Steven Weinberg's Learning Story


The teacher who influenced me the most was Josiah Sheilds, my eighth grade American History teacher, whose class I entered 50 years ago this month.It was not his lectures that I remember, nor his homework assignments or tests. No, what fascinated me were the trials of historical figures he conducted in his class. Each month students charged and tried an important and controversial person of the time period being studied. Students took the roles of the accused, witnesses, lawyers, and jurors. The student lawyers had the largest roles, researching the time period, preparing opening and closing statements, recruiting and prepping witnesses, and cross-examining the opposition witnesses. Preparing a case required hours of research. In the process we realized that one had to consider not only what had happened, but why it had happened, what had motivated the participants, and what effects the actions of the accused had had.Suddenly history became not a list of facts to memorize, but a field rich with controversy, where the more you knew, the better you could substantiate your case. From reading bland textbooks and encyclopedias, we moved on to interpretive biographies and history magazines. Bus rides and lunchroom conversations began to focus on what each of us had learned and how we could use it to strengthen our cases. We learned from experience that the same set of facts could be used to support two completely opposite positions, and we became more critical of the interpretations we read.Mr. Sheilds awakened in me a love of history which I have never lost. When I became a teacher it is no surprise that I accepted a position that allowed me to teach the course I had enjoyed so much, and I taught eighth grade history for the next 30 years. I always tried to find ways to involve my students just as Mr. Sheilds had involved us.As I look at teaching today, with the heavy emphasis on covering standards that are far too numerous and detailed, with state tests that stress facts rather than interpretation, and teacher evaluation systems that place more weight on high test scores than on inspiring students, I fear we are moving away from the type of teaching that is most important: making history come alive for students and showing them the importance of looking at interpretations with a critical eye.I never got to thank Mr. Sheilds or tell him that he had inspired me to pursue a career that has given me years of pleasure and satisfaction. But now, as I am retiring myself, I find some comfort in imagining that just as he influenced me greatly without knowing it, I may have had the same effect on some of my students.