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Just the facts? Hoppes says no

Veteran Lakeridge teacher says students are natural historians
by: CLIFF NEWELL Lakeridge High School history teacher Karen Hoppes’ whiteboard shows the web of spies that stole atomic secrets from the United States in 1945. She says that the post-World War II era was in many ways quite similar to our own.

Karen Hoppes has good news for parents, politicians and intellectual institutes full of worriers.

American students love history, and, what's more, they know a lot of history.

What they don't love is stuffing their heads with a lot of facts that are not in any context.

'I don't worry about it,' said Hoppes, who has taught history for 35 years, the last 22 of them at Lakeridge High School. 'Just teaching the facts will bore students very quickly. But the minute you teach students to evaluate the process of history you get them interested. Kids are historians.'

How so? As an example, Hoppes notes the kid who loves baseball and knows all the statistics from Hank Aaron to George Zuverink.

'The trick is to move it to the larger picture,' Hoppes said.

Doomsday forecasts about U.S. students' knowledge about history have a long, rich tradition. In 1916 historians were wringing their hands over kids not knowing history - Greek and Roman history. In fact, the uproar produced legislation forcing youths to get their facts together.

Somehow it eluded these experts that young people in 1916 were obsessed with brand-new things, like movies, automobiles and airplanes.

Fast forward to 2001 and President George W. Bush was fuming that youths didn't know their history. The latest test results, showing the drastic shortcomings of 40 percent of the nation's eighth-graders, proved it.

In this month's issue of American History Magazine the question is asked: 'Do our students really know so little about our history?' This comes in the wake of rather depressing results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

Hoppes takes all such results calmly.

'We don't teach consensus history, but tests teach consensus history,' she said.

Instead of making students worry whether Columbus crossed the ocean blue in 1492 or started the first pizza chain, Hoppes believes they can be guided in a direction that will instantly capture their interest.

'History is so much a thinking process,' she said. 'History is just a mechanism I use to teach students how to think. History is a habit of mind. History is who we are as a people, which is why it is much tougher to test it, rather than math or science.

'Kids talk about their families all of the time. That's history. They just don't like memorizing stuff. I don't like memorizing stuff either.'

Instead, Hoppes shows her students how the past relates to the most vital events of today. In 1898 a jingoistic press played a prominent role in pushing the United States into the Spanish-American War. That story relates well to the country surging into war in Iraq in 2003.

Now, Hoppes and her students are investigating the ever-hot topic of the Cold War and the McCarthy era and the perils of a nation reacting to fear. Such as fear of things like weapons of mass destruction that are not there.

'We're making the same assumptions now,' Hoppes said. 'We have to ask, 'Is policy restricting our vision?' In history we've got to eliminate knee-jerk reactions and try to get to a quality thought process.'

That all starts with asking the right questions.

'If you can't do that, you might as well not teach history,' Hoppes said.