Connecting to History: Resources for Teachers to Improve Students' Historical Knowledge

By Whitmer, John Dale | Social Studies Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Connecting to History: Resources for Teachers to Improve Students' Historical Knowledge


Whitmer, John Dale, Social Studies Review


"Historical Knowledge is not a variety of knowledge, but it is knowledge itself; it is the form which completely fills and exhausts the field of knowing . . . ." -Bendetto Croce

"The value of History is, indeed, not scientific by moral: by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, it enables us to control, not society, but ourselves . . . it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet the future." - Carl L. Becker

Whether we state it formally in our lesson plans or informally in class, we teachers want our students to connect with their subject matter. In my college history courses, I list my course objectives in bold on my syllabi. I want students to "understand history," "participate in history," and "connect to history." While these may sound esoteric to those who list more concrete goals, such as knowing the Bill of Rights or memorizing the Gettysburg Address, these objectives reflect a deeper historical pedagogy.

History is not a product but a process. Most educators focus on learning. Yet learning is not the end of education; rather, it is an important step toward the inculcation of historical knowledge (see Figure 1). By learning about the Bill of Rights, students should eventually understand the dynamism of the Constitution-that it is an elastic document that has been added to and reinterpreted over time through the amendment process and judicial review-and the dynamism of history-that time continues to add to history and people continually reinterpret the past. While learning about the past, students will do history-that is they will hear, read, and communicate about people, events, dates, and ideas. But students also need to participate in the historical process-that is they need to become apprentices of history. Many professional historians would cringe at the thought of calling elementary, high school, or college students historians, but the truth of the matter is that anyone who participates in the historical process is an historian (Becker). Some, like myself, have participated in the process a little longer than others and have become journeymen, but very few are masters of the trade. It is hammering a nail from the wrong end to insist that students should be excluded from participating in the historical process because they have not yet fully developed their academic skills. I have found that by simply calling my students historians, they immediately take pride and ownership in their work and in the historical field. Moreover, students at all levels can produce historical works-diaries, oral interviews, web sites, reenactments, essays, etc.-that will add to the body of historical knowledge. Finally, educators should move students from relating to history-that is identifying historical anecdotes (i.e., "I had a relative who fought in the Civil War" or "I've been to Gettysburg")-to connecting with history-that is realizing that the issues that caused the Civil War, like liberty and federalism, are still shaping society today. By realizing that history surrounds their own lives and that that they can participate in it, students will develop the desire to learn more, thereby renewing the learning process and deepening their historical knowledge.

It might seem a daunting task to incorporate this pedagogy into the classroom. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to teachers. These resources provide teachers with ideas, strategies, and formal lesson plans, thereby reducing the extra time needed to research and incorporate such activities. One activity that can increase learning and understanding of history is diary writing. Students can read and interpret diaries to understand historical context and the importance of primary sources as historical evidence. They can begin to relate and connect to history by writing their own diaries, which record their their own thoughts and reactions to current events for future historians (Connor; Edinger; Morgan; Steffens and Dickerson). …

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Connecting to History: Resources for Teachers to Improve Students' Historical Knowledge
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