Teaching High School History: The Power of the Personal

Ann White, May 1998

Do we still believe that good teaching emerges from a teacher's love of the subject? A generation ago a book called The Art of Teaching, by scholar and teacher Gilbert Highet, argued eloquently that good teachers keep on studying the subjects they teach, and that they keep on studying because they love their subjects. After all, who would drudge away at the books, year in and year out, without a deep personal passion for her subject?

Yet current educational literature, where the spirit of impersonal science prevails, rarely notes the effect of teachers' personal enthusiasm. One feels embarrassed to speak of personal passion amid concern over such pressing questions as how to use technology in teaching, how to assess students' learning, and how to apply the national history standards to classroom coverage of historical material. I write, nevertheless, about a teacher's personal passion for history, because in 20 years of high school history teaching, during which I have paid attention to the impersonal educational dialogue and sought to improve my teaching according to its lights, my personal intellectual passions have intruded themselves in surprising ways.

Nothing gets more attention in the current educational dialogue than the question of how to assess what students learn. I felt quite at the center of current debate when, some half-dozen years ago, I gave up tests in the medieval trimester of my 10th-grade European history course. I gave up both the short-answer test and the "essay" test, in which students write crammed-for, fact-filled paragraphs in a specified amount of time. (Or students who haven't talent or taste for cramming repeat generalities over and over to fill the bluebook pages.) I gave up tests in favor of essays that require deeper thought and longer preparation. Students might better learn that historical facts do not sit in books, like nuggets of gold in a stream bottom, waiting to be read and memorized. They might begin to understand that words, with their changing meanings and their myriad nuances, convey understanding of the past from one human mind to another.

When my students had read enough and thought enough and discussed enough to grapple with a thesis statement for an essay, my history class became a history-writing workshop. I could have taught thesis writing by showing the students examples of historical writing. Instead, I taught by doing--writing, before their eyes, the same paper they were writing. Why? Because I myself write history. It is my passion. I know its grinding difficulty; I know how much it teaches. I want to show them how I weigh evidence in my mind and how I weigh words. Does my tentative thesis genuinely express my understanding of, for example, expansion of the Arab Muslim empire? Should I use a more vivid verb? Or perhaps I cannot get the words right because I do not see clearly what happened in the past: I will reread my notes and rethink the problem.

When I share my enthusiasm, the students respond. My struggle over a thesis, captured on the blackboard, piques their interest. They write with zest. Next day, with even greater zest, they criticize each other's thesis statements. They recognize statements that describe but do not assert, they find each other's lapses in historical reasoning. Questions about thesis statements produce more intense classroom conversations than my test preparation ever evoked.

Shifting away from tests seemed to group me with progressive reformers. Conservative reformers would not approve my restless history course. One such conservative, E. D. Hirsch Jr., argues that tests, when properly used, "give a teacher feedback to determine whether students have attained a desired learning goal."1 More likely I belonged among the followers of progressive Theodore Sizer, who eschews tests in favor of asking students to demonstrate what they have learned through exhibitions of their work.2

Still, I was uneasy with a progressive identification. I have never given up the rigor beloved of conservative educationists. I do not ignore names, dates, and "facts," and I yield to no history teacher in my insistence on students learning chronology. My passion for historical understanding has kept me away from the progressives' project approach to history teaching, which picks and chooses themes from this historical era and that, ignoring the way time's thread entangles ideas and events. And I give grades. Students get back their essays marked with As, Bs, Cs, and Ds, along with an explanation of how their essays match or fall short of clearly defined standards. The progressive educational reformers who would praise me for giving up tests would shake their heads over my use of traditional grades.

Moreover, in my heart of hearts I know that I did not give up tests for any of the progressive reformers' reasons. I gave them up for my own personal, passionate desire to teach students how to write history with all their books and note cards spread out on the floor and all the wheels of their minds and feelings--not just the memory wheel--furiously whirring. I do not think that all history teachers should instruct in this way, any more than all history teachers should instruct according to progressive or conservative methods. I know one teacher who is able, through class discussion, to enthrall students with the medieval ideal of courtly love, though most of them have entered his classroom believing the ideal unrealistic and naive. He does not give tests. Another history teacher, passionate enough about the Middle Ages to want to buy and read a medieval history book every week if he could justify the expense to his wife, uses conservative methods in his high school classroom: lectures and tests. Students of both teachers learn a great deal about medieval Europe.

My students learn a great deal as well, yet I could not see myself in today's educational dialogue. In the modern, scientific conversation about educational reform, I could not find an image that fit the reality of my classes until one day, a year or so after I had jettisoned tests, it occurred to me that I resembled a master craftsperson teaching apprentices. Did my mind light on this image because of my passion for the Middle Ages? Perhaps. Does the image embarrass me with its romantic, premodern overtones? Sometimes. Yet it captures my relationship with my students better than modern scientific images. It captures teaching's personal aspect: I am not exactly like a parent to the students, but I do have a stake in their spiritual and moral welfare, as in the medieval ideal. No coldblooded "assessor" of their learning, I hope above all to spark a passion for history in them like my own, if only for such brief moments as when one of them grasps the meaning of the 14th-century church's faltering leadership, or captures in words the swaggering naiveté of a Frankish knight, or takes up brush and oils to paint for the class a portrait of an earnest, noble Charlemagne. At the end of our medieval study, some students can even articulate an idea of the significance of the Middle Ages for their own lives. Is this one of Hirsch's "learning goals" that tests are supposed to measure? Yes, but it is also something deeper and more personal, an understanding forged within the relationship of teacher and student, master craftsperson and apprentice.

All intellectual passion is deeply personal. Medieval historian Norman Cantor has observed that most of the scholars who gave us the Middle Ages we know--the scholarly giants of the period 1895--1965 who founded modern medieval studies--could hardly have devoted whole lifetimes to achingly difficult scholarly work without projecting substantial "positive value" on the history they studied.3 In other words, these scholars worked from a deep personal passion for the Middle Ages. If such is true of scholarly giants, can it be less true of high school students?

Where did I belong in the educational dialogue? I fit on neither side. Discomfited, I tried to bring the two sides together, to meld the progressive and conservative views with each other and both with my determination to stir students' enthusiasm. My essay-writing fit the progressive view, as did my debates--"Were the 6th through 10th centuries really a Dark Age?"--for which students had to research, write, and present their own arguments. More conservatively, I insisted that students take notes on reading assignments in their textbook (yes, I use a textbook) and gave them quiz after quiz for which they could use their notes but not their books. The progressives plump for depth. Less is more, they say; don't worry about "coverage." When I participated in an English and history interdisciplinary unit, my students got two weeks' worth of in-depth study of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Nonetheless, I did not skimp on coverage. Our medieval trimester "covered" the full thousand medieval years, A.D. 500--1500, with textbook readings, primary source readings, and research questions, in a manner thorough enough to suit any conservative. Overall, I was pleased with the methodological balance I had achieved.

But then personal passion intruded once again. Recently, I began to feel bored with the course. Though my teaching did not yet seem rigid to the students, it felt rigid to me, and dull. Why this sense of staleness, I asked myself, when I so love medieval history?

The answer is that I want to deepen my mental picture of the Middle Ages. My successful methods--my carefully chosen essay questions, my research questions on medieval daily life, my primary source lessons on the feudal contract--fixed in my mind a picture that now looks too simple. I want to elaborate it, as a carpenter who has perfected plain wooden boxes yearns to build an ornamented cabinet. My course's clangorous crusaders, ambitious monarchs, and land-loving peasants lack interior lives. I want to learn more about the development of their piety and their intellects. I want to examine medieval spirituality, the spiritual and social ideals formulated by our medieval ancestors. Therefore I will abandon my careful melding of the educational reformers' dicta in order to rework my medieval trimester. I will read more medieval history. Then I will fret over how to incorporate medieval spirituality into my lesson plans. I will change my methods to suit my new material.

For other impassioned teachers, other changes. My friend the teacher of courtly love has Dante on his mind as a possibility for his next year's 10th-grade course, not because Dante appears on a "recommended for teaching" list but because he loves Dante. My book-buying colleague was enchanted to read an account of medieval scientific advances--just what he had been looking for, he said, to augment his understanding of the Middle Ages. It will spark his teaching because it first augmented his understanding, not the other way around. These two teachers and I share a passion for the medieval past, yet we do not teach exactly the same medieval course because intellectual passion is so highly personal.

I have tried to join the educational reform dialogue, only to find that my passionate involvement with history keeps overtaking the reformers' methodological issues. My experience suggests that Highet's long-ago claim retains its deep truth. Quirky, unscientific, highly personal passion still sustains teachers and vivifies their teaching.

—Ann White teaches European history and is academic dean at Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C.


1. E. D. Hirsch Jr., The Schools We Need (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 177.

2. Theodore R. Sizer, Horace's School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), 83--101 and passim.

3. Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 358.