Posted by: David Offutt | May 6, 2019

National Teacher Day: In Praise of Influential Teachers

David Offutt (1980s) at Xavier Prep High School, New Orleans – As I had in Helena-West Helena, Ark, and Wynne, Ark., I taught the honors U.S. history classes. At Xavier Prep, I also introduced a western civilization class, which allowed me to teach ancient Greek and Roman histories, the foundations for our American republic.

Tuesday, May 7, is National Teacher Day. Having devoted some twenty years to teaching history and prepping, making out tests, and grading them on my own time so as to always return them the very next day, while earning a subsistence or sub-subsistence, salary, a one-day celebration hardly seems sufficient. Alex Trebek and Jeopardy do much better with a two-week Teacher Tournament. By the way, I spent an additional twenty years teaching just about everything in adult education.

Now, I’m enjoying a well-earned retirement and would like to pay tribute to three teachers who greatly influenced my teaching methods, which consequently evolved over the years. I had a great many fine teachers throughout my twelve years attending the public schools of El Dorado, Ark. However, I don’t recall any of them influencing my own methods. The following were teachers/professors whom I studied under at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and whose methods I modified as my own and adapted them for high school students.

Professor Hudson taught The Civil War and Recent America. Whether it was the War of the Rebellion or the two World Wars, he didn’t just mention that some side won this battle or lost that one, he used maps to explain the strategies, the tactics, the personalities involved, and the consequences of each conflict. He made them come alive. He used the classroom chalkboard, but I converted my maps to projector overlays and gave my students general maps of the battles that they could write on. It was one of the most successful and appreciated things I did to create an interest in history to my students.

The Battle of 1st Bull Run: Inspired by Professor Hudson, I used overlays to project how significant events transpired.

Dr. Hudson also routinely mentioned motion pictures that were based on the historical events that he was teaching. I did the same and expanded on it. If there was anything on television that I thought was important for them to know about, whether we were currently studying it or not, I would assign it for extra credit. I would give a 10-question verbal quiz in which I would ask the students to write a phrase or word that would prove they saw the show. Any question they got correct was a bonus point that would be added to their test scores. At one school, I couldn’t do that because of the department head, but I could have the students write a summary of the program for extra points.

In the age of home videos, beginning in the 1980s, at Xavier Prep in New Orleans, I continued offering extra credit for TV shows, but I also began showing significant movies or TV shows for extra credit after school. Even though it was on my own time, I loved doing this. A great film like “The Devil’s Disciple,” which takes place during the American Revolution could be shown in two afternoons at 41 minutes each for a total of 8 bonus points without having to take a quiz. The students really appreciated this, and many admitted they loved the films I showed them but would never watch them on their own.

Dr. Hudson also paid homage to the music of the eras we were studying, but I don’t recall his ever playing the music he talked about. I used my own tape recorder and/or my school’s phonograph to let my students actually hear the music, which came from my own collection. What they heard was so different from what they were accustomed to that they almost always got a real “kick” out of it. Often, I used projector overlays so that the students, for example, could sing along with Pete Seeger’s rendition of “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.”

The words of “Marching Through Georgia,” a popular song of Union troops during the last days of the Civil War. Using the songs and tunes of each historical era seemed to always be enjoyed by the students.

Professor McNeill taught The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era, and he always included maps on each of his tests. He reasonably expected his students to know where the places were that they were learning about. At some schools, I had to get the administration to order sets of US and world history maps. At others, I found sets of maps in classrooms that were never used. At Wynne High School, I found them in storage and restored them to usability. On my tests, I included a map section of five to ten sites that my students had locate on a map that I provided.

Professor McNeill was responsible for my inclusion of maps on most of my tests.

Professor Reeser taught Ancient Egypt and Greece, Ancient Roman Republic and Empire, and Historiography.  One of his most impressive traits was that he did not come in to class, walk up to the lectern, open his folder of notes and begin reading. He never used notes. He just talked to us and occasionally wrote key names on the chalkboard. I adopted that method when I moved to Ecuador (1976-78) to teach at the American School of Quito. I wrote an outline on the board for them as I spoke because Spanish was the native language of most of them, but I never used notes. Their biology teacher told me that they showed him their history notes and said, “It all comes right out of his head.”

Dr. Reeser also introduced me to Arnold Toynbee’s study of the rise and fall of civilizations, which I used thereafter to give my students a perspective on where we came from, where we are, and where we may be going. In his spring historiography class, one of my fellow students asked him if he ever taught “Toynbee” in his freshman western civilization classes. When he replied, “Certainly not – that would be a disaster,” that student pointed to me and said, “Didn’t you say that you taught “Toynbee” in your 10th-grade world history class last fall semester?”  I said, “Yes. In fact, I recently ran into one of my former students out at the mall, and I asked him what he was currently studying in world history. He said, ‘the Renaissance.’ I then asked him, ‘According to Toynbee, what period of history is the Renaissance?’ Without hesitating, he said, ‘The creative period of western civilization.’” Reeser looked stunned – and, I don’t know, but he may have reconsidered his expectations of freshman.

Arnold Toynbee’s analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as explained by Professor Reeser.

As I recall, all three of these teachers opened each class with “Questions or comments?” I did the same. It allows students to get clarification on anything covered in class the previous day, but, of equal importance, it allows a discussion of current events, which the teacher can initiate if the students do not.

Another thing that all three did that was extremely important was to compare or contrast what we were learning with similar historical events or current events. I, too, made certain to emulate that technique so as to make history relevant to the present and to emphasis historical lessons learned or not learned. History does, in fact, repeat itself.

I learned a lot from these fine teachers. If you want to kill a history class, rely solely on the textbook – that will do it every time. Teaching can be fun.

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Responses

  1. “He never used notes. He just talked to us and occasionally wrote key names on the chalkboard.”

    Such a method is forbidden today by the Nazis who teach pedagogy at universities. Teachers are expected to have written “lesson plans” with tangible, quantifiable objectives and measurements. When I objected to my education professors that no one actually teaches history that way, they would frown and condescendingly tell me that I should consider another career. I despise the dogmatic, narrow minded worldview that has taken control of the education field.

    “I converted my maps to projector overlays and gave my students general maps of the battles that they could write on. It was one of the most successful and appreciated things I did to create an interest in history to my students.”

    Yes, I enjoyed your battle maps and detailed discussion of military strategy and tactics. In hindsight, those probably are not very important things to know, but nonetheless I enjoyed them anyway, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying history for its own sake even if it is not “important.”

    David, I would say that you had the best delivery and presentation of any history teacher that I had, whether in high school or in college.

    At least 3 of my college history professors left a lasting impression on me. There was professor James D. Hardy who taught me Western Civ. His method was conventional lecture, but he knew his subject and was passionate about it. He walked into the lecture hall empty handed, no notes or anything, and just started talking, walking around the room as he spoke rather than standing behind the podium. By the modern standards of pedagogy, he did everything wrong, yet I loved his class. When I was a student teacher I would walk around the room like Professor Hardy did. It kept the students on their toes.

    Mark Carleton taught me Louisiana history. Again his method was conventional lecture (he did use notes) but he knew his subject and was passionate about it, and we students picked up on that passion and interest.

    Fred ??? taught the history of American Foreign Policy at the U. of I.. At the time he was 70-ish and had a throat problem so that he could only speak in a hoarse whisper. Nonetheless he used conventional lectures, and by today’s conventional wisdom should have been a failure as a teacher, yet I loved Fred and learned a great deal from him. As an aside, Fred had done his graduate research at Tulane on Huey Long, so I would pick Fred’s brain on Huey.

    The common thread with all my outstanding teachers, history and otherwise, is that they knew their subject and were passionate about it. Nothing else seemed to matter. I am very skeptical of pedagogists who insist you must use a particular teaching method or else you will be a failure.

    Lastly, like many people, I was profoundly influenced by reading Howard Zinn. Zinn’s Marxist view of history as a struggle between the working class and the elites forever changed my view of the world.

    My views on both history and pedagogy have evolved over the years, and in hindsight, I now realize that I did a lot of things wrong as a student teacher. Finland does not give grades until the end of the school year, and China does not give grades at all. We in the U.S. put too much emphasis on testing and quantifying results and trying to compete with the other person and the other schools.


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