Thoughts and Perspectives

Inquiry and Investigation, Teaching Texas History Backward – Update #2

I have been meaning to write this blog for a few weeks but continue to be overwhelmed! As I wrote in January, I am teaching my Texas History class backward this semester. Instead of starting the semester with pre-contact and Columbus and ending the semester with much more recent cultural and political events, we started with 2017 and are gradually working our way backward. This post provides an update on what we’ve been doing. 

Following others who have adopted this approach, we started the semester by making a list of various fears/concerns and hopes/joys. History is everything from a second ago afterall. I had students make a list of their top ten for each category. Then, I had them call a friend or relative in class (!! which was a blast!!) and ask them for their top ten for each category. I went through everything submitted to combine anything that was directly overlapping. Then, the class worked together to narrow it down and pick those we would focus on. One of the things I like best about the list is that it includes things I would have never really thought of the way they did. The final lists are as follows:

Fears/Concerns:

  1. War/Nationalism
  2. Future
  3. Interpersonal Relations
  4. Health
  5. Miss-achievements
  6. Economic Struggles
  7. Government
  8. Survival
  9. Critters-Institutionalized Fears
  10. Discrimination

Hopes/Joys:

  1. Entertainment
  2. Independence
  3. Interpersonal Relations
  4. Achievements
  5. Better world
  6. Self Discovery
  7. Health
  8. Religion
  9. New Experiences
  10. Education

These list help guide discussions and are the starting points for students’ semester projects.

The most exciting part of the backward approach for me is seeing students exercise more critical thinking skills and in a different way. We constantly are discussing, “What do we need to know about the past in order to understand this era?”

When looking at today and the last few decades, students developed excellent questions. A sample of these follow:

  • Why were there women activists? Why did women have fewer rights? How did abortions become an issue?
  • Why was there so much discrimination?
  • What happened to cause a split in the Democratic party? Why was one liberal and one conservative? Why wasn’t there a similar divide in the Republican party?
  • How did segregation come about? What lead to integration?
  • Why struggle between federal government, state government, and money?
  • What were Mexican Americans considered White? Why was it difficult for Mexican Americans to get into schools?
  • Why did workers form unions? Why were unions so hated?
  • What was the economic drive before oil?
  • Why were moderates afraid to express viewpoints until more were in power?
  • Why are arts, universities, etc. dependent on tax support?  
  • How did the LBJ era change Texas political landscape? What did LBJ do that made everybody so mad?
  • Why is there a fear of government?  

As a result, our time is spent more and more on investigating the answers to these beautiful questions. These questions would have never come about if our lessons were more focused on and then this happened. Some of these questions–all 100 percent developed by the students–have given me new ways of thinking about the past.  

Last week we introduced the topic of industrialism during the GAPE (c. 1880-1920). So I asked students, what do we need to know about the 1820s through the 1870s or so in order to understand industrialism and the related causes and effects. Here are a sample of the questions they developed–questions that show they are really thinking:

  • What did people do/what did people use before all of these new inventions?
  • What was the general cultural regarding the world, marriage, etc. before industrialism? How big was the change, actually?
  • What kind of inequalities existed before industrialism?
  • What caused people to move away from agriculture?
  • Where workers taken advantage of before Andrew Carnegie, etc.?
  • Politically, who pushed for and against industrialism?
  • Why was Galveston located where it was? Why was it so popular, besides being a port?
  • Why did people not really notice pollution before industrialism?
  • Did industrialism change opportunities for minorities? 

I decided to change-up the Midterm Exam, too. The take-home Midterm is also an investigation. The prompt I gave students is: 

On November 3, 2015, Houston, Texas, voters rejected the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, commonly known as HERO. In a formal essay of four or more typed pages (≈1100 or more words), please explain what this decision means and the roots of this decision by tracing the cultural, social, and political History of Texas (and the United States, as appropriate) from the present backward to the early twentieth century (≈1930s). Why did people reject HERO? How does studying the past in gradual steps backward help us understand its rejection?

All in all, I continue to be amazed and impressed by how well this approach is working and how positively people respond. 98 percent so far love the idea when hearing about it! Students like it, too. 

Students are learning to think and see the past differently. The only real danger, per se, to this approach is that students might think what happened was “inevitable” but that’s a danger in any and every History course.

Let me know if you have any thoughts! Thanks!

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 

8 replies »

  1. A revealing post, Doc. For a non-educator like myself I am reminded of the significant influence educators like yourself have in forming young peoples’ minds. These questions are indeed a reflection of the concerns of today’s students.. and inquisitive to reasons for the past. You have a palette of human history at your disposal to paint a picture on the minds of each of these students. An awesome responsibility; to provide some level of un-biased answers to their questions, given humans are by nature very biased. If I may… on one of your exams, do you include a “What would you have done if you were xxxxxxxx?” Certainly not a gradable question but it allows them to think and conclude with the mindset of not being graded. I am guessing, given the sensitivity you present in your posts, you likely already do this. You never know… one of your respondents could be president somewhere down the line. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for reading and your comment, sir. It really is an awesome responsibility. I’m hoping they’ll end up really appreciating what knowledge of the past can offer.

      We do activities, discussions, and writing assignment all the time that aren’t graded. 🙂 It’s, for me, an important part of the teaching and learning process.

      Sometimes, we talk about “what would you have done,” but that ends up being a dangerous question of sorts, usually, because people think they would have behaved in 1860, say, with the same attitudes and mores they have today. So sometimes when talking about enslavement, I’ll mention that if we were all alive in 1820, it’s highly likely we would either own enslaved peoples or participate somehow in the selling of humans. This sometimes makes them uncomfortable. And we need to be uncomfortable when learning sometimes.

      Like

  2. Both the post and the comments ended my reading day (had to stay off feet) on a hopeful note. Hopeful in tomorrow’s leaders, your students today, and in educators like yourself. This is what it’s all about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As usual, Great Work! I figured out years ago that Biology as presented in textbooks and by most teachers, needed to be taught backwards. Most courses start with some basic chemistry, then go into cells, then into some very basic anatomy and physiology, then into ecology, then behavior and a broader picture when it should start with the broader picture because most students want that view right at the start. It puts humans immediately into perspective relative to other animals and plants. But try to find a textbook that does this!

    Making a course into an investigation is THE way to teach it. It gets students to “own” the information immediately. It relates to the way they consume information on the TV and “social” media, anyway. When they start to look for the relevance of the past or the miniscule, then it comes to mean something. Otherwise it is something to spit back on an exam and then forget it. We have to stop the practice of making sure that students won’t remember what they learned from a course beyond the final exam.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Dr. Hyde.

      And, right–if we can get them interested some how, that’s great. No matter where we start, we can still cover everything and fit everything together. And in reality, starting “at the beginning” in any course or in any subject is a misnomer. It’s always some kind of “artificial” or “selective” starting point. I’ve been thinking at some point that it might be fun to teach a History class where we jump around, say in a Texas History class start with the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, then jump to enslavement, then Columbus and Mexican Texas, then current-day politics, then the Alamo, etc. It would “disrupt” our usual way of thinking and causes us to think about how everything relates and does not relate and to think more about historical memory.

      And I’m right with you on exams, what students remember (and don’t), and the overall course. Many a time I have told students something along the line of “don’t try to ‘memorize’ these dates for this test because you’ll forget after the test, focus on the big ideas and why it matters.” What’s the point in teaching, when teaching amounts to teaching forgetting?!

      Hope you are doing well!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You are so right about the “beginning” as being artificial, and “teaching forgetting.” College students are at the right developmental stage for doing this “experimental” approach in teaching method because they have lived long enough to have a unique personal “history.” In high school they are still busy comparing themselves with their parents, which in most cases because of common genetics and living in the same house together, will lack the environmental diversity that they will experience in college. Getting away from parents for longer periods, as in college courses, with the kind of diversity that has become the trend in universities, students are more willing to compare themselves with more diverse people, learn about very different attitudes and personal histories. High school students could benefit from some of the same teaching methods, but the results may be far less exciting. This is because high schools are districted in student representation, with poor schools segregated from wealthier schools. Universities are less so. It is truly exciting teaching this way if you have the backing of your school and faculty.

    Liked by 1 person

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