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Historical Gardening

It seems to me that the two most important factors in an efficient organization are ruthlessness and liberty.

Students regularly complain that high school history courses “never made it past the Depression!” This reflects a lot of wonderful qualities in teachers—their enthusiasm for the subject as well as their willingness to slow down, re-teach, and listen to student questions. But it also reflects the frustration students feel when they want to reach the late twentieth century but can’t quite get there.

One answer is to apply gardening techniques to the classroom. In the garden, sometimes you have to be ruthless. If a plant fails to perform—yank it out! Likewise, planning a successful year requires you to commit to the idea that the entire narrative matters. Before the year begins, divide the time period of the course into chunks that conform to your year. Break it down by semester, then by week or unit. Stick to your plan ruthlessly.

If you lose a day to snow or illness, move forward anyway. You may have to skip the Salem witchcraft crisis in order to stay on track. You may have to adjust your approach to the Revolution because the day you planned to talk about the French and Indian War disappeared into an all-school assembly. Unless the lost material absolutely cannot be missed, move forward anyway. Those days are like a latte every morning: they really add up.

If the schedule requires ruthlessness, assessment relies more on liberty. Students come to class hoping for pleasure but fearing pain. If you’re lucky, you teach students who have had only positive experiences with history. Even for them, though, there’s always a fear that history will become the dreaded list of names and dates.

Offering students liberty means asking them to write essays about dissent, identity, and hunger. What do those things mean? Let them decide. As they struggle to match historical events and ideas to concepts like resistance, they will have to wrestle with the most difficult questions history has to offer. So how is assessment liberty efficient? For one thing, it invites students to tell you about the ideas they found most compelling and their work is therefore brighter, more forceful and more specific.

As with most things, teaching US history in high school requires balance. A strict sense of where you’re going and when you’ll get there helps keep the class moving forward. Tempering the rigidity of the course outline with an open-minded approach to assignments allows students to shine and to take risks. In the end, what you hope is that you reached the class goal while helping students achieve personal goals, too.