Making History Come Alive

René HarderHorst

Early in his career Professor René Harder Horst thought that instructors who failed to deliver a well-prepared formal lecture to their students were being “irresponsible.” This was how he had been taught in high school and college.

A class trip while an assistant professor at Bates College in Maine began a new way of thinking. While teaching a class in Native American history, he had the opportunity to take his students on a two-day experience where they learned about the Penobscot Indians in a more hands-on way—making and sleeping in shelters, drumming, canoeing, tracking and even eating moose. It was obvious to him that afterwards students understood more about the reality and perspective of Indigenous people in a palpable and personal way.

Fast forward to his 18th year at Appalachian State, and Horst is constantly striving to make his history classes more interactive. He credits a workshop sponsored by the Center for Academic Excellence on “Engaged Learning,” and a book by Mel Silberman, for helping to guide him.

“Thanks to modern technology,” Horst said, “students now have easy access to information but they need to learn to process material in ways that seem relevant to them. This calls for a totally different way of teaching.”

Lillian Nave, UDL Coordinator and a workshop facilitator for the Center for Academic Excellence, said Horst is a great example of how faculty can incorporate principles of Universal Design for Learning into their classrooms. She credits CollegeSTAR for supporting the UDL initiatives the CAE has been able to put into place over the last few years.

It is through these workshops and other targeted programs like Faculty Retreats and Course Redesign Institutes, that faculty members are educated about learning differences and can experiment with creative teaching strategies that enhance all student learning.

Horst said that preparing classes with a high degree of student engagement, collaboration and interactivity is a way of teaching that empowers both students and instructors. He asserts, “I’m not at the top, pushing information down into the students.”

Nave maintains “Rene Horst is part of this new revolution of teaching, breaking away from the very passive learning style of previous generations, and meeting the students where they need to be met with energy and enthusiasm, that inspires them to really engage and learn the material, not just for a grade, but because he makes the material matter to them!”

Surprisingly, Horst said, teaching this way actually takes more work than preparing a traditional lecture. He has found that you can’t do it all at once, and has added exercises and enhancements over the years. The payoff comes when your students are awake and engaged, he said, and this is often reflected in student course evaluations.

Horst has used a number of strategies in his Latin American and World History classes. He begins with a signed Teaching and Learning Contract that outlines expectations for active participation. He often breaks his classes into small groups to process information and then report back to each other. Consistent with the principles of UDL, he encourages students to demonstrate their knowledge through projects, short writing exercises, demonstrations, cooking and skits.

During one class on Indigenous history, he played both European and native violins so students could hear the difference between the sounds of the two instruments and analyze what that contrast meant from an historical and cultural perspective.

Horst also has been known to dress the part, showing up for class as a caveman and an Argentinean gaucho cowboy. On occasions, he has allowed the campus police to arrest him in the middle of class and drag him out in handcuffs to illustrate the impact of military dictatorship and disappearances during the late 20th century in Argentina.

Horst acknowledges that there are still students who expect a lecture format but has found that the majority enjoy activities that facilitate learning in different ways. “I consider myself a teacher scholar,” Horst said. “I think we educators have been too conservative in the past, and we need to learn and to adapt in ways that meet students where they are today.”