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


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:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

History = One of the Humanities

Thoughts on Making History More Interdisciplinary

And Using Poetry and Music to Teach about the Civil Rights Movement as an Example

It might be melodramatic to describe the intro to U.S. History class I took in college as life changing, but it was definitely major changing. I was headed down the path towards becoming an English major, taking a class on American literature at the same time. In both classes we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was surprised that it was the history teacher that made the book come alive. He provided the social context, the greater meaning. I became--not a history major--but a major in American Culture (more commonly known as American Studies).

Fast forward a few years to my first teaching job. I was teaching 7th grade geography as part of a interdisciplinary team, comprised of the Language Arts teacher, the math teacher, the science teacher and me. I was the rookie, and fortunate to work with such a rock star team of experienced teachers. Together we created some fantastic and truly interdisciplinary thematic units on rivers, prairies, Africa and other topics.

Both of these experiences forever convinced me of the value in making our teaching of history more interdisciplinary.

But like most things in education, things come in and out of vogue, and interdisciplinary study seems not to have so much fallen out of favor, but into a state of neglect. While many of the middle schools I visit still seem to organize themselves into teams with a math, science, social studies and language arts teacher, the purpose seems to have little to do with interdisciplinary teaching. The focus on Common Core has also had an unfortunate effect on interdisciplinary teaching. With the emphasis on English/Language Arts and Math, other subjects have been marginalized. This is due, I have argued previously, to a misreading and misunderstanding of the Common Core, rather than anything that is actually in the Common Core. If anything, the Common Core standards ought to increase attention to the complementary nature of history and language arts.

In a high school setting, there are other problems. In the Chicago area, where I am, most high schools are rather large places. And in the one where I taught, the English department was at the other end of the building from our department. We saw each other occasionally, but rarely deliberately. I knew that sometimes our content overlapped (e.g. in a lesson about the 1920s and the jazz age I might mention something about The Great Gatsby, and a student might pipe up, "Oh, we read that in English last quarter." And I'd think, what a missed opportunity to collaborate. But that collaboration would be a challenge given the organization of large high schools, dissimilar planning periods, and the fact that there was no way to guarantee that the students I had all had the same English teacher and vice versa.

Nonetheless, it used to drive me crazy that we couldn't at least get the English teachers to agree to teach Gatsby during the same quarter that we taught the 1920s. (I'm not blaming any English teachers here--I'm not sure that we even asked them, so the blame is equally distributed.) Given the chronological approach used by most history teachers, it makes the most sense for the English teachers to accommodate the history syllabus. This may not be true interdisciplinary teaching, but modifying one's syllabus so that there is at least the possibility for students to recognize the connections is at least something. And it's low-hanging fruit. Theoretically, this should be a little easier to coordinate in middle schools, which are smaller and, as I said, often organized into teams.

But what can you do in your classroom to at least attempt a bit of this on your own?

As suggested by the title of the post, I remind you that in most universities, the history department is found in the college of humanities. Or liberal arts. Or some similar name. And one of the ways to avoid only dwelling on the president-war-legislation-date approach to U.S. history is to remember that history is one of the humanities. So whenever possible, we should include things like ART and MUSIC and LITERATURE of all sorts within our history classes. At a minimum, this makes our study of history more interesting. After all, history is the study of human beings. And human beings do not live without Art. (Of course, we also need to include other "social science" disciplines such as geography, economics and political science. But this post is not about that.)

So for the rest of this post, I'd like to give you a few examples for doing this in your unit on Civil Rights Movement.

In an earlier post, I mentioned using the poetry of Langston Hughes. Though a poet of an earlier generation, so many of his poems are wonderfully fitting to use in the Civil Rights Movement. As I caution in that other post, "A Dream Deferred" would not be one of them, because it is so overused that it is likely your students have already studied it. But there are many others. Here are a few:

The last two are longer ones, that are probably more suitable for high school. The others are good for middle or high school. And two others that have an international focus (another thing often lacking in our U.S. history curriculum), discussing independence movements in Asia and Africa:
  • "In Explanation of Our Time" - this is a youtube link to Hughes himself reading it; you'd probably want students to follow along with a text, but I couldn't find one handy.
  • "Africa"
What to do with these poems? Lots of things. You could use one or two to introduce a lesson, such as a lesson on desegregation, the Montgomery bus boycotts or Brown v. Board. You could have an entire lesson in which students read the poems, to themselves or in small groups and then discuss them, using a literature circle approach. You could assign some to read for homework and have students pick one to read and analyze. Students could be asked to write about the meaning of the poem with specific reference to the Civil Rights Movement. Or--here's a half-baked idea that I think could be really cool if you thought it through a bit more--have students read a poem and then look at some famous photographs of the Civil Rights Movement. Then have a discussion about the impact of photography versus poetry.

Now let's shift to music.

Below is a kind of a "bridge" lesson to proceed the Civil Rights movement. I designed it with two thoughts in mind that are not the sort of pedagogical questions normally considered by educators, but important nonetheless:

1. what to teach on the Monday back after spring break that will engage my students and have them feeling good about being back at school.
2. how to expose kids to music, one of my personal passions, and connect it to history.

As educators, we sometimes forget questions like these. As an in-the-trenches-teacher it is hard to forget questions like the first. We face them all the time. But we tend to forget the second question, too. We are not just teachers. We are people. People with particular interests and passions. And I would argue that one of the things that makes a great teacher is one that is passionate about her subject matter and kind find ways to share that with students. I listen to a lot of music--at home and live--and of many different genres. Students love music, too, but are rarely educated about it, and often are not exposed to the variety of music out there: jazz, blues, bluegrass, Latin, folk, traditional country, and music from other parts of the world. So truth be told, this lesson was designed as much to share one of my passions as it was to meet a learning objective. But learn they did.

Below is the Google Presentation I created for "Rock 'n' Roll and the Civil Rights Movement." It is designed to show how changes in music influenced the coming Civil Rights movement. There are a few notes in the presentation to explain what to do with it, but it is pretty self-explanatory. Click here for the student handout that goes with it. If you are on a 1:1 model, you could have students work through the handout and the presentation on their own or in groups, but students would need earphones to listen to the music. I prefer the more communal approach of listening to the music together. I loved teaching this lesson. If you give it a try, PLEASE let me know what you think, and what worked/what didn't, by leaving a comment below. (You can leave a comment even if you don't try it.)

Below are a few additional resources for using music, not just during your Civil Rights unit. No need to wait until spring to start playing music.

One last point about music and the Civil Rights Movement...

A recent blogpost by Grant Wiggins centered on a history question on the recent NAEP Civics and History test. The question quoted a few lines from the spiritual, "We Shall Not Be Moved," and asked which of the following was best associated with the song:
a. pioneers moving west in the early nineteenth century
b. soldiers in the Second World War
c. the Civil Rights moevement of the 1960s
d. the Women's Rights movement of the 1970s

Wiggins astutely points out that a student might know a lot about the Civil Rights movement and still get the question wrong, making the validity of the question questionable. Only 47% of students correctly answered "C." I agree that it is a poor question. But I do think connecting protest music to the Civil Rights movement is worthwhile, so below are some resources for that. (That way, if such a question shows up on a future test, at least your students will get one question right!)
If you're interested in the depressing news about the NAEP results, you can read this article from the Wall Street Journal. (And keep reading my blog, so our students will do better in the future!)

Friday, May 1, 2015

To Lecture, or Not to Lecture: That is the Question

...along with Some Ideas for Teaching the Cold War

To lecture or not to lecture? That is at least one of the big questions out there for history teachers. And one that generated a lot of attention in a recent post titled, "Why do so many HS history teachers lecture so much?", by Grant Wiggins in which he presented research that says history teachers lecture significantly more than their counterparts in other subjects. In fact, there has been so much interest in the topic, that Wiggins had his colleague, Mark Williams, do a guest post published yesterday to follow up on the topic. (In it, Williams describes a gifted teacher not lecturing about Brown v. Board of Education. He also provides useful information about what teachers can do to increase the quantity and quality of "student" vs. teacher talk.)

There were quite a few comments on the initial post (including two from me). The most common explanations center around the content demands of history and the fact that kids don't read their textbooks.

Now, telling kids what is in the textbook that you assigned but assume they didn't read is probably the dumbest reason for a giving a lecture EVER. But yes, I will admit to having done this on occasion in my first years of teaching U.S. history (War of 1812, I'm talking about you). We likely tell ourselves that we are helping the students "synthesize" or "summarize" what they have already read about. And if we are truly doing that, WHILE adding enriching material that we have gleaned from other sources, and including a pertinent quotation or brief excerpt from a primary source, playing a brief piece of music or showing them some intriguing visuals that clarify the information--a photograph, a map, some charts--and stopping intermittently to ask thought-provoking questions....well, that is a different animal.

But still, there are better reasons for giving a lecture than just summing up a topic that is in your textbook. Here are a few:

  • when you are presenting something that is not in the textbook, usually a complex topic, an issue of historiography, or something that is just left out (e.g. a lecture introducing the concept of realism and idealism as explained in my previous post). Sometimes I have lectured on complex topics on which I have read scholarly essays or a chapter in a book that I want to present to students. There is a lot of material that you can easily present to students--even middle schoolers-- in a brief lecture after you have read the 20-30 page essay or chapter. A lecture is not the only way to do this, but it is a way to do it that is sometimes useful. The idealism/realism concept I discuss in the post mentioned above is a good example. 
  • when you are giving them some biographical background about an important historic figure (like Theodore Roosevelt).
  • when you want to tell them an amazing story in some detail.
  • when, in the interest of time, you want to give them some background on something so that you can move on to another activity in which they need background.

There are some equally good times when not give a lecture:
  • every day
  • the Friday before spring break (and other similar times)
  • the period right after students have done PARCC testing
  • if you are not a good lecturer
  • when you are just spitting back info that can be easily gotten elsewhere (i.e. the textbook) or info that can be presented using a more interactive method
  • the whole period (lots of research out there about student attention spans fading after 18 minutes, some says less)

As I said above, the other comments in Grant Wiggins' post centered around the significant content burdens in history classes compared to other subjects. I completely agree that the content burdens of history are more onerous than in math or English (not sure about science), but as I have said often throughout this blog, we are responsible for navigating that burden wisely, and not succumbing to it. That requires two key things:

  1. judicious selection of what to keep and what to leave out. 
  2. making connections so that students will see the forest through trees. (If you haven't yet read the chapter I keep mentioning from James Loewen's Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History, now is the time. It's chapter 1, "The Tyranny of Coverage.") And see some of my earlier posts about this topic by searching on this page using the search terms, "syllabus" and "unit planning."
For me, questions of pedagogy--when to lecture, when not to--I find difficult to tease out from questions about content. So, as I promised at the end of yesterday's post on the Cold War, I want to further examine this question about lecturing by describing two additional resources on the Cold War. One is a lecture, one is not. (Do check out yesterday's post...I don't usually publish two posts so close together, so I'm worried that people will miss it.)

The one that is not, ironically, developed from a lecture I used to give. I know, because I found an old overhead (pre-PowerPoint days) that said "Causes of the Cold War" on it and then listed a few reasons. It appeared to be a rather dull lecture that would not be remotely engaging for 8th graders and so, last spring when I introduced the Cold War I took that as a starting point to create a non-lecture lesson. 

Here is the non-lecture Cold War intro lesson:

I described the technique in my recent post about the U.S. and the Holocaust. Click here for an overview of the technique and here for the cards to use on the Cold War. As I deconstruct what went into the creation of this lesson, I took what could be a pretty long and intense college-level or advanced high school level lecture on causes of the cold war and turned it into an outline, and then turned all the pieces of that outline into information that was put onto cards. And then the students have to put it together.  (This sounds odd, but when you take information off of a screen or 8 1/2 X 11" pieces of papers and put them onto cards, preferably laminated and in color, that students can physically manipulate, somehow, students are more engaged in the material. I have no scientific evidence of this, just my observations that it seems to work.)

A few things to note about this. First, if you actually try the lesson, please note that it was designed for fairly high-achieving 8th graders, making it easily adaptable for high schoolers. In retrospect, I think I would edit the cards more for middle schoolers, or at least be aware that they need a lot of help. The lesson took two days. So another point to bring up about lecture and not lecturing is that lecturing is "faster." You could probably "cover" this material in a 30 minute lecture. Or a 1 or 2 day lesson. But we should all note that --as a professor I had once used to say--anything worth doing is worth doing slowly. And how much would our students retain from that 30 minute lecture vs. what they would retain from the non-lecture version I have presented?

Here is an example of a lecture on the Korean War:

As I mentioned earlier, regarding content demands, you have to be judicious. So the point of this lecture was to explain the Korean War in the context of the Cold War. The point was to get students to understand how a civil war in Greece that no one in America knew much about, led to a war in Korea and later in Vietnam and eventually an "interventionist" U.S. foreign policy that we still have today. The point was not to memorize a bunch of facts about the Korean War itself (which is mostly what their textbook did), but to undertand it in the context of the Cold War. I hope that this is a useful example both about better lectures (I'm not saying this is an awesome one), and about handling the related problem of content overload.

So here is the PowerPoint I created. Here is the handout I gave to students that we worked through together during the lecture. Here is a key for the teacher.

A few other things to note...

  • While I don't remember how long the lecture was exactly, I do know that it was interrupted often by having students writing, and asking questions that nudged students to "predict" information that would come on the next slide of the accompanying PowerPoint and the worksheet that I gave them to accompany the lecture.
  • Be wary of overusing custom animation on PowerPoint. I suspect I am guilty of this on this particular PowerPoint (I've got a few sound effects, including the explosion of an atomic bomb--not sure what came over me. As if I didn't have better ways to spend my time--grading papers, planning the next lesson, etc. instead of obsessing over cutesy special effects that are hardly impressive to the younger generation!) On the other hand, having one point come up at a time on a slide can be effective.

About PowerPoints or Google Presentations or Prezis...

I constantly harp on my methods students and student teachers to remember a few key things about using such presentation tools:
  1. think about what you are going to put on the slide (avoid too much text)
  2. think about what words are going to come out of your mouth
  3. think about if you are going to include a notetaking guide to accompany it, and if so, what you are going to include on that
  4. think about whether or not to give students access (through something like Canvas, Edline, Blackboard, or other platform) to the presentation. Or you could print out slides.
  5. think about what you want students to write down on paper or on your handout
To conclude, I just want to remind all of us that the point of good teaching is quality student learning. We need to be self-reflective: was our lecture as exciting as we thought it was? Were students really paying attention? And is paying attention enough? Did they engage in the material? Will they retain any of it? And if so, for how long? 'Til the test? Or longer? 

I will end with a favorite quotation of mine by Virginia Woolf, from A Room of One's Own. She writes,

[T]he first duty of a lecturer is to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever. 

I hope this doesn't leave you thinking I am holding up the lecture as the paragon of exemplary teaching. But substitute the word "lecturer" above for "teacher." And substitute "hour's discourse" for "class period" and you've got yourself a standard worth striving for.

(Oh dear, ending with a hanging preposition!)