Beyond The Textbook – Instructional Material for History Curriculum

By Benjamin Heckscher, History Department Head Lycée International de Saint-Germain-en-Laye American Section

As a history teacher, I’ve found that the most important step in successfully planning my year is owning the instructional material I want to teach – determining the stuff I teach according to what I feel works, rather than just grabbing odds and ends from the textbook. It has taken several years in my current assignment, a great deal of work, and a lot of confidence that I didn’t have when I started. But I can genuinely say I’m satisfied with the curriculum I have, both in terms of content and pedagogy.

Why Textbooks Fall Short for Curriculum

By and large, in the private school system, basing your curriculum on textbooks won’t do. That’s not a judgment of textbooks in general; it’s a reflection of the idiosyncrasies of everyone’s school and teaching schedule.

I have roughly three hours a week with my students; some people have two, some four, some more. Even if everything goes right, the odds that you have enough hours to cover everything in the book are slim: we have to fit in the projects, make time for book reports, there are accompanying texts to debrief and assess. And we miss teaching hours because of assemblies, fire drills, national holidays, and other not-at-all-frustrating things.

So what’s wrong with just skimming the book and taking what you can? Textbook editors go to great pains to structure a coherent body of work from the near-infinite amount of historical material one could learn on any given topic. There is generally an arc to the story; things are organized thematically, and the contents build on each other. If you pick and choose certain chapters, or certain parts of the chapters, you break up that cumulative structure. Students lose track of the bigger picture and the elements feel disconnected and arbitrary.

Most importantly, does the book tell the story you want to tell? In my school, in the senior year, we ultimately teach to the OIB (the French Option Internationale du Baccalaureat). It so happens that nobody produces textbooks that cover that material comprehensively. Textbook producers, like any business, base themselves on as wide a consumer base as possible; typically the public school system. Yet as a private school, we have our own curricula, within some broad limits. The result is that there are seldom textbooks that really do what we want to do.

Designing Authentic History Curriculum

So it’s on us to get the instructional material that tells the story we want to tell, and we have to get past the first hurdle of thinking that there’s a “correct” way to study any given subject. In history, there are myriad ways.

A Marxist historian would look at the agency of the general population: working conditions, strikes and legislation; you might read The Jungle.

An economic historian would focus on the money: profit motives, trade policies, the distribution of wealth; you might read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

A political historian would focus on political theory, presidents and foreign ministers.

None of these is objectively better than another, and most of us have some combination of these approaches. The point is that you have lots to choose from, and that whatever makes sense to you will make sense to your students.

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Continuity with Instructional Material

The key to assembling and owning your own instructional material is to identify the connective thread of the year. For example: our Junior year history curriculum includes, in no particular order, colonialism and decolonization, World Wars I and II and the Cold War. My connecting thread is “Competing political systems since Absolutism,” starting with Capitalism and its consequences, including Colonialism.

A classic Colonialism unit might consist of a stern look at the racism and superiority complex that guided the governments who carried out the practice. You might take a few chapters from King Leopold’s Ghost to illustrate the barbarism perpetrated on the Congolese, do a text analysis of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” in the context of America’s expansion to the Philippines, cover the Scramble for Africa, and study the use of coolie labor.

For me, in the context of “competing political systems,” it makes sense to spend some time looking at how successful Capitalism requires wider trade opportunities and cheap labor and resources. We look at pre-colonial trading outposts, take Cecil Rhodes as a case study of business leading government, and compare classic to economic imperialism.

So this connective thread helps you chose book chapters, worksheets, primary documents etc. to tell story the story that makes sense to you. The rest falls into place more or less organically.

As I said at the top, it takes a few rounds to fine-tune things, but it gets easier as you go. After three years of this program, I have a single message in mind as I’m assembling and teaching the instructional material. And because I can talk about the program as a single concept, relating each piece of it to the others, the students have a better handle on the story as a whole and see things as a process rather than a series of vignettes.

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Benjamin Heckscher
Contributing Author:

Ben Heckscher began teaching during his college years at NYU. After college, he spent five years at the primary level at the Calhoun School in New York, then got a Masters Degree in History and moved to Paris. For the past eight years, he has been teaching in the American Section of the Lycée International de Saint Germain-en-Laye, where he now heads the History Department. He is currently finishing a PhD in European Union history at the London School of Economics, and will soon be moving with his wife and children to Estonia!

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