Teacher at the board teaching with a piece of paper

5 tips for teaching humanities in high school

Teaching science and math in high school is pretty straightforward, but it can be challenging to figure out what exactly to do in a humanities class. Students are naturally at different levels of proficiency so it can be difficult to reach everyone in your class.

But don’t worry! Humanities is a fascinating (and important) subject that your students can learn to love if it’s taught effectively. Here are just a few tips that I’ve learned from others in my years of teaching humanities in high school.

1. Have great discussions

In earlier grades, it’s hard to have a discussion in history class because the students don’t really have enough background knowledge to consider the significance of the pyramids in Ancient Egypt, for example. Instead, you can teach some really cool stuff like how the Egyptians mummified bodies and what hieroglyphs looked like.

But in high school, you can easily talk about bigger ideas. Ask your students to compare the ziggurats in Mesopotamia and the pyramids in Egypt. How are they similar? How are they different? Examine modern attempts to rebuild the Great Pyramid at Giza. How long did it take modern individuals in comparison to when it was originally built?

I’ve found that it’s helpful to have a broad topic, give students some questions to answer themselves and think about ahead of time, and then have the discussion a day or two later. Additionally, it’s important to make sure that you encourage all students to participate.

I sometimes allow my students to have the discussion exclusively among themselves at least once every couple of months in a “Harkness Discussion.” Every student has to come prepared and needs to contribute at least once. I also encourage the students who are more vocal to ask their quieter peers to contribute.

For example, let’s say you want to have a concluding discussion about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Give your students the broad question of “Is friendship stronger than love?” and list the names of some relevant characters to consider or perhaps some lines to reference. Assign that as homework, and then discuss it the next day.

2. Get your students to think (and write!)

girl student in the classroom writing on a notebook

We all know (or hope) that high school students are thinking about big ideas. Try to get them to channel that energy into the classroom. I personally prefer to focus less on objective information (but when I do put it on a test, I always give the students a study guide) and more on thinking about things they might not have considered before. I’ll talk about what it meant to be faithful in Greek culture, using Odysseus as an example, and ask the students to think about whether they personally think he was faithful (and give reasons explaining why or why not).

I always not only assign thinking questions for homework but also require students to write two questions themselves that start off with “Why?” or “How?” or “What is the significance of?” I’ve found that this practice promotes deep thinking because it encourages the students to respond to the material they have read.

Thinking and writing go hand in hand. One of my professors in college used to say that clear thinking leads to clear writing. I try to give my students as many opportunities as possible for both. I want them to express clear verbal thinking in the classroom and clear written thinking in their homework and papers.

3. Use primary sources

This tip is essential! Humanities courses, especially social studies or history, often centers around a textbook, which has little snippets of primary sources and bright colors and pictures, but most of the writing is extremely dull with dry paragraphs upon paragraphs. I’ve found that students come to hate history when they associate it with a textbook.

I recommend you use a formal academic textbook as little as possible in class and use it more as a resource for yourself in preparing lectures to get the objective information that you need. Instead, assign primary sources with questions to your students for reading.

For example, rather than having your students read about the Battle of Thermopylae as described in a textbook by some aging history professor, give them translated sources from the ancient Greeks. Though they may be trickier to decipher, they’re much more captivating! You may need to assign just a few pages of a primary source because it might be more antiquated and challenging material to read, but it’s worth it for the enthralling stories you’ll find in a primary source.

Plus, when you use primary sources, it gives you the opportunity to discuss how individuals approached history. Sometimes, Greeks like Herodotus embellished the story a little bit, so you can tell your students that and compare and contrast how history has changed as an academic discipline throughout the ages.

4. Read whole texts if possible

This seems like a Herculean task. How are you supposed to have time to read the entire Histories by Thucydides or all of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov? Certainly, it takes some finesse, but what I love about teaching whole texts is that the students have a sense of completion and closure when they’ve gotten through them.

It may seem easier to read a bunch of short stories with the short attention-span of a modern student (and of course, there is a time and place for reading short stories), but there’s also something to be said for taking the time to read all of Homer’s Iliad, a several-hundred-page book. Instead of just reading a summary of the story off of SparkNotes, the students have the opportunity to interact with the text itself and see how Homer (through a translator) wove together the story.

I’ve read through four entire works of Plato with high school freshmen just because it’s good to do hard things and think about the deep issues that Plato considers, like friendship, holiness, and honoring the gods/God. While we’re going through the works, I mix in modern philosophical works by Plato. This isn’t my students’ favorite activity, but by the end of the year, they’re always quite proud of themselves for having read so many difficult texts.

5. Teach your students how to develop a philosophical habit of mind

Humanities in high school is all about synthesis. You’re trying to bring together a variety of different subjects into a unified whole. John Henry Newman calls this phenomenon “the philosophical habit of mind.” Encourage your students to draw connections between their humanities classes — like history, literature/English, philosophy, and government — and their non-humanities classes, like science, math, and even P.E.!

When discussing a topic like Charlemagne in a specific class like history, focus on the other elements as well: how Charlemagne’s failure at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass inspired The Song of Roland, or how Charlemagne’s focus on education influenced philosophy.

Bring in science and math too when you can, like discussing the science behind embalming in Ancient Egypt when you teach about the pyramids, or the chemical composition of cosmetics used in the ancient world, or the mathematical prowess of Rene Descartes when you discuss his famous statement, “Cogito ergo sum.”

I personally encourage my students to pose questions on their homework assignments that discuss material covered in other classes, and I will sometimes work on assignments with my colleagues to give my students a more holistic exposure to humanities.

For example, I collaborated with the science teacher one year on a writing assignment; the students used the same writing template we had been using all year, and I would grade them on their style, but the content would be about a specific vaccination, and my coworker would focus on how they presented that material (if it was scientifically accurate, sufficiently detailed, and so on). I personally found the assignment quite helpful for the students, as they had to synthesize material from two different classes.

Humanities can be fun

High school students can be challenging to teach with all their restlessness and quick wit, which can be difficult to channel in a humanities class. However, if you incorporate some of these tips in your classroom, you’ll find that teaching humanities isn’t hard at all. I hope you’ll discover your love of teaching the humanities, even to somewhat cranky teenagers!

Photo credit: rawpixelklimkin; steveriot1 / Pixabay.com

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