Many of us who teach introductory college courses lament the paucity of research and critical thinking skills that far too many of our freshmen and sophomores exhibit. To be fair, greater powers that be might be in play here (e.g., No Child Left Behind), which too often halt the development of those seminal skills, but we nevertheless bemoan the undeniable fact that our students’ analytical and evaluative skills are below where they should be upon entering college. Indeed, it has become an unending task for many history professors to continuously go through the basics of chronological and application skills, never mind the necessity to halt and have impromptu writing workshops for those students who simply never had the opportunity to develop such skills in high school. I remember vividly such discussions about the lack of historical literacy in this day and age in my historiography course, the reintroduction of Eurocentric ideology in my world history readings seminar, and the debates surrounding popular (and inaccurate) beliefs about the Middle Ages in my Medieval Europe readings course.
Anyone of us who completed this coursework would be, and indeed is, a certified, capable instructor of history. However, too often we forget about the social studies teachers who take this coursework and attempt to digest it for high school students. Having completed my studies at WVU with the History Department, first as an undergraduate (‘12) and as a graduate student (‘14), and now as I begin to wrap up my time as a social studies student teacher at University High School, I more fully recognize the value of my graduate coursework and the benefits of such exceptional professors. Our protracted conversations on the responsibilities of historians and teachers of history have made me, a future social studies educator, more critical in my approach to teaching. I will briefly go over some of the ways in which I have been able to apply what I learned as a master’s student in the high school I have been working in as a student teacher now, almost two years later.
First, I have the lovely fortune of working with ninth grade honors world history students and a small collection of Advanced Placement European History students, who run the gamut of sophomores through seniors. In the honors world history classes, we have, as of right now, just finished our unit on the Early Middle Ages. Typically, when teaching this time period, social studies teachers try to express to students how, after the “fall” of the (Western) Roman Empire, Europe began a slow decline known as the “Dark Ages,” only to re-emerge from such decline sometime around the Italian Renaissance almost a millennium later. However, thanks to the work I was exposed to as a graduate student with Kate Staples in her Medieval Europe readings seminar, I knew that my unit had to be more critical of such an approach. Instead of covering this time period as such, or even simply having students listen to me lecture on why this is a misnomer, I chose to provide students with several primary and secondary sources to comb through and develop an effective argument about this time period. Students were given a host of information and, working together in groups, developed a thesis statement as to whether the Early Middle Ages were a time of decay and decline, or simply a time of transformation. They read condensed arguments from widely-known scholars of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, such as Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Brown. They wrote a several-paragraph response, using primary and secondary sources as support for their thesis, and concluded with a Socratic Seminar on this theme. The debate itself quickly became heated, as students began to argue about the nature of degrading terminology (e.g., dark, decline, decay, collapse) for time periods, when such terminology is based on post-facto criteria. If you’re thinking that this is fairly intense for ninth graders, then you’re right – this level of historical and critical thinking is not for the faint of heart!
Nevertheless, my ninth graders have learned to think deeply about the complexities of history, making historically-relevant arguments that further their understanding that history is a conversation between scholars and everyday readers. As they progress, they’ve learned how to formally structure their arguments and present these arguments to readers and listeners in a convincing manner. I owe whatever personal and professional growth my students have accomplished in my short time at UHS to the tireless work of my history professors. Without the persistent drive instilled in me by my advisor, Kate Staples, or the many numerous professors here who consistently pushed me to think deeper about my writing and thought processes, I doubt that I would be as successful at instilling the same love, the same passion that we all share for history. Though these students are still three years away from college, let alone graduate school (another hurdle altogether), I can say with full honesty that the lamentations of many history professors will be ameliorated because these students will be as exceptional at their work as the professors with whom I have had the pleasure of working here at WVU.