Friday, January 2, 2009

What They Should Write in High School History Class

I had a conversation with my mother-in-law this evening, about Ed 2.0. I don't know if that's what educators in the field are calling it, but what I'm referring to is the coming and ongoing shift in classroom planning and pedagogy to embrace and embed technology into the curriculum. Stepping out of the role of front-of-room deliverer of information.

Anyway, my mother-in-law. She's a 20+ year vet who's trying to become part of the new. When she brought up plagiarism, I wondered how high school students can possibly NOT plagiarize when asked to write a research paper about a war, or a president? My junior year US history term paper was about Roosevelt's supposed hesitancy to get the US into WWII. But seriously, now. I could either come back with a survey of the existing literature, or some carefully reworded paragraphs stating ONE author's opinion on that subject. A literature review would have been a reasonable and useful thing to learn to write. But to ask ME to take a side seemed ridiculous. Or at least, redundant.

What are they going to have time to find that hasn't been written about one of those issues? What purpose does it serve to send students through a tiny handful of secondary (or tertiary) sources, and ask them to formulate a thesis from a stack of notecards? How can a teacher help students wade through a given event or period and bore down to a level of specificity they can handle without reaching the absolutely trivial? Shouldn't a research paper encourage students to explore something they know, until they can find an area that is yet unknown?

I propose a research paper that forces students to identify a topic on which they can conduct original research. That connects to their lives AND, nominally, at least, to the subject of the class. Why aren't students spending the bulk of their US History class time tracing their own family's history to and through America? Not only would a rich tapestry of various family histories emerge and intersect, but a) students would have a natural hook to drive their interest and supply their research with primary sources, but b) they will have the opportunity to explore those events, processes, laws, and figures that most influenced that history. It would challenge the teacher to present the subject in non-linear fashion, but isn't that becoming increasingly impossible each year anyway? In 1989, while the Berlin Wall was coming down, we were studying the Civil War. Why weren't we studying US foreign policy during the Cold War? We barely got to Vietnam. How can this year's class possibly get through it?

By the time they even sneak up on the period that had the most visible impact on the world in which they live (or lived, pre-9/11), they will be out of time to write anything decent about it. Not that they'll care, since they'll be finished with US History, done with the Constitution test, and ready for summer.

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