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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

I Hated History, But Now I Teach It
Karen Silverstrim
History Department

I hated history classes in high school. Truth be told, most college students love or hate a subject because of their high school experiences. I had mostly mediocre teachers in high school. I know because I also had a few stellar teachers, and they taught me the difference. The truly great teachers were not the popular teachers or the easy graders, they were the teachers who actually taught you something and made you want to learn. They respected your intellect no matter how great or small, and they found a way to reach you. I try to keep this in mind as I enter the college classroom because I now teach history.

I am teaching mostly college freshmen, whose experience of high school history was much like my own: trying to tune out the monotone voice of the teacher, trying desperately to stay awake, and thinking, “I am going to shove this pencil through my eyeball and into my brain to end this torture.” As I look at my students today, I try to send mental messages to them, “put the pencil down, you will get through this.”

I strive to pay tribute to those stellar teachers who saved me from myself and academic boredom. If they found a way to reach me, then I am making it my personal mission to reach these kids as well. I look at today’s assignment: Luther’s 95 Theses, and Luther’s letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, both written in 1517. I ask the students, “how many of you had trouble understanding these documents?” All the hands go up. Then I slip, as I sometimes do when I realize the absurdity of the moment.

“Well, I don’t know why you had trouble understanding the subtle theological arguments of a Biblical expert who is arguing with Catholic priests on Biblical interpretations. Really, you didn’t get that?” The students laugh. Okay, so at least their sense of humor is still intact. Now the real challenge, be the teacher. Make this interesting to them. Break down these texts. Give them a basic background in Biblical knowledge, keeping in mind, most of them don’t attend church and have never read the Bible.

You have to peel back the layers, help them understand the argument, the impact on the daily lives of the people, and what Luther was getting so worked up about. “Um, hello, immortal souls burning in hell. I’d get worked up about it too if I were a priest.”

Next you have to educate them on the time period, why did this turn into a power struggle, why wasn’t Luther burned at the stake like so many others before him, why were these heretical ideas? (Note to self, explain tol students what a heretic is.) The most important thing to teach them is relevance. Students are really big on relevance. “Why should I care? What does it matter?”

When you point out Luther was being a bad ass, questioning authority and pointing out where the Church was wrong, well then the students can relate. Students know what it means to question authority. They know what sacred topics are and what happens when you push the really sensitive buttons. Granted, staying out past curfew, and openly cussing at your parents for the first time, are not the same as someone’s soul burning in hell, but to a college student, it’s close enough.

That’s how you reach them, put it in a framework they can understand. I know today I reached a few, I probably lost a few as well, but nobody stabbed themselves in the eyeball with their pencil, so there’s hope.
 

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