Great history books for students

When Reading History, Read Great Books, advises Diane Ravitch. She quotes Will Fitzhugh, who publishes historical research by high school students in the Concord Review. Common Core State Standards calls for students to read more nonfiction, but they don’t suggest reading complete history books, Fitzhugh writes.

. . . we find them suggesting little nonfiction excerpts and short speeches to assign, along with menus, brochures, and bus schedules for the middle schoolers. Embarrassing.

. . . Everyone is afraid to mention possible history books if they are not about current events, or civics, or some underserved population, for fear of a backlash against the whole idea of history books.

His favorites: Mornings on Horseback (the young Teddy Roosevelt) by David McCullough for high school freshmen, Washington’s Crossing (military history of Revolutionary War) by David Hackett Fischer for sophomores, Battle Cry of Freedom (Civil War) by James McPherson for juniors, and The Path Between the Seas (building of the Panama Canal) by David McCullough for seniors.

What else? I keep thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. It’s fiction, but reputedly so accurate that Civil War veterans couldn’t believe Stephen Crane wasn’t a combat soldier. It sparks students’ imaginations,  it’s short and there’s  no sex.

McCullough: No teacher should major in ed

Americans are “historically illiterate,” by and large, complains historian and author David McCullough in a 60 Minutes interview. When he speaks at universities, he meets bright, attractive, stunningly ignorant college students.

One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. . . . when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.

What about the teachers? asks Morley Safer.

“We need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers,” McCullough replies.

I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

One of the historian’s children, David McCullough Jr., is an English teacher known for his “you’re not special” commencement speech at Wellesley High in Massachusetts.

Graduates, ‘you are not special’

“You are not special,” English teacher David McCullough Jr. told graduates of Wellesley High School in a commencement speech that’s gone viral on YouTube.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.

. . . But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.

. . . your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe.  In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it.

. . . You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.

It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 (high schools) nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.

. . . If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.

McCullough concludes by urging graduates to “be worthy of your advantages” and “read all the time.”

Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. 

The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Here’s the video. He gets warmed up about three minutes in.

Attack of the reading tests

Rachel Levy hoped to teach history and geography while developing her high school students’ reading and writing skills. But the principal of her inner-city D.C. school — pre-Rhee — told social studies teachers to spend one-fifth of class time teaching the reading test, Levy writes on Core Knowledge Blog.

Teachers were told to make a chart for each student showing how well he or she did on each skill, such as “context clues.”

Then I was supposed to target my lesson plans to teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses. . . . such instruction and data collection had to be documented in our lesson plan books and during classroom observations.

Teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses?

While testing doesn’t require such stupidities, few educators have the patience to rely on a “well-rounded and knowledge-rich curriculum” to raise scores gradually, Levy writes.

She tried to persuade colleagues that the way to raise test scores was to “teach content and have students read and write as much as possible.”  No one agreed.

Now raising three children, Levy blogs at All Things Education.

Update:  You need to know how to teach but you also need to know your subject very well, writes Michael Bromley, a social studies teacher who guest-blogged for Rick Hess on Ed Week.  “No matter the teaching strategy, if you don’t have something valid, interesting, and important to teach there will be no learning.”

In June, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report showing core historical illiteracy among American school children. In response, famed historian David McCullough told the Wall Street Journal, “People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively because they’re often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing.”

Wait a minute, there, David, hold on: modern pedagogy states that qualified, education-proficient teachers can teach anything, so long as the correct strategies for student engagement are followed. Isn’t that the problem? David replies, “You can’t love something you don’t know any more than you can love someone you don’t know.” Amen, brother . . .

If you don’t know the subject, your students won’t either, Bromley concludes.