'What if' method enlivens McDonogh history classes


History classes, said Stephanie Hershkovitz, have usually meant memorizing a lot of blah facts that test even the most ambitious teen's attention span.

But not anymore, said Stephanie, 16, a student at McDonogh School in northwest Baltimore County.

Stephanie has been learning history in an unusual way called the "What If" method. It challenges students to become involved in historical events and sharpens their writing and research skills, said the teacher who thought it up.

It all began two years ago when Martin H. McKibbin, a teacher at McDonogh, was reading a few histories and began to wonder how minor incidents could have changed major events.

For instance, he wondered, what if the Americans had broken the Japanese naval code? How could that have changed the outcome of Pearl Harbor?

Mr. McKibbin told his students to prepare a series of essays on "What Ifs" in American history. The students were assigned to research and write about how history might have changed.

Most of the essays deal with major events in American history and the "What Ifs" focus on little-known circumstances that played a surprisingly large role in the outcome, he said.

One student's "What If" essay focused on Watergate. How could things have been different if a security guard hadn't noticed that a door lock had been kept open with electrical tape?

Another student wondered "What If" the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler had been successful?

Mr. McKibbin's students have gathered 40 of the "What If" essays and are sending them off to book editors hoping to see them published.

Some students, including Stephanie, spent this summer polishing up their essays.

Sitting in a classroom on a recent warm summer day, they talked about their dedication to the project.

"This is more interesting than just memorizing things," Stephanie said.

"I used to hate history because it was just dates," said Jean Chin, 17. The "What If" method teaches "the whys and the hows" and stresses good writing, she said.

Romita Roy was impressed with how major a role some seemingly insignificant events played in history. She said it has taught her something she can apply to life today: "To understand, not to overlook the little instances," she said.

Mr. McKibbin, a 35-year teaching veteran at the private school, said his is the only "What If" history class that he knows of.

Mark Whitman, who is a history professor at Towson State University, said the "What If" idea sounds like a good way to get students interested in history.

Dr. Whitman, who has been a professor at Towson for 15 years, said although the "What If" way of thinking has been around for a long time, he is not aware of a systematic approach making it a part of classroom instruction.

"It's a very innovative and interesting way to teach history," Dr. Whitman said. "I think it's a great idea." He added that he hopes the group succeeds in getting the essays published. "I would like to read that book," he said.

Mr. McKibbin said age often deters youngsters from being interested in history. "So much is ahead of young people. They are looking ahead," he said.

He admitted that the "What If" method still does not reach every student. "Some who don't come up with a good 'What If' would have to struggle more than others," he said.

The students in Mr. McKibbin's class hope their history lessons will help them score high on an Advanced Placement exam that would allow them to skip the basic history requirement when they get to college.

But the small group of students sitting in the classroom working on an essay were also there "because they care about what they are doing," Mr. McKibbin said. "Here it is summer and these kids are coming here. And all of them have jobs."

Marina Fink, 17, said learning history teaches her something valuable. "I think if you look into the history, you can foretell the future," she said.

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