Using History to Prepare Students for the Future: An Interview with Dr. Jeff Gall

Using History to Prepare Students for the Future: An Interview with Dr. Jeff Gall

Dr. Jeff Gall is the History Department Chair for Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, Missouri.  He has been in education for over 40 years, starting as a history teacher in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, then a Professor of History at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, where he earned the distinct honor of being my professor.  In this conversation, Jeff and I discuss the tools teachers can use to help students be better prepared for their futures.

  1. Tell me about your education journey.  How did you get to where you are today?  1:11

The only thing that I didn’t cover in the introduction about Jeff is that he has been a teacher of teachers since he started at Truman State University in the late 90s.  Even though he has since left Truman to teach with his son, Jeff still uses those skills to help developing teachers at Westminster Christian Academy.

  1. Why history? 4:48

Jeff comes from a very history-oriented family.  Both his grandfather and father were veterans and history lovers.  They played a key role in helping him fall in love with history.  From there, Jeff decided he wanted to be a teacher to share the amazing stories with students and to help them find their own passion for history.  He views himself as a salesperson.  He wants to sell kids on the idea that history is not only important, but also unbelievably engaging.  He also wants to help students become culturally literate.  Jeff believes that if students don’t understand history, they will struggle to be contributing members of society. 

  1. What changes have you experienced from your first experience as a high school teacher? 8:44

Understandably, the biggest change Jeff has experienced is with phones and technology.  Jeff’s goals as a teacher are to help students read, write, think, and discuss effectively.  He uses technology as an asset, not as a crutch for his classroom.  His students respond well to his back to basics approach to history because they can see the passion Jeff brings to the classroom on a daily basis.  Jeff and I discuss a few books here, Why Study History? by John Fea and Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer? by Bruce Lesh.  In Fea’s book, he compares history to a foreign country and argues that history teachers should help students learn and understand history the same way we learn about a different country.  In Lesh’s book, he encourages history teachers to have their students do the real work of historians.  For more on Lesh’s work, check out an article I wrote about it here.  Jeff and I also discuss how to make history real to students.  Jeff uses a strategy called “Artifact of the Day” where he brings in a historical artifact, passes it around to students, then students try to draw conclusions about the owner or the time period.  I also mention a brown bag activity where the teacher brings in a bunch of artifacts (about them) in brown bags and let the kids sort through them and draw conclusions about the owner (the kids don’t know it is the teacher’s stuff).  These kind of activities are things the students need in order to make history come alive and help the students appreciate what historians actually do.

  1. Were there any particular areas where students were lacking at the college level? 15:44

Jeff noticed two things about students as a college professor.  Firstly, his students had lost the ability to sustain their concentration for long periods of time.  This comes as no surprise in our technology driven world.  It is difficult for most of us to sit down and do something for long periods of time without distraction.  Secondly, Jeff noticed that students didn’t understand what historians actually do.  I know that I was definitely guilty of this.  The first class that is required as a history major is Introduction to Historiography.  I had ZERO clue what that meant.  Put simply, historiography is the study of history and historical writings.  Historians take different perspectives and opinions regarding certain historical events and use them to construct a whole picture of what happened at said event.   This lack of understanding of what historians do is definitely partly due to high school history teachers only focusing on content.  The good news is that the same skills historians use such as analyzing sources, determining point of view, understanding chronology and causality, are all wonderful skills for citizens to have.  These skills will help students wade through the muck that is the internet and cable TV to develop their own understanding of events around the world. 

Two other things of note here are Jeff’s use of debates in class and the book that he uses as his textbook.  Jeff had the opportunity to work with former Secretary of Education William Bennett on a project to bring his book, America: The Last Best Hope into schools.  So Jeff and other history experts worked together on a curriculum called Roadmap to Last Best Hope.  Jeff mentions that he uses about 40 different debates from that curriculum to help students understand the work that historians do every day.  Unfortunately, the curriculum is no longer available, but you can still access the website to get an idea of what the curriculum was trying to accomplish.  You can access it here.  Also, Jeff uses Bennett’s work as the textbook in his class.  If you are a history teacher or even just a lover of history, you really should read it.  My ideal classroom would have students comparing Bennett’s book to Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States.  Students would be able to compare the conservative and liberal opinions of US History and form their own opinions from there.

  1. What skills have you brought with you from the university to the high school classroom? 24:51

Jeff and I discuss two main things as an answer to this question.  Firstly, Jeff’s time as a professor gave him incredible opportunities to learn and grow in the field of history.  These opportunities to read, talk with other experts in the field, or travel simply aren’t as easily accessible to a high school teacher.  Jeff’s students have a unique opportunity to learn from a true expert in the field of history.  He would not be the expert he is today if he hadn’t gone back to school to get his doctorate and taught at the university level.  The other thing we discuss is the ability to form meaningful relationships with your students.  Jeff only taught two classes per semester as a professor, meeting three times a week, and he had ample opportunities to talk with students and form bonds that last well beyond graduation.  Although he spends many more hours a day in front of students, Jeff definitely makes building relationships and being a positive force in students’ lives a top priority.  We also discuss that this is so important in our world today because there is so much negativity surrounding young adults.  Students need positive role models to emulate, and Jeff is doing his best to meet that challenge.

  1. What does an average day look like in your classroom? 32:42

Jeff is very systematic in his approach to teaching history.  He has a series of rituals that he and his students follow on a daily basis. 

  • Thought Question of the Day: This can be about many different topics such as the best movie, the death penalty, important role models, etc. The idea is to get the kid’s minds working and the juices flowing.
  • This Day in American History: Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Farside Cartoon: Designed to produce a smile and a laugh out of the students.
  • Artifact of the Day: As mentioned above, this is designed to make history come alive for the students.
  • Thought Cartoons: On block days, Jeff provides his students with political cartoons, at least one liberal and one conservative, on current events. He uses these to start discussions on what is going on in America right now.
  • Reading Discussion: Also pretty self-explanatory.
  • Activity: Such as a debate or other meaningful application of the students’ knowledge.

One other note about this section.  Jeff also wants to help prepare his students for the future by helping them hone their literacy skills.  He works with them every day on reading critically and writing and speaking about the reading.  Jeff believes this will give his students a solid foundation for future success.

  1. Do you think there is a place in our curriculum to help students find their interests and passions? 38:04

I’m not sure we ever really got to this answer, but we still discussed some great things.  Curriculum coverage is a constant problem in the history classroom.  Jeff tries to focus on broad concepts that will have a big impact on his students for years to come.  He wants to make sure they know the big ideas from history that will help them to be engaged, productive citizens in our society.  Jeff also uses the stories of history to teach students what it means to be human.  Students can learn how to be good people while discovering what they are passionate about or what interests them.  The discussions and debates that Jeff feature in his class help students to learn from each other.  I asked Jeff if he had any difficulties discussing current issues being at a faith-based school, and he said that Westminster has been really great about letting him equip his students for the broader world and help them understand different points of view.  This is really important when you evaluate the current divisions in our society.  Empathizing with someone else’s point of view is a skill that has gone by the wayside.  Instead of surrounding themselves with people that think differently than them and will challenge them to be a better person, most Americans surround themselves with people that are like-minded.  This is a very dangerous trend.  Even though we may disagree with someone, we must never lose our ability to understand why that person thinks the way they do.  History teachers are in the trenches of this problem.  We must provide our students with opportunities to evaluate different viewpoints, then come to their own conclusion, all while empathizing and understanding other points of view.  It isn’t easy, but it is definitely a task that is deserving of our dedication.

  1. Where would you like to see the American education system go? 48:03

I love this question because there are so many different ways to answer it.  Jeff, as you might expect, answered in a very simple way.  He believes that the American education system will improve if we can do a better job of recruiting good teachers.  He wants to see more passionate teachers that care about their kids and help students find what they’re passionate about.  He admits that it is going to be a struggle because many people who would make great teachers go into more lucrative fields.  But the best part about being a teacher now is that you have the unique opportunity to help young people find what their passions are.  And who knows, if we do our best, perhaps more students will want to take up the cause of education.

  1. What is your number one tip for shawesome educators? 51:17

“Love your subject, love your students, and be enthusiastic.”

My Top Takeaways

  1. Be a salesperson

A famous Jeff Gall quote is “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Teachers have to believe in their product.  If you aren’t excited about what you’re doing, you should probably find a different subject or profession.  I’m not trying to be mean, I personally think life is too short to do something you don’t enjoy.   This is so important in education today.  There are so many things teachers are fighting against.  The fight is to produce a love of learning in our students and prepare them for the future.  You will lose this fight if you don’t believe in what you’re teaching.  Not only that, but you have to sell it to the kids.  Make them believe that what you’re teaching is important, and I guarantee you’ll be more successful in the classroom.  But the best part is, your students will benefit from seeing your passion, and want to find their passion as well.

  1. Teach civil discussion

Civil discourse is a lost art in American society and politics.  We are living in a divided country.  America has been here before, and we have always pulled ourselves out of this situation.  But the job of teaching students how to reverse this dilemma falls to us, the teachers.  Students have to be able to have civil discussions with people they disagree with.  They have to empathize with opposing viewpoints.  Just because two people disagree, doesn’t mean they can’t get along or be friends.   Our job is to show students that there is a difference between who someone is and the opinions they have.  Only when students understand this, can they begin to have civil discussions.  And once that happens, it will be a whole lot easier to determine what is best for America. 

What do you think?  How do you sell your subject to your students?  How do you prepare students for the future?  Let me know in the comments below!


Jeff’s Email:

Roadmap to Last Best Hope:


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