Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The First "Half" of U.S. History: How to Get through Reconstruction by the End of the Year/First Semester

While Keeping in Mind How to Make It Meaningful for Students

This post is for all of you who struggle to get through Reconstruction by either the end of 1st semester (for those who teach high school and/or U.S. history in one year) or the end of the year (for those who, like me this year, teach the first "half" of U.S. history in one year in middle school.

My initial inspiration for this post was from a comment someone made on an earlier post of mine, Second Semester & the Importance of a Good Syllabus: How to Help Students Find Meaning in U.S. History and a post this January by Glenn Wiebe on his excellent blog, History Tech, What Should Your Kids Know?  In that post, he raised a question I was dealing with at the time, how much time should I spend on the War of 1812? And if we have to make choices as history teachers, how do we compare the significance of the War of 1812 to Reconstruction?

Last year, I spent approximately 5 days on the War of 1812.  A week.  Kind of a lot.  Part of the problem was I was interrupted by winter break.  (The post-winter break part focused on long term results of the war, rather than the war itself, and I used it as a segue to Andrew Jackson).  I spent 10 days on Reconstruction.  To me, this ratio seems a bit off, given the importance of Reconstruction towards an understanding of the Civil Rights movement and race relations today.

My point is not to debate the number of days one should spend on the War of 1812 vs. Reconstruction.  My point is that we DO need to think about what is most significant in the study of U.S. history and how best to incorporate it into our plans for the school year.  In Glenn Wiebe's post, he links to an article, "What Every American Should Know," from The Aspen Institute that raises the issues brought up by E.D. Hirsch in 1987 that helped fuel the flames of the "culture wars." (See also this article by Eric Liu in the Atlantic Monthly).  They are both worth a read, as they raise the most important question our students ask:

After reading these articles, think about what you teach.  To what extent are these things that every American should know? Why? If you can answer those questions, think about how that can transform your teaching, not to mention your crowded syllabus.  Consider the things that students really don't need to know.  Because you're going to have to make cuts.

I have said it before and I'll say it again, the only way to "cover" U.S. history is to make tough choices.  These are my guidelines:
  1. You cannot, nor should not, try to teach everything.
  2. The textbook can help guide you, but textbooks DO try to cover EVERYTHING, so you can't rely on the textbook to make all the choices for you.  This might mean that you skip whole chapters or even units in the textbook, replacing them with other resources.
  3. You need to decide where you want to end and work backwards, so you don't find yourself cramming the Civil War into the last two weeks of school.  
The above are overall guidelines.  But there are many other things to take into consideration.  Most importantly, does your syllabus "tell a story"? Does each lesson lead logically to the next and does each unit lead logically to the next? Does each unit have a major topic/central issue/essential question? Or is just "Unit 4" because that's what comes next in the textbook? This is why you should read the articles I mentioned above.  This is what makes the difference between history that is "one damn thing after another" vs. history that helps students understand how our past shapes our world today.

In a few paragraphs, I will include a link to the calendar of what I taught every day this past school year.  It is different from the calendar with which I began the year.  That one contemplated less time on the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but more on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Like all of you, I ran out of time and other things took longer than I thought.  You will also see in my calendar all our institute days, holidays and testing days.  These impact how and when we teach certain topics. For example, do you really want to start a new unit the day before a break? Perhaps it is better to add another day into the previous unit.  What do you teach on days when students will have been PARCC testing all morning?  Do you allow time for reviewing in class before a test?  And what does one teach on a day when half the class is out on a orchestra trip to St. Louis? Those are good days to either allow students "catch up" time to complete homework or to do something "extra"--like on May 20, when I did a lesson on Civil War music.

Sometimes you don't finish things because real life intrudes: I spent a good chunk of the day on November 16 discussing the shootings in Paris.  September 11th fell on a Friday this year, and so I decided to spend the day discussing that.  (See this post for those resources.)  Next year September 11 falls on a Sunday.  So maybe I will teach about it on the following Monday.  Or not at all.  Not sure yet.

So below is the link to my calendar, warts and all.  I include it in hopes that it might help others formulate a plan for the year.

Below are some other issues to consider when planning out the school year:  
  • How are you going to start the year? I note that I spent 4 days on Columbus.  I chose to do that because I really liked the lessons, and they seemed to be a good way to introduce some overall themes we would come back to throughout the year.  But it was a bit of a time suck.  Perhaps I would reconsider this to buy more time later in the year.  Perhaps I could find a way to introduce those same themes using the content of the American Revolution instead. 
  • What do YOU especially like to teach and what are you especially knowledgeable about? The best way to engage students is if you yourself are engaged.  I have a special interest in the problem of slavery in American history and my syllabus reflects that.  My syllabus also reflects areas of weakness.  U.S. policies and the attitudes of white Americans regarding Native Americans is incredibly important.  I have struggled for years about how to better include this in my curriculum with little success.  You will see in my syllabus that there is not nearly enough there.  Obviously, to do so, would require that I cut elsewhere.  These are cuts worth making, but I haven't figured it out yet.
  • Sometimes I left things out because I couldn't figure out any meaningful way to incorporate them into a larger "story" or unit.  So while I mentioned Irish immigration a few times in passing, the whole topic of immigration in this first half of U.S. history was not something we covered.  Things like the Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Temperance movement and other reforms also hit the cutting room floor.  We did spend time on the reform movements of women's rights and abolitionism.  And students will spend time on immigration in 8th grade (the second "half" of U.S. history).  But just because the textbook mentions the Second Great Awakening doesn't mean that I have to.  Other times, I sort of "threw things in" that probably should have been left out.  For example, I spent January 14 on the Marshall Court.  In hindsight, I'm not sure that a day on the Marshall Court did justice (no pun intended) to the topic.  While it "fits" in terms of growth and expansion and how the decisions of the Marshall Court, I think in the future I would either need to spend a few more days on it in order to make it more meaningful, or cut it out entirely. 
  • We have to consider the impact of things like parent-teacher conferences, standardized testing, field trips, the days immediately before and after school vacations, and our own personal lives.  One wouldn't know from looking at my syllabus why I have 3 Fridays in December titled "First Amendment Fridays."  This came about because, as I wrestled with the newness of classroom teaching after years out of the classroom, I occasionally struggled with figuring out how long it would take to successfully teach topics to 7th graders that I had been used to teaching to 11th graders (more on the specifics of that in this post for  So when I realized I was running out of time, I postponed some of the details of the First Amendment for after the Constitution test.  (This was also helpful when, toward the end of the unit, I fell and broke 2 ribs and had to miss a few days of school!) The advantage of this series of "First Amendment Fridays" also revealed itself as we got closer to winter break and my students got a little restless.  Having "fun" activities for Fridays in December made a lot of sense on a practical level.  The students liked it so much, I did the same at the very end of the school year with a series of "Fourteenth Amendment Fridays" and "The Fourteenth Amendment Today Tuesday" on the 2nd to last day of school.   
  • Sometimes--perhaps especially so in middle school--things take more time because we also have to focus on skills, not just content.  I spent a lot of class time on the Mexican War because we did a DBQ from the DBQ Project on "Was the United States Justified in Going to War with Mexico?" Spending more time developing these skills earlier in the year would have made this project easier for my students.  It wouldn't necessarily save time, but it would better redistribute the time.

Additional resources:
  • Eric Lui, "How to Be American: Why cultivating a shared cultural core is more important than ever--and why such a project serves progressive ends."
  • - the website/project that developed from the essay above.  I haven't figured out how, but I think one could do something really interesting with this website with students...have students come up with their own lists? Find a way to do this as a summative activity at the end of each unit, or the year? If you have ideas, please comment.
  • I have earlier mentioned how helpful I have found James Loewen's advice about how to plan out a school year.  You can read it for yourself in chapter 1, "The Tyranny of Coverage," in James W. Loewen's, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History.  It is well worth a read.
  • An earlier post I wrote about the new APUSH standards that considers what we mean when our curriculum should cover such-and-such or so-and-so.
Also, see my previous posts about the challenges of unit planning:

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Last Day of School

As any of you know who have been following this blog or giving it the occasional visit, I have not posted anything new since last August. How ironic, to have my last post be on current events!

But as you can read in my bio, I went back to full-time teaching this year. And so I have been BUSY.

I have learned so much, and I hope to put some of that back into this blog over the summer, and on, where I will be writing as well.  

Like most of you, I have summer on the brain and am counting down 'til the last day of school.  During these last few days, I have been challenged by students who come into class saying, "Ms. Brown, can we just do nothing today?" "Ms. Brown, are we REALLY starting another unit?! School is almost over." "Ms. Brown, it's Friday...can't we just play a game?"

I hear them, loud and clear.  And I share their exhaustion and eagerness for a change in the routine.  So I am doing the best that I can, trying to shake things up a little.  Offer the occasional element of fun and surprise.  Find ways to get them up and moving.  Stuff like that.

But, still...this is school. This is U.S. history class. And we are going to LEARN stuff. Even on the very last day of school.

A recent conversation I had with a high schooler who had just finished his last day of school before finals mentioned that on his last day, "we did nothing."  A few parties, a little review for finals, and then "have a nice summer."

We owe our students a more thoughtful way to close out a year of study and reflection.  Sometimes I think I spend half of August planning my first day of school.  First impressions are important and set the tone.  But aren't final impressions important too? Shouldn't we provide some sort of closure? If all good lessons should have a beginning, middle, end and a point, shouldn't our school year have that too?

I like to end each class--when I can--with a zinger, or a "tune in tomorrow, when we will learn how the Freedmen's Bureau will solve these very problems that you've just identified" or some kind of cliff-hanger, such as "now that we've gone through the Declaration of Independence, tomorrow we will look at the very provocative passage that Thomas Jefferson left out of the final version." (See idea #5 in this post).

I want my class to end with a flourish, too.  Larry Ferlazzo offers a thoughtful analysis on the problem of what to do on the last day in this post in Education Week Teacher.

One of the things he does, which I like to do also, is to turn the table and have students evaluate the teacher.  If you set it up right, students can offer you feedback that will help you become a better teacher.  Remind them to grade you as you have tried to grade them: with helpful feedback.  Give them room to write comments, but ask multiple choice questions as well.  I signed up to to have the computer carts in my room, so I can do this using Google Forms.  But paper works, too.  

After that, I like to "wrap up" the class by reminding them of some things we've studied throughout the school year.  I like to remind students of themes we've studied throughout the year, harking back to some of the quotations I use on the first day of class

I always share with them the story about one of my American history professors in college. The one that made me shift from an English major to an American Studies major at the end of my freshman year.  In his last lesson, he compared U.S. history to a rose. It is beautiful, but has thorns.  I like to discuss this imagery with students. You could even have students write about this.  If you do, you can save the more thoughtful responses to read aloud to students next year.  Have students reflect about all the injustices of the past--slavery, discrimination, the mistakes in the Philippines and Vietnam.  But also have students consider the efforts to do better as a nation--the abolition of slavery, women's rights, the reforms of the Progressives and the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement. You could ask, is the glass half full? Or half empty? Have we as a nation lived up to our highest ideals?

When I taught the Revolution through Reagan in U.S. history, I liked to conclude the last day with one of my favorite quotations from Robert Kennedy:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

Students often come to like RFK and so I find him a good choice to offer some last thoughts about the positive impact they can have on the world.  I wanted to leave them with a positive thought.

But this year I taught just the "first half" of U.S. history, through Reconstruction.  So I thought I would end with something more relevant to that half of history.

At the front of my classroom, flanking the left and right sides of my white board, are large posters of Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass.  Each has a quotation. The one by Thomas Jefferson is from the Declaration of Independence.  It's the famous part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I chose it, I will explain to students, because it is our national creed.  It represents our nation's highest ideals.  As Lincoln noted in February, 1861:
I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this [nation] so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. (See here for source).
After the Emancipation Proclamation, this is what the Civil War became about.

But my students have learned that Thomas Jefferson was--and remains--a complicated historical figure.  He is a man of high ideals, but also a slaveowner.  And they are learning right now about the shortcomings of Reconstruction.  Before the last day of school, they will have learned that while black men technically got the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment, the Women's Suffrage movement was not successful (yet), and that Jim Crow and other racist legislation undermined true equality, including suffrage.  And we will have had discussions about the long way we still have to go as a nation to insure that all men--and women--really do have equal rights.  This is where we come to the Douglass quotation.  It is from October 22, 1847. (Full speech here.)

So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation.  In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.

I will read them this quotation that has been on the wall all year.  I will tell them I hope they will emulate Douglass, by being critical and not excusing nor tolerating injustice.  I will tell them that I hope my class has helped mold them into the kind of citizens who will do right by their country and, like Douglass, put pressure on our nation's leaders and themselves to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.   

And then I will wish them a good summer.