Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Reconstruction: THE topic of our times?

Reconstruction is a challenge for many teachers for many reasons. For many of us, this unit falls at the semester point or at the end of the year, resulting in a unit that is often rushed and sometimes omitted altogether. It is not "exciting" in the way that the Civil War is exciting. And the end of the semester or school year comes with final exams, assemblies, anticipation of the holidays or summer vacation, which detract from the seriousness of the topic. But with the recent killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, careful consideration to the teaching of Reconstruction takes on an added urgency.

Perhaps the biggest problem with teaching Reconstruction is best explained by Eric Foner, one of the preeminent historians of the topic. I heard him speak last fall at the Chicago Humanities Festival, and during the Q&A after his lecture, he summed up what I think is the biggest problem. To paraphrase, he said it is imperative to teach, but difficult to determine the emphasis. There are the positive aspects which include the temporary success of African Americans in politics and the permanent, revolutionary change in our Constitution with the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. And there are the negative aspects which is the failure of Reconstruction to prevent the rise of Jim Crow and the unfinished business that we are all living with today. 

I think I could handle that, but then Foner quoted the American writer William Howell Deans, who said, "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."

Yes, I thought, that is exactly the problem. Clearly the protests regarding the killing of George Floyd demonstrate that Reconstruction did not have a happy ending. Reconstruction did not reconstruct America. Many of us as teachers are guilty of craving a happy ending. Especially if we are ending our school year with this topic. 

I have a serviceable DBQ on the success and failures of Reconstruction. It asks students to wrestle with this tug-of-war between the positive and negative aspects of Reconstruction. Perhaps this partly solves the "problem" of Reconstruction: acknowledge fully that there are both positive and negative aspects. It was an imperfect revolution that left unfinished business. And let your students reach those conclusions on their own, with the guidance of well-chosen primary and secondary sources.


Recently, I had to teach a one day lesson on Reconstruction. (Yeah, I know. Weird. Long, irrelevant story). I decided to introduce it in a broad way by asking students to consider what is meant by the terms "freedom" and "equality." 
I wanted it to be mostly a discussion, guided by these slides (and at right). I also wanted to have students wrestle with a primary source to consider the issue I explained above about success and failures of Reconstruction. It also contains a 2 minute video clip, which I like as it sets up the problem of Jim Crow. If you are using this as a lesson just to introduce Reconstruction, you'd probably want to hold off on that video and the 2 slides that follow and simply conclude the lesson with slide #12. In that case, you'd probably move on to a lesson on the Freedman's Bureau that addresses education and some of the other kinds of equality (see this document for that, or the middle school version). 

Reconstruction is part of the 7th grade curriculum at the school where I teach. I teach 8th grade, which picks up after that. Because of both Covid 19 and the events of late May/June, it seems like a 1-3 day "refresher" on Reconstruction might be in order for the start of this year with my 8th graders. 

Here is that lesson: slides and document.


Friday, June 12, 2020

From Ferguson to George Floyd

If you ignore the present, how can your students trust you to teach the past? 

I first started this blog in August of 2014, just weeks after Michael Brown's murder led to protests in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, I remember thinking that perhaps this would lead to systemic change in the United States. Nearly six years later, I am now hopeful that the murder of George Floyd will lead to the kind of change we need.

I also remember being aghast that my children's teachers did not discuss Ferguson and what had happened AT ALL. At the time they were in grades 9 and 7. At the time, I was working at the university level, teaching and advising pre-service teachers in social studies. Now I am back in the classroom. I teach 8th grade U.S. history, which picks up where the 7th grade leaves off after Reconstruction.

On social media, I have read a lot of posts recently such as, "why didn't we learn this stuff in school?" or "Schools need to do a better job of teaching the truth about our country's history."


As a teacher, I feel this responsibility deeply. I have been feeling it intensely for the last 6 years as so many current events have intruded into the classroom since I returned to teaching. And even more so in the last 2 weeks.

I returned to the classroom in the fall of 2015. Beginning with the attacks in Paris that November, the rocky primary season of spring 2016, the election of 2016, the school shooting at Parkland, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the impeachment of Trump (yeah, I know, seems like forever ago now, doesn't it?) and right on up to our present moment.

Since I began remote learning this March, I have found it impossible to ignore comparisons from the past to the present, as I taught about the Great Depression and the New Deal and World War II. I did not know, of course, when I taught about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the end of April how closely that would echo our current moment.

I have learned throughout these experiences that while it can be challenging, there is tremendous benefit to be gained from connecting the present to the past. It has everything to do with why we teach and study history (though it is not just about making it relevant to students' lives). If you ignore the present, how can your students trust you to teach the past? You are fundamentally ignoring the question that underlies everything students wonder:

Why do we have to know this?

As I work this summer to prepare for an uncertain fall, I think it is high time to make some revisions on this blog. I will try to update some of my posts to include new things I have done since 2014.

I have had to ask myself, if there are so many outstanding resources (and here) available online for history teachers why would anyone need my blog?  I'm not a professional historian.

But I am a professional teacher with high standards and nearly 20 years of experience. I owe much of my success to long conversations with colleagues. In particular, I own an enormous debt to my dear friend and department chair when I taught high school. Most of what I do well, I do well because of his help during those early years of my career. It is the outcome of those kinds of conversations I am trying to recreate on this blog. The kind of discussions you have with a colleague who you trust, who has some good ideas, who helps you tweak your own and make them better.

Sometimes I find the resources online too overwhelming. Sometimes, you just need to know how to teach about insert any topic here. Preferably before 3rd period tomorrow. That is what I hope you will find on this blog.

At this historic juncture, we need to teach in order to bring light to the truth. As the now Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ida B. Wells said,  

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
Mary Garrity - Ida B. Wells-Barnett - Google Art Project - restoration crop.jpg
Please check out the post I did last fall about why students need Black history all year long, not just February, on Middleweb.

Please follow me on Twitter (@UShistoryideas) and check out my other posts on Middleweb, where I have been doing most of my blogging for the past few years. For those of you who teach high school, there is much to be learned from middle school teachers.

Updated post of the day: colonial slavery (Some new links in here to other resources; check 'em out!)
Post I'm working on next: Reconstruction. Stay tuned.