Teaching History Part 2: Purpose

This post marks the second part in a series of post designed to explore history instruction to assist history teachers at teaching history in more culturally inclusive, balanced, and responsive ways. You can read part one here.

As an adolescent, history was nothing more than dates, events, people and places I saw in books. It wasn’t real to me. However, history was so much more than that. Unfortunately, no one really impressed that upon me. Coming of age in the nineteen nineties, there was so much history happening; the Clinton presidency, the advent of the internet, the Anita Hill hearings, the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.), terrorist attacks in New York City and Oklahoma City, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the O.J. Simpson trial, and of course the golden age of the Jordan era. However, there were other things happening that impacted my community and the folks I interacted with daily; notably welfare reform and the crime bill that exacerbated the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people.

While all of this was going on, I was learning about stuff I had little to no interest in; European settlers, climate, land forms, the revolutionary war and very little about Black people – other than them as enslaved peoples and about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Little to no connection was made between history, truth and purpose. Again, history was made about dates, events, people and places. Many history teachers still believe that is the purpose. They couldn’t be more wrong. History is about investigating the past to find the truth and to apply that truth to the current time so to develop critical analysis about who we are as a people, how we got here and how we can improve in all areas as a people. Teachers of history must ask themselves are they teaching history that way, or are they just telling kids to memorize dates, events, people and places. I contend that if you teach children in the style of the former, they’ll remember the latter.

When teaching history, lessons must have purpose and provide students with purpose for their lives. I know that teachers believe that students must come to understand the importance of learning for knowledge sake and I get that in communities of color we instill in children that education is the passport to the future… But WE must help children internalize what we want them to know. That means making connections. Lessons must connect to the conditions and realities children see around themselves, that they might understand why things are the way that they are. Whether you work in an urban school, a suburban school or a rural school, this has to happen. Children have questions that require answers: why is there poverty, why am I poor, why is my parent(s) without a job, how can I improve my condition, why is there crime, how do I get out of here, why is there racism, and what can I do to fix this? You can’t provide students the right answer on your own. But you can use history to help young people connect the pieces to the puzzle to see the overall picture.

History lessons cannot be unrelated to questions with real life ramifications. Teachers much teach so that students can construct the answers they need based on truth. Here are some things that you can do in your history classroom that can assist students in doing that.


  1. Teach History Thematically Rather Than Chronologically – teaching chronologically sounds well and feel like the normal way to teach. But teaching that way confines you to teaching history according to time. It does not allow you to connect events from different times to a theme that impacts society today. Teaching thematically allows you to teach various historical events and people from different times under the umbrella of a theme or topic that has relevance to the history and/or experiences we live today. It also allows you to tailor what you teach to your population of students while no longer looking to the textbook as your guide.
  2. Use History to Acknowledge the Histories and Experiences of Your Students – Teaching the Revolution can’t simply be about the colonists seeking independence from the British or the French revolting from the Crown. History isn’t that simple. Do Black and Latinx students see themselves when we frame our teaching that way? Of course not. Do we teach on the complexities of Black involvement on both sides of the American Revolution? Do we teach about how Mexico’s abolishing enslavement played a role in the Texas Revolution? Do we speak of the Haitian Revolution in the context of freedom and democracy the same ways we do with American Colonists? Do we acknowledge Simon Bolivar liberating much of South America only decades after George Washington secured independence in our country? Do we speak of the role enslavement had on the formation of western nations? We must acknowledge the complexities of history to get at the truth in ways that see Black and Brown people as people unjustly harmed yet revolutionary in their thinking and in their action. How people view the history of Black and Brown people impact how they view Black and Brown people today.
  3. Make Critical Thinking the Foundation of Your Pedagogy – critical thinking means engaging in objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. This is what students of history ought to always do. However, the way in which they should do it requires thinking from a lens of justice; who benefits versus who does not, who is heard and who’s voice is marginalized, whose ideas are implemented and why? There is a cheat sheet available online from global digital citizen. I suggest that history teachers apply the questions to their practice in the classroom. Whatever assignment you provide and whatever discussion you have, the outcome you’re seeking from your students must come by way of answering these questions.
  4. Allow Your Students to Be Investigative Journalists via Research & Writing – rather than teach from the material, facilitate ownership of learning from your students by giving them the space to teach themselves. We often speak of preparing students for college. College students do a lot of reading, researching and writing. Of course, no elementary school student is going to read a book, but they can research articles from verified source and report on what they discovered. There is a saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. I contend that giving him the option is half the battle. Your students may be used to being spoon fed information. But make your classroom an opportunity to not take your word for it and rather find out the truth themselves. Be sure that you provide the right resources.
  5. Use Resources by Authors & Scholars of Color – fiction and non-fiction works by White people are often what students often have to choose from in a classroom setting. However, those choice represent one perspective. In order to understand history, students must learn from various perspectives, particularly from those voices and experiences that are (or have been previously) marginalized and/or erased from the mainstream. I’ll speak more to this important point in Part 3 of this series.
  6. Facilitate Organized Debate and Dialogue as Classroom Participation & Assessment – children love to talk and they often love to argue. I’ve advocated for debating in previous posts and I reiterate it here. Allow your students to take the knowledge learn from research and weaponize it in an educational context and classroom setting. We often say knowledge is power, so too is knowledge a weapon and while we do not want students to “hurt” each other, we want them to take pride in learning, sharing knowledge and defending their positions using what they know. Arguing is an art; an art that will be useful as they grow older. It is also a skill. Build up this skill within your students. Doing so equips them to fight ignorance with knowledge wherever they are – and have the confidence to do so.  
  7. Offer an Equal Amount of Projects to Assess Content & Classroom Knowledge – tests, whether true or false, multiple guess (I mean multiple choice), short answer or essay, aren’t always the best measure of knowledge. Often, creating an environment where students can apply the knowledge they’ve learned is the best measure of assessing what they know. Class projects do that, sometimes better than a test can. I get that you must have tests… I guess. But if you’re offering a test for each unit, you should offer a project of the same grade weight for each unit as well. It is important that you provide multiple ways for your students to show what they know. But also, depending on how purposeful the project is (AND IT SHOULD BE AN ASSESSMENT WITH PURPOSE), you can apply that project to as aspect of real life in the community. Tests only purpose is to show what you know on a piece of paper that doesn’t actually say what you know as it relates to the person you are. Project however attach knowledge to one’s heart and it renders purpose.  

Learning about history shouldn’t be mundane and boring. It should be engaging and fun. But it must also be revolutionary and transformative. Does your teaching equip young people to become freedom fighters on behalf of the people or does your teaching sanitize history in a way whereby young people wash their hands of it after the test; rendered ineffective for justice to happen? If yes to the former, three cheers to you. If yes to the latter, follow the tips above.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark!


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