Teaching is a two-way street. As an educator, it is not enough for me to simply lecture students about the importance of historical events and figures. Rather, I believe students should be actively engaged with the material they are studying. Not only do they learn from me, but they also teach themselves something important when they think critically about the material they cover in the course. Additionally, my students often teach me new ways to approach history and always remind me why I wanted to become an educator in the first place: to guide others towards a better understanding of history and of themselves. My educational philosophy is grounded in four important principles that I believe create an active and involved classroom environment: passion, creativity, independence, and clarity.
For me, passion is critical for active learning. I am openly and unabashedly passionate about history and about education, displaying my excitement for the subject to my students every single day. My Student Evaluation of Instruction comments often include statements such as “Jamie was genuinely excited about the topic matter which facilitated the learning experience. She was always eager to help students and push us to think deeper than we have about American history in the past.” Many of my students come to the course having little to no knowledge of history and take my course simply to fulfill a general education requirement. I am eager to find new ways to convey my passion to my students and routinely find fun ways to bring the information to life in order to change their preconceived ideas about history classes. One way to do that is through visual engagement. My students are not only amused by the music videos, historical reenactments, or comedic sketches I share with them, but they realize that history doesn’t have to be a boring, rote memorization of names, dates, and places. Additionally, I create a learning environment that caters to the diverse learning styles of my students. The students participate in group projects, discussions, primary source-based writing assignments, imaginary historical letters/diaries, historical debates, and multi-media presentations.
By utilizing a variety of assignment types within the classroom, creativity becomes an integral part of the learning process. Not only do I work to provide my students with innovative assignments, but also I encourage them to challenge themselves and incorporate their own personal skills and interests into the assignments. One of the best examples of this has been when the students have had the option to write a series of historical letters or diary entries in the persona of a historical person, real or imaginary. In this assignment, they not only have to construct a compelling and interesting narrative, but they have to integrate what they’ve learned and use their critical thinking skills to make that narrative historically relevant. Students have often told me how much they enjoy being able to bring a bit of themselves into their work and how it helped them connect to the material better.
Such assignments also reveal the importance of clarity in both teaching and learning. Students do not always realize how important it is to be clear in both their spoken and written expression. I make it a point to be as open and my instructions as obvious as possible. I provide students with a detailed syllabus at the beginning of the semester, PowerPoint slides and lecture outlines to go with their textbook readings, and written instructions for every assignment (including a grading rubric and a checklist of important items to be included). I frequently utilize the Notes function of the classroom page in addition to email every week to remind students of due dates and critical objectives. Through various types of writing assignments, informal discussion, and classroom presentations, students learn to communicate in a way that is both professional and effective.
Among the challenges I face as a history educator, one of the most difficult is how best to engage non-majors who are taking my courses to fulfill general education requirements. Aside from creative and active assignments, granting my students a degree of independence allows the students a sense of confidence in their ability to think critically about historical material that they might not otherwise have developed. One way that I encourage students to feel strong and independent in their own analysis is to have them create assignments that they would want to see in a classroom. Many of my students have found that creating an assignment which forces them to analyze conflicting accounts of an historical event made it easier for them to think critically. Other students created assignments that made use of historical maps because they said it helped them to realize that seemingly objective items, like maps, can actually serve political and ideological purposes. One student commented “Her instructional approach required students to think critically and not rely on her for all the information…” which the student found very beneficial.
During my time as an educator, I’ve found that my research informs my teaching philosophy and that my teaching has improved my research. My doctoral research has focused on undervalued groups in history, such as pirates, smugglers, and wreckers, and their impact on the economic development in the early modern Atlantic world. The issues I address in my research are prominent aspects of my teaching of early American history, where I encourage my students to discuss the meaningful impacts of women, slaves, free blacks, Native Americans, and common folk on the development of America from pre-European contact to the American Civil War. I have found that students are more willing to engage with history when they find an aspect of the subject that they can connect to.