More than just facts: Making history interesting

Comparing sources is essential to making history interesting for students
Comparing sources makes for more interesting history and provides the chance to arrive at one’s own opinion on a historical event or era after looking at several different perspectives

“I don’t like history,” or, “I have never been good at history” many students admit when they first step into my history class. I respond to those detractors with something like this, “Well, this class will be different than any other history class you have ever taken.” One of the highest compliments I have received from students goes something like this, “This is my favorite class, and I don’t even like history!”

Getting students to like history is not as hard as one might think. The keys to making history interesting are making students think about history, helping them connect to history and showing them that history is more than just memorizing names, dates and facts.

Here are several strategies I use to make history interesting for my students:

Emphasize historical and personal narrative: Students regularly learn about the movers and shakers of history like presidents, generals, business moguls, etc., but have a hard time relating to them. They usually do not learn that much about the common man, who they can relate to much better. In my course I emphasize historical narrative such as slave narratives, Civil War diaries, and civil rights memoirs, making them an integral part of my curriculum. So often I have heard, “I learned more from the narratives than I did from the textbook.” And another thing, they will remember what they read in a narrative more readily than what they read in a textbook.

But narratives are not just the remembrances of people who are dead. It is a novel concept, but narratives are alive and well and in students’ own houses and next door! One of the major assignments my students do every year is an Oral History Research Paper, in which they talk to their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and neighbors about historical events in the last century. This assignment engages students in history. When students do this assignment, they are doing history. They connect to history at a personal level, realizing that Grandma Pat felt repressed as a woman during the 1950s, that Uncle Joe was deeply scarred by watching three of his buddies die in Vietnam, and that Irv down the street was a victim of the 1950s polio epidemic. Students regularly thank me for requiring them to do this assignment, saying things like, “I never realized my Dad did . . . “ or “I have even more respect for my Grandpa because . . . “

Finding out about history from "people next door" is extremely enlightening for students and helps make history real
Finding out about history from “people next door” is extremely enlightening for students and helps make history real

In short, narratives humanize history, which makes it both more interesting and enjoyable. And on that same token, do not be afraid to talk about the gee-whiz details of historical figures, such as the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were friends who became enemies over party politics but later reconciled and died on the same day, which was ironically the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826! Sharing such information humanizes the movers and shakers, makes them more memorable and helps students see that they were real people just like them.

Emphasize historiography: Would a white historian writing at the beginning of the 20th century interpret slavery the same as an African-American historian writing at the dawn of the 21st century? Of course not! Their interpretations would be completely different and based on their race, the region in which they live, the time period in which they are writing, etc. The sayings go that every generation rewrites history and that history is written by the victors and to a great extent these two sayings are true. Each generation of historians reinterprets history and up until about the time of the civil rights movement, U.S. history instruction was largely the European (Caucasian) version of history because Europeans were the victors in U.S. history.

The reinterpretation of history I am describing is historiography, which literally
means the study of the writing of history. When I ask students on the first day of
class, none of them know what it means. I was not introduced to it until graduate
school and it literally opened up a whole new world. Knowing about
historiography made history more interesting to me, a person already keenly interested in it! In much of my instruction, I have students look at history historiographically, most of the time answering the question, “What do we as Americans think of (insert historical event name) today compared to how it was seen by past generations?” One of the most interesting U.S. historical events to look at historiographically is Reconstruction, the period immediately after the Civil War. It is the U.S. historical event that has undergone one of the most stark reinterpretations of any and an excellent example of historiography. For example, the early interpretation of Reconstruction portrayed former slaves as unfit for the rights they gained through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments while more recent interpretations paint them as heroes who fought an unwinnable battle to exercise those rights.

This about face in interpretation is one prime example that helps students realize history is not just a list of indisputable facts but that it is alive and well through reinterpretation and revision, which is why I help students realize this by doing a Historiographical Presentation, in which they compare two historians’ interpretations of the same historical event. As one prominent Reconstruction historian, Kenneth Stampp, said, “It is dangerous, of course, for a historian to label himself as a revisionist for his ultimate and inevitable fate is one day to have his own revisions revised.”

Emphasize the need for several sources: On the first day of class, I usually tell my students that students take what their professors and textbooks say as gospel. I tell them that they should not do that. I encourage them to question everything, even me. Many of my in-class activities and assignments revolve around comparing two or three accounts of the same event or issue. By continually comparing sources, students see that different sources interpret events differently and sometimes use different facts to illustrate the points they are trying to make. By looking

at a variety of sources, students critically think about history and form their own opinion on the event or issue at hand based on the accounts they have read. This makes history more exciting and memorable. When students do research on a topic such as this, it sticks. They are much more likely to remember it in the future because they have engaged themselves in the topic and found out the “real story.”

Emphasize cause and effect: History is far from one fact after another, but that is how it is taught in many classrooms. Many teachers do not go into great if any detail on what caused significant events to happen. For instance, students find out about and can recite facts about the Revolutionary War, but cannot explain what caused it. In my own history class, many students tell me that before my class they did not know anything about the French and Indian War and that its aftermath was significant in eventually causing the colonists to want to break away from Britain. Knowing what caused what to happen enhances the significance of history, makes it more interesting and makes it more understandable and, dare I say it – enjoyable.

Emphasize discussion: Students come into history classes expecting to sit through long lectures. With the discipline’s reputation centered on lectures, it is no wonder students are expecting to be bored in a history class. By emphasizing discussion instead of centering on lectures, history teachers can open a whole new world to their students – a world more exciting than hearing one voice. In one of my course evaluations, a former student said he enjoyed the class because students were not just hearing my version of history. Instead, I encourage students to interject with their own viewpoints and analyses.

The main format I use in my course for getting information across is by going through a list of discussion questions on the reading for each class period. On each question, I open the floor to students first, and then after students have responded, provide the information I wanted to get across from the discussion question and/or reinforce students’ responses to ensure understanding. Many discussions have been lively and have led to some debate, which is good. Different perspectives on history enlighten students’ understanding and what better way to find those perspectives than encouraging students to share theirs? I have learned a lot from my students’ comments during discussions. Their comments have enlightened my understanding and helped me see many historical events through a different perspective and have done the same for students themselves.

2 thoughts on “More than just facts: Making history interesting

  1. This is a awesome article. I want to be a history teacher and this gives me information on different ways of teaching history. Thanks

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Carlos! You’re welcome for the blog post. Glad you enjoyed it. Like I think I’ve told you before, please don’t hesitate to ask any questions you’d have on teaching history.

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