Monday, May 11, 2009

NYC- A 'trip' back in time!

The Encounters and Exchanges TAH Grant recently sponsored a trip into New York City over April vacation. It was a time to interact and share with other teachers while visiting some of the top destinations for history in the city: Central Park, Chinatown, the New York Historical Society, Little Italy, Harlem, and Ellis Island to name only a few. All were top notch; we gained valuable insight, got some great teaching materials and expanded our content knowledge.

One of the common groans heard throughout the trip was "I wish I could bring my students here!" Field trips, in this era of budget cuts and restrictive spending, have become almost extinct. Unfortunately, some historical sites need to be experienced first hand to truly have an impact.

While it may not be possible to bring 150 students down to New York to experience Ellis Island or the grandiose Central Park, one viable option is to plan a 'virtual field trip'. You could do this on your own with the wonderful "Google Earth" or utilize virtual tours provided by many museums. The Tenement Museum, which was the (almost) unanimous favorite of the group in NYC, provides an excellent virtual tour at their website

Opened in 1992, the Tenement Museum is located at 97 Orchard St on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Built in 1863, the top 5 floors of the building were condemned in the 1930's while store fronts still operated on the bottom floors. Shuttered from use and left to decay, the top floors were (and continue to be) renovated by the museum to offer a glimpse into immigrant history. Each apartment has been or is being restored to represent the time that one immigrant family lived in it; we visited the Confino family's apartment and stepped back in time to 1917. We met Victoria, the Confino's youngest daughter, who welcomed us as a new immigrant group. She explained her family's story, why they came to America, what the difference was between her life in the 'old country' and her life in America.

To access virtual tours, click on 'play' then 'virtual tours'. You- and your students- won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

DBQs in the US History Classroom Can Be Addictive

The DBQ Project is a series of US and World History projects for high school students. The effective component of these projects is that they are based on an over-arching question that students are challenged to research and answer in a five paragraph essay. The primary source/document material for the project is provided for the students to read, and has been thoughtfully excerpted for accessibility to a variety high school students. Additionally, the program offers a very effective Writers’ Workshop, background readings for each unit, and (within the Mini-Q projects) comprehension questions which effectively guide the students to the overarching question, and guiding them through the components of their essay.

The first DBQ I tackled with my classes was the Mini-Q on the Mexican War. The Mini-Q is similar to the full DBQ, however these projects include fewer documents and can be completed in a shorter period of time. The Mini-Qs offer two elements that I’ve found extremely useful. These include comprehension questions following each primary source, and the Writers’ Workshop at the end of each unit.

After reading the background essay to the class, I gave the class the Hook assignment which we read and worked on until the end of class. For homework, the first two of six documents were assigned as well as each of these two documents’ guiding comprehension questions.

On the second day of the project, I went over the questions on the first two documents on the overhead projector. Then, I read the next two documents to the class and assigned the questions for these two readings for homework. The third day was similar to the second day’s structure. However, after I went over the questions in class on the third day, we began to bucket them into categories.

On the fourth day of the project, we went over the buckets again and began to incorporate the Writer’s Workshop Essay Template with our bucket categories. Additionally, I highlighted the other body paragraph structures of the template on the overhead as well. For homework, the students were assigned to design their essays on a blank Essay Template.

Finally, on the fifth day, we went over a number of templates on the overhead and I assigned the essay. As I had previously arranged to have the computer room for two days, the students had two days to complete their essays in class.

The Mini-Q on the Mexican War was an unmitigated success. When I read my students’ essays, I found that an overwhelming number of them included all of the elements that I was looking for from the Writers’ Workshop Template. They structured their body paragraphs so that each offered a thesis and provided evidence on how their thesis ultimately answered the guiding question of the paper. I was very pleased with the results. The structure of the overall DBQ project not only provided my students guidance on how to express their understanding, but guided them to understand the subject matter.

Lastly, I was surprised how long this shorter version of the DBQ took to complete with my college level sophomores. Seven days in total, two of which were in the computer room for writing. Was it a good investment in time considering the product that the students produced? Absolutely, it was one of the most successful writing and research assignments I have ever given.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Teaching U.S. History – “Warts and All”, but not ALL Warts!

As a TAH Fellow, I was fortunate to attend this year’s NERC conference. Dr. William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education was a guest speaker at one of the sessions. I was looking forward to hearing him speak, and I was not disappointed; he was a dynamic orator. It turns out he was shamelessly promoting his new U.S. history book set and online curriculum titled: America: The Last Best Hope – A New Roadmap for Teaching History. When he introduced his approach to teaching U.S. history, he advocated teaching “warts and all”, but not ALL warts. This sentiment hit home with me. I have not read Dr. Bennett’s book, (I’m posting a link at the end of the blog), but I agree with at least that basic sentiment.

During these three years of excellent TAH programming, there has been a huge emphasis on the “warts” of U.S. History. The film series and book topics have largely focused on some of the most shameful aspects of our history. It is imperative, of course, that our students need to recognize and understand the evils of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the racist and erroneous ideas of social Darwinism, the economic inequities and the plight of immigrants and workers, etc. But it is also imperative that they understand the core values of our nation’s founding, namely the ideals of liberty and equality.

Sometimes I fear that if it’s all warts, and teachers aren’t also acknowledging the ideals and accomplishments of this great nation, students will not be inspired to become active citizens and make positive changes to enhance society. While at the NERC conference I was also fortunate to be able to see a colleague from Reading Public Schools, Jeffrey R. Ryan, receive the prestigious Kidger Award. After accepting the award, Jeffrey’s remarks eloquently addressed my concern regarding how to use the warts of the past and present to promote the ideals our nation. On teaching his students, Jeffrey said: “We must charge them with the vital, essential desperate task of ending racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, nativism, inadequate medical coverage and the threat of global thermonuclear war. Are these gargantuan tasks? Of course they are! But so was independence from Great Britain. Are idealistic? Of course, but so was the Declaration of Independence. Are they revolutionary? Certainly! Are they utopian? Of course, but so is “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans are, in the final analysis, a utopian people, and that is what makes our country such a magnificent one. We conceive bold visions. Sometimes we enliven them; often we fail, but eventually our visions become reality.”

Bravo to Jeffrey! Using the warts of the past and present to preserve and better our country.

How do you balance the warts in your teaching? Comments? Dr. William Bennett’s book site (this is NOT a plug! I haven’t read the books)