Literacy in the History Classroom

By Alan Peña

This post is written by a student in READ 4351 Learning through Literacy. Students in this course are part of the high school and all-level teacher preparation programs and are pursuing certification in a wide variety of subject areas.

For most people the thought of sitting through a history class brings backs memories of a teacher walking around and going on about the civil war and how good things used to be in the old days. That combined with a strong sense of drowsiness would be sure enough to conjure up old memories of history class back in high school. But why is this? Why is it that young people, especially high school students, seem to find history repulsive and boring? Well the sleepiness can be attributed to an ineffective (sometimes monotone) teacher, but the lack of interest in actual history can be attributed to history textbooks. History textbooks are written in similar fashion to reference books, like encyclopedias. Thus making them tedious to read and in the all textbooks end up doing is bombarding the reader with information such as places, dates, and locations.

Even for history enthusiasts like myself, I found it to be quite painful and dull when reading through a high school textbook. While the word painful might be a bit overboard, it does however correctly describe the tedious process of reading through a history textbook.

The sensation most kids associate with reading history.

 This is mainly due to the fact that history textbooks are written objectively. Therefore there is no real emphasis on actually “storytelling” so to speak. It is like my history professor once said, “History itself is dynamic in nature but it is the textbook companies that do it injustice by making it bland and unappealing.” The same professor said that publishers actually have a lot of talent because they managed to make something like history boring, which according to him is really hard to do. This is the reason we never see history textbooks in the New York Time’s bestseller list, simply because they don’t have the page-turner appeal or much appeal for that matter. The publishers don’t make it a point to use first person accounts and for that matter to use different points of views. Indeed the history that is taught in high schools today is collectively known as “white man’s” history. For instance students are taught about the Indian wars and how the Indians were the aggressors, little do they know that it was the other way around.

George Washington isn’t the hero portrayed in American History and never cut down a cherry tree.

  History is a literacy-oriented subject that for the most part deals with things ranging from treaties and newspapers, to articles and journals. With that said it would be beneficial for students to experience these things and to actually see primary sources so they can develop a deeper understanding of history. The students need to understand that people did live back then and they too had voices and concerns. They weren’t just statistics in a book. I suggest using history books (not textbooks) written in an engaging fashion that brings an event to life, utilizes pictures, and uses engaging vocabulary for students to get interested in history. One example of a book like this would be Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen, this book does an amazing job of telling the story of the Portuguese explorer Magellan. The book captivates the reader from page one and tells the story of Magellan’s exploration around Africa and the trials the crew went through all the while learning about history. Thus I believe that all the years of damage the infamous history textbooks have created can be undone by simply introducing the students to interesting and engaging works of literacy. After all when we see movies like Gladiator, 300, Kingdom of Heaven we watch them with interest and fascination what’s to say that can’t be done with literacy.


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