Monday, June 22, 2015

Now that it's summer...What to Read?

Thoughts on Summertime PD for the U.S. History Teacher

It is officially summer now. If you are reading this post, you are likely the kind of teacher who has a big list of Things You Are Going To Do This Summer To Make Next Year Better. And it is probably a long one, isn't it? Probably too long. After all, we are only human, and we also want to spend time this summer with our family and friends, getting some chores done around the house, maybe a little travel. And maybe do some reading that doesn't have anything to do with U.S. history or education. Right?

Right. But summertime, as you know, is a great time to get caught up on stuff, revise old things, get inspired by new things and do some learning for yourself.

I started off thinking this post would be about a variety of summertime PD--focusing on online courses (check out this one that started today!), other great blogs to follow, and getting organized with web bookmarking sites (Livebinders, Evernote and the like). But as I got going on books, I realized this topic merits its own post.

There is so much to read, and so little time (not to mention all those house projects), so how do you decide what to read?

For starters, review those weak lessons/units.

This is probably the least fun thing to do, but so important. Why? Because the reason the unit or lesson is weak in the first place is likely because it is not a subject that YOU find all that interesting. Maybe you would find it interesting if you knew much about it. The reality of being a teacher of U.S. history is that there is so much content, that even if you have been following my suggestions in earlier posts about paring it down by focusing on essential questions, etc., there is still a lot to learn.

So before you delve into "fixing" your weak lessons or units, ask yourself whether the reason for them is your own lack of content knowledge or interest. No one said you have to be an "expert" (whatever that means) of Every Single Thing in U.S. History. And you certainly don't have to like it all. (War of 1812 and the New Deal, that means you.) But, as I tell all the student teachers I work with, if all you know is what is in the textbook, it is hard to create a good lesson. (For more on good lesson planning, see my last post.)

Once you have figured out where your weakest lessons and/or units are, that is where I might suggest beginning your reading. Even if it is a topic you don't like so much, there is probably a book or an essay out there somewhere that will help you like it more.

Finding Great Books 

I assume some of you are avid readers and don't need any help in this category. If anything, you need help in winnowing your list. But in my work with student teachers, I have found that beginning teachers do not always know where to look to decide what to read. I usually find books by browsing at the bookstore, the library, or Amazon, as well as getting recommendations from friends and colleagues and book reviews in the paper or online. But the tips below may also be useful.
  • While I certainly do NOT advocate a president by president approach to the study of U.S. history, I stumbled across this blog, when googling "best books about Andrew Jackson," just to see what I could find. It's a blog by Stephen Floyd who is chronicling his efforts to read through--not just one, but "all of the best" presidential biographies. He's currently up to TR. Apparently, he's not the only out there doing this, so check out his links to other folks. And this page, where he lists all the books he has read/or is planning to read. This seems like a great place to go if you are looking for suggestions on presidents.
  • The tip above reminds me of how much I love reading biographies to get a better understanding of a historical period. It makes the period come alive for me in ways that I hope to convey to students. So check out biographies of other folks, not just presidents. This list from has some other suggestions, though it mostly lists biographies of presidents. I always like to read biographies of people whose lives spill over into more than one unit. Gives you a double bang. People like Benjamin Franklin (and some of those early presidents, too) give you insight into the Colonial period, American Revolution and through the early years of the nation. Henry Clay is another good one. FDR and Eleanor gets you through the Depression and WWII, while LBJ gets you through Civil Rights and Vietnam. You get the idea. Just beware of focusing only on the big guns and ignoring less obvious choices. Not to mention ignoring regular everyday people who matter in history just as much as Jefferson, Lincoln and the Roosevelts. That's why this summer I plan to read David McCullough's 1776 instead of his biography on John Adams (though I'm hoping to watch the HBO dramatization of the latter). 
  • Amazon also has lists of best-selling (not necessarily best) historical biographies. 
  • Poking around on Amazon's list led me to find the book, Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present. I've only read a few reviews online and the write up I linked to on Amazon, but I am intrigued by the idea that our relationship with the Middle East begins well before World War II or the 1970s which are probably the first times most of us would bring it up in our classes. I list this book here also because it reminds me that in addition to biographies, another good way to get a big bang for your buck if you're a newer teacher or have limited time is to read books that cover a whole issue or group of people over time. For example, if you feel like you'd like to add more on Hispanics, women, African-Americans, economic issues, etc. to your class, there are books out there on that. See the few below for examples. (Just scratching the surface here.) These kind of books are often long, but are also the kind of books in which a few chapters might be all you need.
  • Just looking for a good book on one specific topic? Try asking other teachers on twitter, with the hashtag #sschat or #histed chat for suggestions. And if no one responds right away (it is summer after all), re-tweet. Repeat.
  • One last hint. Go to your college alma mater website. Or any college or university. Check out the syllabi for U.S. history classes. See what college students are reading.

Book Reviews

If I had all of the time in the world, it still wouldn't be enough to read all the great books out there. When expediency is what you need, try book reviews. Sometimes a good book review in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal gives you at least a hint of interesting material that you can file away in your brain. But you can also listen to interviews with authors. I have been especially fond of the interviews Terry Gross of Fresh Air conducts with authors of history books. I listen to her podcasts in the car. The one she did with Todd Purdum, author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was so chock-full of interesting info that I had to pull the car over to take notes! I still haven't read the book, and I might never read it. But I have learned from it.

Once you've read a good book...

Now go back to that weak lesson or unit. I don't promise magic, but I bet you will now have some ideas on how to make it better.

A Few Other Things to Read

In the course of writing this blog, I have come across so many amazing websites that I have linked to in my posts. If you are anything like me, you probably clicked on some of them and thought, "Wow, great website! I'll have to check this out later." Later is now. So go back and check them out. Read my old posts to find them. Click also on the tabs above where I have "Other useful links" and "Links to Constitution/Govt websites." Check out some of those. Check back later in the summer, as I hope to update some of these and reorganize them a bit.

And check out other blogs. I'm hoping to spend some time this summer reading other people's blogs that I have come across while writing this one. I started to list them, and then realized that there were too many! So I'm going to put them into a link at the top. Look for that soon.

Read books about current issues too. A plug for an incredible book I recently finished: Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Whether you work with low income students or not, if you live in the U.S. and work with kids, this is one of those must-reads. (I'm just throwing this into this post because I feel so strongly about it, I didn't know where else to put it.)

Time in the Car

While I like to spend as much time as possible soaking up the outdoors in the summer, sometimes I end up spending a fair amount of time in the car to get there. I have mentioned before how much I love BackStory with the American History Guys. Those long hours in the car on the way to the beach, the park, or your vacation can be filled with their podcasts. And whenever I say, "Oh, I heard the most interesting thing on" my family cuts me off and says, "Fresh Air!" Which I already mentioned earlier in this very post, didn't I?

And lastly...

It is summer. Don't just work. I have been reminded by this article that great teachers are also usually interesting people, with rich intellectual lives and interests that go beyond whatever subject they teach.  So I will end here, so I have time to go to the store to get what I need for dinner before the Women's World Cup match tonight! And don't be surprised if my posts for the rest of the summer are a little more sporadic. After all, in addition to all that reading I've just mentioned, there are bike rides to take, concerts to hear, movies to watch....


  1. Thanks for the mention in your post. I'm a huge fan of American history and a regular reader of this website (even though I'm not a teacher). I completely agree that studying US history on a president-by-president basis would be inefficient and fairly ineffective - for many reasons. But as someone with a relatively strong history background, I would also suggest that reading the best biographies of the presidents provides an extremely interesting, and probably unique, historical perspective that is difficult to find in traditional history texts. My current project obviously limits me to reading about the presidents, but next I plan to tackle the much larger group of characters whose roles in US history has been no less critical (Ben Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Alexander Hamilton, Martin Luther King, etc.) And I do find it ironic that so many people gravitate unflinchingly to the fiction genre for entertainment when history provides so many interesting, and real, characters and context.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I agree, real life can be even better than fiction! (Just wait 'til you get to Robert Caro's 4th volume on LBJ. You know that JFK is going to be shot..., but still, Caro's got you on pins and needles.) And I also agree with your comment about the unique perspective offered in traditional history texts. Remembering that history is "made" by real people who had mothers and fathers and childhoods can be enlightening. Best wishes to your continued journey through the presidents. I hope you will keep writing when you get the other characters.

  2. Hi Lauren,

    Here's a few of my faves to add to your list... Sorry for including some World History, but I can't help myself. US History needs more World History.
    40 Autumns by Nina Willner (Cold War East Germany)
    Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History by Hampton Sides(MLK's Assassination)
    October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville
    The Great Influenza by John Barry (WWI, great history of US medical education)

    Wide reading about history is the greatest activity we can provide for our students.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks, Scott. Read your article about teaching vocabulary and the importance of reading to students that you linked to above. Very helpful. And it motivated me to look for excerpts to give to students from one of the books I am reading this summer: Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. In fact, one of the things I'm doing this summer is going through all my lessons and noting where I can substitute reading for some of the lecturing. So thank you for this timely reminder!