Changing the Classroom Curriculum in History: Recapturing How I Taught a Half-Century Ago (Part 2)

Within four years of beginning as a novice history teacher in 1956, I had slowly  introduced new content and direct instruction in skills into my U.S. history classes. As I learned the methodology of the historian in my graduate courses, I designed more lessons on analyzing evidence, determining which sources of information were more or less reliable and assessing what makes one opinion more informed than another. A later generation of scholars and practitioners might have labeled my uncertain baby-steps in changing the content of lessons,  “teaching historical thinking.”

I used “study guides” that I had prepared for each unit (e.g., the causes of the Civil War, Industrial Revolution) that included readings I had selected from historians, primary source documents, excerpts from American Heritage magazine, and textbook pages students should read. Students had to answer questions in the “study guide” pulling from the various materials that I and the school librarian had gathered for my classes to use in my classroom and for trips to the library. I encouraged students who wanted higher grades to read articles and write up analyses for extra points (I had a template of questions that had to be answered about the source, the author’s argument, and what students learned). All of these content-driven activities would turn up in short lectures I would give and whole group discussions I would lead. Yes, the former grew shorter and the latter grew longer but anyone coming into my classroom in –let’s say a Back to the Future rendition of a teacher educator or scholar–would characterize what I did as clearly teacher-centered. I say that with no embarrassment or apology. But I was trying out different ways of getting content across and developing inquiry skills that slowly changed the mix of activities I included in lessons.

I not only experimented with historical content but classroom tasks as well. I began using activities that increased student interactions with me and among themselves. In one class, for example, I had a project of creating a history newspaper with students who volunteered to write articles for a specific time period–say the assassination of Julius Caesar. Or in another class, the students would put Napoleon on trial after Waterloo. Sure, I tried small group work on a few occasions for particular reading assignments, students leading discussions. and of course, films and film strips followed by worksheets and discussion.

It was not all smooth as the above words might suggest. Sometimes I had orchestrated the activity sloppily, gave fuzzy directions to students, or lacked key materials (sometimes all three in a disastrous, unfolding Trifecta of failure) and things fell apart before my eyes. Many students dug in their heels over my asking them to participate in class discussions, panels, and tasks I assigned. And student interest would ebb and flow. Some students transferred to other classes. Other students objected to some of the activities–saying “Mr. Cuban why don’t you teach like the other social studies teachers”–but stayed in the class.

What really puzzled me was that some lessons and activities would die before my eyes in one class and yet the very same lesson would soar in another one the very same day. Sure, in teaching five classes, I would see errors that I made in one class could be corrected in a subsequent one. Still, at the end of the day, I was mystified that students were engaged for most of the period in one class and in another, it was like doing root canal work on a squalling patient.

And also at the end of the day, I got tired. I would see students before school, mid-day when I began eating bag lunches in my classroom and after school. When I got active as a faculty adviser for student activities even more students would stop by. I was also continually running down materials, film strips, and scrounging paper for the ravenous ditto machine. And taking night classes at a nearby university.

Then I got married in 1958.  Evenings which I had used for reading and grading homework and weekends for preparing lessons for the upcoming week were no longer as available as when I was single. Fatigue and the growing awareness that I could have a life outside of Glenville brought me face-to-face with choosing how to combine the demands of work and being with my family.

Eventually I got help. My principal used a petty cash fund to help fill my insatiable appetite for reams of paper. One district supervisor, to my surprise, heard of my work and in 1960 quietly allocated a small sum of money to the social studies department so that I could purchase books, paper, and miracle of miracles–a ditto machine.

After nearly five years, I had created in fits and starts, with many stumbles, a home-grown history course than I had neither expected when I arrived at Glenville in 1956 or seen around me. And then I learned about other teachers across the country who independently had done much of what I did in my classes; I discovered others who taught history differently. But that is another story.

6 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

6 responses to “Changing the Classroom Curriculum in History: Recapturing How I Taught a Half-Century Ago (Part 2)

  1. Even at this distance, and interested as I currently am in reshaping the entire way teachers are trained her in the UK, it saddens me Larry that you had to learn all this for yourself, on the job as it were. Your account underlines for me something I have never seen conveyed in teacher training courses, yet it is for me the single most important thing one can teach a teacher.

    The nature of the relationship between you and the material you choose/design/create to build lessons around, is absolutely central to your efficacy as a professional. That is why policy initiatives and business models that create, then deliver “content” to teachers, only ever deliver mediocre results in the classroom.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Joe, you hit upon something I learned in coming to grips with teaching history those many decades ago. Designing and implementing my own lessons in history classes taught me a great deal about conveying content and skills to youth that had to be in my course–U.S. history was a compulsory course needed to graduate. How to teach content and skills to the young (or how to teach the young content and skills) is the fundamental relationship that teachers must negotiate in becoming competent and eventually a master teacher. That my preparation at university helped me only a tad in negotiating that essential triangular relationship was a powerful lesson I learned. Whether every teacher has to do it alone, however, remains a contentious issue in teacher education and school reform in the U.S. Thanks for the comment.

  2. “And student interest would ebb and flow. Some students transferred to other classes. Other students objected to some of the activities–saying “Mr. Cuban why don’t you teach like the other social studies teachers”–but stayed in the class.”

    I cannot help but to continue to draw parallels to your experience, Larry, as a young, new teacher to mine as somewhat more aged, new teacher with you teaching history and me, mathematics. In spite of the gulf of time separating our experiences, and subjects, our experiences are all too similar. As a newly minted teacher three years ago, I nearly had a mass rebellion on my hands as I earnestly required students to develop a conceptual understanding of calculus, whereas they were minimally proficient with procedural understanding of the prerequisites. And these were the “gifted and talented” students…Fortunately, most everyone survived that experience intact, or dropped the course. And every cohort since then has learned more deeply.

    While I continue to fine tune my AP Calculus course, the onset of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) places my algebra one students, and all students in our district, into a whirlwind of change in standards, methods, practices, and ultimately experiences. Resistance to the change builds as the year progresses. It is an all too familiar experience for me, yet thankfully, I have my earlier experiences to draw upon. Not everyone in the district does however.

    In the long run, the changes from CCSSM should help to improve student understanding, but not without many students and teachers living through moments like you describe in this article, and I experienced my first year. For everyone’s sake, I hope we all succeed. Only time will tell.

    • larrycuban

      Dave,
      Thanks for comparing your experiences a few years ago with mine a half-century ago. What you say makes sense. I appreciate your taking the time to do so.

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