Master of All They Survey? Historiography and Research Methods as “Content” in High School History

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:40 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Ryan Carey, Packer Collegiate Institute
Sarah Strauss, Packer Collegiate Institute
Instructors recognize the constraints time puts on our ability to teach everything we imagine a survey course needs to contain. An ill-timed snow day can wipe out whole swaths of cutting-edge scholarship. Instead of worrying whether or not every student will get to hear William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech (much less remember it), this paper argues that, as educators, we need to shift the debate about content away from issues of “coverage.” Instead, what we should be teaching students is historical thinking: how to discern and make their own historical arguments, and how to interpret and analyze primary sources within a historiographical context. Though chronological sequence, my tenth-grade U.S. History survey is more thematic in its structure which allows teachers and students to explode historiographical debates as well as explore their relationship to evidence and archival sources. Rather than the obligatory units on the Civil War and Reconstruction in the middle of the year, our survey revolves around a six-week unit on “The Nineteenth Century.” Without the limiting strictures of a textbook to march students through “one damned thing after another,” students use archival documents from the school (founded in 1845) and secondary sources to construct a museum exhibition entitled “The Packer Collegiate Institute in the Nineteenth Century.” Doing so, forces students to transcend the local nature of their sources to demonstrate the mutually constitutive relationship between our institution and the larger trends in nineteenth-century history. Our courses should not be constructed by the fear that the survey will be the last time students get to learn about U.S. history. Instead, we should design courses with the hope that in learning how to think like a historian, students will be ready (and willing) to read about, research, and analyze everything they can about our collective past.
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