Volunteer tutor, Vicky Schippers, wants history to come to life when she teaches her students.
The way history is taught in schools focuses too much on rote memorization and does little to engage students, suggests Vicky Schippers, a volunteer tutor for underprivileged students. She writes that history is relevant to the lives of students. Lessons, she writes in this commentary, should reflect that importance and give students an opportunity to explore and question the past.
The way history is taught in U.S. high schools should be completely overhauled. For the vast majority of students, history is presented as a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam. Their other core subjects—English, science, and math—almost always pull in students who love reading or enjoy the intricate pleasures of numbers and theories. However, it is the rare student who finds anything edifying or relevant about history as it is taught in our classrooms today.
My perspective is unusual. I tutor New York City students in a poor area of Brooklyn who, in spite of passing their other state-mandated regents’ exams in core subjects, have repeatedly failed their history exams and, therefore, cannot receive a high school diploma.
Take a student I’ll call Tony, for example. He’s 20 years old with a 4-year-old son. He’s covered in tattoos: The two most visible are on his neck and left hand. They both spell the name of his son. He sports two long silky black braids, is very skinny, and wears pants that hang around mid-thigh. I don’t know whether his drooping pants are a fashion statement or the result of his inability to afford a belt small enough to hold them up. Tony is desperate to pass this history exam because without a high school diploma, he will count himself lucky if he continues to be offered occasional work as a stock boy.
What astonishes me about Tony, as it does about any of my students, is how little he knows about the world. The five or six blocks he travels between his home, school, and work circumscribe his entire life. At this point, there is no way Tony can pass his regents’ exam unless I “teach to the test”; in other words, we work our way through old exams, one multiple-choice question after another.
Continue reading how history teaching focuses too much on rote memorization.