Entering the World of e-History Textbooks

When I left the classroom last year I was still wedded to the traditional history textbook.  I supplemented my text with a wide range of digital tools and resources, but the text itself had not changed.  My experience with e-textbooks has been very limited until now.  For the next four months I will be working on an exciting e-history project providing supplemental materials for a text focused on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The text itself is being written by two very well known and talented historians.  Some of the things I will be working on include:

  • Review chapters and suggest themes and content for digital animations (e.g., maps) and video content (e.g., bio of Lincoln).
  • Write copy for videos and animations (up to two 2-3 minute videos and one animation per chapter).
  • Create assignments or “tasks” (we are calling all digital assets tasks that students have to complete before moving on in their textbook) for each of the chapters.
  • Write copy for 1-2 “mini-challenges” (e.g., poll question, 4-6 reading comprehension quiz questions) for each chapter.
  • Write definitions for glossary terms (5-10 per chapter).

Some of what I am doing is geared to connecting the text to a history simulation that allows students to role play real historical characters. I should be able to share more details about this project in the coming months.

For now I am hoping that those of you with more experience in this area might be able to suggest examples of best practices.  What should I look at to get a feel for what’s been done already in the field of e-texts?  What do you want to see as supplemental resources for an e-history textbook?  Thanks.

Interviewed About Virginia Textbook Scandal

Yesterday I was interviewed by Patricia Gay, who is a reporter with the Weston Forum in Weston, Connecticut.  You might wonder why a Connecticut paper is so interested in this story.  Well, it turns out that Five Ponds Press is located in that town.  In fact, it turns out that author Joy Massoff is married to the publisher, Louis Scolnik.  Now that’s an interesting and disturbing turn.  We talked mainly about the issue related to the references of black Confederates, which was the catalyst for this story.  I am pleased to see that a large chunk of our discussion was included in the article.

Silver Lining

Although Ms. Masoff and Mr. Scolnik have come under considerable media and political scrutiny, Kevin Levin, a Civil War scholar and history teacher at a private high school in Charlottesville, Va., said there may be a silver lining to be gleaned from the debacle.

In a telephone interview with The Forum, he called mistakes in the textbook “mindboggling” and “disappointing.” But he also said the incident brought to light an important issue — the importance of teaching children how to judge information they get from the Internet.  “Ms. Masoff admitted she got her information about black Confederate soldiers from the Internet. If you search the terms ‘black’ and ‘Confederate’ online you will get Web sites put up by private individuals with no credentials,” he said.

Mr. Levin explained that most of those Web sites are written by “lost cause” Southerners who are still bitter about the South’s defeat in the Civil War. They hold on to a number of historically skewed tenets, including the belief that slavery was a benign institution and slaves were happy to serve their masters and volunteered to fight in the war, he said.

“Robert E. Lee had thousands of blacks with his army during Gettysburg. But they were performing services as impressed slaves and personal body servants. They were not soldiers. That distinction is a fundamental mistake,” he said.  In this electronic age, Mr. Levin said it is all too easy for kids to make the same mistake Ms. Masoff did, and assume all data found in a Google search is true.  “As teachers, we have a real opportunity here to teach students how to judge the information they get online,” he said.

Another positive thing, Mr. Levin said, is now when an Internet search is done for “black Confederate soldiers,” articles from the textbook ordeal will show up alongside ones written by the “lost cause” individuals.  “Before this incident, the issue of black Confederate soldiers was a preoccupation by a relatively small group. Now it has been introduced to a broader range of people,” he said.

Black Confederates In Virginia Textbooks

Many of you wonder why I am so focused and committed to challenging the mythology of black Confederates.  In recent weeks I’ve written about the sale of toy soldiers at the Museum of the Confederacy, a brief reference in a NPS handout in New York City, and, of course, the anticipated release of Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Weeks’s Entangled in Freedom. I hope this story puts to rest any doubt as to why it is important that we remain vigilant.  This narrative will only become more prominent over the next few years during the sesquicentennial.  I am posting this story in its entirety from the Washington Post.  Thanks to William and Mary History Professor, Carol Sheriff, for pointing out this problem and to Kevin Sieff for writing such a thorough article.

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Scholars are nearly unanimous in calling these accounts of black Confederate soldiers a misrepresentation of history. Virginia education officials, after being told by The Washington Post of the issues related to the textbook, said that the vetting of the book was flawed and that they will contact school districts across the state to caution them against teaching the passage.

“Just because a book is approved doesn’t mean the Department of Education endorses every sentence,” said spokesman Charles Pyle. He also called the book’s assertion about black Confederate soldiers “outside mainstream Civil War scholarship.” Continue reading “Black Confederates In Virginia Textbooks”

Why Political History is Really, Really Important

My AP America History students began yesterday’s class by considering the following list of assorted acts and agencies that appeared on my white board:

  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Occupation Safety & Health Administration
  • National Transportation & Safety Board
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children
  • Adjustment of Social Security to Inflation

I asked my students to draw conclusions about the political affiliation of the president responsible for this list of acts and agencies.  No surprise that to a student they agreed that the president must be a Democrat/liberal.  When asked why, they cited the obvious, including the expansion of the welfare state, the control of big business through environmental acts and the overall increase in the size of the federal government through the creation of new agencies.

That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so interesting on its own.  What surprised me was the number of students who went further to point out that the programs listed above reflect a socialist agenda.  Students moved freely between references of Democrat, liberal, and socialism.  No doubt, much of this rhetoric is the result of the 24hr spin/entertainment machine that is our mainstream media.

At one point a student correctly identified the programs and acts listed as comprising much of Richard Nixon’s domestic policy, who as we all know was a Republican.  Having done the reading for the day a number of my students quickly adjusted, but the fact that the unidentified list failed to lead them to a Republican president somehow needs to be explained.

I don’t spend much time watching entertainment news in the form of MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, but many of my students do get their news from television sources.  Spend a few minutes with Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and you would think that Republicans and Democrats have absolutely nothing in common and that the principles they hold are fundamentally contradictory.  Throw in the “political strategists” and other assorted hacks and you have a picture of American politics/ideology that has almost nothing to do with reality.

The history of the Republican and Democratic Parties makes little sense when viewed through the lens of a vicious reductionism that interprets every move by the federal government as socialism or any other -ism for that matter.  On this view, it seems to me that we must conclude that Richard Nixon must have been a card carrying member of the Socialist Party.  Perhaps we should also throw Theodore Roosevelt into the mix as well.  History can be instructive in forcing my students to acknowledge that while Democrats and Republicans differ on fundamental issues they do not stand in principled opposition to one another.

The last few days in class have impressed upon me the importance of placing our own partisan debates in a broader context.  We could follow the media machine and rewrite our political history by shaping it in a way that conforms with our own contemporary categories or we can attempt to diffuse it by tracing the debates through the last few decades.  When we do so we find a much more complex picture and one that forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of consensus between the two political parties.  Perhaps we need it now more than ever.

Just a thought.

Are History Textbooks On Their Way Out?

Over the past two years I’ve made the sharpest transitions in the way I approach the teaching of history.  In my survey courses I’ve dispensed with the traditional textbook in place of individual secondary sources.  I’ve also begun experimenting with Social Media applications as a way to broaden both the way my students communicate with one another as well as the audience for their projects.  The place of the textbook in the survey course raises a host of questions about the purpose of the course and the skills that we, as teachers, hope to impart to our students.  In a recent post, David Bill argues as to why textbooks ought to be permanently shelved in light of the advantages the Internet offers.  On the face of it I agree with Bill.  Not only are they much too expensive, they are also environmentally and economically unfriendly.  The crux of his argument is as follows:

No matter how you slice it, a textbook cannot provide the same richness, depth, and perspective as the Internet.  A textbook limits a student, it prevents inquiry and further investigation.  As educators, if we are attempting to develop critical thinkers and challenge our students to ask thoughtful questions, they need to have access to multiple points of view and should be able to investigate on their own.  A textbook cannot provide that, the Internet does.

To help make his point, Bill also includes a funny little satirical video made by a couple of high school students and their teacher which shares the limits of their history textbook.  I love the fact that they use my AP textbook to make their point.

Yes, there is something cute about the video, but what in the end is the point?  On the face of it there seems to be nothing mutually exclusive between the textbook and the Internet.  My guess is that Joe has a laptop within arms reach and if he wants to access more information about Frederick Douglass or check out a map to be saved for future reference he can do so.   Joe’s frustration is easy to identify and his point is well taken.  If we are to keep the discussion on the level of the ease with which information can be accessed than this is a non-issue: Internet 1, textbook, 0.  It seems to me, however, that the transition to a digital classroom is much more complex and involves questions that go beyond the ease with which students can navigate through dense amounts of information.

The tipping point in the Internet v. Textbook debate has much more to do with the way in which we conceive of the idea of the history survey as opposed to simply a question of information access.  As I mentioned in a recent post, the history textbook fits neatly into a traditional course whose overarching goal is to communicate a foundational narrative that can be absorbed and regurgitated in one form or another.  Within this framework instructors can introduce historical concepts such as perspective, causation, narrative, etc., but the textbook functions as the bedrock.  It serves as a reminder (even if not intentional) that there is a standard narrative that can be known and consumed for purposes such as the cultivation of good citizenship and polite conversation.  I should also mention that there is something very comforting about textbooks.  They may be overpriced and boring as hell, but they do provide a bit of comfort to students who need something tangible at an arm’s reach.  Even with my move away from textbooks to individual secondary sources I’ve had students inform me that they miss the textbook for these very reasons.  Of course, I freely admit that this probably has more to do with how they’ve been conditioned to think of as the study of history from an early age as opposed to anything innate. Our student friend, Joe, may in fact be more of an exception than the rule.  Some of our students, like Joe, who’ve embraced the Web2.0 Revolution have no doubt moved beyond this entirely and have embraced the potential of the digital classroom.  For these students, the value of information is measured in relationship to the number and quality of hyperlinks extending to other sites as well as their ability to utilize it for their own purposes.  In short, textbooks are static while the Internet is dynamic.

It’s become almost a truism that our students are much more technically savvy than the rest of us, but I’ve come to a different conclusion.  Yes, they spend a great deal of time on the Internet, but this does not necessarily translate into an ability to navigate and manage its content and tools successfully and in a way that deepens their understanding of the past.  The comfort level may be one thing, however, there are skills that still need to be taught.  The move away from textbooks will only happen once teachers are trained to think of the Internet as a tool to help students think historically and as historians in their own right.  It’s not just about being able to double-click for more information about Douglass or saving a map for future use.   My point is that the usefulness of textbooks hinges not simply on the ease with which students can access information, but on how instructors conceive of their classrooms.  In abandoning the textbook for the richness of the Internet, including Social Media tools as well as the vast array of primary sources, we are engaging our students to think about the process and presentation of history through the sifting of vast amounts of information.  I suspect that this is the main reason why textbooks will not be abandoned in the near future; their role remains deeply embedded within the history curriculum and they function as an anchor in a vast sea of information.  What we need is something more like a gestalt shift in our fundamental goals as history teachers.  The rethinking of the history classroom must happen on the K-12 levels, but especially in our undergraduate and graduate schools of education.  A few questions come to mind:

1. Is the study of history a set of facts to be memorized or a process to be experimented with and shaped into various forms?

2. Should we be emphasizing the complexity of fewer historic events over a cursory understanding of a more inclusive narrative?

3. To what extent are we comfortable as teachers with allowing students to draw their own conclusions about the past?

4. Are our classes designed to encourage students to think about history beyond the confines of our classrooms?

5. To what extent are we using our classes to encourage students to think about and weigh information?

Thanks for reading!