Stability and Change in a Four Decade Career in Teaching (Part 2)

In 1963, I and my family moved to Washington, D.C. where I taught history at Cardozo High School and also trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban settings. Called a “master teacher,” I taught two history classes while supervising interns who also taught two classes on their own. They would see me teach and I would observe their classes. While I still planned history lessons around materials I and others had created and designed the questions I would ask, I had also begun to incorporate into my repertoire techniques I had found successful at Glenville and expanded at Cardozo during the mid-1960s.  Student-led discussions, dividing the class into groups for varied tasks, creating instructional materials out of primary and secondary historical sources initially to supplement and later to replace the textbook became routine parts of my lessons. These approaches at the time could be loosely called the “new social studies,” a reform aimed at encouraging teachers to use inquiry, analysis of primary and secondary sources, and students doing research. The ex-Peace Corps interns used filmstrips, 16mm films, and the overhead projector for transparencies they had prepared for their classes. I began expanding my repertoire, learning from them, showing occasional films, making transparencies, and using the overhead projector.[i]

After directing the teacher-training project, I returned to teaching history five classes a day of history at Roosevelt High School also in the District of Columbia. In one of those five courses I organized the class so that students would spend at least one 50-minute period a week going from one teaching station to another that I had established for the lesson. Each of these stations, say a lesson on causes of the Civil War, would have a pair or trio of students answer questions as they moved from activity to activity (e.g., filmstrip to watch, photos to analyze, primary sources to parse, and cartoons to interpret) before moving on to another station.

The rest of the day and week, however, was spent on teacher-led discussions, mini-lectures, frequent use of overhead projector with hand-made transparencies, supervised study periods where students would work on assignments (often dittos of materials I created), small group meetings of students working on projects selected from a list I made, say, on World War I, and student presentations. By this time, I had a clear idea of using classroom furniture to advance what I wanted in student participation in whole group activities. They sat in a horseshoe arrangement of desks with the open end of the horseshoe facing my desk and the chalkboard.

Student movement in the class and easy exchanges between students and I during small-group work and whole-class discussions spoke of a more relaxed social organization in the classroom than what I had when I began to teach history in 1956.

Yet I was the one who still decided what was to be studied, planned lessons, determined what methods, materials, and activities were to be used during the period and when. I determined how time and classroom space was allocated. What had changed slowly over the many years of teaching was the gradual shift in giving students a small but growing role in choosing topics within the larger framework of content I was teaching, in deciding how to use their time within the classroom when they had tasks to perform, and in making some instructional decisions.

Where along the continuum between teacher- and student-centered instruction did I now fit? My dominant pattern in content and format of lessons remained teacher-centered but I had begun a fourteen- year journey in the mid-1950s moving steadily toward the middle of the continuum by the early 1970s. By that time, my beliefs about teaching, learning, and history had evolved over the years into a conviction that a mix of student- and teacher-centered activities would be the best way for me to teach students to think historically. I had learned that no single way of teaching worked best for all high school students; I needed a varied repertoire of techniques to reach the largest number of students. Also using the “new” technologies of those years had grown to the degree that I saw them helpful in attaining my content objectives yet these remained peripheral to the lessons I planned, the lesson activities I orchestrated, and my overall teaching. [ii]

In 1972, I decided to get a Ph.D. and journeyed with my family to graduate school of education at Stanford University. After completing the doctorate in 1974, the Arlington, Virginia School Board hired me as superintendent. I served for seven years.

In 1981, I left the superintendency and to teach and write for the next 20 years at Stanford University.


[i]Barbara Stern (ed.) The New Social Studies: People, Projects, and Perspectives (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2009).

[ii] Parts of this description of my teaching history in high schools come from journals I have kept for those years and a revised account that I wrote in How Teachers Taught, pp. 10-11. Also see The Managerial Imperative, pp. 85-110. For my views on the tensions between the kinds of history taught in K-12 schools, see:


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