Teaching with stories in history class

January 23rd, 2013

Over at the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet,” David Bernstein laments the current state of most history classes in middle school and high school, noting that, by and large, his two sons (ages 7 and 15) mostly experience history in the form of “one big lesson in historic trivia.” No wonder, he writes, that so many students find history to be boring—and not worth their time to seriously study.

He continues:

Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher, district superintendent and professor at Stanford, cited a study in which “97 percent of students in history courses reported that their teachers lectured some of the time, they memorized information (83 percent), and used the textbook weekly (89 percent).” Only 10-15 percent of teachers, he estimated, incorporated “student-centered techniques” into their teaching.

Recently my son was studying for a test on the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Most of the study sheet was devoted to inculcating key historical figures, such as Phillip II, Louis XIV, and Henry IV. This was a defining period in Western civilization, when domination of the Catholic Church gave way to other forms of Christianity and eventually to a more liberal system of states with greater individual freedom. It’s impossible to understand America and the West, let alone the quest for democracy in the developing world, without some grasp of this explosive transition in Europe.

While these key ideas are not missing from the history curriculum and text book, they are obscured in a morass of factoids. […]

Many history teachers seem to think that they have to impart every last historical nugget, lest students are left woefully ill-equipped to function in a democratic society. That they are teaching doesn’t mean students are learning. How many of you could describe the difference between two British monarchs, Charles I and Charles II? Such figures only become potentially interesting after you understand the historical context in which they lived and led. Tenth grade is not the last chance students will ever have to learn about British kings; they can always learn more later, and some might even choose to do so if inspired by the teaching and the subject matter.

In today’s history class, the difference between a bad student and a good student is that the bad student won’t remember the information for the test, and the good student won’t remember it in three months.

A wonderful way to get students interested in history is to use stories (both true and fictional) to explore the larger themes that are important for students to learn. As we’ve pointed out before, stories draw students in by giving them characters to identify with and providing concrete mirrors for self-discovery and self-examination. A great example of this for history class is to use Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” while teaching about the Puritans in early America. Set in Massachusetts around 1630, at the time of the first English colonies in the New World, the story depicts an incident in the feud between the Puritans at Salem, under their governor, John Endicott, and a rival settlement called Merry Mount, founded by Thomas Morton. 

These two settlements represent different stances toward the world. Hawthorne says that “jollity and gloom were contending for an empire,” and that “the future complexion of [New] England was involved in this important quarrel.” The story opens with the people of Merry Mount celebrating round their revered May-Pole. Their wild festivities culminate with the marriage of a youth and a maiden, Edgar and Edith, the lord and lady of the May-Pole. After introducing us to this young couple, Hawthorne, in the middle section of the story, interrupts the story of the wedding to describe the origins of the hedonistic philosophy of Merry Mount, as well as the main features of the Puritans. The third and final section of the story depicts a Puritan raid upon the Merry Mount gathering, just after the marriage had taken place. Endicott and his followers chop down the May-Pole and have its votaries whipped and placed in the stocks. They arrest the high priest of Merry Mount and kill the dancing bear. Most interesting, though, is what happens to the newlywed couple. Endicott, a man of iron, is unaccountably softened by their obvious love and care for one another, and he spares them the punishments that the others receive. Instead, he orders that they be dressed in more modest clothing, Edgar has his hair cut in the “true pumpkin-shell fashion,” and Endicott takes them into the Puritan fold. In the final paragraph, Endicott, the severest Puritan of them all, salvages a wreath of roses taken from the May-Pole itself and places it over the heads of Edith and Edgar.

Though taking place in a historical setting, the fictional story entices readers with characters who must confront the very real and opposing beliefs held by the Puritans and the Merry-Mounters. In doing so, it raises great questions for students to discuss—about community, about what the “good life” is, about religion and freedom, and about the direction of America. It is these sorts of big themes that good stories can get students to address, and thus they become wonderful supplements to teaching facts and dates.

For more on how to use stories in history class, check out our discussion guide for Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.”

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