“The best book review ever written”

Best seller: The Student's Friend Concise World History

This review of The Student’s Friend Concise World History appeared on the book’s description page at Amazon.com. I don’t know the person who wrote the review, but one Amazon visitor offered this assessment of the reviewer’s talents: “OK, this is THE BEST book review EVER written! Thanks!” A homeschool teacher commented, “This is fabulous. You have inspired me.”

This review is far more than simply a book review; it offers an experienced educator’s insights into why and how The Student’s Friend might be used in the world history classroom.

Is this the best book review ever written? Hmmmm…

. . .

A Priceless Gem, August 27, 2018

Okay, if you’re looking for a short review, keep scrolling, because I love this book, and I’m going to tell you why, and I don’t think I can do it in two paragraphs.

My story begins in May of 2006. I had just finished my first year of teaching (English and Geography), and as the school year came to a close, my principal informed me that the following year I would be teaching World History.

For me it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. World History was my favorite subject, the subject I most wanted to teach. Excited, I went to the textbook room and helped myself to everything related to World History. I boxed it all up and took it home, delighted at the prospect of spending my summer designing the perfect course.

The first thing I unpacked was a “Teacher’s Resource Kit” from Houghton Mifflin. It included:

• The teacher’s edition of our 10th Grade World History textbook.
• The student edition of the textbook.
• A consumable workbook of chapter summaries.
• Another workbook with primary source readings.
• A CD chock-full of editable lesson plans, unit plans, quizzes, and tests.
• A book of outline maps
• etc.

With such a wealth of material, written by a “global leader” in the textbook industry, surely I had everything I needed. Right?

But several problems soon became apparent. The textbook was far too dense. It was thick, heavy, and loaded with absolutely everything: each page was a dazzling display of text, glossy images, captions, sidebars, definitions, tables, graphs, study tips, summaries, suggestions for further research, etc. And in between the chapters were supplementary sections on current events, tutorials on how to write a research paper, evaluating sources, using the internet, or whatnot.

Clearly this was far too much material—far more than I could possibly get through in a year, even if I had wanted to, which I didn’t. Therefore, my first task would be to cull the textbook, deciding what was important and what was not. I imagined myself telling my students: “Today I want you to read sections 4.1 and 4.3, and answer questions 5, 9, and 10, but you can skip the rest. And while I do expect you to remember this and that, you don’t need to worry about the other.”

And then I’d have to repeat that the next day, to the kid who was absent today, and I’d have to repeat it three weeks from now, to the kid who wants to know how she can make up her missing assignments. And I’d also have to edit the premade tests, making them all sync up with the material I had actually taught.

But the next problem was far worse: The text was boring. Not just run-of-the-mill boring. It was interest-crushing, mind-numbing, shoot-me-now kind of boring. Furthermore, the end-of-chapter questions were difficult. Not difficult as in “This is hard but it’s fun because it feels useful and meaningful.” No, on the contrary, it was difficult in a pointless kind of way. The way that makes students think: “This is stupid. I wonder what kind of BS answer I need to concoct in order to satisfy the teacher.”

No wonder so many students hate history.

The remaining resources in the Teacher’s Kit were equally abominable. (Yes, Houghton Mifflin, I’m calling you out). In fact, the only thing that I found remotely useful was the book of outline maps. (Thank you, Houghton Mifflin, at least you got that right).

I moved on. The next thing I had taken from the textbook room was a set of binders sold by TCI (Teachers Curriculum Institute). TCI was being touted by some teachers at my school as “excellent” because it was “interactive.” I had watched some lessons, and I was unimpressed, but now I took a closer look.

The first thing I noticed was that each lesson required an enormous amount of preparation. Make copies of these pages; cut them up into cards; divide the cards into decks and place one deck on each table; each table gets some scissors, tape, and colored markers; tape this to this wall and that to that wall; prepare the projector and the transparencies; divide the class into 6 groups; assign roles and create stations blah blah blah—enough to drive any teacher insane and confuse the smartest students.

And then repeat that for the next 5 periods of the day.

Did the work feel any more meaningful? Hardly. Drawing little symbols of products that were exported from such-and-such empire during such-and-such period did not engage me. Completing charts and tables did not inspire me. Cutting out paper dolls and building castles out of cardboard may indeed make a lesson interactive, but that doesn’t make it fun. At least not for me.

And as a teacher, I cringed at the thought of having to grade the huge stacks of sloppy group work that these lessons would produce.

Not to mention the problem of the absent kid. What was I supposed to do with the kid whose partner was absent on the second day of a two-day project? Or the kid who approached me three weeks from now? Was I supposed to recreate the entire lesson during my lunch period?

I continued to look through my boxes, and everything else left me equally depressed. I hated Houghton Mifflin; I hated TCI; I hated everything else. Surely somewhere there was something that I could use—something that would remind me of why I love history. So I turned to the internet, browsing dozens of pages of Amazon results, and dozens of pages of Google results, anything related to history and teaching.

And then I found the Student’s Friend Concise World History. And Bam! I was in love. I kid you not—when I first perused this book, a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and a chorus of heavenly angels started to sing. Instantly I knew that this was the book for me.

The book is divided into short lessons. Each lesson is only two or three paragraphs long. But everything in those lessons is important, or interesting, or both. Everything is what I want my students to remember. I want them to remember it for the test, and I want them to remember it at the end of the year, and I want them to still remember it 10 years from now.

Lesson planning? “Today we’re going to do lesson 47.”

Assessment? “What do I expect you to remember for the test? Everything.”

Of course, reading the daily lesson takes less than five minutes—so what do I do with the remaining 50 minutes?

Whatever the heck I want.

But seriously, I became a teacher because I like to explain things in a way that connects with students. And 50 minutes is not too long to properly explain two or three paragraphs of world history.

So let me be more specific:

• I tell stories, lots of stories. To make sure that my students understand the meaning of “appeasement”, I tell a story about a bully who steals your French fries every day, and you have to decide whether to appease him or confront him. For the lesson on the Scientific Revolution, I tell the story of Galileo and the Pope; for the French Revolution, the story of Marie Antoinette. For each lesson in the Student’s Friend, I have two or three stories that expound and entertain, and my only regret is that I don’t have time to tell them all.

Where do my stories come from? About half of them jump out from the text. Like the story of Admiral Nelson putting a telescope to his blind eye. I act that one out then talk about the importance of following orders in the military. Or the story of the Taj Mahal. The story is mentioned in the lesson on the Mughal Empire, and all I have to do is paint in the details of Shah Jahan’s lasting tribute to his wife, and then his betrayal by his sons.

• Class discussions. My stories are not an end, but a beginning. Each story is designed to spur a class discussion and to coax some critical thinking out of my students. When should you appease an enemy? What should you do with conquered land? Should you rule it as a colony? A military occupation? Should you grant the people their independence, perhaps with a few conditions? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? You get the idea.

• First-person narratives. I have students write first-person narratives from the point of view of someone affected by the historical events in the lesson. My students love to imagine that they are conquering warriors, enslaved natives, widowed peasants, etc. It gives them practice with their writing, and my students love to share their stories with me and with each other. (By requiring my students to write in 1st person, I avoid the problem of students who just copy the text). Their stories also highlight their misconceptions. For example, when a student writes a story about a 16th century person who uses the telephone or hops in a car, I see it as an opportunity to redirect their imagination.

• Mapwork! If a place or geographic feature is mentioned in the Student’s Friend, I make darn sure that my students can locate that place on their mental map of the world. Besides, labeling and coloring maps is great “down time” activity (an activity that does not require me to enforce quiet or attention). I’m also a huge fan of Seterra, the free, online geography game. Check it out.

• Movies! Of course, I know you can’t show movies all day long, unfortunately. But a five-minute clip is all you need. The lesson on Indian Independence? We talk about the Amritsar Massacre, mentioned in the text, then I show the scene of the massacre from the 1982 film Gandhi. For the lesson on Elizabeth I, I show the final scenes from the 2008 movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age, in which English fireships destroy the Spanish Armada. For nearly every lesson, I have a clip that makes that lesson come alive and leaves my students begging me to show them “just a little more.”

I must confess, over the years I have spent quite a bit of my own money, building up my DVD collection. But nowadays, it’s all online, for free. Do you want to bring Mozart to life? Try a comical scene from the 1984 film Amadeus. And for less than $15 you can buy the History Channel’s wonderful series Mankind: The Story of All of Us, and you’ll have dozens of 5-minute segments that mesh nicely with the lessons in the Student’s Friend.

• Student Presentations. After we’ve covered 30 or 40 lessons of the Student’s Friend, I’ll assign one lesson to each student. Their job is to review it, dig a bit deeper, then present their findings to the class.

Another confession: I hate student slideshows because they bore me to tears. However, I realize that presentation skills are important, the students enjoy doing them, and, upon reflecting on my own acquisition of knowledge, I must admit that the topics I know best are the ones that I have researched myself.

So I grit my teeth and I sit through hundreds of student slideshows every year. And over the years, I have found ways to improve the quality of these presentations. Thankfully, the Student’s Friend does much to keep students on track. How? By setting a good example! In the Student’s Friend you will never read an inane sentence such as, “Napoleon Bonaparte was born in the year 1769.” I point this out to my students, and I tell them, “Don’t bore me with trivia! Stick to what’s important!”

These are but a few of the ways I fill out the rest of the class. And with the Student’s Friend, creating assessments is simple. Everything in the Student’s Friend is fair game. If it’s not in the book, it’s not on the test. Names, terms, places, concepts—how hard you make it is up to you. And I never fuss too much about students who miss class or want to make up missing work. I simply say: “We are now on lesson ____; study any lesson that you missed. If you want some help, come see me at lunch.”

Okay, now it’s time to get critical. Is the Student’s Friend too short? Doesn’t it leave out too much information?

I was forced to think about this question one year when I had an interview for a teaching position at another school. I had shown the interviewers some of my long-term planning, a calendar on which I had written the topic I planned to teach each day of the year. (Usually I cover four lessons per week, and I leave Fridays open for a review, a test, or some enrichment activity).

Anyway, at this interview, one of the interviewers raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I noticed that you have only one lesson devoted to the Enlightenment. How can you possibly teach the Enlightenment in only one day?”

So I explained that the lesson on the Enlightenment was only the beginning. It was just an introduction to the topic. Because right after that there is a lesson on Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft, and then the American Revolution, followed by a series of lessons on the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Haitian Revolution, and so on and so forth through the changes that rocked Europe in the 1800s. And each time there’s a conflict we review: What were the commoners fighting for? What were the aristocrats fighting against? What ideas inspired these revolutions? What were the main ideas of the Enlightenment?

Believe me, by the end of the year, my students know a great deal about the Enlightenment. Okay, so perhaps they can’t tell you exactly what year what author published what treatise—but then, neither can I. What they do know is what’s important. And they sure as heck can rattle off the main ideas of the Enlightenment—equality, democracy, constitutional government, an end to aristocratic privilege and the divine right of kings. Aren’t those the things that we want our students to remember?

It’s the same with other major themes such as the Scientific Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. The topic gets introduced in one lesson, but these topics are significant precisely because they have downstream effects. In subsequent lessons, we see those effects, and it gives me a chance to review the main points of each movement. The important connections are all there, in plain view, unobscured by trivia. Just follow Maxwell’s lead.

So, the answer is “No, it’s not too short.” If the topic is important, it’s covered in the book. And if you want to add more detail, go ahead! Personally, I spend a few extra days on the spread of Christianity and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a handful of other pet topics, just because I enjoy them. With the Student’s Friend, you can afford to take your time; you don’t need to keep marching through a massive textbook in order to get to the end by the end of the year.

Well, I’m going to wrap this up. The Student’s Friend is a wonderful book. It’s wonderful precisely because it’s concise. It’s not overloaded with unimportant details that are hard to learn and easy to forget. The significant events of world history are all there, and the impact of these events is traced through subsequent centuries. And thankfully—unlike Houghton Mifflin or TCI—this book respects you. It treats you like a teacher with ideas of your own. It doesn’t condescend to you by telling you HOW to teach. It tells you what’s important, and then it leaves the teaching up to you. It allows you to unleash your creativity.

So don’t be fooled into thinking that “more is better”. That’s what publishers like Houghton Mifflin and TCI want you to believe, but it’s simply not true. Shorter is often better—and there is plenty of sound research to back up this assertion. You don’t believe me? Then read Maxwell’s second book, Future-Focused History Teaching. It is here, in this book, that Maxwell elaborates on the theories and ideas that prompted him to write the Student’s Friend. (My review of Future-Focused History Teaching can also be found on Amazon). Both books are great, but if you—on your meager teacher’s salary—can only afford to buy one, buy the Student’s Friend. It’s the book that you will use in the classroom, day after day, year after year. This book makes teaching easy and it makes learning fun.

To sum up: I love the Student’s Friend. I’ve used it to teach my World History course for the last 12 years, and I plan to continue using it until I retire. And if there ever comes a day when someone tells me that I can’t use this book anymore—that’s the day I’ll quit teaching. There is no better World History textbook out there, at any price.

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