HM - Nov. 2014 - Nasson

Partners in History

National History Club

by Robert Nasson

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a craft. He talks about Bill Gates and the Beatles and that although both were blessed with extraordinary talent, they also put in the necessary time and hard work to become experts. In essence they became who they were because of practice.

In today's history and social studies classrooms students are no doubt working hard and putting in quality time; however, it remains to be seen whether they are retaining the knowledge of what they learn. We've all seen the studies displaying the lack of historical knowledge among students, but is anyone really shocked by these?

I was speaking with a history teacher in North Carolina the other day and he was upset that the curriculum in his 11th grade history class had been shifted to covering only post-Civil War to the present day. When I asked him what was happening with the pre-Civil War part his reply shocked me—it was being moved to 8th grade.

The problem we face is that by the time students finish with an era they are moving on to the next, and will probably never return to the previous one. So those students in North Carolina who study Colonial America to pre-Civil War will probably forget most of what they learned by the time they are Juniors. It's like asking John Lennon to put away his guitar and then pick it up three years later and not miss a beat.

I wish there were an easy way to remedy this. Unfortunately, with the long list of requirements and classes that students need to fulfill there's no simple solution. I think one of the best ways is to get students interested in the subject outside the classroom, so that they can develop a passion for history on their own. By getting students learning and thinking about historical events, figures, and eras outside the classroom they will be more likely to remember the content from previous classes and, in turn, it will also make history in the classroom more approachable and valuable to students.

As Director of the National History Club (NHC), I have seen middle and high schools try this approach with much success. Created by Will Fitzhugh in 2002, the NHC was designed to promote the reading, writing, discussion, and enjoyment of history at the secondary level and to allow after-school history clubs to share ideas and activities with each other. The thought was that by getting students involved in history outside their own classrooms we would be able to network schools around the country to create a group where chapters could learn from each other.

Our model was based on a bottom-up approach, where students and their advisor(s) would design and implement their activities, rather than take orders from us on what they should or should not do. We use the “teach-by-example” approach, and this has led to a wide array of activities in our over 500 chapters, ranging from Veterans Day ceremonies in their schools, field trips to such historic sites as the 16th Street Baptist Church, Alcatraz, Gettysburg, and Arlington National Cemetery, to hearing such speakers as Howard Dean, Elie Wiesel, and Colin Powell.

While we leave the direction of each club up to the student members and the advisor, we produce newsletters and use other communication methods to highlight the chapter activities, thus allowing each school to get fresh ideas for things to do. In addition, we run a few contests and awards programs that recognize the truly exemplary students and chapters that are part of the NHC. We hope that every student who is a part of his or her school's history club chapter will be a lifelong lover of history once they graduate.

I often say that history is like a jigsaw puzzle—what starts out as a collection of pieces can be put together with patience and passion. As the jigsaw puzzle comes together you begin to see the picture more clearly. With history you may never have that perfectly clear picture because events and historical figures are so complex, but the more you know the easier it is to understand the world that we live in. By studying the events of the past we can better prepare for the future. And if the leaders of the future are to come from the students of today then it's essential that they understand who we are and where we came from.

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