Contextualizing The American Dream

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.  

16 thoughts on “Contextualizing The American Dream

  1. Although I teach senior English which is Brit Lit, the concept is the same: how to make it not a snooze cruise. One thing I learned is to help students understand that events and literature influenced one another. For instance, the public wasn’t aware how poor living conditions were in London until Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and from there public reforms were initiated. With American history there is a richness of events and literature as well, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Civil War.
    Have a fabulous school year. We start after Labor Day.
    Blue Skies,

    1. Thank you for that suggestion! I am going to have the same kids for the spring term for American Lit, so I can think ahead on how this curriculum can be used to front-load them for that class. In the meantime, I will think of the other connections that I can also make using literature. My other class is English 12, but we’re not bound to just Brit Lit. We read a lot of contemporary essays from Mirror On America, do a media analysis study, and three novels/plays. I typically do Othello, Pride and Prejudice, and Like Water For Chocolate. Depending on the level of the class, we learn and apply literary theory. They seem to respond well to it; it takes them beyond reader response and gives them other ways to “read” the texts.

  2. School starts tomorrow, at the end of July?! Boy, your school system starts early.

    I think that sounds like a really fun way to teach American history. Even though I got both my B.A. and M.A. in English, I’ve also always really enjoyed history. I tended to be a bit historiographical in the essays I wrote for class. Maybe you could do something about stories of average people during certain time periods? We did that in my college history cla, and that might make it easier for them to relate to it.

    1. History and Literature do pair up nicely– in the scheme of things, both are stories of life. Where did you go to college?

      I love your average people suggestion. That would be a nice departure from all of the famous people, and it would make it more relevant to them. I’m going to steal that idea. Thanks!

  3. I disliked history in school (eons ago) for the reasons you mentioned. The curriculum was dry and made it all seem so irrelevant. Years later I realized the fact I enjoyed reading biographies and other non-fiction historical books meant I liked the subject. What turned me off was the way it was taught. Then I discovered the old TV series “Connections.” There’s an interesting approach to history.

    I like your idea of having a theme. I’ll be interested to hear how it works out.

    1. Thank you! I will you keep you posted and also see if I can get “Connections” through Netflix. There are just so many people who don’t understand our history– it’s very frustrating. This is a small way to combat it.

  4. I’m an American history fiend. I had an interest in Social Studies even in late elementary, but I didn’t get hooked on it until we visited DC and Gettysburg. Gettysburg, in particular, because it was so dramatic and powerful, got me going. But it was a class in my Masters’ program, when the teacher just simply handed out a sheet that had all the major music, art, and literature were written in 1910 (? – that may not be the year…) that I went… WOW! It’s not linear… Then, the Revolutionary War is taking place at the same time Beethoven is writing his great works… and any number of once disparate events become the tapestry that REALLY is history… Have a great time teaching this year!

    1. Thanks! Sometimes I know when things happen, but I never quite grasp the global context. It is really amazing when it hits me that so much went on in one time frame. As for Gettysburg… I challengebpeople to go there and not be moved.

  5. History can be a little boring.I remember my history teacher used to ask 5 questions from the student who yawned. That way she managed to keep us all awake and listening. 😀

      1. Yes she is. I love her for being such a sweetheart. And she would tell jokes in the middle of every class and the clap her hands to gain our attention back and say “Ok now class! back to the pavilion.”

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