This Spring, Inspired Teaching spoke with Bill Stevens, History teacher at The SEED School who was awarded National History Day Teacher of the Year in DC for his work making National History Day an integral part of the SEED experience. Stevens participated in Humanities Hub this year, Inspired Teaching’s course for teachers to learn the instructional model and application of Real World History.
Tell me a bit about your experience with incorporating National History Day into your classroom?
I teach DC History and for years I did this project called the DC History Coffee House. For the project, students research their neighborhood throughout the year and then present with a each-one-teach-one model where every students shares what they learned. As the project grew, I started inviting librarians and archivists and other community members to the presentations. One year, someone said I should do National History Day, and after looking it up, I realized it was basically what we’re already doing. I told my students that instead of only sharing projects in the coffeehouse format, we would choose a couple class winners who will go participate in National History Day. It was pretty easy to start participating in National History Day; if you’re a Social Studies teacher, it is basically doing a research project, it doesn’t require much extra.
How do you instill a love of History in your classroom?
I try to make everything as hyper-relevant as I can. For DC History and US History, we try to narrow down broad concepts. For example, if someone is super interested in the Civil Rights Movement I ask them, what is it that you like. Then, I do a “pre-search” phase where they use resources to find an event, person, or place that would make things more relevant for someone in DC. I use local sources to help to make it as engaging on a personal level as possible. We focus on our neighborhoods, schools, families — we learn at a hyper-local level to tie it into the broad context.
Last year, students told me they wanted to do a project on Black Lives Matter, but that is too broad of a topic, so we needed to drill down into a more local event. They were interested in police brutality in DC, so we kept going and finally drilled down to examples of police brutality in their neighborhoods in the 60s to show how that is a broader part of DC’s history. That shed light on how the city and nation respond to police brutality during urban unrest. The process started with them knowing a lot about a very specific, local example. This makes the broader history more manageable because once they’re hooked and knowledgeable about a local event, they can digest the historical context better. As a teacher, I help them use that interest and knowledge to engage in larger and more complex issues in national history.
Did your experience with Humanities Hub affect how you approached NHD in your classroom this year?
I suppose it reminded me of the same idea that you can learn about the great migration, but if you start just learning about it in general, it is overwhelming. During Humanities Hub, the most engaging part was when we narrowed-in on a more manageable example, the 3 protagonists of the book, The Warmth of Other Suns. When I set up my lessons, we tried to talk about the experience of the protagonist to figure out how it sheds light on the great migration and then how that teaches us about the 20th century. The natural inclination is to start broad, but it’s more engaging for students to start with a personal example. I like talking to my students about their families’ histories because if they know that, they know something about our nation’s history.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching History?
The idea that history is really hyper-relevant, the key is unlocking that relevancy. Like a good storyteller, you try to help the audience relate to a very specific example. That’s what effective History teachers do–they unlock the seemingly pre-written and determined narrative and show how normal individuals have directly affected a larger narrative that can seem overwhelming.
I do that on a family level. I’ve structured my entire class around researching family — it didn’t become possible until I was in grad school when I realized that social history and researching social history allows people to understand how one person or a group of people can affect the narrative of history.
Why is it so important to ensure that all students are engaged in the classroom experience and their own learning?
On a really immediate level, it is helpful for classroom environment because engaged students are doing good work without out need for punitive measures. Threatening students to do their work is a way you can ensure they are working, but it just gets you by day to day. But by engaging students, I allow them to feel empowered to be present in the moment. They can engage in a way that lets them drive the instruction.
One example of this was today during 2nd period. The juniors in US History were out for a week on college tours and they came back out of sorts. My plan was just to use census records to research our families. The idea was to choose one family member in the census following a cheat sheet. As soon as we got our cards out, people were instantly engaged. They are the experts. They know great grandma; they are finding her in the census, so they start to do the work. It put them in the driver’s seat. Checking for success wasn’t artificial; it was a natural parts of the lesson. It demonstrates the fact that history is the engaging part of the lesson – we don’t need extra crutches.
How do you establish mutual respect and good relationships with your students?
I’ve been at Seed for 17 years so I know families and siblings, which helps because students feel confident that I’m going to be there next year and I’m not going to go away. This gives me staying power. I also encourage students to choose projects that are personally engaging that they create and present. When they’re done, I can say I’m proud of the project they just showed off. Both our academic and social achievement drive the relationship. It seems more authentic when the project is something that they’ve created and demonstrated. Students share their projects with a larger community, and that includes me, which creates an authentic and genuine experience. In a funny way, that reverse happened at National History Day on Thursday when students felt proud of me for my work.