Friday, December 12, 2014

How to Handle the Post-Civil War/Reconstruction Period

A few years into my first job teaching U.S. History, our department made a unanimous decision to switch our semester "cut-off" to roughly 1900 in order to allow for more time for the twentieth century. Our school calendar was similar to most: students took finals a couple of weeks after winter break. This meant we had an awkward two-week break in the middle of our "Industrial America" unit. The challenge was to accommodate the calendar and final exams on the one hand, and create a logical unit of study on the other.

Below is an example of what we came up with (ours was a very collaborative department in the best sense).  I will use this year's calendar dates as an example, (which allows me to see how behind I am in my blogging!) Please keep in mind that our school was on a kind of mixed block schedule, so some of the topics below were taught on "block days" which meant that we had 80 minute periods. So it's not quite as condensed as it looks.

Mon. Dec 8 - Railroads, the West and Industrial Revolution
Tues. Dec 9 - continued (I usually included some specifics about Chicago)
Wed. Dec 10 - Big Business (here's where we'd look at Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc.)
Thurs. Dec 11 - continued
Fri. Dec  12- Social Darwinism

Mon. Dec 15 - Immigration
Tues. Dec 16. - Anti-Immigration: The Nativist Response
Wed. Dec 17 - Labor and the New Industrial Working Class
Thurs. Dec 18 - Labor vs. the Capitalists (here's where I might do a simulation or debate activity centered around the Pullman strike. I like to use the Pullman strike as an example here in the Chicago area. But of course, there were lots of other strikes.)
Fri. Dec 19 - continued

Mon. Jan 5 - The "End of the Frontier" and the Indian Wars
Tues. Jan 6 - The Indian Reservation System
Wed. Jan 7 - Farm Problems and Protest
Thurs. Jan 8 - Government Regulation in the "Gilded Age"
Fri. Jan 9 - Populism and the Election of 1896

Mon. Jan 12 - Fri. Jan 16  This would be the week of exams, which would mean I'd probably do a day or two of review, and then the three days of exams.  Obviously, middle school teachers don't have this problem, though they usually seem to lose more days due to special assemblies and testing. 

I can't tell you how painful it is to put this into print-- I have left out so much. How can I do justice to Rockefeller and Carnegie in just 2 days?? How can students learn half of what there is to know about the immigrant experience and prejudice against them in just 2?? Is there time to discuss Obama and his recent executive order during those 2 days, or would I have to add a 3rd? What about other contemporary concerns about immigration reform? What if half my class is of immigrant or 2nd generation background? Wouldn't I want to spend more time comparing historic immigration to their experiences?

And while it sort of makes sense to segue from immigrants to labor to strikes, it also makes sense to discuss Indian policy right after the railroads and the West.  But then I would have to move labor to post-winter break, separating it from big business. Or move immigration to post-break, separating it from labor. And what activity will work well on the Friday before winter break? How many students will even be here? When/how/should I include a test in this unit? Do I really want to have students studying for a test right before winter break? Right after? Right before finals? How do I connect the Indians to the problems of the farmers? Do I really want to end my semester with the Populists? (Do I really want to teach the Populists at all?) Maybe that would be a better way to begin next semester's unit on the Progressives? 

Does anyone share my pain?

Even if your unit on this period doesn't start until second semester--as many teachers do--you will still have the "coverage problem" and the problem of what order to use.

But enough moaning. After all, this is one of favorite time periods. I joked about the Populists, but really, William Jennings Bryan is such a character. He can even make the Populists fun.

So time for some suggestions to help you in your unit planning. Just a few in this post, and I will include more in the next.

The key to both the coverage problem and the what-order-to-use problem is to develop your unit around a FEW BIG IDEAS/QUESTIONS and MAKE CONNECTIONS. As I mentioned above, how does the development of the railroads lead to big business and the wars with the Indians? How do the problems of how to assimilate the Indians compare to the situation of immigrants coming to the U.S.? How do those immigrants help fuel the labor demands of big business? If you can tell yourself the story about why you are moving from topic A to topic B to topic C, but how topic C also connects to topic A, then you are in business.

I like to use clips from episode 5 of Ken Burns's series, The West.  Click here for an interesting analysis of the series from the American Historical Association's Perspectives on History. Episode 6 is good for the Indian Wars. You could assign students a short essay or a few paragraphs that would answer the question, how did the railroad change the United States? Make sure they consider both positive and negative aspects. Probably your textbook has additional information they could use. This will force them to consider how a variety of things connect: buffalo, Chinese immigrants, Indians, women and the vote, Mormons, growth of a national economy, the role of the government, etc.

Looking for a way to connect Andrew Carnegie and the topic of immigration? This excerpt from Carnegie's autobiography describes his own immigrant experience.

Looking for Ellis Island info? Check out the National Park Service's info on Ellis Island and The Liberty Ellis Foundation (which is privately funded).

Don't forget to teach about Asian immigration during the late 19th century! The Library of Congress has a complete unit on Chinese immigration. Check out the Angel Island website. On the home page, there is a virtual tour. And under the Education tab they have a curriculum guide for teachers, a photo gallery, book and film recommendations, and lots more. Also check out books by Ronald Takaki, including his A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America.

How to connect immigrants and Indians to what you discussed in Reconstruction about African Americans? I created this chart for that very purpose. You can use it by having students brainstorm first on their own or in groups, and then fill in the gaps as you discuss the other groups. I have included at least some of the "answers" on the second page. You can follow up by having students write a compare/contrast paper or have a discussion. A caveat: you can find yourself in murky waters when you make some of these comparisons. The goal is NOT to decide "who had it the worst." It is not up to us to judge whether or not someone's experience of witnessing a beloved family member die from lynching or in a war was "worse." Avoid comparisons of personal pain and suffering.

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