The Importance of Teaching Early U.S. History

December 5, 2019
Arren Swift

U.S. history is not being taught in its entirety or being taught effectively to all high school students. Teaching more of our history more often throughout the K-12 curriculum is a prime solution to increasing student knowledge of our heritage, which has been proven to be sadly lacking (Sanchez, 2014). Over the course of my 11-year career, I have taught many courses in secondary Social Studies, and through my experiences, I have discovered a lack of opportunities to teach early U.S. history. When early U.S. history is taught at the high school level, it is often in the Advanced Placement (AP) course, and the methods are often dependant on teacher-led activities. Lack of coverage and ineffective methods have resulted in a generation that struggles to find value in the study of history. These views are confirmed when reviewing standardized test scores. The average pass rates in AP Social Science courses is below 60% (AP College Board, 2017). We must take action to help students understand our past by providing opportunities to take courses that provide innovative methods that lead to mastery of the content.

I believe that early U.S. history should be taught in all high school U.S. history classes. In the district where I teach, the traditional and honors-level U.S. history course starts with Reconstruction. The students are exposed to notable figures and events of the country’s history through their elementary educational experience, and examine colonization through the Civil War period in eighth grade. I am thankful that U.S. history is required in the elementary, middle, and high school levels, but I believe high school students should examine the foundational events in U.S. history at an age when they can think more deeply about complex issues.

It is a disservice to omit high school students from studying the American Revolution. I am fearful that the students who actually do receive a comprehensive U.S. history education might experience what Barton calls the malpractice of teaching. Barton suggests many social studies educators are unaware of their influence upon their teaching, and could be enacting undermining behaviors (2016). The six behaviors that Barton identifies are: historical negativism, relativism, antinationalism, modernism, minimalism, and rigid secularism. Failing to present early U.S. history in high school is minimizing the importance of the early period of U.S. history.

I am passionate about teaching early U.S. history, specifically the American Revolution, in order to provide students an opportunity to examine the importance of the establishment of the country. I have used project-based learning methods over the past five years in AP® United States History. My students have experienced U.S. history through a curriculum that encourages them to ask questions, which has led to discussions of the past and how it has affected us today. I believe the most effective way to teach the American Revolution is to provide students with active learning opportunities, such as project-based learning tasks.

You can find the project I use to teach the American Revolution in my new book, Project-Based Learning in AP U.S. History.

References 

AP College Board. (2017). AP United States History Course Framework. Retrieved from AP College Board: https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/ap/ap-united-states-history-course-framework.pdf

Barton, D. (2016). The Jefferson lies: Exposing the myths you’ve always believed about Thomas Jefferson. Washington, DC: WND Books. Sanchez, T. (2014). Tales worth telling: Stories of selected heroes/heroines who define us as American. Lantham, MD: University Press of America.

Sanchez, T. (2014). Tales worth telling: Stories of selected heroes/heroines who define us as American. Lantham, MD: University Press of America.

Arren Swift

Arren Swift is a professor at Sam Houston State University in the department of Teaching and Learning. He has 11 years of experience teaching high school social studies, including five years in AP U.S. History.

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