When I was teaching high school history in Cleveland, Ohio, I wrote my first book. Called The Negro in America, it was published in 1964 (in tune with the times, the 1971 edition was called The Black Man in America). Next month, Teaching History Here and Now: A Story about Stability and Change in Schools appears. Yes, I have been writing books for over a half-century as a teacher, administrator, professor, and now in “retirement.”
In doing all of this writing, I have been lucky. I do not mean “lucky” in the sense that I found a publisher each time I started writing. Nor do I mean “lucky” that I earned much money in writing books. For some of my books, the annual royalty I received could be spent safely buying a Happy Meal at McDonalds. No, by “lucky” I mean I could write books to answer questions that puzzled me. I have found that to be immensely satisfying regardless of how many copies were sold or whatever book reviewers had to say.
One example of a puzzle emerged when I was a district superintendent in Arlington (VA) during the 1970s and early 1980s. Each year of the seven I served as superintendent, I visited hundreds of classrooms. Time and again, after writing each teacher a note about what I saw I kept asking myself: why do so many lessons I see, classrooms I sit in, and schools I walk through remind me so vividly of my elementary and secondary school experiences in the 1940s. Sure, there were obvious differences that were apparent, but the underlying routines, teacher-student interactions, and classroom layout seemed so familiar to me. How come?
That question bugged me. Upon leaving the superintendency, I applied for and secured a federal grant to answer the question historically. I spent a year looking at 19th and 20th century efforts to reform how teachers taught. I went to school archives in Denver, New York City, Washington, D.C. I re-examined all of the notes I took when visiting Arlington classrooms. How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1880-1980 (1984, 1993) came directly out of the historical research I did and my personal experiences, first as a student for over a decade in Pittsburgh schools, second as a teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C., and visiting classrooms as a superintendent. For me, that book gave me an answer to the puzzling question.
Another book that scratched an itch was about teachers using technology. As a professor in the mid-1980s, I continued to visit schools and classrooms across the country but especially in the Bay area. Desktop computers were just appearing in classrooms. As I listened to lessons unfold and, later, teachers talk to me about their hopes and fears about the “new” technology, I began thinking of teachers (including myself) using earlier technologies such as films, radio, and instructional television. How did teachers since the 1920s use those “new” technologies in their classrooms? That is the historical question that tugged at me for a few years. As a professor, I had the precious time to do historical research and find out about teacher use of film, radio, and TV. I then asked myself were there similarities and differences between those earlier technologies and the arrival of computers in classrooms. Answers to my questions appeared in The Teacher and the Machine: The Classroom Use of Technology in 1986. This question of why “new” technologies spill over schools and how teachers use them has continued to puzzle me. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001) was another stab at answering the how and why questions surrounding use of school computers.
Other questions produced other books. Repeated federal, state, and local district efforts to reform the practice of teaching and the conduct of schooling produced ” why” questions in my mind. David Tyack, another historian of education, and I had team-taught a course in the history of school reform for over a decade. The questions we asked about the goals of reform, the context in which reforms occurred, and the outcomes of those reforms drove the course. We saw historical patterns of both change and stability emerging across time in public schooling; we saw the importance of context–the particular times and ethos that shaped society and schools. What we saw led to our decision to write Tinkering toward Utopia in 1995. That answered some, but not all, of the questions we asked.
And what was the question that I sought to answer in writing Teaching History Then and Now? As a historian and former high school teacher, I asked myself what had changed and what had remained stable in the high schools I taught in during the 1950s and 1960s and those very same high schools a half-century later. While I had some guesses, I really didn’t know. So I reconstructed how I taught then (e.g., my journals, archives from the schools, and student artifacts) and traveled to my former high schools to see how teachers taught history in 2013-2014. Because historians look at both change and continuity and the contexts within both occur, I had a chance to to draw comparisons and contrasts. This journey into the past and connecting it to the present was most satisfying. I have, indeed, been lucky.