Is the history textbook history now?

Nisha Dedhia Teredesai

‘Don’t make me repeat myself’
~ History teacher

I begin the year with my learners having written this silently loud message on the board. They chuckle a little until they read it three times. Then, we proceed to prove or disprove the statement throughout the year by connecting historical events to current ones. This process, however, was an outcome of a learning experience.

When I walked out of my first history class as a teacher, I remember thinking about how much I talked and how much my learners yawned. Maybe it was the subject, maybe the mid-day lecture, or maybe it is the learners of today. Or, maybe I could change something so that the earlier reasons were not to be blamed. It was then that my quest to explore this subject and its ‘market value’ began.

My first step was to understand the complex simplicity of history. History is meant to be a factually accurate story from the past. It is not to be taught but narrated. So, when we open a history text, the idea is to understand the time period, its people, and their relationships with everything around them. In knowing that, I was empowered to discover tools that made the story of that time alive in the classes of the present.

Illustrations: Tanaya Vyas

The second step was to understand my learners. We can all agree that after two years of online classes, learners are exposed to shorter mediums of information a lot more than before. Their stimulations are different from what the yesteryear textbooks can provide. While other subjects do not bear the ravages of time, history takes it on every side of a page.

When I initiate my first history class of the year, my learners and I browse through the time we will travel to in that academic year, and I will probably leave them with a snippet of a captivating yet momentous heroic adventure or an untold story they can look forward to. This story may necessarily not be from the textbook but connected to its content.

Then come the cliffhangers. Once, I left my learners with a prologue of a story to be continued when we were to do the related chapter. From the classes that followed, I deciphered the importance of cliffhangers. Ever since, it has been a surreal experience to use them to expand the appetite of my learners for a reasonably long time. Don’t you think then they would remind me of the snippet when we do that chapter?

As the next step, I dissected my history textbooks. As Indians, we are blessed with a history that we can be proud of and learn from. Unfortunately, our textbooks carry the framework from colonial times, and the inflexible summative assessments have made the subject cumbersome for both learners and facilitators. Then, how can we, the educators, build a future that understands their country when such is the state of our historical content?

The answer lies with the teacher. As history teachers, we ought to move beyond our textbooks and reference books and explore the field. I read Amar Chitra Katha as a child and picked them up again. Then came children’s books by Scholastic and others. Being a voracious reader, I continued reading Amish, Chitra Divakaruni, and the others to understand alternative perspectives of mainstream history. These books then became my cliffhangers in classes. I would lead my learners to half a story, leaving them to read further or stay hungry for the end.

“Why not movies?” ask many of my learners. The answer is that movies take a lot of creative freedom with information and time. While they may be a good source for adults, understanding those gaps may not be easy for young learners. Instead, encourage non-readers to pair with readers and build a story-telling network in class.

This leads me to another tool that every English and history teacher must know – the art of storytelling. History, when taught in stories, highlighting the keywords, with every significant event being a plot twist, is a delightful learning experience for learners of all ages. Imagine a child learning about the ‘revolution of 1857,’ where the story begins much before Mangal Pandey. The plot spins around when a winning plan for India turns around as certain leaders risk their lives and certain others wage their loyalty.

The learner then not only learns about the facts of the event academically but understands the people, times, the atrocities, the unity and division, and various factors in between. By accident, I learnt to accompany these stories of the lessons with a brief discussion. The idea was not to lead on to an opinion but accept varied perspectives with no correct answers.

As teachers, we must venture beyond the written information and allow children to breathe with their thoughts. Like, ‘Why do some historians call ‘1857’ a revolution while others call it a rebellion or revolt?’ Instantly, a learner compared it to the previous chapter and asked, ‘Why is the American War of Independence a revolution while India’s efforts are a revolt?’

This is the richness of the discussion. I hardly spend 15 minutes of class time on every chapter, but this is what completes every lesson. Have you started the chapter about the Britishers coming to India with this question to be discussed at the end, ‘Ever since the Battle of Plassey, where do you think the foreign power is winning the war in India – on the field or before entering the battle?’

However, do understand that as a history teacher, you are enabling young learners to think, not to simply form opinions or to share yours. When you allow the child to look outside the window to search for answers in the clouds, you will notice your learners are enthusiastic in class. Know that somehow, somewhere, ‘History repeats itself,’ and when you connect the past with the present, you’ll have found your magic trick.

In history, when foreign powers subdued indigenous lands to make them their colonies, the world story shifted tremendously. However, isn’t it similar to the technological expertise of today, when a few technologically advanced nations establish their supremacy over others? The idea is not to answer but to ask and reflect. Isn’t that the purpose of learning history?

I have withheld the most important tool till the end. That is what I have grasped from the many wars that we learn about where you keep the best to conclude. See the practical application of the subject?

This tool is ‘humour,’ for history is long dead if it cannot live in the present. While teaching about Humayun or so many kings who fought with their siblings for the throne, I ask my class, “What if the siblings would not have troubled their ruling brother?”

The ‘world wars’ have nothing to do with the ‘world’ in provoking them but most definitely affecting them. It is leading the discussion on the current state of wars across the world, causing economic and geo-political ripples across nations. When you use humour frugally yet smartly, you will see the difference.

The same is true of any subject you teach. When I draw the most imperfect doodles with my learners, they find comfort in learning. They effectively learn the character qualities while giggling at my strokes or, as they call it, ‘abstract art’. The experiment was to connect with my learners’ mindset so that I could raise them higher, little by little.

Over the short span of my career, I was able to challenge the hassles of online school by creating convenience on the Internet. Every YouTube video on another tab was confronted by a picturesque animated presentation that required me to be the voice-over artist. Every game was replaced by a quiz on many free online websites. Every page in the textbook was simplified into a story. Not to say that I was always successful. But I tried these so that you can implement the gains.

On a final note, remember to guide the new learners of today. Recognize that they might have the information but are not capable of compartmentalizing the important ones. They are intelligent in handling technology, but are ignorant with their psychology. If you narrate, smile, question, and discuss with your learners, you will find yourself elevating your purpose in education.

History is that one subject which will always require facilitators to give it life. That wisdom is enriched in the following literature.

My great-grandmother told my grandma to be a lady,
that meant being an efficient house-maker.
My grandma told my mom to be a lady,
that meant being agreeable in society.
My mom told me to be a lady,
that meant being an independent and hard-working woman.

The author is currently working at Jasudben M.L. School in Mumbai. She is a story-teller, an explorer and a lifelong learner before being an educator. She can be reached at

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