World history teacher focuses on skills rather than memorization

May 23, 2019 — by Eileen Bui and Jun Lee

Nearly every day in class, World Geography teacher  Hesselgrave seeks to help her students improve their communication and collaboration skills. To this end, they begin class by discussing their answers to a warm-up question relating to the current unit with their assigned table partner. Students then volunteer to share their responses in a class discussion.  

“My teaching style is my personal style and something I really enjoy,” said Hesselgrave. “For me, lecturing can be kind of difficult, and so trying to keep those short and getting students engaged and actually learning for themselves helps me out.”

After lecturing briefly, Hesselgrave assigns an inquiry. Inquiries contain primary and secondary sources ranging from diary entries to excerpts from legal documents. In order to evaluate each document’s credibility, the students then answer sourcing questions about who, what, where, when, why and how credible a source is.

After evaluating the sources, students typically annotate the documents, answer a series of close-reading questions and write about how the documents relate to the inquiry’s essential questions.

Hesselgrave developed her inquiry-focused teaching style when she received her master’s degree in education and focused on teaching students to think like historians. She believes that these inquiries benefit students by “developing essential historical thinking skills in reading, writing and research by studying, analyzing and discussing selected themes.” This leaves students with skills that they will utilize in upper-level history and humanities classes.      

Additionally, Hesselgrave said she focuses on her students’ ability to contextualize historical documents through inquiries as a result of modern technology being “so much better at remembering names and dates than we will ever be.”  

In addition to these activities, Hesselgrave periodically engages students in community circles, which are facilitated Socratic seminars, or self-directed projects such as the World War II timeline project in which students focus on a specific portion of WWII and conduct research independently. By giving students more freedom to decide how they execute their projects, Hesselgrave teaches the importance of time management and strong research skills.

Students said her method of directed self-learning has the potential to be effective but relies heavily on a students’ effort, interest and discipline — qualities not everyone shares equally.

Ultimately, though, Hesselgrave sees the ability to carefully and accurately analyze documents as being a skill all students need to learn if they are to be successful in higher levels of academics.

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