Monday, January 5, 2015

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

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

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

I would make two suggestions:

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our domestic policy also has a plot line.

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

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

And now we can start to see the units:

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Thanks for this site. It is helping me focus on creating a more dynamic classroom. I am currently re-working my curriculum to move away fro m the textbook and would love your thoughts on topics to cover from the beginnings of America through industrialization. It's so hard to pick only what's important.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! It sounds like you would like an equivalent post for first semester, yes? A very good idea! I've been thinking about posting some of my past syllabi somewhere on this blog as a reference. And I'm also thinking about what to blog about during the summer once I "finish" my content march up to the Gulf Wars. I think I will plan to do some "overview" type blog posts about planning on the semester/year level. There's a great post about this topic at that is also making me think a lot of folks are having trouble with this. So stay tuned!