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.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Connections to Current Events and the Constitution

Hi all! I've been amazed at the student interest shown in the primary elections this year- many of my students watched the televised debate between Clinton and Obama this week and were excited to comment on it. It also comes at a great time in my curriculum- Reconstruction. The issue of civil rights and the Constitution's protection of them is a great way to connect today's election with the long battle to gain and enforce the protection of our civil rights. The National Records and Archives Administration has chosen 100 important 'founding' documents to highlight in a book and a website titled "Our Documents". This is a great source to find both the original 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments but also a short secondary source that describes both the passage of the Amendment and what the passage of that amendment meant on a practical basis.
I've also been using the CNN Election Center website every few days with the students; they have a great graphic representation of the success of each candidate, as well as good definitions of terms that students may be unfamiliar with, such as Superdelegates. As History educators, we have a lot of curriculum to get through in not much time, but it is certainly worthwhile to pause and discuss some history in the making!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Review of Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

Hampton Sides: Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, New York: Anchor Books, 2006. 496 pp., soft cover, $15.99.

Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West is an expertly written result of an extraordinary amount of research on the American West during America’s antebellum period. Sides’ work is based on Kit Carson as the American west’s central character. Expertly recounted, Sides highlights most of Christopher Carson’s adult life as a trapper, guide, soldier and husband. Moreover, Sides uses Carson’s endeavors in the west to recount the acquisition of the territories of California and New Mexico, the relationship between the American government and the Spanish-speaking colonials, and the uniqueness of the Native American tribes of the area and how colonials and natives interacted on the western frontier.

Throughout the far west during the early 19th century, Kit Carson is simply omnipresent. Sides’ chronological account of Carson’s life shows the reader what a pivotal role he played in America’s Manifest Destiny in the region.

Sides’ introduces Carson as a young “Mountain Man” and trapper throughout the mountains of the west. Gaining experience on the trails and outposts of the west, and building an understanding and relationship with the Native American tribes in the area, it was not long before Carson found himself guiding official American government expeditions into what was then Mexican territory. Carson’s first major expedition of this nature was with John C. Freemont. Together, Carson and Freemont explored what would become the Oregon Trail south to California and back east again. It was Freemont’s crediting written accounts of Carson’s bravery and cunning during California’s Bear Flag rebellion and his skills as a guide that elevated this rather quiet, man-of-few-words into a national hero. In the “Blood and Thunder” stories of the time Kit Carson was immortalized, however, Carson could never read these adventure stories about himself due to his illiteracy.

Adventures that fuel Carson’s fame continued as he later accepted other guiding missions. During the Mexican War, Carson was pressed into service by General Stephen Kearney. While patrolling in eastern California their unit of dragoons were attacked and pinned-down by a superior force of Mexicans. Sides vividly recounts how Carson with two others snuck through the Mexican lines at night, traveled briskly to San Diego, brought reinforcements to Kearney, and essentially saved the unit from destruction.

Other adventures of Carson’s did not end-up with the same heroic results. On one voluntary mission Carson sets-out with a group of troops to rescue a young woman who had been kidnapped, which was a common practice among many native tribes of the area. Carson’s attitude of harsh punishment against native people who attack white settlers is well illustrated. This harsh, punitive policy toward Native Americans who resisted Carson’s further official American business in the Southwest would manifest its-self a number of time is his future. As a Lieutenant and later as a Colonel in the US Army, Carson dealt harshly with native resistance to relocation, first with the Navajo and later with the Comanche. Consequently, however, Sides reports that Carson’s later position as superintend of the relocation site for the Navajo on the Pecos River forced him to realize the error in a harsh Indian policy and the relocation of native peoples far from their ancestral homeland.

Sides does not leave out how connected Carson was with the native people of the Southwest as well as his intimacy with the Mexican culture. Carson was fist married to a young native girl named Singing Grass. They had two children before Singing Grass’ death. Throughout his first marriage, Sides paints Carson as being self-conscious of his native wife and worried about the half-breed status of his children. Later, Carson was remarried to a considerably younger Mexican girl. This marriage brings more children, a large extended family and a great deal of absenteeism from his wife.

In addition to the immense biographical information on Kit Carson, Sides highlights a number of influential individuals of the time and the region. One of these is Narbona, of the Navajo Nation. Narbona is best described as a highly respected Navajo elder, as their culture of the time did not bear individual leaders. However, to the Americans, Narbona is regarded to be a leader by both Carson and his commander Col. Washington. In a divisive instance, Narbona, was summoned by Carson to negotiate the end of raids which involved stealing of livestock. As he was in his advanced years, Narbona found it challenging to dismount his horse for the meeting, however both Carson and Narbona constructively negotiated the issue before a calamity occurred. Washington became angry over the fleeing of a suspected horse thief among the Navajos who accompanied Narbona. When a replacement horse would not be returned to Washington, he ordered the firing of the company howitzer into the Navajos, which killed Narbona.

Tragedies similar in nature to the one that led to Narbona’s death were ubiquitous when the US Army encountered many native tribes. Another such tragedy involving a Col. John Shivington and the comparatively cooperative Cheyenne. This instance brought out a raging reaction which allows us today to understand how Carson understood his relationship with the Native American tribes during this period of Manifest Destiny. Simply, Col. John Shivington slaughtered more than 150 Cheyenne men, women and children. In reaction, Carson was quoted by Col. James Rusling, dialect and all.

His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children.
You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye? And Indians savages? ….I don’t like hostile red skin any more than you do. And never yet drew a bead on a squaw or a papoose, and I despise the man who would. I’ve seen much of ‘em as any man livin’, and I can’t help but pity ‘em, right or wrong. They once owned all this country yes, Plains and Mountains, buffalo and every thing. But now they own next door to nuthin, and will soon be gone. (Sides p.471)

In Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, Sides treats Christopher Carson well, illustrating how profoundly Carson’s actions determined American history in the Southwest. Additionally, Sides has researched and documented an exquisite chronological summary of how the Southwest of America was conquered by the United States, and how it was lost by the Native Americans. I highly recommend this work by Hampton Sides.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A great read for American History Teachers and/or anyone interested in the American West!

I must agree with Helen Sellers that the TAH book discussions are an excellent resource. I enjoy reading the books, but I truly look forward to meeting with peers and hearing what others have to say. Over the past two years there has been a tremendous amount of scholarly debate and collegial dialogues. I, too, recommend these discussion groups for next year.

After reading Helen’s blog, I decided to promote the most recent read at the secondary level. The Reading/North Reading book discussion group met last month to discuss “Blood and Thunder; The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West” by Hampton Sides.

The book was a unanimous hit. Middle School teachers and High School teachers alike were praising this book. It is well written and brings this period of American history to life. Anyone teaching or interested in this era should consider reading it. Sides will hook you after the first few pages. It is over 500 pages, but I found it hard to put down!

As teachers, it is easy to discuss Manifest Destiny, the U.S.- Mexican War, Western Expansion, and the fate of Native Americans sandwiched in somewhere between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Sides not only brings these topics to life, but to the forefront. Sides shows the readers Kit Carson as an unparalleled scout, a soldier of the American West, and as a family man. We see a Carson marrying a Native American woman and understanding and respecting their culture. We also see his role in the Long Walk, the relocation of thousands of Navajos. His treatment of Kit Carson forces readers to confront the contradictions of his life. Is he an American Hero? Is he a vicious killer? Is he racist?

Our group had a lively discussion. In our assessment of Kit Carson, we found ourselves assessing the role of the United States in its quest for western expansion. Where we were uncomfortable and disturbed by many actions in the book, we were forced to recognize the realities of current policies and global issues today.

There are many resources available to teachers who are discussing this period of U.S. History. PBS is currently running two programs. One on Kit Carson, and the other on Buffalo Bill. Their website has teacher plans, video clips online, interactive maps, and much, much more.

Again, I highly recommend “Blood and Thunder”. I will never look at Manifest Destiny the same way. PBS American Experience: Kit Carson PBS American Experience: Buffalo Bill PBS U.S. Mexican War

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Fantastic Series of Books Containing Useable Primary Sources for Secondary Students

For my first blog regarding the Teaching American History Grant, as well as my first blog ever, I would like to highlight a fantastic series of books containing useable primary sources. This collection, which was given to me at 2007’s Teaching American History Grant Conference, which was held at Reading Memorial High School, is organized into 5 soft cover books. Each book in the collection contains one to two page excerpts of primary sources which address significant events in American History. Each book, approximately sixty pages long, are titled based on their overall theme. Titles include The Bill of Rights, The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg Address, and “I have a Dream”.

So, why do I think that these resources are so fantastic? Because they have changed the way I teach American History at the High School level. Since obtaining the series, I can safely say that I use a primary source in my classes at least twice a week. Many weeks I’ll use primary sources even more often. And now, I don’t limit the primary sources I use to the ones in this series. Now that my students are used to reading, interpreting and responding to primary sources in class, I find that I regularly search for primary sources to incorporate into my lessons regularly, and my students have become quite accustomed to utilizing their skills in interpreting them. Just the other day, one of my students asked me, “Mr. Hanlon, when are we going to read the textbook again?”

One effective week of primary source use was one where I focused on the formation of the constitution. For this unit of study, I utilized the book titled The Constitution. From it I selected the excerpts from the “Albany Plan of Union”, “The Articles of Confederation”, “The Northwest Ordinance”, “The Massachusetts Constitution”, and of course, the US Constitution in its entirety. Additionally, this issue contains excerpts from Federalist No. 1, Federalist No. 10, Letter from a Federal Farmer No. 17 by Richard Henry Lee, as well as an Anti-federalist excerpt from Patrick Henry. In all cases, I asked students to read the documents (or I read the documents with them) and then fill out a Written Document Analysis Worksheet (this worksheet and others can be obtained from the US National Archives website:
From these worksheets, I used the students’ written responses as topics for discussion in class. I have been very impress with the depth of understanding both my honors and college level students have gained from reading these primary sources excerpts.

The collection was put together by the American History Professional Development Project. Photo copying for student use is encouraged as this project was funded by the United States Department of Education.

If you are interested in obtaining these books to use with your classes:

Unfortunately there is not an email or website contact for the project, however the books are published by the Teaching American History Professional Development Project, A Partnership of the Fall River Public Schools and Bristol Community College.

If I discover better contact information, I will update this blog.