Monday, April 27, 2015

Spring, Social History and Suburbia: Teaching about Social Change in the 1950s

After finishing a unit on World War II and the depressing topics of the Holocaust, Japanese Internment and the dropping of the atomic bomb, I like to spend a day or two on some of the social changes of the post-war period.

The emphasis in most U.S. history classes is on political history: wars, legislation, presidencies and other "major events" dominated by white men at the expense of social history and what life was like for regular people. University history departments saw the growth of what became the "new social history" beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. I once read that K-12 education is roughly 20 years behind academia, which sounds about right to me (but sad, isn't it?). In the 1990s, this social history began to creep into secondary education, with things like sidebars or quotations and sometimes even whole chapters on the history of women, slaves, working class people and other groups.

Much as been gained from this impact of social history. But the problem--as always--for U.S. history teachers of survey courses, whether it is in middle school, high school, or even college, is how to fit it all in without overwhelming students with too much of everything. Looking over my posts over the course of this school year, I can see that I still emphasize political history. African American history has some representation, but I have very little on women's history (I'll have to work on that over the summer!). Mind you, my posts don't = everything I would teach students, but are just a selection. But still, it is hard to fit it all in.

This post is my way of reminding all of us that whenever we can, we should make an effort to help students get to know something about life during a particular time and place. It also occurs to me that one of the ways we can differentiate what we teach in middle school from what we teach in high school is in this emphasis. What should be the difference between U.S. history in 8th grade and U.S. history in 11th? Should we just repeat everything, but go into more depth? Or should we actually teach different topics? Or should we teach the same "big" topics (like the Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal) but emphasize different things about it?

These are important questions that I wish to ignore for now in order to go back to the topic of this post: incorporating more social history into our classes, whether we teach middle school or high school. And after you are done teaching World War II, and when it is starting to get warm out and your students are getting antsy, there is no better time for the lesson I'm about to describe (hence the word "spring" in this post's title). It's fun, it's light-hearted, and there's cool stuff to check out that still manages to address "big questions" about topics you will get to when you study the Cold War and Civil Rights. On a Thursday or Friday as the weather warms up, this lesson will help keep your students focused and their attention from wandering towards the window.

The lesson also helps describe the rise of a major phenomenon that shapes where many of our students currently live: the suburbs. The year 2000 was the first year that the suburban population of the United States hit 50 percent. The number is even higher today (but annoyingly, I could not find a number--if you can, do comment below!) So the chances are that a majority of you are teaching in a suburban community. Shouldn't our students know how that happened?

  • See here for information about the growth of suburbs from a 2002 U.S. Census report. That link is to page 38 of the entire report which you can find here.
  • Scroll to the bottom of this page for 2 additional useful charts you can show students about the shift from rural to urban to suburban populations.

I begin the lesson by explaining that the period I refer to as "the fifites" doesn't correspond neatly to the years 1950-1959, but really is more 1954-1963. The Korean War and the most tense period of the Cold War (until the Cuban Missile Crisis) ends in 1953. And Kennedy is assassinated in 1963, ending some of the optimism of the period. I also caution them that what they will be looking at is mainstream, middle-class white culture. A few of the links refer to that fact, but most do not.

Then I hand out a worksheet and direct them to a webquest-type activity in which they will figure out some of the major trends and the overall "mood" of the 1950s. You can certainly find your own websites, but are welcome to use mine. You can find it on a handy website called To find the "bag" that has my 1950s stuff you can link here, or if for some reason that doesn't work, type "Mrs. Brown" or "mrs brown" or "1950s" in the search box and you should find it. (And go ahead and "like it," while you're there! My students last spring certainly liked it,  but they didn't "like it." Sigh.) In this activity, students will get to check out 1950s tv shows, car design, Disneyland and other fun things that will also teach them about the changing roles of women and life in the suburbs.

(Fyi, there are a lot of web-curating websites out there that are useful for compiling resources for students. If you want more information on those, you will find no better source than the blog freetech4teachers.) And of course, you can also use the lower-tech method of just putting together a Word document or Google Doc that has the links on there.)

This is the worksheet for students which accompanies the 1950s websites. Note that you would want to revise it a bit and make it your own. For example, question #3 is about Chicago. The trend of rising suburbs is true across the country, but you can probably find data for a city closer to you if you aren't in Chicago.  Also, question #5 and the accompanying link on bagtheweb is about the specific suburb in which my students were living. If you teach in a rural or urban area, you should delete that question. If you teach in a suburb, undoubtedly, there is information out there somewhere about your community. Also, question #15 is just a private joke with my students: it refers to the fact that whenever I refer to the essential or major question of a topic, I always say "the $64,000 question," which is what my dad used to say, referencing the #1 TV show of 1955 that I've never seen. So you might want to come up with a different question about television.

If you want to the extend the lesson (and this might be more appropriate for high school, rather than middle school) read this article from TIME, "The End of the Suburbs" or this one from The Atlantic,
"Suburbs and the New American Poor" to give you information that will bring the topic up to the present.

Common Core Standards for this lesson: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7 or CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.7 or CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7.

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