Engaging the Head and the Heart in History Class

Peter WelleTeaching for Transformation, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Teacher showing student a globe in history class.
Teacher showing student a globe in History class.

Whereas I love being a history teacher, as a student I didn’t always love history class. Though I always had some interest in the stories of the past, that was usually in spite of my history classes, not because of them.

It’s telling that I remember what the walls and windows of my high school classrooms looked like, but not so much the faces of my history teachers. I recall a multitude of packets and worksheets, but not much of an invitation or reason to engage with this history stuff outside of class. I am hopeful that students at Southwest Christian experience something other than what I did as the Teaching for Transformation (TfT) framework has facilitated a distinctly different teaching and learning experience.

My Deep Hope for my US History students is that they will see the patterns of God’s story in the blessings and curses of their American inheritance and respond by joining in God’s restorative work. For example, instead of writing the standard research paper, US History students in Mrs. Langert’s and my classes wrote a “formational research paper” this semester. To begin, they were asked to conduct an interview with a person they care about (typically a parent or grandparent). The students then wrote a paper telling a chapter of that person’s story, situating their story within a broader theme or chapter in American history that they researched.

“This project involved real academic work . . . but all done in the service of meeting a real relational need with a real person in their life.”

Our learning target for this project was that students might “experience how the head work of history can affect my heart and do restorative work in my relationship with another person.” In short, this project involved real academic work like interviewing, researching, and writing, but all done in the service of meeting a real relational need with a real person in their life. The project included micro practices of how we can serve a kingdom purpose of loving others through our everyday work.

It’s safe to say that student feedback on such a project is profoundly different than for packets and worksheets. After the interview stage of the project, I received this unsolicited email from a student:

I just wanted to write you a brief email thanking you for this project. I really cannot thank you enough. Talking to my dad about these things—his childhood and his life—has been really eye-opening to the things that made him the man that left such an impression on me. I just want to thank you for how intentional and impactful the project you have assigned to us. This is the opposite of fluff and busy work. This is something I am proud to be working on and has helped me head miles in the right direction as far as creating a relationship with my father.

At the conclusion of the project, I wanted to have our work commemorated on our classroom Storyboard. Storyboarding is a TfT practice that encourages teachers and students to use classroom spaces to narrate and commemorate the deeper learning work that connects course content to God’s story.

Feeling a bit aesthetically challenged, I asked if any students would be willing to stay late and help me put together a Storyboard that celebrated our class’s work on the project. Quickly, a bunch of hands shot in the air, so we met after school so I could give them a broad overview of my intent. I left them on their own to start creating, returning the next day to find the following:

This Storyboard display is my new favorite thing ever.

One of the students who helped build it later reflected, “As I began working with my friends to create the piece, I realized that this hands-on work opened my perspective to truly see the stories in front of me.” Another student remembered, “When we were making the storyboard, someone mentioned it looked like a heart, so I took this idea and decided to put a string around it so it would actually make a heart. I thought it really showed how we all did our best to tell someone’s story.”

In their book Flourishing Together: A Christian Vision for Students, Educators, and Schools, Lynn Swaner and Andy Wolfe wrote the following:

A curriculum that prioritizes holistic learning is . . . one that inspires hope and aspiration in students by encouraging them to see themselves as agents of healing, repair, and renewal. In doing so, it expands the view of education as a private good for one’s personal economic benefit, to a common good that builds a foundation to living well together in communities and societies.” (p. 120)

It is my belief that the TfT framework brings such holistic learning and flourishing Christian practices to life in Southwest Christian classrooms. Step by step, in ways large and small, our students are leaning into the deeper purposes of their learning.


  • Peter Welle

    Peter Welle is a history teacher and professional development coordinator at Southwest Christian High School in Chaska, Minnesota, as well as a Teaching for Transformation School Designer. In all his work with high school students, Peter tries to play the long game with his instruction, aiming at lifelong goals. As a wanderer for a few years himself, he realizes that some seeds take time to sprout and bear fruit. His pedagogical practice has been invigorated by TfT: he has witnessed his students find deeper purpose for understanding history—as a means to activate the kingdom life of Jesus Christ. When he's not teaching, Peter can usually be found at home with his family playing board games, strumming his guitar, or muttering under his breath about the Minnesota Vikings.

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