An Interview with Paul Horton: On Writing, Research and Other Topics
1) Paul, first tell us about your education, experience and what you are currently doing.
This is my thirty-first year of teaching history. I have taught on San Antonio’s southwest side, a small town east of Austin, here at the Lab Schools, an Independent School, at Iowa’s clinical Laboratory School in Cedar Falls, and at an Episcopal School in Atlanta. So my experience runs the gambit of education: rural school, large inner-city high school that was significantly ESL, Independent, clinical setting where I trained teachers as I taught kids, and parochial.
I grew up in Germany as a military brat where I picked up my love for history and took my B.S. and M.A. at the University of Texas at Austin. I currently teach at John Dewey’s University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which is the most diverse Independent School in the country (our Secretary of Education is a graduate).
I am currently Illinois State Liaison to the National Council for History Education, so I am thinking about History teaching in all Illinois schools. I live four blocks south of the University of Chicago campus in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
2) Now, tell us about your endeavors in student writing.
I have always worked hard to teach History research and writing. Here at the Lab Schools, our History Department decided to opt out of the AP courses, and go to a seminar approach that emphasizes reading narrative histories instead of textbooks and that requires students to produce History research papers. We decided to aim high with our research papers, so I challenged my Advanced Topics World History class two years ago to produce papers for publication. I set aside two weeks at the end of each trimester to draft research papers. We used the Bowdoin College History Writing Guide that can be found on the web, and we walked through the process step-by step. The kids were scared to death, but they ended up producing some pretty good papers with some great topics.
I met with each of them and encouraged the students to continue to revise, offering them writing suggestions and research advice. In that one class of sophomores, four were eventually published in the Concord Review, and one of the four won a coveted Emerson Prize. When the word got around school, a critical mass of interest began to spread, so we decided to create more opportunities to publish for our students.
My department then committed to the idea of sponsoring a student History Journal using Will Fitzhugh’s Concord Review as a model. We started with two editors this summer who trained at the University of Chicago Press as interns. We have added two assistant editors since and we are about to launch our first issue of INFLAME. We have set it up as a blind, peer reviewed journal. Teachers supervise, but students run the show in our school’s tradition. We (myself, my colleague Charles Brahnam, and the student editors and authors) are going to make a presentation at the Illinois Council for History Education annual meeting in March. We hope to inspire other history teachers throughout the state to start their own school history journals.
3) What are you trying to accomplish?
I was trying to get my students motivated to become historians, to think like historians and to write like historians because I knew that many of the kids were passionate about the topics that they had chosen. So, the primary motivation was to spark that intrinsic passion within each kid and then guide that passion through the steps of historical research and thinking.
4) How did you first get involved with this idea?
I first got involved with pushing excellent writing when I taught an AP United States History class in 1998. I had a student who really wanted to be published in the Concord Review and would not take no for an answer. He rewrote his paper about ten times and finally got his paper published. It helped him get into Tulane where Lawrence Powell was very impressed with this young man’s work.
5) How can parents get involved with student writing?
Parents should offer emotional support and editing advice, but they should never edit for students. I give my students time in class to research and write to minimize parental involvement. We have all seen the helicopter parent and the perfect History Day Project. The kids have to jump through the hoops, or they will not learn what they need to learn. I can see how papers evolve in a student’s voice if we are discussing their writing every day. As you know, we teachers have a keen ear for the signature of a student’s voice, it is like a finger print.
6) Now, are there too many kids being ” mainstreamed ” into regular ed classes and does this have a detrimental impact on writing?
As any teacher knows, we have to assess each student and develop a way to help each student to succeed. One of my students who was eventually published in the Concord Review had many learning challenges. We found a way, we had to work outside of the classroom setting over nine months, but we found a way. Every teacher sees kids at different reading levels. Well, we see them at different writing levels, too.
7) In order to write well, some feel you have to read well- what would you suggest for high school students to read- and to then write about ?
I really think that we have to encourage our kids to read more. They should read history books instead of textbooks. Biographies, The Modern Library History Series, The Oxford History of the United States, David McCullough, Doug Brinkley, Timothy Egan. There are great, highly readable books that we need to encourage kids to read. My University buddies who write textbooks and get royalty checks won’t like it, but digital books are cheap! The biggest jump that most kids have to take between high school and the university involves learning to read a lot more! Talk about a shock to their systems! I absolutely believe that we learn how to think by reading a ton and writing a ton. The more we exercise those reading and writing muscles, the better prepared our students will be. We need to develop summer reading courses for credit and senior reading capstone courses for credit.
8) What have I neglected to ask?
We History teachers need to make more time for student writing. This will require us to give up some primo content, but teaching kids to research and write well is worth the time. We also need to find a way to reduce teacher to pupil ratios for English and History teachers to get this done. Teachers need to understand that teaching research and writing is the most important thing that they can do for their students. It is hard work for everybody involved, but it is the best way to produce the skills that kids will really use.