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I not only experimented with historical content but classroom tasks as well.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.