EMPATHIZING WITH THE MANY VOICES OF THE PAST: Two Teachers Help Their Students Connect with United States History

By Brenneman, Elaine Metherall | Social Education, January 2001 | Go to article overview

EMPATHIZING WITH THE MANY VOICES OF THE PAST: Two Teachers Help Their Students Connect with United States History


Brenneman, Elaine Metherall, Social Education


For those of us who are fascinated by United States history, student cries of "boring" and "meaningless" are unsettling and, perhaps, somewhat puzzling. Within the study of history, many of us see a kind of symmetry between past and present, a story of social relationships built over time.(1) We believe an understanding of history informs our own thoughts and actions, as well as the collective social and political landscape. Helping our students see and feel these temporal connections is our dearest wish as we plan our class time.

In our search, we try out new resources and innovative methods in order to involve our students as historians in the interpretation of past events. We may "ham up" our presentations or offer activities supposed to be "fun". Yet, even if our students seem to be enjoying our classes, many of us are still left with questions about what they are actually learning. In other words, we still ask, "How can I help my students find connections between past events, people, and social contexts in a way that helps them to carry their understandings into their own lives?"(2) Or, more succinctly, "How can I help my students reflect upon the potential lessons of history?"

To explore these questions, I undertook study of the work of two teachers regarded as exemplary by students, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators. At the time of the study, Ruth taught eighth grade in a middle school in a diverse working class/middle class school district outside a large city. She had been teaching for six years since completing her bachelor's and master's degrees in history education. Mary had four years of experience teaching tenth grade students in a high school whose student body consisted of mostly white, suburban middle class students. She received her bachelor's degree in history education from a small liberal arts college. For a year and one-half, I interviewed each teacher about her philosophy, goals, and practices. I observed in their classrooms, talked to their students, spoke with their colleagues, and examined their curricula, materials, and resources.

While Ruth and Mary differed in some of their goals and practices, they shared an unswerving commitment to the importance of developing meaningful connections between the history they taught and the lives of their students. This commitment wore a variety of faces. Both chose resources of interest to students, involved students in curricular decisions, and provided activities that allowed students to explore historical meaning from many perspectives. The central goal of each was to teach students to empathize with diverse people from the past in order to increase their understanding and promote personal reflection. They used this approach as a way to increase understanding and promote personal reflection. In Mary's words:

   I think a big part of any social studies curriculum is teaching people to
   respect all kinds of people. I think social history talks about what
   happens to the common person, what happens to all kinds of people in
   society. I try to ask students to put themselves in a lot of people's
   positions ... the position of a farmer in the Dust Bowl, a Sioux at Wounded
   Knee, one of the pioneers. We look at things from a lot of different
   perspectives and try to carry that into today.

Empathy is defined as "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another, in either the past or present".(3) Its use in the history classroom is not new. In some ways, United States history instruction has always done this by encouraging students to emulate heroes.(4) In Ruth's and Mary's classes, however, teaching history went beyond the simple narration of an accepted set of heroic stories. As one of Mary's students described it, "Many times I've been struck by the feeling that this would have actually been me, not just me looking at those people over there, it. …

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