An Interview with Robert Hines: Teaching History through Writing.

May 29, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Robert, first of all, tell us what you teach and how long you have been teaching.

I teach IB /AP European and Russian History in Rockville, Maryland at Richard Montgomery High School. I have been teaching continuously since 1969, which makes 43 years in the classroom, with no immediate plans to retire.

2) Tell us now about the IB program and your involvement in it.

I was recruited out of neighboring high school to start the History program at Richard Montgomery 25 years ago. There was declining student enrollment in the mid nineteen eighties and the town of Rockville wanted to attract students to a magnet program in order to keep the school open. It was the oldest school in the county, founded in the late 19th century; the current building then was built in 1942, after the original had burned down. There were five of us, each to head a different academic subject, History, Math, Science, English and Foreign Language. I left my other school at the end of first semester and came here to plan and get the curriculum approved by the local school board by summer. As a team we also travelled around to middle schools trying to do a recruiting job for interested parents and students. The tasks were 1) meet state graduation requirements, 2) Cover AP material as well, since students would have the option of taking both AP and IB History tests, 3) adjust the four year course sequence to make room for the two year Higher Level History curriculum. So it took about 3 years to get full enrollment of about one hundred students for each grade level 9 to 12.

3) You often spot what are called “readers”. Tell us about these kids and what you do with them.

Since at the end of the program students would have to write six essays during five hours of exam time, we would have to prep them in the 9 to 11th grade years for the writing requirements of the last year. That would mean learning to write in-depth with a line of argument. All this meant that I would have to go back to much more reading than was required in my fourteen years of teaching AP European History and that my students would need to read and analyze books outside of textbooks. In fact, we did not use a textbook, except for background readings and to fill in gaps, as we concentrated on depth of content. Every nine weeks by 11th grade we would have an outside reading and then a two day seminar to discuss the book, one half each day. Among these students there would always be ones that wanted to investigate my many books which are shelved all over the room. I encourage them to look, for something interesting and check it out. This is sort of my “bait” to see who wants to know even more.

4) Often there are students who “want to know more”. They want to know more about the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 100years War, the War of the Roses, the Civil War etc- what sets these kids apart from the rest and what do you do about them?

The kids that want to “know more” demonstrate an intellectual curiosity, often in some things by a probing question. “Why didn’t the peasants revolt?” Why did the army remain loyal to the monarchy? “How can a minority lead a revolution”. They are not satisfied with a simple answer, and it sends the teacher back to the books often. But that is what I tell them, there is always one more learner in the room and that is the teacher. I am also looking for those that may want to do the IB extended essay in history and I introduce the Concord Review, giving out older copies, while encouraging them to eventually submit a paper at the end of their senior year. Now that we have grown, I try to make sure that all by colleagues who mentor extended essays look for students that could be candidates to the Review.

5) What are some of the specific skills they need to learn?

Students need to learn first what are dependable sources, which are generic or encyclopedic, which have a volume of scholarship behind them, which are journalistic, and how to narrow your research. They are going to start on the internet for background information, but then to get them to go deeper, looking for edu sites, historical journals etc. It’s the ending positions of their research which are far more important that their starting points.

6) What kind of “narrative approaches” do you use?

History is a story at its root, so that must be preserved, especially for younger learners, so I encourage them to begin their first papers by telling basically what happen. Master the narrative first, and then move gradually to analysis. Some are ready for analysis at the beginning and will naturally tend to include it in their narratives, but letting most students just get the story in place with proper resources is a big first step. Then build on those first steps, moving them to more sophisticated source material.

7) How has the Internet changed the teaching of history and the way students do research ?

The internet has changed for good and bad the way students approach their writing, it’s so easy to get a quick start, but they need real guidance to move in new directions. They don’t want to go to books very quickly; they don’t want to go beyond a local library at the best. When I started the IB program at our school, I was able to get our local university to give library cards for my spring semester junior classes, and then I took them on a field trip to the university, which gave them the necessary confidence to plunge into their research. Unfortunately, as we became a bigger program and staff changes at the university, that wonderful bridge to higher learning ended.

8) How do you help them separate scholarship from narrative; fiction from non-fiction, primary from secondary sources?

Modeling is the best way to get students to see scholarship, vs. narrative. I copy a chapter out of book, let’s say on the inter-war years. This particular chapter is on the origins of appeasement, we first look at the chapter citations before we begin, discussing primary vs. secondary. Then they read the chapter as homework, we follow this the next day with of discussion of the events, and then the authors arguments. Looking for how he both organizes arguments and how he uses evidence for support.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Writing and research for the younger learner can be rewarding for all; it just takes time out of the all-important curriculum, but you can do that in creative ways, moving quickly through some material and digging in at other times. Connect the research to the curriculum for those things that you don’t have time to go into depth on, but there is a whole world of topics out there, the students just need a pathfinder

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