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Home / Articles / Columnists / On the Bright Side /  Don’t Know Much About History
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Monday, August 5,2013

Don’t Know Much About History

By Jonna Shutowick. M.S. Ed.  

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”

- Marcus Tullius Cicero (Roman philosopher, 106-43 B.C.E)

My husband and I recently went out to dinner with some friends. We were driving in my car and, in typical mid-semester madness, my books were strewn about on the floor of the car (some things never change). Half-way to the restaurant my friend announces from the back seat, “Hey! This stuff is really interesting. I wish I paid more attention in high school!” She, like almost every other adult I encounter, “hated” history in high school, but now finds it very compelling. Whenever I tell people I teach history to high school students the reaction is always the same. First, they can’t imagine my choice to spend my days in a high school classroom, and second, that I teach the “worst” subject. This aversion always astounds me, although I must admit I posses a similar disinclination to chemistry.

Nonetheless, I’ve always loved history, even as a kid. Which is, I suppose, a major reason I was drawn to this profession.

My students inevitably begin each year with the same lack of enthusiasm, but it’s actually very age-appropriate for teenagers to reject listening to stories about the past. Teens are, by nature, all about Me-Me-Me....Now-Now- Now? And my task on a daily basis is to procure their interest in Them-Them-Them...Way-Back- When? I’ve found the best way to teach history is to tell stories that are relatable to my students’ lives in some way. Humor is a great equalizer. Make someone smile and you make a connection. I joke around with my students all the time and once, when a student remarked, “Miss S. you are so funny!” I said I was a stand-up comic in last job. It’s funny what sticks. The following year I had the student’s sister and she asked if there were any YouTube clips from when I did stand-up. (Note to self: When joking about Stalin - yes, that is possible, be sure to clarify fact from fiction). There is no greater professional thrill than when students come to me at the end of the year and tell me that they’ve always “hated history” but now they love it. I’ve even been blessed with a few who have come back to tell me that they were so inspired learning about history that they became history teachers themselves. It seems that when people give it a chance, history really isn’t so bad.

I’ve also noticed that as we age, and face our own mortality, a certain curiosity opens up inside of us, making us want to connect to our past. On a personal level this is apparent in the popularity of websites such as People research their own history in order to understand themselves better. More broadly, books about the founding of our country and the countless biographies on the bookshelves are extremely popular among adults. History is even used as a political tool - pundits and publishers exploit our desire to connect to our past by turning our Founding Fathers into pop stars (the commercialization manipulation of historical narratives is particularly annoying to me, but that is a topic for another day). All of this speaks to our desire to feel connected to something meaningful,0 something bigger than ourselves, but something that we are, indeed, a part of. Finding common ground with others, whether past or present, helps us feel less alone. History creates a sense of community and belonging that reaches further than the classroom. The more we understand ourselves and where we came from, the greater the opportunity for compassion for others.

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE by Jonna Shutowick, M.S. Ed.

Jonna Shutowick is a high school teacher for the Palm Beach County school district. She has created a character named Rosey Shades TM, whose philosophy teaches students about the importance of choosing optimism over pessimism by asking, “What color are the clouds in your world? For more information, visit www. or Email at http://


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