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Making the Rubber Hit the Road

"These documents are too hard for my students."
"But this topic is never on the Regents."
"My Assistant Principal doesn’t want me to spend time on that"

When we began our Teaching American History (TAH) grant, our effort to immerse participants in recent social history was often met with friendly, but firm resistance. Indeed, the refrains we heard from middle and high school teachers in New York City echoed the very gap between university-based historians and K-12 history educators that our TAH program was designed to bridge.

Changing what happens in classrooms is where the rubber hits the road.

While most teachers expressed personal interest in our lectures, readings, and primary documents, they were uncertain about the utility of such content for their students. During our first summer institute, when teachers were asked to create curriculum, many retreated into familiar territory, developing activities far afield from what we had covered at the content-rich school year seminars.

While eager to foster the intellectual growth of participants, changing what happens in classrooms is where the rubber hits the road. In this case, the rubber represented nearly a million dollars in federal funding and huge investments in time and energy from professional developers, school administrators, and teachers.

Closing the Gap

With generous input from our program evaluator Dr. William J. Tally and our colleague Frank Poje, a veteran teacher, we set out to close the gap between what teachers learned in our professional development and what they taught their students. Over the past several years, we’ve learned many lessons, but two stand out:

First, articulate clear historical understandings—big ideas and questions about U.S. history—that will engage both you and teachers over the course of three years. Good historical understandings help us think like historians and make connections among past events and between past and present.

Second, provide a variety of compelling documents that are accessible to students. A good mix of documents can reveal a range of viewpoints, present different types of evidence, or pose a historical problem to be investigated.

Previously, we had organized seminars around a loosely-defined theme (e.g. foreign policy) and set of related topics (e.g. Westward Expansion, 1890s Imperialism, World War II), yet struggled to choose from the volume of available materials. As history educators Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone have observed, "Knowing that a class must study the American Civil War or Ancient Rome does not, by itself, tell us what students should know about that topic."

We decided to reshape our foreign policy year to focus more narrowly on “America Goes to War.” Specifically, we wanted to examine:

  • the ideas that have led the nation into war and have shaped how the U.S. has fought its wars
  • the perspectives of other nations and people that change and enhance our understanding of war
  • the impact of war abroad on U.S. society and politics at home
We juxtaposed official articulation with actual experience.

During our World War II seminar, for example, we explored the 1st and 3rd of our historical understandings by juxtaposing official articulations of why Americans needed to mobilize for war with the actual experiences of soldiers and homefront workers. Readings on Roosevelt’s "Four Freedoms" speech, along with posters and newsreel footage, conveyed the ideals the U.S. government communicated to motivate support for the war: the need for racial equality and unity; the emphasis on femininity among women who took industrial jobs; the value of democracy and freedom for people around the globe.

In contrast, Dr. Roscoe Brown, a veteran of the famed African American army air unit the Tuskegee Airmen, gave a compelling talk about his experiences in the segregated military, while the documentary Rosie the Riveter Revisited conveyed the voices of “real life Rosies” whose lives bore little resemblance to government propaganda messages about women performing war work.

Supporting Thematic Selection

When it came time for teachers to create activities during the summer, we equipped them with a set of primary documents designed to support our historical understandings. Already armed with the historical understanding about the impact of war abroad on U.S. society at home, teachers analyzed:

  • a photograph of black and white workers leaving a Beaumont, Texas, shipyard in 1943
  • "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943,"a poem by Langston Hughes decrying wartime violence against African Americans
  • a "United We Win" government poster promoting interracial cooperation on the job
  • a Pittsburgh Courier editorial explaining their "Double V" campaign for victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home
Primary sources enrich teaching and learning experiences.

Embracing these documents, teachers designed activities through which their students can explore gaps between idealized propaganda messages and the lived experiences of diverse Americans, and the ways that support for the war effort became linked to African American demands for full equality.

As one participant shared, "I am more determined than ever to make the time to use documents and aim for a richer experience for my students. Simply covering the material may get you to the end but does not usually yield much understanding or generate much passion from anyone involved."

Sources

Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone, Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction (2007), 24.
Rosie the Riveter Revisited (Clarity Films, 1984)
John Vachon, "Workers leaving Pennsylvania shipyards, Beaumont, Texas," photograph, June 1943, Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress.
Langston Hughes, "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943," from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994).
Alexander Liberman (photographer), "United We Win," poster (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office for the War Manpower Commission, 1943); from National Archives, “Powers of Persuasion: Poster Art from World War II"
"The Double V Campaign," Pittsburgh Courier, 28 March 1942, 6.

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