Why I Love Teaching in December

My Lincoln class is reading a chapter by James McPherson titled "How Lincoln Won the War With Metaphors" from his book Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1990).  Students in my two sections of regular U.S. History have just started reading William Gienapp’s Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography.  Finally, my AP students are right in the middle of the Civil War and are preparing for a discussion based on Ira Berlin’s article "Who Freed the Slaves?". 

A Perceptive Student

Today I showed my AP classes a short section of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.   We watched the sections between Lincoln’s election and Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army to take command of the Virginia state militia.  At one point Shelby Foote explains how white southerners viewed secession and Lincoln.  From "Secessionitis":

Southerners would have told you they were fighting for self government. They believed the gathering of power in Washington was against them… When they entered into that Federation they certainly would never have entered into it if they hadn’t believed it would be possible to get out. And when the time came that they wanted to get out, they thought they had every right….

Southerners saw the election of Lincoln as a sign that the Union was about to radicalized, and that they were about to be taken in directions they did not care to go. The abolitionist aspect of it was very strong, and they figured they were about to lose what they called their property and faced ruin.

Student response: "Why doesn’t he just come out and say it?"  Of course, he meant slavery.

Wrapping up My Lincoln Course

My Lincoln course is in its final weeks and I couldn’t be more disappointed as it’s has been a wonderful experience.  Judging by the tone and quality of discussions the students continue to enjoy the subject and are finding interesting ways to share their knowledge.  We continue to read secondary sources and yesterday we discussed Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan and Louisiana specifically as a case study.  The lesson was centered on Lincoln’s short exchange with three representatives from Louisiana’s planter class who asked for the state to be allowed entry back into the Union with all the rights that the state enjoyed before secession.  Hopefully we will have a few days to discuss various aspects of Lincoln’s legacy and memory before the end of the semester.  On the flip side my class is in the process of developing a Facebook page around a new Lincoln cereal for the bicentennial.  They must come up with a cereal name, design the box, and design the cereal itself.  All of it must have a rationale based on the history.  The box will come with educational materials that must also be designed by the students.

For their final project we will take a class trip to the American Civil War Center at Tredegar.  Students will be asked to evaluate how the main exhibition interprets Lincoln within the broader narrative of the war.  The notes they take will serve as the foundation for a final essay in lieu of a final exam.  The goal of the essay will be to compare the museum exhibit with the various secondary sources that we’ve read over the course of the semester.  It is important to place students in an active role when thinking about the past.  In this case they need to learn to appreciate, to whatever extent possible, that public exhibits involve decisions and interpretation.  My other goal is to give students an opportunity to synthesize much of what they’ve read this semester and to remind them that interpretation is always open-ended. 

As I was thinking about this assignment I thought that it would be nice if my students could develop their own museum exhibit on Lincoln.  The idea would be for students to utilize a program that would allow them to construct a 3-D space with artifacts and descriptions within an overarching interpretation.  I’m sure the technology is available.  This would be an excellent way for museums to further their educational outreach with area schools. 

Assessing the AP Course in American History: A Few Thoughts

This year I am serving on a committee that is assessing our school’s AP program.  Our responsibilities include surveying teachers in various subjects as to their experiences as well as completing a report based on our findings.  I decided to write-up my thoughts regarding the AP American History course. 

This is my fourth year teaching the AP course in American history and during that time I have thought quite a bit about the pros and cons of the curriculum.  This critique should not be interpreted as a more general analysis of the AP program since my experience is specific to the course in American history.  The curriculum emphasizes breadth of knowledge that covers the entire expanse of American history along with relevant knowledge in world history and analytical writing skills.  At the center of the curriculum is the Document-Based Essay (DBQ) which tests students’ ability to properly interpret a set of primary sources as part of an analytical essay.  Students who score a 4 or 5 on the exam [graded on a 1 to 5 scale] have demonstrated mastery of the content [80 multiple-choice questions] along with strong writing and interpretive skills.  The AP History curriculum has much to offer both teachers and students.  For teachers with little or no training as historians the AP curriculum offers a taste of the skills that define the historical process.  Students looking for a course that goes beyond the traditional survey course can expect to be challenged in the areas of content mastery and analytical writing and thinking.  The AP History curriculum arguably serves best those schools looking to offer an advanced course in history that do not have the resources necessary to offer viable alternatives. 

While I acknowledge that the AP History curriculum has much to recommend it it has prevented me from teaching the kind of course that I believe to be appropriate for advanced learners.  The fundamental problem is that the AP course leaves little room for divergence.  Teachers are forced to cover a wide breadth of material superficially, leaving little time for in-depth analysis; semesters feel like a race against time rather than a serious exploration of historic events.  This is exacerbated by a reliance on textbooks which force teachers to schedule the year around individual chapters.  Chapters typically receive the same amount of attention even if the instructor acknowledges a hierarchy of historic events.  In other words, the Civil War and Reconstruction may receive the same amount of time as chapters that are not deemed to be as significant.  The adherence to a strict schedule is also frustrating for students as conversations and debates are often cut short.  Students also get bogged down memorizing facts that by any standard are not important.  I often find myself spending entire classes making sure that students understand the factual information.  I am the first person to admit that any serious history course must be driven by mastery of information, but that content should be tailored to the other skills to be included in an advanced course. 

I am confident that I have the skills and resources to develop a more creative and flexible curriculum that still demands rigor.  In fact it may even be more demanding and rewarding for students.  My advanced or honors course would look very different from my current AP course.  Perhaps the most significant change would be the a move away from the textbook as the core text for a short list of secondary sources.  A range of studies, including books and articles would be utilized to provide students with a more accurate understanding of how history is written and often rewritten.  Such an approach would immediately move the focus of the course away from history as memorization to interpretation.  Different approaches to the study of history could be introduced such as gender, social, racial and political history.  Topics could also be organized thematically rather than along strict chronological lines that define the textbook format.  In addition, textbooks almost always sacrifice interpretation for a narrative that is neutral and exhaustive in terms of content.  Class discussions would focus as much on factual content as on the decisions made by individual historians that enter into any analytical study.   

Primary sources and DBQ-type essays can easily be introduced.  More importantly, the narrowing of topics will leave more time for research-oriented projects that allow students to engage in serious research that utilizes online databases such as the Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia.  It is only from doing research that students learn to think as historians.  Students in Charlottesville have access to one of the largest archives at the University of Virginia as well as local historical societies.  Any number of projects could be assigned that would provide hands-on experience handling primary documents.  I do not mean to suggest that various supplements to the textbook or additional assignments are not possible in an AP course, but that the schedule makes it very difficult.  Again, there is always a calendar hovering overhead that serves to remind the instructor and students that it is time to move on. 

Over the past two years I’ve felt held back by the AP curriculum.  I don’t feel as if my talents are being fully utilized in the classroom.  To do so would involve having the freedom to create a curriculum for advanced learners from the ground-up. 

Thanksgiving and 20th High School Reunion

That’s right…I decided to attend my 20th high school reunion which will take place on Saturday in Atlantic City, New Jersey where I grew up.  I made the decision to attend a few weeks back though I am still a bit ambivalent about the whole thing.  That said, I am sure I will have a great time and enjoy having the opportunity to catch up with old friends.  I had a hell of a lot of fun in high school, plenty of friends, and very good teachers.  My high school was one block from the beach and three blocks from the closest casino.  Need I say more?  [The photograph to the left is of me and my friend Gary Poetsch, which appeared in the yearbook in 1987.  I don’t think I ever lost that smile.]

As much as I look forward to seeing those friends I wish I had an opportunity to talk with a few of my teachers.  My English teacher, Mrs. Goldstein, took an interest in me even if I showed little interest in her class.  The only books I read in high school were by Ayn Rand which influeced my thinking on just about every subject.  Mrs. Goldstein was a rabid liberal, but she never dismissed me though on more than one occasion she admitted (in her usual pleasant manner) that I was one of the most obnoxious students ever to set foot in her class.  I don’t doubt it for a second.  I have no doubt that Mrs. Goldstein would be horrified to hear that I am now a high school teacher, though I would like to think that her facial expression would change after talking with me for a few minutes.  There isn’t much left of that obnoxious – narrow minded young man.  I would like to think that I bring just a bit of her passion for teaching and ideas to my own classes.

Even better I will get to spend Thanksgiving with my family, including my grandmother who is 94 yrs old and still going strong.

I wish all of you a very happy Thanksgiving.