Friday, February 29, 2008

Breathing Life Back Into History

A common misconception about history that I've encounter and struggle to correct is that history is static, an "it-happened-it's-over-who-cares" attitude. One method to disprove this dangerous syndrome and breathe life back into high school history classes is to create lessons that focus on decisions, conflicts, and conversations, even going so far as to have students role play scenarios highlighting these topics.

The TAH February discussion book, "The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm 1820-1861," allows for numerous life giving possibilities for your classroom. Author Stephen B. Oates crafts the story of the coming Civil War through thirteen key perspectives. Its first person narrative creates 'passion, freshness and immediacy'. The conflict of differing realities, each identity believing their perspective to be truth, as well their personal conflicts and friendships, embraces the reader intellectually and emotionally.

Within Oates' book, I traced several themes that will be of use in my classroom. One theme, in particular, that I'd like to share is the debated meaning of Jefferson's "all men are created equal" phrase from the Declaration of Independence. Key identities, such as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis, and George Fitzhugh, all have defendable interpretations of Jefferson's famous words, as well as critiques of others' interpretations. This theme alone can be managed through a varity of methods in the classroom addressing content and skills, as well as several of the American Historical Association's historical thinking benchmarks: understanding historical debate and controversy, analysis of how historians use evidence, understanding bias and points of view.

The first issue at hand would be to have the students organize the different interpretations on a spectrum or with a complex graphic organizer, that illustrates agreements, disagreements, and unique ideas. Once the interpretations are organized and understood, teachers can address the issue of compromise in light of several well-formed, yet opposing, arguments. A debate or Socratic Seminar would best facilitate this discussion with the hopes that students could come to life applicable and relevant solutions. On an individual level, students can write a reflective piece analyzing the arguments, whose they agree with most, whose they disagree with most, and, of course, why. Students can also use the debates and speeches in the book to analyze the qualities and structure of effective and ineffective arguments. This activity will help them form better arugments in their own history writing. Furthermore, with students who are capable of thinking about historiography, teachers can introduce a discussion based on Oates' creation of a first person narrative history; for example, answering the question, "What are its advantages and disadvantages to using Oates' book as a historical source?".

I highly recommend Oates' book, "The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm 1820-1861," to teachers of Antebellum American history. While remaining mindful that Oates created the first person narrative, the details into the conflict, debate, and discussion concerning race, liberty, and power will excite and renew your enjoyment of history. The possibilities of how this book can be used to bring life and action into a passive high school history classroom are abundant and sure to be challenging, meaningful, and rewarding.