Historians have a daunting task. To portray what happened during the American Civil War, for example, they read, interpret and translate piles of primary sources, often historical first-hand accounts that are 150 years old.
“What did you think of the letter?” Eric Shed asked a group of eighth-graders. The letters, written by African American Civil War soldiers, use terminology that is unusual by today’s standards, an often confusing assignment for the young students in Shed’s study.
Shed has a scholarly interest in the role of media and literacy in the history classroom. But it wasn’t until he worked with public high school students in Brooklyn and the Bronx that he discovered another passion: helping struggling students become critical thinkers.
The jump from history to promoting literacy was easy for Shed.
“I see literacy being a necessary requisite to understanding history,” he said. “If kids can’t read, they can’t engage in history the way they should.”
Shed’s experience as a historian and educator has brought him to Brown this fall as a lecturer in education and director of history and social studies education.
“History education is more directly tied to helping people think than just [learning] history,” Shed said. That interest — helping people to think — led him to New York University (M.A., 2003, education) and later to Stanford (Ph.D., 2013, education). His dissertation examined how film and textbooks influence comprehension of historical texts among students who are struggling readers.
As part of his dissertation research, Shed separated two groups of students and presented them with primary sources. One group first watched a video clip related to the source and the other group first read a textbook that explained the background of the source. Shed found that film had the potential to help students think critically about the past: “Students are more engaged with screens and as a result were more engaged.”
Noting that kids are more engaged with film than text, some critics pointed out the potential danger of presenting students with video clips that are historically inaccurate. But, Shed said, “if clips are presented by a teacher in a responsible manner, it can be very powerful.” Some historians describe certain clips as the most accurate representation of history.
Growing up on the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, Shed was exposed to a variety of political beliefs and backgrounds. “Diversity really had an impact on me and it is something that I knew about at a very young age,” he said. “I believe in promoting diversity in its purest and best form.” When Shed graduated from college he decided to give back to the community, which led him to work for the public school system in New York.
At two of the high schools where he taught, many students did not go on to college or even apply. “I think the way we define success here at an Ivy-league institution might be a little different from the way we think about it in different contexts,” Shed said. “With teaching, it’s not always about the way we define success; I think it’s the effort and thought we put into it.” As part of his appointment at Brown Shed will be teaching students the finer points of pedagogy, but the program will always be much more than a matter of technique. He and his students will be considering a higher question: What it means to teach.
In the fall, Shed will be teaching an undergraduate class titled “The Craft of Teaching,” an interdisciplinary course that introduces students about the complexity of learning and teaching in America. “Eric is a very strong teacher. He understands the challenges of teachers in urban high schools and he communicated that well,” said Kenneth Wong, chair of the Department of Education at Brown. “Additionally, Shed’s understanding of urban high school teaching made him an ideal candidate to be a role model for M.A.T students.”
Shed wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived at Brown but was pleasantly surprised. “I walked into a classroom and the students were thoughtful, the campus was diverse, and there was an intellectual climate that wasn’t too ‘out there’.”