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.

Monday, June 1, 2015

How to End the Year...

Making Sense out of the Seventies to the Present

I have at least 3 posts that I have started now and haven't published.  I started them, and then did the digital equivalent of crumpling them up in a ball and tossing them in the wastebasket. Why, you ask? Because, like so many U.S. history teachers, I have trouble figuring out how and when to "end" U.S. history class.

The problem is not the literal "end" or last day of class. I have a lesson for that. (I like to discuss the intersection of history, memory and the power to change. It nicely bookends how I like to start the year. For my ideas on starting the year, see this post).

The problem is what do to about the period 1970ish through, well...through what exactly? The nineties? September 11, 2001? The second Gulf War? Obama's election?

And is this time period going to be covered in one unit? Or two...perhaps one unit focusing on domestic and one on foreign policy? And in either case, what would this unit or units be called?



That last question might seem like a rather silly one. Why should the name of the unit matter?

I would argue that it matters a great deal. Deciding on a name for a unit makes it a unit, with an overriding essential question as opposed to just one isolated lesson after another, emphasizing one historical fact after another. For example, most of us don't teach units called "the 1950s," followed by "the 1960s," right? Instead, we conceptualize events into units: usually, Cold War, Civil Rights and Vietnam.  And whatever important events might have happened in 1854 or 1857 or 1860 other than Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott or Lincoln's election have long since taken a back seat to the impending Civil War. We don't teach "the 1850s." We teach about the events leading up to the Civil War as a unit.

We do this because it helps our students make sense out of what is otherwise just one fact after another. We have to make choices so that history becomes meaningful. We have to teach themes and make connections.

So what choices do we make about the events that took place from the 1970s to the present? I'm going to take a cue from the "The Tyranny of Coverage," chapter one of James Loewen's Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History and think about forests, trees, and twigs. (I have mentioned this chapter before--see here and here--because it is such a good starting place for rethinking how one conceptualizes a unit and a whole course. Put it on your summer reading list!)

So I decided to make a list of topics from the period 1970 to the present that I consider to be pretty important--the kind of things you would hope a relatively educated person might know. These are the things Loewen describes as "trees." The "twigs" are the specific names, dates, places, etc. that make up the content of any particular topic or "tree." Below is my list of "trees" and in parentheses are some of the twigs, in order to clarify what the topic includes. Note that the list is in the order that I came up with things--it is vaguely chronological, and the only reason I am numbering the items is so I can refer to things in the discussion that follows the list. Ready? It's quite a list...

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another great resource for teachers. . . and more on Vietnam

(To go straight to the Vietnam resources, scroll down to the images.)

My first guest post for the "Future of History" blog was posted yesterday on MiddleWeb.com! You can read it here. I will be writing more for them in the future, so check it out. And lest you think it is only useful for middle school teachers, think again. In fact, the whole point of my post is that we need more dialogue between middle school and high school teachers, not to mention our colleagues in K-5.

But you should also check out the other resources and links on MiddleWeb.

Here are a few recent posts I have really liked:
I also promised in my last post on Vietnam that I would offer some additional resources for teachers. Rather than do a separate post on this, I will just link to them below.

A few of my resources:

  • Timeline activity - I created this last year for 8th graders, but this would work well in high school, too. Titled, "Solve the Mystery," it is designed to provide background information on how the U.S. got involved in Vietnam in an interactive, student-centered way that also teaches cause and effect. It works best if students have computers, but it can easily be used the old-fashioned way, too. It also works best if students are told which event comes first and last, but high schoolers can probably make do with a hint that the first event dates back to World War I. This lesson is also designed to help students put Vietnam in a broader context and understand it as a conflict with old roots. You could go back even further than World War I, but that gets more complicated than I thought was necessary. 
  • Philosophical discussion questions - I originally used these as part of an online discussion. If you use them that way, you may want to make the questions much briefer, so you allow your students more opportunity to come up with the "big ideas" implicit in these questions. But I am including the "full" question so you can adjust as you like. They would also make great in-class discussions. Also, check out the essential questions I mentioned towards the end of my last post.
  • Vietnam DBQ with a twist - this is designed for high school students. The "twist" is that students have to come up with their own question. If you teach middle school, you would want to adapt the sources and adjust the coming-up-with-your-own question part. I think middle school students can absolutely do that, but not unless you've done it before as a class. (A big shout-out to my former colleagues for this one, as it was a group effort.
Other resources:
  • thevietnamwar.info - this is one incredible website on many aspects of the Vietnam War. It appears to be put together by amateur historians. It's not easy to find out who is behind it. But it also appears to be a highly credible source, with lots of links to additional resources.
  • this youtube video Chu Chi tunnels (1:30) is a great way to show students what the tunnels that the VietCong used were like.
  • Digital History - for background info, articles for students, and a handy list of films about the war along with film clips.
  • Asian-Nation.org - this website is by a sociologist, who happens to be Vietnamese. The whole website is full of useful information about Asian Americans. The link I have given is to the section on the Vietnam War, but look at the other tabs under "Viet Nam" because he also has information about the country, earlier history and current issues. For example you can look here for info about Vietnamese Americans or here to learn more about Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, so your students don't only associate it with the Tet Offensive.
  • Check out the websites of the presidential libraries of EisenhowerKennedy, Johnson and Nixon. All four have tabs just for teachers/education. Additionally, the Miller Center offers a rich collection of resources about presidents and Vietnam (useful for topics other than Vietnam, too, fyi.) Last year, I did step 2 and 3 from this lesson off the JFK library website. If you scroll to the end of that document, you will find two really great letters to use with students. One is from a woman who lost her brother in Vietnam, writing to Kennedy. The second is Kennedy's reply. See JuniorHistorian's edit of LBJ's "Peace without Conquest" speech of April 1965 (50 years ago last month!) along with some good questions for students.
  • I have used excerpts from the PBS series, Vietnam: A Television History. In particular, I like the episode, "America Takes Charge, 1965-1967" which discusses escalation and "Homefront USA" that discusses the antiwar movement in response to increasing casualties in Vietnam.
  • JuniorHistorian.com has a cool lesson on the election of 1968, the contentious election that occurred at the height of the anti-war movement.
  • recent article from former talk show host Dick Cavett, looking back at the Vietnam War. This is for teachers because it's too long and includes too many references students won't understand. He wrote it regarding his recently aired program on Vietnam, which I unfortunately missed.
  • And last but least, no unit on the Vietnam War is complete without reference to some of the music that, in a way, became a "soundtrack" of the period. Students are often familiar with some of these songs but often have no clue as to their historic significance. This essay from the Gilder Lehrman Institute provides useful background for the teacher. A quick search on youtube and Google produced a gazillion lists of Vietnam War era music, playlists, etc. I leave it to you to decide which ones to use, as if I start going on all these links I will never finish this post. There are so many that is hard for me to choose. I like to use "Fortunate Son," "War," "Eve of Destruction," and Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. But I could go on and on...

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Vietnam

I didn't study anything about the war in Vietnam until college. Like all too many American students, my high school history education stopped abruptly with V-J day.

But my first exposure to Vietnam was in middle school, when part way through the school year, we got a new student in class.  Our teachers introduced him and explained that he was from Vietnam. We didn't know where that was, and he couldn't tell us much, because he didn't speak much English. Despite his poor grasp of English, he seemed to understand all too clearly that at least some kids made fun of his odd-sounding foreign name and funny accent. 

One day his mother came to class as a guest speaker. She spoke English just fine. And she told us about the family's harrowing experiences escaping from Vietnam after the war, and their eventual journey to the United States.  I remember watching some of my classmates--the ones who had teased this boy--squirming uncomfortably in their seats.

Political cartoon by David Levine.
The Vietnam War is like that. It makes us squirm in our seats. Not only is it a story without a happy ending, it has left more than just the scar on Johnson's presidency, as depicted in the famous cartoon on the left. Not even counting--for a moment--the actual casualties of the war, this conflict that lasted over twenty-five years was responsible for an increasing skepticism and cynicism about U.S. foreign policy, distrust of the government in general, and the presidency in particular, from which we have yet to recover.

Funny that the seventies is known the "Me" decade, isn't it? When we think about the Vietnam War that ended in the 1970s, it's all "US, US, US"--pun intended. Our study of the conflict is very much from the American perspective.

That makes some sense. We are, after all, American and teaching American history. But widening our perspective might not be a bad thing to do. For starters, students are often surprised to know that in Vietnam, the conflict is referred to as the "American War."

Try this experiment with your students: have them search on Google the term "Vietnam War Casualties." Of the nine sites that showed up on the first page of Google results when I tried this, only three (Wikipedia was one) included Vietnamese casualties. Or even before that, try Googling "Vietnam." If you do a search on any other country, you will get news, tourist information and the like. You will get that if you enter "Vietnam," too, but you will also a few sites just about the war. That is not true of any other place on earth. Only googling "Iraq" and "Afghanistan" come close.

So I think before we teach anything about Vietnam, we might want to point out this American, war-centric perspective. And share the casualties. From both sides. (Note: this link is a great resource for all things Vietnam War related.)

A few years ago, I stumbled across the book, History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History which I mentioned in an earlier post about the Annexation of the Philippines. There is a chapter on Vietnam that includes excerpts from textbooks from Vietnam, France and Canada. For an excellent online source about the Vietnamese perspective, see this page. It's well worth reading the whole thing, but then scroll down to the part where it mentions the overall key points that are taught in Vietnam. I have excerpted the first point below:

It was a war against American invasion
In Vietnam, the war is called as the “Resistance War Against the United States (to protect the country)” (chien tranh chong My cuu nuoc). It is always taught that the U.S. was another colonist power and imperialist just like the French and that Vietnam is not a civil war but instead a war against American invasion.
This is an important concept for students to grasp and worth introducing at the beginning of your unit. It is complex, and you would probably want to revisit this interpretation as you go through the unit. But it speaks volumes about how differently both sides saw the war. We need to consider the Vietnam War from these different perspectives. Was it a proxy war, a civil war between North and South Vietnam, a colonial war of resistance, an effort to stop the spread of communism? That depends on what side one was on, and there were more than two. (I can feel a new idea for a lesson coming on...."Read each of the quotations below. Which perspective from this list best describes the author's understanding of the war?")

In my next post I will share a few lesson materials on Vietnam, but in the meantime, I will conclude with a few basic points that I think students need up front before they can start critically examining the period.

1. Where is Vietnam? Make sure students can find it on a map. Understanding that it was a nation few Americans could find on a map when we first became involved is key, too. Understanding Vietnam's location in relation to China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines is worthwhile, too.

2. War was never declared, so why do we call it a war?  Remind them: only Congress has the power to declare war, as stated in Article I, section 8, clause 11. You could have a whole lesson on this, and later in your unit students will likely encounter the War Powers Resolution of 1973. But I like to at least mention this at the outset and remind them that the precedent had been set in Korea.

1975 Political Cartoon - this particular copy of this cartoon, 
coincidentally, is the copy owned by President Obama that 
will be displayed in the Obama library. 
3. Vietnam was America's longest war.  Students associate Vietnam with the sixties. Understandably. But make sure they know that while the U.S. first sends troops in 1965 and "advisers" before that, the roots of the conflict in Vietnam begin much earlier. Vietnam was a matter of discussion by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. And Ho Chi Minh was at Versailles back in 1919 trying to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson. (FYI, the link is to a the Wall Street Journal's commemoration of World War I. Bookmark this site for your World War I unit--wish I had known about it sooner!) Just like the Civil Rights movement doesn't begin overnight with Brown v. Board, the Vietnam War doesn't start with Kennedy or Johnson.

4. I also like to set up the unit by introducing a few overall, essential questions raised by U.S. involvement in Vietnam. There are many, but the three I like to focus on throughout the unit are below. They are adapted from historian George C. Herring. I post them up on the board and refer back to them as we go.
  •  Why such a huge commitment in an area of so little apparent importance? In other words, why did we get involved in Vietnam in the first place? Why did we continue?
  • Why, despite an enormous military arsenal and spending $150 billion, did the world's most powerful nation still fail to accomplish its objectives?
  • What were the long term consequences of this failed foreign policy for the U.S. government? for public confidence? for later foreign policy? For good measure, either to introduce the unit or conclude it, you could introduce the concept of the Vietnam Syndrome. The cartoon below is useful for that, though pretty challenging. There is a lot of background knowledge students would need to understand it. An easier one, and one of my personal favorites, you can see here. It's by cartoonist Daryl Cagle and dates from March 2003. This is a theme to develop further when you get to the Gulf Wars and --if you make it!--to the present day.
There are a few other good cartoons and a thought-provoking article about Iraq replacing Vietnam in our national psyche which you can see in this article from the Huffington Post.
Cartoon above found here. 

For more on Vietnam see my next post which includes a few things of mine and links to some other great resources. Find that here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Another Famous Act of 1965:

Immigration Since 1965


There has been a lot of attention this year to the 50th anniversary of Selma and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But there is another law that was passed in October of that year that garners little attention in history classes. Yet it had a profound effect on American society.
President Johnson signing the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act
on Liberty Island in New York City.

As I have said over and over again on this blog, we cannot teach everything and we have to cut content often to avoid our class becoming a laundry list of one battle, one piece of legislation or one presidential election after another.

But the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, is the foundation for the mosaic of ethnic and racial diversity in the United States today.

As I looked out at the faces of my students last spring--nearly half had parents or grandparents from the Middle East and South Asia-- I realized how important it is to teach about this piece of legislation that is usually forgotten in the curriculum. Depending on where you teach, you might also have many students who would not be in your class were it not for this law, as it led to a dramatic increase in the numbers of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Latin American and Asia in particular. Most of teach about the dramatic increase in immigration during the period 1880-1920. Common sense would suggest we should teach about 1965, too, no matter what the ethnic background is of our students.

A few posts ago, I discussed the importance of including art, literature and music in our history course. But we also need to include basic sociological and geographic data. For example, check out the pie charts below:

Image above from teacher.scholastic.com. Click on link for additional numeric data on immigration and questions teachers can use with students to analyze the data. 
You may have introduced students to the 1921 and 1924 immigration acts which preceded this law, if you spend any time discussing nativism, either in your unit on late 19th century immigration or when you got to the 1920s. But if not, you should introduce students to that legislation. No need to get into the nitty gritty details, but they need to understand what the old quota system was. I touched on this briefly in an earlier post. And see page 10 of this lesson from CUNY for a handy table showing the quotas (the rest of the lesson has some good stuff, too!)

When researching for this post, I learned 3 really interesting things I did not know about the 1965 act (one of the many reasons I love doing this blog):
  1. Prior to 1965, 70 percent of all immigrants to the U.S. came from just three countries!! Can you guess? The answer is at the end of this post.
  2. If you read the end of Johnson's speech about the law's passage, you will see that he concludes with an appeal to Cubans seeking asylum in the United States. He asks Congress for $12.6 million to do it. More on Cuban immigration here. Interesting in light of recent news about changes in U.S. policy on Cuba.
  3. Surprisingly, nobody in the government thought that the law would dramatically change the composition of U.S. immigrants! Obviously, if you look at the graphs above and link to the additional ones, a lot of people were wrong. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, for example, commented on the possibilities of large numbers emigrating from India:
The present estimate, based upon the best information we can get, is that there might be, say, 8,000 immigrants from India in the next five years ... I don't think we have a particular picture of a world situation where everybody is just straining to move to the United States ... There is not a general move toward the United States.
Boy, was he wrong! According to the Center for Immigration Studies article where I found the above quotation, there were nearly 28,000 immigrants from India in the next five years--more than 3 times what Rusk had predicted. It would be interesting to discuss with students how such incorrect predictions (and the not-so-subtle racism that motivated the assurances) allowed an otherwise unpopular measure to pass. Read more on that in this story from National Public Radio.
Additional resources on the law itself:
Additional resources about immigration in general & statistical data:
  • Migration Policy Institute - all kinds of articles, fact sheets, and statistics on contemporary immigration
  • If you've never been to the U.S. Census website, it is time! There is so much stuff on this website, it's hard to know where to begin, so check out these infographics for starters. (Just 'cuz I think they're pretty cool.) But if you're here for the immigration info, start here.
  • ImmigrationPolicy.org Demographic Info
  • Google things like "immigration statistics," "immigration demographics" and include the name of your state, region or city and you will find information specific to your community. Also check out this interactive map.
Additional resources about Latino Americans, Asian Americans and immigration from Africa:

Answer to point #1 above: 70% of immigrants to the U.S. came from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany. Did you guess right?

Coming up next post: Vietnam...

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Top 8 Mistakes Teachers Make When Teaching the Modern Civil Rights Era

And a Few Suggestions on How to Fix Them

I am a little concerned that I am biting off more than I can chew with this post, but I feel compelled to address these issues, as I see them often--not just in classrooms that I visit, or stories I hear from kids about what they have learned in their classes, but even in the mainstream media and among adults. And I see some of these problems even as I look through my own class materials on this unit. So the problems are something I, too, have been working to address.

Jaquelyn Dowd Hall, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote an influential essay in 2005 in The Journal of American History. You can read the entire essay here, though you can get the sense of her argument from the second paragraph which I quote below:

Centering on what Bayard Rustin in 1965 called the “classical” phase of the struggle, the dominant narrative chronicles a short civil rights movement that begins with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, proceeds through public protests, and culminates with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then comes the decline. After a season of moral clarity, the country is beset by the Vietnam War, urban riots, and reaction against the excesses of the late 1960s and the 1970s, understood variously as student rebellion, black militancy, feminism, busing, affirmative action, or an overweening welfare state. A so-called white backlash sets the stage for the conservative interregnum that, for good or ill, depending on one’s ideological persuasion, marks the beginning of another story, the story that surrounds us now.
This is the narrative that many of us teach. And it is not completely wrong. But it is "a" narrative. And, like any narrative, it leaves things out. It hides the nuances and the complications. So I'm going to try to highlight at least 8 of them. (For more on the historiography, you read this brief article by historian Eric Arnesen, "Reconsidering the Long Civil Rights Movement.")

Mistake #1: Teaching that the Civil Rights Movement Begins in the 1950s

The narrative highlighted above by Hall could not have happened out of the blue. We know this. We are supposed to be teaching cause and effect. So what caused the events of the 1950s--the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the Brown decision? If you teach about Brown v. Board, you have to review Plessy v. Ferguson. If students studied that as part of an earlier unit on Reconstruction or the post-Reconstruction period, then you will likely need to review.

But the bigger issue is presenting the start of the movement when Rosa Parks was too tired to move to the back of the bus (more on Parks in mistake #2). The best "fix" for this problem I have seen is a lesson by Bruce Lesh described in his fantastic book, Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer.
The lesson he describes in chapter 7, "Using the Civil Rights Movement to Teach Historical Signifcance" is worth the price of the book (and is where I was introduced to the Hall essay I mentioned above). In it, he first asks students to consider what makes something significant. By showing images--some really famous, like the ones on the left and others that are less so like the one below. Students were instructed to pick one or two they thought were most associated with African American civil rights. Then you discuss the criteria they used to decide whether something is historically significant or not. Why is it that the rise of the black power movement in the mid-1960s is not as clearly fixed in our minds as a key moment of the civil rights movement as Rosa Parks on the bus? Having students reflect on that is a powerful way to get them to think about history in general and how we choose which stories become a part of our "national story." Lesh's book offers a more complete discussion of how to go about this, so I urge you to check it out. Click here for the slides I created to go with this lesson, though of course you could create your own.

Following the phase above, students examine a list of key events connected to African American civil rights dating back to the first decade of the 20th century and use the information to complete a chart. I know--I have criticized the use of such things in earlier posts, but this is different. Because you have to let them know the purpose of the chart.
They will NOT have to memorize ANY of this, so they don’t need lots of detail on the chart. The idea is to get a general idea of all the things that happened involving Civil Rights in the period before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, which is when most history books start talking about the Civil Rights Movement. Then they apply the criteria you developed in the first part of the lesson when looking at the pictures to decide which time period could best be described as "the birth" of the Civil Rights movement. here's the chart I used (Lesh has a reproducible one in his book that is longer. I designed mine to be more appropriate for my 8th graders, though it is also usable for high school. There's more to the lesson than that, but that is the main idea. Again, check out Lesh's book. 

And also keep in mind that if you have taught some African African history all along, you are better equipped to avoid the mistake of relegating civil rights to only the 1950s and 1960s. (See my earlier post on Blacks and the Progressive Era.)

Mistake #2: Overemphasizing the Role of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King

We have done a very good job of teaching about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. So good that when students were asked in a series of studies who are the most famous Americans other than presidents, of the thousands of names that students listed, King and Parks showed up on a quarter of all lists. (Check out this this article by Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano.) But a Civil Rights movement with only Parks and King is a woefully incomplete one. Ava DuVernay, the director of the recent film, Selma, described her focus for the film, "My interest was showing people on the ground in Selma. The band of brothers and sisters who were around King." (quoted here). Her point is well-taken (Though oddly, I'd argue that the film doesn't do that nearly as well as focusing on King. See the segment, "The Man or the Movement?" in the podcast, BackStory: Pop History for a similar view from the historian Brian Balogh.) 

There are plenty of other famous and non-famous folks who made the movement happen. Try this game with fellow history teachers: have them guess who was on the cover of TIME magazine on August 30, 1963 with the banner, "The Negro Revolution to Date." Click here for the answer. 

Surprising isn't it?

Few of our students know about Claudette Colvin, the 15 year old girl who first refused to move to the back of the bus. Focusing on young people can send a powerful message to our students about their ability to effect change. The documentary, Mighty Times: The Children's March, is a good example of this, that works well with students (and is about 40 minutes--good timing.) There is also a wonderful book, Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories, by Ellen Levine that I have used successfully. The excerpt by Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine works especially well to read aloud to middle or high schoolers. Another useful collection of oral histories is Voices of Freedom by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer. You can also find online collections of oral histories from the Library of CongressCivil Rights Movement Veterans, The Southern Oral History Program, just to name a few.

Mistake #3: Over-simplifying Martin Luther King

When elementary school students listen to the same part of King's "I Have a Dream" speech every year on Martin Luther King Day, it is no wonder that their understanding of King is so narrow. To quote Jacquelyn Dowd Hall again,

Martin Luther King Jr. is this narrative’s defining figure—frozen in 1963, pro-claiming “I have a dream” during the march on the Mall. Endlessly reproduced and selectively quoted, his speeches retain their majesty yet lose their political bite. We hear little of the King who believed that “the racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem” and who attacked segregation in the urbanNorth. Erased altogether is the King who opposed the Vietnam War and linked racism at home to militarism and imperialism abroad. Gone is King the democratic socialist who advocated unionization, planned the Poor People’s Campaign, and was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike
I can think of no better resource to help remedy this mistake than "The Fierce Urgency of Now" podcast from the 3 historians at Backstory.org. You can listen to the podcast, or read through the transcript from the website. It offers a lot of insight into the March that will change how you and your students think about it. And they offer some excellent additional resources if you need more. Students should understand what the march was supposed to be about and that other folks were there besides King and the masses (show 'em the TIME magazine cover). If you like, you can have students read all or some of the famous speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz that was delivered just before King's speech. But most importantly students should know that the "I have a dream" speech has more in it than just the "I have a dream part" they hear year after year. Have students read the first half of the speech!

And then you have to make sure that read more of King than just this speech. King's letter from a Birmingham jail is a classic source for good reason. Here are excerpts from that letter with questions that I used with my 8th graders last year. But we also need to use speeches King gave after the successes of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can look at theKingCenter.org to find some of these speeches. His "Beyond Vietnam" speech given at Riverside Church in April of 1967 is a good example. Read more about the speech in this NPR interview with Tavis Smiley.


Mistake #4: So were JFK and LBJ Good Guys or a Bad Guys? 


I actually had a student ask me that question once about LBJ in connection to Vietnam. He had decided (probably based on my flawed Civil Rights unit) that LBJ was a "good guy" because of his role in the 1964 and 1965 legislation. Then came Vietnam, and, well...that's another narrative for another post. But the question is embedded in the way we teach Civil Rights, too. And not just for Johnson, but also for Kennedy. Kennedy's speech of June 11, 1963 (view here): good guy. But Kennedy before that: not so good. (Read a commentary about this shift from The Atlantic.) And the same for LBJ. Ever the master politician, Johnson seems to flip on issues whenever it is politically expedient to do so. For more on Johnson, check out this Terry Gross's interview on Fresh Air with Todd S. Purdum, the author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come. Or even better, put Robert Caro's The Passage to Power on your summer reading list. If there are too many other things on your summer list, just check out the chapters that discuss the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

My point is that neither JFK, LBJ or MLK for that matter are flawless heroes. Life is complicated. Politics are complicated. There is good and bad. Our job is to help students understand multiple perspectives and the fuzzy, gray areas.

Mistake #5: Neglecting to Discuss the Civil Rights Movement in the North


I don't know about you, but last year when I was teaching the Civil Rights movement, I looked at the calendar and realized if I wanted to get to Vietnam, I better get moving! Poor planning can lead us to mention a few riots in the North, mumble something about the appeal of Malcolm X to urban blacks, and then give the unit test and push along. But a Civil Rights movement that starts in Montgomery, moves to Little Rock and ends in Selma is woefully incomplete. It suggests to our students that once segregation officially ended, all was well. I suspect that for those of us who live in the urban North, it is unpleasant to admit that racism was alive and well in the North, too, and still is. But with recent events in Baltimore, this is just...well, urban legend.

Because I am in Chicago, I like to teach about King's summer in Chicago in 1966. If you live in or near a different northern city, I would try to find something from your own city. But if not, Chicago is still a great case study, because the movement was not terribly successful there, pointing out the challenges of solving all the racial and underlying economic problems in the North. (On a side note, I often wonder what it must be like to teach U.S. history in the South--the burden of having to teach the Civil War and about things like Birmingham and Selma. The reading that follows on the movement in Chicago should make Southern students feel better that it was hardly just the South that was "the bad guy"in the 1960s).

The first thing I did when I taught this to students was to show them a pile of nine U.S. history textbooks commonly used in middle and high schools--including theirs--and ask them why they thought only one mentioned King's summer in Chicago. That discussion in and of itself was fascinating (and quite revealing about what the assumptions students make about textbooks). But that was just a brief introduction before reading an article about the campaign in Chicago. Students read the article for homework, and prepared discussion questions which they used in class the following day. The article is adapted from a story in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine. The lesson was made even better by the fact that the assistant principal's mother had grown up in Marquette Park, so she (the assistant principal, not her mother) came in to talk about it. Never pass up an opportunity to make history personal. If you can find a guest speaker, or an article about your own city, go for it.


Mistake #6: Teaching MLK and Malcolm X as Opposites and Teaching them out of Context


Try this experiment. Type "Martin Luther King vs" into your browser. Does your browser automatically suggest "Malcolm X" as what should follow? Yeah, mine too. How little Google knows about Malcolm X!

Pitting the two against each other is done far too often in civil rights curriculum materials and out in the real world, too. While a lesson like this one from Edsitement offers some good materials, it posits a dichotomy that is overly simplistic and misrepresents both King and Malcolm X.

Or take this lesson from the Gilder Lehrman Institute (note, you may have to sign up to be a member in order to view the lesson.) After reading just a few excerpts from one speech each of King's and X's, students are asked to write an essay that addresses the following question:
“Choose the leader whose methods and message you found to be the most convincing.” 
What a student in 2015 thinks is the most convincing message does not address a historic question. Most convincing about what? And to whom? Convincing to a 20 year old black man in Watts circa 1965? Or to a Mississippi woman circa 1963? Or to either in 1968?

For a more thoughtful analysis of these two men check out these lesson plans, originally published in the OAH (Organization of American Historians) Magazine in 2005. While you probably don't have time to use the entire set of lessons, you can easily pick and choose from it. Plus it offers a useful conceptual background for you, the teacher, to help remedy this mistake.

I created this handout to help students see the evolution of Malcolm X's views and how they relate to those of King's. I also have had students watch a section from the Eyes on the Prize series mentioned in the OAH lesson above. It's the episode, "America at the Crossroads, 1964-1966," though they don't watch the entire thing. And these are the discussion questions that I use with/after the film.

Another idea: I haven't read everything on this link which is a debate about MLK v. Malcom X from debate.org, but I think you could probably do something interesting with it for high school students. Perhaps having them read some of the entries, commenting on them, thinking about historical inaccuracies....?


Mistake #7: Missing the Opportunity to Connect to the Rest of the World


One of the things that makes teaching the 20th century challenging is the skipping around from domestic to foreign policy to domestic again. I remember the same student who asked me the question about LBJ being kind of amazed by the fact that everything we were talking about in Vietnam was going on at the same time as all the stuff in the previous unit on Civil Rights. (No wonder all our presidents' hair turns gray in office!)
Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King arriving in New Delhi.

So the mistake we need to avoid is keeping our unit on the Civil Rights too separate from that of Vietnam. We don't want our students' hair to turn gray, so we probably need to make it two units, but you can at least remind them repeatedly of the connections during both units.But--and here's the bigger mistake, I think: we neglect to connect the Civil Rights era to the Cold War that may precede it in our teaching, but is happening at the same time in real life. An essay by Kevin Gains, "The Civil Rights Movement in World Perspective" is an excellent resource for this. It is worth reading (and only 8 pages.) Looks like may be able to link to it from your local library here. This article gave me some insights that I used to create this lesson on Martin Luther's trip to Ghana and India. We tend to be rather myopic in U.S. history and fail to connect what happens in the U.S. to what is happening elsewhere in the world. This lesson helps remedy that.
It gives me an opportunity to remind students about a major event in world history--decolonization--and connect that to the Cold War and Civil Rights. Examples like African dignitaries coming to segregated Washington, D.C. are revealing. Or John F. Kennedy realizing what bad PR the photo to the left is for U.S. standing abroad, as he tried to portray the country as Leader of the Free World.






Mistake #8: Failure to Connect to the Present


Click here to read the article and for larger image of this chart.
An article in yesterday's Washington Post points out that public opinion about deaths of black men at the hands of police has changed over the past year. The article states, "The end result is that incidents that would have been local news stories a year ago 'now [appear] to fit this larger national narrative.'"
While public opinion is still split and there is still a big gap between blacks, whites, Democrats, and Republicans, the article claims that the shift from December is significant.

It is challenging to discuss these events in class--not just because it is a controversial topic, but because everything is still so current. But this doesn't excuse us from trying. As history teachers, even when we know that there are few "right answers" in history, we feel a little safer in the past. Teaching about today is far messier. But even raising the questions-- in what ways do recent events in Baltimore suggest that inequality between blacks and whites is still a problem? in what ways do they suggest civil rights for young black males in particular are still compromised?-- helps students see connections between what they are studying and what is going on in the world today.

And in this unit in particular, not raising current examples of inequality sends the message that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s solved everything and was an unqualified success.
You can use this document I created to help dispel that myth.

And here are a few resources for teaching about Ferguson and Baltimore:

And a few additional resources for teaching about civil rights: