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History Teachers Closing the Textbooks

Michigan's Battle Creek Enquirer marks the 71st anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with an interesting article on history teaching in schools. Noting that few students today have a close ancestral or visceral connection to World War II, the piece asks how teachers can lend immediacy and authenticity to historical events like Pearl Harbor.

For a possible answer, the article points to the movement among K-12 history educators, possibly to be bolstered by the Common Core State Standards, "to encourage a deeper understanding of our past by pushing students to use primary sources and ask critical questions." This approach generally means going beyond textbooks or standard-issue accounts to helping students explore historical contexts and nuances.

The article quotes Mitch Kachun, an associate history professor at Western Michigan University, on the importance of not letting historical events like Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11 become overly academic or sensationalized for students:

If we ignore the broader historical context that leads up to these events and focus on this very narrow, nationalistic tale, we're not doing ourselves any favors as a country. ... We're really ignoring the trajectories that lead to these historic events.

Also quoted is a local high school social studies teacher who says he and his colleagues have been working to get past the dates-and-names approach to teaching history by encouraging students to do more independent research and analysis of historical events.

"It's not enough to just know factual stuff anymore," he said. "When you teach social studies, you have to teach kids how to think."

As our colleague Erik Robelen reported last year, the movement to integrate more primary-source studies into history lessons has found particularly fertile ground in units on the Civil War.

What's your experience? Is K-12 history teaching undergoing a period of necessary change? How well is it working?

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