History Uncovering History

Historical Thinking is Hard…

Recently, I spent a period (67 minutes) on the Zoot Suit Riots with four classes of regular level, 10th grade US History students, using SHEG thinking like a historian materials and clips from PBS American Experience documentary, available on youtube.  The documentary used a lot of  witnesses to and participants in the events around the riots.  Despite spending one less period on this compared to last year, I felt that the class accomplished as much.  Having gone through the material once I was able to slim down the introduction using key points in the SHEG lesson and trim selections from the video to about 20 minutes.  Students seemed to absorb the key points, and they had time to read and consider the contrasting accounts in the SHEG lesson.  Small-group and whole-class discussions at the end revealed some sophisticated critical thinking about the sources.  A pre-service teacher observing the lesson was impressed.  The week ended, and I was pleased with myself.

Black and white crowd scene includes two sailors with aggressive facial expressions holding clubs.
Rioting sailors during the Zoot Suit Riots. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Then, I started reading the student essays produced the next week…  Unfortunately, they are mostly crap.  By which I mean they demonstrate very little of the historical thinking that came out in class.  The problem, I think, is mostly epistemological. While student effort and writing skills are also variables, the problem particular to these essays is that most students view history as a set of facts about which a person might have an opinion. So, they present facts about the riots and then offer an opinion.  This is perfectly reasonable given how history has been presented to them, including in my class.  The rest of the World War II unit involved students absorbing already constructed historical interpretations: global causes of the war, US entry, military events, and other homefront happenings were all presented as settled knowledge, The Truth.

On reflection, it is a little naive to expect adolescents to understand that we are suddenly pivoting to constructing our own narratives, even if I told them explicitly to do so. Their understanding of history as received knowledge is revealed by the large number of references to the textbook’s interpretation of  anti-zooter animosity as stemming in part from the baggy outfit’s violation of war-time rationing norms.  Neither the video segments nor the primary sources nor my explanation referenced this factor.  Students including it got it from the book or online.  My concern is not so much with this particular interpretation, although it does seem to be a way to move the conversation away from racial issues, but with the students eschewing engagement with the primary sources in favor repeating what they see as the facts.

So what next…historical thinking is not just a skill, but it is a way of viewing knowledge that students will not immediately grasp.  I will keep at it by including lessons uncovering history in the coming units.  I’m also planning rewriting instruction for the Zoot Suit essays as part of an enrich/remediate approach.  Beyond that I am definitely open to suggestion about help students make this epistemic shift.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

3 replies on “Historical Thinking is Hard…”

I appreciate your reflections on the challenges of getting your students to think like historians. You observe that “most students view history as a set of facts about which a person might have an opinion.” So true, too often great historic debates are reduced to two competing perspectives. Oversimplified, covered that, time to move on the next unit.

I’ve been developing a new format via iBooks that emerse students in a historic context – allowing them to interact with the documents in a more natural fashion. Two of the titles address the WWII era. Here’s a link at iTunes

I’m currently working on another that will address the impact of WWII on the American family. It moves far beyond the stereotyped Rosie the Riveter. Perspectives such as corporate day care, increases in juvenile delinquency, and the expectation that at the end of the war women would surrender their new jobs to make way for returning GI’s.

Great post. I’m in my first year as an MFA student (creative writing) and we’re actually discussing a lot of the same things. We’ve been examining postmodern lit and how it interprets history from a narrative and critical perspective.

Our tendency to ascribe meaning to the past cripples us from asking any really critical questions about history; it also contributes to the degradation of our news media into a whirlwind of subtle (or not so subtle) political spin.

As far as solutions – being an MFA student, I’m compelled to say that fiction can help. My learning to think more historically began with learning how to interpret literature and how it interacted with the real world. Whether that’s practical for a high-school classroom, I couldn’t say – but I’m glad you’re thinking about it and asking the questions!

Let me know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: