There was a time when Sari Beth Rosenberg ’97, TC’02 had to dig deep into her well of storytelling skills to create enough dramatic tension to hold the attention of her New York City public high school history students.
“Everyone’s arguing about history,” Rosenberg says of the pundits and politicians who dominate the news, “including a lot of people who shouldn’t be because they don’t know what they’re talking about. Kids are more interested than ever before. They have an incentive to learn.”
For the past few years, Rosenberg has been part of a small team of teachers hired by the city’s Department of Education to remake the U.S. and global history curriculum. The goal: to move students away from rote memorization and toward a more active engagement with historical events — in other words, not just “this happened,” but “this happened because.” There’s also a renewed focus on providing multiple perspectives, especially when talking about marginalized people.
“It’s doing something with the history versus just gazing at it,” she adds.
Rosenberg’s efforts are getting noticed. Earlier this year she received the Paul A. Gagnon Prize from the National Council for History Education, which recognizes efforts to promote and protect history in the K–12 curricula. The city’s DOE also selected her as one of its #DOESHEroes for Women’s History Month, in part for her work co-leading a feminist club at her high school (the group’s other leader is Alexander Marx ’98).
Rosenberg studied history at the College and says in her early teaching years she tried to emulate one of her favorite professors, Ann Douglas, who taught a popular course on the Beat Generation, and then followed her love of literature into publishing before earning a master’s in social studies education. In 2002, she joined the staff of NYC’s High School for Environmental Studies.
She says she never thought she’d still be teaching nearly two decades after she began, but she finds the work too rewarding to leave behind.
“I’m not saying it’s all To Sir, with Love moments,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not all magical. A lot of the time, it’s just, ‘Everyone put your phones away and stop talking.’”
Outside the classroom, Rosenberg consults with New-York Historical Society curators, sitting in on focus groups and offering notes on written materials for its exhibitions, including the recent Hudson Rising, which focused on industrial development, commerce, tourism and environmental awareness around the Hudson River. She also has written for A+E Networks’s #SheDidThat series (and was hired for the job by Lea Goldman ’98) and appeared in an episode of the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum to discuss arsenic in wallpaper.
All that “definitely aligns with my overall goal of sneaking [history] into the mainstream,” she says. “It’s just so important to being a citizen right now.”
Rebecca Beyer is a freelance writer in Boston.
Published quarterly by the Columbia College Office of Alumni Affairs and Development for alumni, students, faculty, parents and friends of Columbia College.