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Quit the Text!

Elizabeth A. Ten Dyke
Kingston High School

    I took my tenth graders to the library the other day.  They were to visit the website "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" at the Center for History and New Media1 and browse the on-line collection for images from the French revolution and the age of Napoleon.  Each student was to select two images that interested them for any reason, print the images, and write a sentence or two explaining why they chose the pictures they did.  I planned to build lessons around the students' selections.
    After my students settled in at the computers and began to work, a lovely quiet descended over the library.  I circulated around the computers, providing assistance as needed.  Sometime later the quiet was shattered by gales of laughter coming from the other side of the room. 

            "They're mooning them!" a girl cried, pointing at the screen.

    I walked over to see what was happening.  She had pulled up the caricature "Army of Jugs"2 and noticed the line of sans-culottes atop a Roman arch with their trousers down, presenting their rear ends to the advancing army.  (Not surprisingly, the student failed to read the explanatory text which said that the French were actually defecating on the British.) 

            "I can't believe they're doing that!" the student continued.  "Can I pick this one?  Is this OK?"

            "Absolutely," I replied, "you just have to explain why you chose it."

            "Because it's so funny!" she said, and that is exactly what she wrote on the sheet.

    Now I can (and will) make use of the textbook's chapter on the French revolution.  We will look up the meaning of new terms such as "sans-culottes" and "Committee of Public Safety."  We will practice finding the main idea in a paragraph.  We will extract dates and make timelines of events, analyze cause-and-effect relationships, explore the motivations of individuals involved in the revolution, and more.  But the story of the French revolution as told by the text is a dead story.  Marie Antoinette did this.  The Third Estate did that.  Even apparently intriguing events such as the assassination of revolutionary J. P. Marat in his bathtub fail to intrigue.  There is nothing in the text that stimulates interest like that which caused my student to erupt in peals of laughter when she saw an 18th century picture of French troops dropping their trousers. 4
    Students don't have to laugh or cry to be excited about their social studies classes and love history, but it certainly helps.  At the other extreme are boredom and alienation.  I am reminded of a passage in Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner's small but important book Teaching as a Subversive Activity3 that describes the game we all play far too much in school, the game of "Let's Pretend."  Referring to traditional, text-based classroom lessons which are typically followed by standardized assessments, the authors wrote: 5
    Let's pretend that you are not what you are and that this sort of work makes a difference to your lives; let's pretend that what bores you is important, and that the more you are bored, the more important it is; let's pretend that there are certain things everyone must know, and that both the questions and answers about them have been fixed for all time; let's pretend that your intellectual competence can be judged on the basis of how well you can play Let's Pretend.4 6
    "Let's pretend that you are not what you are . . . "  Who are the teens and young adults who sit in front of us in the classroom every day?  They are intelligent, passionate individuals trying to find their way in a world that all too often is characterized by conflict, pain, and suffering.  Sometimes they have healthy, safe lives and they are troubled only by things such as terrorism and war.  Sometimes they are struggling with personal problems no young person should have to face.
    "Let's pretend there are certain things everyone must know" and "let's pretend your intellectual competence can be judged by how well you can play the game of 'Let's Pretend'."  I am not persuaded that there is anything everyone must know.  As to how well one's intellectual competence can be judged by standardized assessments?  In New York State students take two years of global history and geography in 9th and 10th grades, then sit for the global Regents exam in June of their 10th grade year.  As I am teaching 10th grade this year for the first time in several years, I looked at the last three Regents' exams to see what parts of the modern world history curriculum (1500 to the present) have been tested recently.
    The August 2005 exam was particularly telling.  Students had to be able to field questions on the geography of world oil reserves, ethnic diversity in India, the changing role of students in Chinese history, and the Armenian massacre.  However there were no questions on colonialism or imperialism, the industrial revolution, World War I, fascism, the Holocaust, or Vietnam.  Their knowledge of the cold war was "assessed," if you can call it that, by their ability to recognize the Soviet bloc on a map.  The French revolution made an appearance in one question in which students had to correctly identify social class as the basis for the estates.  The test is a graduation requirement and therefore, arguably, a measure of intellectual competence.  However, when parents ask me if I "teach to the test," I tell them that if I were to do so, I would be done with the curriculum in November.
    I propose that we abolish the game of "Let's pretend" and the textbooks upon which the game is based.  Don't get me wrong.  I am not advocating that we abandon either history or the social studies.  Without history, humans would not be able to make sense of the present or plan for the future.  We would be indistinguishable from other animal species.  Additionally, the social studies (in the broadest sense) enable students to develop skills critically important for successful participation in the work force and in local, national, and international communities. 10
    However, humanity and the capacity for civic participation can be fostered by teachers in ways that are far more engaging and meaningful to students than text-based lessons.  While teachers should work from a high quality curriculum and structure learning experiences for their students, students should also have the opportunity to exercise control over their own learning.  They should engage with a variety of primary sources, developing both traditional and non-traditional (visual) forms of literacy.  They should practice critically interrogating sources in order to check their reliability.  Young people should engage in learning experiences that foster the development of mutual cooperation and respect.  Students should have the opportunity to solve problems, develop their personal leadership potential, and exercise historical and social imaginations.  Finally all high school students, especially those who sit in my social studies classes only because they must, need help developing an appreciation for the lasting relevance of history. 11
    The New York State Global History and Geography curriculum contains a thorough introduction to world history topics and themes.5  However, rather than working systematically through each line of this vast, 32 page document, I approach it selectively, drawing on my professional experience and training in the social sciences to select core areas for study, then presenting my students with opportunities to determine their own areas of interest.  A simple "KWL" activity (what do students Know, what do they Want to know and, after study, what have they Learned) can be used to ascertain student focus and shape unit planning.  I recently conducted this activity with my 9th graders prior to starting a unit on ancient civilizations.  Much to my surprise, I learned that a majority of my students were sick to death of studying the pyramids but they were very interested in all aspects of ancient Chinese civilization. 12
    I try to include at least one primary source in every lesson.  Sometimes we may read only a short quote, but we will always discuss the identity of the speaker, his or her role in the subject under study, and influences on the speaker's motivation and point of view.  Longer passages present students with the opportunity to practice basic skills such as finding the main idea in a paragraph and reading for a purpose.  More sophisticated students can analyze the construction of an argument or rhetorical devices used in the writing. 13
    When studying the images selected by my 10th graders for our unit on the French Revolution, I provided my students with visual image analysis worksheets available online at the Center for History and New Media.6  We practiced examining and interpreting several images together, then my students worked independently on the same task.  They became quite interested in (and good at) identifying symbols, recognizing visual patterns in an image, and hypothesizing interpretations.  We had extraordinarily rich and interesting conversations when students offered different points of view and supported their opinions articulately by drawing on evidence from the picture at hand, and their knowledge of world history. 14
    Activities that foster mutual cooperation among students and respect for their peers can be as simple as assigning students to randomly-created small groups for a 10 minute cooperative learning activity, with clearly defined expectations for behavior.  They can be as elaborate as spending a week and a half putting a historical figure on trial, with a fully prepared prosecution, defense, witnesses, jury, and judge. 15
    Finally, even if we cannot make the lasting relevance of history explicit every day, certainly on a regular basis teachers can find ways to help our students make meaningful connections between the past, the present, and the future.  The recent riots in France enabled me and my 10th students to compare the motivations and strategies of disaffected members of the underclass during the French revolution and today.  We also critically evaluated decisions made by authorities as they sought to restore order and address the social conditions that led to the riots in 2005. 16
    I suspect one of the reasons too many high school world history teachers rely on the text is that they are not sufficiently well-trained in their field.  Teachers should work as hard in graduate school as do future doctors and lawyers.  They should write theses in social science disciplines—not pedagogy.  They should understand the concept of "literature" as a body of knowledge that shapes understanding and interpretation of a historical question.  They should be able to study a body of scholarly literature and become familiar with its premises, methods, and debates.  Thus prepared, teachers would be able to kick off their training wheels, plan units and build lessons that truly meet their students' needs. 17
    Students don't laugh out loud in my social studies classes every day, but when they do it is because I have managed to pull off that that magic that makes history interesting, challenging and, yes, even fun.  That never happens on days when we are reading the text. 18
Biographical Note: Elizabeth Ten Dyke received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate School, City University of New York in 1997. She is the author of Dresden: Paradoxes of Memory and History (Routledge 2001). At present, Dr. Ten Dyke teaches global history and geography at Kingston High School in Kingston, New York. .  


1  George Mason University,

3 Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).

4 Postman and Weingartner, 49.

5 "Global History and Geography," Department of Education, New York State,

6 "Women in World History—Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Visual Source." Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,



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