What is the role of historical narrative in today’s classroom?

“History is the narrative one weaves; history instruction might have once been the sharing of an agreed upon narrative at the national level, but today is more akin to historical methods and skills within the context of illustrative examples and case studies. It’s not our job as teachers to impart a grand narrative. It’s our job to open the hood and have a look underneath the narratives.” – M. Kuropatwinski

I expect teachers have different answers to the question posed in the title, some of them in disagreement. I started thinking about my answer after a conversation with a colleague, who’s quote is at the top of the page. It deserves to be unpacked.

Everyone loves a good story. They might define “good” differently, but everything from bestselling books lists to Hollywood box office receipts and even cable news shows reveal the innate human desire for good narrative.

Narrative as a tradition is older than history. Oral narratives passed down wisdom, wit, and insight before there was writing. The first major historical traditions of both east and west, embodied in the writings of Sima Qian and Herodotus, both have narrative elements at their core. Today, a majority of the popular history books that can be found in any bookstore will be written as narratives. Not only is the narrative central to the nature of history and the job of the historian, it is intrinsic to the way humans understand life experience. It should not be a surprise that when the average student recalls their favorite history teacher they make reference to them as a great story teller or lecturer.

Is there danger in only teaching narrative?

A quick google search will yield dozens of great quotes about the politicization of history and the dangers inherent therein. There are two quotes hanging next to each other in my school whose insight on this matter makes me smile. On one side of a poster is a quote by the current President of China extolling the the significance and virtue of 5000 years of Chinese civilization, on the other side is a Maya Angelou quote recognizing the connection between knowledge of history and liberation. The irony of this juxtaposition should not be lost. However, the reality is that narrative history as presented in a textbook or monograph is not historical truth, but an interpretation of the past that can reveal the historian’s values, methodologies, or personal philosophy. For better or worse, (I think better) its going to be something more than historical fact.

This is why I dislike many of the state/county adopted textbooks used in middle school and high school courses. They are written and edited in such a way as to remove any trace of authorship. Presenting history to students as an omniscient “voice of god,” they seek to instruct a single, broad, and dry narrative as truth. In doing so, they not only handicap the students ability to think historically, but manage to create uselessly boring tomes that serve only to put students off of history. Students deserve better.

When a student does not have the ability to see how the narrative was constructed they are more vulnerable to manipulation. Narratives can be inspiring, powerful, emotional, gut-wrenching, tragic, moving, subtle, insightful, and everything in between and all at once. Most English teachers I know will agree that great literature also does these things. There are many examples of literature being considered dangerous by certain individuals or interest groups because of the questions asked, the thinking provoked, and the insight offered through narrative. If provoking such thinking is a strength (or danger) of literature, how much more so does this apply to history given that history claims to be a more powerful arbiter of truth through interpreting non-fictional reality?

It’s not a surprise that national history curriculum, embedded with a particular narrative, is part of the culture wars that have occurred around the world for centuries. History is a weapon, and narrative is its highest caliber bullet. How its used depends on who wields it.

An example of this in the American history classroom, over which debates on the politicization of history seem to be intrinsic and eternal, is in regards to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s book is a powerful and overtly political narrative. I encourage anyone interested to take a look at a brief back-and-forth between a recent critique of Howard Zinn’s work by Professor Sam Wineburg and a retort on that critique by Professor David Detmer. (The links will take you to their arguments) They are not the first to argue over Zinn’s style, methodology, and final product, nor will they be the last.

I find it ironic that the politicians, teachers, and parents who either support or critique Zinn’s work claim its the opposing camp who is manipulating historical truth through clever use of the historical narrative; either Zinn’s narrative is overly political and manipulative thereby ignoring foundational methods of research and interpretation, or he is fighting back against the dominant narrative that marginalizes certain forgotten individuals and groups. Ultimately, each side’s best defense is in teaching students how to investigate, interpret, and construct historical narratives. In theory, they would have a defense against the opposing side’s manipulation if they know all the rules and tricks of the game.

I don’t think my job as a teacher is to impart a grand narrative, no matter my individual opinions or proclivities, and regardless of whether I want to teach a narrative that is in-line or opposed to a particular national myth. Narrative is a great tool for instruction, but not the end result. Students deserve to be taught the skills of the historian’s craft. They deserve to see behind the curtain of history, and by piercing through the veil students can approach how to think instead of what to think. I want students exploring how a historian uses evidence, how they question, corroborate, and qualify sources. I want them to see how interpretations are built, how historians think about causation, continuity, and change over time. I want them to see how experts contextualize events, analyze and assess points of view, and and make comparisons and connections to contemporary issues. Narrative and content instruction alone will never meet these outcomes. Methodology matters.

So, that’s great…now what?

My argument on what skills to teach and how to instruct them alongside narrative can be condensed to a few takeaways. I’ll expand on the first one since it’s the one I feel strongest about. The others will be topics for my next few posts.

  1. Adopt skill-based standards to guide the curriculum and make sure teachers have a shared understanding of what the skills look like in the classroom, how they progress in rigor through the curriculum, and how they will be assessed. This also opens-up powerful arguments about the relevancy of history in schools even if it represents a “side-stepping” of the culture wars.
  2. Find a quality textbook that clearly shows the author using the skills being taught. If you can’t do that, use excerpts and supplementary material alongside it so students can see the difference. If you are comfortable with the material and have the time, write your own excerpts. Show the students the difference between the textbook and your own writing.
  3. Teach historiography in the upper grades. There are numerous entry points in a skills-based curriculum into historiography. Find them, and get students thinking about historical methods. Student’s should not have to wait till an undergraduate seminar or graduate level methods course to be exposed to the concept.
  4. If you use movies, always discuss how they create historical memory. There are so many great movies that can be used in a history classroom. But students, like the general public, can easily forget that movies are a creation of the director or writer in the same way the narrative is the creation of the historian. Plus, ticket receipts create the temptation for poetic license in a way that is foreign for most serious historians.

Adopt Skills-Based Standards

In the English/Literature world it is accepted that students learn the skills associated with analyzing plot, rhetorical devices, character development, and all the other strategies author’s use to construct compelling narratives. Students are taught these skills alongside the ability to read for both life insight and enjoyment. Why should this connection between narrative and skill not also extend to the history classroom?

One benefit in the English world is the existence and general acceptance of the Common Core standards. History teachers don’t quite have a comparable set of skill-based standards. Instead, there are quite a few that can be adopted, each with benefits and drawbacks. Some are listed below. Since social studies departments almost always offer courses in disciplines other than history, there is also a need for standards in geography, economics, psychology, etc.

  • National Center for History in Schools
  • AP Curriculum
  • IB Curriculum
  • C3 Framework
  • AERO standards
  • Common Core

Ultimately, consistency in interpretation, instruction, and assessment within a department is more important than which set of standards is adopted. When teachers have a clear understanding of what proficiency for each standard looks like in each grade level they can design great lessons, scaffolds, and assessments. Some of the standards have this vertical alignment work done already, some do not.

When teachers discuss and unpack their standards, understanding deepens. It also helps fight against the subjectivity that can easily worm its way into grading rubrics. This may be grading on creativity, participation, language, artistic quality, or other such categories that are not directly connected with the skill, are often supported by general and lackluster feedback, and can frustrate students. Likewise, when teachers use the adopted standards to tune their assessments and analyze student work teaching improves.

Historical narrative adds flash and flair, but historical thinking skills are where the depth and relevancy lives. Challenge the narrative!

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