Technology Integration

Zooming With Historians to Reinforce Student Learning

A conversation with a subject matter expert is a rare and powerful experience that helps cement learners’ recently acquired knowledge.

March 27, 2024
MShieldsPhotos / Alamy

During the height of the pandemic, like countless other high school history teachers, I struggled to keep my students focused on their learning. When the world is in the grip of a once-in-a-century health crisis, it’s understandable that minds will wander.

In response to the challenges of remote learning and to keep my students engaged, I reached out to Kenneth C. Davis, author of More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War. To stay relevant to current events and address my students’ interests, I integrated a chapter from his book into the revised curriculum.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continued, my students’ eagerness to derive insights from Davis’s work also grew, as a way of better understanding their current circumstances. When I emailed Davis about whether he would Zoom with my students, he enthusiastically agreed.

“Only time will reveal the extent to which the lessons from my book have informed our approach to successfully tackling this pandemic,” I recall Davis telling my class.

Last month, almost precisely four years later, Davis reconnected with my current juniors, who had just finished reading his book in full. He highlighted the lack of a strong federal response during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

From that point on, my students eagerly posed questions to Davis, their interest piqued to understand the past and enhance their understanding of the present.

Enhanced Engagement in Reading and Writing

Building on those early successes, I now place great emphasis on Zooming with scholars. Whenever possible, I inform my students that at the end of a unit, they will have the opportunity to engage in an intellectual discussion with the author of the book we’re examining.

“Strive for excellence in your questions and insights,” I encourage my students. “Let’s aim to leave a lasting impression on the author with the depth of your understanding and curiosity.” This method fuels their enthusiasm, as they enjoy the healthy challenge—not just to impress me and themselves, but also to leave a lasting impression on the author.

This approach also serves as a catalyst for student engagement in weekly breakout seminars. To further foster their preparedness, I assign an exercise that I call “two prompts and a response,” requiring students to devise two questions on a specific segment of the assigned reading and then answer one. 

While there is no set length for the assignment, I ask students to “create and submit two thought-provoking seminar questions based on the week’s assigned reading. Additionally, choose one of your questions and provide a succinct answer. Ensure that your response is clear, concise, and maintains a formal tone. When appropriate, use relevant quotes from the reading to enhance and support your analysis.” This task not only equips students for active engagement in seminars, but also allows me to give focused feedback on their written work each week.

This process also directly promotes their ability to engage in meaningful conversations with authors.

For example, one student asked Davis about President Woodrow Wilson’s notable silence regarding the Spanish flu, quoting passages from More Deadly Than War to inform her remarks: “What do you think of, and how can you explain, Wilson’s muted stance? Furthermore, why do you believe that Covid-19 received a similar lack of seriousness by so many in 2020? What explains the continuation of this pattern?”

This interview demonstrated not only the depth of her preparation, but also the relevance of the questions to contemporary issues. Davis was likewise impressed, writing on X (formerly Twitter) that my students “asked great questions” and were “enthusiastic, curious, and a pleasure to meet.” The proof is in the pudding.

In an educational climate that increasingly favors (and funds) science, technology, and math over the humanities, engaging with historians breathed new life into history for my students. The interviews stimulated them to approach my class with heightened gravity and renewed enthusiasm.

Enhanced Participation in Discussion

When I announce that an author will visit the classroom, students tend to become more proactive and diligent. However, there are subtler benefits beyond heightened engagement. My introverted students, who sometimes struggle to participate in everyday discussion, appear temporarily more willing to play the role of extrovert. Witnessing usually quiet students initiate questions, under the attentive eyes of their peers, is rewarding beyond measure.

My approach here is informed by Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, whom I interviewed about teaching various personality types.

“I hear too many stories of children who are given the message by very well-meaning teachers that there’s something wrong with the way they are,” Cain told me. “I think well-meaning teachers see their role as being to turn introverts into extroverts. We really need to understand that an introvert is a totally normal personality type.”

When I communicate with introverted students about the heavily discussion-oriented nature of my class, I often reengage with Cain’s insights. Imagine my elation when one such student, in a moment of deep self-reflection, recently confided to me the significant anxiety he had faced at the beginning of the year. He now finds genuine enjoyment in participating in these activities.

“The prospect of meeting with Davis got me really excited,” he said. “In previous units, I did not contribute as much during discussions and seminars. But knowing I would have a chance to speak with the author really motivated me to take more risks, and I’m glad that I did.”

Despite not posing a question directly to Davis during the Zoom, this student entrusted me to ask one on his behalf. At that moment, I couldn’t help but celebrate his initiative and the trust he had placed in me. 

During the peak of the pandemic, I experienced a similarly enriching moment when Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, held a virtual session with my Latin American History students.

He shared insights into the future of historical research, saying, “In three to four years, you’ll be able to review declassified documents about what Donald Trump knew from the intelligence community regarding the virus’s spread, his awareness of the timing, his reactions, and his inactions. This topic is currently under discussion in the press. However, when these documents are eventually declassified, I hope you’ll remember our conversation today, seek out those documents, and read them.”

I recently reached out again to Kornbluh, asking about the possibility of his sharing his insights and predictions with my current students. To my delight, he agreed.

In my experience, scholars typically welcome the opportunity to engage with students—often at no charge—valuing the chance to listen to the students’ views. As for obtaining contact details, I usually locate an email address by visiting the homepage of the author or the publisher. You might also consider sending a brief message through social media to ask about the possibility of sending a follow-up message with more details. Regarding the content of the email request, I created an outline that has proven successful for me. I hope that you find it helpful.

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  • Technology Integration
  • Communication Skills
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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