frustrations inherent in any research that forced me to reshape and refocus my question for any number of reasons. All these experiences helped me to rediscover my love for primary sources, enhance my own research and critical thinking skills, and – more importantly – remind me what it’s like to be a student, searching for the right answer, but discovering more questions.
While reflecting on my experiences at the Library with a friend, I was struck by his comment, which history teachers have heard millions of times from both students and adults, that “they don’t like history because it is boring.” For a long time, I thought comments like this were just a hazard of being a history teacher, especially an ancient history teacher. Students can’t relate to the Mesopotamians, don’t understand the customs of the Greeks, and don’t care about the Egyptians – except maybe the mummies they see in movies. It dawned on me that history isn’t boring, but the way people interact with it often is.
We know about the past from primary sources, but often people simply look at a primary source without engaging with it. This is where the tenacity of a history teacher should come alive. Instead of allowing students to gaze at a historical document while you catch your breath, invite the class to tear into it. Push students beyond being passive viewers and teach them to challenge the document. Give them the skills to question why it was created, wonder what audience it was (and often more importantly, was not) intended for, to speculate if there is a deeper meaning to the object, and to doubt the obvious story the item suggests.
Having spent the past year rediscovering my natural curiosity, I’m determined that when I return to my home school, I will address, at least in my small corner of the world, this issue. My time at the Library has given me new skills and strategies to teach students to engage with primary sources. Teaching students to analyze material and to ask fundamental questions will help build their own inquiry skills and give them the skills to answer their own questions through critical thinking and research. Teaching students to engage with materials rather than simply looking at them will make history come alive for them.
How do you make history more engaging in your classroom?