In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that's history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.
Now take a seat inside Will Colglazier's classroom at Aragon High School in San Mateo. The student population here is fairly typical for the Bay Area: about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Asian and 40 percent white. The subject matter is standard 11th grade stuff: What caused the Great American Dust Bowl?
Tapping on his laptop, Colglazier shows the class striking black-and-white images of the choking storms that consumed the Plains states in the 1930s. Then he does something unusual. Instead of following a lesson plan out of the textbook, he passes out copies of a 1935 letter, written by one Caroline Henderson to the then-U.S. secretary of agriculture, poignantly describing the plight of her neighbors in the Oklahoma panhandle. He follows that with another compelling document: a confidential high-level government report, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decrying the region's misguided homesteading policies.
Colglazier clearly is a gifted and well-trained educator, a history/economics major and 2006 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. But what sets this class apart from Ferris Bueller's is more than the man; it's his method—an approach developed at Stanford's Graduate School of Education that's rapidly gaining adherents across the country. At a time when national student surveys show abysmal rates of proficiency in history, trial studies of the Stanford program demonstrated that when high school students engage regularly with challenging primary source documents, they not only make significant gains learning and retaining historical material, they also markedly improve their reading comprehension and critical thinking.
Colglazier builds his thought-provoking classes using an online tool called Reading Like a Historian. Designed by the Stanford History Education Group under Professor Sam Wineburg, the website offers 87 flexible lesson plans featuring documents from the Library of Congress. Teachers can download the lessons and adapt them for their own purposes, free of charge. Students learn how to examine documents critically, just as historians would, in order to answer intriguing questions: Did Pocahontas really rescue John Smith? Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Who blinked first in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russians or the Americans?