Getting the Stories Across

How do I communicate history in such a way that the students really grok it and that it stays with them? I have no idea.

Seriously, I try, and try, and the things I think are easy? Whooooosh they go swishing past never to be seen again. The odd or really complicated material? Often sticks.

I can tell you that not using notes makes an enormous difference. The lessons when I do not use notes because I’ve learned the material backwards and forwards, the students often do best with that material.

Reading widely enough that I can help them see connections, and to have a trove of history-stories that are germane to the topic also seems to work. Humor, odd facts, personal accounts of events, the occasional gory description of why technology isn’t such a bad thing at times, those all help.

The other way, besides repeating and emphasizing the critical facts over and over and over… is to tear my heart out in class and let them see just how meaningful and painful or wonder-full an event was. But that requires that the students respect their teacher and trust him or her not to be stringing them along. The students have to immerse themselves in the story to the same depth that the teacher is immersed, and that’s… hard. Very hard.

I rarely get seriously emotional in class. I will play-act some times*, and I use a lot of humor of various kinds to keep students going  and paying attention, but pathos? No. I don’t want to manipulate them. That may be part of why they lock onto those few times when I do get wound up and fight to keep in control of myself.


*Sometimes play-acting someone like General Wallenstein, or Louis XIV, or Stalin, or Hitler, works to cement information in students’ memories. Sometimes… nothing works. Cold front approaching and it is the period just before lunch, or last class of the day on Friday? All bets are off!

10 thoughts on “Getting the Stories Across

  1. Learning through stories….Sometimes grabbing onto how someone experienced an historical event and wrote it down from their perspective tends to bring it across. I know narrative histories tend to get frowned upon, but some of my best learning was from them.

  2. Your way sure sounds better than Name, Date, Place, Event. Name, Date, Place, Event. Name, Date, Place, Event…

    • The guy I took western civ from used a similar method. Very effective showman and instructor.

      I think I guy I had my non western civ from was also effective, and he used some of the same stuff, though not to the same degree.

    • I’ve been tempted to imitate a cartoon from the old CAA flight instructor manual and step on a toe to see if the lid on the head opens so I can push the book in.

  3. In college, in 1980 I think, I had a military history class. Now I had been reading military history since I was about…oh… five, I think, so a lot of it was old ground for me, but I do remember a couple significant things out of the class.

    One of them was an early morning class (0800 I think, so early for college student!), the professor had invited another colleague, a Professor of Germanic Studies, to start the lecture that day. Professor Reichmann lived in the same community I did when growing up, and his son was in my Boy Scout troop, so I knew he and his wife were refugees from post-WWII Germany, coming to the US in the 50s as very young adults.

    The course professor introduced him, and without any preamble Professor Reichmann stepped up in front of us and held a magazine in front of his face. The magazine was German, from sometime in the 1930s, and featured a nearly life-size photo of Der Führer’s face. Professor Reichmann immediately launched into a very loud, bombastic, re-creation of one of Adolf’s speeches, complete with even louder crescendos, hand and arm waving, etc. No idea what it was about, it was all in German language and I didn’t know any German then. But it woke everyone up!

    Herr Professor went on to explain how he grew up in Germany in the 1930s, traded in his Boy Scout uniform for a Hitler Youth one (not really a choice), and many of his other experiences right up through The War. He explained the structure of the Nazi Party, how it was deliberately structured and embedded in the community. He talked about being selected for SS recruitment as a 16 year old in early 1945 (I think) while he was attending an all-male high school. The SS came to his school and made all the boys walk under a horizontal pole held six feet off the ground. Anyone whose head touched (including his) was SS material, and he was told he would be picked up at the school the following morning. Professor Reichmann already knew he did NOT want any part of the SS, so a friendly teacher at the school arranged that night for him to leave and join a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit in another city. Turns out shortly thereafter they needed infantryman more than anti-aircraft gunners so his unit was given rifles and sent to fight the Russians. At the end of the war the Soviets started marching him and his comrades off to Russia, but he managed to duck out of the column at a turn and sneak back to western Germany, where he surrendered to the Americans. And the rest is history. 🙂

    So anyway, the point of all this is that it put a certain realism, a certain “hey this stuff really happened to real people” emotional content to the textbook and lecture narratives. I don’t know how many former-Hitler-Youth/Russian-Front survivors you have hanging around your neck of the woods, but that type of thing certainly made it “real” for me. Later when I was stationed in Germany I met a number of other Germans who shared their experiences during The War, and I always think of those when reading histories of that time. It gives me a connection, an emotional motive to absorb what I’m reading.

    Best wishes on your task.

    • Thank you. I do have a few people I trust who were THERE for some major events, and are willing to come in and do guest lectures. No one quite that dramatic, but I knew people and I borrow their stories.

  4. A few movies that may be helpful…

    –the 1982 German film ‘The White Rose’, about the student anti-Nazi resistance group. Outstanding, the kids come across as real people rather than plastic saints. (Although one of them is, now, in fact a saint, designated by a Russian Orthodox faction)

    –‘The Lives of Others’, about life in East Germany

    –‘We the Living’ Italian film based on Ayn Rand’s first novel (and her best one from a literary standpoint, IMNSHO), about life in immediately post-revolutionary Russia

    –‘Dark Blue World’ about Czech fighter pilots in the RAF in WWII…and also about their fate after the Communist takeover of their country

    • Alas, I don’t have enough class hours to show full-length movies, even breaking them up over four days. We lose two weeks in the spring (effectively) to track, basketball, and academic competitions. Those are good films. Truth be told, I don’t think I can show “The Lives of Others” at all, because everything has to be PG or very mild PG-13 (some of our students are either very young or very sheltered).

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