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The Sell: How to Get Your Students Interested in History

Posted by Nathan Moes
1 Avril 2014 - 2:15pm

The sell is small, and big. It is the small touches that may just pull in a reluctant student for just long enough to embed the hook and let the inherently engaging task of a historian (truth, no?) take us home.

Just as a law teacher will receive more buy-in if she books the local courthouse for her class’ courtroom deliberations, or a science teacher finds a class of labcoat-ed students mindfully poring over clues in a ready made crime scene, a history teacher may be greeted with enthusiasm, greater attention and more robust work if they pay attention to how they "sell" their activities to students.

This factor is beyond the concerns of historians, and thankfully so. History is a discipline that prides itself on close-reading, nuanced use of evidence, and cautious conclusions. Selling, or god forbid, hyping, is near anathema. Hyping is for movie trailerssensationalist 'journalism', or Flava Flav.

However when greeted with 30 smartphone wielding students, who are accustomed to by-the-hour-hype, a classroom teacher would do well to sell their investigations as entertaining, engaging, and worthwhile. This does not mean cheapening, or simplifying what you do in your classroom, only paying close attention to small details which can enhance the student’s experience of dynamic historical thinking. 

Here are a few small adjustments we may choose to make when setting up a historical investigation in our classrooms.

DRAMA: The best historical investigations combine the elements of a whodunit and a soap opera. Sell the mystery. If there is a touch of drama deep within you, muster it up. If you have a flair for it already, use it. Set the scene. If there are grisly elements to your historical investigation, highlight them, if there are larger than life characters, make them humongous, if there is uncertainty, well, point it out. Use your most dramatic tones, from soft, to loud, from intense to contemplative. Debase yourself for the potential of engagement. We’ll take care of nuance once they’ve climbed aboard.

PROPS: When beginning, consider giving each student a folder, complete with an official investigative seal. It adds a touch of gravity. This may be a provincial crest (for when students retrace the steps of the Regina Riot Inquiry Comission),  Ministry of Foreign Affairs (when debating an appropriate course of foreign policy).

EVIDENCE: Sources, particularly textual sources, were “rarely created with historians in mind, and certainly not children.” The language used is often technical, specialized, or no longer in current use. It is often necessary to retype, simplify, eliminate. However, when this is necessary, still include small .jpg or scan of the original to illustrate the authentic nature of the source. It too adds a touch of gravity.

DRESS: Fashion can affect fitnesslab coats make you smarter. Researchers coined the term "enclothed cognition" to describe the mental changes we undergo when we wear certain clothing. When students are presenting or debating, encourage them to bring their sartorial ‘A’ game. With a little luck they will elevate their work until it matches the sophistication of their dress.

SEQUENCE: If you are able, present pieces of evidence in a strategic manner. Allow students to examine two or three sources, and come to a tentative conclusion. Then, on the following day, enter class with “new evidence...just pulled from the archive!," which will problematize the current conclusions. Too much evidence at one time can be debilitating. Too much conflicting evidence, even more so. By allowing students to work to conclusions with a limited set of sources before introducing others, we are give students a more focused opportunity to corroborate sources and deal with the thorny nature of evidence and interpretation...and each reveal enhances the sense of mystery for students working through an investigation. 

Some of these are touch embarrassing. Certainly a come-down from any philosophizing about the nature of teaching history. Here are the dirty hands, the boots on the ground "tips and tricks" which I detest...but use. I have yet to become the history teacher who commands respect and rapt attention based upon my erudite expositions and serious expectations for good historical thinking in my class.  But the boat is not the shore. And if this boat ferries students to their destination, then put a clock around my neck and let me hype.

What are your strategies for creating engaging history lessons?

Photo: Author's photo