Don't Know Much about History and the Film Chalk

Randall Stephens

Believe it or not, the first day of class fast approaches. Soon, if you teach that is, you'll be standing in front of 20-30 college or high school students, mouths agape, eyes starring blankly, heads wearing baseball caps.

A few years back my cousin, Janelle Schremmer and her husband Troy Schremmer, starred in the film Chalk (2006), a Waiting for Guffman-esque mocumentary about the sometimes harrowing, sometimes exciting world of high school teachers. (Picked up by Morgan Spurlock's company, it's now airing on the Sundance channel.)
The movie is a scream for those who've endured some bad moments in front of a chalk or white board. Like other mocumentaries, Chalk relies on well-timed silences and awkward interactions. One particularly excruciating plotline involves a history teacher whose angling for a teaching award. His politicking and pandering is tough to watch, though, hilarious.

The film gets at the difficulty of engaging students in subjects that are foreign to them, history being a prime example. See the youtube clip here of Troy, playing Mr. Lowrey, who asks students on the first day of class: "What comes to your mind with 'history'"? Students gaze into nothingness, blank faces, disinterest, maybe disgust.

Bad first-day questions aside, ain't it hard to get the average student to think historically? In Sam Weinberg's words:

Historical thinking is unnatural. It goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think. We are psychologically conditioned to see unity between past and present. A colleague of mine teaches at Queens University in Belfast. He gives his undergraduates a 16th-century quote from Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) where she refers to the Irish as “mere Irish,” at which point the Catholic kids take umbrage. But when you go to the Oxford English Dictionary and look at 16th-century references for “mere,” it means “pure, unadulterated”—it’s a compliment, not an insult. It is an impossible psychological challenge to check every word, to read documents from the past and constantly ask, “Does this word mean the same thing that I think it means now?” (From an Joe Lucas's interview with Weinberg in Historically Speaking, Jan/Feb 2006.)

So, how can the history teacher or prof get students even vaguely into the subject? More than that, though, how can the history instructor facilitate historical thinking in the classroom? One step in the right direction is to set the tone on the first day of class. That involves something more than asking students "What comes to mind when you think of the word history?" Here are a few things I've done in the past, some more successful than others.

  • Have students name their favorite dead person. (I ask them to exclude grandmas and grandpas. Too easy, too boring.) Follow up with a discussion of how history helps us understand the words and deeds of the dead. Is history a kind of necromancy?
  • Have the student identify the most significant national incident to have taken place in his/her life. Ask them why they think that is important and what it might tell us.
  • Ask students what it means to be an "American"? See if they can think of how history has shaped our national identity.
  • See if students can name several ways that life today differs from life in the 19th century. (That might be tricky, I know, if they have no idea how the 19th century is unlike today.)
  • Ask students the broad question of whether history has a direction. Is the world better or worse in 2009 than it was in 1700? Why?
I'd like to know what other exercises teachers and profs use as a hook on that first day.