Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Practical Problem of Coverage, or How to get past WWII by May

A constant problem facing teachers of U.S. history is how to “cover” everything before the end of the year (or for some, the A.P. History test, which comes even earlier). It is, of course, an impossible and dubious task. However, it is something that a conscientious teacher must address from the start of the school year. If you hope to make it to the Second Gulf War, or September 11th, or Reagan, or even Vietnam by May, you have to cut things earlier in the year and make yourself a schedule. There are three questions you must ask yourself, and your answers to all three are intimately interconnected:

1. when does U.S. history start? 1492? 1607? 1763? the Revolution?
2. when does 1st semester end? after the Civil War? after Reconstruction? at the end of the 19th century?
3. How far are you going to get? Vietnam? the 70s? the 80s? 9/11?

Everyone has different answers, and each are potential loaded. For example, if you rush to the Revolution, what does that suggest about the place of Native Americans in the story? (Kevin Schultz, history professor at University of Illinois at Chicago has an interesting post on this question.)

Most U.S. history courses divide themselves in half after the Civil War and Reconstruction. I began teaching U.S. history this way, but after a few years, along with my colleagues, we decided that 1900 (give or take a few years) made a better halfway point to allow more time for the 20th century. Let me stress that it was VERY DIFFICULT for us to cut things from the first half of the course to fit in a last unit during first semester on industrialization and urbanization. But it does our students a disservice to neglect to teach Vietnam, the Reagan Revolution, changing immigration patterns and race relations or the increasing significance of the Middle East to U.S. foreign policy. It is hard to understand today's world without some background on these topics. To make appropriate time for them, you simply have to cut topics from earlier in the year. If you spend roughly 2 weeks (10 days) on the standard units, that gives you some room to add here and there and account for final exams, testing, shortened periods, field trips and the gazillion other things that make planning difficult for teachers.

We all have our favorite units—often based on what we loved when we were in college, or on what we studied in grad school—and it is easy to get bogged down in them because we feel we cannot possibly do justice to _____________ (fill in the blank with any unit) without spending some time on ____________(fill in the blank of a particular topic.) But you can’t teach it all. So pick and choose. Carefully. For help with this, I urge you to read chapter one, ”The Tyranny of Coverage” in James Loewens’s book, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History, which provides a thoughtful analysis of this problem. (Though I disagree with Loewen's decision to leave out the Progressive Era. This is difficult period to teach, but key things are raised during this time period that inform later issues and it seems historically irresponsible to leave it out altogether).

Another interesting discussion about the problem of how to divide the course along with some interesting ideas about how to teach the second "half" of U.S. history can be found here, though it is geared more towards college level (but easily adaptable, I think).

Curious about how other folks plot out the year...?

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