Teaching High School Social Studies Nearly Seventy Years Ago

When I began teaching U.S. and world history in 1956 at Glenville High School (Cleveland, Ohio), there were some technological aids that I had available and used often in the five classes I taught daily. Seven years later, when I left Glenville to teach at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., I had added a few more items to my technological repertoire.

At no time in those years, however, did I ask myself whether these technologies were productive, (i.e., did they get students to learn more, faster, and better?) or efficient  (i.e., did I teach more, faster, and better?). They were available, I tried them out in lessons, and I used them to help me teach the content and skills that I wanted students to learn. Period.

Between 1956-1967, every day I used the blackboard, the textbook, and the ditto machine to make student hand-outs (ah, just typing in the phrase brings back memories of smelling alcohol and having purple stained fingers from handling those “spirit masters”). For the blackboard, I even used different colored chalk to make diagrams and draw pictures to make points about the lesson.

Every few weeks, I would use a film-strip projector and film strips that were available in the social studies department or the district’s audio-visual department located downtown.

Once a month or so, I would borrow a film from the city’s library or the district’s media collection and use a 16mm projector available to my five colleagues in the Glenville social studies storeroom.

Using a film projector was a hassle and time-eater. I had to sign up for the projector because there was only one for the entire social studies department, get it from the department storeroom, and then wheel the cart and projector into my classroom. Then I had to thread the film onto the projector reels, preview it so I could prepare a study-guide for students. Finally, I would show it to the students and keep my fingers crossed that the machine wouldn’t break down.

Teaching five history classes a day with a total load of 150 students kept me busy from the moment I got to school at 7:30 AM to the end of the seventh period at 3 PM. Sometimes after school, students came to my room to ask about assignments or just talk with me. This 20-something teacher in the late-1950s would go home bone-tired.

What shaped the ways that I taught were the organizational context and beliefs that I had about teaching and learning. The organizational context of the age-graded school influenced heavily what I did daily in room 235 at Glenville High School. But not only did the age-graded high school with departments and self-contained classrooms influence what I did every day in my classroom, but also my beliefs about how history should be taught, what my Glenville students (mostly Black) should learn, and truth be told, which historical topics I enjoyed teaching.

All of these factors shaped what I did in daily lessons. While the organizational context remained the same for the years I worked at Glenville, my beliefs slowly changed as I experimented with new content, varied classroom tasks, and yes, used technologies of the day. And those technologies became integral to my daily lessons. They helped me do what I felt was necessary to communicate important knowledge and help students acquire essential skills.

Looking back to the late-1950s and early 1960s during my first teaching assignment from the vantage point of 2022 surely makes my teaching seem, well, paleolithic. With current accessibility to desktop computers, laptops, tablets, mobile devices and apps galore in and out of schools, both teachers and students now have a potpourri of electronic devices and software that an earlier generation of teachers raised on scarcity of “new”technologies, lacked.

Here’s the issue that bugs me: while teachers in the 21st century are far more prepared in academic content than teachers over a half-century earlier were and new hardware and software are available to teachers, the organizational context of the American high school remains the same as it was nearly 70 years ago. Because organizational context has a powerful but not determinative effect on classroom practice, teaching high school social studies, I believe, looks similar to how I taught nearly seven decades earlier.

If I am wrong, I sure hope that high school principals, university supervisors, and current high school social studies teachers will correct me.


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2 responses to “Teaching High School Social Studies Nearly Seventy Years Ago

  1. rlotan

    Those were the days, Larry….

    I started teaching in 1970, it all looked and felt the same as you describe (other than I taught English and French as foreign languages, chose interesting texts because that’s what I liked) and it all happened in Israel….

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – partout.

    Happy Hanukkah.
    Wishing you a happy, healthy, continuously productive, and peaceful 2023.


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