Bridging Historians and History Teachers

In November 2018, the Washington Post published a story with the headline, “Historians: What Kids Should Be Learning in School Right Now.” In asking this important question, the reporter chose to only ask historians, all of whom were university professors, authors, or filmmakers. The ideas presented were thoughtful. However, none of the people asked were K-12 history teachers.  

The next day, I noticed on social media that some history teachers and teacher educators (which is my line of work; I prepare future history teachers at UMass Boston) were upset with the Washington Post’s snub. One colleague Alex Cuenca posted on Twitter, “Feel free to ask K-12 teachers. … We have a clear stance on what kids should be learning.” Others had similar comments. While the views of historians on the subject are certainly important, it would have been nice to include a very important groups of history educators: K-12 classroom teachers. 

It was in this moment that I realized that we need to do much more to connect historians and history teachers. So, I started a hashtag and a social media campaign…

Realizing that many teachers (#SSChat) and historians (#twitterstorians) are now using Twitter and other social media sites to learn and share, I decided to try and connect the two using the hashtag #BridgingHistoriansAndTeachers. I asked the teachers who I followed on Twitter to tell me what historians they followed. I then chose a new historian each day, Tweeted at them that I was following them as part of this campaign, and I challenged them to follow back any K-12 teacher who followed them. Of the 42 historians from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that I followed, 33 followed me back and promised to follow K-12 teachers. I then made a Twitter list for historians to join and teachers to subscribe to; we currently have 136 teachers (teachers: consider subscribing) and 49 historians (historians: you can e-mail me to join) included. I received many messages from K-12 history teachers and historians that they were thankful for this campaign and that we needed more ways like this to work together.

In January 2020, I had an opportunity to speak on a panel at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting about my social media campaign and possible ways to build bridges between historians and history teachers. I argued that this must be a two-way bridge. Historians and history teachers need to start collaborating around historical research, pedagogy, and public history. They should be learning from each other. More teachers should be invited to work on historical research projects. More professors should visit K-12 classrooms and observe some of the creative teaching techniques that are being used. Both groups should work together by designing history curriculum and materials from kindergarten to graduate school.

At the AHA Annual Meeting, I argued that K-12 schools are where people first learn history in a serious way, including where they begin to develop their historical thinking skills and interpretations of the past. Sadly, many Americans never study history beyond high school (at least in an academic way, many adults report routinely visiting historical sites and museums, discussing history with their families, or watching history media). 

At the same time, history education is facing some serious challenges. We have all heard the troubling statistics about the decline in history majors and the number of college students taking history courses (which may also be related to a decline in future teachers-who make up a large percentage of history majors and students taking history courses).

Historians and history teachers are in this boat together, yet we rarely work (or even talk) to each other. We need to be allies in the important mission of educating the public about the past. While there are about 3,300 Americans who identify as historians, there are 232,000 middle and high school history teachers and 1.1 million generalist elementary teachers. As an undergraduate student in history and education at UMass Amherst years ago and now a professor at UMass Boston, the history professors whom I have worked take seriously their role in educating future and current teachers. However, at many colleges and universities, history faculty do not see themselves as teacher educators and rarely collaborate with education faculty). 

If we regard historians to be historical experts, then it makes sense that they would want to work regularly with teachers (who are providing most of the academic history instruction to the public). The work of the historian is one of investigation, questioning narratives, and seeking new understandings of the past. History teachers often have a thirst to learn new information about or interpretations of past events. Most history teachers’ summer reading lists are full of the latest history books (it is also important to note that there are many K-12 history teachers and teacher educators who are also historians; they may be well positioned to help connect the two groups). 

If we regard teachers to be pedagogical experts, then it equally makes sense that historians might want to learn new methods of teaching from them. In my research, which focuses on elementary- and secondary-level history teaching, I have found that classroom teachers (especially here in Massachusetts) are making progress in more regularly using inquiry-based methods and teaching traditionally underrepresented groups’ histories (i.e. people of color, women, the poor and working classes, LGBTQ people). They certainly could serve as models for many university history professors and historians, where lecture is still the most common form of instruction and many voices are still left out of their courses.

My hope is that this small social media campaign might lead more collaboration between historians and K-12 history teachers, with the ultimate goal of improve history education for everyone. It may take a major culture change in the academy to happen, but I certainly believe it is possible (and know others agree).

Christopher C. Martell is an assistant professor of social studies education at UMass Boston and an alumni of the UMass Amherst History Department (’02). 

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