Each summer, I spend time thinking about what I can improve upon for the fall in teaching American History to high school juniors. This often includes considering how previous students responded to readings and projects, and how I should apply various forms of feedback to foster improved learning outcomes.
This is a worthwhile practice, but for me, it often resulted in only minor changes—until I was asked to teach a new elective, Latin American History. Although I had minored in the subject at Brandeis University, and, since graduating, had kept up with the learning, I had never before taught it.
Successful teaching, the kind that really makes a lasting impression, requires more than just knowledge—it takes enthusiasm, partnership, and meaningful instruction to nurture and sustain student interest. No matter what subject we teach, or the age of our students, there’s something to be gained by approaching any class as though it were a new teaching assignment.
After teaching American History for the ninth consecutive time, my enthusiasm had waned. On occasion, I’m certain my students sensed that I was going through the motions.
That began to change this summer, in the midst of preparing my Latin American History elective. The excitement of teaching a new course rekindled my excitement about engaging with students in the learning process—not just in one course, but in everything I teach.
To sustain that excitement, I recently pledged to complete certain projects I assign to students, something I had never done before. By sharing my new work with students and receiving their thoughtful feedback, I’m demonstrating genuine enthusiasm about learning alongside them as a peer, not just as a dispenser of knowledge.
When I make mistakes, as I sometimes do, students realize that nobody is beyond improvement. This fosters increased confidence in everyone to take risks, learn from failure, and move on.
While gearing up to teach the new elective, I thought about how to include students in the assessment process—something I had wanted to do, but never had gotten around to implementing in my existing courses.
Previously, students had met with me to review my feedback, but I rarely asked them to evaluate their own work, including what went well and what to improve on.
To foster this skill, students in all my classes now offer feedback on each other’s work—including mine. And I pass out exemplars and rubrics to assist in the self-evaluation process, which I take into account for a grade. This engenders a healthy partnership between teacher and student, in which the latter shows a genuine commitment to working on weaknesses as well as recognizing strengths. I find tremendous value in having students critique their own work—even though it took teaching a new class for me to put this into action.
To further emphasize partnership with my students, I encourage them to let me know, either in person or via email, how each of us can work differently to ensure a successful and enjoyable learning experience. This year, I’m also conducting more polls to gauge understanding and to see if we should change how the learning is going. Sometimes this calls for splitting up the class to complete different exercises, like doing a close reading, watching a movie clip, or participating in a small-group conversation.
It took teaching a new course for me to reassess how I deepen meaning in the classroom. Just because I find the American Revolution relevant and interesting, I reminded myself this summer, that doesn’t mean every student will feel the same way.
To address this, I redoubled my efforts to pose meaningful and interesting questions, like whether the American Revolution was actually revolutionary. Throughout the unit, students spoke about and made connections with current events, such as how the ideals of the period have fallen short of being fully realized when it comes to racial, economic, and gender disparities—even up until today.
I’ve overheard students continue the discussion in the hallways and at lunch. I’ve also spoken with parents who told me that they enjoyed speaking with their children about these issues.
With all this in mind, I recently asked my Latin American History students to debate whether we should celebrate a national holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus—the man most responsible for starting the trans-Atlantic slave trade, an indigenous holocaust, and a legacy of cultural destruction. On the other hand, I also point out that Columbus showed unwavering persistence in cementing financial support for a risky expedition, and that he certainly was a brave explorer. To sustain engagement, I mentioned that Martin Luther King Jr., who paid the ultimate sacrifice for speaking out peacefully against hate and racial division, is the only historical figure other than Columbus honored with a national holiday in his name.
No matter what you teach, always consider that students question whether what they learn in the classroom has transferable, real-world applications. It’s important for young people to understand human evolution, supply and demand, and countless other concepts, but to make a meaningful and lasting impression, I encourage educators to make the relevance of what they teach glaringly obvious.