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!)

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