Spare a Thought for the History Teacher

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By David Calverley

As a secondary school history teacher in Ontario, I enjoyed the posts published in March by Samantha Cutrara and Rose Fine-Meyer. I agree that women’s history and gender issues are not well-represented in Ontario’s Grade 7 and 8 History curriculums. Lack of representation is also an issue in the Grade 10 History Curriculum. It is the final compulsory history class in Ontario, a course I’ve taught numerous times, and the course I’ll largely focus on for this article. However, observations that the curriculum fails to address certain content sufficiently carries the implication that the curriculum requires revision. Such observations are useful since curriculum is always changing to reflect different needs. However, as a practicing teacher, I think it is important to consider another factor when addressing limitations in the history curriculum: the practice of teaching high school history. Multiple issues impinge upon a history classroom but many can be lumped under the heading of time. So, please spare a thought for the history teacher and give some consideration to our practice.

A Harkness-Style Classroom Discussion

First, all teachers must consider their students. Good teachers love their kids and want them to succeed but puberty ridden students can be exasperating. Intermediate students (grades 7 to 10) have only partially developed brains. They have poor attention spans, and what attention they do have is often focused elsewhere. They have difficulty grasping concepts that might seem straight forward to the teacher but are too abstract for a thirteen-year-old. Complicating all of this, teachers instruct students with a range of academic, social, emotional, and developmental issues. I’ve taught Grade 10 students who read at a Grade 3 level, students with ASD, FAS, and other social/emotional/developmental issues. Creating a course that addresses the curriculum, is age appropriate, and supports exceptional students takes time.

Teenage life also intrudes on your class time. Perhaps a student is upset because their friend is facing a manslaughter charge, or a member of their family is charged with multiple, indictable offences. Perhaps their parents are divorcing. Maybe their father, mother, brother, or sister has suddenly passed away. The student might be developing mental health or addiction issues. Perhaps one of your female students is pregnant and both she and the father are understandably stressed. Maybe a student at the school has died, from illness, accident, or suicide and it is impacting the students in your class. Maybe one of your students is being abused and your are part of a Children’s Aid Society investigation. I have faced all of these issues at some point in my career, and each required my time and attention.

It is also important to remember that class time is not devoted solely to covering content. Teachers need to assess their students. Growing Success details how assessment will be carried out in all Ontario classes. It states that “In all subjects and courses, students should be given numerous and varied opportunities to demonstrate the full extent of their achievement of the curriculum expectations… .”[1] What does that mean? First, it means that a teacher can’t rely solely on tests to assess their students because students need varied and different assessments to demonstrate their learning. However, if you give a test, it will require at least two classes: one for review and the other for the test. Larger assessments such as essays require multiple classes to complete. Students require instruction to understand how to formulate research questions, conduct research, analyze primary sources, assess secondary sources, create footnotes, and write. These skills are covered in the first “strand” of the Grade 10 History Curriculum. Assigning an essay means setting aside hours of class time to teach students essay research and writing fundamentals.

When you finally arrive at issues of content, teachers need to decide what they will cover. The curriculum is huge, and you can’t cover everything. Consider one strand in the Grade 10 History Curriculum, “Canada, 1929-1945.” In each strand there is a short list of overall expectations (“the knowledge and skills students are expected to demonstrate” via assessments) and a much longer list of specific expectations that outline the knowledge and skills in greater detail.[2] There are thirteen specific expectations in the 1929-1945 strand. How would you cover all the material in four weeks (approximately twenty classes)?

Consider one specific expectation from that strand. I’ve included the list of examples and sample questions provided in the curriculum:

C1.5 describe the main causes of some key political developments and/or government policies in Canada during this period (e.g., Mackenzie King’s Five Cent speech; the formation of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation or Social Credit; the establishment of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] or the National Film Board [NFB]; provincial Sexual Sterilization Acts; social welfare policies; the Dominion Elections Act, 1938; Quebec women receiving the vote; wartime propaganda; the decision to intern Japanese Canadians; the 1944 Racial Discrimination Act), and assess their impact on non-Indigenous groups in Canada

Sample questions: “What are some factors that contributed to the development of new political parties during the Great Depression? What social and political values were reflected in these new parties?” “What was the historical context for Maurice Duplessis’s Padlock Act? What impact did the act have on the civil liberties of various groups in Quebec during this period?[3]

A teacher doesn’t need to cover all the examples, but you must cover the overall expectation. My choices, based on the examples, would be the formation of the CCF (it reflects how economic and social problems in Canada led to the formation of a new political party), sexual sterilization policies (students are shocked to learn about past practices carried out in the ‘interests’ of society, and it allows me to address the forced sterilization of indigenous women), and the internment of Japanese Canadians (to tackle both the suspension of civil rights during wartime and racism in Canada). Regardless of my choices, I am leaving out more than I include.

You might think daily lectures, similar to a university class, will allow you to cover more material and be efficient use of class time. However, lecturing to a class of thirty to thirty-five grade 10 students for seventy minutes, five times per week, is not a good idea. A few students might appreciate daily lectures that cover multiple topics, but most will quickly tune-out. Tuned-out students become disruptive students. Classroom management is an entirely different issue, but it is at the forefront of most teachers’ minds particularly if they have a challenging class. When I switched to teaching high school from university, I quickly learned that excessive lecturing leads to problems.

Experienced history teachers also recognize that their students know very little about the broader historical context of issues and events they will cover in class. For example, before I cover Canada and the Cold War with my class, I need to explain communism, that the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were once a thing, that Germany was not always unified, that the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Russian spies were a problem long before the current insanity in the White House? My class time is taken up covering numerous topics to give broader global context to Canadian history.

As I stated earlier, I agree that gender issues are poorly covered in the intermediate history curriculum. However, there is only so much time in a class to cover multiple, important topics. I cover some women’s history in my Grade 10 class, and I would like to cover more. However, time devoted to one topic means taking away from other, equally deserving subjects. After almost twenty years of teaching high school history, I’ve realized there is only one constituency I need to keep happy: my students. If they learned something, improved their writing, and enjoyed the course (which means they might register for an optional, senior history class), I think I made good use of the time I had with my students.

David Calverley has been teaching secondary school history, social science, law, and politics since 2002. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Ottawa and his B.Ed. from Nipissing University. He taught in the Department of History and the Faculty of Education at Nipissing University, and he continues to teach intermediate and senior History ABQ courses for the Schulich School of Education. His book Who Controls the Hunt? First Nations, Treaty Rights, and Wildlife Conservation in Ontario, 1783-1939was published by UBC Press in 2018.

[1] Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. 2010. Ontario Ministry of Education. Accessed March 14, 2019. Page 17.

[2] The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9 and 10. Canadian and World Studies: Geography, History, Civics (Politics). 2018 Ontario Ministry of Education. Ontario Ministry. Accessed June 24, 2019. pp. 24-25.

[3] Ibid. 117.

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3 thoughts on “Spare a Thought for the History Teacher

  1. Shirley Tillotson

    Thanks for this vivid description of the work of a high school history teacher. Even in university classrooms, we know some of the same challenges (though not all of them), and of course we too make decisions about what to include in classroom time. (Essay topics lists provide a time-honoured way of encouraging students to broaden their engagement into areas beyond the classroom lecture/discussion.) And I suspect universtiy profs assume more is achieved by way of “coverage” in high schools than it is reasonable to expect. I can complete understand that the teacher’s choice must be to engage students with topics that the students find intrinsically interesting, usually because there’s some surprise value and some connection to life issues they themselves confront. And of course those topics will vary among students. Getting it largely right will motivate more students to take more history classes and develop broader and deeper knowledge. It sounds like David Calverly has chosen topics that would allow him to at least invite students to be curious about a whole range of perspectives: women, gender, racialization and sexualities, even ones he doesn’t mention, such as place, region, and environment. I’m writing to emphasise something that he hints at when he lists the topics he choses: it’s not the topic by itself but the signals a teacher gives about what’s an interesting perspective that motivates a student to connect a particular bit of the past to their own sense of what’s interesting and important. So to invite students to be curious and knowledgeable about women in the past, at some point might the teacher ask whether the students think the CCF at its beginning would have been more or less attractive to women than were the old line parties? That’s not a question about specifically ‘women’s history’ — it’s a a way into a big question about what makes a political party a movement, what gets people to care about elections. Do party politics ever matter? How can you tell whether party politics are really important in daily life? Middle school and high school teaching is a heroic activity of enormous social importance and seems to me to be incredibly difficult for all the reasons that David Calverly powerfully describes. My question is whether questions like some of the ones I just listed might be attractive and engaging for high school students, and possibly a time-efficient way to really integrate women and gender into a topic that’s not something separate called “the changing role of women” or something otherwise exclusively women’s history?

  2. David We Calverley

    Hello Shirley

    Thank you for the comment. I think you make a very valid point – integrating women’s/gender history, racialization, indigenous history etc. in a way that it is simply part of a course and not something that is slotted in at a particular moment. For example, not having a unit of study entitled “Women’s History” but simply integrating it into the entire course of study.

    That is, in my opinion, the best way to do these things. I do have some specific assignments on specific issues and groups. For example, in one week the students will be starting a study of Treaty 9 that will take about 4-5 classes. However, indigenous history continues throughout the course with topics such as the treatment of indigenous veterans, achieving the right to vote, residential schooling, the 1969 White Paper, the 1982 repatriation, etc. I do the same with some topics specific to women (enfranchisement of women, role of women’s labour in WW I and WW II, women’s liberation movement and abortion rights, etc.); however, it also comes up throughout the year.

    I had my first class yesterday, and my students were examining old pictures of Toronto from the early 1900s and comparing them to photos of the same locations taken a couple of years ago (I used screen shots from Google Street View). It generates a great deal of discussion about gender history (comparing how people dressed), employment (by looking at store fronts from 1900 and today), gendered nature of work (I have a picture of a clothing factory entirely of men), urbanization (specifically how roads changed to accommodate cars), urban density, immigration (there are now sushi restaurants on Yonge Street but none in 1900 – changing immigration patterns led to a change in how we eat). This was, by no means, an in-depth examination of these topics but it was still a useful introduction for a group of 14-15 year old boys to how a photograph can be illustrative of different histories and perspectives.

    I like your idea regarding the CCF. I think it would be a good way to get my students to consider past parties and policies from a different perspective, and also how parties changed over time to reflect new social movements in Canada such as the women’s liberation movement from the 1960s and 70s.

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