Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Asking Questions about Black History Month

Every February 1st, I explained to students why we would not be doing anything "special" for Black History Month. And while I am comfortable with that decision, I have always thought it was important to explain to my students why I made that decision.

Quite a few years have past since I first did that, and the passage of time has only served to further convince me that this is good choice.

Let me be clear: I do NOT believe that having a black president means everything is okay for African Americans or with race relations in the United States. I do not believe we are in a "post-racial" era. (See resources below). But I do think we are in an era when the concept of Black History Month raises more questions than it solves problems. So at the beginning of February, I prefer to raise questions.

For those of us who teach U.S. history, isolating our study of African American history to February doesn't work well on a practical level or conceptually. We simply cannot tell or analyze the story of the United States without Black History. Our school year starts in August; we cannot wait for February.

This 2009 article, "With a black president in the White House, some wonder if Black History Month is still necessary" echoes what I used to tell students. It also explains how the month came to be, which is also worth sharing with students. (You can read more on that here). Interestingly, the founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson himself hoped that one day Black History Month (in his day it was Negro History Week) would no longer be necessary. The article also touches on an issue which has come to concern me a lot in the last few years: the possibility that poor history teaching and reading the about the same few African American heroes every year and reading only King's, "I Have a Dream Speech" as a way to learn about Civil Rights will trivialize and simplify a history that is far more complex.

I would also recommend a much older article (which I have given to students to read) written by an African American school principal, Wayne Joseph, "Why I Dread Black History Month."  Published in Newsweek, the link attributes the article to "Newsweek staff," but it was originally published in the "My Turn" section. It makes a convincing argument against separating out Black history from American history.

So what about the idea of spending a few minutes each day or week focusing on one African American figure in history? I'm not so keen on that either. Again, from a practical sense, it doesn't really work (we've only got 40-50 minutes!). But I also fear it leads to the sort of activities that involve students making superficial posters about black heroes that may or may not have a relevant connection to American history and trivializing the very real accomplishments of individual African Americans on the one hand, and African American history in general on the other.

And are we going to do this all year long for all the other groups of Americans and for all the other months...?
Heritage Celebrated
None to date
African American History Month
National Women's History Month
None to date
Asian Pacific American Heritage, Older Americans Month and Jewish American Heritage Month
Gay Lesbian Pride Month
None to date
None to date
National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15)
National Disability Employment Awareness Month and National Italian American Heritage Month
National American Indian Heritage Month
None to date; are two international commemorations
link for above chart and info about each month (Check out the website it came from:

I will devote my next post to African Americans during the Progressive Era. (I note with bemusement that I often taught this topic by fluke of the calendar during the first day or two of February).

A few articles and other resources about the debate over whether or not the United States is now "post-racial."

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Progressives and the Environment: the Beginning of the Conservation Movement

As I've already mentioned, there are LOTS of topics that could potentially be studied in a unit on Progressivism. Why pick one over another? I like to spend a couple of days on the environment--a topic less often addressed by teachers, I think--for a few reasons. First, the care of the natural environment is a central concern in our society today and one that students seem to care about a lot. Global warming, the Keystone oil pipeline, fracking and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are all in the news today. Two, there are not a lot of other places in the curriculum where the environment comes up. And three, the Progressive Era marks a key "turning point" in American thinking about the environment.

For starters, 1916 marks the passage of the Organic Act, which created the National Park Service (though not the first national park--that was Yellowstone in 1872). According to this law, the goal of the NPS would be:
" conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." 

I am hardly the first to point out the inherent contradictions of this statement: does "conserve the scenery" and keeping it "unimpaired for enjoyment of future generations" mean the NPS might have to restrict current public access and "enjoyment"?

The National Parks have been described by environmentalist and writer Wallace Stegner as, "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." The creation of the NPS is certainly a milestone moment in American history and worth considering. (See below for links to Ken Burns documentary on National Parks).

The essential question that comes to mind is, why now? Why in the early 20th century do Americans and their government begin talking about the environment in a way that they hadn't before? How did our views about the environment change over time?

One way to begin a lesson on this topic is to have students play around with some key words, considering what they mean, how they are different and their own views:

  • environmentalism
  • conservation
  • preservation
  • wilderness
  • nature
  • green (not the color, obviously)
  • reclamation
Another way to begin is to use a few quotations about environmentalism and conservation. Pick a few from any of the websites below. Something from Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Wallace Stegner, or Stewart Udall are all good choices.

The DBQ I put together and used with students focuses on this question:
How and why did the government's policy toward the use of natural resources change during the Progressive Era?
 To answer the question, obviously students need to understand 3 things:
  1. What were American views/govt policies on the environment before the Progressive Era?
  2. What influenced the shift? i.e. why did policies change?
  3. What were those new policies? i.e. how did they change
To answer these, you can go back to the "beginning"--the period of initial contact between Europeans and Native Americans. William Cronon is the historian who has probably best explained the different points of view in his book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. For a brief summary, you can look here. One of his key points is that Europeans viewed land as property, something one owns, versus the New England Indians who were more likely to eschew land ownership in favor of usufruct rights, in which people "owned" only what they use on the land (e.g. hunting and gathering).

But I usually just go back to the nineteenth century, with a simple in class activity in which students look up a few bits of information about the topics below (most textbooks will work for this, and "a few bits" is all they usually have):
  • manifest destiny
  • Homestead Act of 1862
  • Pacific Railway Act and government subsidies
  • destruction of the buffalo
Then students consider what implications this has about how the American people and the government thought about land, conservation and the environment. Middle schoolers and high schoolers can do this, though middle schoolers may need either a little prodding, or you can do one of them together. Their ability to do it depends a little bit on what your textbook says about each of these things. If you don't like what your textbook says, find a different one, or write up your own "definitions" of them.

Then it's time to examine the shift. For this part of the lesson, I use two things:

  1. maps:  one that depicts the "closing" of the frontier and the extent of settlement (your textbook probably has one). Here are some links to ones you might like:, and here's a GIF one from the US Census.
  2. Frederick Jackson Turner and the "Closing of the Frontier Turner" thesis. Read more here and here or here. Even though it has been discredited, it was considered important at the time. I'm not sure I would use this with middle schoolers. Too theoretical. I think the maps are enough. Here is the document and questions on Turner that I use in class.
Combining the above with the significant droughts of the 1890s, you can start to understand the shift.

And then along come Theodore Roosevelt. My last post has resources where you can find more on his love for the wilderness and experiences with nature that led him to take an interest in preserving the environment just as the time seems to ripe for Americans to take a similar view.

I like to use Roosevelt's 1907 message to Congress as a document with students to understand the evolving view of conservation (vs. the preservationist view of folks like John Muir). Here is my edited version to use with high schoolers, and here is a shorter one to use with middle schoolers or younger/less able readers in HS. Both have the link to the PBS website where I found it.

And then lastly (this would not all be on the same day, mind you), I like to use the story about the debate over damming the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite to provide a water source for the city of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. It is a fascinating story and marks "the first time that competing claims of wilderness and civilization were put to the test before a national audience." (That's from my notes, but I'm sure it came from a book. Perhaps it's from the classic book on wilderness, Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind, now in its fourth edition. There's a whole chapter on Hetch Hetchy.)

The anti-dam folks, led by preservationist John Muir, made arguments that the pro-dam folks were putting commercial interests ahead of wilderness. Muir had been the driving force behind getting Yosemite turned into a national park in 1890 and had been camping with Roosevelt there in 1903. Muir was adamant about the importance of preserving the valley as it was:
"Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
Muir's friend and ally in the fight, Robert Underwood Johnson claimed, "this is a fight between the sordid commercialism on the one hand and the higher interests of the whole people on the other."

But the really interesting thing about the debate over Hetch Hetchy is that the proponents of the damn were not anti-wilderness. In fact, many arguments were made that putting a dam in would make the wilderness more beautiful. Read no further than the first few statements by U.S. Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot in response to California Congressman John Raker to get a sense of the argument.

You have several options for how to teach about this. You could construct an elaborate debate like this one that I found online, or use some of the many materials there to construct something simpler (and shorter). Other resources you can use to create your own debate or historical inquiry or even just a short lecture that dramatizes the events are below:

    Ken Burns has taken Wallace Stegner's statement about the national parks idea and turned it into one of his outstanding documentaries, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. For an overview of this documentary, click here and for the episode by episode synopsis, click here.

    The last section of Episode 2 focuses on the debate over Hetch Hetchy. Read more here (midway on the page). Earlier in Episode 2, the three main characters of the debate are introduced: Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, as well as Theodore Roosevelt.

    A few more resources:

    Monday, January 19, 2015

    "A Steam Engine in Trousers:" Teaching about Theodore Roosevelt

    I bet if you polled U.S. history teachers about their favorite presidents--not necessarily the ones they thought was the best, but their favorite--Theodore Roosevelt would top the list. He is not as great as Lincoln or as noble as Washington, or maybe even as successful as his cousin and biggest fan, FDR, but when it comes to the power of personality, he has to win the prize. The title of this post comes from a quotation I heard on Ken Burns's recent and marvelous documentary, The Roosevelts. I couldn't figure out who actually said it, but it is a brilliant metaphor for our most energetic and strong-willed presidents who had tremendous influence on the Progressive Era. A question worth pondering, would the Progressive Era have become what it did without the impact of such a powerful personality in the White House?

    Roosevelt is one of the most colorful presidents we have had, and the examples of interesting facts and anecdotes is long.
    • He was the youngest president to assume office (but not the youngest elected; that was JFK)
    • He is the first to be known by his initials.
    • He is the first president to have ridden in an automobile and an airplane. 
    • The first president to have visited a foreign country while in office--the newly-independent Panama to inspect the Panama Canal. (The story about how the U.S. got control over the Panama Canal is fascinating--and controversial. I would include it in a unit about late 19th century imperialism. I will do some posts on that in the future, so more on TR and the Panama Canal later.) 
    • He was a prolific writer. Click here for the list of books he wrote
    • He was the first American and the first American president to receive the Nobel peace prize. Read his acceptance speech here
    • He was a big-time family man. Interesting info about his children in the White House available here and here. Middle-schoolers will find this especially interesting.
    • He was a witness to Abraham Lincoln's funeral
    • Prominent Republican Mark Hanna's quip on TR being chosen for McKinley's Vice-Presidential running mate: "There's only one life between that madman and the Presidency."
    • Many students know that TR and FDR are related, but they don't usually understand how, nor do they always know about Eleanor. This family tree will help explain that. And what they also don't know is that what seems like a rather distant relationship to us (how many of you know your 5th cousins?) was not so distant in the Roosevelt family. Long before FDR married TR's niece, Eleanor, he knew and greatly admired his 5th cousin. The Oyster Bay Roosevelts (TR) and the Hyde Park Roosevelts (FDR) traveled in the same social circles and were together on many occasions, which is how FDR met Eleanor in the first place. They had known each other since childhood.

    There are also a number of interesting events/aspects of his young life that I think are worth sharing with students because of the influence they may have had on some of his future decisions as president and for becoming helping him become president in the first place. The items below also help humanize this out-sized historical figure. And making the past seem alive and full of real human beings is what helps students relate to history.

    1. His family, like so many others, was split by the Civil War. His mother, "Mittie" (Martha) Bulloch, was from Roswell, Georgia. She grew up in a large plantation, Bulloch Hall, as a member of Georgia's planter class. The family owned slaves, and Mittie herself has a personal slave, Lavinia. The main reason Theodore Sr. (TR's father) hired a replacement rather than fight in the Civil War was to avoid having to fight a war against Mittie's family. But his failure to fight for his country was something that would always bother TR about his father, whom he otherwise worshipped. This partly explains his determination to fight in the Spanish-American War and his organization of the Rough Riders. Mittie herself was a colorful and lively woman, and it has been suggested that the character of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind may have been inspired by her.

    2. It is well known that young Theodore suffered terribly from asthma. There are accounts of his beloved father walking with him in his arms throughout the night, or taking him outside for a ride in the night air. Theodore Sr. devoted enormous attention to helping his son with this terrible affliction. He told his son that he would have to "remake his body," which he did. And this slight, sickly little boy became the toughest, most macho president we've ever had.

    3. Young Theodore loved the outdoors, nature and was profoundly curious. He collected all kinds of animals and other specimens, some of which were donated to the American Museum of Natural History (well-known to your students because of the hit movie, A Night at the Museum). Read about it here. He also made donations to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. See this article.

    4. I also like to share with students the profoundly tragic experience of losing his beloved young wife, Alice, and his mother on the same day, February 14, 1884. His wife died two days following the birth of a daughter, also named Alice, which was hours before the death of Theodore's mother. For an excellent account which also shows a picture of Roosevelt's diary entry for that day, see this post from (could be very useful for lots of other topics--see the list of categories/topics on right). The post also has an excerpt from a tribute wrote about Alice and mentions that he never spoke of her again. I like to tell the story because its poignancy humanizes Roosevelt. It also adds to our picture of Roosevelt as someone who overcame personal tragedy and setbacks. And finally, it helps explain the significant role of wilderness in his life, which led him to become so engaged in the beginning of the conservation movement.

    5. Roosevelt's experiences out west also brought him into contact with people and a life very much outside of his upper class New York world. This certainly would have influenced his ability as president to connect with a wide variety of people. You can read here about his experiences in North Dakota. The Ken Burns series (see below) also has a good, brief section in Episode One about this transformative experienc.

    None of the above is to suggest that Roosevelt is without criticism. As many others as pointed out, he often took liberties with the Constitution. (See this lesson from the Bill of Rights Institute). Many conservatives and Republicans of his day saw him as a traitor to his social class and business interests. His involvement with the revolution that created an independent Panama is a prime example of U.S. imperialist. In fact, TR was an imperialist. I think it is critical, when presenting material on "heroic" and well-liked presidents, to point out these flaws to students. You don't have to do it on day one, but our students should be made cognizant of the flaws of our greatest men and women. The point is not to "take 'em down," or to present an overly critical view of history (as history teachers are so often accused of doing by conservative politicians). The point is to help students understand that real people and real events in history are messy and complicated. And today's lionized presidents--even Lincoln--may have been roundly disliked and criticized by people of their day and from our perspective today.

    Another interesting negative point about TR: Roosevelt was the first American president to invite a black man--Booker T. Washington--to a formal dinner at the White House. He was strongly criticized. Though he would meet with Washington again, and invite other black officials to White House receptions, he never again invited a black man (or woman) to dinner again. Read about it here. I don't think this means that Roosevelt was racist, but it certainly reflects the racism of the time, and Roosevelt's recognition of the importance of this symbolic action. Raising these sorts of controversies and inconsistencies with students further helps their ability to recognize the complexity of historical analysis.

    And another: our greatest "conservationist president" was a big-time hunter. Students often find this inconsistent. But there are even more interesting issues raised during Roosevelt's presidency about conservation during the debate about Hetch Hetchy. More on that in another post.

    Ken Burns's epic recent series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is a wonderful resource to share with students, or for background material for yourself. There is a page with resources specific to teachers here. If you go to this page, you can filter the videos by person (TR, FDR and ER) and then click on the one, "Theodore Roosevelt's Personality." It's a 3 1/2 minute clip with amusing anecdotes that shed light on Roosevelt's immense personality. If you want more, you could precede this with another clip, "Theodore Roosevelt Early Years," is also about 3 1/2 minutes and describes TR's experience at Harvard and his marriage to Alice Lee (but doesn't go on to her death).

    One idea you could try, instead of just showing some of the many cool video clips out there in order to tell them about interesting TR is, is to let students watch them individually (e.g. in your computer lab, if you have one, or at home if they have access) and ask them to comment on which aspect of TR's personality or time in his life do they think most shaped who he became as president. (I suppose you might have to do this after they learn about his presidency. But you could show the videos first, have them think about the question in advance, and then go back to the videos afterwards.) In addition to Ken Burns's film, there are lots more out there on youtube and elsewhere.
    "The Talented Mr. Roosevelt" - 2 min. clip from about his athleticism
    TR's family - 4 min. clip from that I don't recommend - boring, and too much about everything in too short of a time.

    As you would expect, there are a number of resources on the internet for learning more about TR.
    There are all the usual places: (see the links to all the brief essays on right)

    and here are the more specialized ones: - digital library project to collect a variety of resources. Also has useful virtual exhibits, including detailed timelines of his life and experiences, famous quotations, an encyclopedia that is organized around major themes of his life and presidency, and links to other library collections such as Harvard's and the Library of Congress. - has a brief biography and links on the left to other aspects of his life, e.g. TR the hunter, the family man, the conservationist, etc. and an article about how the teddy bear came to be named for TR. - I cannot seem to find who/what organization sponsors this website, but it seems to have links to EVERYTHING Theodore Roosevelt ever did, said or wrote and every other website and author that has mentioned Roosevelt. If you can't find what you're looking for from the links I have provided, you will find it here. 

    Things named for Theodore Roosevelt:
    • Two major parks (and probably countless minor ones, including a little known one in Chicago's South Loop where my kids used to play; are named in his honor because of it's location adjacent to Roosevelt Road and because Roosevelt praised Chicago's south neighborhood park system) -- Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Roosevelt Island in Washington, D.C.
    • A species of elk found in the Pacific Northwest--the Roosevelt Elk--is named after TR. 
    • And, for Chicago folk: Roosevelt Road (goes all the way from the lakefront to the town of Geneva, IL) was named for TR in 1919, after his death. (Roosevelt University was named for FDR). I'm sure that plenty of other towns, cities and states have things named for TR, but of course you have to check and see which Roosevelt.

    About Mount Rushmore, a site not without some controversy:
    You can read "official" info about why TR is included on it here, from the National Park Service. But I think this response from the Straight Dope is a little more enlightening.

    The list of outstanding biographies of TR is also long. I have a mild obsession with all the Roosevelts. Just a few of my favorites are at right. Two off the beaten track ones: If you haven't read it, The River of Doubt: Theodore 
    Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard is a great summer read. Tells the hard-to-believe-it's-even-true story of the poorly planned post-presidency trip down the River of Doubt in the Amazon with his son, Kermit. Also, The Roosevelt Women: A Portrait in Five Generations by Betty Boyd Caroli is a great resource for learning more not only about the usual suspects--TR's wife, Edith, and his niece, Eleanor--but also about his mother and influential sisters. Some have argued that, but for her gender, Roosevelt's sister, Bamie, would have been the obvious choice for the presidency. I was impressed by how much I learned about Theodore from reading about his fascinating family.

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    History & the Movies: Selma

    March 6 update: Hooray! One of my favorite podcasts recently took on this issue. Check out BackStory with the American History Guys recent episode about history & the movies.

    Jan 17 update: In response to one of my tweets, I was alerted to this helpful resource from, "The Selma Voting Rights Struggle: 15 Points from Bottom-Up History and Why It Matters Today." Thank you to the for alerting me to it. Also, check out "Ten Things You Should Know about Selma before You See the Film" from

    And here is the link to read the transcript of the telephone conversation between LBJ and MLK on January 15, 1965. This is the key area in which the film's interpretation differs significantly from actual historic record. The film makes it seem like LBJ is really dragging; the transcript shows that LBJ wanted MLK to create the rationale to help LBJ move Congress (and public opinion) towards passage of voting rights bill.

    June 5 update: This is one of the better reviews I have read about the film, since it came out. It discusses the Eyes on the Prize documentary about Selma in comparison to the film. Also, if you are looking for more Civil Rights resources, see my post, ""The Top 8 Mistakes Teachers When Teaching the Modern Civil Rights Era."

    Original Post:

    I don't usually teach about the modern Civil Rights movement until April, but if your students are going to see the new movie, Selma, it will be soon, so I figured I'd get this post in the bank, so to speak, right now.

    I haven't even seen the film yet--hope to soon--but as soon as I heard it was coming out an alarm immediately went off in my head and I had these questions:

    1. How historically accurate will the film be?
    2. What inaccuracies will there be and will they matter?
    3. I always liked showing episode 6 of the outstanding Eyes on the Prize documentary: Bridge to Freedom which is about the march to Selma. Will teachers still use documentaries instead of full-length feature films? Would students be bored with a documentary if they've seen Selma? Will they see the feature film as "truth" and then question the story told by the documentary (keeping in mind that documentaries, just like history books, also have their own "versions" of history and leave certain points out and others in)?
    4. Who will students respond to more, the real MLK as seen in Eyes on the Prize and other documentaries or the actor who plays him, David Oyelowo? How could any actor top the man himself?
    5. When we internalize fictional accounts of history, what is lost? what is gained?
    6. What larger questions does this raise about who "owns" history? How do the stories and versions of history we tell ourselves shape our understanding of the past?

    Because I haven't seen the movie yet, I don't have my own opinion to share, but lots of other folks have. So below are a few resources I've pulled together which may be useful for you to read so you can address the questions and comments from your students. I'm sure there are many more out there, but it's a start.

    • Ken Halla, on his US History Educator blog posted on this today. See his Resources on Selma, including some excellent ones from the LBJ Library.
    • Elizabeth Drew, "'Selma' vs. History," in New York Review of Books - about how LBJ is portrayed as being more opposed to MLK than he really was.
    • A few resources from NPR (National Public Radio), on their Code Switch blog, a site devoted to issues of race, culture and ethnicity:
    reactions in Selma to the movie
    "Selma backlash misses the point" - from Tufts University history professor Peniel E. Joseph. Really interesting. Says, "The real problem many critics have with this film is that it's too black and too strong." Ouch. 
    "The Selma Criticism for How It Portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: Is It Fair?

    An idea I'm thinking about, for when you do teach the Civil Rights movement: some sort of historical inquiry where students examine clips from some of the above articles and the historic record of Selma to make their own determination of either the accuracy of the film (this would require that students have seen the film, either on their own or a viewing that you arrange after class or something) or their own editorial about the extent to which historical accuracy in this film matters.

    And for when/if you use Eyes on the Prize to teach about Selma or other parts of the Civil Rights movement, see the Study guide for Eyes on the Prize from Blackside Productions, the makers of the Eyes on the Prize. 200-plus page guide to the full film series with questions for each film.

    Sunday, January 11, 2015

    Progressivism Continued: One way to Tame the Tyranny of Coverage...Plus, a few thoughts on Paris

    For ideas on how to teach about last week's events in Paris, scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

    James Loewen, in his book, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History, gives outstanding advice to history teachers in chapter 1 which is titled, "The Tyranny of Coverage." In it, he compares the content of history to forests, trees and twigs. He points out the danger of students not being able to see the forest through the trees, i.e. the big ideas of history vs facts. It is a thoughtfully written chapter which I have used when teaching the methods class for student teachers (and I have mentioned in one of my earliest posts).

    But the one thing I can't figure out about it is how he could support eliminating the Progressive Era altogether. If you read my previous post on Progressivism, you will understand why I think that it is a big mistake.

    But I do agree with Loewen's premise: that you certainly cannot cover every little thing that is in the textbook.

    So how to solve this problem for Progressivism?

    If you define Progressivism broadly and simply, as seen below, you can carefully pick 1 or 2 "case studies" for each of the three points.

    Progressivism is the attempt to make government more responsive to the public by

    1. making government more democratic (examples: expanding the suffrage, cleaning up corruption)

    2. government regulation of the economy (e.g. trustbusting)

    3. government action to solve social problems (e.g. settlement houses, prohibition, food safety)

    One other thing I like to do in the Progressive Unit is to "continue the story" of blacks and women. Because I don't have separate units on these groups, I teach lessons throughout the year where it makes the most chronological sense. And because Progressivism is about (3) solving social problems and because women were involved in organizing solutions to those problems, it makes sense to include them here. Plus, the fight for women's suffrage reaches its climax at this point in history. For African Americans, I focus on social activists Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. (I will do a separate post on this).

    So here is an example of how an approximately two-week unit on Progressivism might look:

    Day 1 - Introduction to Progressivism
    Day 2 - The Urban Environment: American Cities, the Settlement Houses & Political Machines
    Day 3 - continued
    Day 4 - Theodore Roosevelt takes on Big Business
    Day 5 - Roosevelt and Progressive Reforms
    Day 6 - The Battle of Hetch Hetchy: Progressives and Environmental Reform
    Day 7 - continued
    Day 8 - Women during the Progressive Era
    Day 9 - Racial Segregation and Black Leadership during the Progressive Era
    Day 10 - The Election of 1912
    Day 11 - Roosevelt v. Wilson: Comparing and Evaluating Progressivism

    This Election of 1912 group activity is one way I have approached the politics of the Progressive Era. It involves dividing your class into 5 groups, one for each of the major candidates of this election and one to be reporters. You could eliminate the reporter group, but I include it because (1) otherwise the groups are too big, and (2) it is a good place to put kids who really prefer to work alone.

    In the interest of making shorter posts and getting them "out there" more quickly, I will conclude here for now.

    But one last thought....

     I have been wrestling with what happened in Paris last week and how one should handle it in the classroom. Though this blog is designed for U.S. history teachers, I think it is our duty as "social studies" teachers to probably say or do SOMETHING when a news story like this happens. Students don't care that you haven't gotten to your unit on the Middle East yet. And if yours is the only social studies class they are in at the moment, where else would they discuss it? So I would urge you to--at a minimum--provide a forum to allow students to discuss or ask questions about what happened and why this is such a big news story.

    So here are a few ideas/questions to raise in a discussion (depending, of course, on the ages and maturity of your students):

    • Most of the victims of Islamic fundamentalism over the last 10 years have been Muslim, not white Western Europeans or Americans.  See this editorial from Vox and this article, about the eulogy given by the brother of Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer of Algerian descent and a Muslim, who was murdered by one of the Kouachi brothers as they fled the office of Charlie Hebdo after their attack there. Both pieces raise some interesting questions about whether or not Muslims around the world, and particularly in France, have a responsibility to condemn the attacks of Islamic fundamentalists. This concern has been raised in other contexts--the extent to which an individual of a minority group represents the larger group. And what happens when a society blames the entire group for the evils of a few individuals or off-shoot of the group? See this map which shows attacks on French Muslims since the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
    • Freedom of Speech. One of our most sacred rights in the U.S., and in France, came under attack last week. This provocative op-ed piece by David Brooks in the New York Times raises some interesting questions about the connection to speech codes and censorship in the U.S. I would not recommend using this piece with students (for starters, the vocabulary is likely to be beyond most high school students, and for sure, middle schoolers). But it is worth reading for you, and you can address some of those questions. Clarence Page, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote a piece with a similar theme, which you can read here. It raises some tough questions about the appropriateness of racist cartoons.
    • When I read the paper on Saturday, there was a front page story, just under the article about France, about the rampage of Boko Haram in Nigeria (Read more here). I was struck by the fact that I hadn't heard much about the 2000 dead in Nigeria and--even as I read the article about it--I was still much more emotionally involved with the events in Paris. Proof of my own ethnocentrisms, I suppose, and this disturbs me. Have your students heard about Boko Haram? About the recent events in Nigeria? Is it "natural" for us, as Westerners, to be more concerned and pay more attention to events in Paris? Does this make us racist or ethnocentric? 
    • What connections can we make to the events in Ferguson and the shooting of the two NY police officers in Brooklyn in December?
    • This is a broader question/topic, but what connections can we make about the place of Muslims in French society to the place of the "new" immigrants in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century? Following the Progressive Era, we will see a rise in prejudice, nativism, anti-Catholic feeling and anti-Semitism, culminating in the 1924 Immigration Act that will severely limit immigration into the U.S. from areas other than Western Europe. France, and other Western European nations have only recently been dealing with questions about assimilation that the U.S. has been grappling with for over a century. The attacks in Paris bring this issue once again to a head. What lessons could the French draw from the United States? And, given problems we still have in the U.S. regarding racism and prejudice against minorities, including our own rising Muslim population, what lessons do we still have to learn?

    Thursday, January 8, 2015

    Progressivism: Big Ideas for Beginning Your Unit

    Brrrr...crazy cold here in Chicago! And schools have been closed, which throws off my schedule. I'm going to try to work on making some shorter posts with the hope of getting more posts out there more quickly. We'll see how that New Year's resolution goes!

    How to begin a unit on the Progressive Era?

    Described by some as "a mood" rather than an organized movement, the Progressive Era can be rather slippery. There is no specific start or end date. There are many kinds of people from many different groups who are involved, many of whom would vehemently disagree with each issue. Some progressives were concerned with just one area, some with many: prohibition, women's suffrage, business regulation, the environment, immigration, rights of blacks, labor and others. And, as I pointed out in my last post, there is a whole slew of legislation that could make your unit drier than the banana bread I made this morning.

    But one thing about the Progressive Era is clear. There was a fundamental shift in the way we perceive the role of government. And a reorganization of how we define liberalism in the United States. What was considered "liberal" in the 19th century will become what is considered "conservative" in the twentieth. See the diagram below which illustrates this:

    18th and 19th century
    20th century
    • protect natural rights (i.e. life, liberty and property)
    representative government
    • limited government
    • it is the duty of government to intervene and regulate society
    • use government power to solve social problems in order to insure the average citizen a decent political and economic life (thus govt becomes “bigger”)

    The “Left”
    The “right”

    So one thing I like to do near the beginning of the Progressive Unit is to help students see where they fall on the political spectrum. It is challenging to help students understand that "liberal" and "conservative" do not equal "Democrat" and "Republican." If I had any good ideas on how to help you do that, I would. It is tricky business.

    I think introducing the unit this way can help set up students' understanding of the differences between liberals and conservatives for the entire 20th century and through today. And in the shorter term, it helps them understand the fundamental change in the role of government beginning in the early 20th century.

    I have used this questionnaire in class with students to get them to think about their political views. Looking at it now, I see that is poorly designed (most people, whether liberal or conservative, would be likely to agree with almost everything) so it probably should be reworked. But it could be useful to point out that all of these ideas were solidified during the Progressive Era.

    And now, I have found some even better quizzes that you can use online with students to help them understand their political leanings. Check out this one from the Pew Research Center. If you don't have access to computers in class, you could ask students to do it at home and print out their result. But if you do have access, here is a link to the group version which you can use to create one for your entire class or all of your classes. Students will then be able to see how they compare to each other and to the nation as a whole. And in the interest of giving parents and kids something to talk about at the dinner table, how cool would it be to ask students to administer the quiz to their parents, too? Click here for explanation of the poll and analysis of the political typology.

    Here are links to a few others you could use or adapt to create your own:
    A few other useful ways to conceptualize the Progressive Era and/or interesting tidbits:

    1. I usually draw something like this up on the board, to illustrate the flow of the 20th century. I do not usually add the little part at the end with Carter through Obama. I might talk about it, but I think this drawing makes it slightly misleading. The big curves represent 3 eras of reform and increased government programs and legislation (and of course, spending).  The arrows below refer to 3 periods characterized by either little reform or regulation, and also the wars that put an end to the reform eras. Once you get past Vietnam, things change. It's not that Carter, Clinton and Obama are reformers, while Reagan and Bush aren't. It's that those periods (in blue) are characterized by a rise in liberalism or conservativism. I fear that it may mislead students a bit, though. Plus it may suggest that Carter, Clinton and Obama are "high points" or successful, while Reagan and Bush are not. So use it with caution or as a starting point for a more refined version.

    2. I came across this point in my notes that I thought was useful: that the Progressive Era transformed the legislature from the dominant branch of government to an enlarged executive branch. And it created, in a sense, a "fourth" branch of government: administrative boards and agencies.

    3. About corruption: we now (sort of) seem to take for granted that corruption is entrenched in politics. And corruption in politics was not, before the Progressive Era, particularly new. But, according to my notes on an article by Richard L. McCormick ("The Discovery that Business Corrupts Politics: A Reappraisal of the Origins of Progressivism," in American Historical Review, (April 1981), corruption was no longer something that could be dismissed as simply actions of bad men in a particular time and place, but as a process that was at work everywhere. Therefore, regulation and increased administration becomes necessary to control this. You could have an interesting discussion about that--e.g. the nature of politics, the corrupting influence of power, etc.

    4. And lastly, to further develop point #3, a word from my favorite Progressive, Theodore Roosevelt. Here is a great quotation to start off your unit/first day/brief discussion or at the beginning of your syllabus:
    "A simple and poor society can exist as a democracy on the basis of sheer individualism. But a rich and complex society cannot so exist."
    First explain--or have your students explain--what Roosevelt means. Then ask if they agree. Why? Why not? Does it depend? If so, on what? And how interesting is this in light of the person who said it. After all, Theodore Roosevelt was born to incredible wealth and privilege, but also suffered enormously from asthma and was considered a rather sickly little boy who would not likely live long. But through tremendous will and encouragement from his beloved father, he "remade" himself into one of the most powerful Presidents in American history.

    Really, what Roosevelt is addressing is the one of THE big questions of life: the extent to which individuals have free will and the power to be whatever they can be. Can we, despite whatever bad hands we are dealt, rise about our circumstances, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be successful? Or are we limited or constricted by larger social, political and economic forces?

    Now that's what I call an "essential question" you can really chew on.

    Monday, January 5, 2015

    Second Semester & the Importance of a Good Syllabus: How to Help Students Find Meaning in U.S. History

    Whether you concluded just before winter break with Reconstruction or with Industrialization (or something else--I realize many schools do things quite differently), you will likely soon be facing the Progressive Era. Personally, I love the Progressive Era, but have never quite felt that enthusiasm bubble over to my students. And in my observations of student teachers, I have
    sometimes seen the Progressive Era become little more than a dull march from one piece of legislation to another. Another opportunity for students to look things up in the textbook and fill out a dreary chart like the one at the right.

    I am not saying these items aren't worthy of study. But if most of your unit is devoted to going from one piece of legislation or amendment to another, your students will learn little and remember even less.

    I would make two suggestions:

    1. Do NOT try to cover every Progressive reform that ever was. More on this in a separate post.

    2. Consider the Progressive Era as the beginning chapter of the twentieth century AS A WHOLE.

    Let's examine this second point for a bit. I will start with a digression based on something I read in Why Don't Students Like School by Daniel Willingham, an educational psychologist I mentioned in an earlier post. In chapter two, he discusses working memory. He provides an example. If given a list of letters like the one below, most of us will likely have trouble memorizing all of it.


    However, consider the same list of letters in the order below:


    Much easier, yes? Because you now have a context. You can apply meaning to what at first seemed like just a random list of letters (or alphabet soup--sorry, couldn't resist). Of course, if you've never heard of the FBI or the CIA, you are no better off. But memorizing something that is meaningful is much easier than something that is not. This is why giving students a chart like the one above about Progressivism is not terribly helpful. It is just a list of random things to them.

    Students need more context to make the seemingly endless list of names, dates, places, battles, legislation, amendments, policies, presidents, leaders, etc. meaningful to them. Have you ever told anyone you were a history teacher? And then the person says, "Oh, I never liked history. Too many dates to memorize." To avoid falling in this trap, we must provide CONTEXT and MEANING.

    This goes back to an earlier point I have made about the false dichotomy between teaching content and teaching skills. They are inseparable. As Willingham points out, in order for students to think critically and analyze text--key Common Core stuff!-- they "require extensive factual knowledge." (His emphasis.) Willingham provides an example from a study of junior high school students in which students were asked comprehension questions about a story about a baseball game. The study found that the students who did the best were the ones that knew a lot about baseball, even if they were classified as "poor readers" based on standardized test scores. Amazing, isn't it? So yes, skills are important here. But in this case, it was the background knowledge that some of those students had about baseball that made the bigger difference. 

    That does not mean that our classes should become a long list of facts posing as background knowledge. Willingam continues, "Knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another." (Again, I urge you to read the book--it's one of the first educational psychology books I read where I am constantly learning things that I can quickly apply to actual teaching, and of history specifically.)

    So how does this apply to us as history teachers? Well, going back to my point at the beginning of this post about the Progressive Era, it occurs to me that one of the reasons students might not find it as amazing a period as I do is that they do not have the proper context. In fact, most of the reforms that were so revolutionary in the early part of the 20th century are so ingrained that they just don't seem like that big a deal. Women got the vote? Big whoop. This is taken for granted today. And so few Americans even vote anyway. The fact that someone might have gone on a hunger strike to get the vote just seems kinda wacky to them. Graduated income tax? Yeah, they've been hearing their parents complain about taxes for years. Meat Inspection Act and government regulation in general? This is such an everyday part of our lives today. And that someone of the social class background of Theodore Roosevelt was such a key player in this? Students have little appreciation of the social dynamics of the upper class 19th century that it is hard for them to appreciate Roosevelt as the radical he was.

    Clearly, part of how well we teach the Progressive Era will depend on how much students have learned about the tremendous and unbridled growth of the post Civil War period and the extent of the social problems in cities and among immigrants, farmers, laborers and the like.

    And now another digression to help explain the title of this post.

    One year I started "dressing up" my syllabi for each unit by selecting a pithy quote that summed up the major ideas of the unit. So the American Revolution unit syllabus would have a quotation from the Declaration of Independence. The Antebellum unit would have Lincoln's quotation about a house divided. You get the idea. I did it just because I liked it. It made it more meaningful for me.

    But at the end of first semester, on one of our final exam review days, I gave my students a sheet with the quotes on one side (out of order) and the units (also out of order) on the other. They had to put the titles of all the units in order and match them to the appropriate quotation. I thought this would be a 3-5 minute introductory activity to get thinking about the "big picture" as a beginning to a review session.

    It took them forever. They thought it was so hard. I couldn't believe it. I thought it would be super easy, maybe even too easy. I mean, it's not like they hadn't had a copy of every syllabus and read every quotation--not just on the syllabus, but usually as part of some other classroom work. How could they not know that the "house divided" quote went with the Antebellum unit? And that it came before the Civil War???

    It struck me that what was so obvious to me: the logical order of each unit, that the antebellum problems associated with "the house divided" over slavery led to Civil War, etc. was not obvious to them. Clearly, I had done something very wrong. Had they really learned so little?

    I see this kind of mistake over and over again when I observe student teachers. They know that today they are teaching about mobilization for war because yesterday they taught about Pearl Harbor. And that is maybe a more obvious example. But their students have not thought this all through. And, to complicate matters, they have just come from math class where they had to struggle with the quadratic equation, or a fight with a girl friend in the hall, or whatever. It falls on us, then, to help our students see "the obvious."

    I spend an incredible amount of time planning my syllabus, deciding what I should teach first and what next or maybe reverse the order, leave out this, add in this, etc. If I am going to spend that much time making sure that what I'm doing makes sense to me, then shouldn't I make sure that my students are privy to this dialogue I have with myself?

    To do that, I began more systematically explaining to students what they would be learning and why. So now, I would begin teaching about the twentieth century by providing students an overview of the whole century. No, not a big long lecture. But by explaining that there are two major "stories" that they will be examining over the course of the rest of the school year. As I see it, there are two main story lines or plots to the century: one that centers on domestic policy and the other on foreign policy. (Do you see the beginning of two final exam essay questions??)

    The foreign policy story (which I will develop in a future post) begins with a look back at the nineteenth century in which our first object was to affirm our independence from Britain in particular  (e.g. the War of 1812) and Europe in general (the Monroe Doctrine). Once that was "settled," the next goal was to expand west. So our "foreign policy" centered on Native Americans and conquest in Mexico.

    Now, in the twentieth century (which will actually begin in 1898 with the war with Spain), the goal will be to assert U.S. power elsewhere in the world to protect our interests and, with mixed results, to spread democracy and contain communism.  With the collapse of communism, our concerns now look toward the Middle East. So, you can see the units now, yes?

    1. U.S. Imperialism and World War I
    2. World War II
    3. The Cold War
    4. Vietnam
    5. The Middle East

    Our domestic policy also has a plot line.

    In an earlier post, I shared this lesson on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. You could save this lesson to begin your Progressive Era unit, or remind students of it. The point is that we end the 19th century with an economy and population that has grown tremendously, but with a government that has not. There is little regulation of business, immigration, the environment, cities, or anything else. There is no safety net for workers, as labor unions have had little success.

    We know that today we have a much bigger government and far more regulation than we had a hundred-plus years ago. The issue of Big Government is probably The Issue today and one of the key markers between Democrats and Republicans today. So you might start your unit--and your whole semester or second half--with a look at a few of today's issues.

    And now we can start to see the units:

    1. The Progressive Era (the first period in which the government starts to grow and makes efforts to improve the lives of everyday Americans)
    2. The Depression and the New Deal (the Depression as the wake-up call after a series of other major depressions and panics in the late 19th century followed by the New Deal reforms.
    3. The Civil Rights Movement and Johnson's Great Society (the reforms to deal with the problems not solved by Reconstruction, as well as other legislation to combat poverty)
    4. The Reagan Revolution and Reaction (the reaction against big government, the rise of conservatism, and then the reaction against that with Clinton & Obama).

    So when you put it all together chronologically, you'd alternate domestic units with foreign policy units so it looks something like this:

    If each of the above units (except for the 1950s one--a few days for that, I'd say) is about 2 weeks, that gives you 18 weeks total. You have to play around a bit, of course, allowing for testing, spring break, end-of-the-year events, etc.  And you might want to add a few days for post-Vietnam era issues like feminism, Watergate and 1960s counterculture. Spend a little more on one unit, a little less on another. But at least you have a story line here. And before you start each "chapter" or unit, make sure your students know where you are in that story.

    My main point is that we should be careful not to base our decisions about what to teach simply on what comes next in the textbook, but to create our own logical order. (Of course, textbooks have an order, but they "have" to include everything and you don't.) And then we must make those decisions visible to our students. Nothing frustrates me more than when I look at a syllabus of a teacher and see things like " chapter 23, section 3" as the heading for a particular day. Or hear a teacher say, "tomorrow we will move on to chapter 12." This tells students NOTHING about meaning. Nobody is going to go home and tell their parents, today we did chapter 12!

    My other pet peeve centers on how textbooks (and as a result, many teachers) end their study of U.S. history with units on "Ford," "Carter," "Reagan," "Clinton." We certainly don't teach the nineteenth century going president to president. I suspect this has to do with a lack of clarity in the profession about the storyline I have outlined above. And I admit, it is a far-from-perfect storyline.

    I also realize, as I wrap this post up, that using the term "storyline" at all could be controversial by suggesting that there is a certain way to tell the story of our country that might exclude other perspectives. I do not mean to suggest that at all. I am merely suggesting that to prevent history from being "one damned thing after another" (see my earlier post on this) we need to organize a CLEAR SYLLABUS that emphasizes CONNECTIONS which helps students recognize the BIG IDEAS and ask MEANINGFUL QUESTIONS. The answers to those questions, and how the story ends depends on our--and our students'-- interpretations.