I teach or have taught a number of students on our basketball team, and most of the others I know. Some of them are strong students; some of them, not as strong. At one point, I was watching one of the players, doing his thing on the court. He loved it; he was good at it. Watching him play, I could see how his classes could be, to him, just a distraction--a pointless exercise that kept him away from what he really loved, athletics. "Why do I have to learn this stuff," he would say, "if I'm just going to go off and play sports?"
I imagined myself into his situation and, truth be told, I could see where he was coming from. I love history; I delight in the vivid picture of the past that good historical sources can draw for us. But for someone who doesn't love history in the same way--for someone who won't be a historian, or even a history teacher, but someone who may be a basketball player, or a businessman, or a doctor, or a computer technician--what is that person supposed to get out of a history course? What would make the class seem worthwhile to him?
First of all, he'll want skills he can use once he's done with school. Even basketball players don't play professionally forever, and then they need the sort of workaday skills that all working stiffs need. Writing is clearly one such skill, and I emphasize it quite a bit. Oral communication is another such skill. Visual communication would be a third.
Second, he wants to understand the world he lives in, and to figure out his place in it. He wants to make meaning, and any class that helps him do that will be valuable to him. He needs to make meaning by connecting the history to his world, to his society, and to his life.
Those, I think, are two key things that students will want out of a course. And if, as my colleague Steve Valentine suggests, we need to think about a course from the student's point of view, I need to build those two things into any course I design. That means time spent teaching and practicing skills. That means giving the students articles that connect the history with current events, and giving them a chance to discuss them. It means giving students the opportunity for open-ended reflection so they can make connections and make meaning
Skills, making meaning--those are two key things a history course should offer. What would you add to the list?