advise for first time world history teachers?

Christoph Strobel's picture

In the last couple of months, we have had a number of new subscribers who will be teaching a world history course for the first time. Looking back on your first time teaching such a course, and with some experience under your belt, what piece(s) of advice would you have liked someone to have given you when you first faced this task?

I am heading into a 2 week long technology detox starting this week-end.  Prof. Kalivas will be back at the editorial helm. Thanks David!

My advice for first time world history teachers is to understand that the course will not be perfect for a long time, and to come to terms with that for their own sanity. That said, there are some measures you could take to help yourself and your students:
1 - if you know you will be teaching the course for a while, set up a folder (electronic or hard copy) of items that you need to revise for the following year with the value of hindsight
2 - set up a plan of areas to focus upon when reading/studying to improve your content knowledge, don't try to cover it all in one year, there are lists out there to give you ideas of texts you need to read when teaching world history
3- in the beginning, focusing on skills will help some of the concerns about lack of knowledge - Bob Bain and others have some good suggestions on how to get students to think historically, especially when it comes to world history.
4 - getting a quick overview of whatever portion of world history you will be teaching (or ideally all of it) would be good for those students that will try to get you to give a huge summary in five minutes (e.g. Christian's Fleeting World for one)

Good luck!

Eve Fisher
Retired, SDSU, Brookings, SD

What advice would you give to the new teacher of WHAP or the college level world history survey course? (A repeat of a response I gave a few years back to a similar question.)

#1 - Leap in, and swim like hell.
#2 - Write a syllabus with multiple assignments, some of them worded extremely vaguely, because that's the contract, so when you see the need to change things later on, some students are always going to come say, "But it wasn't in the syllabus..."

Okay, more practical advice:
First of all, don't drive yourself crazy thinking you have to come up with the perfect course the first year. You don't, can't, and won't.
Secondly, if you've taught ANY survey course, you have some idea already of pacing and assignments. Shamelessly cull this for world history, until you really do figure out what you're doing.
Thirdly, quit sweating what textbook to use. As long as you use something fairly standard (i.e., not one of those which swear that humans were planted by aliens in 300 BC, based on the Book of Dogon), it will have all the same basics as any other.
(NOTE: I know that many people swear that you don't need a textbook. Unless all your students came out of AP world history with straight "A"s, I profoundly disagree. Most students do not know squat about world history or geography. Set them loose in a mass of readings and internet sites, and, like Pip in the ocean, they go mad.)
Fourth: this is a great time to figure out what your interest in history is. What is it that you think is really, really, really important? TEACH THAT. (As well as the basics) Because most students learn more and better from excited, pumped up teachers. Our energy fuels the classroom, or at least 90% of it. (There are always 5% who would be pumped by anything having to do with learning, and another 5% who are daring you to teach them anything at all. Deal with it.) So, let them know your passions. Mine was always cross-cultural, cross-chronological patterns, which came up in all sorts of ways. The result is that, over time, students would come up to me and tell me about connections they'd made from something (news, stories, etc.) that they'd never thought about before. It got them thinking, which is the real idea.
Fifth, take deep breaths and long walks. There's always next year - and (if you're like me) you will tweak the d**n course EVERY year.
Finally, have some fun. It's a wild ride, but it's a great one.
Eve Fisher

I tried to stay clear of this discussion, but years of experience with the issue of how to begin teaching world history pulled me in nonetheless.

First, Eve Fisher's advice seems solid, especially teach to your strengths, i.e. the areas (periods, themes, world areas) where you feel strong. Move from the known to the less well known, then beyond.
Second, accept that you will feel uncertain for the entire first year. Over a few years the uncertainty diminishes, but never goes away entirely. It might help to admit to your students that this is a new, exciting area of teaching, and that you and they are on a voyage of discovery. Ask for their input from time to time, e.g. "how significant do you think (the Industrial Revolution, voyages of discovery, world trade, etc.) have been in the making of the world?"
Third, your greatest asset AND liability is that you already know some world history. World history has changed profoundly since you encountered it in high school and probably also in college. Most textbooks and not a few courses are 30 years or more out of date and out of touch. Forget brave explorers and Renaissance epiphanies. You cannot hope to catch up on all the new scholarship in a year or even a decade.
Fourth, but you can read a couple of books--textbooks. This may sound ridiculous, but don't try teaching without reading them. Avoid reading study guides or passed-around syllabi. I agree, read David Christian's This Fleeting World, and NOW if you have not already done so. Do not compile a list of 50 top books. You need a quick coherent overview. For fuller detail, which you absolutely need, read also Christian's Maps of Time, or Ross Dunn and Laura Mitchell, Panorama, A World History, or David Christian and Cynthia Brown, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. As you struggle through the first year, and afterwards, you can and will want to explore the rich literature in the new world history.
Finally, simplify, simplify, simplify. It will still bewilder students and colleagues who believe that the world is/was made of nation-states seeking to attain freedom, which it surely ain't. What is the issue that confronts us in the world we have inherited?

I am embarking now on my fifth year of teaching Modern World History to non-honors high school sophomores, and I am just starting to feel like I know what I'm doing. I strongly second the statements above about being patient with imperfections and always looking toward next year. It will take a long time before you're even mostly satisfied with your course, so just be sure to take a lot of notes about what works and what doesn't and don't stress over changes until the summer.
Some specific suggestions:
-Even if you teach older or honors students, young people frequently struggle more with reading comprehension and writing skills than we expect. Really push them to engage with the meaning of the readings before they jump into formulating their own opinions. This time spent on skills does mean that you can't cover as much in terms of content and may want to assign fewer readings than would be your first instinct, but the plus side is that also means less content that you will need to master.
-On a related note, new teachers often worry that they will have time left over with nothing to do, but I find it's very much the opposite. Covering fewer subjects/readings in greater depth and giving the students more time to discuss the big questions raised by the material is more satisfying, though you will at times have to wait through awkward silences to get the students talking. If you're interested in discussion based teaching, I emphatically recommend Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. You may, however, want to wait until next summer to dig into it.
-For background on world history, I just read Peter Stearns World History: the basics this summer, and found it to be an incredibly helpful summary of the major themes, categories, and questions of world history. Picking just a few of these to share with your students will help them understand how to think historically and reveal that history is contested, not fixed. Selections from the topical checklist on p. 149 can give your students clear categories for evaluation of different historical periods.
-For a fun and quick way to get background on particular topics, check out John Green's Crash Course World History. You can also recommend it to your students for review.

Setting myself a core of course themes and sticking to them saved my bacon. When I felt overwhelmed, I could tell myself: This is about thinking and skills, if I stick to course themes and organize around them, I don't have to try to cover everything. To find my course themes, I drew from one text book I liked better than the rest, one teaching world history guide, and themes that I was excited about as a student.

I also asked other people lots of questions. I recently had a conversation with a local world history HS teacher in which she complained that we at the university didn't "communicate" enough with the HS teachers to answer their questions. So I asked her when was the last time she had asked anybody at the university for help on a subject. Of course, it was never. Send emails, ask on H-World, ask peers -- just ask for help.

I'd like to echo Dr. Dormady's reminder to ask for help. I've only been teaching in a "global mode" for the past six years, and I have already benefited greatly from suggestions made on this thread.

The expertise I have to offer in return right now is for those who teach the history of the Black Death (or other periods of pandemic plague). I'm a specialist in medieval medical history, and have invested heavily the past decade in getting on top of the "new genetics paradigm" in research on the pathogen *Yersinia pestis* and in forging a means whereby historians can begin to wrestle with the implications of that work.

I have some slides about getting new, open-access research into the K-12 curriculum:

I also have a blog post coming out soon on my own experiences of teaching this new paradigm. I'll announce that to the list when in appears.

In the meantime, below is a query I got recently from someone asking what to do about the new "gerbils caused the plague" research that has come out recently. This science research is heavily promoted in the popular press, and your students might be more familiar with these ideas than the work of historians. This is also a great topic around which to focus a discussion of STEM and the humanities. And for those who live in the western United States (Colorado, New Mexico, California), where there have already been several cases of human plague this summer (and at least two deaths), this is also a topic of current concern.

Monica Green


Dear Dr. XX,

I would highly recommend this blog post to clarify the issue—or at least explain why the hype in the popular press left so many people (including your editor) confused: (Also this one:

You have understood the issue correctly: it’s the fleas that spread plague around, and the most common form of plague in humans (bubonic plague) will indeed usually be caused by fleabites. (Pneumonic plague is caused by the same bacterium, Yersinia pestis, but it is transmitted via coughing or sneezing, once it has infiltrated a human’s or animal’s lungs. The different mode of transmission is what accounts for the different epidemiological characteristics of pneumonic plague, and also its much high lethality and quicker death.)

So, back to rats and gerbils. Plague is not a human disease. It either kills us or we survive. But we are not carriers of it (except in the brief periods of pneumonic transmission, as described above). The “reservoir hosts”—the animals that carry the disease long-term and don’t get killed off in sufficient numbers to all be exterminated (and that can happen)—keep the cycle of transmission going by continually transmitting the pathogen between themselves via their own set of fleas. (The story’s more complicated—we don’t know quite all the mechanisms of long-term survival—but that’s a good enough summary.) When the reservoir hosts are stable (staying in the same place, reproducing about the same numbers so that there’s a stable host-to-flea ratio), the plague is stable. (We call this “enzootic plague.”) When, however, some disruption (often environmental) changes the host-flea ratio or causes the hosts to migrate out of their normal habitat, then we get the possibility of exchange of fleas between different hosts.

So, the gerbil story might be true (there might be some ways in which climatic disruptions in the high mountains of Afghanistan, etc., cause the stable situation I’ve described above to be altered). But gerbils do not normally live close enough to humans to transmit their fleas to them. Hence, what we need is some kind of scenario like this: gerbil’s flea jumps off gerbil and onto some other animal; said animal is more accustomed to hanging around humans (esp. their grain supplies); said animal then drops their fleas in grain stores, where rats (who really like being around humans—they’re what we call “commensal”) then pick up the fleas; the fleas kill the rats and then go looking for other hosts. Guess who? Humans then spread both rats and fleas around in human communities by shipping grain supplies all over the place. Those are the ingredients of pandemics, not gerbils alone.

These thoughts below are from Dr. Mark Welter of Minnesota.

The global perspectives inherent to World History are mandated knowledge for the Human Community. The reasons are compelling because World History:

-- is the only subject that teaches all the accomplishments of humankind are the products of ecumenical interactions. All people -- all creeds, all cultures, all colors, all countries -- have been depositors and with drawers at the world bank of knowledge.*

-- is the best possible antidote to panaceas, absolutes, and Armageddon's.

-- confirms that no nation, no people, no color, no creed can unilaterally address contemporary challenges of pollution, pandemics, poverty, global terrorism, or global environmental dilemmas.

-- teaches that we are a singular human community, inexorably an undeniably interconnected; and, as one can nobly care for or ignobly destroy our home.

* "Innovation is not so much discovered (or revealed) as it is borrowed." William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West, Introduction.

This via Tom Mounkhall at the Mid-Hudson Teacher Center

Suggestions for New World History Teacher:
1. relax, teach well and learn much world history through teaching, 2.develop a conceptual approach to the subject that will serve as a guide to the selection of content and deletion of content for a lesson- this is a practical means of dealing with a 600 page textbook and an exponential amount of available data, 3. consider using William H. McNeill's thesis that cross-regional contacts have been an important change agent in world history as a starting conceptual framework as in number 2 above, 4. to further develop your conceptual understanding of the field, read my chapter in Heidi Roupp's book- Teaching World History in the 21st Century to develop such notions as polycentrism, macro-change etc.5. Read anything written by Bob Bain on developing sophisticated thinking skills in the world history classroom, 6. address any district or state requirements for your course re: content or skill development because they may influence graduation for your students and your professional evaluation, as they do in New York, Enjoy!