Training the Next Generation of History Teachers

The AHA blog has a link to the report "The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities" which is the result of a conference that took place here in Charlottesville in the summer of 2006.  The conference brought together history professors, high school teachers and others who are interested in the quality of history teaching from K-12.  Reading through the report reminded me of some of my own questions regarding the responsibilities of college history departments in preparing their students not simply to do research and contribute to their respective fields, but as teachers who have some background in pedagogy.  The central observation of the group is the following:

Past debates aside, today no one denies that history teachers need to know history. No one denies that teaching is a professional practice that can be developed and improved. No one denies that the best history teachers are driven by a passion for their subject as well as by concern for their students. And no one doubts that passion for history often comes to young teachers from their history professors.

As a result, we believe that departments need to create new opportunities for the people in our classes to begin thinking like history teachers as well as history students. They need to be exposed to historiographical thinking sooner rather than later, explicitly defined and carefully elaborated. Underlying this recommendation is the conviction that the best preparation for future history teachers is the best preparation for all history students. By performing this central task more effectively we can improve all the teaching we do. [emphasis in the original]

At first glance this is a tall order for history departments across the country.  As the report indicates most history departments have little to no contact with their departments of education which means that students in both camps are ill-served.  For graduate students in history one can expect that little formal training in how to conduct a classroom – apart from the old lecture format – will be introduced, and students in education departments may have little training in how history is actually done.  As a result these students enter classrooms unable to apply or teach the kinds of analytical skills that are necessary in understanding the past.

The report offers some practical suggestions for those departments that are interested in taking a critical look at their programs.  Their first point struck home for me as it indicates that history department rarely ask their students about their future plans.  I don’t ever remember being asked as a graduate student in philosophy about my future plans and I suspect that this is the case in graduate programs across the board.  Since the professors in the department have made careers teaching on the college level it is assumed that their students will do the same.  Although it is anecdotal at best, over the past year I’ve had a number of graduate students contact me through this blog for advice about teaching in private schools or on the high school level generally.  Taking one step back it is rather shocking that not more is in place to help young history graduate students take stock of their options apart from the traditional route of research and college teaching.  More importantly it is disappointing as I am convinced that many of our best teachers could be pulled from this pool of passionate and well-trained students of history.  Other suggestions from the report included:

If history departments are in institutions with schools of education, for example, the departments should open communication and establish collaboration. Joint advising has been successful at many schools and some historians might propose cross-listing their courses or team-teaching classes of the sort described below. If history departments are on their own, without schools of education, they have an even greater responsibility to think about preparing the future teachers in their charge.

A third step is for history departments to learn more about the situation in the K-12 classrooms of their community. Our conference showed how much historians in colleges have to learn from teachers in high schools. Inviting history teachers to visit to talk about standards, curricula, and local resources would help historians be better allies. By offering to help evaluate pre-service teachers in their practice teaching, in turn, historians could focus on disciplinary content and help students recognize the connections between what they teach and what historians teach in their own classrooms . By working with new history teachers in local schools in induction programs historians could make an immediate impact on the quality of history instruction in their communities and on beginning teachers’ success in the field.

This is an ambitious report and one that I would like to see departments across the country consider.  That said, I am skeptical that it will make much of an impact.  I say this because the first thing that must change is what I perceive to be a deeply ingrained assumption that the essential goal of graduate programs (specifically graduate programs with a PhD) is to train historians.  And that is different from training historians who can teach. 

There is an excellent short bibliography of sources that address historical thinking in the classroom.  I highly recommend Sam Wineburg’s, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001). 

I applaud the members of this conference for their work in preparing this report and I look forward to reading updates.

Iron Jawed Angels

Last week my Women’s History class viewed the movie Iron Jawed Angels which focuses on Alice Paul and Nancy Burns and their work to help bring about 19th Amendment to the Constitution.  Overall I enjoyed the movie and more importantly my students enjoyed it.

In 1913 Burns (right) and Paul (left) convinced the leadership of the National American Womens Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to set up an office in Washington D.C. and push for a federal amendment.  One of their first organized events was a march down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1914 – the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.  Paul required black suffragists from Howard University to march at the back of the parade, and the parade itself ended in violent confrontation with protesters.  Within a few weeks the suffrage amendment had been reintroduced in the House of Representatives after seventeen years.  One of the more controversial decisions made by Paul  was to ask women in western states who already possessed the right to vote to refuse to vote for candidates who did not support the amendment; this led to a break with NAWSA and the founding of the National Women’s Party (NWP) in 1916.  That same year NWP members traveled throughout the western states to convince women not to support Wilson’s reelection.  During WWI the NWP campaigned openly against the war by protesting in front of the White House and using the president’s own language of “making the world safe for Democracy” against him.  Protesters, including Paul and Burns were eventually arrested for violating a traffic ordnance and jailed.  While in jail both women took part in a hunger strike – tactics which were learned and utilized while in England.  The work of the NWP and NAWSA eventually led to the passing of a constitutional amendment and ratification by the states.

The movie did a few things that I really like.  Arguably the most important theme in the movie is that it portrays women as feminine.  I was very surprised when I introduced this class last year only to learn that a substantial number of my female students were turned off by the idea of studying “manly women.”  The movie attempts to correct this bias by including scenes of women putting on make- and getting dressed.  There is even a scene where Hilary Swank (who plays Alice Paul) is enjoying a hot bath while thinking about a certain male newspaper cartoonist.  I won’t go any further and I have to say that it was just a little uncomfortable as I watched this with 11 girls.  That said, I pointed it out the next day as a way to correct some of these assumptions about the suffragists that continue to shape our perceptions.  The music was also very effective.  While the movie utilizes the sounds of the time a modern groove kicks in when the characters are engaged in suffrage activities.  My guess is that the music is suggestive that these women are ahead of their time or modern.

Some of my students were clearly moved by the story; in fact one student let the entire class know at one point that she was “so pissed off.”  The scenes involving the forced-feeding of Alice Paul while in jail were difficult to watch, but it is important for students to understand what was involved in the steps that led to the right of women to vote throughout the nation.  All in all this is an excellent movie for high school students.  I do think it is important to frame the movie around a selection of primary sources and a rich historical context that helps viewers understand the difficulities and challenges that these women faced.

Today we examined the experiences of black middle class women at the turn of the century.  I want to make sure that my students have a broad understanding of women’s history, to understand that their stories look very different depending on race and class.

Why We Go To War

Last week my US History classes took part in a simulation that explored the reasons for American involvement in WWI.  I use a lesson plan originally published in the Fall 2002 issue of the OAH Magazine of History and fine tune it in ways that allow me to fit it into two class periods.  Students are divided into groups of two and each team is given a state to represent.  Each state has a list of facts that must be considered as the team debates whether to go to war.  For instance, the representatives of Massachusetts must remember that they have a large Irish population, the state has strong ties to England along with economic ties with the rest of the continent.   Wisconsin representatives must consider its Progressive history (Robert LaFollette was governor of the state), along with its German-American population and agricultural economy.  There are nine states in all from around the country that are represented in this simulation. 

We proceed year by year; students have a handout from each year that describes everything that has taken place both internationally and domestically.  Based on their own local concerns they must debate whether to declare war, and if so, on which side to join.  My students tend to automatically assume that Germany was the aggressor nation at the start of the war.  In addition, they assume that if the United States were to join the war earlier it would have to be on the side of the Allies – let’s forget that czarist Russia was aligned with England and France up to the 1917 Revolution.

The simulation usually goes as planned in that very few states are ready to even consider war until 1917 and even then they are wary.  With such a diverse set of interests between the states represented students gain some appreciation of how difficult it is to come to agreement over what to do about foreign affairs.  They ask if this is really our war or whether they can ask young men to fight and die for this specific cause.  The problem becomes more acute when after they’ve declared war in 1917 I ask them what they believe this war is about for the United States specifically.  The most common answers center on trade interests, but few are able to argue just how American involvement will improve the situation.  What is striking is how few of my students focus on "making the world safe for Democracy." 

To set us up for todays discussion I ask them to spend some time thinking of how they are going to market this war to the rest of the country.  How exactly do you convince the average American that what they most want to do is go off to the bloody battlefields of Europe and kill Germans.  Even with the sinking of the Luisitania and the Zimmerman Telegram they find it difficult to view Germany as a natural enemy.

Enter the Committee for Public Information and the work of George Creel. 

Teaching the Civil War and Reconstruction

My AP classes are now focusing on the entrance of the United States onto the world stage at the turn of the twentieth century.  At the same time we are talking about the emergence of Jim Crow legislation and the rise of lynchings throughout the South.  It’s interesting how our tendency to carve up the past into neat little chapters often obscures the extent to which earlier events continue to inform or shape later events.  I had one of those moments last week as I was preparing a presentation on the rise of Jim Crow.  It hit me that in an important way we were still talking about the Civil War.  I began the class by asking: “Who won the American Civil War?”  Of course the students looked at me with an odd grin, but I decided to go with it and let the silence take hold in hopes of making for an uncomfortable moment.  I eventually followed up by asking my students to think about the war and Reconstruction as beginning in 1861 and ending around 1900.  A few of the students understood exactly what I was asking and we ended up having a very interesting discussion.

My goal with the question was to have my students think seriously about the way in which the Civil War challenged basic assumptions about citizenship and race in the United States.  As a military order the Emancipation Proclamation raised questions that few people were prepared to debate seriously just a few years earlier.  By the end of the war a significant number of black Americans had fought and sacrificed in the Union armies and the institution of slavery was dead.  Emancipation alone, however, did not necessarily imply a certain set of positive civil rights such as the suffrage or equal protection under the law.  Whenever I teach Reconstruction I have my class think about the term from different perspectives.  There were a number of ideas about Reconstruction depending on whether you were a newly freed slave, a Republican in Congress or a white Southerner.  Different ideas of Reconstruction competed with one another during the thirty years following the war and they all hinge on the radical changes that the Civil War wrought.  Military defeat may have ended the war and slavery, but the form in which freedom would take for 4 million newly freed slaves had not been decided.

From this perspective it can be argued – as does Brooks Simpson – that the Civil War did not really end in 1865.  The issues of race and emancipation continued to be fought over within a political context and often through extra-legal means such as the Klan and other terrorist groups.  The Radical Republicans sought to protect the civil rights of black Southerners while many white Southerners hoped to regain control of their state governments and reconstruct them along lines that followed the racial hierarchy of the antebellum period.  This can be seen in the institution of black codes shortly after the war as a means to limit their political and social mobility.   By the mid-1870’s it became increasingly clear that northern Republicans were losing interest in military Reconstruction as western expansion and the challenges of increased industrial development took hold.  In addition, members of the old-guard such as Thadeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were gone while younger Republicans entered Congress never having experienced the political turmoil of the 1850’s.  Even Horace Greely had lost patience with Reconstruction as well as other Liberal Republicans.  While 1877 did not signal the end of black political participation in the South it can be seen as the beginning of a gradual loss of civil rights for black Americans that culminated in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Furgeson and the rise of the Jim Crow South.

This broader perspective makes it possible for teachers to ask questions that challenge our standard outline.  If we acknowledge that the Confederate government was fighting to preserve not just slavery, but a society based on a strictly defined racial hierarchy than we can make sense of the process by which black Southerners gradually lost the basic civil rights that they had worked so hard for during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Reconstruction is one of my favorite time periods to teach since it forces students to deal with the fact that the future of the country was not predetermined.  The subsequent racial story could have gone any number of ways.  The presidential election of 1876 did not close the door on black political action in the South.  The reconstruction vision of black Americans continued to compete with the reconstruction vision of the white South, and while their outlooks were largely mutually exclusive individuals like William Mahone and Ben Tillman continued to offer alternatives that involved bi-racial cooperation.  The rise of Lynchings along with the emergence of Redeemer governments connect directly to the way in the which both the Civil War and Reconstruction evolved.  The war over whether the United States was going to define citizenship along the color line continued as the nation pushed into the twentieth century.  Of course we could argue, as one of my students did, that the issues of race and emancipation continued well into the twentieth century.  This student suggested that we are still fighting the Civil War.  In a sense we are, but it seems to me that we can use the Spanish-American War and the move on the part of the southern states to rewrite their state constitutions in a way that disfranchised the largest number of southern blacks as an end point.  [By 1940 only 3% of southern blacks were registered to vote.]  Consider the above tableau that depicts national reconciliation just as the country geared up for war with Spain.  Perhaps the strong feelings of nationalism and the sweet taste of victory against a nation that posed not threat to this country can be interpreted as the end of the Civil War.

So who won the Civil War?

Women’s History Course: A Brief Assessment

Snow Day!!!!

I am three weeks into my women’s history course and enjoying it a great deal.  I have 11 female students, all but two are seniors.  While the course is grounded in history I am trying to mix up the readings a bit to include both gender and feminist studies.  Since this is my first time teaching the course I am learning as I go.  More importantly I am learning a great deal from my students.  Teaching on the high school level leaves you with the impression that girls as a group are more mature than boys.  This class has already given me a clearer sense of just how true this is.  High School girls are able to talk more openly about certain issues and they listen more intently to one another.  What I am most pleased about is that a good number of my students are taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss and research issues that are already on their mind.  It’s as if the content of the course is teasing out ideas and thoughts that are already there.

We started the first week by reading a short introduction on the language of gender and the reasoning behind a class on women’s history.  We talked about the importance of understanding how women fit into American history and what it means that for so long they were ignored.  The class explored the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and wrote a concise overview of “the problem that has no name.”  Last week we started working with the textbook, which is well written, thorough, and organized around an excellent collection of different types of primary sources.  We started with the post-Civil War period and the split of the women’s movement into the NWSA and AWSA over the 15th Amendment as well as the entrance of women into the work force by the end of the twentieth century.  I have two black students in the class so I want to make sure to address issues that touch on the roles of black women in American history.  Luckily our textbook does an excellent job of covering issues that are specific to black women. I consider myself fairly well educated in the field of American history.  I teach the AP classes and I have a pretty solid grasp of the important secondary texts.  That said, I had no idea just how much I was missing before starting this class.  Interesting people are emerging as well as important Supreme Court Cases, and the way I understand what I already know is being enriched.  What more could I ask for?

This week we started our first project.  My class is exploring the concept of masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century in the form of images of Theodore Roosevelt.  I handed out a packet of images of Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War as well as images of him in connection with the Panama Canal and his role as Trust-Buster.  As we move through Roosevelt images that highlight the importance of the “strenuous life” or extreme masculinity the students can draw comparisons with how women are depicted in the outdoors.  I found some very interesting images of  bicycle advertisements that include women as well as images of women playing tennis and other sports.  The images attempt to strike a balance between play and maintaining accepted feminine qualities.  Students are required to write a 3-page essay based on their own interpretations of the sources.  As most of them are seniors I want to give them as much latitude as possible in developing their own thesis statements.   Next week we will jump to the suffrage movement and explore the steps that led to the 19th Amendment.  I plan to show the movie Iron Jawed Angels and have the students explore other primary sources from both well known and more obscure women who took part in the movement.  I would love to hear other suggestions for movies that would be appropriate for this class.

While I have a general outline of what I want to cover in this course specific topics along with the relevant primary and secondary readings are still up in the air.  As we into the twentieth century I hope to introduce the class to a combination of historical as well as feminist studies.  Over the summer I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth along with a wonderful collection of essays by Gloria Steinem titled Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.  It includes the classic essay “I Was a Playboy Bunny.”  While I’ve enjoyed these books I am having a hell of a time making my way through Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.  She offers a scathing argument against the “infertility epidemic” said to strike professional women who postpone childbearing; Faludi concludes that this is largely a media invention.  I also want to introduce the class to essays written by women that challenge the agenda of the feminist movement.

I am already thinking about what electives I might offer next year. While I am thoroughly enjoying the focus on women’s history I will probably be expected to teach the Civil War course once again.  One possibility may be to offer a Civil War course that focuses specifically on women’s experiences; the focus would be on the antebellum, war, and postwar periods.  I’ve also been playing around with a more creative approach that involves locating a diary or set of letters from a woman/sisters who lived here in Charlottesville/central Virginia during the war years.  I would focus the class on local history and have them help me prepare the archival material for publication.  Students would have their names connected to the final publication.  I know that John M. Priest utilized this approach on the high school level some years ago.  His students contributed to the editing of a unit history authored by Sergeant William H. Reylea.  It’s an interesting idea and would make for a truly unique high school experience.  For now it is enough that I am enjoying this experience and learning a great deal.