Friday, June 19, 2009

Hollywood Films in the History Classroom

Some would scoff at the idea of using Hollywood films in the US History classroom. However, if used correctly, these films can be used to engage students in a wide range of critical thinking. In researching this idea for my presentation at the Encounters and Exchanges 3rd Annual Conference, I found a significant amount of information produced in the 1960s and the past ten years. I thought it interesting that using Hollywood films is not a modern trend, but a time-honored, effective classroom tool.  I was inspired to pursue this topic further as my high school recently added a History in Film class to its course of studies as well as several graduate classes I’ve taken that have focused on the integration and impact of film and history. Here’s a brief summary of what I’ve found.


There’s no escaping it! The exponential growth of visual and media literacy consumes the present and the future. Whether the media is for entertainment or education, as teachers, we need to help our students navigate it.


In addition to providing an understanding of background and context, films should be used to teach students strategies for evaluating media sources. With the appropriate scaffolding and modeling, students can be challenged to analyze the content of the film and evaluate the director’s interpretation of the history. Pairing primary sources with film is a great way to have students evaluate the authenticity of the history in the film as well as identifying the director’s interpretation of sources by comparing how the source is portrayed in the film and how it is understood in reality.


I recommend the following website as a database for tools for using historical films in the classroom: This site provides basically all one would need to successfully use film to teach content and skills in your classroom. Though the sites requires a bit of exploring, it is organized by historical era. Each historical era has links to secondary sources, which provide background on the historical topic. This information is essential in establishing the background context that students, as well as teachers, might need to get the most educational value out of a film. It also provides links to primary sources that help students connect the Hollywood history to actual sources, preparing them to critique the authenticity and interpretation of the film.


Though Hollywood films provide excellent opportunity to challenges students on a variety of levels, students must recognize certain inherent weaknesses in Hollywood films that can adversely impact their understanding of history. Encourage students to identify the audience and purpose of the film. These two items can significantly compromise the value of the film. However, if students are aware of what to look out for before they watch the film, it will, most often, result in a happy, and of course, educational, ending! 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Too Funny, to pass up

Today friendly educators is an important date in American History- It's Bunker Hill Day! A day to celebrate and remember the second major battle of the revolution that happened here in our backyard, which may have been an American loss, but with huge loss of life to the British.

We all know that our comrades-in-arms who teach in Sufffolk County enjoy this day off (along with March 17th- no, no, not St. Patrick's Day, but Evactuation Day), but the State House and Senate are currently embroiled in a debate about whether we should keep these holidays, or whether they are a waste of money.

Apparently- Mayor Tom Menino believes in the importance of today. He said so today in a speech- "These youngsters over here aren’t taught that in school any more," Menino said as he gestured toward a group 80 children from two nearby Boston public grammar schools. "And so we are losing part of that American history."

It seems that Tom may not be familiar with the Massachusetts State Frameworks.

I'm not saying I would expect that he would have all of our curriculum memorized.
Our third graders are expected to....3.5 Explain important political, economic, and military developments leading to and during the American Revolution. (H, C) -d. the Battle of Bunker Hill. While our fifth graders should - 5.17 Describe the major battles of the Revolution and explain the factors leading to American victory and British defeat. (H) -B. Bunker Hill (1775)

I would think a staffer may have looked this up for him today:) What's even funnier......"Officials at Boston Public Schools could not be immediately reached this afternoon for comment. They took the day off to observe Bunker Hill Day."
What a great debate to pose to my students as I try to engage them tomorrow morning before Field Day! Should some people get to have this off as a holiday?
Check it out for yourself- Click here!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Phenomenal Jim Crow Websites

The reality of history is often difficult to present to high school students, yet it is essential to the classroom because of its ability to ignite intrinsic interest and motive civic action. With the technology available to teachers via the internet, we are better able to present history’s reality to our students.

The struggle for civil rights is an extensive and important theme that runs through US History I and US History II curriculums because it is an ongoing struggle that strives to fulfill an American vision of freedom and equality. The Encounters and Exchanges history book discussion group brought the great depth of the univeral nature of this struggle to my attention. Covering the struggles of Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and African Americans, one of the books we studied was Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder During the Jazz Age. In searching the internet for sources to bring the reality of African Americans and civil rights to my students, especially the oft-overlooked presence of Northern discrimination, I found two gems:

I’d like to highlight several pieces of the sites that could be beneficial to your classroom. Both sites include narratives, personal voices detailing life in Jim Crow America. These narratives include written testimonies, audio clips, and videos, as well as photographs that bring words to life. Both sites include interactive maps that chart a wealth and variety of information in a quick and easy format for students to interpret. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow site has maps that indicate the changing population of whites and blacks for each state and each decade. Other maps include the chilling number of white and black lynching victims. The maps on The History of Jim Crow highlight sports in Jim Crow America. By clicking on a state, you can read about the different accomplishments of African American athletes. There is also a “Jim Crow and the Supreme Court” map that indicates states (in)famous for Jim Crow judicial interpretations. By clicking on each state, a pop-up details the highlights of the case. Both sites have teacher resources that offer different activities and lesson plans.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow includes an interactive timeline. Students can click on an event and a description provides information. The site provides a student blog that is great for students to see what students outside their classroom are thinking. The site also includes interactive activities such as, “Voting, Then and Now,” which takes students through the various obstacles that prevent African Americans from voting, “Racial Realities,” which include real scenarios with audio clips of racial injustices with the law, and “Ways of Seeing,” which leads students in the analysis of controversial images.

The History of Jim Crow includes four different series of modules that are SO COOL! Students can select from “simulation,” in which students are led through a series of historically based decisions, a “cognitive organizer” in which students select terms to complete sentences, “document analysis,” in which students analyze primary sources, a “writing workshop,” which provides students with a graphic writing organizer, a “prediction center,” and a “quiz.” This site also includes a wealth of scholarly essays that are accessible to high school students. Furthermore, the site includes a list of American literature related to Jim Crow America, helpful for connecting English and history curriculums and offering enrichment reading for students.

I hope you enjoy, I certainly have!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Encounters and Exchanges TAH Grant --- Three Years, But Not Finished!

I am truly saddened as the third year of the TAH Grant comes to a close. Being a full-time participant for all three years, I was able to attend many of the amazing offerings. I hope that Kara secures an extension of the Grant and another for the Elementary level; both teachers and students would benefit!

Even though this grant is ending, it isn't really over! It is my understanding that the "Encounters and Exchanges" website will continue to be hosted by the University of Lowell. I will admit that I have not really browsed through many of my peers' lessons and other resources packed onto this site. I am usually scrounging around trying to finish my own!

The fact that this site will remain on the Web is, of course, a continuation of the effective pedagogy, materials, and great resources received through this grant. I have shared this site with my department members and have encouraged all to bookmark it for future reference.

I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for any future TAH Grants...

Hope everyone has a wonderful summer. It's been a pleasure meeting and working with so many exceptional educators!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

How to keep students engaged in the last month of school....

As the weather turns warmer and student's thoughts turn to permanent recess, it can be harder and harder to engage them in actually learning. I'm sure many of my colleagues thought I was crazy when I started a fairly major project a couple weeks ago. The idea for this project came from my TAH Elementary Book Club. Our leader, UMass Lowell professor Pat Fontaine shared a great project that had been previously used by third grade teachers in Lowell. The project called for children to research famous people and then to create life-size versions of these people. For specific parts of the people's bodies, the students would discuss what their famous people "saw with their eyes", "heard with their ears", "believed in their heart", etc.

I was immediately excited by this project and I knew right away what I wanted to do with it. For awhile I had been trying to think of some kind of engaging project to go with the standard in our Massachusetts Frameworks about Revolutionary War figures. I was an Art History minor in college and previously taught Art at summer camps and thought this would be a perfect combination of history and art. ( I somewhat knew what I was getting myself into as I had done slightly similar project when teacing about ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses in fourth grade.) I spent much of my April vacation hunting for a giant roll of paper. (not easy to come by at all) Lucked out when a friend who teachers Art said that she could hook me up. With paper in hand, I started to make my plan on how this project

My fabulous Library Media Specialist, who was coincidentally also a member of this book group, helped me make a plan on how we would execute this project at a fifth grade level. We wanted to upgrade a little to make more challenging. We added some aspects like "Legacy" and "Character Traits". I told the kids some limited information about the project to get them started. (I wanted to make some of it a surprise.) They were assigned in groups of three or four to a specific figure. We emphasized that they were responisble for doing their own research, and would be working together as a group on the final part of the project.

For about three to four classes, students worked on their research. I think research can be a difficult skill for students of most ages. For this project, research did prove to be tricky but it seemed that the second major step was the most difficult for many of the groups. When groups finished researching, they worked together to see if together they had answers to all the questions. Their next step was to use their research to write two to three really good answers in complete sentences. These answers would go in the speech bubbles that would be placed near the different parts of the body. The sentences that the students wrote showed me a great deal about what they ascertained from their research and where their writing skills are by the end of fifth grade. Some groups did a great job on this, but it was pretty clear that some groups missed the boat on the importance of some of these gentlemen. (Although it was frustrating, it was an opportunity to go back and help guide the kids with how to pick out the most important information.)

After the writing portion was okayed, some of the teammates worked on typing the responses in to speech bubbles while others worked on the art work. The kids were totally jazzed to make these people. The first step was to choose one of the students to be traced. ( I encouraged them not to pick the shortest, skinniest person in the group since these people were supposed to look like adults.) The funniest part of this whole process happened during this tracing step. Girls apparently didn't want to trace boys, and boys didn't want to trace girls. Puts it in perspective, doesn't it. I forget how little they are sometimes......I had also been thinking about how we could make these figures very recognizable to our Killam School audience. I knew that for the kids drawing the faces of these figures would be difficult. I decided to try blowing up recognized faces using the copy machine. (Alexander Hamilton's face actually came right off a 10 dollar bill.) I thought it kind of gave it a very artistic quality to have the real black and white faces on top of the drawn bodies.

They've been dilligently working away on the artistic construction of these people. I've assisted with the broadening of some shoulders and the thickening of some arms, but other than that they've done it all themselves. Here are some shots of them hard at work....

We've been working on these ALL over the building- library, random hallways, and so many students have seen us. My goal was fufilled when some first graders walked by us and said, "hey look, it's George Washington", which I know made that group feel really good.

We aren't quite finished yet, but I do have one group that finished on Thursday and I thought I would share some pictures to show you their finished product of James Madison. You'll notice that at the bottom of this paper is a copy of Madison's actual signature. The kid's thought this was a really cool touch. As more groups finish, I will try to add a group shot of all of these "Revolutionary" gentlemen together.

Monday, June 1, 2009

We Shall Remain

PBS has many valuable curriculum materials that connect directly to all three years of the Encounters and Exchanges in US History themes. Many of the grant participants have already utilized the series The American Experience, especially the episodes revolving around Kit Carson. The first year of the grant focused on the Colonial Era in US History and as part of the Primary Source Summer Institute, many of us were privileged to hear from Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, author, educator and scholar. In her presentation, she directly confronted the myth that Natives and their culture became extinct during the nineteenth century. In her presentation, she utilized many obituaries from that era that listed a member of a native group as the 'Last of the (insert native group name here)" that also, ironically, listed many family members for the deceased.
A great new resource, one to also confront this myth, is the new PBS documentary entitled We Shall Remain. Also part of the American Experience series, it focuses on the impact of Native Americans on US History and, as the title implies, blows to smithereens the myths that movies like The Last of the Mohegans perpetuate and Bruchac debunked in her presentation. Not only does this series demonstrate Native American History, but how this history is one of resilience, strength, and perseverance; not of Native Americans as supporting characters in their own stories, as too often is portrayed by textbooks. This series covers curriculum for all grade levels- from the first Thanksgiving to the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk to Wounded Knee. The companion website to the series (found at is excellent; providing both full length online episodes and behind the scenes information. I am looking forward to utilizing this series in my classroom for next year, and hope that you will consider it as well.