Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching History Without the Negative Stuff

As many of you know the state of Texas in the process of redefining its social studies/history standards.  [See here and here]  This will impact the rest of the nation since the textbooks that will be ordered to meet the agenda of this curriculum will likely be distributed throughout much of the rest of the country.  The ongoing debate about what to teach has little to do with understanding the past or training students to think critically about historical studies.  Rather, the debate is being driven by political hacks who know next to nothing about what it means to study the past.  Consider the following short video.

It’s hard to take seriously the notion that what should drive our study of the American past is the overarching assumption of its “exceptionalism” and “how unique it is”.  According to this Texas Board of Education member, the solution is to simply delete those aspects of our history that detract from this exceptional image.  It’s certainly one way of going about it, but than what are we to make of her call to get rid of the word “propaganda” from the curriculum/textbooks?  What else should we call this approach to history?

I don’t mind admitting that I am an enemy of the notion of ‘American Exceptionalism.’  It’s not simply that I fail to see how it applies to American history, but that it has nothing to do with my role as an instructor of history.  I’ve said before that I do not consider it my responsibility to influence students in how they judge the collective moral status of the United States through its history and current policies.  In addition to the concept of exceptionalism I also steer clear of any notion of America as “God’s Chosen People” or the notion of an inherent “Evil Imperial Empire” that is espoused by some on the extreme Left.  That said, I do deal with the historical roots of the idea of American Exceptionalism going back to the Puritans’ notion of a “City Upon a Hill” through Manifest Destiny as well as its later manifestation in the form of the “White Man’s Burden.”

Can someone please tell me what is gained by teaching American history this way?  How does it help our students to engage with the rest of the world on a level of cooperation and mutual respect?  All I see is a curriculum that promotes arrogance along with the biases of a cultural exclusivist.

How Well Do You Know Robert E. Lee?

As part of a search for information on Robert E. Lee and Arlington House I came across teaching materials that I assume are to be used for home schooling purposes.  It includes a multiple choice test.  Let’s see how well you do and remember that some of the questions have more than one answer.  Good luck. Here is the link, which includes a “history” as well as the test.

1. _____ In Lee’s January 22, 1861 letter to his cousin, Martha Custis Williams, whom does he state can save us; and from what? (Circle one)
a. The Federal Government
b. The media; bad publicity
c. The Union; anarchy
d. God alone; folly, selfishness, short-sightedness and sin

2. _____ In his General Order; whom does Lee state is our only refuge and strength? (Circle one)
a. The Confederate Army
b. The cavalry
c. Stonewall Jackson
d. Almighty God

3. _____ According to Chaplain Jones of the Confederate Army, the result of this Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer was a work of grace among the troops, which widened and deepened, causing at least: (Consult your text and fill in the blanks)
a. 500 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
b. l,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
c. 5,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
d. 15,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour

4. _____ What results does Chaplain Jones state “eternity alone shall reveal” in terms of Robert E. Lee’s actions during this Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer? (Circle one)
a. Lack of interest and participation
b. Absence
c. Quiet influence and fervent prayer
d. Resignation and “moment of silence”

5. _____ Colonel Johnston was an intimate friend of Lee, and a distinguished faculty member of his college. In his eyewitness account of the General’s dying moments reflect Lee’s true character traits in action. They are: (Circle all correct answers)
a. Impatience
b. Anger
c. Reticence
d. Hatred
e. Self-contained composure
f. Obedience to proper authority
g. Boastfulness
h. Magnanimity
i. Bitterness
j) Christian meekness

Warning: Hide Your Children, the President of the United States is About to Speak

ME/Sachs-obI apologize beforehand, but I can’t help but comment on the controversy surrounding President Obama’s planned address to the nation’s student body this coming Tuesday.  I got a taste of the strong opinions on both sides this morning when I updated my Facebook profile with a quick word of approval for the planned speech.

As a high school history teacher how could I not voice approval for the fact that our highest elected official has decided to take a few minutes from what must be a busy schedule to address the future of this country.  Instead what I was shocked to find was a deep-seated paranoia over what such an address may lead to.  One comment included the suggestion that since Obama is losing popularity with adults that he might be trying to make up for it by rallying children to his support.  Others actually believe that his goal is to brainwash or “indoctrinate” our children.  You can find such sentiments all over the Web.  What is one to make of all of this and what does it say about our country now that there is a significant portion of the population that actually believes that our students ought to be afraid of the president?

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“Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?”

My Civil War courses are in the middle of reading two essays about the 1850s and secession by James McPherson and Charles Dew.  It is interesting that every year I end up having to spend the most time on two specific issues at the beginning of the semester.  Even if my students claim not to have spent considerable time studying the Civil War they arrive in my class believing certain things.

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Civil War Memory Class Goes Digital

The new school year is off and running and after having met with all my classes on the first day I couldn’t be more pleased with my group of students.  This trimester I am teaching two sections of Civil War history, which include roughly 9 students in each class.  They seem eager to get started and somehow we already managed to touch on the question of what caused the Civil War.  Today I will hand out a few documents and ask them to debate the question of whether the Civil War was inevitable.

Most of these students will go on to take my course on Civil War memory next trimester.  I had a wonderful experience with both sections of this class last year.  We covered a great deal of material between both primary and secondary sources and we capped it off with a memorable trip to Richmond.  This year I’ve decided to approach the course from a completely different angle.  I plan on having both sections create a website that will explore Civil War memory here in Charlottesville. The major sites in the city and county include the soldier statue on Courthouse Square, the soldiers cemetery at the University of Virginia, and Lee and Jackson parks, which are located just off of the downtown mall.  The course will include background readings in a few essential secondary sources and students will have access to archival material at UVA and the local historical society.

I am still debating the kind of platform that will be used for the project, but at this point I am leaning toward Moodle.  It isn’t the sexiest site, but it can easily accommodate the wide range of social media tools that will be included in this project.  Luckily, I have a few students who are competent with HTML and CSS.

Students will create videos and upload them to Vimeo and/or YouTube as well as podcasts.  They will also create their own radio show using blogtalkradio and interview area historians on the significance of the sites.  Photographs can easily be uploaded and described on Flickr and PowerPoint presentations can be narrated and uploaded to the Web using Slideshare.  I am also playing with the idea of a blog component that will allow students to reflect on the entire process throughout the trimester.  A companion page on Facebook may be useful and during our visits to the site students will be able to use Twitter.

I am learing that the biggest hazard in utilizing social media is not having a clear sense of its purpose and how it fits into a department’s broader philosophy.  This is a discussion that I hope to continue throughout the year in my department meetings.  To me, it speaks to the sharp transition from students simply consuming what they hear in class and read in books to producing their own interpretation for broad public consumption.  This project will put students in a position of having to think critically, not simply about what they are learning, but how to present it to others.

Let me know what you think.