I was a 21 year-old novice eager and anxious to become an first-rate high school history teacher at Glenville High School (Cleveland OH) in 1956. Within six months, I discovered that teaching five classes a day with multiple lessons (I taught world history and U.S. history), grading homework from over 175 students, and learning the ropes of managing groups of students a few years younger than me not only wore me out–I was also taking evening graduate history courses at Western Reserve University– but drove me to rely on lectures and the textbook far more than I anticipated.
By mid-year, I had become dissatisfied about how I was teaching my students–who happened to be nearly all minority (Negro was the preferred word then). I routinely lectured, watched maybe half of the students take notes and the other half stare into the distance or try to look attentive. Some fell asleep. I asked students questions about the textbook pages I assigned and got one-word answers back. Occasionally, a student would ask a question and I would improvise an answer that would trigger a few more students to enter in what would become a full blown back-and-forth discussion. It was unplanned and brief but mysteriously disappeared in the snap of a finger. Periodic quizzes and current events one day a week altered my routines but student disengagement persisted. I was wholly teacher-centered in my instruction concentrating my attention upon history content. I was, as I learned in later years, teaching history in the way that it had been taught for decades: the heritage approach. Yet after six months, I realized that I did not want to teach history mechanically drowning students in forgettable facts that left me drained and dissatisfied at the end of a long day. I wanted to break out of that pattern. But did not know how to do that yet.
These were the years before the civil rights movement had traveled northward. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of his Montgomery ministry; Rosa Parks had just triggered the boycott of Jim Crow buses in that city. After a few years teaching, I became more aware of how Cleveland’s racially segregated neighborhoods had blanketed schools like Glenville with a malign form of neglect. But it was slow going for a white teacher who gradually learned from his students and black colleagues what was happening outside of school.
The next year, I decided to experiment with different content to break out of those instructional routines that numbed me by the end of the day. For two of my five classes, I began to design lessons that differed from the assigned U.S. history text (David S. Muzzey’s History of Our Country published in 1955 had no entry for Negro in the index). Drawing from my graduate courses, I began to type up excerpts from primary sources, duplicate them on the department’s one ditto machine, add questions and assign them to those two classes–the thought of doing this for all five classes overwhelmed me; two seemed do-able.
For example, in a textbook chapter on the 13 colonies in which the text dismissed the origins of slavery as unimportant, I would copy readings that included primary sources (e.g. description of slave auction and bill of sale) and accounts from historians that spelled out the historical and moral issues surrounding the introduction of Africans into the colonies. I would add questions to these readings that called for students to analyze the primary and secondary sources. In addition, the librarian gathered the few books on Negro history that we had in our school and nearby libraries and put them aside in a special section for my two classes.
By my third year at Glenville, I had found that gaining students’ interest in U.S. history was only half the struggle. I was now using these materials in all five classes. Student response to non-textbook ethnic materials, however, was mixed. The novelty of studying Negro figures and broader issues of race triggered deep interest in maybe half of the students in the classes. But many students felt that such content was sub-standard because their texts didn’t mention the information contained in their readings and, moreover, they complained openly that other history teachers didn’t have readings and used the textbook more than I did. Some students even asked me to return to the text. I was surprised at first that some students wanted me to return to the deadening routine that left me and most students anesthetized. Then I realized that using the textbook in high school was all that they knew.
Overall, however, I judged student response as sufficiently positive for me to continue and, truth be told, I was excited about the new study guides, readings, and ways of getting students to think about the past that I had developed. Sure, I was tired at the end of the day, but now I looked forward to the next day of teaching.