Teaching students with objects (photo: Brian Sheehy).
Teaching students with objects (photo: Brian Sheehy).

Sports in the History Classroom

Football, rugby, soccer and more allow students to engage in history

Brian Sheehy is the History Department Coordinator at North Andover High School in North Andover Massachusetts in the US, about 40 minutes north of Boston.

Meet Brian

Brian Sheehy is the History Department Coordinator at North Andover High School in North Andover Massachusetts in the US, about 40 minutes north of Boston. He has been teaching there for over 15 year, and has been the Department Coordinator for the past five years. He currently teaches Advanced Placement World History, Advanced Placement US History, Sports of the Past, and Sports in American Culture. In 2018 he created the North Andover High History Learning Lab, which focuses on enriching and enhancing the history curriculum through object based learning. He has curated several museum gallery walks in the history lab and designed several object based lessons that use objects to develop thinking routines. His innovative teaching was recognised in 2020 when he received the Organization of American Historians Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Teacher of the Year Award winner as well as the Williams College: Olmstead Secondary Teacher of the Year Award

We asked Brian to tell us a bit more about how he got to work with sport in his teaching and what makes his practices effective. Here is what he had to say:

Why Teach Sports History?

When I was an undergraduate history major I had the opportunity to curate an exhibit on the history of baseball in my local community and I fell in love with sports history and how it is intertwined into all aspects of our history. Around the same time I started playing 19th century baseball for the Essex Base Ball Club, and I started researching baseball history and even started giving lectures at local libraries and historical societies. Twenty years later I am still playing 19th century baseball and have traveled all over the US playing and lecturing on the history of baseball. I really enjoy connecting two of my passions, baseball and history. In 2009 I actually traveled to Ireland to show some little leaguers how to play 1860’s rules baseball.

Away from teaching, back to teaching

Both of my parents were educators and did not really want me to become a teacher, but when I started substitute teaching I fell in love with being in the classroom and engaging with students. Upon entering my masters program, in order to graduate, I needed to create a curriculum unit, so I decided to continue some of the work I had been doing with sports history and created a curriculum unit examining industrialization and urbanization through sport. I got my position at North Andover in 2007 and after my third year I proposed an elective course called “Sports in American Culture” and then the following year another course entitled “Sports of the Past”. Both courses are extremely popular and are still running today. 

How important are sports in American lives?

Sports in American Culture allows students to examine different components of American culture through the lens of sport. As one former student said “sports play such a pivotal role in our lives, it is invaluable to have the space to explore the historical and cultural impacts these sports have on our lives”. In the course we examine race, gender, activism, fandom, cheating, and so much more. I think this course really allows students to examine and explore a variety of sports and how they impact our society. One of the unique aspects of this course is that I allow students to dictate the direction of what we learn about so each time I teach the course it is different. The course has a lot of discussion and really goes well when students share their perspectives. 

How is it integrated into the school curriculum?

My Sports of the Past class is a hybrid history and wellness course, where we learn about the history and evolution of a variety of sports and then we play them. We do an entire unit on the football family of games and students explore the commonalities and differences between football, American football, Gaelic football, rugby and more. I begin to introduce them to earlier versions of the games, so when we play football we play by the 13 original 1863 rules. Introducing students to the history of these sports and a variety of games from all over the world help students develop an appreciation and understanding of those games globally. I have worked with sports historians to try to figure out how some long lost games were actually played. A few years back we tried “wicket”, which is a cricket variant only played in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. We were able to test out some of the rules, develop strategies, and provide the historian a semblance of how the game was played. It has been really interesting connecting with academics to try to recreate and play some of these older “lost games”. Students appreciate the unique aspect of playing sports they typically do not play and really like the course. 

How can teaching sports themes and topics be useful in a classroom? 

I have given a variety of different presentations at conferences and symposiums on how and why the use of sports themes and topics can be useful in traditional history classrooms. I have also designed professional development programs to provide teachers with the resources and background to incorporate these themes and topics into their curriculums. I find that when students can relate to the lesson they become more engaged. I have found that when topics are outside of the traditional “history lesson” students appreciate that and respond well. I also think that students regardless of how interested they are in sport still understand or can relate because sport is so ingrained in all of our cultures all around the world. As I said before sports are such an important part of all of our cultures it makes sense to use that in our classrooms. Some argue that the study of sport is not academic enough but all of the historical thinking skills vital in our classrooms can be developed through sports topics and examples. 

How else have you integrated sports into the curriculum?

In the summer of 2019 I was selected by National History Day to travel to France as part of Memorializing the Fallen program. Part of the program was developing a lesson plan, I put together a document based question examining patriotism and civic duty through baseball. Originally when brainstorming the lesson I wanted to compare baseball’s response to the US entering WWI with football’s response when England entered the war. There were a lot of parallels and connections that I would eventually like to explore more. I have continued to explore ideas of patriotism, civic duty, visual media, and sport through several conference presentations and I wrote a chapter in the book Stories of Sport: Critical Literacy in Media Production, Consumption, and Dissemination entitled “Selling Patriotism On and Off the Field: Media Connections Between Baseball, the Military, and the Government”. 

Find out more

Get in touch with Brian directly on Twitter to explore educational opportunities. You can also check out and work with the learning materials he developed on his Baseball in the Classroom website. Some of the lesson include a lesson looking at unionization and baseball and racist depictions in 19th century sport.

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Teaching students with objects (photo: Brian Sheehy).
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