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Making history interesting

At my regular tutoring job, my new AP US and world history students will sometimes tell me, in detail, just how much they loathe the subject of history. When I ask them why they feel that way, the answer is almost always the same - they've got a dull history teacher at school.

This makes me sad. Ever since I could read, I've loved history, and now, twenty years and change later, it's still my favorite subject to read and write about. The old cliche "truth is stranger than fiction" really is true - history is full of amazing characters and unbelievable tales that even the most imaginative fiction author would be hard-pressed to come up with.

But history doesn't have to be exciting! Find a sufficiently dull teacher and it can become the purest kind of torture. The teacher who emphasizes names and dates above all else - the teacher who reads straight off of prepared Powerpoint slides, never deviating from the textbook - these are the teachers who truly kill the subject of history in the minds of their students.

Okay, maybe that language is a little too strong. But I've had good and bad history teachers, and I know the difference. A bad teacher will typically rattle off names and dates without telling you why they're important. A bad teacher will give you a list of causes and effects without discussing what they actually mean. A good teacher, on the other hand, will cover the whys of history, addressing the reasons that subjects like the Peloponnesian War, the Congress of Vienna and the Cuban Missile Crisis still matter today.

When I teach history, I try to focus on these whys. The straight-up facts are unavoidable, of course - they have to be learned. But if the student understands why those facts are important, he or she will be much more inclined to remember those facts by the time the test comes around.

I also try to make history more interesting by going into some of the stories that most students never learn at school. The pure, shameless brutality of presidential campaigns and royal successions, the backroom diplomacy, the bizarre, off-the-cuff remarks that have embarrassed politicians for generations, and other strange twists of fate are at the heart of history. They make 1st century Rome and 16th century England relatable to the 21st century student.

Every one of my history students has ended up, if not loving the subject of history, at least appreciating its complexity and importance. Partly for that reason, history is my favorite subject to teach.