Mr. Thomas, a new middle school history teacher, came into my office and sat down. He let out a deep breath, clearly a little frustrated.
“Why don’t my students like history?” he asked.
Mr. Thomas went on to explain that he walked into his class today excited by the pages of notes and the lengthy PowerPoint he had to share with his students about the Underground Railroad, the Dred Scott Decision, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But, just a couple of minutes into the lesson, students start moving around in their seats out of boredom and asking seemingly unrelated questions:
“Why do we even have to know this?”
“What does this have to do with me?”
“Can we watch YouTube?”
Mr. Thomas earnestly wanted to see his students love history the way he did, but this generation of students didn’t seem interested.
For those brave souls who have chosen to share their love of history with adolescents, there are more challenges today than ever before. Make no mistake, middle school has always had its own unique difficulties—namely, raging hormones and adolescent attitude.
But today’s middle school teachers find themselves in a generational disconnect from their students unlike any we have faced before. Further, history teachers as a group have often received less instructional coaching support, as the subject isn’t a focus of standardized tests in many schools.
So why exactly is teaching middle school history so difficult, and what can we do about it?
The ‘Why’ Gap
Your generation tends to think differently in some ways than our students’ generation. Your students are from the generation known as iGen or Generation Z (born after 1995) and you are most likely a Millennial, a member of Generation X, or a Baby Boomer. The challenge this creates, as Mark Perna point out in his new book Answering Why, is that you have a lot of students who don’t want to learn something unless they know why they need to know it.
These iGen students are not asking why out of disrespect, but they simply do not respond effectively to the “because I said so” answer so many of us are apt to give. These students were raised by adults who were much more collaborative about their parenting philosophy. Their parents tended to explain the reasons for doing a task (“The reasons why you should go to bed now are …”) in a way that many of our parents never did. Your students, as a result, are simply more likely to want to know why.
If you are teaching the way your history teachers taught you, then you might be doing too much “what” and “when” and not enough “why” for this group.
Keeping Students’ Attention
Many of the middle school history teachers I have worked with over the years want to spend a significant amount of time lecturing. In talking to teachers after observing lessons, it has become clear to me that lecturing isn’t necessarily an intentional instructional choice. Instead, teachers practice the methods they’re used to: Lecturing is the way their history teachers taught them years prior.
Consider another generational difference that hits hard in the middle school classroom. As researcher Jean Twenge argues, this is the first generation of students to spend their entire childhood in the age of the smartphone. They have been trained to swipe as soon as they get bored.
Students now spend hours a day interacting with texts, tweets, and social media. At the very time when newer standards demand that students think and read texts more deeply and carefully, your students come to you with less practice doing so.
That age-old history teacher technique of standing at the front of the class and lecturing for long periods of time is just not going to work anymore.
What’s a History Teacher to Do?
Given these generational changes, what can a history teacher do differently than her own teachers did growing up to better engage their students?
1. Ask students about their “personal why.” Spend time in your class working with you students on their own “why” of history. Facilitate a class discussion about why it is helpful to understand history and analyze historical events. How will that help you in high school, college, and in life as a citizen of the country and the world? Then, have each student create a brief plan explaining their why.
One 6th grade student I worked with wrote a simple but powerful reason: “I want to learn history so I know how to change the laws to make life better for everyone.” It’s going to be really hard to motivate all your students unless you can get them to understand a “why” beyond getting a good grade.
2. Discuss the “instructional why.” Start every lesson by both sharing the objective and briefly explaining why it is important to know this information. For example, if you are studying the Civil Rights Movement, explain why that is still relevant today in our politics and society. Even better, ask the students why it might be important to know and come up with the answer together.
3. Keep it moving. The most important thing going on in any classroom is what the students are doing, not what the teacher is doing. You have to keep them active and involved. It’s okay to provide key facts, dates or main ideas, but then ask them questions to get them categorizing, inferring, comparing, debating (with evidence), writing, and sharing on a regular basis.
History class doesn’t have to be lecture-based: If your students have been sitting and listening to you for more than 10 minutes, then it’s time to change it up and get them doing something.
4. Prioritize. I know there are probably a huge number of historical dates and events that you would like your students to know. You might feel pressure from your curriculum to cover a lot. But realize that your students are only going to remember a small portion of what you teach.
Get in front of that problem and choose that small portion to emphasize. What are the few essentials in each unit that you want them to remember long term? This also takes the pressure off of you to cover everything, which can tend to lead to more student boredom.
5. Read and chunk. It is important (even, or maybe especially, in this era of texting and Snapchat) that students learn to read more challenging texts. History class is the perfect place to help students wrestle with complex informational text.
But primary source documents and historical analysis can be dense reading. Don’t make the common teaching mistake of giving students too long a text without a clear purpose. History teachers can model close reading, giving students a chunk to do on their own, and then discussing it as a class. Consider reading Mike Schmoker’s book Focus as a resource for using literacy in the history classroom.
History teachers have a more challenging job than ever in the era of trying to engage Generation Z, but this does not mean it is impossible. Adjusting the way we teach, when done with this generation’s needs in mind, can go a long way to improve student engagement. History is too crucial a subject for good citizenship to let our generational disconnect keep students from learning.