Teaching Beyond the Textbook

Back in September I began what would be a year-long experiment in my U.S. History survey courses.  For a couple of years I've contemplated switching from the standard history textbook to a collection of secondary sources as core texts in my curriculum.  A number of factors pushed me in this direction, including the quality of the writing as well as the way in which the textbook shaped both my own teaching style as well as the  perceptions of the discipline among my students.  In terms of the former, it is enough to say that history textbooks are written in a bland, often neutral language that tends to alienate rather than challenge or encourage critical thinking skills.  Few students enjoy reading textbooks and those who do come away with very little understanding of how history is written and continually interpreted.  Textbooks present the study of the past as static and encourage readers to see it as a collection of facts to be memorized rather than understood and applied to more abstract questions.  The problem is often compounded in the case of multiple authors who seem to have little contact with one another throughout the writing process.

This year I decided on a collection of books that would introduce students to important moments in U.S. history through various approaches.  Studies included a popular history of Jamestown, biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, a social history of antebellum America, and scholarly surveys of the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement.  The wide range of sources opened up a number of options in the classroom.  First and foremost, we were able to slow down and thoroughly explore key moments in history.  In the case of Jamestown we were able to analyze a much larger collection of primary sources as well as some of the historiography surrounding our understanding of colonization.  One of my favorite lessons involved the comparison of scenes from the Hollywood move, The New World with Disney’s Pocahontas and entries from John Smith’s history of the colony.  This gave us a chance to talk about the various ways of interpreting the past as well as how our past is used in popular culture.  The rat race of getting through the textbook leaves very little time for such exploration.  This past year clarified the importance of emphasizing depth versus breadth.  More on this later.  Spending one month on a biography of Abraham Lincoln left my students with a much richer understanding of the political debates that led to secession and the complexity of the war itself, specifically the role that slavery played in shaping its outcome.  With the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial set for next year my students are well equipped to deal with the vast amount of misinformation and confusion surrounding Lincoln’s public and private life.  We experienced similar results while focusing on the Civil Rights Movement.  Rather than cover the high-profile figures such as Martin L. King and Malcolm X we were able to look beyond to the various grassroots organizations as well as those individuals and organizations that provided the foundation for the movement before WWII.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed.   I need to do much more to link individual studies, especially in cases where there is a significant temporal gap.  If textbooks do anything right it’s in the way they provide a coherent narrative over time.  No doubt, certain students benefit from this in that they provide a foundation and frame of reference in which to make casual connections and other relevant comparisons.   Some of the weaker students did find a few of the texts to be difficult reading and others who fell behind for various reasons found it more challenging to catch up or prepare for tests.  I hope to address both of these concerns with supplemental materials that provide a thorough outline of the events under consideration as well as those areas not covered. 

Perhaps the biggest concerns center on the content covered.  There is no way of getting around the fact that this approach means that certain events/themes will not be covered sufficiently.  I’ve struggled with this fact, but over the course of the year it has become much clearer to me that the benefits outweight the loss of coverage.  I need to do a better job covering Women’s history, Native-American history as well as the late nineteenth-century.  That said, the overwhelming response on the part of my students has been positive.  Simply put, many of my students enjoyed reading history and admittedly for the first time.  Finally, this experience has made me a better teacher.  We need to take chances in the classroom to expand our own understanding of our subject as well as this craft we call teaching.  

I am already looking forward to September.  I have made a few changes to our list of titles and may even experiment with the order in which we proceed given the presidential election in November.  The nomination of our first African American opens up a number of opportunities for American history teachers.  We need to be able to explain to our students why it is happening now as opposed to 50 years ago.  With this in mind, I am contemplating beginning the year with Harvard Sitkoff’s study of the Civil Rights Movement which should give my students a thorough grasp of the relevant history and a better appreciation of where this nation is in terms of politics and race.    

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4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2008 @ 18:17

    Tim, — I would point out that there is a place for what I call Tea Party knowledge. We do want our students to be historically literate in terms of the basic outline of American history. There is nothing necessarily problematic with that.

    I should point out that my comments are not meant in reference to my AP course where I do use a textbook. No surprise, that I am dealing with the same issues with that course. The difference is that these classes attract some of our brightest students and I am stuck with a more traditional approach. It is frustrating to say the least, but there is a chance that we may be ending certain AP courses. If that is the case I will have the freedom to design my own honors course from soup to nuts.

  • Tim Lacy Jun 4, 2008 @ 17:42

    Thanks for outlining the depth side of things. I recall a prior post of yours where we discussed this, but I’m sure doing it twice is good for you and CWM’s audience.

    On the standard narrative and struggling/weaker students, well, I suppose you’re right that it’s a matter of emphasis and balance. I suppose the teacher could minimally supply the struggling student with a relevant non-narrative chronicle/chronology to provide a backbone, then get back to the messy part.

    Of course I also understand that you’re dealing with AP courses where students have to exhibit particular kinds of history intelligence to get the credit they want. I can see where the AP paradigm might do harm to your balancing act (in fact, it may have been in the course of discussing your AP obligations that this topic arose before?).

    – TL

  • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2008 @ 16:14

    Hi Tim, — Sorry for not elaborating sufficiently on some of my points. I wrote this in preparation for my final departmental meeting where I had to say a few words about how the whole thing went. There are a few points to be made about emphasizing depth over breadth in the survey course. First, I think it allows those of us who believe in a multi-perspectival approach to really give it meaning. While there is some benefit to being able to offer students a straight-forward explanation for why an event took place or what it means that it took place, there is also something to be said for muddying up the waters. When discussing the question of who freed the slaves while reading William Gienapp’s fine biography students were confronted with both the traditional top-down explanation as well as the view of the slaves as well as those serving in the U.S. Army. There are a number of answers to the question depending on the assumptions that go into the analysis as well as the weight placed on certain sources as opposed to others. I think there is some value in having students understand that history is open-ended as opposed to a neat linear narrative. Similarly, when discussing Jamestown we spent considerable time exploring the question of its significance in terms of the beginning of representative government, slavery, as well as the perspective of Native Americans. Again, another moment that is open-ended depending on prior assumptions and made possible by being able to slow down and explore a moment in time in some detail.

    I think you raise a number of important issues with your second point. It is important to remember that I have a wide range of students in my classes. Some of my students can deal intelligently with a complex narrative that takes them beyond the standard accounts. However, the fact of the matter is that some of my students find it difficult to engage in abstract thought and need a coherent narrative with which to use as a foundation. I do not view these approaches as mutually exclusive. The trick has been to find the right balance between continuity and the kind of complexity that leads to debate and critical thinking. I guess what I mean to say is I need to find a way to maintain that textbook foundation within this new approach. It’s a matter of fine tuning.

    I hope that answers your question Tim, but if you have further questions feel free to fire away.

  • Tim Lacy Jun 4, 2008 @ 15:21


    Two of your statements interested me a great deal:

    1. “This past year clarified the importance of emphasizing depth versus breadth.”

    Later in your post you discussed why ~not~ breadth, but you didn’t discuss the merits of depth. I’d like to hear more on your experiences with the latter. Maybe just refer back to an old post.

    2. “If textbooks do anything right it’s in the way they provide a coherent narrative over time.”

    On might say that this is the exact thing that history professionals should not do. We need to confuse our students more, in a positive way (leaving more open-ended questions), to excite them about the possibilities for learning and debate about historical matters. Put another way, do we believe in a “coherent narrative?” If we did, why would history fascinate us? If I had believed the narrative to be simple, why would I have strived for a graduate education in history?

    In sum, if we teach the clean, coherent narrative, we’re likely boring our students in a way that would turn us off to our field. If we have to use textbooks, let’s at least find ones that do more things “wrong”—meaning raise more philosophical questions about the deep matter of history. – TL

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