Thursday, August 31, 2017

Taking History Outside of the Classroom- Starting a History Club

Starting a new school year means a new year with one of my favorite student groups- the Frankton History Club.  Nine years ago, students in one of my history classes asked me, "You know Mr. Cline, we have a Spanish Club, a French Club, a Science Club...why don't we have a History Club?"  That question was the spark that led to the creation of what has become one of the most active and popular student organizations in our school, and has, without a doubt, helped to motivate increased student interest in the classes we offer within our department.  Since I've been asked by several colleagues to share what we are and what we do, here is a quick rundown.

I've always approached this organization with two thoughts in mind.  One- I want this to be student-driven as much as possible. Two- I don't want this to become the "field trip club".  To the first point, we generally begin each year with a call-out meeting, and immediately I start talking to kids who might have interest in joining our leadership team.  In the past we have used executive officers, but this limited the minds contributing to planning, and so we have blossomed to a 10 student team.  These students are central to the planning and implementation of the the club's activities.  I obviously want to plan activities which will interest our students, and I want the students to buy-in to the work we are doing.  Having a student-led leadership team does just that.
HC Students with Guest Speaker

From there we work towards a goal of planning one activity per month.  We strive to vary the activities we plan to include field experiences, but also guest speakers, movie nights, community service, etc.  This year we are excited to already have several experiences already in place, including:

  • A trip to the Mississinewa 1812 Reenactment- Indiana doesn't have many historical battles around which to build a living history experience, but one that we can count is the Battle of the Mississinewa, which took place near to our school during the War of 1812.  This reenactment, while built around that battle, focuses more on the country at the time, and gives students a great experience in speaking with historians.  Plus the food is amazing!
HC at 1812
  • Participation in the "Follow the North Star" program at Conner Prairie.  Central Indiana is truly blessed to have this living history museum, built on the grounds of the William Conner estate.  William Conner was an Indiana trader, and his home and land form the basis for an experiential landscape set in 1836 Indiana.  This program revolves around Indiana's role in the Underground Railroad, and places students into the role of an escaped slave.  The experience is intense and thought-provoking!
Conner Prairie

One of the best decisions our club has made was to become affiliated with the National History Club. Through this group, our club is able to sponsor a Senior Award (which features the winner recieving a copy of the HC Book of the Year, which is autographed by the author), and the National History Honors Society.  This group has also started publishing newsletters, monthly emails with resources, and has a Facebook group in which advisors can share ideas.
Honor Society Inductees

The time I have spent with students in this organization has been amongst the best I've spent in 12 years of teaching.  Teachers should always endeavor to build authentic learning experiences into the traditional classroom, but with increasing class sizes, and varied student interest, this isn't always easy.  Our history club has proven to be an outlet for specific study, and has allowed students the chance to study elements of history which interest them on a personal level.  It has provided opportunities for our students to make history real, and that has sparked interest in continuing their research.  If you are a history teacher, consider this opportunity to take what you are teaching outside of the classroom!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hamilton: The Creator of the "American Dream"

Over the past week I've had the tremendously good fortune to study the life of Alexander Hamilton, a week which was prefaced with some great reading from experts like Richard Brookhiser and Ron Chernow, and which was peppered with lots of the Hamilton mixtape.  As a history teacher I've obviously been well aware of Hamilton and his impact for some time, and have made every effort to incorporate him into our curriculum, but have met with a lot of blank faces.  Prior to 2009 far too many students had no idea who was on the $10 bill!  All of that, of course, changed when Broadway star Lin Manuel Miranda did this at the White House:

Since then, and certainly after the release of Miranda's hit play, it's been much easier to pique student interest in the man, and I've had a lot of fun the past few years using the play as a way to bring deeper conversation on the Founder into class.  But the nature of that conversation will likely change after this week, as, after the lectures, conversations, and readings, I've come to appreciate Hamilton in a new way, as someone who, even though he wasn't born in the country, may, in many ways, represent the idea of "American potential" more than anyone else of the era, perhaps the first to fully appreciate the idea of the "American dream."

Hamilton's background is famous- born on an island in the Caribbean to a mother who had just spent several months in prison, placed there by her first husband for "whoring".  In reality she had simply fallen for another man, and having not lived with her husband for a long time, she had married this new man- James Hamilton.  The matter finally resolved, the Hamiltons moved to the island of Nevis, where Hamilton, his older brother, and his mother were deserted by his father.  His mother, Rachel, was determined, and started her own business, with her son Alexander as clerk.  Just as things had begun to look up, both Alexander and his mother contracted a fever, from which Alexander would survive, but his mother would die.  At 11 Alexander Hamilton was a penniless orphan, and, in the eyes of many, a bastard.  Fortunately Hamilton was taken on as a clerk for two merchants- David Beekman and Nicholas Cruger- who, after being impressed with his work, sponsored him to go to the colonies so that he could study medicine, after which he would return to the islands as a doctor.

Alexander Hamilton arrives in New York City with only faith in himself, that he offered something that could make a significant place in this country.  Hamilton is, in truth, like so many immigrants who have come to these shores, even still today, escaping a situation which had become untenable, searching for something better, believing that America offered just that.  Hamilton began studying law at King's College (now Columbia), organized his own artillery unit when the Revolution began, impressed General George Washington enough to be placed on the General's staff as an aide-to-camp, led a successful assault at Yorktown, married the daughter of a wealthy and influential member of New York society, and became a successful lawyer.  In short, Alex did good.  It is, of course, his work with the Constitution that stands out with Hamilton.  Active early, along with James Madison, in the work to replace the deeply flawed Articles of Confederation, Hamilton was key in the call for a convention in Philadelphia, and even more central in convincing his state of New York, crucial to the process, to ratify the new document.  Under the new government, which yielded the incomparable George Washington as first president, Hamilton was named the first head of the Treasury, responsible for coming up with a plan to rescue the country from tremendous debt.  To describe his rise as meteroic is putting things mildly.  To describe Hamilton as the epitome of the "American Dream" fulfilled would be right on.

If Hamilton's rise has become well-known, his death has always made him famous.  For all of his gifts, Hamilton's flaws stand out as much.  Hamilton was brash (again putting it mildly), with an insatiable belief in his rightness, and was unafraid to let people know they were wrong.  These qualities did not endear Hamilton to many, including Thomas Jefferson.  It is in this relationship, however, where Hamilton demonstrates his most ardent belief in the "American Dream."  As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton devised a new financial plan intended to not only rescue the nation from crushing debt, but also to set it on a course for the future which would help ensure advancement.  The plan called for an increased focus on manufacturing and industry, which flew in the face of Jefferson's hope for a country of small farms.  Jefferson's hope is hardly surprising, being a Virginia planter who had grown up in an agrarian society- it was all he knew.  In defending his belief in the need for increased manufacturing, Hamilton offers perhaps his greatest testament to an "American Dream"-

"As to the furnishing greater scope for the diversity of talents and dispositions, which discriminate men from each other. This is a much more powerful mean of augmenting the fund of national Industry than may at first sight appear. It is a just observation, that minds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects fall below mediocrity and labour without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits. And it is thence to be inferred, that the results of human exertion may be immensely increased by diversifying its objects. When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigour of his nature. And the community is benefitted by the services of its respective members, in the manner, in which each can serve it with most effect."

In this passage from his "Report on the Subject of Manufactures" (1791), Hamilton uses his own story to serve as evidence of the need for this change of focus- "...minds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects fall below mediocrity and labour without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits."  In effect, Hamilton argues that, had he stayed on Nevis, had never come to America, his talents would have been wasted.  In other words, if the country remains strictly agrarian, too many of the great minds of this country will be wasted.  Instead Hamilton argues for a national focus on manufacturing and industry as a means of bringing choice to Americans- if you don't want to farm, then here are the plethora of other options.  Later on in the same report Hamilton argues that "...there is, in the genius of the people of this would operate as a forcible reason for giving opportunities to the exercise of the species of talent...".  In short, Hamilton is arguing for a system, for a country, which offers choice of opportunity, that these shores offer far too much talent to remain steadfast in the way things have always been done; in effect, Hamilton is arguing to make things easier for future Hamiltons.

In the end, Hamilton's vision has proven to win out.  This country has become the cradle of diversity that Hamilton envisioned, at least in diversity of choice.  In that lies the foundation for the "American Dream", that anyone could come to this country and find a niche, an avenue in which to apply their talent towards a better life.  Hamilton certainly wasn't the first to move to this land with the dream of a better life, but it could be argued that he was among the first to see the true potential of how big those dreams could be.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Walking in the Footsteps of What You Study

As I write this, I'm sitting in an Union Square Starbucks, preparing, both mentally and physically (because coffee is the key to both) for day one of the Gilder Lehrman seminar on Alexander Hamilton and Founding Era.
It's a far cry from the Indiana cornfield in which I live, and the neighboring Indiana cornfield in which I teach.  But I sit here as both a deeply passionate and tremendously blessed teacher of social studies.  I am blessed in the sense that this is the latest in a series of incredible professional opportunities I've had the chance to experience, one which will, without a doubt improve my knowledge and teaching of this important era in American history.  But it's my passion that has led me here, a passion founded in the purpose of my field- serving our students.  And as a social studies teacher, that purpose must include taking the time to, and seizing the opportunity, to visit and experience what we teach, and if possible, cultivating opportunities for our students to do the same.

By now, if you are a history teacher, I hope that you have come to realize that a textbook study of history offers little other than a base level of knowledge, one that students are destined to forget almost immediately.  History studied right is experiential, and that experience includes exposure to the images, words, music, etc. of a time period.  And it is defined by the realization of every opportunity to experience the actual location of something being studied.  As teachers we need to seek out every chance to offer ourselves the chance to walk in the footsteps of what we are teaching; I can guarantee it will change the way you teach.  But we also have to seek out those opportunities to offer the same kind of experience to our students.

1- The Impact of Experiential Professional Development on Teachers
Professional development is one of those terms which I am convinced is defined by the teacher.  Can't anything which inspires growth "pd"?  These can include more structured experiences, and for those who are social studies teachers (but also teachers of other subjects as well), here are a few of my favorite structured development groups:

  • Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History- apart from being a first-stop destination for primary documents and other classroom resources, GLI offers a series of summer seminars throughout the country.  Each seminar focuses on an element of American history, with a few of this year's offerings running the gamut of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, The Second Great Awakening at Princeton, and the one which I am attending right now, Hamilton and Founding Era in NYC.  Each of these seminars is, essentially, free, with room, board, and food free, and travel expenses reimbursed.  Each seminar is led by an expert in the field, including great minds like Denver Brunsman, John Demos, Eric Foner, and Richard Brookhiser.  Teachers are on location for a week, which is filled with lecture/discussion, trips to historical locations relevant to the topic, and time spent on pedagogy and lesson development.
  • Ashbrook Center at Ashland University- the group associated with the "TeachingAmericanHistory" and "50 American Documents" series, Ashbrooke offers weekend seminars at historical sites around the country, which are, again, free.  These are led by faculty of the university, and are based in primary document study and professional discourse.  I recently visited Montpelier for a discussion on the Constitution, and if you can't be inspired to discuss Madison's influence whilst sitting in the shadow of his house, then you may want to consider another field!
These opportunities are incredible without a doubt, but the work of a teacher never ends.  Seek out the opportunities available to you anytime you are out.  When on a trip to Florida, find the battlefield. When driving through a state which you have never visited, stop at the state capitol building.  Or, if you find yourself in a historical goldmine like New York, just walk around.  On a recent visit to NYC this past May, my wife and I spent a few minutes outside of the Stonewall Inn.
It happened to be just before we discussed the beginnings of the LGBTQ movement of the 1970s in class, and it changed the way I presented it.  You see, I firmly believe that teaching history goes hand in hand with teaching empathy.  If empathy is, at its heart, understanding, then walking on the ground upon which a movement such as this began is a must.  

2- Students need the opportunities as much as teachers.  History is best learned experientially.  This is where the topic discussed changes from some sort of an abstract and far gone event, and becomes something tangible, something relatable, something real.  We have to find those opportunities, and they are likely closer than you think.  I promise- experiental learning is a game-changer in the classroom.  My favorite example was provided by a local living history museum called Connor Prarie.  Each year for the past several I have taken students to participate in what they call the "Follow the North Star" program.  This program features a number of first-hand presenters, each of which has based their character in deep research so as to fully portray the individual.  For 90 minutes students are taken through every step in the experience of a fugitive slave, including the sale, the escape, and the flight.  Along the way the students were treated like slaves, including being spoken to as a slave might, and meeting individuals at varying levels of willingness to help.  The students have told me that it is an emotional experience, and one that fundamentally changes the way in which they study and think of this period in our history.  I've had several students connect the experience to more current events like trafficking.  It's real, and that changes everything.  Disclaimer- these experiences are not for every student.

Here's the deal- these opportunities require a teacher to miss a little school, or a little of summer.  We can't take students on field trips every day.  Cultivating these experiences take time and research.  And as teachers, we can often feel like "If I have one more thing I have to do"...I get it.  But isn't this what it's all about.  I've seen the change in learning, the deepening of knowledge and empathy.  I've seen it in my students, I've seen it in myself.  
So, stand in front of Hamilton's grave, and see Betsey buried in front of him, and think about how his brashness got him killed, but made him distinctly American.  Think about his impact, and how different this country might be without his impact.
Raise a glass to Washington in Fraunces Tavern, and think about how, just one floor above you, he said farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolution.  Men who had shared the sacrifice to found this country, and who now embraced a man many looked at as a father.
Visit St. Paul's Chapel, and stand on the spot where Washington prayed for strength and guidance after being inaugurated as the first President of the United States, and say a prayer for our country.  Walk in the footsteps of history, and feel your knowledge, your teaching deepen.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Perspective, Empathy, and a Teacher's Responsibility

It's been a while since my last post, but that does not mean that I have been under a rock, oblivious to the realities of the world.  And if one reality were to be the most clear after this summer, it would be that this may be the hardest time ever to be a teacher of history and government.  As someone who has long maintained an approach geared towards presenting doors to students rather than pushing them through one, I was frustrated to read a recent article published on a Philadelphia-based website by David Horowitz and Mark Tapson.  The thesis of the editorial, titled "To restore balance in schools, teacher code of ethics needed", was that a left-wing conspiracy had developed amongst educators to warp children's minds in a liberal fashion.  Although this sort of teacher-bashing has become the norm, I'll admit...I was left more than frustrated by the contents of the article.   Fortunately, less than a week after the editorial was published, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion amongst fellow teachers on the subject of social justice, and what we should be doing to encourage and ensure this crucial quality in our classrooms, and I was buoyed.  And now, after a few days to digest both, a discussion of what I believe our country is missing, and what we as teachers can do about it.

Last week I sat with a room full of US History teachers, and the conversation turned towards social justice, a term which I have come to define in our classroom as every student having an opportunity to succeed, to look at every student for the individual they are and designing an experience which best gives that individual the chance to learn.  Clearly, however, this term refers to a much larger idea when applied beyond the walls of the school.  And we as teachers have to realize that.  To say that we have a responsibility to serve our students justly in the classroom is obvious (or it had better be).  But we have to understand that what we teach our students is not just for the classroom; it is for the real world as well.  And how we teach them is often as important as what we teach them.

You see, as frustrated as the Horowitz editorial made me, I have to admit that there are, without a doubt, teachers who push an agenda (from both sides).  So, if the point of the editorial was to suggest that there are teachers who ignore balance in their classroom, then point taken.  But I know far more teachers who have only one primary concern in their classroom:  the kids, and their well-being.  As a history and government teacher, I will admit that I have an agenda.  I want my kids to emerge from their secondary school experience as willing and engaged citizens.  If that somehow fits me into the Horowitz and Tapson definition of a teacher-conspirator, then so be it.  But I believe in the potential of this country, of these kids, too much to give up now.

That word, "potential", is one that so significantly applies to this country.  Americans tend to forget that, in the grand scheme of world history, we are but infants.  In some ways, our country is going through its awkward teenage years, still struggling to find our identity, still trying to come to terms with the responsibility that comes with having freedom.  But our potential as a country lies in my favorite period of American history- it's founding.  Something I try to stress to my students is that, for as much pedestal-sitting as we like to do for our Founders and Framers, these were imperfect men and women.  They were agenda-driven, stubborn, and in some cases, slave-owning.  But they were also brilliant, and their brilliance shines in the fact that, at a time in our country's history when we were dealing with some of the biggest challenges we ever will, these individuals were able to emerge, on two separate occasions, with founding documents which still stand as the backbone on which this country is built.  The Declaration and, even more so, the Constitution were far from perfect, and few, if any, of the men who signed it left those conventions happy with all of it.  But, they believed in the potential of this country, and endeavored to achieve compromise built on discourse.  How far have we fallen?!

When trying to identify the "big problems" facing our country, a friend and colleague, who also happened to be in this discussion of US History teachers, talked about a lack of empathy being the disease inflicting the country.  My answer:  that we have lost the art of discourse.  The reality- they really are not much different.  At the core of empathy lies understanding, and that can only come from experience.  We have become far too comfortable with our small zones of understanding, and have become disconnected with the realities of our fellow Americans.  I'm reminded of that classic line from To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus tells Scout that "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
In a world in which humans have more access to other humans than ever before, we have become content to turn our eyes away from others and stick to what we "know."  We have become confident in our "rightness", confidence which is only fueled by our increased access.  If you believe you are right, a simple Google search will turn up something to verify your point, regardless of how short-sighted that point may be.  And I am as guilty of allowing this kind of confirmation bias to affect me as anyone.  But it seems to me that the only way things change for this country is if we take a page from the Founders, and talk.  I've come to hate it when someone says something along the lines of "We just won't talk politics so we all get along."  NO!  Talking is not the problem; we need to change the way we listen.

In response to Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Tapson, I do have an agenda.  An agenda to encourage discourse, to encourage empathy in my students.  I will do this by loving each of my students for who they are, not who I think they should be.  I will understand that each student has walked a unique path, one that has molded them through life experience into the person who sits in our classroom.  I will provide opportunities for each student to interact with multiple perspectives of historical events through resources like primary sources, and even news articles such as your own.  Including the views of a Howard Zinn or James Loewen is not indoctrination, it is a perspective.  It is not "revisionist" to discuss that Helen Keller was a socialist when she was, or that Columbus' voyages had devastating consequences because they did.  This is "reality" history. I will encourage perspective by asking students to answer questions from their point of view, and from point of views different than their own.  I will encourage perspective by ensuring that multiple viewpoints are heard, even if I have to argue them myself.  I will check my own perspective at the door in the realization that each student deserves the opportunity to craft their own, and should never feel like their teacher is telling them how to think.  I will never ask my students to agree with a perspective, just to appreciate that it exists.  

For all the talk of "founding principles", it seems clear that this country was, undoubtedly, founded on the principle of deliberation, which places far more emphasis on listening rather than talking.  When we debate, we listen to find holes in another's argument.  When we agree to deliberate, we listen to appreciate the other perspective before giving ours.  How can we ever expect to realize the potential of this country if we cannot sit down with someone who has a different point of view and talk, without leaving the conversation angry?  Is this an easy change- no!  But it is an effort that we have to model at home, and we have to model in our classrooms.  Let that be our agenda.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Professional Development...What is it good for? Absolutely Everything!

So...before I dig in, a little background on my current situation.  I am writing this in Wichita, Kansas, fresh off of an incredible one-day seminar through the "Teaching Literacy Through History" (TLTH) program of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  This seminar was focused on Vietnam (hence the playful title of the post), and featured the tried and true "seminar + pedagogy" format that works so well.  The seminar portion was presented by Dr. Frederik Logevall, the Harvard Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner.  And it was awesome.  I've taught history for twelve years, and learned more about the conflict in that 3 hours than I ever had before.  I just finished typing up my notes, and have already considered ways in which my teaching of the war will differ next year.  The pedagogy was fantastic as well- here is the information, now here is what you can do with it.  Truly a great method.  Seriously, if you teach history, and haven't been to a Gilder Lehrman seminar, you're missing out!

Now, to my point.  During a break today I was looking over my notes, and it struck me just how much I was getting out of this experience.  It isn't the first time I've felt that way during a professional development experience, just the latest.  And I couldn't help but think of how many other teachers would benefit from this experience, from any quality professional development.  This post will focus on the why, as well as the obstacles to professional development.  First- the why.

I am a teacher.  It is the best job in the world.  But if one thing is clear it is that teaching is not a static job.  Or at least it shouldn't be.  Teaching is a career in which one must be committed to many things, one of the foremost being the importance of remaining a life-long learner.  I've always kept, as a personal mantra, a belief that the moment I feel like I've figured it all out is the precise moment I need to leave the teaching profession.  The truth is that there is not a single teacher who should ever feel this way.  I've known and worked with amazing educators, award-winning educators who inspire me and challenge me.  But none of them should ever feel that way.  There is always room to grow, new approaches to adopt; there is always something new that we can learn to better serve our students.  Professional development is not an option for the classroom teacher; it is a mandate.

So...why don't more teachers pursue these opportunities.  Obstacles.  Some of these barriers are self-imposed, others outside of their control.  The self-imposed are the most frustrating for me personally, because it is likely derived from an excuse.  Now, before I get chastised for not appreciating the busy schedules of a teacher, hold it.  I'm not saying that a teacher should be attending some kind of training every week, or even every month.  But I find it hard to believe that a teacher cannot miss a day, here and there, to grow as a professional.  Once a teacher understands that pursuing professional development is a requirement for sound practice, then that particular obstacle is removed.  But what about the obstacles placed in the way by educational realities, like money.  Many school districts lack the money to send teachers to development sessions; others requires teachers to take personal days to attend these sessions.  My message to teachers facing these obstacles is this:  look harder.  Many organizations have taken to pursuing outside funding so that not only are training sessions free, but often substitute reimbursement can be given.  Today's seminar with the Gilder Lehrman Institute was sponsored, very generously, through the Koch Foundation; teachers did not pay a dime to attend, and subs were reimbursed.  In some cases, especially with Saturday or summer trainings, teachers may even get paid a stipend for attending.  My message to state or national professional organizations is, on a similar vein, to consider the dearth of money available to teachers for the pursuit of professional development.  Asking a teacher to pay, out of pocket, for a training is becoming too much to ask.  If I am going to tell teachers to search harder, I would also tell professional groups to search harder.  Ask yourself- how can we provide development opportunities to our teachers at no or little cost.

In the end, here is my point- reach out, ask, research and find development.  It's out there- I promise.  And pursue it.  If you can, provide it. Understand that our students are not the only learners in a classroom; so are you.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Art and the Social Studies Classroom

As I sit here with Nina Simone singing in the background, and reflect on the past #sunchat discussion on the arts in the classroom, and consider the recent cuts to the NEA suggested by the Trump Administration, I felt compelled to post about both my belief in their much needed inclusion in every classroom, and some of my favorite ways to do just that in our social studies classroom.

As mentioned, I teach high school social studies.  And while I believe that the arts belong in every classroom, a social studies classroom is the ideal place to mix the contents.  After teaching history for twelve years, I have found that one of the greatest challenges is forging a personal connection between the content and the student.  We are asking students to connect with people and events that took place 5, 10, 100 years ago, and that is a tall task for any person.  This, I believe, is often what perpetuates the thought of history class as "boring."  We must endeavor to present history in such a way that it appeals to as many of the students' senses as possible.  When thinking of the way that art can help achieve this, I am often reminded of this quote from the artist Mathiole:
Image result for art speaks where words are unable to explain
History shouldn't be studied by merely looking at or reading words; it should be experienced, through the photographs, the paintings, the music, etc. of those who lived it.  By using those mediums to study, one can begin to "touch" history, and perhaps even understand it, if not empathize.

I have to admit- photography is one of my passions.  Ever since I was exposed to the great Robert Frank collection, "The Americans", I have been convinced of the power of the photograph.  And as a social studies educator, I have come to believe that this medium is among the foremost of ways to not only present content, but to present the message of an event, the emotion of someone directly involved.  For example, when discussing the Great Depression recently, I could have had students simply read about a young woman named Florence Owens Thompson, and some undoubtedly might have learned something about the reality of life during this dark period of American history.  But instead, I posted the more famous picture of Florence on the projection screen as students entered the room, and asked them to infer what they saw and to describe the emotion seen in the photograph.

When one combines the story with the photograph, something changes...something becomes more real.  And that is the power of art.  As the quote says, art can convey something words cannot.  Words can state that the Great Depression was difficult; this photograph proves it.

A favorite way for us to combine the arts and our content is through what I call a "photo essay". It plays on the traditional essay, a written work in which a message is relayed or an argument made, and one in which evidence must be given to support said point while considering the importance of flow in writing.  When discussing events like the Progressive Era and the era of Vietnam, when a history teacher is trying to convey to students the difficulties of industrial life, the sad realities of child labor, the experience of the American soldier, or the passion of protest here at home, reading or lecturing about it will not do alone.  Students need to see the evidence.  The challenge is quite simple- choose a focus, select appropriate pictures, make sure to cite the source, and arrange the photographs in such a way that a point can be made, a message conveyed.  When looking at photographs from the Vietnam Era, students can choose the perspective of the American soldier, the Vietnamese soldier, the photojournalist, the protester, among others.  When done well, the student work is powerful, and the experience is that much more real.

Last year I made the decision to finish up the year by encouraging the students to take this experience to the next level.  Up to this point students had been using someone else's photographs; I wanted them to tell a story using photographs that they had taken.  For our focus I blended this push with our efforts at including state history into the curriculum, and thus challenged the students to answer the questions "What is Indiana?", "What is a Hoosier?" through photograph.  I gave the students categories to include, and made sure to include student choice in the assignment.  And the results were amazing.  With a topic like Indiana, to be sure, there were a lot of corn fields, barns, and basketball goals.  But there were also fantastic photos taken of favorite places for the students when they camp or kayak with their families.  There were photos of basketball goals that had been installed by their great-grandfather on an old barn.  There were photos of old trucks that had been used on their family's farm, but were now collecting dust in the barn.  In short, it was the most fun I had ever had grading.  And the stories the students' told...what a joy it was to see these kids grow in their appreciation of their state and community, to have spent time with their family and friends.  To view a a short video, linked to QR code in my classroom, that highlights a few exemplary photos which are hanging in the room, follow this link.

In short, there is nothing that we teach that is not made better, richer, more real through art.  At a time when the arts are seemingly being pushed away, it is up to teachers to keep their vital influence in our classrooms.  Our kids deserve it!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Document "Mapping" in the SS Croom

A few days ago I posted a picture of some of my US History students at work, under the label of "document mapping".  I was asked the same question by several colleagues- "What is document mapping?"  At the time, it honestly prompted me to ask myself the same question, along with "Why did you choose that label for this activity?"  Truly I took the picture and posted it, typing in that label almost as an afterthought, an instinct.  It just felt right.  But as I've thought about primary document use in our croom I can see that "mapping" is exactly what we do...but perhaps not in the traditional way to which social studies teachers might be accustomed.

Since this post is likely going to focus a bit on semantics, a few reminders-

  • A primary document is any kind of source that was produced at the time of the event it describes.  These sources could be text (like a diary entry), visual (like a battle map or a photograph), something to be heard (like a song or a speech), etc.
  • As a social studies teacher I am an ardent proponent of using these sources in the croom.  I truly believe they are the lifeblood of what we teach, and often the most interesting lesson plan supplement we could use (I mean, who wants to "talk" about the 60's when we could listen to some Bob Dylan?)  For some of my favorite places to access great primary documents, check out this past blog entry.
In the traditional social studies croom, mapping is exactly that- working with maps.  And in that sense it is absolutely crucial.  The "where" is often as important as the "what" when studying history.  There is a great deal that can be learned by analyzing events in a geographic sense.  But does "mapping" always have to refer to geography?

Mapping is about relationship.  It is about comparing one thing to another.  It is about examining the process of something.  Key word- process.  Process- welcome to social studies 101.  As it turns out, I chose the right word after all. 

The lesson I posted was a lesson in which students in US History were focused on why exactly the United States had entered World War II.  We had spent the past several weeks looking at the US in World War I, and as usual we focused more on the "why" and the consequences more than we focused on the fighting itself.  A US History teacher cannot talk about the why of either war without talking about the intense attitude of isolationism seen in the country before both wars.  Americans were simply not sold on entering this war, and in both cases would have to be shown, in very tragic terms, why the United States could not stay out.  As we began the discussion of World War II, it was important that students dig in to understand this attitude, and how it changed, along with circumstances and realities around the world, leading up to American entry after Pearl Harbor.  We began this discussion with me asking students to explain why the US entered World War II, to which I had several students shout out "Pearl Harbor".  My next question to the students- "Would the United States have entered World War II if Pearl Harbor had never happened?"  Pearl Harbor was a direct attack, a clear reason for the US to exit its attitude of isolationism and get involved.  But were we headed there already?

        US History students discussing their documents

Process.  The word is at the center of what these students were examining.  How did we get from here to there?  To both challenge them and get them talking, students were each given a document that pertained directly to the process, ranging from the Kellogg-Briand Pact to a recording of a fireside chat on September 11, 1941, during which FDR discussed the sinking of an American ship at the hands of the Germans.  Students were given a few short analysis questions to focus their thinking, and then given a few minutes to compare their answers with other students who had the same document.  This also allowed me to quickly move through the groups to answer questions that might exist on the document.  Next the students were separated into slightly larger groups, each group featuring at least one student from each document.  Students were then challenged to place the documents in chronological order and then discuss their document with the rest of the group. Throughout this process the overarching question was kept on the board as a reminder- "Would the United States have entered World War II if Pearl Harbor had never happened?"  Students were asked, at the end, to answer this question in their journals, leaning heavily on the discussion from the day's lesson.

Process.  I keep coming back to that word because so much of what we do in social studies classrooms is about examining process.  How did this happen, how did a people go from here to there, why- these are questions which guide learning in our crooms, and if we can encourage students to find these answers in the actual voices of the past, their understanding of history is all that much more deep and meaningful.  Social studies teachers are in the midst of a revolution in teaching methods, ditching the textbooks and taking the learning to the source, giving students an opportunity to experience history on their own.  It's not as easy as the textbook, but it is most certainly better. Step up!