Saturday, September 15, 2007

It's just like driving a stick-shift...

I'll admit that in the last few days my thoughts about this blog have been a lot like my thoughts whenever I got behind the wheel of my last car (RIP 1988 Volkswagen Golf): it'll be fine if only I can figure out how to get it started. So, I guess I'll begin with explaining how I got here.

For better or for worse, I am a teacher. I'm still working at defining what separates the good teachers from the bad teachers, and deciding what category I fit into, but I have that little certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers that says that I am fit to teach history. Now, last year, as a first year, newly-minted teacher, I was given a teaching post at a middle school in South-East England and told, 'you are your own history department.' I had a bookshelf of resources, some excellent and some not worth the paper they were printed on, a vague guide to the History National Curriculum, 300 students, ranging from ages 9-13, and almost no knowledge of English history. But, I gave it my best shot, and by the end, some of those students had learned something about history.

But, it was around January, while sitting in that Volkswagen Golf in an IKEA parking lot, that I began to rant. Not about the students, or the resources, or even the National Curriculum, but about historical interpretation. I could start with my youngest year fives, teach them about primary and secondary sources, how to use them properly, why they're not always reliable, why we have to look at who wrote the source and why, and how we can use even 'wrong' sources to learn about the time period. I had 26 10-year olds in stitches, as I turned a lesson on Henry VIII and Anne of Cleaves into a lesson about portraits and agency. However, by the time they got to year seven and eight and were beginning to write real essays it all fell apart. Even the brightest students faltered and wrote things like, 'I know that the Norman army was stronger than the Anglo-Saxon army because the teacher said so.' And no amount of coaxing could convince them otherwise.

And then I thought about my own time in school, and the short-comings of my History classes. The very ideas that I was trying to teach 10-year olds, were the same ideas that I had trouble grasping until my second year of university. The problem is not the students, it's how history is taught. You can't teach students to question sources in an environment where the teacher and the textbook are considered the ultimate sources of truth, and no amount of digital classrooms, online archives, or SMART boards can ever change that. Meanwhile, I'm churning out hundreds of young students who hate history. They see it as boring, entirely removed from their lives, and mainly teacher-driven.

In my frustration that day in the IKEA parking lot, I turned to my significant other and ranted, 'There has to be a better way of doing this!'

I don't know if there is. I know we have the resources, but I don't know if there is enough will-power to change the way that history is taught in schools. In fact, the way history is taught as a whole; it shouldn't just be the teacher delivering the dates and events, or the museum showing an artefact in some context, but a discourse between the past and the public. History isn't boring; it's an enigma, a good story, a gateway to critical thinking skills.

But, I guess that's why I'm here.

1 comment:

Patrick Copeland said...

hmm really interesting post Sarah. When you were teaching, did you have access to the various kinds of technology that "digital history" could utilize?

Also, it seems like, especially at younger ages, technology could really be a useful thing for teaching children history. It could make it relevant and interesting in a way that traditional methods could not. It seems as though children get older, digital history would focus less on keeping attention of its students and more on providing actual (and more detailed) information (what we are interested in).