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Using the lessons of History to teach high school students better ways of approaching their social lives.

Being a student teacher at the high school level, one of my goals is to continuously improve student engagement. Remembering back to my days in high school, and also noticing that students today still seem to prefer their social lives over learning the lessons of the past, I began thinking about the different ways that the social lives of students could be merged and improved through social lives of unknown, "everyday people", historical figures.

Basic Possible Steps:

Introduce primary document posing everyday problem (Diary, letter, etc)
-Give students basic historical info to begin

Have students write or discuss how they would approach the issue

Discuss as a whole class and introduce more complex historical details

I am still ruminating on the different paths this could take, but imagined a course that was grounded in primary sources of everyday people, with everyday problems. Students would learn about the historical framework that these everyday people lived in and would begin to answer how they would handle their issues. The class would then discuss as a whole in order to reflect on all of the possible influences due to the time and place.

I believe that this approach to history would make history more realistic to students so that they can begin to see the similarities of past people. Also so students may see how the success and failure of past people can teach them better ways to improve their immediate lives, social or otherwise.

This is a very new thought of mine and I would love any discussion over the benefits, drawbacks, possible improvements, and any other relevant talking points.

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    Nov 22 2012: The purpose of secondary education, in so far as I believe, is to create adult citizens who think more clearly, and with a larger pool of knowledge to draw from. I'm not sure that improving their social lives is endemic to that.
    • Nov 22 2012: I agree that the aim is to create educated citizens, but I disagree that social lives do not play a role in that. The information that has been passed down to us, as a people and as individuals, has done so ín part because we are social creatures. Also, It does not follow that just having a large pool of knowledge is worth anything in itself. This large pool of knowledge is most always tapped into in order to solve some sort of problem. Starting small by applying history's lessons to social lives shows students the potential for using history in order to better understand and approach any problem. Real world application could begin with what matters to them. This is one way to pique their interest.

      Maybe my most valued goal of secondary education is to instill the PASSION of learning in students so that they may continue learning about our constantly changing world. Also, to show them the creativity involved in such things as History.

      Having students look at some unique problem or challenge they face in their own life and apply different historical lessons will 1) encourage students to learn more about the specific historical topic, and 2) force them to think creatively and abstractly in order to extract what historical information is personally valuable to them.
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    Nov 23 2012: Trey, It would be a lot easier to engage in conversation if I knew where you are from. In the US there would be many problems. Since I do not know where you would implement this I really cannot make suggestions. Education is my favorite subject but entering without information is silly.
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    Nov 23 2012: This is what we teaching artists call process drama. The idea is a simple one.

    I will try to address the issues brought up and answer any questions. You say drama, and most teachers say, "Who? Oh that visiting teacher that comes by the school every Wednesday, and dresses kinda funny." Yes, that one. Truth is she spends most of her/his time advocating for the arts as an intrinsic PART of education, not just IN education. Presenting a problem to a classroom is a central part of what is called process drama. Normally three 35-45 minute lessons where students work together to solve a problem, usually presented with TIR, which is Teacher In Role. TIR is when a teacher accepts the role of a created character and addresses students as this character. The objective for students is to help this character solve a problem. For example, in a Kindtergarden class, I taught part of my lesson as "Old Lady Green". Her Plants were dying and she needed the help of the students to bring her plants back to life. The students explored this through becoming the role of scientist, detective, and overall problem solver. The students primarily as a group, as well as in small groups and individually. The students learned the parts of a plant, their function, and how they worked together.

    Starting with a biography, is called Story as Springboard. Followed with appropriate and researched creative drama activities. In my teachings, I assess by performance, not written tests.

    I teach Acting and Broadway techinique at a local theatre. For more info please visit or

    I hope that helped.
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    Nov 22 2012: I have always loved to read autobiography, knowing full well it is history with a twist of theater. But I think reflecting on how let's call them "big figures" have led their lives- the materials in these works, gives more insight into large questions of personal choice than what you may mean by their social lives.

    Great literature more than histories may tackle the small human problems better (as well as larger human problems), because great literature often applies a magnifying glass to the small but personally important.
  • Nov 22 2012: My first inclination is to tell you to build a set of stocks in the front of the school, but that might make me a bad parent....

    I like the creativity in your idea. Near my house we have historical Jamestown and Williamsburg with character actors that play roles and answer questions in character. Seeing this and hearing the responses might be enlightening.

    Back in time, the treats of "man against man" and "man against nature" were bigger threats than they are today. As civilization progressed, many of these threats were reduced. We now live in environmentally controlled buildings and vehicles for the most part and we have a fairly responsive police force.

    As a scout leader, I can say that taking young men out into the outdoors to spend a few days camping provided them a perspective shared by few of their colleagues. Having t walk everywhere, get their own water, cook thier own food, and take care of personal business outdoors gives a great appreciation for the very basic modern conveniences. Spending a night outdoors with temperatures below freezing will impress you. Even if you are prepared you will feel the cold. Hard to imagine doing this with only furs and a blanket, particularly in the rain.

    Apart from scouting, there are outward bound experiences, re-enactments, crewing primitive boats, that will all give a taste of "man against nature". This will really give some meaning to some of the historic discoveries. Heck, just teaching a class or two outside will make a pretty good point.

    There are a lot of people ready to call the National Guard if the cable goes out. Perhaps a little communing with nature will change the perspective.
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    Gail .

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    Nov 22 2012: I was a professional memoirist. Every story has been inspirational to me. I do memoirs for regular people. I don't do biographies.

    I don't trust most biographies. As an avid student of history, I have discovered how much history is a lie. The documentary evidence contradicts the history all too often.

    Example: George Washington was artificially turned into a hero in order to raise money for the revolution. In fact, he was a terrible general and the reason he was the first president was because he wasn't too bright and could easily be manipulated. So using Washington as a study would be dishonest. The same is true for too many others whose biographies were written with a biased eye toward history.
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    Nov 22 2012: could you give us an example? what kind of problems do you have in mind?
    • Nov 22 2012: There would still be much thought needed to arrive at an ideal use of this idea, but the specific example that continues to pop up into my mind is that of the Stoics. Each student would select their own problem or challenge, this could be outside of their social life just as long as it is important and relevant to them, and then see if the teachings and behavior of the stoics provides a model for a different and possibly better way of handling that challenge. I would imagine that if some piece of history shows students how to find or improve better relationships, students would see more than a large pool of knowledge to drown in, but instead WHY we learn history and the potential life lessons it imparts onto us.

      This would not be me telling them that the life of a Stoic is what they should aim for, but rather it would be them telling me how they think a Stoic would handle the problem, what the consequence would be, and whether or not they believe that the life of a Stoic holds any value to them personally. Take a look at Alexander the Great. I might ask students how he reached that level of success (by being cultured, well-educated, a keen diplomat [which is improved through practicing healthy social skills], etc...) and if they can apply any of it to themselves.

      By telling students that different people, groups of people, or different philosophies could potentially hold a key to the immediate improvement of their lives, I believe students will dig deeper into the material in search of it.
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        Nov 22 2012: i like that approach. although it is limited to the philosophy of a specific time period. not so much for example to introduce the concept of slavery in rome, or the average life of a peasant in 1200, etc. let alone the history of celts, who we don't know too much about, afaik.

        a long time lament of mine is that we don't really learn about the average man, or the every day's life of classes in different historical periods. what did the king do when wasn't in war? what did the peasants eat? what problems musicians faced? and so on. i wonder if you can incorporate that somehow in your method.