The foundation of History is reading. Without the attention to text, the discipline struggles. I know we, as teachers, strive to make it visual, exciting, and somewhat accessible – but at the end of the day, it is through readings that we impart knowledge (otherwise we would not need textbooks, or collected peer reviewed essays, or specialists books, and in any discipline).

I am also a believer that students are brilliant. I push them. I do. I ask a lot of them, and I want more. There are also many cultural clues that tell me youth are exceptional. For example, the Beatles: George Harrison was 16 when they toured Hamburg, and 18 when the group had its first number one hit. They also pumped out 17 albums in 10 years. “The Beatles are an exception,” I might hear you say. Perhaps. But it is that energy, that creativity that I am attempting to tie into. Another example comes courtesy of the US Navy, to which I served for six years. I am still astounded how much responsibility is heaped on “boys and girls” seriously. Some 18 or 19 year old kid is driving a ship, tracking targets, flying (or learning to) an aircraft: and they shine like there is no tomorrow. At the age of 17, Nick D’Aloisio sold an app he created to Yahoo for $30-million. I can go on about the brilliance of youth, but there is not enough room on the internet for such an activity. Let’s just accept it as fact and move on.

cat meme library readingWith that energy, with that creativity, with a drive (usually) to push themselves – students arrive because (in my opinion) they want something better. What’s happened is that American society, its culture, has allowed some pieces of information to filter in without work, without digging. Students do read, but often in short bursts, and with cat memes. This is their world.

But this does not mean we allow that world to continue. It is my job to open their eyes, to let them see the past in terms of their present, to get them excited about their possible futures and how they fit in. What they need, though, are skills in order to take in the past. Reading is that fundamental skill.

I am teaching them to read? Not exactly. I am teaching them how to be better at data extraction. I am teaching them how to approach reading differently. I am teaching them how to “work” a document. Why? To get more data, to get to the juicy bits, to allow them to make connections. I give them primary documents simply because that’s the place in time and space where history happened. I am not teaching reading, for that they already know how to do. What I am doing is teaching them how to work a document, to make connections, to analyze its contents, and to synthesize that analysis into some sort of coherent whole – in other words, to connect these strands of historical information into something meaningful, into something useful. I am teaching them how to kick but in their other classes, and in their future classes, and how to get that “A,” or that cum laude GPA, and how to be a halfway decent human being who can then read, think, and then argue all on their own.

This starts the moment they walk into my classroom. Perhaps it sounds high and mighty. If it does, so be it. I cannot apologize for it. ​But it does keep me motivated, and it does keep me curious, and it does cause me to review my current practices and to see where, how, and when I can improve my teaching.