School starts tomorrow, and one of the exciting things I have to look forward to is the opportunity to teach American History. Even though I only one class for the whole year, I feel like I’ve come full circle in my education. It was in my junior year of high school, sitting in my American History class, that I determined that I wanted to teach that subject. My teacher does deserve some credit for this decision, mostly because I thought I could do it better than he could. Throughout my life my parents and family fostered a love of history. My mom made sure I had a well-stocked library of historical biographies from Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nellie Bly. My dad took a four-month job in D.C., so my mom and I could come out and visit for three weeks. We saw Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Independence Hall, Harper’s Ferry, Ford’s Theater, and all of the sights D.C. has to offer. History was real. My granny showed me slides of her trip to Boston during the Bicentennial; Gramps showed me where Al Capone lived in Chicago; my grandparents took me all over Michigan and Indiana to see historical homes. History turned out to be everything I love: ideas, stories, personalities, innovations, geography, and struggle. This propelled my college studies. Even though I followed my bachelor’s in history with a master’s in English (literature is people’s responses to their history), my interest in history has never waned.
The challenge of teaching history is that it can become very chronological: this happened and then that happened, then this general said this and caused that over there to happen…. Snooze. Compound this with the breadth of information, the class could feel like it’s just skipping across the surface. The students might get the who, what, and where, maybe the why, but not the “so what?”. So my big idea this year is to incorporate theme-based learning, and to make it easier on myself, there will be only one theme: the American Dream.
Since it’s called the American Dream, is an American phenomena, and is still talked about today– mostly whether or not it still exists, everything in our history connects to it. It is also still how Americans define themselves; they believe in it and it is a source of identity. We are resourceful, innovative, adventurous, and daring because we have the national resources to be that way. We have that innate belief that we can ourselves up by our boot straps and better ourselves. To understand how the dream came to be, the students can explore how the early settlers’ motivations and beliefs contributed to the foundation of the American Dream and examine how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution support it, to how the Westward Movement and influx of immigration solidified it. In addition to looking at it’s growth, students can also analyze the shortcomings and challenges to the American Dream: slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement. At the end of the class we can debate if the American Dream is still relevant to our times.
To begin this study my students will write a reflection about the American Dream, what they think it means in general, and what it means specifically to them. They’ll discuss their responses in small groups and create a list of their common ideas to share with the rest of the class. During that discussion we will create a master list and I will give each group an idea from it. They will have to think of how that idea came to be and which aspects of America lead to that idea. This info will be added to the master list. The list will be posted in the classroom for the students to refer to. During each unit I will use reflections, HOTS questions, creative writing, and small projects to have the students connect the concepts and facts to our theme. My goal is for them to see how history is connected and how our life today is a reflection and extension of our past.
Readers: I want to hear from you– what did you really enjoy/not enjoy about your history class? What do you wish you did in your history class? Do you have any suggestions or resources I should be aware of? Please share.