Sunday, August 23, 2020

Using Artifacts of the Pandemic to Teach History

An Option for the First Week of Class

Last spring, all of us had the opportunity to teach history while living through it. Suddenly, my next unit on the Great Depression was at once profoundly relevant, but at the same time, hard to focus on as we all grappled with the strange new reality of quarantining. So I came up with this journaling assignment as a way to connect history to my students' personal experience. 

Now, as I approach the first day of school (see my previous post on the first day of class), I am thinking about how to leverage the historic significance of these times in a way that intrigues students and makes them want to work in my class. At the same time, I need to start connecting to students and finding a way to forge a relationship with them in an online environment.

Here's what I've come up with for a first day activity that will allow me to learn a little something about my students, their recent experiences and give them an opportunity to connect with each other while still building a foundation to teach historical themes and content. It is highly adjustable (groups, not groups, how much time it takes) and would work either remotely or live.

The Pandemic Artifact Project

Face Mask Clip Art - Royalty Free - GoGraph

Intro: We'll start with a brief reminder of the definition of an artifact and primary source. Then I will use the face mask as an example of an artifact that defines this time period. We will discuss that for a few minutes: what can they tell us about this time in history? How were they used previously? How are they used now? What different kinds of masks are they and what can we tell (or not?) based on the kind of mask one wears. Likely, it will come up that some people don't want to wear them, which is perhaps a good spot to consider raising the question of rights vs. responsibility in a democracy, which you could also tie to voting.

Part 1: Choose an Artifact

Put students in breakout rooms of 4-6 people (or in groups if you are live) with the following task and instructions:

  1. What artifact might represent the larger experience of this time period and why? What is "universal" about it? In other words, why might a large percentage of people in this country or in the world identify with this artifact? In what ways does it speak to their experiences?
  2. You must reach a consensus in your group about ONE item. 
  3. Develop an argument; you must defend your choice by being able to explain why this item represents something about the pandemic/what experience does it reveal.

You can choose to provide them a template for explaining their item, such as this one in Google Slides. They don't have to have an actual item; they can find a picture online. For example, maybe they came up with idea of PPE, but they don't actually own any. Or maybe they have the idea to have a newspaper article about the rising unemployment levels--I wouldn't make them find an actual article (unless the artifact they come up with is a meme or a video; in that case they would want to be more descriptive or include a link to it). 

Part 2: Larger Discussion

One option is to put all the slides together (you can instead offer up one link to a shared Google Slide presentation and each group drops in their slide). Or you could simply ask students to share with the larger group. I'm thinking students might not be keen on doing presentations on Zoom within the first few days of school, so another option is to create a large group slide show, and either on their own or back in the breakout rooms, simply have students look through the choices of other students. You could offer up the following questions to discuss:

  1. To what extent or in what ways does this choice represent a more personal experience vs. a more universal experience?
  2. In what way(s) is this artifact represent of the experience of ALL Americans, only SOME Americans (if so, who?), people all over the world?
  3. Did this item come up in your group, too? 
  4. If it did come up, but you rejected that as your final choice, why did you reject it?
  5. Is this item more reflective of the OVERALL problem of the pandemic i.e. the virus itself, or it does it represent a "byproduct" of it, i.e. the financial crisis, or something like a cancelled event, like a wedding or graduation? 
Part 3: Tie to a Bigger Theme in History-- E Pluribus Unum

One of the themes I normally make early in the school year is the theme of E Pluribus Unum, the phrase found on our dollar bills, meaning, "out of many one." There are several ways to think about and apply this idea in U.S. history. It can refer to the fact that we are a diverse nation of immigrants of many races, religions and ethnicities. It can suggest multiple perspectives. Take World War II as an example: there are the experiences of people in different parts of the countries, the attitudes of Democrats vs. Republicans, the experiences of soldiers vs. civilians, the impact of the war on the women, African Americans, Mexican immigrants, Jewish Americans, scientists working on the Manhattan Project.

Right now, we might consider the impact the pandemic and Covid19 has had on different countries, those who work from home vs. essential workers, the unequal toll the disease has taken on people of color.

Another key point to make here is how there are several levels of experience: 
  • the experience all over the world
  • the U.S. experience
  • the local experience of each state and town/city
  • and perhaps most important to consider this first week, students' individual experiences
There are generalizations we can make about the larger experience. But individual experiences make up the collective and humanize our understanding of a broad historic moment. For example, if you are teaching about the Civil War, you would likely introduce students to the statistics about how many people total were killed. But you might also have students read an account from one, individual soldier to make it come alive for students. (See these two posts on, here and here for more on this.)

Part 4: Using the Lesson to Develop Your Relationships with Individual Students

Talking about E Pluribus Unum and the individual vs. collective experience is the perfect segue into an assignment that will allow you to get to know your students.  Ask your students to choose another artifact that represents their personal or family's experience during the pandemic. You could do this in a variety of ways: as a written assignment to turn in, as a video they share with you (Flipgrid is handy for this), or--my likely choice--as an email. I like email because this can turn an assignment into an ongoing conversation with my students that will help me connect to them in a remote teaching environment. With some students, I imagine, this will turn into an ongoing email back-and-forth. With others, perhaps just a single exchange.  

I will start by sharing a few artifacts of my own (maybe using a "Bento Box"). This will help students get to know me a bit and make me human. We will need to be human even if we are online. (See Dave Stuart on immediacy as one of the 4 components of teacher credibility). I have one week until school starts. I will be thinking about my artifacts-- hair clippings of the home haircuts I have had to give my husband (at least they look okay from the front on Zoom!), the receipt from the first panic-induced grocery store shopping trip (rice, beans, flour, toilet paper), the Black Lives Matter yard sign I made on the reverse side of the sign we were given in honor of my daughter's virtual graduation from high school.

And the front page of the New York Times from May 24, 2020 that announced that the U.S. had reached the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from Covid19. Check out the interactive, which could be another powerful tool to use with students.

This could become part of a longer assignment, or you could share it with your local historical society (see links below.)

Please feel free to share other ideas, variations and adaptations in the comments.

A few additional resources:

Friday, August 14, 2020

The First Day of Online History Class:

How different should we make our first day this year? 

In a few weeks, I will be starting school remotely, teaching 8th grade U.S. history. Like most of you, I have never started a school year online. I've been on Twitter way more than I should be, clicking on links to anything that might be helpful in giving me guidance on how to start. I've attended more than half a dozen webinars since spring, from how to engage students on Zoom, to how to be culturally responsive online. And I've been reading. Oh, have I been reading. 

One of my recent reads is The Distance Learning Playbook by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie. It is not the kind of book I usually buy (I mostly buy history books), but I attended a webinar they gave about a month ago which convinced me to buy the book. And lo and behold, I got to Chapter 5, about teacher credibility, and it said virtually NOTHING I didn't already know....

Which was an enormous relief! I've been so nervous about how to transform what I do in the classroom--especially that first day and the first week--to a completely virtual environment. But the answer, or so it seemed to me as I was reading, was keep doing what you always do! Well, mostly, anyway. 

That had been my thought back in the spring. However, as the summer began, and our district shifted from considering a hybrid remote/in-person model to a 100% remote model, the word on the street seemed to be, "it'll be different--better--than it was in the spring." The education twitterverse and the blogosphere are full of new approaches and advice to teachers everywhere about how to up our game. Much of this advice is well-taken. 

But going back to Chapter 5 of the Distance Learning Playbook, we still need to consider what we've always considered: teacher credibility. (Dave Stuart also does a nice job of explaining teacher cred here.) And, as is laid out in Chapter 6, we also need to worry about teacher clarity. Some of the stuff about teacher clarity is about organization, assessments, communicating lesson objectives and providing guided practice. These are not typically "first day of school" things. However, communicating the why--the point-- of your class is absolutely first day of school material.

With that in mind, I am going to republish a post I wrote back in August of 2014. It outlines my thoughts on what one might do on the first day of history class and why. I'm still ruminating about what I'm going to do this year. I probably will use some of the history quotations I've used in the past. See here for the version on Google slides with questions, which also includes suggestions for how to use them virtually. Instead of stations, one could put students in breakout rooms on Zoom. 

So what needs to change for the start of this very strange year? 

I think it is imperative that we address our current historic moment. After all, we are history teachers. I'm still mulling around ideas on this: 

  • an acknowledgement that we are currently living through history.
  • a discussion of presentism--a concept that they will all understand in a way that no previous students ever have.
  • George Floyd and the protests, and what that says about the fundamental contradiction of U.S. history (see my previous post that discusses this)
  • the raw materials of history--primary sources, and perhaps sharing some "artifacts" of the pandemic and asking them to do the same

So while those idea percolate, check out the oldie, but hopefully still goodie post below. And if I can pry myself away from Twitter long enough to write up my thoughts for this new school year, I'll try to publish a post on those. 

August 2014 post:

I am constantly amazed by the stories my own children tell me about the first day of school: time spent going over the rules, the teacher's grading system, labeling notebooks, filling out forms. When I ask them if such-and-such a teacher seems good, they tell me it is too early to tell.

And maybe that's true. Surely it isn't fair to "judge" a teacher after just one day.

But as a teacher, I would hate to think of my students going home and answering the question, "How was history class? How is Ms. Brown?" with an answer like "I dunno. Okay, I guess. Too early to tell." Or to the question, what did you do on the first day, an answer like, "I dunno. Nothing really. It's only the first day."

I want my class to stand out, and I want to inspire students from the beginning. Tweak their curiosity a bit. Why wait 'til the second day to do that?

So I eschew going over rules or my grading system. Consider the fact that if a student is a junior in high school when they take U.S. history, or a 7th or 8th grader, they have had many first days of schools. There is no 7th grader, let alone 11th grader that doesn't know how they are supposed to behave in school. That doesn't mean they will, of course. But going over the rules won't ensure compliance either. Now imagine that it is 8th period. Or the period right after lunch. Think about how many times they have heard a teacher explain the rules or a grading system already that day. How dull is that?

There are a gazillion ideas out there for what to do on the first day of class. The important thing, I think, is to do something that is inspiring and also gives students a sense of what YOU are like as a teacher, what you expect and what your class will be like. And I like to do that not by telling them (These are my classroom expectations, blah, blah, blah) but by showing them--by designing a lesson that lets them know I take my class seriously and have high standards, and that I love what I do and what I study.

How do I do that? Like many history teachers, I like to discuss with students why I think it is important to study history. And because I know many successful, creative and interesting adults who do not know anything about the Homestead Strike or why we fought World War I, I cannot tell students it is because it will be important to them as adults. And I know they will be still be able to get into college--even a good college--without getting an A in my class. So I think it is important to be candid about that.

Below are some links which can inspire you to create a first-day lesson about why one should study history. The topic has merit, I think, because if you don't have your own sense of why what you are teaching should matter, there is no way that your students will. And the number one question that all students have about every class...? The most essential of all essential questions? You know what is:

Why do we have to know this???

It really is a good question and warrants an answer. But it has to be your answer, not mine. So here are links to help you:

Click here for some quotations I compiled about history. These can be used as fodder for discussion and/or writing activities on the first day. Use all of them, use some of them, have students pick the ones they like best to discuss or vote. You could hand out a different one to each student in a group. I choose a handful, have students discuss them in groups, and then I use these slides to discuss more in depth the following day (we have short first day periods). Re-visit them on the last day of school. I'd love to hear other ideas....

For a bunch of other interesting quotes, (Quote or quotation?) check out this site: History is. . . or if you need more, click here.  Or if you’d prefer some quotations about the United States, try here or here.

If you’d like a longer reading, suitable for AP/honors students in high school or to give you ideas you can adapt for middle schoolers, try this reading I compiled for use with preservice history teachers. Also check out the responses given by historians William McNeill and Peter Stearns on the American Historical Association website. And, for a thoughtful answer to the broader issue of a liberal education, see historian William Cronon's essay, Only Connect.

For more ideas check out

Hope your year gets off to an inspiring start!

Sunday, August 2, 2020

How do we tell the story? Meta-teaching and the Narrative Problem of U.S. History

"Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies. All perspective is removed, every virtue is skewed, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history urged in the record is disfigured beyond all recognition." 

President Trump, July 3, 2020, speaking in front of Mount Rushmore.

There is something unsettling about being accused of teaching students to hate their country by the President of the United States.

But Trump’s accusation is an old one among politicians. 

It was there when I first started teaching in the 1990s. I laughed to myself as I watched my high school students fog over at the same moment I knew U.S. representatives and senators were arguing heatedly in Congress about whether we were spending enough time on George Washington or not enough and whether the curriculum was too “grievance-based.” If only you knew, I silently told my students, how political this was--what is going on in this classroom right now. If you only knew that there were senators and representatives that thought I had so much power.

They are right, of course. We do have power, although it's not so simple as they make it seem. The Republic will not come to an end if we fail to teach the Second Great Awakening or spend too much time on Martin Luther King, Jr. or not enough time on George Washington. But it does matter.

George Orwell understood this better than anyone: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

Orwell understood that the stories we tell shape our understanding of the present moment. If learning about the past always reflects the concerns of the present moment, it is no wonder that our present moment presents challenges for history teachers--even before the pandemic and George Floyd. The challenge is how do we present the “story”--the narrative--of United States history in a way that is responsible to truth, that allows for interpretation and difference of opinion and that doesn’t crush the souls of young people?

I threw in that last part because, frankly, the more I read about things like systemic racism and voter suppression, the harder it is for me personally to be optimistic about our country. But that is my political point of view. And in addition to avoiding politicizing my teaching, I have a responsibility to imbue my students with a sense of hope, power and optimism about their ability to influence the future. 

I recall an interaction with a student from six years ago, when I first made the shift back to middle school from teaching high school. I made some statement about President Johnson (we were nearing the end of our Vietnam unit), and afterwards, a student blurted out loud, “oh phew, I thought you were going to tell us something else bad about what Johnson did.” She was referencing the lesson on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Her comment made me realize how careful I had to be--both about how I presented historical facts and about cynicism. (Consider using this edited-for-brevity version of a New York Times article about the Vietnam War and cynicism with your students.)

Two years later, I was teaching 19th century U.S. history to 7th graders. My unofficial motto for the year became the Russian proverb below.

It was imperative to teach about slavery honestly and fully, but in a way that didn’t “dwell.” I didn’t want the horrors of slavery, and the Trail of Tears and the Blackhawk War to impede students’ ability to see promise and possibility in American ideals. 

So what is a teacher to do?

A strategy that has worked well for me is to make the “battle” about narratives visible to students. In other words: meta-teaching. Let them know how you are thinking about what you are teaching them. They will likely be surprised to hear you talk this way; most teachers don’t tell students about their internal struggles about what to teach and why.

Let students in on a “secret”-- historians, politicians and educators argue about these things. This will intrigue them: kids love to be let in on the arguments adults have. 

It is also a great way to let your students know that you spend time thinking about how to teach them, which also sends a subtle message about your credibility.

Lesson idea: When does U.S. history "start?"

There are lots of places to introduce this to students. One place is at the beginning. Craft a lesson that asks students to consider the “messages” and symbolism of the dates below and what they suggest about when American History begins. Perhaps students could be put in groups and present an argument for why a date below should be considered a “starting point” for our country’s history? Of course, they would require some background information. You could add a few sentences about what occurred in each of these years to help them out or have students look it up, depending on timing. If you like, have students vote on the best choice.

* Inspired by the New York Times 1619 Project, 1619 is a new option. It engendered considerable controversy about the narrative it presents when it was first published a year ago. And more controversy recently, as the editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones debated Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) on Twitter last week.

If you need fewer groups, you can combine Jamestown or the Mayflower, or omit the latter. If you need more groups, consider an outlier: 1865 as the culmination of the "Second American Revolution."

An activity like this can be a useful entry point into grappling with the overall “narrative problem” of U.S. history: is it a story of progress? of the continually widening base of who can vote and hold power? Or is it one of constant oppression? What does starting with Columbus and/or just before tell us? What do they make of the term, "genocide" that has been used to describe contact with indigenous peoples? What do students think about the taking down of statues of Columbus?

The Usefulness of Gray: Nuance and Messiness in American History



Since I first encountered the quotation above by W.E.B. Du Bois about Reconstruction, I have turned it into a reoccurring theme in my class. I introduce the idea at the end of our first unit, on the post-Civil War West. The phrase, "no villain, no saint" then becomes shorthand for the complication of history: for the problem of presentism, of judging the past based on the present. You can use it when analyzing how Lincoln came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It is another way to address the Captains of Industry vs. Robber Baron argument about the industrialists of the Gilded Age. It is useful when they encounter Alice Paul, forging forward with the National Women's Suffrage Parade of 1913 and confronting the challenge of how to involve Black women without alienating Southern women. It is useful whenever we are confronted with the fundamental question of did the U.S. government do the right thing?

As Sam Wineburg wrote, "History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity. It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule. Worst of all it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence.” (Quoted in this thoughtful essay about the flaws in countering the "Patriotic/Consensus approach to U.S. history with Howard Zinn's conflict approach.)

As Wineburg suggests, perhaps the most responsible thing we can do as history teachers is introduce our students to the messiness of history. I sometimes joke with my students that the reason I prefer history to current events is that it's been hashed out. But I shouldn't suggest that, because any good history teacher knows that it while it may have been "hashed out" there are a wide variety of "answers."

Using September 11th as a Case Study

It is convenient that 9/11 comes early in this school year. I have been using the lesson described here for the past few years with my 8th graders. I use it on September 11, or whichever Monday or Friday come the closest when it falls on a weekend. It is a great way to discuss with students what should and should not be taught. When I mention that the 9/11 Memorial Museum has a gift shop, they are usually somewhat shocked and sometimes offended. But, I tell them, every museum has a gift shop. Every Civil War battlefield has a gift shop. At this point, I pause to show them the mug I use at school. It looks like the one above and on the other side, you can see that it is from Ford’s Theatre. This mug, I tell them, commemorates the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. That’s sort of weird, don’t you think? They usually nod. This helps all of us grapple a bit with presentism, with the challenging questions of how to recognize, study, or memorialize upsetting events from the past. (See #4 here for a similar thoughts about FDR, his disability and the debate over whether or not to depict that in his memorial.)

So what is the narrative?

Current protests and discussions about systemic racism emphasize that conflict, racism, oppression and inequality have existed from the beginning. Last year in a PBS NewsHour interview about the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones said, "if you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can't pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren't. . . . And that narrative that is inclusive and honest even if it's painful is the only way that we can understand our times now and the only way we can move forward."

Trump and other conservatives clearly feel that this is degrading to our country's history--that it is a negative look at our history.

I do not support that view, yet I do worry, as I said earlier, about crushing my student's souls. I have always ended my class at the end of the year with an idea borrowed from one of my college history professors who compared U.S. history to a rose: beautiful, but with thorns. That metaphor works for me, even as I struggle with how to put it into practice.

It is not dissimilar from the view of history presented by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. He described the work as "unfinished," and spoke of a "new birth of freedom."

That view--that our nation is flawed and imperfect, but has hope and possibility is echoed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She points out that "no one values freedom more than those who never had it." It is what Congressman John Lewis fought for his whole life. And that is echoed in the eulogy former President Obama gave last week at Lewis's funeral.

"Now, this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible."

We all have a narrative, if not explicitly, then lurking in our heads when we teach. Whether you are in charge of your curriculum or it was handed to you, every history curriculum has an implicit narrative. It lurks in between the lessons you teach and the lessons you leave out. The amount of time you spend on one topic at the expense of another. How you introduce each of your units and how you conclude them. As you organize your curriculum for this fall, consider what you will tell your students. And what you won’t. And why.

A few other resources:

  • I've mentioned it before, check out Bruce Lesh's wonderful book, "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 from Stenhouse. I don't spend a lot of money on education books (it all goes to history books) but this one is worth every penny. I have adapted his lessons on Nat Turner, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Roosevelt and the Panama Canal and Civil Rights with much success. Many of his lessons ask students to think about the hidden narrative and how the ways we remember the past have a lot to say about the meaning we give the past. You can see a sample lesson on John Brown that is not in the book here.

  • If you've never perused the materials on the SHEG (Stanford History Education Group), stop everything and check them out. Reading Like a Historian and Beyond the Bubble have lesson for US and World history and are adaptable--I've used parts of these lessons, whole lessons. Such great material for getting students to see the meaning beyond the "facts."

  • Check out this recent article by Kenneth C. Davis: "The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles" in Social Education. In it, he offers 5 helpful ways to "correct" the narrative about slavery as a subplot and that once it was ended, all was well.

  • Teaching the Highs and Lows of American History - a blogpost I wrote for

  • I haven't turned it into a lesson or used it with students, but former Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, gave a thought-provoking speech on the removal of Confederate monuments which is just as timely today. What an interesting way to start off the school year or a unit on the Civil War! For help with creating a lesson on this (if you do, please share it with me!) see this recent provocative piece by Ed Ayers and check out the work by the American Civil War Museum about Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. There's a section on this website that collects voices of people in the past and present talking about the monuments. See here and here for those.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Reconstruction: THE topic of our times?

Reconstruction is a challenge for many teachers for many reasons. For many of us, this unit falls at the semester point or at the end of the year, resulting in a unit that is often rushed and sometimes omitted altogether. It is not "exciting" in the way that the Civil War is exciting. And the end of the semester or school year comes with final exams, assemblies, anticipation of the holidays or summer vacation, which detract from the seriousness of the topic. But with the recent killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, careful consideration to the teaching of Reconstruction takes on an added urgency.

Perhaps the biggest problem with teaching Reconstruction is best explained by Eric Foner, one of the preeminent historians of the topic. I heard him speak last fall at the Chicago Humanities Festival, and during the Q&A after his lecture, he summed up what I think is the biggest problem. To paraphrase, he said it is imperative to teach, but difficult to determine the emphasis. There are the positive aspects which include the temporary success of African Americans in politics and the permanent, revolutionary change in our Constitution with the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. And there are the negative aspects which is the failure of Reconstruction to prevent the rise of Jim Crow and the unfinished business that we are all living with today. 

I think I could handle that, but then Foner quoted the American writer William Howell Deans, who said, "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."

Yes, I thought, that is exactly the problem. Clearly the protests regarding the killing of George Floyd demonstrate that Reconstruction did not have a happy ending. Reconstruction did not reconstruct America. Many of us as teachers are guilty of craving a happy ending. Especially if we are ending our school year with this topic. 

I have a serviceable DBQ on the success and failures of Reconstruction. It asks students to wrestle with this tug-of-war between the positive and negative aspects of Reconstruction. Perhaps this partly solves the "problem" of Reconstruction: acknowledge fully that there are both positive and negative aspects. It was an imperfect revolution that left unfinished business. And let your students reach those conclusions on their own, with the guidance of well-chosen primary and secondary sources.


Recently, I had to teach a one day lesson on Reconstruction. (Yeah, I know. Weird. Long, irrelevant story). I decided to introduce it in a broad way by asking students to consider what is meant by the terms "freedom" and "equality." 
I wanted it to be mostly a discussion, guided by these slides (and at right). I also wanted to have students wrestle with a primary source to consider the issue I explained above about success and failures of Reconstruction. It also contains a 2 minute video clip, which I like as it sets up the problem of Jim Crow. If you are using this as a lesson just to introduce Reconstruction, you'd probably want to hold off on that video and the 2 slides that follow and simply conclude the lesson with slide #12. In that case, you'd probably move on to a lesson on the Freedman's Bureau that addresses education and some of the other kinds of equality (see this document for that, or the middle school version). 

Reconstruction is part of the 7th grade curriculum at the school where I teach. I teach 8th grade, which picks up after that. Because of both Covid 19 and the events of late May/June, it seems like a 1-3 day "refresher" on Reconstruction might be in order for the start of this year with my 8th graders. 

Here is that lesson: slides and document.


Friday, June 12, 2020

From Ferguson to George Floyd

If you ignore the present, how can your students trust you to teach the past? 

I first started this blog in August of 2014, just weeks after Michael Brown's murder led to protests in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, I remember thinking that perhaps this would lead to systemic change in the United States. Nearly six years later, I am now hopeful that the murder of George Floyd will lead to the kind of change we need.

I also remember being aghast that my children's teachers did not discuss Ferguson and what had happened AT ALL. At the time they were in grades 9 and 7. At the time, I was working at the university level, teaching and advising pre-service teachers in social studies. Now I am back in the classroom. I teach 8th grade U.S. history, which picks up where the 7th grade leaves off after Reconstruction.

On social media, I have read a lot of posts recently such as, "why didn't we learn this stuff in school?" or "Schools need to do a better job of teaching the truth about our country's history."


As a teacher, I feel this responsibility deeply. I have been feeling it intensely for the last 6 years as so many current events have intruded into the classroom since I returned to teaching. And even more so in the last 2 weeks.

I returned to the classroom in the fall of 2015. Beginning with the attacks in Paris that November, the rocky primary season of spring 2016, the election of 2016, the school shooting at Parkland, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the impeachment of Trump (yeah, I know, seems like forever ago now, doesn't it?) and right on up to our present moment.

Since I began remote learning this March, I have found it impossible to ignore comparisons from the past to the present, as I taught about the Great Depression and the New Deal and World War II. I did not know, of course, when I taught about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the end of April how closely that would echo our current moment.

I have learned throughout these experiences that while it can be challenging, there is tremendous benefit to be gained from connecting the present to the past. It has everything to do with why we teach and study history (though it is not just about making it relevant to students' lives). If you ignore the present, how can your students trust you to teach the past? You are fundamentally ignoring the question that underlies everything students wonder:

Why do we have to know this?

As I work this summer to prepare for an uncertain fall, I think it is high time to make some revisions on this blog. I will try to update some of my posts to include new things I have done since 2014.

I have had to ask myself, if there are so many outstanding resources (and here) available online for history teachers why would anyone need my blog?  I'm not a professional historian.

But I am a professional teacher with high standards and nearly 20 years of experience. I owe much of my success to long conversations with colleagues. In particular, I own an enormous debt to my dear friend and department chair when I taught high school. Most of what I do well, I do well because of his help during those early years of my career. It is the outcome of those kinds of conversations I am trying to recreate on this blog. The kind of discussions you have with a colleague who you trust, who has some good ideas, who helps you tweak your own and make them better.

Sometimes I find the resources online too overwhelming. Sometimes, you just need to know how to teach about insert any topic here. Preferably before 3rd period tomorrow. That is what I hope you will find on this blog.

At this historic juncture, we need to teach in order to bring light to the truth. As the now Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ida B. Wells said,  

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
Mary Garrity - Ida B. Wells-Barnett - Google Art Project - restoration crop.jpg
Please check out the post I did last fall about why students need Black history all year long, not just February, on Middleweb.

Please follow me on Twitter (@UShistoryideas) and check out my other posts on Middleweb, where I have been doing most of my blogging for the past few years. For those of you who teach high school, there is much to be learned from middle school teachers.

Updated post of the day: colonial slavery (Some new links in here to other resources; check 'em out!)
Post I'm working on next: Reconstruction. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Keeper of the Meaning: the Responsibilities of History Teachers in Difficult Times

I devote very little time to current events in my class. Alas, there is so much to teach and so little time. But occasionally, there are events that occur that simply must be acknowledged. I went back to full-time teaching in the fall of 2015. The first such event in which I interrupted my "regularly-scheduled curriculum" was on a Monday. Monday, November 16, 2015. This was in response to the attacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed. We didn't spend more than 5 or 10 minutes on it. But it felt too tragic not to bring up. And Obama gave a speech that tied in to the lesson I was planning on the Bill of Rights.

I also devote a small corner of my white board to the occasional current event or "this day in history" if it connects to something we have studied recently or currently.

But I have struggled about whether or not to note every shooting, every attack. There are so many. What does one say? Last year's shooting at Parkland was another event too big to ignore, though I didn't write anything on the board. (What would I have written?!) Students wanted to talk about it--briefly--and so we did. I have written about this problem--how to handle current events in history class on this blog.

And so this brings me to tomorrow....

The attack in a synagogue in Pittsburgh also seems too big to ignore. It came at the end of week of pipe bombs sent to prominent politicians. And an attack on two African Americans in a grocery store after attempting to enter a predominately African American church. I did not bring up either of these events last week. But now I feel compelled to tomorrow. I don't know what I will say tomorrow. But I know I will not be fulfilling my responsibility as an educator if I don't say something. People are attacking citizens of my country based on their racial, religious and ethnic identity. How can I teach about Haymarket and the Pullman strike--injustices that happened so close to where I teach--when these other injustices are happening so close in time?

The post below was published this summer by MiddleWeb, where I have been doing some writing over the past year or two. I plan to add to this blog in the future, too. Perhaps a bit this year, and hopefully more next year. In the meantime, the post below, despite its "back to school" theme, seems relevant right now.

Below, originally published on MiddleWeb on August 28, 2018. (And if you're looking for teaching material, check out this post from Facing History that came out today. And this one from Teaching Tolerance.)

Keeper of the Meaning: How a History Teacher Psychs up for Back to School

Lauren S. Brown

I want to be clear about two things. First, I truly love teaching with all my heart and soul. Second, I really dread the thought of going back to work at the end of the summer. I work so hard during the year, that summer is such a welcome relief and chance to catch up on all the things I let go during the school year. So when August comes around, I find myself sort of dreading it. All this, despite the fact that I love my job and once I get started, I’m happy to be back.

Are you feeling this right about now? How do we avoid this?

Last year, I celebrated a milestone birthday. Half in jest, a friend sent me an article to read about growing old happily. This summer, after my milestone birthday plus one, I gave it a re-read. The article mentioned the work of the American psychiatrist, George E. Valliant. Valliant identifies several factors that contribute to living a happy life. Two are especially relevant to the work we do as teachers.

The first of those factors is generativity, a concept developed by the famous psychologist, Erik Erikson. It involves looking out for the next generation by investing one’s self in work that will outlive the self. It can include serving as a guide or mentor to young adults. According to Valliant, masters of generativity triple their chances of enjoying their seventies. (While still quite a ways from 70, I am now closer to 70 than I am to the age of my students!) Clearly, teaching is all about investing ourselves in work that will outlive us. And we know when we have former students reach out to us and come visit, sometimes it takes awhile before students acknowledge the value of what we have taught them.

The second related concept leading to happiness is being a keeper of the meaning. This is a stage of adulthood that Valliant added to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Becoming a keeper of the meaning involves the teaching of the values of the past to future generations. The purpose is much broader than the stage of generativity, as it is less focused on teaching individuals and more focused on justice and wisdom.

Reading this struck a nerve with me. Never, in my 19 years of teaching have I felt a stronger sense of urgency to the task of teaching history to the young.

The last few summers have emphasized the wisdom of Faulkner’s oft-quoted, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

August 2014 - the unrest in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown

June 2015 - the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston which led to the taking down of the Confederate flag in South Carolina

Summer 2016 - Brexit and the nomination of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

August 2017 - the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia following the Unite the Right rally

Summer 2018 - the separation of migrant families to the U.S.  

These stories are just a few that demonstrate so clearly the dangers of forgetting the past.

So while I mourn the passing of summer, I am also fired up. This past spring, my introduction to my unit on the Depression and the New Deal included a discussion of the two slides below. The second slide are all books published in the first few months of 2018 and do not include a bevy of additional books published around the same time and since. They clearly suggest a common theme to this current moment.

This summer I have been reading excerpts from two of the above-- Cass Sunstein’s Can It Happen Here? and Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. These books, along with the news, remind me why our job as history teachers is so important. We must be careful not to be preachy or partisan, but we must be the keepers of meaning. As the above authors suggest, the fate of our nation may be at stake.

If you need further convincing, consider what James Loewen has to say about the responsibility we have as history teachers in the age of “alternative facts.” In a new (2018) introduction to his groundbreaking 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Loewen writes

[T]here is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present. When we achieve justice in the present, remedying some past event or practice, then we can face it and talk about it more openly, precisely because we have made it right. It has become a success story. . . .

Conversely, a topic that is mystified or distorted in our history...usually signifies a continuing injustice in the present, like racism. Telling the truth about the past can help us make it right from here on.

So help turn that dread of the end of summer into a recognition of our calling. Our students need us. Remember why we do what we do, and why it is more important than ever. You are a keeper of the meaning.