History teachers need to encourage opinions, too: Sara Ziemnik (Opinion)

ROCKY RIVER, Ohio — Receiving the great honor of the National History Teacher of the Year Award from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has provided me the opportunity to reflect on my understanding of what history classrooms look like. I can clearly remember my own high school history classes; not necessarily the physical rooms or textbooks, but, like most students of the era, on how much time I spent memorizing dates, battle names and other historical facts. Whether it was the seven reasons Rome fell or the four reasons the 1876 election was disputed, I wish I could travel back in time and show my high school self how different my own future history classroom would look like.

It wasn’t until I was a student at Miami University in Ohio that the concept of teaching history transformed for me. One of my professors, Dr. Michael Fuller, assigned a project that required us to take a stand. I prefaced my presentation with, “I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with this, but …” and then went on with the presentation.

When it was over, he pulled me aside and said, “Don’t do that.”

Don’t do what?

“Don’t NOT have an opinion. Show them it’s okay to have opinions.”

This was new. In my own history classes, I had never been asked my opinion, but Dr. Fuller’s words resonated with me.

Now, nearly 20 years later, I’ve taught thousands of students in Rocky River, Ohio, and have always encouraged them to have an opinion — something that resonates more for today’s students than ever before.

Like all educators, those who teach history have, to put it mildly, a difficult and challenging job. We live in an increasingly polarized, highly politically charged society, one full of emotionally taxing rhetoric that can become offensive and even violent. My students are bombarded with contradictory historical information, with the line between fact and fiction often blurred. They have witnessed events in their young lives that have been some of the most difficult things for me, as an adult, to process. They are coming of age in a truly remarkable time, where our ability to find and share information almost instantaneously is unprecedented.

In an age of viral information, rumors and misinformation, we — all of us — must seek the truth through a rich, wide variety of primary sources. We must read differing accounts and varying sources, and understand context and meaning. Students must be able to analyze intent and effects in a deeper and more meaningful way.

What better place to have these informed discussions, to model what discussion and dissent should look like, than in the classroom? How can our students become politically informed, engaged citizens, ready to participate in a healthy democracy and engage with those who disagree if they are not practicing this in the classroom?

Teachers need to push students to think for themselves and insist they find evidence to back up their heart, but also to scrutinize the sources of that evidence. History teachers must move away from being the gatekeepers of the information. We need to let go of our grip on the key to information and interpretation and hand that key to students while following their lead through the words and ideas of those who came before us.

My students show me every day that they can make sense of the beautiful, complex, sometimes violent, and always changing world around them. We must engage them. That is our calling.

History is full of difficult and uncomfortable topics, and American history is no exception, with its short and complicated timeline. I tell my students that we did not create the past, but we have inherited it. The fabric of history is woven into our collective stories.  We cannot shirk the awesome responsibility to deal with what we have inherited. 

As a passionate teacher of social studies, I gladly speak for those of us who, day in and day out, examine the rich story of who we were so we can finally, authentically, understand who we are meant to be.

Sara Ziemnik has taught American and world history for 17 years at Rocky River High School. As the 2017 Gilder Lehrman Institute’s National History Teacher of the Year, she is expected to serve as an ambassador and thought leader for the teaching community on the importance of high-quality American history education, particularly for students from underserved communities.


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