Category Archives: Teaching

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.

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.

“Don’t Know Much [Anything] About History”

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released its report on the state of history/civics education in American colleges.  The report titled "The Coming Crisis In Citizenship" presents a bleak picture of students attending a broad range of colleges and universities.  The study was done by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy and involved 14,000 randomly selected college freshman and seniors at 60 different colleges and universities.  The students were given 60 multiple choice questions which covered American history, government, America and the world, and the market economy.  Overall findings include the following:

  • Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen.
  • If the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors
    would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional
    grading scale.
  • Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college
    students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than
    when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed
    engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.

I was also interested to find that "prestige" makes no difference; students attending Ivy League school did just as poorly as those attending lower profile institutions.  The report continues:

Responses from college seniors to a selection of individual questions display
how little they actually know about basic historical facts, ideas, and concepts
germane to meaningful participation in American civic life.

  • Seniors lack basic knowledge of America’s history. More than half, 53.4
    percent, could not identify the correct century when the first American colony
    was established at Jamestown. And 55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as
    the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end (28 percent even
    thought the Civil War battle at Gettysburg the correct answer).
  • College seniors are also ignorant of America’s founding documents. Fewer
    than half, 47.9 percent, recognized that the line "We hold these truths to be
    self-evident, that all men are created equal," is from the Declaration of
    Independence. And an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly
    identify the source of the idea of "a wall of separation" between church and
    state.
  • More than half of college seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights
    explicitly prohibits the establishment of an official religion for the United
    States.
  • Nearly half of all college seniors, 49.4 percent, did not know that The
    Federalist Papers
    —foundational texts of America’s constitutional order—were
    written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Seniors
    actually scored lower than freshmen on this question by 5.7 percentage points,
    illustrating negative learning while at college.
  • More than 75 percent of college seniors could not identify that the purpose
    of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent foreign expansion in the Western
    Hemisphere.
  • Even with their country at war in Iraq, fewer than half of seniors, 45.2
    percent, could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s
    political support. In fact, 12.2 percent believed that Saddam Hussein found his
    most reliable supporters in the Communist Party. Almost 5.7 percent chose
    Israel.

I won’t bore you with the report’s recommendations, but here they are if interested.  So what are we to do about all of this?  Well, the short answer is that I have no idea.  Actually, we’ve heard it all before.  Now before you work yourself into a frenzy keep in mind that there has never been a golden age – at least not in the 20th century – when it could be argued that America’s youth was historically literate.  In 1917, 1,500 Texas teens performed just as poorly and tests conducted elsewhere in 1943, 1976, 1987, and 1994 resulted in similar scores.  Part of the problem perhaps can be traced to the fact that 80% of history teachers currently in the classroom did not study the subject in college.  I have no teacher training whatsoever and I am willing to admit that my skills as a teacher would be improved if I had more of a background in this area; however, I love the subject and I can get my students excited about studying the past.   I don’t see how you can do that without loving the experience of doing history regardless of how many teacher education classes you have under your belt. 

One more thought regarding this study.  I once read that even professional historians do poorly on these tests.  A group of historians from Stanford, Berkeley, and Harvard took a standardized and did worse than a group of AP History students.  Perhaps this is the result of very narrow research interests.  In the end I am not too concerned about these results.  They are nothing new and if I am reading the results correctly somewhere around 50% of college students do know something about American history. 

The Crater In The Classroom

As many of you know my Civil War elective has both a research and reading component.  In reference to the latter my students read a series of articles that address many of the important interpretive debates of recent years.  We’ve read articles by Gary Gallagher, James McPherson, Peter Carmichael, James Marten, David Blight, and Drew Faust.  A few weeks ago one of my students asked if we could read one of my publications.  I resisted at first, but a few of the other students chimed in in support of the request.  So today the class came prepared to discuss "On That Day You Consummated the Full Measure of Your Fame": Remembering the Battle of the Crater, 1864-1903" which appeared in the 2004 issue of the journal Southern Historian (pp. 18-39). 

I have to say that it felt just a little awkward at the beginning.  As they pulled out the article I noticed that a number of students had highlighted and/or written notes in the margins.  It was strange to see my own work dissected by my own students.  I always start by asking the class to explain the author’s thesis in the clearest terms.  As you can imagine it was a bit uncomfortable to ask, "What is Levin’s thesis?"  The article gave the class a clear sense of the broader project that I am close to finishing.  They asked about specific interpretations of evidence and clarification of other points.  As we discussed the main themes I showed some images of the Crater, Mahone, and the 1937 reenactment.  We had a nice discussion which revolved around the contrasting images of John Elder and Don Troiani and their depictions of black soldiers during the battle.  I spent a good chunk of time discussing Mahone’s political career and its effect on his war record.  I am willing to bet that the 11 students in this class will be the only students in the country to learn about the Readjusters.  All in all it was a fun class.

The semester is coming to an end in a few days and the class is finishing up research projects.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the students in this section and will miss them come January.

“Mr. Levin…I Don’t Get It…”

Today my AP class read and discussed the Gettysburg Address.  I gave them a little background about the battle and showed a couple photographs of the battlefield.  As I was describing the action – specifically the difficulties of attacking uphill – a bright and colorful female student stated the following in apparent frustration: "Mr. Levin, I’ve been to Gettysburg and I’ve walked the battlefield.  I don’t understand what the problem was…I mean that field is as flat as a pancake.  I don’t get it."  She was referring to the area specifically around the center of the battlefield.

Now that was a precious moment.