"Lessons were configured around trying to get the students to understand what people were thinking and felt in the past."
If students don't understand or appreciate how people felt or thought in the past, none of it will make much sense. If history is reduced to lists of names, dates and places, it really doesn't matter much.
As a history teacher, you probably felt pressed for time and couldn't develop topics as thoroughly as you wanted. Most professionals say as much, and are frustrated by restrictions on what they can and can't do.
When I'm invited to speak to a class, we do show and tell. As a normal entry point, I start with two silver half dollars minted in New Orleans during the 1850s. My opening question is, if you came to work a full day on my farm, how much would you expect to be paid? The student who comes closest gets the coins, which look and feel like nothing they've ever handled. Then I add, if I don't need to provide you with a place to sleep or food to eat, you get another quarter.
Once they've had a look at real U.S. silver coins and see there are other things to show on the table, I have their attention.
From that point we can talk about cotton, land and slaves -- how a young man wants to make and spend money. We don't talk in terms of plantations; just the need to have help on your farm. Do you want to marry one day and have a family? How will you provide for a wife and children? Are you planning to live with your parents or move somewhere else? Most of them have never passed five seconds thinking about any of that, so it's interesting to see those questions register.
When people ask what interests me about history, I respond that history is about people. It's about why people believed, felt and acted the way they did. If people interest you, so will history. Names, dates and places serve the same purpose that a skeleton does for the human body. It's a framework that you build upon, but there's far more to history than just names, dates and places.