Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The First "Half" of U.S. History: How to Get through Reconstruction by the End of the Year/First Semester

While Keeping in Mind How to Make It Meaningful for Students

This post is for all of you who struggle to get through Reconstruction by either the end of 1st semester (for those who teach high school and/or U.S. history in one year) or the end of the year (for those who, like me this year, teach the first "half" of U.S. history in one year in middle school.

My initial inspiration for this post was from a comment someone made on an earlier post of mine, Second Semester & the Importance of a Good Syllabus: How to Help Students Find Meaning in U.S. History and a post this January by Glenn Wiebe on his excellent blog, History Tech, What Should Your Kids Know?  In that post, he raised a question I was dealing with at the time, how much time should I spend on the War of 1812? And if we have to make choices as history teachers, how do we compare the significance of the War of 1812 to Reconstruction?

Last year, I spent approximately 5 days on the War of 1812.  A week.  Kind of a lot.  Part of the problem was I was interrupted by winter break.  (The post-winter break part focused on long term results of the war, rather than the war itself, and I used it as a segue to Andrew Jackson).  I spent 10 days on Reconstruction.  To me, this ratio seems a bit off, given the importance of Reconstruction towards an understanding of the Civil Rights movement and race relations today.

My point is not to debate the number of days one should spend on the War of 1812 vs. Reconstruction.  My point is that we DO need to think about what is most significant in the study of U.S. history and how best to incorporate it into our plans for the school year.  In Glenn Wiebe's post, he links to an article, "What Every American Should Know," from The Aspen Institute that raises the issues brought up by E.D. Hirsch in 1987 that helped fuel the flames of the "culture wars." (See also this article by Eric Liu in the Atlantic Monthly).  They are both worth a read, as they raise the most important question our students ask:

After reading these articles, think about what you teach.  To what extent are these things that every American should know? Why? If you can answer those questions, think about how that can transform your teaching, not to mention your crowded syllabus.  Consider the things that students really don't need to know.  Because you're going to have to make cuts.

I have said it before and I'll say it again, the only way to "cover" U.S. history is to make tough choices.  These are my guidelines:
  1. You cannot, nor should not, try to teach everything.
  2. The textbook can help guide you, but textbooks DO try to cover EVERYTHING, so you can't rely on the textbook to make all the choices for you.  This might mean that you skip whole chapters or even units in the textbook, replacing them with other resources.
  3. You need to decide where you want to end and work backwards, so you don't find yourself cramming the Civil War into the last two weeks of school.  
The above are overall guidelines.  But there are many other things to take into consideration.  Most importantly, does your syllabus "tell a story"? Does each lesson lead logically to the next and does each unit lead logically to the next? Does each unit have a major topic/central issue/essential question? Or is just "Unit 4" because that's what comes next in the textbook? This is why you should read the articles I mentioned above.  This is what makes the difference between history that is "one damn thing after another" vs. history that helps students understand how our past shapes our world today.

In a few paragraphs, I will include a link to the calendar of what I taught every day this past school year.  It is different from the calendar with which I began the year.  That one contemplated less time on the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but more on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Like all of you, I ran out of time and other things took longer than I thought.  You will also see in my calendar all our institute days, holidays and testing days.  These impact how and when we teach certain topics. For example, do you really want to start a new unit the day before a break? Perhaps it is better to add another day into the previous unit.  What do you teach on days when students will have been PARCC testing all morning?  Do you allow time for reviewing in class before a test?  And what does one teach on a day when half the class is out on a orchestra trip to St. Louis? Those are good days to either allow students "catch up" time to complete homework or to do something "extra"--like on May 20, when I did a lesson on Civil War music.

Sometimes you don't finish things because real life intrudes: I spent a good chunk of the day on November 16 discussing the shootings in Paris.  September 11th fell on a Friday this year, and so I decided to spend the day discussing that.  (See this post for those resources.)  Next year September 11 falls on a Sunday.  So maybe I will teach about it on the following Monday.  Or not at all.  Not sure yet.

So below is the link to my calendar, warts and all.  I include it in hopes that it might help others formulate a plan for the year.

Below are some other issues to consider when planning out the school year:  
  • How are you going to start the year? I note that I spent 4 days on Columbus.  I chose to do that because I really liked the lessons, and they seemed to be a good way to introduce some overall themes we would come back to throughout the year.  But it was a bit of a time suck.  Perhaps I would reconsider this to buy more time later in the year.  Perhaps I could find a way to introduce those same themes using the content of the American Revolution instead. 
  • What do YOU especially like to teach and what are you especially knowledgeable about? The best way to engage students is if you yourself are engaged.  I have a special interest in the problem of slavery in American history and my syllabus reflects that.  My syllabus also reflects areas of weakness.  U.S. policies and the attitudes of white Americans regarding Native Americans is incredibly important.  I have struggled for years about how to better include this in my curriculum with little success.  You will see in my syllabus that there is not nearly enough there.  Obviously, to do so, would require that I cut elsewhere.  These are cuts worth making, but I haven't figured it out yet.
  • Sometimes I left things out because I couldn't figure out any meaningful way to incorporate them into a larger "story" or unit.  So while I mentioned Irish immigration a few times in passing, the whole topic of immigration in this first half of U.S. history was not something we covered.  Things like the Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Temperance movement and other reforms also hit the cutting room floor.  We did spend time on the reform movements of women's rights and abolitionism.  And students will spend time on immigration in 8th grade (the second "half" of U.S. history).  But just because the textbook mentions the Second Great Awakening doesn't mean that I have to.  Other times, I sort of "threw things in" that probably should have been left out.  For example, I spent January 14 on the Marshall Court.  In hindsight, I'm not sure that a day on the Marshall Court did justice (no pun intended) to the topic.  While it "fits" in terms of growth and expansion and how the decisions of the Marshall Court, I think in the future I would either need to spend a few more days on it in order to make it more meaningful, or cut it out entirely. 
  • We have to consider the impact of things like parent-teacher conferences, standardized testing, field trips, the days immediately before and after school vacations, and our own personal lives.  One wouldn't know from looking at my syllabus why I have 3 Fridays in December titled "First Amendment Fridays."  This came about because, as I wrestled with the newness of classroom teaching after years out of the classroom, I occasionally struggled with figuring out how long it would take to successfully teach topics to 7th graders that I had been used to teaching to 11th graders (more on the specifics of that in this post for  So when I realized I was running out of time, I postponed some of the details of the First Amendment for after the Constitution test.  (This was also helpful when, toward the end of the unit, I fell and broke 2 ribs and had to miss a few days of school!) The advantage of this series of "First Amendment Fridays" also revealed itself as we got closer to winter break and my students got a little restless.  Having "fun" activities for Fridays in December made a lot of sense on a practical level.  The students liked it so much, I did the same at the very end of the school year with a series of "Fourteenth Amendment Fridays" and "The Fourteenth Amendment Today Tuesday" on the 2nd to last day of school.   
  • Sometimes--perhaps especially so in middle school--things take more time because we also have to focus on skills, not just content.  I spent a lot of class time on the Mexican War because we did a DBQ from the DBQ Project on "Was the United States Justified in Going to War with Mexico?" Spending more time developing these skills earlier in the year would have made this project easier for my students.  It wouldn't necessarily save time, but it would better redistribute the time.

Additional resources:
  • Eric Lui, "How to Be American: Why cultivating a shared cultural core is more important than ever--and why such a project serves progressive ends."
  • - the website/project that developed from the essay above.  I haven't figured out how, but I think one could do something really interesting with this website with students...have students come up with their own lists? Find a way to do this as a summative activity at the end of each unit, or the year? If you have ideas, please comment.
  • I have earlier mentioned how helpful I have found James Loewen's advice about how to plan out a school year.  You can read it for yourself in chapter 1, "The Tyranny of Coverage," in James W. Loewen's, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History.  It is well worth a read.
  • An earlier post I wrote about the new APUSH standards that considers what we mean when our curriculum should cover such-and-such or so-and-so.
Also, see my previous posts about the challenges of unit planning:


  1. I have just found your blog and appreciate it! I was wondering how many ELLs you have - I teach 9th grade US I and with the country at 51% of its students in poverty, we reflect that as well. Finding out what words students don't know has really impacted my teaching in the past 5 years. I'm trying to give many, many little quizzes, projects, have students read the text, but some students' reading levels are far, far below grade 9. I was wondering how you handle all that? I used to be able to go from colonialism up to just about the turn of the century, and this year, I did not even finish the Civil War! Thanks for any insights, Linda

    1. Thanks, Linda. I have very little experience with ELLs. But plenty with students below grade level with reading. This year, I experimented a little with giving alternative readings. I hope to do much more next year. It is time consuming, but if I have a piece that I already need to edit for my students, then I can edit a little more for some, and a little less for others. My school is on a 1:1 with iPads, so it is easy for me to simply provide links for students (vs making photocopies of multiple readings). The few times I did this, I told students that there were two readings--one was a little bit longer than the other with a few harder words. I had the students choose for themselves which one to read. And as they were working individually and the readings look the same on the iPad, no one would know which one they chose. Both readings covered the exact same content. I did a google survey following the reading and asked students if they liked having this choice and which one they chose. About 30-40% chose the longer one, which was about what I would have figured. Again, I think I can do this more often, and even with 3 options for reading. This choice is also great for students who are more advanced and want a bit of challenge.
      The other way I handle reading trouble is to read some stuff out loud--sometimes I read it, sometimes I let students read it. I include vocab directly within a reading. Short (3-10 min) lectures before a reading can really help preview a reading for students. Similarly, 5-15 minute documentaries can help set up a reading. Work by Daniel Willingham has really influenced me a lot about reading. I mentioned him in 2 earlier posts (type "Willingham" into the search engine on this blog), but also check out this article he wrote:
      The issue you point out is a serious one, and there are no easy fixes to this. But again, think a lot about what are the ESSENTIAL questions/issues/topics you want to cover. And LEAVE OUT THE REST. Then you can get past the Civil War. Textbooks spend a lot of time, for example, on Andrew Jackson. And Jackson is a key figure, don't get me wrong. But doing justice to the election of 1824 and how that that transformed politi and the subsequent election, the National bank issue, the tariff/nullification crisis, and Indian Removal--whew, that is a LOT of material. And that doesn't even cover changes in the economy, Jacksonian democracy and social reform. Do 9th graders in 2016 need to know about all those things? Even touching BRIEFLY on all those things would take a minimum of 2 weeks. If you have students who are ELL and have reading difficulties, I'd say do Indian removal, and the ways in which Jackson appealed to the "common man" and the irony of that given the situation with Indians and slavery and those issues will grab your students interest.
      My last point--and then I'll stop because I really am not an expert on this very difficult problem you raise--is that even if students have trouble with vocabulary and reading, they don't have trouble thinking about life and death and war and justice and inequality. So no matter their reading level, they can understand the topics and issues in U.S. history, even if they struggle with reading.

  2. When looking at your calendar I see that you use the Mission US game. I also see that you are in a 1:1 district. My school has recently gone to this as well, using iPads. I have found that the game is not supported on iPads. I was curious how your students access it, and what do you do about those students who don't finish the game, but don't have access to the game outside of school? Thanks for your help. I have also commented on another post of your's about Current Event articles in your classroom.

    1. You are correct that Mission US cannot be used on iPads. In addition to iPads, our school has a few carts of Macbooks--enough for a whole class. So my students used the Macs for that. I remember, at the time, reading that Mission US was designing a version that could be used on iPads, but I don't know if they have done that yet. Additionally, many (but not all) of my students also have other computers at home, and some did finish work at home or played additional games. (At least a handful loved the game so much that they played it multiple times and played the other games about Indian removal, slavery and immigration as well!) It is tricky when planning class time for such activities to account for students who are absent and/or don't finish during class. I did offer time before/after school and during lunch, but that isn't always feasible for teachers or students. Thanks for reading the blog!