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:
- Interpersonal Relations
- Economic Struggles
- Critters-Institutionalized Fears
- Interpersonal Relations
- Better world
- Self Discovery
- New Experiences
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