Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Seneca Falls, the Women's Movement, and Tying It All Together with Essential Questions

What gets me really excited about teaching history is when I flip through my files, notes, and old worksheets and suddenly get an epiphany about how it all connects together. It is not clear who first said, "history is just one damned thing after another," but the quip could not be more apt to describe how history class can seem to our students if we don't do a better job of showing them these connections.

The period of the 1820s through the Civil War can be especially prone to this problem: Andrew Jackson, nullification & states' rights, Indian Removal, the invention of the cotton gin, Clay's American system, the Missouri Compromise, Second Great Awakening, abolitionism, Seneca Falls, and on and on. The content is extensive.

But as I observed a student teacher's lesson on the cotton gin, and then wrote my post on the market economy, and then about slavery, and then Indian removal, and then opened my folder about the women's movement and Seneca Falls convention in 1848, I came across this scribble on some old notes of mine:
shift from colonial economy ----> industrial economy----> concept of "separate spheres"

And I remembered how all these topics fit together and how important it is to SHOW students that. Or ideally, have them figure it out for themselves.

Using essential questions helps. I like to post a "question of the day" on the board every day. If you do this for all your lessons, you can them have students try to link them all together. History will then be more like "one thing leads to another." In other words, we have to explicitly teach students the historian's tool of CAUSE AND EFFECT. (Although the particular example I'm discussing in this post is more relational than causal, I think.)

There is the risk of oversimplifying, of course. What causes something else to happen is a complex process and not always clear. But helping students understand that one event in history can impact another is worth teaching, even at the risk of sometimes oversimplifying.

Let me elaborate on that. It occurred to me the other day that as I use essential questions to shape lessons and units, they can also be used to shape an ENTIRE SEMESTER.  I have a strong commitment to teaching U.S. history as a narrative, even as I work hard to reveal the messiness and complications of the narrative and alternative points of view.  So, when thinking about the first half of U.S. history, the narrative can follow a path of creating a democratic nation, with an emphasis on economic liberty that will be torn apart by Civil War and have to put itself back together again. An oversimplification? Probably. But keeping a central story line can help us avoid the problem of coverage. We cannot cover everything in U.S. history. So if we focus on Big Ideas, a central narrative, essential questions--or whatever you prefer to call it--we can arrange the curriculum in a way that allows students to make these connections.

One teacher I spoke to recently had a little sign that read "Civil War" on it, and all throughout first semester, he occasionally waves it up in the air when something comes up that shows the splintering of North and South. Is this too simplistic? Maybe. Does it overemphasize the "irrepressible conflict" view of the Civil War? Perhaps. But we can't argue with the fact the Civil War DID HAPPEN. So pointing out to students where we can see signs of the Civil War all the way back in the events of the 1770s or 1790s or 1830s can be really effective in helping students see the big picture. Too often they cannot see the forest through the trees.

So how to connect some of the topics of the antebellum period? As a summative exercise after some of these lessons, I might use a drawing like the one below. I think you could use this in a variety of ways. I would NOT hand it out to students. But I might use an old fashioned chalk board and start with one of the circles. And you could pass out index cards to students that had the phrase of the other circles. Other students would be in charge of the arrows. See if the students can create something that looks like this drawing, either on the board, or in their notes. Or on ipads.

So why is this post all about these connections? What about the women's movement and Seneca Falls?

One of the dangers with focusing too much on the Civil War is that we can overemphasize political history and leave out other good stories. But the story of the women's movement is going to continue into second semester. Eventually, you are going to get to the 19th amendment and the 1970s and ERA, right? And how can you teach those things if you don't establish the back story? (Another reason why I love! You've got to check this out. I learn so much from these podcasts!)

But the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 fits beautifully into an antebellum unit. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton getting dissed at the World Antislavery Convention in London. The connections between rights for African Americans and women. (Which will come up again and again, right? The connection between the passage of the 15th amendment and the suffrage movement and then again in the 1970s, when the women's movement follows the civil rights movement).

Lesson Ideas and Materials

And then, of course, you have Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. (See this article that claims Lincoln never said that line about the little lady who started the big war. Isn't it a bummer when we find out those great lines were never actually said? e.g., Jackson, "Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it" is another one. Sigh....)

My former colleague (and one of the hardest working teachers I know) Janet Mark was the one who helped our whole U.S. history team do a better job of integrating the study of American women into U.S. history. She introduced me to using an excerpt from chapter 9 of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a way to combine the concept of separate spheres, slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. I have adapted some of her excellent materials below:

  • In class activity for teaching the concept of separate spheres and the cult of domesticity.
  • See here for questions on UTC you can use with students. I like having them discuss the questions, rather than write them out for homework. To get them to read it ahead of time, I would ask them to turn in at least three examples or underline examples in the text of separate spheres. There are lots of them in this chapter.
  • See here for commentary on chapter 9 of the book from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
  • Resources on the cult of domesticity from the National Humanities Center.
  • And don't forget Stowe's famous sister, Catherine Beecher. You can build a fascinating lesson around a discussion comparing Catharine Beecher's views and those of Angela Grimke and the ideas embedded in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Use this document with students. You could spend an entire period on this, as it raises the fundamental question of whether men and women are different from each other. Each author argued deeply in support of women's power and influence, but from a completely different place. Beecher fundamentally believes that women and men are naturally different from men. This argument is a precursor to the Supreme Court's decision in Muller v Oregon in 1907.  And the argument goes a long way towards explaining why the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was not widely supported, and why women would not get the right to vote until 1920. (For more on this, see the last resource in this post.)

Teacher Materials for Using the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments:

Other places to visit on the web:

  • Not yet a brick-and-mortar museum, the National Women's History Museum has some good resources, though they have had some negative press about their level of scholarship.
  • The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center - has teacher resources, lessons, primary resources, and sponsors a writing competition for students writing on issues of social justice.
  • Stephen Railton, an English professor at the University of Virginia has created a multimedia exhibit about Uncle Tom's Cabin and its place in American Culture. There are some impressive resources to be found here. Check out this page for information about how abolitionism led to the women's movement. And look here for a letter from Angelina Grimke to Catharine Beecher on what was wrong with the idea of colonizing freed slaves in Africa.
  • Indiana and Purdue Universities have created a site devoted to Abolitionism.
  • For a short, readable article about the use of essential questions in the history classroom, see Heather Lattimer, "Challenging History: Essential Questions in the Social Studies Classroom," Social Education, 72, (6) 2008, pp. 326-329. If you are a National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) member, you can access it online in their publication archives.
  • It may be worth a membership to NCSS just to read this article in their publication archives: Dave Neumann, "A Different Way of Viewing History Teaching: Balancing Competing Intellectual Challenges," Social Education, 74 (4), 2010, pp. 184-188. I thought of it because I recall he uses the topic of whether men and women are fundamentally different as a hook in a lesson on women in the antebellum era. But the whole article is worth reading because he discusses three fundamental challenges in the teaching of history. For each of the three, he refers to the antebellum period. The three include (1) the problem of understanding the past in context while making it relevant in the present; (2) the problem of scale: historical trends become significant as part of larger trends, but gain texture and interest when examined in detail; and (3) exceptional individuals shape history in important ways (e.g. Frederick Douglass) but the experiences of most people differ from those exceptional people (e.g. most African Americans in the 19th century).

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