Sunday, August 23, 2020

Using Artifacts of the Pandemic to Teach History

An Option for the First Week of Class

Last spring, all of us had the opportunity to teach history while living through it. Suddenly, my next unit on the Great Depression was at once profoundly relevant, but at the same time, hard to focus on as we all grappled with the strange new reality of quarantining. So I came up with this journaling assignment as a way to connect history to my students' personal experience. 

Now, as I approach the first day of school (see my previous post on the first day of class), I am thinking about how to leverage the historic significance of these times in a way that intrigues students and makes them want to work in my class. At the same time, I need to start connecting to students and finding a way to forge a relationship with them in an online environment.

Here's what I've come up with for a first day activity that will allow me to learn a little something about my students, their recent experiences and give them an opportunity to connect with each other while still building a foundation to teach historical themes and content. It is highly adjustable (groups, not groups, how much time it takes) and would work either remotely or live.

The Pandemic Artifact Project

Face Mask Clip Art - Royalty Free - GoGraph

Intro: We'll start with a brief reminder of the definition of an artifact and primary source. Then I will use the face mask as an example of an artifact that defines this time period. We will discuss that for a few minutes: what can they tell us about this time in history? How were they used previously? How are they used now? What different kinds of masks are they and what can we tell (or not?) based on the kind of mask one wears. Likely, it will come up that some people don't want to wear them, which is perhaps a good spot to consider raising the question of rights vs. responsibility in a democracy, which you could also tie to voting.

Part 1: Choose an Artifact

Put students in breakout rooms of 4-6 people (or in groups if you are live) with the following task and instructions:

  1. What artifact might represent the larger experience of this time period and why? What is "universal" about it? In other words, why might a large percentage of people in this country or in the world identify with this artifact? In what ways does it speak to their experiences?
  2. You must reach a consensus in your group about ONE item. 
  3. Develop an argument; you must defend your choice by being able to explain why this item represents something about the pandemic/what experience does it reveal.

You can choose to provide them a template for explaining their item, such as this one in Google Slides. They don't have to have an actual item; they can find a picture online. For example, maybe they came up with idea of PPE, but they don't actually own any. Or maybe they have the idea to have a newspaper article about the rising unemployment levels--I wouldn't make them find an actual article (unless the artifact they come up with is a meme or a video; in that case they would want to be more descriptive or include a link to it). 

Part 2: Larger Discussion

One option is to put all the slides together (you can instead offer up one link to a shared Google Slide presentation and each group drops in their slide). Or you could simply ask students to share with the larger group. I'm thinking students might not be keen on doing presentations on Zoom within the first few days of school, so another option is to create a large group slide show, and either on their own or back in the breakout rooms, simply have students look through the choices of other students. You could offer up the following questions to discuss:

  1. To what extent or in what ways does this choice represent a more personal experience vs. a more universal experience?
  2. In what way(s) is this artifact represent of the experience of ALL Americans, only SOME Americans (if so, who?), people all over the world?
  3. Did this item come up in your group, too? 
  4. If it did come up, but you rejected that as your final choice, why did you reject it?
  5. Is this item more reflective of the OVERALL problem of the pandemic i.e. the virus itself, or it does it represent a "byproduct" of it, i.e. the financial crisis, or something like a cancelled event, like a wedding or graduation? 
Part 3: Tie to a Bigger Theme in History-- E Pluribus Unum

One of the themes I normally make early in the school year is the theme of E Pluribus Unum, the phrase found on our dollar bills, meaning, "out of many one." There are several ways to think about and apply this idea in U.S. history. It can refer to the fact that we are a diverse nation of immigrants of many races, religions and ethnicities. It can suggest multiple perspectives. Take World War II as an example: there are the experiences of people in different parts of the countries, the attitudes of Democrats vs. Republicans, the experiences of soldiers vs. civilians, the impact of the war on the women, African Americans, Mexican immigrants, Jewish Americans, scientists working on the Manhattan Project.

Right now, we might consider the impact the pandemic and Covid19 has had on different countries, those who work from home vs. essential workers, the unequal toll the disease has taken on people of color.

Another key point to make here is how there are several levels of experience: 
  • the experience all over the world
  • the U.S. experience
  • the local experience of each state and town/city
  • and perhaps most important to consider this first week, students' individual experiences
There are generalizations we can make about the larger experience. But individual experiences make up the collective and humanize our understanding of a broad historic moment. For example, if you are teaching about the Civil War, you would likely introduce students to the statistics about how many people total were killed. But you might also have students read an account from one, individual soldier to make it come alive for students. (See these two posts on, here and here for more on this.)

Part 4: Using the Lesson to Develop Your Relationships with Individual Students

Talking about E Pluribus Unum and the individual vs. collective experience is the perfect segue into an assignment that will allow you to get to know your students and start  Ask your students to choose another artifact that represents their personal or family's experience during the pandemic. You could do this in a variety of ways: as a written assignment to turn in, as a video they share with you (Flipgrid is handy for this), or--my likely choice--as an email. I like email because this can turn an assignment into an ongoing conversation with my students that will help me connect to them in a remote teaching environment. With some students, I imagine, this will turn into an ongoing email back-and-forth. With others, perhaps just a single exchange.  

I will start by sharing a few artifacts of my own (maybe using a "Bento Box"). This will help students get to know me a bit and make me human. We will need to be human even if we are online. (See Dave Stuart on immediacy as one of the 4 components of teacher credibility). I have one week until school starts. I will be thinking about my artifacts-- hair clippings of the home haircuts I have had to give my husband (at least they look okay from the front on Zoom!), the receipt from the first panic-induced grocery store shopping trip (rice, beans, flour, toilet paper), the Black Lives Matter yard sign I made on the reverse side of the sign we were given in honor of my daughter's virtual graduation from high school.

And the front page of the New York Times from May 24, 2020 that announced that the U.S. had reached the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from Covid19. Check out the interactive, which could be another powerful tool to use with students.

This could become part of a longer assignment, or you could share it with your local historical society (see links below.)

Please feel free to share other ideas, variations and adaptations in the comments.

A few additional resources:

Friday, August 14, 2020

The First Day of Online History Class:

How different should we make our first day this year? 

In a few weeks, I will be starting school remotely, teaching 8th grade U.S. history. Like most of you, I have never started a school year online. I've been on Twitter way more than I should be, clicking on links to anything that might be helpful in giving me guidance on how to start. I've attended more than half a dozen webinars since spring, from how to engage students on Zoom, to how to be culturally responsive online. And I've been reading. Oh, have I been reading. 

One of my recent reads is The Distance Learning Playbook by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie. It is not the kind of book I usually buy (I mostly buy history books), but I attended a webinar they gave about a month ago which convinced me to buy the book. And lo and behold, I got to Chapter 5, about teacher credibility, and it said virtually NOTHING I didn't already know....

Which was an enormous relief! I've been so nervous about how to transform what I do in the classroom--especially that first day and the first week--to a completely virtual environment. But the answer, or so it seemed to me as I was reading, was keep doing what you always do! Well, mostly, anyway. 

That had been my thought back in the spring. However, as the summer began, and our district shifted from considering a hybrid remote/in-person model to a 100% remote model, the word on the street seemed to be, "it'll be different--better--than it was in the spring." The education twitterverse and the blogosphere are full of new approaches and advice to teachers everywhere about how to up our game. Much of this advice is well-taken. 

But going back to Chapter 5 of the Distance Learning Playbook, we still need to consider what we've always considered: teacher credibility. (Dave Stuart also does a nice job of explaining teacher cred here.) And, as is laid out in Chapter 6, we also need to worry about teacher clarity. Some of the stuff about teacher clarity is about organization, assessments, communicating lesson objectives and providing guided practice. These are not typically "first day of school" things. However, communicating the why--the point-- of your class is absolutely first day of school material.

With that in mind, I am going to republish a post I wrote back in August of 2014. It outlines my thoughts on what one might do on the first day of history class and why. I'm still ruminating about what I'm going to do this year. I probably will use some of the history quotations I've used in the past. See here for the version on Google slides with questions, which also includes suggestions for how to use them virtually. Instead of stations, one could put students in breakout rooms on Zoom. 

So what needs to change for the start of this very strange year? 

I think it is imperative that we address our current historic moment. After all, we are history teachers. I'm still mulling around ideas on this: 

  • an acknowledgement that we are currently living through history.
  • a discussion of presentism--a concept that they will all understand in a way that no previous students ever have.
  • George Floyd and the protests, and what that says about the fundamental contradiction of U.S. history (see my previous post that discusses this)
  • the raw materials of history--primary sources, and perhaps sharing some "artifacts" of the pandemic and asking them to do the same

So while those idea percolate, check out the oldie, but hopefully still goodie post below. And if I can pry myself away from Twitter long enough to write up my thoughts for this new school year, I'll try to publish a post on those. 

August 2014 post:

I am constantly amazed by the stories my own children tell me about the first day of school: time spent going over the rules, the teacher's grading system, labeling notebooks, filling out forms. When I ask them if such-and-such a teacher seems good, they tell me it is too early to tell.

And maybe that's true. Surely it isn't fair to "judge" a teacher after just one day.

But as a teacher, I would hate to think of my students going home and answering the question, "How was history class? How is Ms. Brown?" with an answer like "I dunno. Okay, I guess. Too early to tell." Or to the question, what did you do on the first day, an answer like, "I dunno. Nothing really. It's only the first day."

I want my class to stand out, and I want to inspire students from the beginning. Tweak their curiosity a bit. Why wait 'til the second day to do that?

So I eschew going over rules or my grading system. Consider the fact that if a student is a junior in high school when they take U.S. history, or a 7th or 8th grader, they have had many first days of schools. There is no 7th grader, let alone 11th grader that doesn't know how they are supposed to behave in school. That doesn't mean they will, of course. But going over the rules won't ensure compliance either. Now imagine that it is 8th period. Or the period right after lunch. Think about how many times they have heard a teacher explain the rules or a grading system already that day. How dull is that?

There are a gazillion ideas out there for what to do on the first day of class. The important thing, I think, is to do something that is inspiring and also gives students a sense of what YOU are like as a teacher, what you expect and what your class will be like. And I like to do that not by telling them (These are my classroom expectations, blah, blah, blah) but by showing them--by designing a lesson that lets them know I take my class seriously and have high standards, and that I love what I do and what I study.

How do I do that? Like many history teachers, I like to discuss with students why I think it is important to study history. And because I know many successful, creative and interesting adults who do not know anything about the Homestead Strike or why we fought World War I, I cannot tell students it is because it will be important to them as adults. And I know they will be still be able to get into college--even a good college--without getting an A in my class. So I think it is important to be candid about that.

Below are some links which can inspire you to create a first-day lesson about why one should study history. The topic has merit, I think, because if you don't have your own sense of why what you are teaching should matter, there is no way that your students will. And the number one question that all students have about every class...? The most essential of all essential questions? You know what is:

Why do we have to know this???

It really is a good question and warrants an answer. But it has to be your answer, not mine. So here are links to help you:

Click here for some quotations I compiled about history. These can be used as fodder for discussion and/or writing activities on the first day. Use all of them, use some of them, have students pick the ones they like best to discuss or vote. You could hand out a different one to each student in a group. I choose a handful, have students discuss them in groups, and then I use these slides to discuss more in depth the following day (we have short first day periods). Re-visit them on the last day of school. I'd love to hear other ideas....

For a bunch of other interesting quotes, (Quote or quotation?) check out this site: History is. . . or if you need more, click here.  Or if you’d prefer some quotations about the United States, try here or here.

If you’d like a longer reading, suitable for AP/honors students in high school or to give you ideas you can adapt for middle schoolers, try this reading I compiled for use with preservice history teachers. Also check out the responses given by historians William McNeill and Peter Stearns on the American Historical Association website. And, for a thoughtful answer to the broader issue of a liberal education, see historian William Cronon's essay, Only Connect.

For more ideas check out

Hope your year gets off to an inspiring start!

Sunday, August 2, 2020

How do we tell the story? Meta-teaching and the Narrative Problem of U.S. History

"Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies. All perspective is removed, every virtue is skewed, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history urged in the record is disfigured beyond all recognition." 

President Trump, July 3, 2020, speaking in front of Mount Rushmore.

There is something unsettling about being accused of teaching students to hate their country by the President of the United States.

But Trump’s accusation is an old one among politicians. 

It was there when I first started teaching in the 1990s. I laughed to myself as I watched my high school students fog over at the same moment I knew U.S. representatives and senators were arguing heatedly in Congress about whether we were spending enough time on George Washington or not enough and whether the curriculum was too “grievance-based.” If only you knew, I silently told my students, how political this was--what is going on in this classroom right now. If you only knew that there were senators and representatives that thought I had so much power.

They are right, of course. We do have power, although it's not so simple as they make it seem. The Republic will not come to an end if we fail to teach the Second Great Awakening or spend too much time on Martin Luther King, Jr. or not enough time on George Washington. But it does matter.

George Orwell understood this better than anyone: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

Orwell understood that the stories we tell shape our understanding of the present moment. If learning about the past always reflects the concerns of the present moment, it is no wonder that our present moment presents challenges for history teachers--even before the pandemic and George Floyd. The challenge is how do we present the “story”--the narrative--of United States history in a way that is responsible to truth, that allows for interpretation and difference of opinion and that doesn’t crush the souls of young people?

I threw in that last part because, frankly, the more I read about things like systemic racism and voter suppression, the harder it is for me personally to be optimistic about our country. But that is my political point of view. And in addition to avoiding politicizing my teaching, I have a responsibility to imbue my students with a sense of hope, power and optimism about their ability to influence the future. 

I recall an interaction with a student from six years ago, when I first made the shift back to middle school from teaching high school. I made some statement about President Johnson (we were nearing the end of our Vietnam unit), and afterwards, a student blurted out loud, “oh phew, I thought you were going to tell us something else bad about what Johnson did.” She was referencing the lesson on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Her comment made me realize how careful I had to be--both about how I presented historical facts and about cynicism. (Consider using this edited-for-brevity version of a New York Times article about the Vietnam War and cynicism with your students.)

Two years later, I was teaching 19th century U.S. history to 7th graders. My unofficial motto for the year became the Russian proverb below.

It was imperative to teach about slavery honestly and fully, but in a way that didn’t “dwell.” I didn’t want the horrors of slavery, and the Trail of Tears and the Blackhawk War to impede students’ ability to see promise and possibility in American ideals. 

So what is a teacher to do?

A strategy that has worked well for me is to make the “battle” about narratives visible to students. In other words: meta-teaching. Let them know how you are thinking about what you are teaching them. They will likely be surprised to hear you talk this way; most teachers don’t tell students about their internal struggles about what to teach and why.

Let students in on a “secret”-- historians, politicians and educators argue about these things. This will intrigue them: kids love to be let in on the arguments adults have. 

It is also a great way to let your students know that you spend time thinking about how to teach them, which also sends a subtle message about your credibility.

Lesson idea: When does U.S. history "start?"

There are lots of places to introduce this to students. One place is at the beginning. Craft a lesson that asks students to consider the “messages” and symbolism of the dates below and what they suggest about when American History begins. Perhaps students could be put in groups and present an argument for why a date below should be considered a “starting point” for our country’s history? Of course, they would require some background information. You could add a few sentences about what occurred in each of these years to help them out or have students look it up, depending on timing. If you like, have students vote on the best choice.

* Inspired by the New York Times 1619 Project, 1619 is a new option. It engendered considerable controversy about the narrative it presents when it was first published a year ago. And more controversy recently, as the editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones debated Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) on Twitter last week.

If you need fewer groups, you can combine Jamestown or the Mayflower, or omit the latter. If you need more groups, consider an outlier: 1865 as the culmination of the "Second American Revolution."

An activity like this can be a useful entry point into grappling with the overall “narrative problem” of U.S. history: is it a story of progress? of the continually widening base of who can vote and hold power? Or is it one of constant oppression? What does starting with Columbus and/or just before tell us? What do they make of the term, "genocide" that has been used to describe contact with indigenous peoples? What do students think about the taking down of statues of Columbus?

The Usefulness of Gray: Nuance and Messiness in American History



Since I first encountered the quotation above by W.E.B. Du Bois about Reconstruction, I have turned it into a reoccurring theme in my class. I introduce the idea at the end of our first unit, on the post-Civil War West. The phrase, "no villain, no saint" then becomes shorthand for the complication of history: for the problem of presentism, of judging the past based on the present. You can use it when analyzing how Lincoln came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It is another way to address the Captains of Industry vs. Robber Baron argument about the industrialists of the Gilded Age. It is useful when they encounter Alice Paul, forging forward with the National Women's Suffrage Parade of 1913 and confronting the challenge of how to involve Black women without alienating Southern women. It is useful whenever we are confronted with the fundamental question of did the U.S. government do the right thing?

As Sam Wineburg wrote, "History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity. It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule. Worst of all it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence.” (Quoted in this thoughtful essay about the flaws in countering the "Patriotic/Consensus approach to U.S. history with Howard Zinn's conflict approach.)

As Wineburg suggests, perhaps the most responsible thing we can do as history teachers is introduce our students to the messiness of history. I sometimes joke with my students that the reason I prefer history to current events is that it's been hashed out. But I shouldn't suggest that, because any good history teacher knows that it while it may have been "hashed out" there are a wide variety of "answers."

Using September 11th as a Case Study

It is convenient that 9/11 comes early in this school year. I have been using the lesson described here for the past few years with my 8th graders. I use it on September 11, or whichever Monday or Friday come the closest when it falls on a weekend. It is a great way to discuss with students what should and should not be taught. When I mention that the 9/11 Memorial Museum has a gift shop, they are usually somewhat shocked and sometimes offended. But, I tell them, every museum has a gift shop. Every Civil War battlefield has a gift shop. At this point, I pause to show them the mug I use at school. It looks like the one above and on the other side, you can see that it is from Ford’s Theatre. This mug, I tell them, commemorates the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. That’s sort of weird, don’t you think? They usually nod. This helps all of us grapple a bit with presentism, with the challenging questions of how to recognize, study, or memorialize upsetting events from the past. (See #4 here for a similar thoughts about FDR, his disability and the debate over whether or not to depict that in his memorial.)

So what is the narrative?

Current protests and discussions about systemic racism emphasize that conflict, racism, oppression and inequality have existed from the beginning. Last year in a PBS NewsHour interview about the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones said, "if you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can't pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren't. . . . And that narrative that is inclusive and honest even if it's painful is the only way that we can understand our times now and the only way we can move forward."

Trump and other conservatives clearly feel that this is degrading to our country's history--that it is a negative look at our history.

I do not support that view, yet I do worry, as I said earlier, about crushing my student's souls. I have always ended my class at the end of the year with an idea borrowed from one of my college history professors who compared U.S. history to a rose: beautiful, but with thorns. That metaphor works for me, even as I struggle with how to put it into practice.

It is not dissimilar from the view of history presented by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. He described the work as "unfinished," and spoke of a "new birth of freedom."

That view--that our nation is flawed and imperfect, but has hope and possibility is echoed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She points out that "no one values freedom more than those who never had it." It is what Congressman John Lewis fought for his whole life. And that is echoed in the eulogy former President Obama gave last week at Lewis's funeral.

"Now, this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible."

We all have a narrative, if not explicitly, then lurking in our heads when we teach. Whether you are in charge of your curriculum or it was handed to you, every history curriculum has an implicit narrative. It lurks in between the lessons you teach and the lessons you leave out. The amount of time you spend on one topic at the expense of another. How you introduce each of your units and how you conclude them. As you organize your curriculum for this fall, consider what you will tell your students. And what you won’t. And why.

A few other resources:

  • I've mentioned it before, check out Bruce Lesh's wonderful book, "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 from Stenhouse. I don't spend a lot of money on education books (it all goes to history books) but this one is worth every penny. I have adapted his lessons on Nat Turner, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Roosevelt and the Panama Canal and Civil Rights with much success. Many of his lessons ask students to think about the hidden narrative and how the ways we remember the past have a lot to say about the meaning we give the past. You can see a sample lesson on John Brown that is not in the book here.

  • If you've never perused the materials on the SHEG (Stanford History Education Group), stop everything and check them out. Reading Like a Historian and Beyond the Bubble have lesson for US and World history and are adaptable--I've used parts of these lessons, whole lessons. Such great material for getting students to see the meaning beyond the "facts."

  • Check out this recent article by Kenneth C. Davis: "The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles" in Social Education. In it, he offers 5 helpful ways to "correct" the narrative about slavery as a subplot and that once it was ended, all was well.

  • Teaching the Highs and Lows of American History - a blogpost I wrote for

  • I haven't turned it into a lesson or used it with students, but former Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, gave a thought-provoking speech on the removal of Confederate monuments which is just as timely today. What an interesting way to start off the school year or a unit on the Civil War! For help with creating a lesson on this (if you do, please share it with me!) see this recent provocative piece by Ed Ayers and check out the work by the American Civil War Museum about Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. There's a section on this website that collects voices of people in the past and present talking about the monuments. See here and here for those.