By: Steve Bergman
Our group has spent the semester reading “A People’s History for the Classroom by Bill Bigelow. The book incorporates excerpts from Howard Zinn’s seminal work, “A People’s History of the United States” intermingled with classroom activities intended to teach students about major historical events from perspectives other than the dominant narrative. The book provided an interesting insight into some of the many ways teachers have tried to teach alternate narratives to major U.S. and global events. Our group, however felt the book was lacking in one key area that has to be addressed, especially for new teachers.
The one negative aspect of Bigelow’s book that we kept citing was the lack of explanation of how to fit these alternative lessons into the school year or into the traditional lesson plans with their tight timelines. We agreed over and over again that we’d love to lead/see classrooms where multi-day activities such as a role-playing trial of Columbus, the King/Queen of Spain, and the Pope can take place, but none of us could think of a world in which an instructor has the luxury of teaching such engaging lessons. Instead, extra days that teachers get are spent in wrap-up sessions, preparing students for examinations or testing. This concern was repeated over and over again, throughout the semester as great ideas sounded good in theory but impractical or even unfeasible in reality.
Our critique is not all negative, however. Each of our group members felt the lessons provided were useful in ways Bigelow probably didn’t intend. We all saw possibilities for truncated lessons on Vietnam, the labor movement, and U.S.-Mexico relations both past and present that could be created using some of the ideas raised in the book. Another positive of the book was the content itself. Zinn’s original work was a damning indictment of America’s “holier than thou” approach to things such as rights and freedoms that it takes on the world stage. To have the author put a spotlight on those items provides teachers an interesting method of culturally relevant teaching.
Video Link: http://ed.ted.com/on/K31pThNn
This week our group discussed a TedX talk on incorporating technology into the classroom. The TedX talk focused on how one former history major devised methods for using sites like Twitter and games like Minecraft to improve student learning. The examples used by the speaker were:
- Twitter: Using twitter to do a multi-day lesson on London’s “Great Smog” event from the 1950’s.
- Minecraft: A student who used Minecraft as a tool to practice his Latin by creating a Roman bath and then giving virtual tours of his bath using Latin vocabulary.
Our group had a number of observations about technology. First was how technology can be so hit or miss. So many schools have this idea that technology can revolutionize the classroom, but without proper oversight and well-thought out application, technology runs the risk of reducing classroom outputs. Without careful application, the technology becomes a distraction or reduces classroom learning time, thus making it less effective than traditional book/pencil learning. The second observation was that technology, when applied properly, can provide a plethora of exciting new learning opportunities and provide methods for students to learn using tools that are native to newer learning/communication styles. Third, and this one is particular to history teachers, technology enables teachers to incorporate primary sources at a rate like never before. Through sites like Twitter, teachers have access to countless first-hand accounts and primary source material that they either 1) didn’t know existed, or 2) wouldn’t have found as readily using traditional teaching methods.
Moving beyond the technology in the TedX talk, we thought about larger applicability for technology including opportunities to view events from different angles, heretofore unattainable. Technology can help facilitate conversation across cultures, locations, and physical boundaries. An example shared in our PLC was a video/Skype conversation between American students and Chinese students.
Our PLC also discussed the difficulty of technology use for students without the means to computers and smart phones. We had no easy answer for this because there are so many reasons why students can/cannot access such technology resources, even within schools. Ultimately, we agreed that technology is a valuable resource for teachers and students, but the integration of technology resources is still open to debate.
Our PLC group will be finishing our book next week, reading the chapter on Terrorism. We will be bringing in artifacts, items, or materials related to the chapter.
Date: 30 Sept 2015
Overview: This week, our PLC group undertook a two-part program. The first was the material we assigned ourselves on 21 September. The second part was the multimedia piece we were assigned in class on 28 Sept.
Note: multimedia incorporation was assigned, we selected our own multimedia piece.
Summary Part 1: We read a chapter of A People’s History for the Classroom focusing on Vietnam. The chapter and subsequent supporting material demonstrated methods for encouraging students to think about the underlying causes of the Vietnam War and the intricate interplay of international politics and economics with regards to France, the United States, Russia, and the post-WWII future of Europe as they relate to France’s reoccupation of pre-WWII colony in Indochina.
We found this interplay to be particularly interesting, and also surprisingly difficult to address in a classroom setting. The competing interests of all of the countries above and their desires for Europe are as much at play as France’s desire to have its colony back. Simply saying France wanted it’s free labor in Vietnam back and the U.S. wanted to sell goods to France so the U.S. intervened in Vietnam, as the author states, does as much of a disservice to the other factors as the point the author ridicules when he quotes from the American Adventures textbook saying, “Later in the 1950’s, war broke out in South Vietnam.” The difficulty in teaching this conflict is that it is easy to be oversimplified, especially given the historical context and the volume of primary sources currently available.
Connecting to Other Materials: We talked about a book called Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides by Christian G. Appy. Appy’s book consists of personal memoirs of men and women who were involved in the various aspects of the war at different times. Memoirs come from Vietnamese military advisors to the U.S. during WWII, from French and Vietnamese who fought one another during the 1950’s, and from policy makers, both Vietnamese and from the U.S. as well as civilians and soldiers from both sides of the conflict between the U.S. and Vietnam.
We felt that Appy’s book did a better job of getting Zinn’s point across about alternate views of history because it provided greater context across time and across interests. We think that taking the sample lesson from A People’s History for the Classroom and using Appy’s material would provide a greater level of understanding of the conflict in Vietnam while also being able to demonstrate the longevity of the conflict all within the few weeks that are allotted to the study of the subject in a typical history class.
Questions to pose to practicing educators: What kinds of primary sources are being used to show the competing viewpoints of the war, not just within the U.S., but in Vietnam and elsewhere. None of the interested parties were monolithic in resolve so how are alternative viewpoints presented, if at all? The next question is how much context is provided? Seeing as how it ties back to Europe, the Marshall Plan, the Warsaw Pact and NATO, area teachers making those connections to larger conflicts or is this simply taught as the U.S. trying to stop the expansion of communism?
Along those same lines, do classes talk about the hypotheticals of what would have happened if we’d have won? Would France have tried to re-exert claim given that traditional colonialism was dying? Would the puppet government in South Vietnam survived an attempted coup? What about Russia and China’s involvement?
Summary Part 2: Our PLC group decided to continue the topic of conflict by watching a video produced by Newshour on PBS. The video, titled Learning History to Honor Fallen Heroes of D-Day focuses on a classroom where students follow in the footsteps of a soldier who lived and died in the Normandy invasion on D-Day. The students are tasked with finding out all they can about a soldier from their community who died in the battle by seeking out official documents, living relatives, and others who can shed light on the deceased individual.
The program that these students participate in is very moving and involves trips to the National Archives to search out documents, interviews and stories from D-Day veterans, and finally by a trip to Normandy, France where the students visit the famed sites of WWII. Throughout the video students and their teachers share how the program has changed their perceptions, with teachers referencing how they intend to teach wars differently in the future.
Connecting to Other Material: Our first thought was that this program was similar to the Appy book mentioned above, in that both are attempting to personalize war in a way that makes the conflict less monolithic. The second thought we had was that this lesson plan would be a lesson plan we’d imagine seeing in A People’s History for the Classroom. Howard Zinn was a populist historian and his material focused on the everyday citizen so this lesson is something we’d imagine seeing in our PLC book.
Questions to pose to practicing educators: How would you carry out this program without the funds provided by the sponsor organization? What would small town schools do when the war may not have impacted that community as directly due to lower casualties? Would you teach about the Russian side and the approximately 20,000,000 casualties inflicted by war, murder, and subsequent famine arising from WWII?
Has our Mission Changed: No, our mission remains unchanged.
Next Week’s Reading Assignment and Rationale: Next week, we are reading about the Singing Strike – and probably about the greater labor movement. We felt this topic was useful because it is another large and important conflict in American history to go alongside the major wars we’ve read about thus far.
Date: 31 Aug 2015
Summary of assigned reading: Our PLC group read the first two chapters of our book, both related to Christopher Columbus. The first chapter was a reexamination of Christopher Columbus, but without the “conquering hero” narrative commonly told in most textbooks. In fact, the first chapter specifically mentions textbooks that continue to utilize this old narrative, when in fact, the circumstances are more nuanced and saddening. The second chapter was a guide for instructors on how they could incorporate other voices (the Native Americans, the king and queen of Spain, etc…) into the narrative. These groups are rarely represented, except to be viewed as background players, but their actions helped dictate the events that followed. This chapter’s guide/lesson focused on a classroom courtroom where students represented the various agents involved in the genocide of Native Americans. The various students are put on trial for the crime of murder and each is to defend, reflect, or argue against their own guilt.
Connections to course materials: Subjectivity is inherent to each of us, and each of us views the world through our own set of lenses and filters. Hinchey said that “our ideas come from a particular set of life experiences and ideas (Hinchey 35). The material we learn is a reflection of the individuals writing textbooks. In order to understand history, we must understand our subjectivities and those of the authors to better understand who benefits from maintaining the narrative children are taught in their history classes.
Questions to pose to practicing educators: How do we teach politically charged historical topics? If textbooks are whitewashed, how do we make the changes that are necessary to teach a more complete and accurate picture of history especially given the very real time constraints of the typical school year. It is not unusual for the latter half of the 20th century to be crammed into the last few weeks of the year. The second question is, at what pace do we make those changes? A dramatic shift, or really any shift, in the content being taught would come with strong push-back from conservatives, nationalist groups, and various other groups that have a vested interest in the status quo.
Has our mission statement shifted: Our mission statement has not changed. We still believe our mission statement “Analyzing the book to allow us to integrate alternative historical perspectives into our future professions” holds true. The book provides examples of how to incorporate non-traditional viewpoints into classrooms.
Next week’s reading assignment and rationale: We chose our next two chapters because we felt they would pair together well.