Changing the Classroom Curriculum: Recapturing How I Taught a Half-Century Ago (Part 1)

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.

12 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

12 responses to “Changing the Classroom Curriculum: Recapturing How I Taught a Half-Century Ago (Part 1)

  1. Bob Calder

    The PISA exit test that ran a few years ago (we didn’t join) allowed the Slovenian Dept of Ed to run a multivariate analysis on math outcomes. One of the variables that correlated with success was having a teacher who didn’t use the text. The usual suspects were also present: parental achievement and involvement, books in the home, owning a computer, and extracurricular activities.

    • larrycuban

      Now that is an esoteric correlation, Bob. I wouldn’t push the correlation too far in my case since when I was teaching in the mid-1950s, there were no district and state tests that my students had to take in U.S. history. Thanks for the telling me about it, Bob, but truth be told, I did laugh out loud.

  2. I was fortunate enough to enter the profession some years later, and quickly realised only the dullest or disengaged teachers relied wholly on a textbook. When I left teaching, I also left a large filing cabinet in my classroom crammed full of unique resources and ideas I’d created over 20 years. (Many more had ended up in the bin.) The photocopier had been the key technology that had enabled me to do that.

    And in spite of what policy makers, strategists and researchers claim about the importance of collaboration, I also knew my resources would never be used again because there is an umbilical connection between a teacher and the material they use that mediocre teachers never understand.

    It’s also been my experience that many of those mediocre teachers… end up as strategists and policy makers clamouring for more collaboration.

  3. Jerry Heverly

    I love this story because it so closely parallels my own experience (teaching English in this case). Some of my students always complain about my deviations from textbooks, weekly quizzes and the like. And no one is more perplexed by my heresies than my colleagues.

  4. The online software program StudySync.com has primary sources with writing assignments. I consider it my best tool for bringing non-fiction across the curriculum. (No, I don’t work for the company.)

  5. Very interesting column Larry. I’m looking forward to part 2.

    No matter what the content area (and the very notion of maintaining of separate “content areas” is worthy of a lengthy discussion on its own), we are still restrained from varying from traditional methods by the structure of the school day with 50 minute classes, followed by mass migrations to different rooms, different teachers and different subjects (but likely the same level of energy, interest and discourse). Repeat all day, every day.

    Some teachers are gifted in the ability to charm by lecture. Many are not. Fortunately for the rest of us, we do have an incredible array of options for engaging students. But when you only have your charges for 45 real minutes (assuming the inevitable loss of time due to transitions), it’s a challenge to create engaging tasks. I was a high school chemistry teacher for many years – you can imagine what it was like to organize hands-on lab activities with potentially dangerous chemicals and equipment. Even recipe-based labs, tailored for short class periods, were difficult to do well. Technology changed some things – we can now collect and analyze data like real scientists. This definitely got more students interested in what was going on.

    Without being able to restructure everything associated with traditional schooling, including the daily and yearly schedule (which are pretty much the same now as they were 50 years ago), it will remain difficult to regularly create engaging tasks for students that increasingly experience and expect instant gratification and entertainment.

    • larrycuban

      I call what you describe the “organizational realities” of U.S. schools, Jeff. Thanks for pointing to them as an important factor in influencing how teachers teach.

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