Students use compelling primary documents to assume the role of historian, channel life as a historical figure, then teach history to each other.
Associate Professor of History, Bowie State University
PhD, MA, and BA in US History
Born in the Deep South and raised with parents who valued their unique environmental and historical culture, Karen Cook Bell, PhD, seems to have been destined to teach about African-American history post–Civil War.
“The dynamic process of telling and retelling family and community history provided an important frame of reference, which shaped my identity and informed my intellectual focus for the PhD in US history,” says Bell, an associate professor of history at Bowie State University, in Maryland.
History can be mundane and information dense, and, in this survey history course, many students are not history majors. There is often the challenge of how to engage them.
“It can be a monotonous subject for many students—just a compilation of dates,” says Bell. “But to engage students directly in understanding the important elements of the course, [you have to show them] that history is more than just dates and names; it involves real-life experiences and people trying to find their way in a hostile environment.”
It is one thing for students to read a history textbook; it is another for them to “unearth” original documents from the time period being studied and actually conduct their own analytical work. While the first approach is relatively passive, the second turns the students into historians—essentially, the history-class equivalent of a detective or investigative journalist. It also enables students to mentally place themselves in the time period to internalize what was happening in a very real way.
“It’s important that students are able to see from the perspective of former slaves what it was like transitioning to freedom,” says Bell. “It’s important for them to be able to walk in their shoes.”
In addition to walking in the shoes of historians and historical figures, it occurred to Bell to take the strategy one step further and flip the classroom. This would enable the students to take all of their discoveries and observations and share them with their peers—walking in the shoes of a history teacher. Once she had conceptualized this plan for instilling a sense of immediacy in history, all that was left was to set it into motion.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Frequency: Three 50-minute class meetings per week for 16 weeks
Class size: 28
Course description: This course is an analysis of the role of black American life from the Civil War to the present.
HIST 115 African-American History Since 1865See materials
Lesson: Putting students in the role of historian, historical figure, and history teacher
Recently, after receiving a learning and teaching grant from BSU, Bell began her search for innovative ways to educate students. Her specific focus was a class covering an important time in America’s past: African-American History Since 1865.
Here are some specific strategies that Bell used to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning—doing their own research, drawing their own conclusions, and presenting their findings to each other.
“[HIST 115] is a survey course, an introduction that introduces students to the events themed as significant in African-American history after the Civil War. The course provides students with [basics] in African-American history; it introduces them to important chronology of the period as well as the themes and methodologies for the stories used in understanding history.”— Karen Cook Bell, PhD
Make use of primary documents
When Bell came across Sam Wineburg’s book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, she was inspired to examine the use of primary documents as a way to better understand and contextualize history.
“I want to help students understand what historians do,” explains Bell, “and that’s where primary documents come in.”
She explains to students that a primary document is one that was written during a particular time period, such as the Mississippi Black Codes, which were drafted in late 1865. Newspapers, diaries, and letters can also be primary documents, she notes.
Modern technology and the work of actual historians has made it easier than ever for educators to find primary documents to share with their classes. Usually, says Bell, such documents can be readily found online for free. Some resources she uses for her own course include Freedmen and Southern Society Project and The US National Archives and Records Administration website.
Walk them through the process
Historians spend years honing their craft, so Bell knows students cannot be expected to duplicate their efforts—or even approximate them—without some guidance.
She divides her class into groups so students can share the workload and trade ideas. Then she assigns each group some primary documents, teaches them how to read them, and helps them understand and contextualize the documents.
Turn these new historians into history teachers
Though Bell sets the stage for success, the students are expected to work independently (with Bell as a “guide on the side”). This means they spend about 30 minutes of each 50-minute class engaged in active learning activities. During this time, the groups conduct research together and then prepare to teach their topic to the rest of the class.
“This way of teaching can really make students love history, not just like it, because they are really able to see how much of an impact history makes,” she says. “African Americans have been protagonists in their own history, not just passive.”
The feedback for Bell’s course has been positive from both students and her peers. She has also won some teaching awards for her innovative approach, including:
- Black Male Agenda’s Spiritual Scholar Award, BSU, March 2015 (for Bell’s mentoring and teaching excellence)
- College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teacher Award, 2017
Bell has students complete a course evaluation at the end of each semester that measures various elements, including teaching style and practice. She also provides a more informal survey that asks students what they liked or disliked about the course.
It is clear from the feedback below that Bell’s approach to student empowerment has a ringingly positive impact.
- “You have been the best History professor I’ve ever taken from. Not only do you allow class discussion, but you have been the only professor who actually prepares students for seminar work. Some of your students and I have labeled you as Dr. Oracle just for you being able to give detailed answers.”
- “Unfortunately, this class has come to an end. I feel very blessed to have had you as a professor. Your guidance and feedback [have] helped me to work harder and to become a wiser student. This history class has given me the chance to find missing parts of my history. I feel closer to knowing who I am because, like I stated, the development of a person depends on history. I truly appreciate you. You are so dedicated to teaching and you truly know your history. Thank you for being GREAT and pushing me to try harder and do better.”