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All Places > History Community > Blog > 2018 > November

I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As a child there in the 1970s and 1980s I was bombarded with colonial history. So much so that when I chose history as my undergraduate major I stayed far, far away from courses on Colonial America and focused instead on those that covered post-Civil War society and politics. I took only one class in colonial history at college and one required seminar in Early America as a graduate student.


Nowadays, as a professor at a community college, I teach aspects of Colonial America every semester in US History, Women’s History and Black History. As an historian I’m often distressed when I reflect on the history I learned as a child. I’m keenly aware that my students, many of whom also went to grade-school in New England, were taught a sanitized version of colonial history in which pilgrims and Indians feasted together through long, cold winters. As a result, I’m constantly looking for new ways to help my students develop a more sophisticated understanding of the history they were introduced to as children.


The month of November is a particularly good time to ask students to reconsider the historical lessons learned in elementary school. For those of you, like myself, who are not experts in the field of colonial or Native American history, a great way to expand students’ understandings of the myths and historical misrepresentations wrapped up in our yearly Thanksgiving celebrations is to bring in an expert. Earlier this month our college invited representatives of the Tomaquag Museum to speak to students at two of our four campuses. Tomaquag is the only museum in the state of Rhode Island dedicated specifically to the history of native people. In addition to bringing numerous artifacts to share with students, museum educator Silvermoon LaRose offered an alternative historical narrative that helped students to break down some of the common misconceptions they have about native life in Rhode Island.


I was struck during the presentation by how little my students knew about their own communities. In my US History I course, for example, students study Tecumseh and his movement to unify native people in the early nineteenth century. We study Indian Removal in the southeast and the Trail of Tears. My choice of topics on native people in those periods has stemmed, in part, on a need to cover a geographically diverse history of the United States. As I listened to educators from the Tomaquag, however, I realized that in my efforts to look at life in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia and other places not New England, I had inadvertently missed the opportunity for students to learn more about the ethnic diversity of their own communities.


My initial thought was to make changes to the content of my course for next time around. When I considered what the students told me that they gained from the visit from the Tomaquag Museum educators, what I realized is that students relish the opportunity to hear native voices. Talking with students after the visit, for example, yielded discussion of their interest in the musical instrument one of the visitors played and the artifacts that the indigenous historians had shared with the students. My students were enthusiastic about having heard authentic native voices telling the stories of their history. Instead of changing next fall’s plans for readings and lectures, therefore, I’m in search of other potential classroom visitors who can provide my students with diverse voices and historical narratives. Suggestions welcome.

As our country considers the fallout of this week’s midterm elections, I find myself engaged in an internal dialogue about what goes on in my classroom day-to-day.


Prior to November 6th my students appeared to be of two minds: either they were committed to voting OR they were completely disinterested. Admittedly, the latter perspective has driven me a bit crazy over the last couple weeks. While one of my on-campus classes was anxious to discuss the “caravan” of refugees moving north through Mexico, the other two could not have been less interested. I did my best to remain non-partisan and encourage them to vote. “Which day?” one of them asked innocently.


On the other hand, over the last couple weeks if I were to bring up the World Series, the score of the most recent New England Patriots game, or a local performance by a big-name entertainer my students were full of energy and deep analysis. Even the students who are generally quiet in class could cite statistics on Red Sox pitchers or Tom Brady’s passing numbers.


I cannot help but wonder why it is that when these same students are asked to answer essay questions on an exam their answers lacks detail and specificity. I know they are capable of remembering all kinds of minutia and yet when it comes time for them to apply that skill to the material they learn in my class, most fall short.


Engagement is undoubtedly a key to success whether we are talking about student learning in the classroom or convincing an electorate to vote. This observation is nothing new or groundbreaking. When they are engaged with something they enjoy -- popular culture, sports, etc -- my students demonstrate an enormous capacity for both memorization and analysis of factual material. They read websites and newspapers, and listen to music or to sports radio. The information they hear becomes embedded in their minds without any effort. When citizens believe that voting will matter (ie, have an impact on their personal lives), they vote.


How do I replicate this phenomenon in class? How do I convince my students that engagement with the material in our class will have a significant and lasting impact on their success as students?


I feel particularly compelled to wrestle with this question as we are now past midterm exams and entering what I see as the toughest part of the semester: that period between midterms and Thanksgiving Break when, in my experience, many students stop attending classes regularly and start to miss important deadlines for assignments. Engagement at this stage of the semester may be more critical than at any other point because students have invested a great deal of time in the course and are close completion.


So that’s this week’s big question: what are you doing in class right now to help your students stay engaged?