Remote teaching and learning is boring. I don’t get to see much of my students, and some of them I don’t see at all. We teachers plan together as a 9th-grade team, and our “lessons” — defined now as “tasks” — are pretty clear and accessible. Students read, watch, write, reflect. Occasionally we post a video lecture, with cues to pause and write at manageable intervals. We keep it simple because we have to. Students need to be able to complete our tasks independently. Real-time formative assessment is an erstwhile dream.
Several teachers have complained to me that what’s left of school is the worst part: the homework. Personally, what I miss most is the opportunity to sell a story. All the real-time theatrics and interaction are gone. Our instructions and videos convey as much enthusiasm as we can muster, but they are, in the end, literally and figuratively flat. My worst nightmare feels true: History class is boring. Again.
I Was Bored With High School History
This is where I started with History as a subject. I have no recollection of it earlier than 10th grade, in the first of my two high schools. (We moved during the summer between my sophomore and junior years.) I had a commanding teacher for US History that year. He required us to stand every time he mentioned the name Alexander Hamilton, which was often enough. My friend Joe refused to do it one time. Nothing happened to him. In fact, I think the teacher praised him. The rest of us continued to obey, as best I can recall.
Despite his intensity and charisma, I didn’t really get much from that teacher’s class. I have vague recollections of trying to write an essay on the Mayflower Compact, but I didn’t see the point and, unsurprisingly, didn’t do very well on it. Interestingly, I can’t remember the teacher’s name. I enjoyed math and liked science well enough, to the extent I liked anything academic in high school. Mr. Krivitsky’s Geometry class involved real thinking. That I remember, along with his name.
The argument between me and Jon that led to the Four Question Method started when I kept asking what our courses were really about. He kept telling me that they consisted of true and important stories about what people did. That, and “ideas.” I was sold on the ideas part. By age 39, when Jon hired me, I’d decided that history (but not History) was interesting after all. I’d gotten a degree in political theory and taught ideas about politics and society to university students. So ideas, for sure. Stories? Not so much. It seemed to me that our courses, configured as stories, were just one damned thing after another. Why not just go right for the concepts?
Puzzles About People
It turns out that there are several good responses to that question, which I have since learned. The most persuasive one is the same as for serious questions about teaching: relationships first. Stories are accounts of the crazy, exotic, heroic, befuddling, and always surprising things people did in the past and continue to do all around us. What’s interesting about *any* class is a puzzle that we have enough tools to solve. What’s gripping about history — History, done well — is that it’s a set of puzzles about people with whom we can engage, to whom we are in some way related. They, like us, are a bit crazy, exotic, heroic, befuddling — and always surprising. Ideas? That’s an answer to the second question, once we know the story: What were they thinking…?
So Jon was right. History is fundamentally the discipline (actually, a set of disciplines) devoted to unraveling puzzles about people. And we start work on those puzzles by learning a story about what those people did, a story that is itself the resolution of a puzzle: How did *that* happen…? Once you know a story, you can ask and answer a whole series of animating questions that will deepen your relationship with the people you’re studying, that will make them more flesh-and-blood for you — and more puzzling!
Through years of practice, I’d gotten pretty good at selling a story to students. Jon and I taught ourselves how to stem-wind a narrative puzzle. Jon and I teach that stem-winding technique to teachers in workshops now. We contrast the outcome, the world after the puzzling action, with the world before it. We introduce the protagonists who move the action, their ambitions and the obstacles they face, and we then launch a tailored Question One. Framing a new and notable outcome is a way to generate a puzzle about a person. That’s the kind of puzzle a young person can get excited about. I know. I’ve seen it happen, over and over.
Not so much these days, though. Every so often a student reflection — we include one in every weekly assignment — will show traces of genuine curiosity or enthusiasm. Some of my students may be getting to the point where their native curiosity and acquired skills can sustain them. Our aspiration as History teachers is ultimately for all of our students to have the capacity to learn independently. With good training, we hope that their activated curiosity will lead to skillful inquiry. That’s what the Four Question Method is meant to accomplish.
But right now, most of my 9th graders are just doing their homework. They are still in training. And they have plenty to distract them, too. Who doesn’t these days? The fact is, my students still need a teacher to connect them to the people in the stories they’re learning. They can get the basic narrative without me there to sell it, but in my absence I can see that they are both cognitively and emotionally hazy who did what and why it matters. For sure, in order to get to the animating ideas in the story, they still need a teacher to model passionate inquiry and careful reading. They still need me in the room to help them to both see and feel, say, Luther’s anxiety and rage when he discovered Tetzel selling Indulgences with a promise of immediate salvation. Ultimately, they still need the Platonic eros of teaching and learning: they watch me engage and see how much fun I’m having. That makes them want to try it, too.
On the other hand, I suppose a virtual story with glimpses of real ideas is better than the usual options: serial facts — one damned thing after another — or an “engaging” activity that arrives from nowhere and then returns there. Much better still would be teachers and students in the room together. I miss it.