Lessons from a Toronto renegade: From history student to history teacher

February 9, 2011 at 8:37 am 1 comment

Posted by Laura Fraser

With the upcoming Approaching the Past session in mind, I thought it an appropriate time to blog about the transition from student of history to teacher of history. History has been my favourite subject from Grade 8 onwards. Admittedly, I was first seduced by the antics of William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellions of 1837-38. From this first seduction, I devoured most everything history, and perhaps was even a little Hermione Granger in my classes. When the transition came to teach history (or, as I do in my current job, develop tools for teachers to use), I found the creation more difficult than the consumption, and came to the following conclusions:

1.       I’m horrible with facts, dates, and names.

2.       Even William Lyon Mackenzie (or insert your own historical seductor here) can be boring, when presented in the wrong way.

3.       No student learns the same way.

If no student learns the same way, none of my teaching tools will reach every student; if even William Lyon Mackenzie is boring, what hope do we have for the less thrilling aspects of history? And if even I can’t remember the dates of the Boer War (1899-1902, thank you, The Canadian Encyclopedia), how can I expect students across Canada to absorb and retain that knowledge?

Rather than abandon hope entirely, I try to think back to my Grade 8 self who fell for a Toronto renegade. I remember studying for my Grade 8 Unit test (then “Conflict and Change,”) in the basement of my parents’ house. I had set up Yonge Street on the ping-pong table (figurines stood in for the key players – Mackenzie was a Hades figure from Disney’s Hercules), and I acted out the march up Yonge Street. For a class assignment, I recreated a recruitment flyer from the “rebels,” using the patented tea-bag technique and crisping the edges with a lighter – because, of course, it had been partially destroyed along with Montgomery’s Tavern. This is how history was exciting. I was living it, recreating it, engaging in it.

When I, on occasion, feel as if teaching history is hopeless, I remember that how we best learn history should guide our teaching of it, rather than the other way around. My positive and negative experiences as a student of history can and do guide my teaching of it, because I’ve seen both good and bad. And so it’s time to re-evaluate my foregone conclusions.

My students may forget important dates or names, but they’ll have developed the skill and gumption to discover that information through research. History can be boring – but it doesn’t have to be. That no student learns the same way is a challenge, but also a blessing to your teaching. Variety, even in a small way within one unit, means your teaching won’t be boring, because it’ll be differentiated, engaging and yes, may even involve a march up a pretend Yonge Street.


Entry filed under: Public History, Secondary School, Teaching, Teaching University. Tags: , , , , , .

Should we teach controversial issues in the history classroom? “What might it mean to live our lives as if the lives of others truly mattered?”

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Elise Cotter  |  February 9, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I remember the tea-bag technique well. You’re absolutely right, no student will love all history, all the time – but that is no reason to be discouraged. Each unit needs to be taught differently because students cling on to the various subject matter differently. Your Mackenzie is my Pearson.


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