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...

  1. Watergate and the impact of Vietnam on the role of the presidency in particular, and the government in general.
  2. Women's movement/2nd wave feminism (and role of sexual revolution, impact of the Pill, Roe v. Wade, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, the fate of the ERA, backlash-.e.g. Phyllis Schlafly)
  3. Nixon and the rise of conservativism
  4. expansion of civil rights - (Cesar Chavez, Latinos, gays & lesbians, AIM -American Indian Movement, consumer rights, Ralph Nader)
  5. "backlash" against civil rights: affirmative action
  6. energy crisis & environmentalism (e.g. oil, Carter, nuclear disasters--Chernobyl & 3 Mile Island)
  7. U.S. and the Middle East - (Iran hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq war, impact of oil/energy crisis as backdrop to Middle East's importance to the U.S., Gulf War I and II, Saddam Hussein, war on terror, Sept. 11, Afghanistan)
  8. Ronald Reagan and new conservatism - by the way, this was the topic for the DBQ on this year's AP U.S. History exam, "Explain the reasons why a new conservatism rose to prominence in the United States between 1960 and 1989." If you want to see the exact question and the documents that were used, click here and go to page 6. Anyone wondering if the inclusion of this question was to address some of the criticism earlier in the year by conservatives?!
  9. Collapse of communism/end of Cold War and the reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. (Gorbechev, "glasnost," fall of Berlin wall & breakup of Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe, German reunification, changes in Eastern Europe that lead to war in Bosnia).
  10. rise of partisan politics (Clinton's impeachment, election of 2000, government shutdowns, anti-government and Tea Party movements, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, "Culture Wars")
  11. changes in the U.S. economy (NAFTA, maquiladoras, the rise of shopping malls, then big box stores and then shift to online shopping, Walmart, shift to overseas manufacturing, government regulation and de-regulation, decline of middle class, changes in welfare, the "1%", globalization)
  12. cultural shifts & policy issues - "3rd wave" feminism, changing demographic patterns due to increased immigration from Africa, Asia & Latin America; issues about race and diversity (Rodney King and OJ Simpson trial, cultural significance of Obama's election, "post-racial," Ferguson); drug wars & rise of prison population, the AIDS crisis

Whew! Quite a lot isn't it? I can imagine what you are thinking. Some of you, I hope, are congratulating yourselves because you already do teach about at least some of these things. Others of you are thinking, "You've got to be kidding me. I'm just glad I made it to _________ (fill in the blank)." Others of you are probably thinking that some of the things on this list make sense and others, well...not so much. Some are not appropriate for middle school, and may even make high school teachers raise an eyebrow (i.e. the Pill's impact on the sexual revolution). Some of these items may be more appropriate for an econ, government or sociology class (#11 and #12). And much of the material in #9 might be better suited for a world history course.

But whatever you think, DON'T for a minute think I'm suggesting that anyone should (or even could) cover all of them.

There is an over-arching problem with this list, apart from the question of coverage. For some of us, a lot of these items are "current events" not history. That has a significant effect on how we teach it. For more on that idea, see the now partially outdated chapter 9, "Down the Memory Hole: The Disappearance of the Recent Past" in Loewen's more famous book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. It's outdated because the book was first published in 1995. So the chapters about the "recent" past that Loewen's examines are chapters about Vietnam. (Though other topics are mentioned elsewhere in the book, e.g. he mentions the energy crises of the 1970s in the next chapter.) But in chapter 9, Loewen begins by making a distinction between the past and the recent past that are hard to describe in a single English word. So he employs two Kiswahili words, sasha and zamani.  As Loewen describes it, zamani history would be the history of events for which there are no longer people alive that lived through them. He uses sasha to refer to history about more recent events, ones in which there are still plenty of folks around who lived through them. Under this "categorization" scheme, World War II still counts as sasha history, but I think the point is that the more recently an event occurred, the more challenging it is to teach about. And teaching about something is different if you personally lived through it.

It is also different for our students. The election of Obama in 2008, for example, is something even a current middle schooler may remember. But they will likely have a different sense of it. A seventh grader would have been about 6 years old or so in 2008. Being six is quite different from being sixteen in terms of what you remember and how you process something.

But I have digressed. Back to the list. The biggest problem I see with this list goes back to what I said at the beginning of the post. How do we divide this up into a meaningful unit or two (or three)? What is the forest (or forests) that we should help students see?

So this is what I might propose for the last few units of the year, following Vietnam. To be sure, there is likely too much. You will need to think about what makes sense for your students and edit appropriately.

"The Rise of Conservatism and Partisan Politics"
This unit could make connections between items 3, 8 and 10 from my list above. It is then a nice segue into a "mini-unit" about race, gender & ethnicity. (I say "mini-unit," but really, there is enough material in items #2 and #12 above to create a rather large unit.) How to segue? Consider the so-called "culture wars" of the late 1980s and 90s that grew out of conflicts between social conservatives and liberals. Backlash against hippies, and the excesses of youth rebellion in the 1960s helped give voice to Nixon's "silent majority." And culturally, the 1980s under Reagan saw a swing towards conservativism. (Think about how much fun you could have with a lesson on how the fashion of the 1980s looked back to the "preppy" 1950s!)

"Race, Gender & Ethnicity: 1970s to today(ish)"
I have never been comfortable about "squeezing in" the woman's movement at the end of my Civil Rights unit. I like the idea of separating it out. With Hillary Clinton the likely front-runner for the Democrats in 2016, you could start with something about that and then go backwards to women in the 1970s and then relate to current issues relating to gender inequality. Ironically, or sadly, or not-sure-what-adjective-to-use-here, there are still plenty of issues of gender inequality.

I think this "mini-unit" would also be a good place to discuss the changing racial/ethnic make up of the United States. For example, I did a recent post on the 1965 immigration act, which was responsible for the dramatic change in immigration patterns during the last third of the 20th century. This is one of those topics that is so fundamentally significant, yet rarely taught in traditional U.S. history classes because it doesn't neatly "fit" anywhere. This might be a good place.

And if you haven't said much about Ferguson or Baltimore this year, then bringing the Civil Rights movement up to the present makes sense at the end of the year, too. Having a discussion about the extent to which the U.S. is "post-racial" could be a really interesting way to wind up the year. It would be an even stronger discussion if students examined evidence and read varying accounts that lend support to both sides of the argument.

"The 'New World Order': The End of the Cold War and the New War on Terror"
(If you wanted to be cute, you could call it "Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire," but I suppose the topic is a little too serious to be so flippant.) This unit would focus on the rise of the Middle East as the central focus of U.S. foreign policy. You could look at some (but not all) of the issues in topics 7 and 9 above. This is where I realize how difficult it is to teach "sasha" history. My own knowledge of this subject is shaped so much by living through it, rather than studying it. And then when I went to look for some online resources for this post, I realized how partisan many of the sources are. If you Google things like, "Middle East conflict," or "U.S. and the Middle East," so many of the websites are from think tanks or news organizations that present clearly biased points of view.

So perhaps that very point could be the source of a lesson. After all, all the sources we use in history class--primary and secondary--are "biased" in one way or another. Having a discussion with students about how the views of scholars on the Gulf Wars or Afghanistan or 9/11 will change over time could be quite interesting. But challenging too. One of my crumpled-up attempts at a blog post was just on this subject. Happily, I found someone else who did this job for me: check out's post on this topic. Also, if you need some guidance for sources on the Middle East, there is a nice annotated list at edtechteacher's list of best of history sites.

And last but not least...

Just like you might insert a lesson on the changing economy of the U.S. in the 1950s somewhere between your units on World War II, the Cold War and Civil Rights, I might consider a mini-unit about globalization and the changing economy at the end of the year. While such a topic might be a good one to put before the "New World Order" unit, I like it at the very end because I think you do some interesting lessons that would really keep kids engaged during those lingering last days of school. For example, the recent issue of Social Education just arrived in my mailbox, and there is a lesson in it about child labor and consumerism. If you've never seen "The Story of Stuff," check it out at There is a 20 minute or so video (available on youtube) plus, teacher materials on the website, that could help you frame a few lessons. I like how this unit could tie in a few topics, #6 and #11, from my list above. A lot of students are naturally interested in shopping, consumer goods and the environment, and so this would be a high interest topic to end the year.

I hope this post gives you some things to think about over the summer. I think sometimes our last units of the year get "lost" and we don't spend enough time revising them. (I laugh to think about how every summer for my first few years of teaching I would read books on the American Revolution.) If you have read this far on this post, you likely the kind of educator who makes a list of things to work on over the summer. Might I suggest that refining your last unit(s) be one of them? To do that, you may also have to rethink what you do all year and whether or not you need to cut things from earlier in the year. Below are a few more resources to get you started. Whatever your summer plans include, may it be a good one! I will continue to blog over the summer, but likely on a more erratic schedule.
  • Checkout this round table for a discussion about how different teachers organize their whole year. Useful fodder for summer revising. 
  • Digital History has a whole section on the 1970-2000 period.
  • See Gilder Lehrman's links on recent history.
  • Below are a few posts from the college-level blog, Teaching United States History, that I think might be useful for this task.
    • Here is one about beginning a course with a look at the present. It is a post from a college professor on teaching a class on the Civil War to the present. I keep re-reading it, because I feel there is something similarly cool we could do as middle or high school teachers, either at the beginning or end of the year. Not sure what. If you have an idea on how you could use this, let me know!
    • "How the Present Imagines the Past" is probably more useful for the beginning of the year in order to set up ways to get students to think about how history is "used" in the present. It is also written by and for college level educators, but I think the ideas presented could be adapted for middle and high school. This would be another thing to read over the summer and think about.
    • "The End Days are Nigh! Where to end the US Survey?" - offers a college professor's take on the question posed by this post, along with an interesting idea about asking students what they think about the role of history classes/teachers in teaching the recent past.
I'd be interested in what others have to say about how to end the year. Please share!

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