My Education in History

December 12, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on My Education in History

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Michael Savoca

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 HIST-799

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Project 5

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Why is it so easy to be drawn to something that is always just out of reach? For as long as I can remember, there has always been an innate appeal to the past and all those who inhabited a world that only now exists in memory and the materials left behind. My relationship with history is one which has defined my life in many ways. While I feel like I was born with this passion, my love of history probably comes from many of the fantastic teachers I have had along the way. My path to and through the MA/MLS program at Queens College has been a long one, but it has been a most meaningful journey for me.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 My history emersion began long before I ever entered a classroom. The first history teacher I ever had was my Dad. Although not a classically trained historian, Dad made history approachable and interesting, and taught me to ask questions and examine things in greater detail. A world-class story teller with a cinematic approach to detail, he could make every part of history burst with vitality. I can remember him naming all of the presidents in order (which amazed a six or seven year old me), and his vivid description of Zachery Taylor’s death (the dangers of iced milk and cherries in the summer) are just a couple of examples of his ability to pull me into another world. Our vacations were not complete without a stop at some kind of historical site or activity. Boston came alive to me in the cemeteries, walking the tight paths weaved between weathered slate and sandstone. Cemeteries have played a large part in my historical journey, but more on that at another time.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In terms of my official education, my history teachers were always excellent. I can close my eyes and still hear the voices of two of my high school teachers in particular. Both, like my dad, had a way of elevating the material beyond simply names and dates. They provided additional nuance to the curriculum which made it feel like you were in an Athenian piazza, or walking through Jazz Age New York. These great teachers made history personal, and even those who hated history were engaged in the process. The classes weren’t always easy, but they were highly impactful. I have, of course, sat through the history classes that everyone hates. Monotone droning, textbook reading, and note copying; there is nothing worse.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 History in college has been an interesting experience, with the most meaningful parts coming in the last couple of years here at Queens College. Classes on Oral History, the Formation of Modern American Culture, and the History of Privacy being particularly satisfying. Much of the reason for this is simply because these professors relied heavily on primary source materials, and led discussions with an abundance of knowledge which allowed students to walk away with a rich understanding of the topics at hand. Having reflected on all of this, however, I must say that my love for history cannot be uncoupled from an absolute passion for genealogy.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I was nine years old when my grandfather died, and it was a major moment in my life.  As I listened, I was blown away by the simple facts I did not know about a man that I was so close to. It was never mentioned that his first language was Italian or that he only learned English when he entered school. How could I have not known such a simple fact about my grandfather? There were so many questions I wanted to know about those who came before me and so I began to interview, collect pictures, and call my relatives. My work with genealogy has helped me to reunite an adoptee with members of his birth family, tell long forgotten stories, get involved in local historical societies, and become a better thinker and analyst of historic data. It pushed me to enter a degree program which would allow me to both research history and work to protect the materials that make this research possible in archives.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Having spent the last eighteen years researching and sourcing information has deeply colored my ideas on history education. I believe that history is all about inclusion, and sometimes that means understanding the exclusion of large groups of people. People, both young and old, complain of how meaningless history education is, but they all listen when the story is good enough. The stories are there, we just have to teach our students how to access them, place them in the wider historical context, and retell them for others. It is nice to know what Reconstruction is, but to understand the era is of much greater importance. Today, we are inundated with potential sources which students can interact with in a variety of ways. Rather than just read a chapter or look at Regents DBQs, let’s access actual labor contracts online at Familysearch.org to understand the roots of the sharecropping system in Jim Crow America. Let’s examine a slave schedule of the 1860 US Census to see how humanity was stripped away from enslaved people as they were counted with mere tick marks instead of by name. Open a class discussion by examining a ship manifest from Ellis Island to understand the process immigrants went through on arrival to compare with modern immigration practices today. The focus should be on learning how to analyze, contextualize, and explain the information. I can promise, it will be impossible to forget many of the facts if they are linked to stories.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Based on my experience, meaningful history education can and should be focused on the tools of genealogy and the story. History should not be the benign act of regurgitating dates and facts for a test, but teaching students to focus on the aspects of research, critical thinking and context building. Having spent so much time digging through genealogy databases and records, I am always amazed by the amount of digitized historical content available online. Students can only benefit from learning how to traverse this data which shows not simply the “great men” of history or some statistical sweep, but the realities of particular individuals or communities. What do the records show? What do the records not show? Why? While these concepts are being done in classrooms all over, I would suggest that they should be made even more central to the routines of a high school classroom, and should be introduced even younger where possible. If the student has a particular link to an event or era, even better! They can find their own family’s connection to history and begin to understand the complexity of our collective past.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Perhaps the use of a history lab period would be beneficial to students. Interactive approaches to history are key to the ultimate goal of meaningful learning. Teach students how to practice history in a meaningful way through research. Have them understand local or social history through the practice of oral history by interviewing elders. Allow students to create an archive, even if it is simply putting together a collection of school photos, yearbooks, and documents into a small collection with a finding aid. Vitally, we must teach students how to tell the stories of history. I maintain that my Dad was a history teacher regardless of his lacking in a degree because he was the first to make it approachable; this is absolutely essential in trying to get young audiences involved in history. While he didn’t teach me how to analyze sources, Dad inspired me to learn more; the crux of any meaningful educational experience. If we can inspire, guide, and challenge our students to take different approaches to learning, it is possible to showcase all that history education has to offer.


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