Sunday, October 28, 2018

Keeper of the Meaning: the Responsibilities of History Teachers in Difficult Times

I devote very little time to current events in my class. Alas, there is so much to teach and so little time. But occasionally, there are events that occur that simply must be acknowledged. I went back to full-time teaching in the fall of 2015. The first such event in which I interrupted my "regularly-scheduled curriculum" was on a Monday. Monday, November 16, 2015. This was in response to the attacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed. We didn't spend more than 5 or 10 minutes on it. But it felt too tragic not to bring up. And Obama gave a speech that tied in to the lesson I was planning on the Bill of Rights.

I also devote a small corner of my white board to the occasional current event or "this day in history" if it connects to something we have studied recently or currently.

But I have struggled about whether or not to note every shooting, every attack. There are so many. What does one say? Last year's shooting at Parkland was another event too big to ignore, though I didn't write anything on the board. (What would I have written?!) Students wanted to talk about it--briefly--and so we did. I have written about this problem--how to handle current events in history class on this blog.

And so this brings me to tomorrow....

The attack in a synagogue in Pittsburgh seems to big too ignore. It came at the end of week of pipe bombs sent to prominent politicians. And an attack on 2 African Americans in a grocery store after attempting to enter a predominately African American church. I did not bring up either of these events last week. But now I feel compelled to tomorrow. I don't know what I will say tomorrow. But I know I will not be fulfilling my responsibility as an educator if I don't say something. People are attacking citizens of my country based on their racial, religious and ethnic identity. How can I teach about Haymarket and the Pullman strike--injustices that happened so close to where I teach--when these other injustices are happening so close in time?

The post below was published this summer by MiddleWeb, where I have been doing some writing over the past year or two. I plan to add to this blog in the future, too. Perhaps a bit this year, and hopefully more next year. In the meantime, the post below, despite its "back to school" theme, seems relevant right now.

Below, originally published on MiddleWeb on August 28, 2018. (And if you're looking for teaching material, check out this post from Facing History that came out today. And this one from Teaching Tolerance.)

Keeper of the Meaning: How a History Teacher Psychs up for Back to School

Lauren S. Brown

I want to be clear about two things. First, I truly love teaching with all my heart and soul. Second, I really dread the thought of going back to work at the end of the summer. I work so hard during the year, that summer is such a welcome relief and chance to catch up on all the things I let go during the school year. So when August comes around, I find myself sort of dreading it. All this, despite the fact that I love my job and once I get started, I’m happy to be back.

Are you feeling this right about now? How do we avoid this?

Last year, I celebrated a milestone birthday. Half in jest, a friend sent me an article to read about growing old happily. This summer, after my milestone birthday plus one, I gave it a re-read. The article mentioned the work of the American psychiatrist, George E. Valliant. Valliant identifies several factors that contribute to living a happy life. Two are especially relevant to the work we do as teachers.

The first of those factors is generativity, a concept developed by the famous psychologist, Erik Erikson. It involves looking out for the next generation by investing one’s self in work that will outlive the self. It can include serving as a guide or mentor to young adults. According to Valliant, masters of generativity triple their chances of enjoying their seventies. (While still quite a ways from 70, I am now closer to 70 than I am to the age of my students!) Clearly, teaching is all about investing ourselves in work that will outlive us. And we know when we have former students reach out to us and come visit, sometimes it takes awhile before students acknowledge the value of what we have taught them.

The second related concept leading to happiness is being a keeper of the meaning. This is a stage of adulthood that Valliant added to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Becoming a keeper of the meaning involves the teaching of the values of the past to future generations. The purpose is much broader than the stage of generativity, as it is less focused on teaching individuals and more focused on justice and wisdom.

Reading this struck a nerve with me. Never, in my 19 years of teaching have I felt a stronger sense of urgency to the task of teaching history to the young.

The last few summers have emphasized the wisdom of Faulkner’s oft-quoted, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

August 2014 - the unrest in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown

June 2015 - the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston which led to the taking down of the Confederate flag in South Carolina

Summer 2016 - Brexit and the nomination of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

August 2017 - the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia following the Unite the Right rally

Summer 2018 - the separation of migrant families to the U.S.  

These stories are just a few that demonstrate so clearly the dangers of forgetting the past.

So while I mourn the passing of summer, I am also fired up. This past spring, my introduction to my unit on the Depression and the New Deal included a discussion of the two slides below. The second slide are all books published in the first few months of 2018 and do not include a bevy of additional books published around the same time and since. They clearly suggest a common theme to this current moment.

This summer I have been reading excerpts from two of the above-- Cass Sunstein’s Can It Happen Here? and Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. These books, along with the news, remind me why our job as history teachers is so important. We must be careful not to be preachy or partisan, but we must be the keepers of meaning. As the above authors suggest, the fate of our nation may be at stake.

If you need further convincing, consider what James Loewen has to say about the responsibility we have as history teachers in the age of “alternative facts.” In a new (2018) introduction to his groundbreaking 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Loewen writes

[T]here is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present. When we achieve justice in the present, remedying some past event or practice, then we can face it and talk about it more openly, precisely because we have made it right. It has become a success story. . . .

Conversely, a topic that is mystified or distorted in our history...usually signifies a continuing injustice in the present, like racism. Telling the truth about the past can help us make it right from here on.

So help turn that dread of the end of summer into a recognition of our calling. Our students need us. Remember why we do what we do, and why it is more important than ever. You are a keeper of the meaning.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Story Time: Reading Aloud in History Class

I started reading aloud to my students from time to time for two key reasons:

1.  I liked doing it, which was reinforced by the fact that they seemed to enjoy it.

2. Practical reasons. There were longer things I wanted them to read, but for one reason or another I didn't want to assign for homework. 

You might wonder why I wouldn't have students take turns reading. And the answer is that sometimes I do. There are students who really love reading aloud. Some of them are good at it, and some are not. I admit, that there are times when I will call on the "good readers" because I don't have time for the slower readers. But I will also make times for all to read who choose to. When I do that, I will usually just go around the room in order. I always allow a student to pass. I don't see the point in forcing a student who really prefers not to read. 

But for longer readings, especially of the narrative/story type, I simply loathe having students read aloud. I hated it as a student and I dislike it as a teacher. I found my reasons well summarized in a Edutopia article, 11 Alternatives to "Round Robin" (and "Popcorn") Reading. Here is an excerpt from that:

Round Robin Reading . . .

  • Stigmatizes poor readers. Imagine the terror that English-language learners and struggling readers face when made to read in front of an entire class.
  • Weakens comprehension. Listening to a peer orally read too slowly, too fast, or too haltingly weakens learners' comprehension -- a problem exacerbated by turn-taking interruptions. 
  • Sabotages fluency and pronunciation. Struggling readers model poor fluency skills and pronunciation. When instructors correct errors, fluency is further compromised.

The article goes on to list 11 alternatives to having students take turns reading aloud. I have mixed thoughts on some of the 11 alternatives. But one of them is having the teacher read aloud. 

If you want to delve into why round robin/popcorn reading is not such a great technique, check out the articles below.

So why should you read aloud? One of the best authorities on this topic is Jim Trelease. I first became acquainted with his work after I had my own children. I was in the children's library with my two toddlers and saw Trelease's book, The Read-Aloud Handbook on display. I was hooked. You can read a brief overview of his work in this brochure. Also check out the New York Public Library's discussion of the book for more info.

Another benefit of reading aloud is it might convince students to read more from whatever it is that you have chosen. I have had students ask to borrow my book afterwards or show me that they bought their own copy of the book. I haven't followed up to know whether or not they actually have read it, but this is an encouraging first step.

Alright, so hopefully now you are convinced that this is something you should be doing. What should you read?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The First "Half" of U.S. History: How to Get through Reconstruction by the End of the Year/First Semester

While Keeping in Mind How to Make It Meaningful for Students

This post is for all of you who struggle to get through Reconstruction by either the end of 1st semester (for those who teach high school and/or U.S. history in one year) or the end of the year (for those who, like me this year, teach the first "half" of U.S. history in one year in middle school.

My initial inspiration for this post was from a comment someone made on an earlier post of mine, Second Semester & the Importance of a Good Syllabus: How to Help Students Find Meaning in U.S. History and a post this January by Glenn Wiebe on his excellent blog, History Tech, What Should Your Kids Know?  In that post, he raised a question I was dealing with at the time, how much time should I spend on the War of 1812? And if we have to make choices as history teachers, how do we compare the significance of the War of 1812 to Reconstruction?

Last year, I spent approximately 5 days on the War of 1812.  A week.  Kind of a lot.  Part of the problem was I was interrupted by winter break.  (The post-winter break part focused on long term results of the war, rather than the war itself, and I used it as a segue to Andrew Jackson).  I spent 10 days on Reconstruction.  To me, this ratio seems a bit off, given the importance of Reconstruction towards an understanding of the Civil Rights movement and race relations today.

My point is not to debate the number of days one should spend on the War of 1812 vs. Reconstruction.  My point is that we DO need to think about what is most significant in the study of U.S. history and how best to incorporate it into our plans for the school year.  In Glenn Wiebe's post, he links to an article, "What Every American Should Know," from The Aspen Institute that raises the issues brought up by E.D. Hirsch in 1987 that helped fuel the flames of the "culture wars." (See also this article by Eric Liu in the Atlantic Monthly).  They are both worth a read, as they raise the most important question our students ask:

After reading these articles, think about what you teach.  To what extent are these things that every American should know? Why? If you can answer those questions, think about how that can transform your teaching, not to mention your crowded syllabus.  Consider the things that students really don't need to know.  Because you're going to have to make cuts.

I have said it before and I'll say it again, the only way to "cover" U.S. history is to make tough choices.  These are my guidelines:
  1. You cannot, nor should not, try to teach everything.
  2. The textbook can help guide you, but textbooks DO try to cover EVERYTHING, so you can't rely on the textbook to make all the choices for you.  This might mean that you skip whole chapters or even units in the textbook, replacing them with other resources.
  3. You need to decide where you want to end and work backwards, so you don't find yourself cramming the Civil War into the last two weeks of school.  
The above are overall guidelines.  But there are many other things to take into consideration.  Most importantly, does your syllabus "tell a story"? Does each lesson lead logically to the next and does each unit lead logically to the next? Does each unit have a major topic/central issue/essential question? Or is just "Unit 4" because that's what comes next in the textbook? This is why you should read the articles I mentioned above.  This is what makes the difference between history that is "one damn thing after another" vs. history that helps students understand how our past shapes our world today.

In a few paragraphs, I will include a link to the calendar of what I taught every day this past school year.  It is different from the calendar with which I began the year.  That one contemplated less time on the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but more on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Like all of you, I ran out of time and other things took longer than I thought.  You will also see in my calendar all our institute days, holidays and testing days.  These impact how and when we teach certain topics. For example, do you really want to start a new unit the day before a break? Perhaps it is better to add another day into the previous unit.  What do you teach on days when students will have been PARCC testing all morning?  Do you allow time for reviewing in class before a test?  And what does one teach on a day when half the class is out on a orchestra trip to St. Louis? Those are good days to either allow students "catch up" time to complete homework or to do something "extra"--like on May 20, when I did a lesson on Civil War music.

Sometimes you don't finish things because real life intrudes: I spent a good chunk of the day on November 16 discussing the shootings in Paris.  September 11th fell on a Friday this year, and so I decided to spend the day discussing that.  (See this post for those resources.)  Next year September 11 falls on a Sunday.  So maybe I will teach about it on the following Monday.  Or not at all.  Not sure yet.

So below is the link to my calendar, warts and all.  I include it in hopes that it might help others formulate a plan for the year.

Below are some other issues to consider when planning out the school year:  
  • How are you going to start the year? I note that I spent 4 days on Columbus.  I chose to do that because I really liked the lessons, and they seemed to be a good way to introduce some overall themes we would come back to throughout the year.  But it was a bit of a time suck.  Perhaps I would reconsider this to buy more time later in the year.  Perhaps I could find a way to introduce those same themes using the content of the American Revolution instead. 
  • What do YOU especially like to teach and what are you especially knowledgeable about? The best way to engage students is if you yourself are engaged.  I have a special interest in the problem of slavery in American history and my syllabus reflects that.  My syllabus also reflects areas of weakness.  U.S. policies and the attitudes of white Americans regarding Native Americans is incredibly important.  I have struggled for years about how to better include this in my curriculum with little success.  You will see in my syllabus that there is not nearly enough there.  Obviously, to do so, would require that I cut elsewhere.  These are cuts worth making, but I haven't figured it out yet.
  • Sometimes I left things out because I couldn't figure out any meaningful way to incorporate them into a larger "story" or unit.  So while I mentioned Irish immigration a few times in passing, the whole topic of immigration in this first half of U.S. history was not something we covered.  Things like the Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Temperance movement and other reforms also hit the cutting room floor.  We did spend time on the reform movements of women's rights and abolitionism.  And students will spend time on immigration in 8th grade (the second "half" of U.S. history).  But just because the textbook mentions the Second Great Awakening doesn't mean that I have to.  Other times, I sort of "threw things in" that probably should have been left out.  For example, I spent January 14 on the Marshall Court.  In hindsight, I'm not sure that a day on the Marshall Court did justice (no pun intended) to the topic.  While it "fits" in terms of growth and expansion and how the decisions of the Marshall Court, I think in the future I would either need to spend a few more days on it in order to make it more meaningful, or cut it out entirely. 
  • We have to consider the impact of things like parent-teacher conferences, standardized testing, field trips, the days immediately before and after school vacations, and our own personal lives.  One wouldn't know from looking at my syllabus why I have 3 Fridays in December titled "First Amendment Fridays."  This came about because, as I wrestled with the newness of classroom teaching after years out of the classroom, I occasionally struggled with figuring out how long it would take to successfully teach topics to 7th graders that I had been used to teaching to 11th graders (more on the specifics of that in this post for  So when I realized I was running out of time, I postponed some of the details of the First Amendment for after the Constitution test.  (This was also helpful when, toward the end of the unit, I fell and broke 2 ribs and had to miss a few days of school!) The advantage of this series of "First Amendment Fridays" also revealed itself as we got closer to winter break and my students got a little restless.  Having "fun" activities for Fridays in December made a lot of sense on a practical level.  The students liked it so much, I did the same at the very end of the school year with a series of "Fourteenth Amendment Fridays" and "The Fourteenth Amendment Today Tuesday" on the 2nd to last day of school.   
  • Sometimes--perhaps especially so in middle school--things take more time because we also have to focus on skills, not just content.  I spent a lot of class time on the Mexican War because we did a DBQ from the DBQ Project on "Was the United States Justified in Going to War with Mexico?" Spending more time developing these skills earlier in the year would have made this project easier for my students.  It wouldn't necessarily save time, but it would better redistribute the time.

Additional resources:
  • Eric Lui, "How to Be American: Why cultivating a shared cultural core is more important than ever--and why such a project serves progressive ends."
  • - the website/project that developed from the essay above.  I haven't figured out how, but I think one could do something really interesting with this website with students...have students come up with their own lists? Find a way to do this as a summative activity at the end of each unit, or the year? If you have ideas, please comment.
  • I have earlier mentioned how helpful I have found James Loewen's advice about how to plan out a school year.  You can read it for yourself in chapter 1, "The Tyranny of Coverage," in James W. Loewen's, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History.  It is well worth a read.
  • An earlier post I wrote about the new APUSH standards that considers what we mean when our curriculum should cover such-and-such or so-and-so.
Also, see my previous posts about the challenges of unit planning:

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Last Day of School

As any of you know who have been following this blog or giving it the occasional visit, I have not posted anything new since last August. How ironic, to have my last post be on current events!

But as you can read in my bio, I went back to full-time teaching this year. And so I have been BUSY.

I have learned so much, and I hope to put some of that back into this blog over the summer, and on, where I will be writing as well.  

Like most of you, I have summer on the brain and am counting down 'til the last day of school.  During these last few days, I have been challenged by students who come into class saying, "Ms. Brown, can we just do nothing today?" "Ms. Brown, are we REALLY starting another unit?! School is almost over." "Ms. Brown, it's Friday...can't we just play a game?"

I hear them, loud and clear.  And I share their exhaustion and eagerness for a change in the routine.  So I am doing the best that I can, trying to shake things up a little.  Offer the occasional element of fun and surprise.  Find ways to get them up and moving.  Stuff like that.

But, still...this is school. This is U.S. history class. And we are going to LEARN stuff. Even on the very last day of school.

A recent conversation I had with a high schooler who had just finished his last day of school before finals mentioned that on his last day, "we did nothing."  A few parties, a little review for finals, and then "have a nice summer."

We owe our students a more thoughtful way to close out a year of study and reflection.  Sometimes I think I spend half of August planning my first day of school.  First impressions are important and set the tone.  But aren't final impressions important too? Shouldn't we provide some sort of closure? If all good lessons should have a beginning, middle, end and a point, shouldn't our school year have that too?

I like to end each class--when I can--with a zinger, or a "tune in tomorrow, when we will learn how the Freedmen's Bureau will solve these very problems that you've just identified" or some kind of cliff-hanger, such as "now that we've gone through the Declaration of Independence, tomorrow we will look at the very provocative passage that Thomas Jefferson left out of the final version." (See idea #5 in this post).

I want my class to end with a flourish, too.  Larry Ferlazzo offers a thoughtful analysis on the problem of what to do on the last day in this post in Education Week Teacher.

One of the things he does, which I like to do also, is to turn the table and have students evaluate the teacher.  If you set it up right, students can offer you feedback that will help you become a better teacher.  Remind them to grade you as you have tried to grade them: with helpful feedback.  Give them room to write comments, but ask multiple choice questions as well.  I signed up to to have the computer carts in my room, so I can do this using Google Forms.  But paper works, too.  

After that, I like to "wrap up" the class by reminding them of some things we've studied throughout the school year.  I like to remind students of themes we've studied throughout the year, harking back to some of the quotations I use on the first day of class

I always share with them the story about one of my American history professors in college. The one that made me shift from an English major to an American Studies major at the end of my freshman year.  In his last lesson, he compared U.S. history to a rose. It is beautiful, but has thorns.  I like to discuss this imagery with students. You could even have students write about this.  If you do, you can save the more thoughtful responses to read aloud to students next year.  Have students reflect about all the injustices of the past--slavery, discrimination, the mistakes in the Philippines and Vietnam.  But also have students consider the efforts to do better as a nation--the abolition of slavery, women's rights, the reforms of the Progressives and the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement. You could ask, is the glass half full? Or half empty? Have we as a nation lived up to our highest ideals?

When I taught the Revolution through Reagan in U.S. history, I liked to conclude the last day with one of my favorite quotations from Robert Kennedy:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

Students often come to like RFK and so I find him a good choice to offer some last thoughts about the positive impact they can have on the world.  I wanted to leave them with a positive thought.

But this year I taught just the "first half" of U.S. history, through Reconstruction.  So I thought I would end with something more relevant to that half of history.

At the front of my classroom, flanking the left and right sides of my white board, are large posters of Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass.  Each has a quotation. The one by Thomas Jefferson is from the Declaration of Independence.  It's the famous part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I chose it, I will explain to students, because it is our national creed.  It represents our nation's highest ideals.  As Lincoln noted in February, 1861:
I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this [nation] so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. (See here for source).
After the Emancipation Proclamation, this is what the Civil War became about.

But my students have learned that Thomas Jefferson was--and remains--a complicated historical figure.  He is a man of high ideals, but also a slaveowner.  And they are learning right now about the shortcomings of Reconstruction.  Before the last day of school, they will have learned that while black men technically got the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment, the Women's Suffrage movement was not successful (yet), and that Jim Crow and other racist legislation undermined true equality, including suffrage.  And we will have had discussions about the long way we still have to go as a nation to insure that all men--and women--really do have equal rights.  This is where we come to the Douglass quotation.  It is from October 22, 1847. (Full speech here.)

So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation.  In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.

I will read them this quotation that has been on the wall all year.  I will tell them I hope they will emulate Douglass, by being critical and not excusing nor tolerating injustice.  I will tell them that I hope my class has helped mold them into the kind of citizens who will do right by their country and, like Douglass, put pressure on our nation's leaders and themselves to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.   

And then I will wish them a good summer.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Tips for Teaching about Current Events in US History Class

Every teacher handles current events in the classroom differently. Some assign students the task of bringing in current event articles to present to class or write about. Others ignore them altogether. And there is everything in between.

There are times when it is impossible to ignore the news: September 11, 2001 as an obvious example. But other times, the news may be significant, but not necessarily relevant to your class. I have developed the list of questions/issues below to help you consider how to handle current events.

Is the event so significant or newsworthy that it cannot be ignored? 

Some are (see next point). Some aren't. I don't think we should be compelled to address every headline. If we did, we would never make it through the curriculum. However, if the story is really important, it is hard to advise marching on ahead with Andrew Jackson or the New Deal if something Really Big is happening Right Now.

How Much Time to Allow?

If the answer to the question above is yes, the next question is to consider how much time to give it. Is this a 5 minute sort of thing? 15? the whole period? The answer will, of course, depend on the event, your schedule, as well as the ages and interests of your students. Even if the event is not 
Super Significant with a capital S, it is still a good idea to talk about what's going on in the world every now and then. Our students, and Americans in general, are woefully deficient in this sort of awareness. Part of our job as social studies educators is to correct this. While I don't think 5 minutes every week is the answer, it is a start. 

Students Ages and Interests

It is important to remember--no matter the age of your students--that precious few of them pay significant attention to the news at all. Most every class will have a handful of kids who are exceptions and keep up with news. Sometimes you have a few of those students who are SO interested in current events that there is the risk they will dominate the class. While you want to encourage such students, you have to remember that not everyone else in the class will be able to follow what is going on without some background. Be careful of getting into a conversation with just one or two students. When that happens, it is time to move on. 

Another point...I was teaching high school juniors when Bill Clinton was impeached. We were in the midst of Reconstruction and Andrew Johnson's impeachment, so it was wonderfully relevant. But there were plenty of students who wanted to ask details about Monica Lewinsky and dwell on issues that were decidedly less appropriate for classroom discussion. That is when, as the teacher, you need to steer the discussion back to the central issues at hand. Had I been teaching middle school at the time, I still would have felt compelled to teach about this, but with even more caution.

What about events that don't really "fit" into the U.S. history curriculum?

Because the U.S. is in the world, and a major world power, there is little that happens in the world that doesn't affect us in some way. And remember, that your class is likely the only social studies class students are currently taking. So if there is a major event that happens in the world, it is not likely being discussed in math class or science, so it falls on you. Let's say, for example, that there is a major news story about conflict between India and Pakistan. If you are teaching world history, such an event fits much better. U.S. history....not so much. If you are in the middle of your post World War II /Cold War unit, then it might be a great opportunity to spend at least a few minutes on the issue. But if it is September and you are deep in the American Revolution, well...maybe you wouldn't. Then again, what if you have a significant population of students with Indian/Pakistani roots? Then, no matter what unit you are on, it maybe wise to spend a little time on this. But even if you don't, this is an opportunity to at least introduce students to important issues in the world.

What if it fits, but not until later in the year?

Happily for my syllabus, if not for the world, when Putin began messing around in Ukraine back in the spring of 2013, I had just started a unit on the Cold War with the 8th graders I was teaching. So it was very relevant and worth spending some time on. But let's say that happened when you were still on the Civil War. It is more difficult to make the connection. In that case, you might want to spend a few minutes on the topic, letting students know that this is something you will be getting to later in the year. Then, pay attention to events, saving some relevant articles or news clips for when you do get to that point in history.

So think about current events and ask yourself, is this issue relevant to what I am teaching today? If so, can I make a valuable connection before moving on to today's lesson? If not, and the issue is really important, can I limit discussion to a few minutes and then move on?

Tragic events elsewhere in the world

Say there is an earthquake. Or tsunami. Or other natural or human disaster somewhere in the world. Should you mention that? Depends. But one thing I would consider is whether or not you may have students who have family or ancestry from a particular place. This is something to be careful about. Many students do not want any sort of attention paid to the fact that they might be from somewhere else. And if you don't know for certain a students' ancestry, it would be insensitive to make an assumption. On the other hand, if you know a students' parents are from the Philippines and there is an earthquake there, you may want to just quietly ask/acknowledge the issue privately before or after class. Keep in mind that the Philippines is a large place, and your students' family might be from nowhere near where the earthquake took place. Or it might have devastated your student's grandmother's house. Or your student might not even know about it.

Events close to home

Sometimes an issue comes up in your town, or nearby. Depending on the issue, you might then want to shift your usual curriculum to discuss the issue. I was also teaching high school when the shooting occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado. Though I was in a suburban district of Chicago, the issue hit close to home emotionally.

Controversial Issues

Sadly or thankfully--I'm still not sure which--it was during my planning period when the results of the OJ Simpson trial were announced. Most teachers in the school had the news on, and in the hallway, I could hear the emotional reactions of students to the news. In a school with significant populations of both black and white students, the reactions fell sharply along racial lines. It was one of those issues that simply had to be acknowledged as a teacher of U.S. history. Honestly, I don't remember how I handled it or what I did during my classes that followed, but these are the suggestions I would give anyone facing such an issue (or something current, like the recent shooting that occurred in Ferguson on the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown):
  1. If you sense that students need to talk about it, l feel strongly that you need to let them talk about it. But there is a world of difference between a respectful discussion in which thoughtful questions are addressed vs. a shouting match. So set guidelines about the discussion. Remind them to be respectful of the opinions of others and to avoid personal attacks. Your job should be to moderate and raise questions. Not having answers is okay. In fact, it's probably best not to have answers.
  2. Keep in mind--and help students recognize--the difference between fact, opinion, judgement, and emotion. (See also my point on historical context in number 4 below). This is useful with any issue, really. Take, for example, something like the Supreme Court's decision in June about gay marriage. You are teaching a history class, not a religious class. While we must be respectful of students' personal and/or religious views, the issue as debated by the Supreme Court is a constitutional one. By helping students understand the constitutional issue you can keep yourself out of hot water. If a discussion starts getting uncomfortably emotional, you can redirect the conversation by asking questions such as, "what might a person who _____ think about this issue? Why?" Or, "how might a senator from _____ state vote on such and such an issue?" Or, "what effect would ______ have on small businesses?" I don't mean to suggest that our classes should never get emotional or that we can't have intense discussions. On the contrary, I hope we do. But we also want an environment that is respectful, one in which no student feels ostracized because of his or her view, sexual orientation, race, gender or other identity. And we should aim for class discussions in which students offer reasoned viewpoints, not one in which they lash out at others (at worse) or merely blather about an issue without sufficient background or critical analysis.
  3. It is quite possible that a discussion could take up a whole period. Or more. Use your best judgement. You could, for example, begin class with a discussion and let students know up front that you are allotting X minutes. If at the end of that time you feel you need/want more, you can reevaluate. Or, if the test on World War II is coming up and you need to finish something, you could shift the discussion to the last 10 minutes of the period. Or let students know that you will allow time on Thursday. Or whatever.
  4. Your job as the history teacher is to provide the historical context. In either the example of OJ Simpson or Ferguson, remind your students about the long history of police violence and injustice in courtrooms. Help them to understand that all of us process current events through our own experiences and past history. Compare current events to past ones when appropriate (e.g. Bill Clinton to Andrew Johnson). How is the Great Depression similar/different to the economic downturn of 2008? Are we in another "Gilded Age?" (see my earlier post on this).
  5. Your opinion: I would keep this to yourself, if it's a controversial issue. Personally, I think your own race/gender/religion/etc. matters in these cases. I didn't want either my black or white students to think that because I was white I automatically "sided" with a white perspective on the OJ Simpson case. But they all know I'm white. So focusing on different sides of whatever issue (and obviously, it doesn't have to be a black/white thing), focusing on historical context, and facts (versus opinions) are really important here. Be a role model. Especially if the event is a complex one that is currently unfolding, you (wisely) may not have an opinion yet. Explain that to students.
  6. If the issue is an unfolding one, there are other things to keep in mind. The first few days when a story breaks can have lots of unanswered questions. You don't want to be in a situation like the one in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Many early news reports speculated on this as a plot by Islamic terrorists. If a story is so important that you choose to spend time on it in class, make sure you either stress that no one knows yet if blah, blah, blah  or wait until you do know. Remind students not to leap to conclusions. 

Last thoughts: Anniversaries and #ThisDayinHistory

One year, I coincidentally began my unit on the New Deal on March 4, the day F.D.R. was inaugurated. Stuff like that is really neat, if you're a geeky history teacher like me. But students appreciate this too. I wouldn't redo your syllabus to do stuff like that or teach stuff out of order. Some teachers like to start every period with a "This Day in History" sort of thing. Personally, I'm not fond of this, because unless the event naturally relates to what I'm going to teach, I don't think it makes a logical introduction. But you should check. You can find out what happened today in history here or on Twitter, using the hashtag #thisDayinHistory. It's handy to look that up every now and then because we don't always remember those dates. Wouldn't you kick yourself if you taught a lesson on the anniversary of something and didn't realize it until afterwards?

Also, take advantage of the really "big" anniversaries, i.e. the last few years have been big anniversaries of the Civil War and World War I. Even if you weren't teaching about the Gettysburg Address or even the Civil War on November 19, 2013, the fact that it was the 150th anniversary of this milestone document may be worth a mention. Or maybe you end class with something about it. One of the great things about these anniversaries are the articles that commemorate them. I have never enjoyed teaching about the War of 1812. But some of the articles and podcasts made me completely rethink that. (Check out this one from Backstory with the American History Guys. They also did some excellent ones in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War). The great thing about articles written on 50th, 100th, etc. anniversaries is that they are often well-written, broad overviews well-suited for classroom use. So pay attention--if not to teach on the actual day--but for when you get there. The past few years and the next few years ahead, for example, have/will bring lots of attention to 50th anniversaries of Civil Rights issues and Vietnam War events. So keep your eyes open for those....

Additional Resources

  • "Twenty-Five Great Ideas for Teaching Current Events" - Not all 25 of these ideas are relevant for social studies teachers and not all of them are great, but many are good. They are more designed for middle school students than high school students. Some, in my opinion, are more for elementary school level, but could be adapted.
  • Current Events: Helping Kids Live the Questions - This article by Sarah Cooper on the MiddleWeb Future of History blog (for which I am also writing, full disclosure) is a thoughtful reflection for high school teachers as well as middle school teachers. Especially in light of the ongoing issues raised by Ferguson. See also my recent post there on thinking about grim statistics of history, which may be useful if a current event is tragic.
  • "50 Ways to Teach with Current Events" - this article is from the New York Times Learning Network, which is a great resource for all kinds of things. Also check out their blog.
  • There are probably a gazillion other blog posts/resources on this topic out there. If you find anything really good, please share!