What Really Matters in the Survey Course

The first year teaching at any school is all about acclimation to the culture.  For someone who grew up Jewish, was Bar Mitvahed, but then lost all interest it’s been quite an adventure this past year teaching at a Jewish academy.  The emphasis on Judaic Studies and the celebration of holidays feels both foreign and familiar to me.  My students have been incredibly helpful and patient as I try to figure out my comfort zone at school events and with my own questions about the meaning that they find in Judaism.  My colleagues in the History Department have also been incredibly supportive.  It’s a very talented department.  Our meetings are filled with discussions about historiography, pedagogy, current events, etc.  I’ve thought more about what I do in the classroom this year alone than throughout my entire teaching career.

The biggest challenge by far has been working within the constraints of the calendar.  Each class meets three days a week instead of the usual four.  On top of that we have off for every Jewish holiday.  Some of you know what that means for the months of September and October.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the down time, but it raises a number of questions about how I go forward in structuring my classes next year, which in addition to my American history survey will also include a course in Modern Europe as well as my Civil War Memory/Holocaust course.

This hasn’t been easy given that the last course I taught before moving to Boston was AP US History.  The issue here is not even about where to cut back as much as it is trying to figure out what exactly is essential to an American history survey course that has so little time.  The good thing is that there is no pressure from the department to be comprehensive.  The emphasis is placed on imparting critical reading and writing skills.  But I do have to think long and hard about what content I want to cover in this class.

I really need to think out of the box.  I’ve thought about a thematic approach, but I tend to worry about those broad perspectives on history that seem to have so little grounding in the proper context.  My preference is to pick a couple of case studies and have students dig down in the time allotted.  Perhaps each one can represent a different approach to the study of history. For instance, we can examine the role of biography, social history, gender, etc.

As you can see things are pretty much up in the air.  I am open to any suggestions

14 comments… add one

  • Larry Cebula Apr 30, 2013

    I long ago gave up “covering the material” in a survey and thought instead about what I really wanted the students to come away with. I never developed a comprehensive list, but some of the things included a deep understanding of race, struggles between capital and labor, and the sheer suffering and brutality of most of the “good old days.” More than that, I wanted them to feel that history was important for understanding current events, to be instantly suspicious whenever they heard a politician making a historical argument, and to appreciate the history around them. Oh, and writing and critical thinking. These were my important things to cover.

    The Jacksonian Bank Wars? Not so much.

    I ended up pulling in a lot of local history and tying it to the national narrative. Also required use of local historical resources–my students wrote one museum exhibit review, and another paper based on their “reading” of a historic cemetery. All of this should be a lot easier for you in Boston than it was in southwest Missouri!

  • Bummer Apr 30, 2013

    Bummer’s #2 son teaches classical and music theory at a Jewish Academy in Southern California. The parents were a little skeptical of a gentile teaching their children, so he instituted an elective course in Rock and Roll Band to the curriculum, the students and parents were so enthusiastic, the trustees made the class part of the theory study. Not so much Civil War Memory, but certainly outside the box for this particular institution.

    Bummer

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2013

      We have a number of non-Jewish teachers. It doesn’t seem to be an issue at all. The nice thing is that the times set aside for prayer during the day is purely voluntary for both teachers and students.

  • Jonathan Dresner Apr 30, 2013

    Maybe because I teach World History instead of US, but every semester involves this sort of decision-making for me. Even in my more focused classes, I’m covering 300 (Modern) to 2000 (pre-modern) years of history: it has to be selective, especially since my students usually have zero to little background in the realities of Asian history.

    I have to go through another round of it next year, though: they just shortened my semester. I have to be creative about it this time, though: I’m not actually happy with the way my topics got distributed; getting a little too much West-And-The-Rest for my tastes.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2013

      Hi Jonathan,

      I can certainly see that as a challenge. The Modern Europe class that I am teaching poses the same problems, but I don’t have much of a problem with closely following along the curriculum that is already laid out. I don’t know the history nearly as well as I do the United States, but more importantly, I am not so invested in it.

  • Mike Rogers Apr 30, 2013

    Kevin – Consider this the view from the peanut gallery….maybe a biographical theme? But not with the all-stars of American History. Skip Washington for maybe Benedict Arnold (my Revolutionary Era knowledge is sadly lacking); William Clark for the Jefferson Era, any of the mountain men/fur traders (I’m partial to Jim Clyman who served with A. Lincoln in the Black Hawk War and in 1846 told the Donner party NOT to take the Hastings Cutoff). I’m sure you could find other examples of important historical figures not normally thought of. Your query makes me a little wistful…when I learned history it was strictly chronological…your fortunate to be able to craft your lesson plans with this much freedom and creativity.

    • Kevin Levin May 1, 2013

      What do you think focusing on the more obscure adds to the picture? Interesting.

      I’ve thought about taking more of a local approach. Massachusetts has such a rich history that I could use specific events to frame broader questions. Boston Massacre – Abolitionism/54th Mass/ – Boston Police (Immigration) – Boston Bus Boycott, etc.

      • Dan Weinfeld May 1, 2013

        Take advantage of your outsider’s perspective to tap the wealth of local sites: ten minutes from your school are Lexington & Concord with their crucial role in the Revolution and American intellectual development (Emerson, Walden Pond), etc. The John Adams houses in Quincy open up the discussion of the role of law and federalism. The Lowell textile mills are amazingly preserved and present the role of cotton, industrialization, women and children in the workforce, etc. I could go on and on. Your students will gain tremendous insight from seeing these places (many for the first time) aided by your interpretation.

        • Kevin Levin May 1, 2013

          You are absolutely right, Dan. I am definitely going to think through what a course might look like by using local history as a window into broader questions. Thanks.

      • Mike Rogers May 2, 2013

        Guess the obscure, or not as well known, gets me interested and headed down different roads. I need to remember that you’re working with teenagers and the “all stars” may be more recognizable to your students. I also didn’t factor in the Massachusetts part of the equation. Don’t forget the Deerfield Massacre or Jonathan Carver.

        • Kevin Levin May 2, 2013

          Thanks for chiming in. I appreciate all the suggestions. I am more and more favoring a focus on Massachusetts as a window into broader themes.

  • Chris Apr 30, 2013

    Kevin, One idea I am considering for my survey course is to split the course into the US as an nation reliant on Atlantic Ocean ties and events and then the US as a Pacific orientated nation. You can break down a few common themes through WWII and Cold War as the “Atlantic semester.” Then for second semester discuss western expansion and imperialism up to the present as our identity has shifted and will continue to shift to be a Pacific Nation. I am just in the beginning stages of this but will pass on any ideas that come along.

    • Kevin Levin May 1, 2013

      Hi Chris,

      I am definitely playing around with addressing the question of how the US became a world power as one of those themes. I haven’t thought about dividing it up between the Atlantic and Pacific. That’s an interesting way of approaching it as well. Thanks.

  • Brendan Bossard May 1, 2013

    I cannot give any professional input since I am not trained as a teacher, but I can give input as a serious history buff.

    Maybe use the development and treatment of the Constitution from inception to today as a thread to help you guide the course. That distinguishes the US from every other country, and will provide plenty of opportunities for debate and teaching critical thinking skills as you trace significantly related events in US history.

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