Ten years of teaching social studies has alerted me that most incoming 8th graders view my subject with:
- Extreme boredom
- Deep and abiding hatred
- All of the above
Yes, I have gaggles of honors and PEN nerds who LOVE history—but mostly they just love being nerdy. Rarer still is that social studies buff who adores the past for the past, stumbling close to that mother lode of factual euphoria.
Obliterating this boredom has become my primary goal as a history teacher, both in and outside the classroom. In fact, it’s why I started writing modern novels laced with history: I want my students to see how the past can and does impact their lives TODAY. Here’s how I attempt to do this in teaching and writing.
I Must Get Amped About the Past
If I’m bored, then so are the kids. This truth prevents me from becoming the stereotypical teacher who recycles lessons year after year (and FYI that type of teacher is actually super rare). My undiagnosed ADD helps here, but the key is to dig deep, to tunnel down and hardline into the good stuff. I do this by inhaling academic monographs steeped in primary sources on the unit I’m about to teach. Not only can I haul out handy nuggets for the kids, but this digging deep reignites my passion for the topic.
This has to bleed through on my book pages too, or the reader—also middle-school aged, also likely eye rolling at social studies—will be bored. My forthcoming novel, THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY, is about some middle school kids doing a social studies project—i.e. the characters are set up to encounter just such boredom. Gearing up to write a novel aimed at such drudgery, I head dove into a treasure trove of Civil War soldier letters, diaries, and super nerdy things called muster sheets (regimental records of enlisted soldiers). Doing this stirred up my understanding and affection for the millions of men and women who endured this nation-defining event, fueling my next task: transmission.
I Must Communicate the Past In A Not-Boring Way
Oliver, my main character, is a hardcore Civil War nerd. He knows every general, battle, and casualty statistic; unsurprisingly, he’s also a reenactor in his local regiment, the PA 104th. But most kids today get mildly ill at the concept of reading and studying such facts to be later regurgitated on a terrifyingly gargantuan test. (The kinds of tests I took and hated myself, and refuse to give my students.)
So the key is to teach in a not-boring way.
For example: Instead of just reading about the Northern and Southern armies, what if the entire grade became the Northern and Southern armies? What if each table group was assigned a state regiment, and every graded activity—homework, project, test—counted as points in a grand, collective competition? What if instead of learning about soldier life just through diaries, we went outside and drilled like they did? What if we built tents of canvas and wood and hung out in them for a class period? What if we played the same early version of baseball that they did?
In short: What if we participated in the past, rather than just studied it?
I try to do the same with my books. PRIVATE NOBODY involves some potentially boring scenes (this is a history project after all), so I had to situate them within the hilarious context of middle school mayhem. I wanted my readers to participate in the work of history with the characters, and not get put to sleep by it—harder than it sounds. For example: how do you make a scene at a historical society not be a snoozefest? By incorporating a trio of kids whose hilarity and awkwardness endear them to the reader. In a weird way, PRIVATE NOBODY isn’t really a book about a Civil War project; it’s a book about some great kids with authentic obstacles doing a Civil War project.
Conclusion: The Past Matters (And It Also Happens to Rule)
Obliterating this boredom allows students to make connections that can impact the world. Want to understand racial tension in 2018, and perhaps fight against it? Study the Civil War—its cause (slavery—the answer is always and forever slavery) and the unrealized outcome of African American enfranchisement. Confused where to line up on the hot-button issue of Confederate monuments? Study who built them and when. The connection between a nation’s past and present is not ethereal—it exists. But it is tenuous, stretched thin over years and years of additional impacts and players, readily forgotten by the modern observer. We must encourage students to make these connections, but they will never do that if they’re bored.
THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY is a book taken directly out of my daily life, and from deep within my heart. It is the prime of example of having my cake and eating it too—writing about teaching history to middle school students. Please feel free, but not obligated, to purchase enough copies that allow me to begin buying the next size up Starbucks coffee. Or perhaps (another) Civil War rifle.
Matthew Landis teachers 8th grade Social Studies outside of Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son whom he named Washington after George Washington (duh). He has five chickens, whose egg production has fallen off as of late. He is the author of the YA thriller LEAGUE OF AMERICAN TRAITORS (Sky Pony), and the MG contemporary novel THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY (Dial/Penguin), which Junior Library Guild made a 2018 selection. He hopes to one day reach a level of literary success that allows him to summer in Cape Town and go on endless safaris.
You can find more about Matthew, his books, and his taco obsession at www.matthew-landis.com.