The Role Of The History Documentary In The Classroom

One of the readers of this blog recently asked about the role of documentaries in the classroom – specifically PBS’s video Reconstruction.  I wanted to say a few things about how I use history videos in the classroom, but first here is the reader’s question and comment:

Why are you averse to showing entire videos? Does it make you feel lazy as a teacher? Do you feel the students zone out after a short amount of time with the lights out?

I think one needs to be versatile and use videos to supplement the lesson rather than become it, but with a documentary as great as PBS’s Reconstruction, I’d be inclined to show the whole thing. There’s enough time in two semesters to get away with that, I think.

My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, relied heavily on videos. I remember the first day of class he said something like "there’s really no difference between me telling you the stuff and the video telling you the stuff."

I want to start by saying that I rarely use history videos in my class for the simple reason that most of them stink.  They are geared towards pure entertainment and contain very little content that is worth thinking critically about.  There are a few exceptions and one of them, as stated above, is PBS’s Reconstruction.  Second, in response to Coach Blackburn, if the teacher is superfluous in teaching the history lesson than it seems to me the class itself is unnecessary because a student can always watch the video at home. 

If I use a video I will typically show no more than 15 minutes; the main reason being that most of my students can only focus for about that long.  Videos do not create active learners; in fact there are plenty of studies that point to the ineffectiveness of this type of approach.  I try to break up my classes into segments.  The first 15 minutes are typically spent giving background to a specific event which is followed by some kind of document analysis and discussion.  If I use a segment of a video it is in connection with a specific lesson plan.  For instance, a few weeks ago I used part of Burns’s Civil War documentary on Lee’s decision to secede along with the statistics from a recent study on West Point graduates from the South who decided to stay with the Union.  The purpose here was to compare a popular version of the story with an analytical study. 

I think it is also important to realize that what we as teachers see as interesting and engaging may fall flat with students.  If a video is going to be used it is absolutely necessary to prepare students with some kind of guide – perhaps a series of questions.  The other issue is preparation.  What will the students have read to prepare them for this video?  This is a fairly sophisticated interpretation of Reconstruction from what I remember. 

As a final thought I repeat my earlier point in the day which is that since there is such an incredible amount of interesting primary source material that can be used in connection with Reconstruction it almost seems criminal to show an entire video.  Be creative, take chances, and rely on the students to think through the tough issues.   I am constantly surprised by the level of sophistication that is possible on the high school level.  Don’t waste opportunities to teach and engage your students.


Thirteenth Amendment

Why is it that as a nation we don’t do more to remember that on this day in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed?  We remember every little trivial fact about the most obscure battles and yet we pay no attention to the most significant result of our Civil War.  I managed to find a short reference to it in a South African news source.

What a sad commentary.

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Thomas Nast’s Reconstruction

Today my AP classes started Reconstruction.  I always enjoy teaching this section of U.S. History and given that we are using a text by Eric Foner, my students get the latest historiographical trends.  On the first day I try to present and engage my students in a discussion of the challenges that Reconstruction presents.  We examine the perspectives of the newly freed slaves, Republican Party, and white Southerners.  The first point I make is that the distinction between the Civil War and Reconstruction is an artificial one used by historians to more easily carve up the past.  Well, perhaps that is to go too far, but my point is that the issues involved are in large part a continuation of trends from the war years.

Thomas Nast’s images are some of the most useful sources for the classroom.  For example, the image to the left is titled “And Not This Man (August 5, 1865) and can be used to examine the debate about civil rights for black Americans and especially those who fought for the United States.  I ask my students to think about the intention of the illustrator and the message that he hopes to communicate.  Without sharing the title of the image I ask the students to imagine the words spoken as this crippled veteran is presented to the nation.  Students are able to connect Nast’s early work with the goals of the Republican Party, especially during Military Reconstruction.

The nice thing about Nast’s work is that it can be used to track the progress of Reconstruction or  the commitment on the part of Republicans to continue the policies that led to important political inroads made by black Americans.  As many of you know some of the most committed Republicans grew weary of their ability to bring about change forcefully in the South.  Younger Republicans who had not lived through the turbulent decade of the 1850’s were more concerned about an expanding capitalist economy and Northerners generally gravitated to the allure of reunion and reconciliation.  All of this comes out in Nast’s later work.  Compare the dignified soldier in the first image with the conduct of black politicians in a reconstructed state.  Did portrayals of black politicians in the South make it easier for Republicans, that were at one time committed to social and political change, to abandon Reconstruction?

Part of the problem in teaching Reconstruction is that there is simply too much good material that can be used.  Let me know what you do.


Fred Barnes Reviews Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads

Executive editor of the Weekly Standard Fred Barnes recently reviewed Jennifer Weber’s new book Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North.  He provides a very thorough overview of the history of the Copperheads and Weber’s argument.  As I was reading I was waiting for the analogies with Democratic opposition to the war in Iraq.  Barnes doesn’t disappoint as he makes the standard argument at the very end of his review.

Weber draws no analogy with Democrats today. She sticks to history. But I think the analogy is inescapable–not that Democrats are unpatriotic or treasonous. But like the Copperheads, antiwar Democrats have grown in numbers as victory in the war–in Iraq now–has faded from sight. They’ve weakened the president’s tools in combating terrorists and made that effort more difficult. And Democrats today have offered no real alternative, merely a seemingly irresistible impulse to retreat from Iraq.

Something similar was true with the Copperheads. "They never offered a coherent alternative to Lincoln’s plan–war–nor did they ever acknowledge the Confederates’ own resolve to gain independence," writes Weber. On that last point–the South’s rejoining the Union–talks with the South would have been worthless since Southern leaders were insistent on secession. So, too, I suspect, would be one-on-one talks (favored by Demo crats) with America’s enemies now, such as North Korea and Iran.

I have one quibble with Weber’s otherwise wonderful book. She labels the Copperheads "conservatives." But were they? They were soft on slavery. They were not patriotic. They fomented violent protests. They interpreted the Constitution in a way that would have crippled a wartime president. They hated the war more than they loved the Union.

Does that qualify them as conservative? I think not.

First, I have little patience with comparing Democrats with those who opposed Lincoln’s policies.  There is political opposition in every war and in a democracy it is absolutely necessary.  Barnes’s comments raises the question of under what conditions is opposition justified during wartime.  Was Lincoln’s own strong opposition ("Spot Resolutions") to American aggression against Mexico justified?  It seems to me that there has actually been very little "opposition" to the war among Democrats; there has been, however, a great deal of questions surrounding the president’s rationale for the war and especially the handling of the situation on the ground in Iraq.  If Barnes is being critical of Democrats he is certainly mild in tone, which I suspect has much to do with the fact that he acknowledges that the opposition to the war is justified.  As to the criticism that the Democrats have not offered a viable alternative to the president’s "policy", all I can say is that perhaps there is no alternative.  The incoming secretary of defense and Colin Powell have recently alluded to that possibility. 


Will The Real Abraham Lincoln Please Stand Up

Internet access to the nation’s census reports is just another way in which the lives of researchers are being made easier.  A fellow historian recently shared the results of a search in the 1870 census for children born after 1860 who were named after prominent political and military leaders from the Civil War.  In 1870 there were 82 boys given the name Abraham Lincoln and 84 boys given the name Jefferson Davis.  While the numbers are close the children tend to live in the region in which the name was associated.  There were just under 100 boys named Ulysses S. Grant, which reflects his popularity after the war.  Grant’s postwar popularity and eventual decline is the subject of Joan Waugh’s latest manuscript which should be published some time in 2007.  There were roughly 108 Robert E. Lee’s by 1870.  I was surprised to learn that 25 were named after Phil Sheridan and another 21 after Wade Hampton.  One boy was named after Ben Butler and please don’t comment that his nickname was "spoons."  Finally seven boys were named after George McClellan.  From what I hear they were all very good baseball players, but never willing to steal a base.