Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Passion for History: the Key to Great Teaching

For years, I have ruminated on what makes a teacher great and what makes some classes better than others. I ask my student teachers to reflect on their favorite teachers and think about what specific attributes those teachers had that they can emulate.

One of the best K-12 teachers I ever had was my high school chemistry teacher. Science was never one of my favorite subjects, but chemistry was different. It was different because my teacher was passionate about chemistry and she knew her stuff. She had a reputation for being hard, tough, and even a little scary.  But she had a lecture that was so good, it was actually famous throughout the school. It even had--get this-- a title! (Do you remember the title of ANY lesson you had in high school? college?!) It was called "The Truth and Beauty Lecture." When you told other kids that you had Ms. Mueller for chemistry, kids who had already taken her class would ask, "Have you had the truth and beauty lecture yet?" and then exchange knowing looks among themselves.

Years later, I still can remember hearing that lecture.  I didn't realize at first that it was That Lecture.  I was taking notes as fast as I could to keep up, and as I wrote, I thought to myself, wow, this is pretty interesting. Actually, this is really incredible stuff. This is really amazing! And then, as she started to conclude, I realized, this is it! This is the truth and beauty lecture. And Ms. Mueller would finish by explaining that everything she had just gone over demonstrated the truth and beauty of the periodic table. And while I have completely forgotten every detail, I know that for at least one moment in my life, I understood the Truth and Beauty of Chemistry. Of Science. Of the Universe. And that is a pretty impressive feat to accomplish as a teacher.

I believe that the study of history makes for a richer and more meaningful life. I really do. But I know that not all students will agree. So I hope that even the ones who really aren't all that into history will--at least every now and then in my class--think, wow, that is pretty interesting. And maybe, if only for a moment, I hope a lesson I teach will make a student appreciate the truth and beauty of history.  I hope they will see that something that happened years ago, like a butterfly effect, might be responsible for what the world is today. And that it happened that way because real, live people made choices.

This is NOT an easy task, of course, so I hope this blog will continue to you some good ideas on how to at least strive for that.  If you've read some of my past posts, you may have noticed that it is very "content-driven." That is because I don't think we can get students excited about learning history unless we who teach it are really excited about history.  A lesson could be student-centered, full of innovative technology and inspired by the latest in education research and learning theory. But if it is not about something then what purpose does it serve? And how can you teach a history lesson about anything if you have not done your research about that historical topic? And how will it be interesting if you don't think it is interesting?

I don't think enough administrators and school reformers and politicians always realize how integral that is to great teaching. And I'm not even sure enough teachers realize it.  With so much emphasis on using technology, learning styles, standards, and other Latest Things, sometimes the most basic things are forgotten. 

Parting thought:

I hope that this blog entry and the links I am about to give you don't suggest that I am only advocating lectures as a teaching method. But the links below--from an excellent blog about teaching U.S. history at the college level--has some useful thoughts on beginning and ending a lecture. I think you could substitute the word "lesson" for "lecture" and the ideas would still work. And they work for middle school and high school history teachers just as well as college professors. The ideas in them echo something I have been telling my student teachers for years: all good lessons--just like good papers--have a beginning, a middle and an end. (summer update: I have since written at greater length on this topic. Check out my post on the 7 things all good lessons should have here.)

Check out these two blog entries by Ben Wright, an assistant professor of history at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia. 
Teaching Like We Write: Introduction and Conclusion in the Lecture
Opening lectures and teaching attention-getters






Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ideas for Teaching the Declaration of Independence: Text, Storytelling and Long-term Signficance

One of the criticisms about the Common Core as it applies to the teaching of history is that the standards emphasize reading of texts over understanding of context. Thoughtful implementation of the standards should minimize this problem, but it is a fair criticism. Good history teaching should always be about the context of the sources, whether primary or secondary. Even the first standard, which is very text-based, refers to context. Note what I have italicized in this standard, below:


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1  

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

So yes, students should read the text.  They should read the actual Declaration of Independence--even though the language is challenging-- and not just read about it. Middle schoolers, too, not just high school students.

But, as my dear friend and former colleague used to tell me over and over again when I was a beginning teacher and frantic about what I should teach tomorrow...
Tell them a story….

So here is your chance.

I am not advocating that history teachers go back to the “sage on the stage,” style of teaching that is so often criticized. But a recent rewatching of Robin Williams's performance in Dead Poet's Society reminds me that there is merit to this approach when used effectively and in moderation. Because one thing that teachers can do that our textbooks and Google cannot is tell a great story. (Perhaps not as well as Robin Williams, but standards for dramatic performance for the screen are different from those of the classroom). Great stories are what makes Ken Burns's documentaries so compelling and why we love to show the film Glory in the classroom. The history comes alive because it is about human beings. This is why when I find a great sentence, or paragraph or chapter in a narrative-style history book or a first-person account of an historic event, I like to read it aloud or have students read it aloud. There is power in oral storytelling that cannot be recreated in private reading.

So...

What to teach when teaching about the Declaration of Independence idea #1:Tell them a story...

That Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who both served on the committee responsible for writing the declaration, died on the same day which happened to be July 4, 1826--the 50th anniversary of Declaration is just too good to be true.  Except that it is true.  Use this story to bookend your lesson.  Use it as your seductive introduction.  Use it to tie everything up at the end of your lesson.  Where to find more info on this:
Click here for the basic story.
Click here for some interesting observations about why they might have both died on the same day.
Click here for some information on the friendship and enmity of Adams and Jefferson.

Make it even better by going on to discuss Jefferson’s views on the legacy of the Declaration. (see ideas #2, 6 & 7 below)

Idea #2: Jefferson’s view of what the Declaration of Independence was about.

See the section on Jefferson’s legacy on the Library of Congress website, and then look at the 3rd document which you can read more fully here. A year before his death, Jefferson wrote, in a letter to Henry Lee, that the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was to NOT to say something new or revolutionary, but, “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we [were] compelled to take."
You could start your lesson with that idea and then have students read the document to see for themselves the “terms so plain.”

Except, of course, 18th century language is not at all so plain for 21st century students.  So...

Idea #3: Reading the Text

Help students understand the organization behind the Declaration: this is the part of the lesson where you really delve into The Text. This will meet Common Core Standards.
a. intro paragraphs - always a good idea to work through these, “translating” the document into language they understand.
b. the reasons - useful to give students a copy of the Declaration on which they can take notes. I like to have them number all 27 of the grievances (it takes only a minute) and then students can see how each of the 27 complaints matches up to an actual event they have studied. You don’t need to go through all 27 of them, but pointing out a few examples will help them see, oh yeah, we talked about the quartering act and here it is in grievance #14.
c. we have done everything we can - go through the next 2 paragraphs- what have the colonists done?
d. therefore, we are going to declare independence

For a fun way to explain the structure of the Declaration, try explaining the Declaration of Independence as a breakup letter. This is very nicely done by a couple of teachers here from teachingchannel.org. Worth a look.

Idea #4. Clear up a few misconceptions. The website below does a great job of explaining why July 4 is a national holiday, even though independence was voted on by the Continental Congress on July 2, and it wasn’t even signed by everyone until August.

(Incidentally, this is a great website for a lot of things about the Declaration and the Constitution--two key American documents that students (and adults) too often confuse.

Idea #5: Slavery, the Elephant in the Room

One of the key reasons July 4 is the date associated with the Declaration and not July 2 is that Congress debated some of the clauses in it between those dates.  During that time, the clause blaming King George for slavery was omitted. This is a Pretty Big Deal, if you ask me. Of course, students know that in a few months you will get to the Civil War, but they may not realize that the seeds can be found right here.

Below is the omitted paragraph:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. [determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold,] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

(You can also have students examine a complete rough draft of the Declaration.)

You could have an interesting discussion with students about the contradiction between the most famous lines of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal” being so completely at odds with the decision to omit slavery.  There is a nice analysis of this at the University of Richmond’s History Engine website. Check it out here.  You could start by seeing if students could figure out on their own why the grievance about slavery was omitted.  Other questions: to what extent does this diminish the significance of the Declaration of Independence? Does it make it “hypocritical”? Or is that ahistorical to think about it that way?  Is it possible for a document to foment revolution in people’s thinking, even if the full expression of that idea (equality) doesn’t come about for another 100 years? or more?

For an elaborate lesson plan that expands this idea to a 3-4 day lesson, check out this lesson from the Library of Congress website.  It has students conducting a trial of Jefferson around the use of the phrase “all men are created equal” and slavery: was it compromise or was it hypocrisy? I’m not sure I would take 3-4 days to do this, but it is worth checking out.  The topic lends itself well to helping students understand the problem of presentism in the study of history: judging slavery and equal rights in the 18th century with our 21st century standards is problematic. Be sure to check out the primary sources that have been selected for this activity.  You can find those here, even if you don’t want to use the whole lesson.


Idea #6: The legacy of the Declaration: What it means to future generations

Jefferson was invited by Roger Weightman, the chairman of a proposed Independence Day celebration in Washington to be attend the ceremonies.  In his response, Jefferson declined the invitation due to his poor health.  It is the last existing letter he ever wrote.  It was dated June 24, 1826, less than two weeks before his death.  In it he offers his view of what the 4th of July should come to mean.

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.  These are the grounds of hope for others.  For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

You can read the whole letter here. Also, note that this letter was selected as one of the 50 Core Documents, along with the Declaration itself, which is a project of TeachingAmericanHistory.org. Read about that here.

What to do with this quotation? I’d read it aloud--it’s so beautifully put. Of course, not every student will understand every word, but you can work on that by cutting it a bit, explaining a few vocabulary words, giving them the document to follow along with--one with vocab explained in the margins.  And then you could discuss what the main idea of the passage is? What does Jefferson believe is important about the Declaration 50 years later? How does that compare/contrast with what we believe is important about it now?

And then (if you have 120 minute long periods or a few days…I never said you should try to cram all of these ideas into one 45 minute period.) you can go to...

Idea #7: What the Declaration means to the rest of the world: Was Jefferson right? Would the Declaration become “a signal of arousing men (and women) to burst the chains"?

Distinguish between the immediate historic purpose of the Declaration: an explanation of why the Colonies were declaring their independence and the larger, future significance: that the words would become an inspiration for oppressed peoples around the world. You can have students look briefly or in more depth at documents that echoed the Declaration of Independence
such as:
the Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls, 1848 (See here for a lesson about this that might be more appropriate when you get to the 1840s)
See this essay, “The Declaration of Independence in Global Perspective” on the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website. The author, David Armitage (professor of history at Harvard) wrote an updated version of this essay in the Wall Street Journal. That essay does an excellent job of explaining (for teachers, not students) the difference between the Declaration’s assertion of popular sovereignty and the most famous statement about the rights of the individual. You can read it here.
Click here for a great story about Ho Chi Minh’s use of the Declaration in working for Vietnamese independence from France.


Idea #8: Don't Forget to Make it Human

And lastly, in the interest of making history a study of real people, most students (I always get a little nervous when I say “most,” perhaps safer to say “many”?) know that Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence. If you want more background on the red-headed author, you can find lots at the Monticello website.

And if you want to have a little fun with John Hancock’s famous signature, click here for some odd details. Unfortunately, the story about Hancock signing his name so big so that the King could read it without his spectacles does not seem to be true. See here and here. You’ll have to stick with the Adams-Jefferson story.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Lesson Ideas for the American Revolution

A few key things for students to understand about the Revolution:
  1. It was NOT inevitable--is anything? Check out this webpage from the BBC.
  2. It did not happen overnight--remember, it happened after “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations.” (Declaration of Independence).
  3. Not all colonists supported it. (See myth #2 in this article.)


Common Core Materials
So if you’re looking for a way to help students understand points 1 and 2 above, and go deeper than the textbook, check out the materials below. This assignment is, I think, a very simple, but good example of using the Common Core standards (especially CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10 which is for grade 9-10, but equivalents exist for grades 6-8 and grades 11-12.


Here is a link to some primary sources (which includes other links) that can be used in conjunction with this worksheet. Yes, I know--we are supposed to shudder at the thought of students filling out worksheets. But “worksheet” doesn’t always mean “bad.” What we should avoid are bad worksheets. I like this one because it helps guide students through a series of primary sources that show how the colonists moved from merely resisting British rule to actually declaring their independence from British rule. It provides enough guidance to allow many students to work independently on their own or in groups. Of course, you could also do this as a whole class activity. And, depending on the abilities of your students and their grade, you will likely need to provide more guidance or at least a glossary to help them with the primary sources.


Students will also need additional materials to help answer the final question about the colonists being “reluctant revolutionaries.”  Any decent U.S. history textbook will likely do, but I urge you to check out this amazing website from the University of Houston: Digital History.  It is organized both by era and topics and is not just for the American Revolution, but the whole website is geared toward K-12 teachers of U.S. history. It really is incredible...I’m kicking myself that I didn’t find it earlier.

Debating the Revolution
Interested in having students do a debate? I've always loved doing debates in class, but had a hard time figuring out how to arrange them so that everyone in a class of 30 has something to do. With help from a colleague, I came up with an idea to have students debate from the position of a loyalist or colonist as to whether or not the Revolution was justified. And then, to solve the 30 student problem, I simply eliminated it. I chose six students, 3 per side. That's it. Everyone else wrote a paper, due after the debate which gave them incentive to pay attention to the debate and take notes. But everyone had to do research in the library beforehand, which the non-debaters still needed to do in order to write their papers. And the debaters were excused from writing the paper. How to solve the problem of fairness? Have more debates later in the year, choosing different students to debate. (e.g. debate the Compromise of 1850, should Andrew Johnson be impeached? Should the U.S annex the Phillippines? Go to war in WWI,II or Vietnam?)

A few other random links:
And here is a lesson on Thomas Paine's Common Sense that might be useful.
If you are a new-ish U.S. history teacher and need a recommendation for a great, simple book on the Revolution, check out the classic Birth of the Republic by Edmund S. Morgan. Now in it's 4th edition, there's a thoughtful recent review of it here.




Saturday, September 13, 2014

Constitution Day: A Plea about How NOT to Teach the Constitution

UDATE: Here are the posts I have done since this one on the constitution:
post on how to organize a Constitution unit
post on teaching concept of federalism
post on using current events & Constitution to teach federalism
post on teaching concept of representative government
find more here by scrolling to presentation on the Constitution

ORIGINAL POST:
Next Wednesday, the 17th, is Constitution Day.  In Illinois, where I live, there is a law requiring students to pass "an examination" about the principles of representative government as enunciated in the Constitution. (You can see the law itself here. Curious about other states, but not curious enough to google all 50, sorry). Many schools have chosen to administer multiple choice tests to students in 7th or 8th grade, and then again in high school. The Illinois law does NOT stipulate that the examination must be multiple choice, or even that there must be a specific test at all, so there actually is quite a lot of leeway.

It means that, in Illinois, anyway, We, the Teachers, get to write the assessment. It does NOT have to be a memorizingabunchoffactsthatstudentswillpromptlyforgetafterthetest kind of test.

USING THE COMMON CORE
The test we give, and the way we teach the Constitution can be better. Much better. And I think the Common Core can help with that. For example, take this standard:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science. 


This is for grade 9-10. The middle school equivalent is almost identical; the 11-12th grade standard adds something about how the meaning changes over time, so a good example using the example below might be to discuss how “search & seizure”has changed due to cell phones.


MOVING TOWARDS A BETTER ASSESSMENT FOR THE CONSTITUTION

In my highly unscientific survey, in most schools that I have visited through my work, the students are given a multiple choice test after a unit that teaches the Constitution by going through the three branches, one at a time. Students are asked to "know" things like the qualifications for each branch, how a bill becomes a law (and everyone seems to show the same admittedly adorable Schoolhouse Rock video, "I'm Just a Bill," and what each branch of government does. The way that last point is done is usually by explaining that "Congress makes the laws, the executive enforces them, and the judicial interprets them." I betcha gazillions of kids can recite that back to you perfectly. And they can get a multiple choice question like the one below correct (even if they can't recite it, they will likely get it right, because they all know that when in doubt, the answer is "c").
It is the job of the judicial branch to
a. make the laws
b. enforce the laws
c. interpret the laws
d. all of the above
But do they have any clue what that means? Do they know that Congress can ABSOLUTELY pass a law that might be unconstitutional? How? Because it is not until the Court rules on a case that something might be determined to be unconstitutional. And the Court gets to choose which cases it hears. And which cases it does not. This is a basic--and very important fact--about our system that few kids understand, even after they've successfully crammed and passed the Constitution Test.

And more troubling, rarely are students asked to actually READ the Constitution. Students are told via PowerPoint presentations or through charts in their textbooks that Senators are elected for 6 year terms, instead of reading Article I, section three of the Constitution where this is stated.

Some critics of this approach might go so far to ask, why need to know this at all, in the age of Google, when the answer to how long Senators serve can be looked up on your phone in seconds? It is an excellent question to which I am still formulating an equally good answer. But in the meantime, I think we DO expect our citizens to have a modicum of understanding of how our government works.

The problem is that teaching that in a rote, memorization-sort-of-way is dull, dull, dull.

Let's say that you agree, but for whatever reason, your school or your department chair or whatever really thinks there should be a multiple choice Constitution test. Can't it be a more challenging one, in which students have to actually study and learn something in order to pass? Look, for example, at the question below:
U.S. Senators are elected
a. every two years
b. every four years
c. every six years (again, correct answer--when in doubt--is C)
d. every eight years 

Compare this to the question below. This question asks for the same knowledge, but now students have to apply that knowledge to what they know about members of other branches. Moving up
Bloom's Taxonomy...
Which official must be re-elected most often?
a. Representatives in the U.S. House**
b. the President
c. Senators
d. Supreme Court Justices
What if you changed the question above to a short answer or essay such as this:
Which official--representative, senators, president, or Supreme Court justice--would you consider the most "representative." Explain, making sure to explain what is meant by "representative."
Or this: which official above is the least subject to political pressure? Explain. 

Eventually, we might decide we should totally revamp how we teach the Constitution and offer students opportunities for more authentic assessments/projects. Check out these ideas for student projects. Some of them, admittedly, are way too difficult for middle school students, and many of them are even challenging for high schoolers. You would have to do some scaffolding before you let students loose on these. But think about how much more interesting lessons which led to these kind of assessments could be. Take the first one, in which students do research on some Supreme Court Justice nominees. Finding out about the nomination of Clarence Thomas not only will teach students about the procedure for how a Justice gets on the court, but about the politics involved.

And one last plea....

Once you've taught the Constitution--whether it's a special lesson or two for Constitution Day or a two week unit following the American Revolution, don't just forget about it. Go back to the Constitution often. Revisit it when you teach about the the "fight" between Hamilton and Jefferson about the Bank of the United States. Or Jefferson's decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory. Or about the constitutionality of slavery and the wretching decision made in the Dred Scott case. Or how the federal government used the 14th Amendment primarily as a way to defend corporations until the Civil Rights Movement. Or how the interstate commerce clause was (eventually) used to dismantle segregation. Or when teaching about civil rights in wartime and the Schenk case that arose in World War I. Or Nixon's impeachment and the questions it raised about the power of the Executive branch. Or the stories of how and why various amendments were added to the Constitution. So many more great examples....

There are SO many great Internet resources for you and your students. So until I post more about how to teach the Constitution (I plan to, soon! After the Revolution!), check out these great websites (if you haven't already found them on your own). 



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Do Dates Really Matter? Historical Thinking & the French and Indian War

Before I move on to the American Revolution, I feel compelled to say a few words about the French & Indian War.


This is a topic in which I veer from my usual inclination to focus on content first and skills second. While I could focus on some of the dramatic action of the war itself, I prefer to use it as a way to teach the historic skill of cause and effect, and the related skill of determining an event’s historical significance.  It is early in the school year, and these are skills that need to be introduced early and often. The Common Core describes this skill (more or less) here.


Whenever I tell anyone that I teach history, I often hear, “Oh, I never liked history all that much...I hated memorizing all those dates.” Are there really any history teachers left that actually make kids memorize dates?


On the other hand, aren’t there some dates that, really, most Americans should know? 1776? 1861-1865? 1941-1945? September 11, 2001? But let’s go a step further and consider why we want people to “know” a particular date. What do we even mean by “know”?


I might start a lesson on the French and Indian War by asking students those very questions. You could even ask them to consider some key events in their own lives: the year they were born, the year a younger sibling was born, the year they moved to where they live now, etc. What is significant is not really the date, is it? It's the meaning ascribed to key events in our lives, or in our nation.  Anyone who lived through the events of 9/11/2001 understands how much the world would never be the same afterwards.


Major events are major because they are turning points.  


So try teaching students to think about what is significant about the year 1763 and the outcome of the French and Indian War in that context.


Here are a few ideas:


1. Start (or conclude your lesson) by applying the French and Indian War to a common expression:
The British won the battle, but lost the war.
Ask students, what is “the battle” and what is the “war”?
or you might prefer this one:
The fall of Quebec led to the rise of the United States.
2. Here's a technique I like to help students understand the gist of a key event without getting bogged down in detail. There are times for going into depth and telling great stories, but I have not found the French and Indian War to be one of them. And if I am trying to keep my class focused on broader themes, then sometimes this technique is just the ticket. 

I call it the "X term essay." It's a great, simple writing exercise that you can have students work on in class individually or in groups. Or it can be homework, but I like it best in groups and having students produce one essay. 

You pick 9-13 names, dates, places or facts and give them to students in the order--more or less--that you would use if you were putting together a story. So for the French and Indian War, I might use these ten, and call it a 10-term essay:

conflict between Britain and France
Ohio River valley
George Washington
Fort Duquesne
Albany Plan
Iroquois
Quebec
Treaty of Paris
Proclamation of 1763
debt

This is one of the few assignments where I really just want to use a good, general textbook; I do NOT want them to do all kinds of research. Give the students an overall question, e.g. "What led to the French and Indian War and what was the result for Britain and the colonies?" The essay should mention all 10 terms (ask students to underline them when they use them to assist in grading), more or less in the order given, and the essay should 
1. Answer the broad question.2. Be as brief as possible.

The key is to not go on and on about Fort Duquesne, but to mention it only to propel the narrative. While this is not the most exciting assignment ever, it is a great tool to help teach students how to sift through what is important and what is not. You can make the activity a little more exciting by trying it as a whole class/group exercise, where each group offers up a sentence and then the next group continues the thought. Have groups "challenge" another if they think there is an unnecessary sentence. 

Again, the point isn't the understand the complexity of the French and Indian War itself, but rather --here's the essential question--the role the French and Indian War played in leading the American Revolution.

What I like about this exercise is that it builds students' writing skills while helping them learn to think historically using one of the key "tools" of historians: cause and effect. And it avoids the pitfalls of having students answer a bunch of separate individual questions, e.g. what was the Albany Plan and did it succeed? Instead, students have to figure out for themselves what the Albany Plan is and how to include it in their essay to answer the overall question. Very cool.

Also, very Common Core, if you're trying to work on that. The standards I think this assignment meets are listed below.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.3 Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.2
Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.2.A Introduce a topic and organize ideas, concepts, and information to make important connections and distinctions/



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lesson ideas: September 11, History & Memory

July 2016 update to original post: Check out this documentary collection from the Library of Congress about 9/11.

Tomorrow will be the first time that the 9/11 museum will be open on the anniversary of the events of 9/11/01. This got me thinking about how differently we view events that we have lived through compared to those we haven't. Depending on the grade you are teaching this fall, your students were either not born, very little or at most five or six years old. But all of their teachers lived though it.

For those of us who are old enough to remember that day, teaching about it is a very different experience than teaching about past American tragedies. It is a far more visceral experience, I think. I remember what I was doing, where I was, how I felt...

But knowing where I was and how I felt is not the same thing as "knowing" all about what happened on September 11 and why. If you heard F.D.R. on the radio on December 8 talking about the previous day's attack on Pearl Harbor, that is not the same thing as understanding Japan's military ascendency in the Pacific or Roosevelt's efforts throughout the late 1930s to open Americans' eyes to the problems in Europe.

So the problems for historians, educators and the museum curators at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum are complex ones which illustrate the potential contradictions between the goals of museums and teachers versus those of memorials. As pointed out by Jim Gardner, the Executive for the Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries and Museum Services for the National Archives, "Museums are about understanding, about making meaning of the past. A memorial fulfills a different need; it's about remembering and evoking feelings in the viewer, and that function is antithetical to what museums do." (Quoted from New York Times article on challenges facing the 9/11 Museum.)

There are many things you could do in class tomorrow to commorate the day. Below is my idea for a class discussion on the ways commemorating 9/11 can get us to think about history and memory in a broader sense. Please note that the lesson has nothing to do with the events of 9/11 itself or why it happened, but rather focuses on how the way we think about 9/11 compares to how we think about other historical events, particularly tragic ones. And how such events should be remembered. Because it doesn't explain 9/11 itself, you may have to provide at least a little background information.



September 11, 2001: Examining History, Memory & Memorials
Note to teachers:
Below are a list of decisions museum curators at the National September 11 Memorial Museum had to make about what to display. Underneath each decision are examples of other related decisions/questions from other historic events. Each of these can be used separately or together as material for whole class or small group discussions. These are designed for 9-12th grade, but with moderate adaptations, could easily used in middle school classrooms as well. If you'd like a GoogleDoc version of this that you can reproduce for students, click here. If you scroll down to the very end of this post, I've linked to some other questions I came up with that might be good as either an intro or conclusion to the ideas below.


The Decisions:


1. Whether or not to include images of trapped victims leaping from the burning towers.


Actual decision made by museum: show photographs, but not video, and only if the person jumping cannot be identified.


Other historic example: In the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, 145 people were killed--mostly young, immigrant women. The tragedy brought renewed attention to the problems of factory workers and their safety. The event is recounted in most U.S. history textbooks. Witnesses to the event saw young girls jumping out of the window to their death. Should textbooks or your U.S. history teacher show you images of this or read accounts of it? How is this similar/different from the 9/11 example?


2. Whether or not to include photographs of the hijackers.


Actual decision made by museum: show photographs, but use the evidence photo images from the FBI that have a sticker on them, marking the hijackers as criminals (so they look like criminal mug shots). The size of the image will be 1 ½ X 2 inches each and displayed at a low angle, so visitors can choose whether or not to look at them.


Other historic examples:
Should we read about Adolf Hitler or other Nazi war criminals so as to better understand their motivations? Does doing so humanize them? Does humanizing them seem to “excuse” their crimes? Or does it help us understand what happened? Something in between?


Curators at the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum--the museum commemorating the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building (in which 168 people died) had to make a similar decision about displaying the photograph of Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the bombing. They chose to show it.


3. Whether or not to include “composites”--chunks of compressed floors that demonstrate the destructiveness of the impact of the crash into the towers. Family members of victims--many of whose bodies were not recovered--say that such pieces could contain body matter.


Actual decision made by museum: show one of the composites in a secluded alcove in the footprint of the north tower. The composite has been tested and there are no human remains. Nearby is a stand with a box of tissues.


Other historic example:
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The purpose was to establish the rights of Indian tribes to reclaim human remains, sacred objects and other artifacts from federal agencies and museums. How should the interests of researchers and Native Americans be balanced? What about a skeleton that is 10,000 years old? Does that make a difference? See this article for an article from the Huffington Post about the conflict between university researchers and Native Americans. See this article for an interesting example about Indian scalps displayed in a German museum.


Click here for an interactive look at some of the displays in the National September 11 Memorial Museum.
Click here for an article in the New York Post about the gift shop at the 9/11 museum.
Click here for a perspective on visiting the 9/11 museum written by a man who lost his sister in the attacks (You can get a sense of his ironic take from the title: "The Worst Day of My Life is Now New York's Hottest Tourist Attraction"). Click here for an excerpt from that article, along with my suggestions for questions to go along with it that you could use with students.

If you decide to use any of this material, let me know how it goes!