“Aha!” moments

2009 July 13
by Ellen Noonan
Edison light bulb

Edison's light bulb, courtesy of National Museum of American History

On Friday, Leah, Isa, Frank, and I wrapped up a week-long summer institute with a group of Brooklyn and Staten Island public school social studies teachers. It was our third and final summer with these teachers, who have been among the most engaged, energetic, and self-reflective we’ve ever encountered. Accomplished practitioners all, they are a reminder of how endlessly complex good history teaching is, contending daily with infinite permutations of human personality, historical knowledge, cognitive diversity, and logistical detail. They juggle all of this with more than two dozen teenagers at a time, rotating through their classrooms at forty minute intervals. You try it sometime.

In our final discussion, we asked teachers to talk about the “aha” moments they’d experienced in our three years working together, those times when they or their students had felt that spark of engagement with the past that drew us all to study and teach history in the first place. Their examples ranged across many subjects and pedagogical approaches, but virtually all centered on the use of social history—stories and documents that they and their students could relate to, that made students feel that history wasn’t so boring after all, that made previously difficult subjects easier and more rewarding to teach. That sparked the joy in history, as one teacher powerfully identified it. I bring this up not to pat ourselves on the back, but almost as a public service. Even though the power of social history to engage students in understanding the past and the present is one of our founding ideas here at ASHP, I suspect I’m not the only one for whom it slips into the background in the face of a workday’s list of tasks.

In that spirit, let’s take to the comments: what’s one of your “aha” moments in history teaching? in history learning?

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