Closer Readings Commentary

Teaching History without a Textbook

Molly Smith is the Upper School History Department Chair at the Friends School of Baltimore

Textbooks have long been the backbone of the history survey course. Students may not enjoy reading them, but most recognize the utility of the text in providing the narrative for the course. Therein lies the problem and the challenge. Textbooks provide a narrative which students often assume to be the narrative.

When resources were limited to print sources and teacher knowledge, and then supplemented by videos, textbooks made sense. Still, the best teachers never taught only the textbook. They sought alternate points of view and primary source documents to deepen understanding.

A cornucopia of resources

The explosion of materials available on the Internet has shifted the balance between textbooks and other sources. Teaching history without a textbook has never been easier or more satisfying. It does require teacher curation, but with so many resources available, relying on a textbook is no longer a satisfying option. Given the cost of a textbook compared to the free resources available, the effort to curate alternate sources is well worth it. Students will naturally consult the Internet for more information, clarification, even quick definitions and identifications. We can leverage that inclination by guiding them to quality sources.

Yet for some, teaching and learning without a textbook can seem like drifting without an anchor. There will be some discomfort among students and parents about not having a single text to consult, but there are many ways to curate and organize content these days, from the use of Google Drive folders to LiveBinders or wikis. The freedom to sail anywhere worthwhile is well worth the effort.

Teacher as Curator

For the teacher, beginning the process of curating resources for the different units in a course can seem daunting. There are so many resources available. Short excerpts from books are an option. Even Wikipedia articles can serve as a jumping off point on a topic. Those articles often link to useful sources, and since students use Wikipedia anyway, as teachers we can model how to use it well. As you begin to develop your core of go-to resources, a few will inevitably prove to be golden.

Having become well acquainted with the utility of EDSITEment lessons and resources for U.S. history, I wondered what it would yield for the Modern World History course I teach without a textbook. I was a little unsure about what I would find, since I assumed the great strength of the site to be its American resources. But I was overlooking one of EDSITEment’s remarkable features, a collection of vetted websites, all of which have been reviewed by the National Endowment for the Humanities panels for scholarly content and appropriateness of K–12 classroom.

Researching sources for a curriculum

I was surprised and excited by my search, as it overturned that assumption. Apparently, EDSITEment has been quietly added World History resources over the past few years in an attempt to broaden its scope.

I begin the year with the Renaissance. Not only did I find a lesson plan and website for Leonardo da Vinci, I also found a lesson and a website for Galileo. And I was excited to learn from staff that they will soon by launching a STEM/Humanities lesson on the epochal Florentine astronomer as well.

Surveying EDSITEment’s index of vetted websites alerted me to a new National Gallery of Art feature for Italian Renaissance art. The new additions to this indispensable collection are on the top.

One can easily filter through the History and Social Studies lesson listings. By clicking on the subtopic tab I located numerous lessons on the themes of exploration and discovery, which fits as a logical extension in the Renaissance unit.

In the website section, I found When Worlds Collide: The Story of the Americas after Columbus, and was delighted to see that it contains eight lessons written by an AP world history teacher that make use of clips from the PBS program, which I missed when it was first shown. I was also happy to learn about a new NEH-funded series Latino Americans.

Next, I searched Scientific Revolution. This took me to an Ohio State website that provides a rich collection of sources and lesson ideas for the Scientific Revolution. That site also includes lessons linking the Scientific Revolution with the Enlightenment. To supplement my own understanding of the philosophers of this epoch, I followed the links to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

My next unit is Comparative Revolutions. Clearly there is a wealth of materials for the American Revolution. But when I searched for the French Revolution, I struck gold. Not only was there a French Revolution website, but what I discovered was a great site that pulls together the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, which is exactly what my curriculum mandates.

Through a simple search on the EDSITEment website, I was able to find great material to use for the entire first semester of my Modern World History course. In some cases, the links may be all I need. In other cases, they can serve as a jumping off point. Having a trusted clearinghouse for vetted websites is much more efficient than simply doing Google searches.

Teaching without a textbook is incredibly rewarding, in that it allows teachers to expose students to multiple perspectives and multiple sources, with maximum flexibility. No one source will serve all of your needs, but having a few reliable first stops in searching is a must.

With its ever-growing database of resources, sortable by subject, the free resources from EDSITEment should be at the top of the list. I have used the site before but the link to the Atlantic Revolutions site is one I just discovered in researching for this post. I cannot wait to share it with my Modern World team. The best part of teaching without a text is the excitement that comes from discovering an amazing new resource and being able to incorporate it immediately.