Charles L. Newhall: Teaching Students to Construct Historical Narratives

Roundup: Talking About History

The advent of narrative history in the popular press makes engaging history students seem like a simple task. However, as teachers we are up against myriad competitors that shape our students' historical sense. From the History Channel, to MythBusters, to Disney's Pocahontas, students come to class with preconceived notions of what should constitute engaging approaches to history. And for most, analytic articles on Puritan theology or Native American animism will not do. Sam Wineburg, a Stanford professor of education and observer of history teachers, reminds us, "historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development. Its achievement … actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think. … The odds of achieving mature historical understanding are stacked against us in a world in which Disney and MTV call the shots." Coaching students to develop these critical and analytical thinking skills is one facet of my teaching. Another is to engage my students' imaginations.

John Demos, emeritus professor of history at Yale, eloquently describes the importance of imagination: "Clio is a time traveler, and we, her acolytes, delight in following her on long and varied journeys of the mind. Words, pried loose from documents, carry us across the centuries. Our experience is as full and rewarding as our imagination allows it to be. And in these travels imagination is all." In my teaching, I find that narratives consistently awaken students' imaginations, enticing them to make the history they are expected to learn their own.

Yet "narrative history" is frequently discussed in opposition to "critical history" or "analytic history," the argument apparently being that narratives are somehow not suitable to the crafting of complex historical arguments. The core of teaching history at the secondary level, for many of us, is to teach students to read critically and write analytically—that is, to analyze texts and then make arguments about them. The focus is typically not on engaging students in the creation of narratives. The well-worn analogy between the historian and the detective remains popular today—indeed, the PBS show History Detectives perfectly encapsulates the connection, one that is repeated in countless lessons online and in print that lead students to identify and marshal evidence in order to support a thesis. As Peter Stearns asserts, history involves "An ability to form an argument, using data for a purpose, a capacity to glean data from primary sources…[and refine] some capacity for handling diverse interpretations and testing theories about change." Giving students a framework that lets them see the information they gather as evidence being collected in support of an argument helps them learn the larger skill of thinking analytically about data....

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