Wandering in York County

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A close up of the Cyclorama shows there's much to history than meets the eye. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Schooled by Stephen Lang and H. W. Brands – Spiking curiosity in students

Why do so many kids dislike history?

One reason is that teachers don’t make it fun.

As a history teacher myself, I can testify to how easy it is to go through the routine – “Ok kids, get out your notes. I am going to lecture about [fill in essential but boring topic here].”

Plus, when kids get bored they act out. Think about the growing body of a teenager and how they are forced to sit in chairs all day long, listening to their teachers drone on. I’m not surprised boring teachers also have classroom management issues. 

Yes, some days we just need to trudge through the lesson, and there’s no way to dress it up. But, sometimes teachers find ways to spark students’ curiosity even during the most boring lectures.

In addition to my seven years of experience, I also have to thank the forward thinking of Milton Hershey School, where I teach. I went to a conference in Washington, D.C.  this summer to learn how to get kids to ask questions. (It’s called C3 Teachers – an Inquiry Design Model if you’re interested). Instead of telling kids about history, you pose questions. For example, when starting the Civil Rights unit, I asked “Is the American Dream dead?” Of course, I believe that the American Dream is alive and well, but it gets kids thinking.

Before starting my Vietnam lesson, I asked, “Do you trust the government?” Admittedly, these questions are misleading. However, I make sure to explain both sides, avoiding bias as much as I can. The point is intriguing questions like this grab my students’ attention.

Side note for parents. Instead of asking your kids “What do you want to be when you grow up,” try, “what problems do you want to solve?” (This is not my idea, I heard it somewhere along the way.) It shifts students from thinking about a job, and more about the world. 

Another way to get kids interested in history is to perform. Brian Glandon, a retired professor from York College, told me while still an undergraduate, that teachers are also salesmen and saleswomen. We have to “pitch” the lesson to get kids to buy in. We can’t tell kids, “You should care.” We have to show them. 

Recently, I watched Stephen Lang speak in Gettysburg where I learned more about the power of performance. 

Stephen Lang agreed to take a picture with me. I was giddy, the first celebrity I have met face-to-face. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Learning from Stephen Lang’s acting performance

During the Gettysburg Foundation Gala in October, Stephen Lang accepted The Kinsley Award. My family chose Lang for this award because of his powerful ability to act out important scenes from the battle. Part of the award was a cane constructed from a witness tree, a chestnut, from the George Spangler farm.

After he accepted the award from my husband’s grandparents, Bob and Anne Kinsley, he gave a speech to the crowd. His speech enthralled the audience. Using the cane as a prop, he waved it around to dramatize points. After seeing Avatar (Lang played the evil Colonel), we all know that Lang doesn’t need a cane. Yet he seemed to incorporate the accessory as a part of his presentation, as a part of him. 

I’m ashamed to say I forget much of the content of his speech (I’ll chalk that up to the red wine and not the quality of his words), but I can still see him in my mind’s eye.

Lang seemed to own the stage. His shoulders square and facing us, his eyes constantly scanning the crowd.

His voice boomed, rippling out into the audience. 

His sentences, short but powerful.

Teachers such as myself can learn from this performance.

I think if we improved our delivery when teaching, to speak directly, without fluff, in a way that mimics Lang’s powerful acting performance, our students’ attention would spike. 

George Will also spoke during the event and similarly fascinated the audience with his words. My takeaways from his performance will be in another blog post.

Stephen Lang used his award, a cane, as a dynamic prop to add to his powerful performance. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
The Spangler Farm in Gettysburg – the location of the witness tree in which a part of it was made into Lang’s award cane.  Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Being schooled by H. W. Brands

I recently watched Henry William Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas, give a speech at the York County History Center Distinguished Speaker Series. He excited the audience with stories of Ronald Reagan. We often hear that good teachers make history come alive.

Brands demonstrated what this means by his dramatic lecture. Like Lang, he used his hands, gesturing to the crowd to stress powerful points. He dramatically nodded and turned his head back and forth for moments needing emphasis. 

More important, Brands told stories that shed light on what it means to be a person. Pulling example from his own books, Brands thinks biographies get at the heart of history – people and their choices. During his speech, he told the crowd that biographies expose the human experience. More than just dates and other facts, narratives make us feel like we are there, experiencing the event with the main character.

H. W. Brands’ dramatic telling of Ronald Reagan’s personal stories. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

What I took away from Brands is to focus on people in history. In my last blog post, I discussed Reagan’s alcoholic father. I plan to use his story in my class on character development because my students can relate. 

Lang taught me to dramatize the story – both with climactic drama within the story but also with my delivery. 

The more we can ignite the next generation’s interest in our past, the more secure our future. 

The Gettysburg Foundation Gala. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

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