How I Studied the Teaching of History Then and Now

From time to time, a few readers ask me how I, as a historian of education, go about collecting and analyzing data about teachers at work in classrooms especially those who have taught many decades ago and those who teach now. In my next book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools, I reconstructed how I taught history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) and Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the 1950s and 1960s and then returned to those same schools in 2013-2014 to determine how history is taught there now (see here).

This post is for those viewers and curious readers who have asked me the direct question of how I dig into the past and recapture the present in answering the central question I asked in the forthcoming book: What has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history?

In carrying out this study to answer that central question, I had to deal with the following methodological issues. 

How did I reconstruct my teaching of history at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967?

The design of the book is basically two case studies that answer the question: to what degree did the larger context of national and local reform-driven policies influence the teaching of history then and now? I used the common historical methodology of seeking out multiple primary and secondary sources to describe and analyze the macro- and micro-contexts, that is, national movements (e.g., civil rights, the New Social Studies), city and school district settings, and what happened during the decade I taught in Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Primary sources included district school board minutes, local newspaper articles, available school archives, and district and school reports and studies published in the late-1950s through the late-1960s for both Glenville and Cardozo High Schools.

I used secondary sources to establish national socioeconomic and political forces at work that influenced each city (e.g., Civil Rights movement, demographic changes, shifts in economic base). Other secondary sources included descriptions of how teachers taught elsewhere in the nation during these years. For each of the cities I tapped histories of the District of Columbia’s and Cleveland’s black communities, the political and socioeconomic forces at work in both cities in the 1950s and 1960s, and their linkages to changes in both school districts in these decades.

These primary and secondary sources permitted me to recapture the macro-contexts within which my classroom teaching unfolded. I used a similar mix of sources to portray the micro-setting of my classrooms in each district and how history teachers in other locations taught.

For my teaching at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools between 1956-1967, I used the following primary sources:

  1. Student “study guides” I used in my U.S. history and world history classes at Glenville (two former students kept copies and sent them to me). Lesson plans and readings (in my possession) I used in classes at Cardozo High School.
  2. Student assignments at Glenville that I had graded and commented on (one of the above students sent a packet of her work to me from 1960).
  3. Personal journal I kept for 1961-1967.
  4. Annual yearbooks at Glenville called “The Olympiad” and at Cardozo, “Purple Wave,” for the years I taught.
  5. Glenville student newspaper articles for the time period.
  6. Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper articles on Glenville for those years. The Washington Post and Washington Evening Star for articles on Cardozo High School.
  7. Cleveland School District documents including Board of Education minutes, special reports, and memos.
  8. District of Columbia documents including Board of Education minutes, memos, and official reports.

In returning to the two high schools I taught in a half-century ago, what methods did I use to describe what I saw and heard?

I spent two weeks at each high school. I visited Glenville High School for a week in November 2013. The media center specialist set me up in a room adjacent to the library filled with yearbooks and uncatalogued issues of the student newspaper for the years just before, during, and after I taught there. For recent years, I found scattered issues of the yearbook for the years 1990-2010.

At Cardozo, I spent a week in December 2013 navigating the school library and closets within the school for past and current school reports, evaluations, yearbooks and student newspapers. The high school had just reopened after a two-year long renovation of its facilities. Many materials had been tossed and destroyed in the move to prepare for the renovation and some had been stored at other sites but I could not locate any staff members who knew where.

After some digging, I located a room in the basement that did contain issues of yearbooks only from the period of 1990-2010. Issues of the yearbook for 2011-2013 had not been published. I also visited the District of Columbia school collections at the Charles Sumner Museum and located newspaper clippings about Cardozo High School covering the years 1975-2007.

In the next round of visits to each high school, I observed lessons and interviewed teachers. I went to Glenville for the week in April 2014. I interviewed the principal and three of the four social studies teachers at the school. I observed a total of nine classes (scheduled for 45-minute periods) of these four teachers. Overall, I spent an entire period in least one class of each of the four teachers. For one world history teacher, however, I observed three back-to-back classes and the other world history teacher I visited three different classes over two days. One of these teachers had invited me into his classes on my first visit to the school in November 2013 (but did not agree to be interviewed). None of the teachers had syllabi available for me or had posted any on the school website.

My final visit to Cardozo High School occurred during the week of May 2014. I interviewed two history teachers and observed three classes (each scheduled for 80-minutes). Another teacher permitted me to observe two of his classes but did not agree to an interview. In total, then, I observed eight lessons of three history teachers. In preparation for the observations, I reviewed the syllabi that all three teachers had placed on the school website (http://www.cardozohs.com/)

What did I do when I observed classes? In four of the 14 classes I observed in both schools, I was introduced as a professor who had taught at the school a half-century ago. In three of these classes, at the end of the lesson, the teacher invited students to question me about what teaching at Glenville and Cardozo was like then. A handful of students asked questions and I answered them.

During each lesson I observed, I sat in classrooms and writing out in longhand or typing on my laptop what teachers and students did during the 45-minute period at Glenville or 80-minute period at Cardozo. Each sheet of paper or laptop screen was divided into a wide column and a narrow column. In the wide column I recorded the seating organization of the classroom, what was on chalkboards, what was on the walls and bulletin boards, and what electronic equipment was present in the room. Then after the lesson began, I would note every few minutes what the teacher was talking about or doing and student responses and actions they were engaged in. I also noted when the teacher segued from one activity to another and directed students to the next task.

In the narrow column, I commented on what I saw. That included connections (or lack of connections) I saw between what teacher said and what students did. I scanned the classroom every few minutes and commented on whether some, most, or all students were on- or off-task and my sense of how attentive students and teacher were to what was happening in the lesson.

The major advantage of this approach is being in the room and picking up non-verbal and verbal asides of what is going on every few minutes as well as noting classroom climate or ethos that often goes unnoticed.  As an experienced teacher familiar with schooling historically and the common moves that occur in teacher-directed lessons, I can also assess the relationship between the teacher and students, subjectively to be sure, that other observers using different protocols or videos may miss or exclude.

The major disadvantage of this way of observing history lessons is the subjectivity and inevitable biases that any observer including myself brings to documenting lessons. To minimize my biases, I worked hard at separating what I saw from what I interpreted. Thus, the wide and narrow columns I used to record what happens during a lesson and my comments. I described objectively classroom conditions in diagrams of student and teacher desk arrangements, listing the content of bulletin boards and chalkboards. I noted the electronic devices available in the room and their location on the diagram of the room and whether the lesson included students using the devices. I described and did not judge teacher and student behaviors. But eliminating biases completely is hard to do. As in other approaches researching classroom lessons, some biases remain.

After observing classes, I sat down and had half-hour to 45-minute interviews with teachers at times convenient to them. After jotting down their history in the district, the school, and other experiences, I turned to the lessons and asked a series of questions about what happened during the period I observed. I asked what the teachers’ goals were and whether they believe those goals were reached. Then, I asked about the different activities I observed during the lesson and whether they thought the lesson I observed was typical or not.

In answering these questions, teachers gave me reasons they did (or did not do) something in lessons.  In most instances, individual teachers were eager to provide a rationale for doing what they did, thus, communicating to me a cognitive map of their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning, and the content they typically teach. In all of the give-and-take of these discussions with teachers I made no judgment about the success or failure of different activities or of the lesson itself.

Like any methodology to describe what happens in a lesson, there are inevitable trade-offs between using protocols with trained observers who seldom depart from the instrument, videotaping the lesson with or without commentary, the approach I used, and other methods of classroom observation. Each approach and in combination may increase objectivity and subjectivity but trade-offs remain.

In what ways did my skills as an historian and writing about my classroom experiences in the past help and hinder the account I constructed?

History is what historians say about the past and can document what they claim; memory is what individuals believe occurred in the past. So when a historian writes personally about what he or she has experienced, analytic skills, remembrances, and perceptions get entangled in one another and sorting out one from the other becomes essential.

I have tried to disentangle documented facts, memories, perceptions, and analysis particularly in identifying sources for the reader that may be unreliable but nonetheless usable because they add a dimension to the account that would be missing if this were another of my academic studies.

To be clear, then, this book describing two urban high schools in which history was taught then and is taught now is neither a memoir nor an autobiography; it is a combination of facts that can be documented by reliable sources (therefore I use endnotes to establish a factual basis for statements or raise doubts about what I and others have said and done) and personal experiences of teaching history. It is not an academic study of teaching history nor is it a personal recollection of then and now but a hybrid, or an “unconventional history” of teaching a high school subject laced with full documentation and personal experiences.

Moreover, I take my memories and that of former students and others as to what happened in order to construct a story of how I taught history a half-century ago. I drew from my previous studies such as How Teachers Taught to give a context for how and what I taught from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s. As for how history is taught now in these two high schools, I draw from the current movement among social studies educators of teaching students the skills and concepts that working historians use in describing, analyzing, and interpreting the past.

This hybrid of memoir and history tries to combine two disparate impulses that have characterized my career as a high school teacher and historian: As Patrick Hutton put it: “what is at issue here is not how history can recover memory but, rather, what memory will bequeath to history.”  Both history and memory, then, are necessary to recover what has occurred as policy decisions travel their zig-zag path into classrooms. Those policies and practices got filtered through the remembrance of one participant who was deeply involved in both teaching high school history and researching the history of education.

Combining history and memory in this hybrid study of teaching history then and now also reinforces my longstanding commitment to teachers and teaching as the core, the very essence, of public and private schooling in the U.S. Understanding that centrality of teachers and teaching to the enterprise of formal schooling has been the mainstay of my academic work for the past forty years.

So being a historian who also traffics in personal stories, I have had to be careful in how I documented my remembrances and those of my former students. Here is one example of decisions I made on personal accounts.

I have cited student comments in the Glenville High School chapter covering my seven-year stint there. As an historian, I have to be clear that such decades-old recollections are neither representative of all of my students nor constitute a majority or even substantial fraction of those who were in my classes. For the truth is that no more than 20 of my former students in the years I taught at Glenville have contacted me. They have written about their experiences to me in emails and in published venues. Even though the vast majority of my former students have not contacted me in the decades since I left Glenville, those that have are less than one percent. Moreover, for even that less than one percent of students, memories decades old are selective and often subject to bias. Yet I also know that perceptions and memories provide a shaft of light on past events and experiences. As a result of believing, in the name of memory, that what they have to say, given these caveats, may be worthwhile, I placed them in endnotes rather than the text to give readers the opportunity to judge the worth of their remembrances as a source of information about my teaching. In each instance, I contacted the writer of the email and asked for their permission to quote from it

All in all, then, creating this hybrid of the history of classroom teaching mixed with personal recollections has been a boon, I believe, to a deeper and fuller description of what teaching history over a half-century ago was like in two different high schools. It has been also a barrier since personal recollections are selective and can give undue weight to stories rather than documented facts.

The foregoing description of the methods I used in describing and analyzing the teaching of history then and now hardly removes the difficulties and dilemmas built into any reconstruction of the past. I wanted to be explicit in detailing the ways that I captured the past and compared it to the present.

 

6 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

6 responses to “How I Studied the Teaching of History Then and Now

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Wonderful account I appreciate this
    As Patrick Hutton put it: “what is at issue here is not how history can recover memory but, rather, what memory will bequeath to history.”

  2. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    A very long but very interesting read I like to share!

  3. Art Pease

    Thanks for this interesting description of how a historian of teaching might work. I am looking forward to the book! By the way, I enjoyed Mission High, and forwarded it to a young ed professor.

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