Engaging changes for the High School History Classroom

The history of man began thousands of years ago. At some point there was just enough of this history that someone decided they had better start teaching it. Though oblivious to a future of four brick walls and rows of desks, the first history teacher and his pupil probably engaged in a nearly modern lesson. One man listened while the other talked. And talked some more. Eventually he talked long enough that the pupil lost interest and only wanted to know if the information was on the test. History lessons are all too often taught to students at desks by a lecturing teacher. Very little history has been made during a lecture, at least not at the desks of bored students.

It stands to reason that very little history can be learned there, either. History lends itself to exciting discussion and meaningful classroom discoveries. It is easy for students to find something in history to feel passionate about. Some students, however, cannot see history through all the pages of notes and daily lectures. Ironically, some teachers cannot see it either. Too many people have suffered the traditional history course where a teacher speaks to a silent class. The knowledge is bestowed, the class dismissed, and by the way, there is a test on Monday. An engaging history classroom is very achievable but it requires breaking some traditional practices.

To paraphrase Newton’s Law of Motion, an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest. It can be said that a teenager’s attention operates much the same. If a student is completely disinterested before class even begins then they are not likely to refocus on their own. When the teacher stands and simply tells students where to turn in their notes and what they will be learning today, many students are quick to shut down. Starting the class off right requires something that demands a little attention. A comic strip, an interesting quote, a surprising picture or object, or anything to capture the students’ thoughts for an instant can make a world of difference in a lesson. These tidbits do not have to center specifically around the lesson, a vague relation is fine.

On the topic of quotes, it is best to think outside the box. For example, words from a celebrity that capture the feel or general idea behind that day’s lesson can be more affective than a quote from someone who was at the historical scene but with nothing especially interesting to say. This is the ‘attention-getter’, not the lesson itself. A well-known phrase or common slang can make a connection to a lesson as well.  A riddle or trivia question relating in some way to the material is another way to start. The answer can be used to build some anticipation by saving it for later in the class. Students can bring something to share, perhaps an article or object, before class begins. To relate more directly to the day’s topic, the class can begin with a question about the day’s material, something students will not know off-hand. Several guesses can be taken, maybe a vote and tally put on the board, and now the students are invested in the outcome of the lesson. The idea is to direct the students’ thoughts to the classroom from wherever else they might be wandering. Putting their brains in motion makes keeping them there an easier task.

History class can bring to mind the sound of a professor’s voice droning on while students sit quietly with their pens and paper. If a history instructor hears their own voice for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time, they are probably talking too much. Research on the attention spans of adolescents has been called in to debate in recent years. Some say 10 minutes, others longer. Regardless, common sense and human nature tell a basic truth: people get bored when they are not part of the action. A broad tactic to keep a class attentive is to give students frequent chances to hear their own voices. Stopping the lecture to ask random questions from the content covered is not enough.

Having a student read from the text book is also inadequate. For daily interactions small discussion groups can be used, a handful of pre-assigned students in close proximity that can discuss a quick question or opinion. This allows the teacher routine opportunities to present ideas or questions during lecture while giving everyone a chance to actively participate. This also allows a chance for at least a group or two to share with the class. Letting students share their opinions shows them that their opinions, and participation, are important. Periodic debates in the class are beneficial, not just over political agendas of the present but also past issues. A student needs a challenge, not an obvious answer or a chance to rattle off facts. Groups can be challenged to defend the role of the historical ‘bad guys’ or to decide how to avoid, fix, or even augment the disasters of the history. Although individual work is important, social learning is still crucial. Group or paired work can be used for more than big projects. Students learn from each other and by talking things out.

Teachers are prone to fear creativity, not to mention the risk of something fun. It is often said that high school classes have to be strictly structured for the sake of control and that most kids would laugh in the face of a teacher who broke away from lecture with an activity that was a little bit unique. Truthfully, high school students just aren’t as cool as they like to think. Neither are teachers. Structure and routine are imperative to classroom success. Still, group activities, creative projects, and a little educational freedom can be worked in as a routine, something the students expect and conduct efficiently.

Given a teacher that has taken time to build rapport, even the roughest teenagers can enjoy and benefit from playful, creative activities. A teacher that can put themselves out there and risk a little embarrassment is more successful. This does not mean to say that breaking out a historically-based script and elaborate costumes for every class is the best approach. Some classes are more willing to participate in certain activities than others. A teacher should know their students and what will suit each class best. Students can write their own skits, stories, or take up the role of a historical figure. Technology, depending on availability, allows for the creation of presentations, art, movies, and more. A small segment of a class period or two can be given to a “Who Am I?” interview, where one student has facts on his or her historical character and the class work in groups to ask questions and determine the mystery identity.  History charades also demands some thought and collaboration among classmates. The lecture time lost is compensated in a sense. Students learn from creative endeavors and also demonstrate just how deep their knowledge goes. These activities can serve as culminating assessments as well. Ultimately, these opportunities generate interest, perhaps even enthusiasm. A willing brain is more likely to learn than the one that could not care less.

A risk is involved in changing the tried and true tactics of a classroom. Teachers bare the weight of exceeding pressure for student success in all core areas, history among them. Changes from the lecture style can seem too risky. Time is limited, resources short, and there is always a lot of curriculum to cover. Group skills and creativity, after all, are not tested on standardized assessments.  Still, these elements are crucial for learning and effective in concept acquisition and retention. Some of the changes, like the daily small groups, take time. With guidance and experience, students begin to benefit and capitalize on these opportunities to actively participate in their learning. History class can finally become more than a lecture at a desk.