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 MiddleWeb.com).  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."
  • whateveryamericanshouldknow.org - 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 Middleweb.com, 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!

 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Patriotism for grown-ups

The title for this post comes from Eric Liu, the founder of Citizen University and former White House speechwriter for President Clinton. It comes at the end of an article he wrote back in October of 2014 at the height of the fury in one Colorado school district over the new AP US history framework. It is my understanding that the College Board intends to review the feedback they received this year and will announce a new edition of the AP US history framework. But I don't feel like waiting for that.

Saturday is the 4th of July. And this has been an historic month-- the shooting in Charleston, Obama's intense eulogy, the historic Supreme Court decision of last Friday, and another black church in flames last night, even as Confederate flags have come down. All these events occurring just as we get ready to celebrate our nation's ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence....

And so I write this post to echo the points made by Eric Liu in the article mentioned above (which you can read here). His point is that is rather childish to hold to a view of our nation as one that can do no wrong. True patriotism cannot simply point out where our nation has gone wrong. But neither should patriotism lead us to blindly extol our nation's virtues and triumphs without mention of its flaws and defeats. If we are responsible for teaching patriotism to children, he suggests, we must "behave like adults. Which means admitting that even though we Americans have done good things, and still do, we have also done bad things and still do."

If you think about it, even kindergartners can understand that. Which makes me wonder why so many politicians and pundits think AP high school students wouldn't.

So whether you are teaching college students, high school students--in an AP class or not--or middle school, you are teaching young adults. And our young adults can handle the fact that our history has highs and lows, heroes and villains, and everything in between. If pretend otherwise, we are insulting their intelligence.

Furthermore, we risk losing their trust. Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism, writes, "Lying can never save us from the lie. Falsifiers of history do not safeguard freedom but imperil it."

Sometimes I think it is precisely because of the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence that Americans have such a hard time admitting the bad stuff. Every nation and every group of people has its dirty laundry. The U.S. is no exception. But the idea of American exceptionalism has perhaps made it harder for us to come to grips with that. The Declaration of Independence promises so much. It is uncomfortable when we see evidence of not living up to it.

Particularly this 4th of July, because of recent events, there will likely be quite a few interesting articles popping up about this American exceptionalism,and the meaning of liberty. Here is one --"Celebrate Liberty Month: Wanted: American Exceptionalism" worth a read. So keep a look out throughout the holiday weekend, as there are sure to be others. Perhaps one of them will be appropriate for sharing with students in the fall. It could even be a good first day/week activity: to what extent has the U.S. lived up to its ideals? Discuss. Revisit the question at the end of the year.

For ideas about teaching the Declaration of Independence, check out my post, "Ideas for Teaching the Declaration of Independence: Text, Storytelling and Long-term Significance." I'm especially fond of idea #6 and 7 in that post. But there is other good stuff there. Like the great story about Jefferson and Adams both dying on the same day, which happened to be the July 4th, 1826--the 50th anniversary of what became Independence Day.

I will conclude this post with a final thought from Frederick Douglass. In honor of the 4th, check out his famous speech, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July" here. But the words I want to end this post with are from an earlier speech he gave in Syracuse in 1847. He defines--most brilliantly--the meaning of a true patriot. A grown up patriot.

I make no pretension to patriotism. 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.

Happy Fourth of July. Here's to becoming an ever more perfect union.

And to a World Cup victory from the U.S. Women's team on the 5th!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Now that it's summer...What to Read?

Thoughts on Summertime PD for the U.S. History Teacher


It is officially summer now. If you are reading this post, you are likely the kind of teacher who has a big list of Things You Are Going To Do This Summer To Make Next Year Better. And it is probably a long one, isn't it? Probably too long. After all, we are only human, and we also want to spend time this summer with our family and friends, getting some chores done around the house, maybe a little travel. And maybe do some reading that doesn't have anything to do with U.S. history or education. Right?

Right. But summertime, as you know, is a great time to get caught up on stuff, revise old things, get inspired by new things and do some learning for yourself.

I started off thinking this post would be about a variety of summertime PD--focusing on online courses (check out this one that started today!), other great blogs to follow, and getting organized with web bookmarking sites (Livebinders, Evernote and the like). But as I got going on books, I realized this topic merits its own post.

There is so much to read, and so little time (not to mention all those house projects), so how do you decide what to read?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The 7 Things All Good Lessons Have in Common:

A Checklist for History Teachers

Last month I finished a semester of teaching the social studies methods course to would-be secondary social studies teachers. And before summer gets too far along, I figured this might be a good time to review some of the things I did and share them in the hope that they are useful for readers of this blog.

While this post is written from materials designed for new teachers, I have found the checklist I describe a useful reflection tool for any teacher, myself included. As I dig through old lessons when I write this blog, I ask myself whether or not my lessons fit my own checklist for what makes a good lesson. I came up with this list after years of evaluating student teachers. The 7 items on the list reflect things I saw student teachers do or forget to do. These were the things that helped make a lesson succeed, or the things that made the lesson miss the mark.

As you review and revise the lessons you taught this year, try asking yourself whether or not your lesson meets this test. And if you think I have left important things out of this test/rubric/checklist, or whatever you want to call it, do leave a comment.

Also, keep in mind that when I say, "All" good lessons should have these things, we all know that sometimes a lesson is a work day in the library or getting straight into groups to finish a 3 day project, or something like that. So I don't mean that you have to do all 7 of these things on days like that.

Here's my 7 point checklist for what all good lessons should have:

#1: All good lessons, like a good paper, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.


So right out of the gate, I know I'm cheating a little bit because this is really 3 things. Sort of. Together, they make the point that a lesson cannot consist of doing a bunch of random things until the bell rings. A good lesson must be PLANNED. And it should have an introduction, which sets up the main body of the lesson, and the whole thing should be wrapped up in a conclusion. Does that mean all lessons have to fit into a 40, 45, 50 or 80 minute period? Of course not. But the bell will ring at the beginning and end of each period. So even if you are planning a 2 day (or longer) lesson, you need SOME kind of intro and conclusion for each day.

The beginning, or intro: In the educational literature, some folks call the beginning of a lesson a "hook," others describe it as a "set induction" or an "anticipatory set." While each term has subtle differences, the point is that good lessons have a thoughtfully created introduction. Ideally, it should pique students' curiosity and get them excited about what they are going to do today. It should also remind students about where they've been and where they are going. (More on this in number #3, below.) See this link for a brief, but effective general explanation.

There are practical reasons for a good beginning or introduction, too. Diligent teachers have usually spent a lot of time creating a lesson, so they know what their lesson is about. But they forget, sometimes, that their students have just come in from a rough math test, or an argument with their best friend, or lunch, or a million other things. Do your students remember what you did yesterday? Do they have any clue that today you are reviewing the factors leading to the American Revolution? The answer is that most do not. So a good lesson should have a clear beginning that reminds them about what is going on, makes them forget about that math test for now and gets them to focus on history.

How do you do that? Well, I spent the better part of a 2 hour class on that this semester, so I really should write a separate blog post on this (note to self). But in case you want ideas NOW and I forget to write a post about this later, you can always do something like have students respond to an intriguing quote, or a piece of art or music, or a visual like a map, chart, political cartoon or photograph. They can do this by writing in their notebooks, adding to an online journal or blog (or twitter maybe?), or simply discuss with a partner.

The middle: This whole blog is about stuff that goes in the middle. Points #4, 5 and 6, below, are also more specific about what happens in the middle.

The end or conclusion: This is the number one thing missing from over half the lessons I observe from student teachers. In all fairness to them, most student teachers have a conclusion in their lesson plan, but they often run out of time. That, of course, is the difference between a lesson plan and an actual lesson, as all teachers know. (More on this in point #7, below.) 

But when teaching methods this semester, I found that students didn't always know what should be in a conclusion. There is more to this than I can fit in this post, but the short answer is that the conclusion should "conclude." It should tie up the lesson into a sort of package that addresses #2, below. It could refer back to your introduction, or sum up what you did in the body of the lesson. But don't just end because the bell rings. Ideally, you are sharing the burden of concluding the lesson with your students, eventually handing it off to them entirely. If the teacher is the one always summing up, we know the teacher will have learned the material. The key thing is to get our students to do it.

A few links regarding conclusions:
  • Here is a link to a bunch of ideas for ending a lesson compiled by Ann Sipe of Grandview School District in Washington. I don't necessarily endorse all of these ideas. Some of them just don't work for my personal teaching style. Others are better suited for elementary school. But there a lot of suggestions to get you started if this you're looking for ideas on ending lessons.
  • Also, check out this post, "Teaching Like We Write--Introduction and Conclusion in the Lecture." I came up with the idea for #1 on my checklist long before I read this post. And this post is specifically about coming up with conclusions for college lectures. But there is still useful material there for any teacher and any kind of lesson, not just lectures. I have linked to this blog post before, so you may have already seen this.
Your lesson might have a spectacular introduction and conclusion, but the most important part of a lesson is really #2.

#2 All good lessons should have a point.


This should go without saying, you may think. But think a little harder. Can you give an "elevator speech" for every lesson you teach? More importantly, can your students? Does your lesson clearly address an essential question or an important concept or idea? While it is true that some ideas are far too big for one single lesson (federalism, sectionalism, Civil War, industrialization, immigration, etc.), each lesson within a unit should build to some larger point. (e.g. you might have a few days about immigration but one of those days would focus specifically on the problem of assimilation.)

The point of "the point" is that there should be some reason why you are teaching this lesson. Something which addresses the number one question that all of our students ask,

Why do we have to know this???


The pre-service teachers I work with typically teach at least a few lessons in the semester before their student teaching. They sometimes tell me things like, "My cooperating teacher wants me to do a lesson on ___________ " and then they fill in the blank with a random topic, such as the legislation of the New Deal or comparing the North and the South before the Civil War or the five pillars of Islam (not all my students are in U.S. history). And then they want to know where they should start. 

And realistically, that's what a lot of us do. We know what we did last year, and yesterday, and so what comes next is comparing the North and South. But we should--every year--ask ourselves why do students need to know about the similarities and differences between the North and South? What is the point? How does this understanding help us better comprehend both the onset of the Civil War as well as its outcome? Do any of these differences still exist? In what way(s) does studying this topic improve the quality of our students' lives?

Did I lose you on that last one? Agreed, it's a little "out there." After all, we all know adults who live happy and successful lives who may not realize how many miles of railroad track the North had compared to the South. But thinking about the "bigger" questions behind the main topic of a lesson can help us consider why it may have mattered that the North had more railroads than the South in the first place. And then we can turn the question around and point out that the British had far greater resources than the colonists during the Revolution, and yet in that case, the advantages did not result in a British victory. Nor did the superior weaponry the United States had compared to the Vietnamese. (FYI, the last chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath, has a great chapter on the Vietnam War that touches on this very point. It also good stuff on the Civil Rights movement and things that make you think about education in general. A good summer read.) So your lesson about differences between North and South can lead students to thinking about war and winners and losers in general. And how big guys beat little guys but not always. And that is an idea that students can really sink their teeth into.

Many of us went into teaching to make a difference in our students' lives. And, as I pointed out in an earlier post about my high school chemistry teacher, we can make a difference even if our students don't love history the way we do.

If we ask ourselves the same questions our students are wondering--why do we have to know this--our answers will help us make our lessons more meaningful. Easier said than done, I realize. One of the ways to think about the point of each lesson is to ask ourselves how it connects to the larger unit of which it is a part. Which brings me to #3...

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pass the Popcorn: the Use and Abuse of Film in History Class

Somewhere about at the Civil Rights movement or the first nice day in April, whichever comes first, is when my students first begin to suggest that we watch the film Forrest Gump in class. By the time we get to the escalation of the Vietnam, the requests have escalated as well. "It's historic!" they plead.

No offense to anyone who loves this movie, but Forrest Gump is NOT a good movie to show in U.S. history class.  It tells the story of a man during historic periods, which is not the same thing as informing us about the historic periods.

The amount of time I have devoted to showing film (usually clips of no more than 15-20 minutes, but sometimes longer) does go up as the school year goes on. Not because the days are getting warmer and the students are getting antsy or because I am tired of teaching, but because the films show LIVE footage. I remember once showing a film clip about World War I and students noticed right away, "Hey, it's the actual people."

We don't have films of George Washington. Not till the invention of film do we get.... well, films! So any event occurring before the turn of the 20th century or so are going to be still footage or dramatizations. Ken Burns has demonstrated the power of applying film to still pictures. And films like Glory demonstrate the power of a well-done dramatization. But there is something about seeing actual footage of people and events we are studying that makes history come alive. That's why I like documentaries like Eyes on the Prize (Civil Rights) and Vietnam: A Television History so much.

But the issue of actual footage vs. dramatization is just one of the first in a series of considerations I'd like to raise in this post about how, when and why to show video in class.