Thursday, February 17, 2011

Colonial America... In Plain English!

Inspired by both Greg Kulowiec's presentation at the MassCUE Conference in October, 2010, and Common Craft, I assigned a low-tech/high-tech project to my honors freshmen students as they learned about everyday life in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.

The essence of Common Craft videos on YouTube is to "help educators and influencers introduce complex subjects."  Lee Lefever and the people at Common Craft are geniuses in the art of simplification in their "In Plain English" videos.  They take processes and concepts, like the electoral college, that seem complicated at first and break them down so almost anyone could understand them within short 3 minute episodes.  They use simple paper drawings and cut outs and move them around with their fingers on screen while narrating and explaining what the audience is seeing.  So, I asked my students to do the same thing to explain the everyday lives of people living in colonial America in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Here are a couple of great examples of my students final videos.

If you would like to see more about farmers and fishermen, women, and printers in the American colonies, check out my Kerry Hawk02 YouTube Channel.

What I Loved About This Project:
  • Student Work Ethic - Students had only three days to read information from their textbook and various scholarly articles, synthesize it into a script, storyboard the video, create the drawings, rehearse, and film the final cut.  The quick turnaround encourages them to work efficiently together and even assign each other homework over the intervening evenings.  Their work ethic was great!
  • Checking for Understanding - By simply watching them go through to process and then watching the final 2-3 minute videos I can tell that they understood all of the information they were assigned and were able to put that understanding into their own words in a simple but creative way.  Plus, the kids had fun.
  • Low Tech Process and a High-Tech Product - While the final product is work that is published to the world online, the preparation did not require a computer lab, which can be tough real estate to acquire in any school building.  All I needed to do was sign out a FLIP camera from my school library for two class periods and upload the videos to my free YouTube Channel.  Easy!
  • Approved For All Audiences - The product of the project is easy to understand, so students can share it with all members of their families.  But also, I think a version of this project could be implemented in any classroom, elementary through high school.  A student who worked on the project has a mother who teaches at the elementary level.  She said her mom loved the idea and is going to do the project with her younger students too!
I hope you enjoyed watching and reading.  We certainly enjoyed making these videos for you!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

An American Empire

Until the 1890s, America prided itself for its isolation from world affairs. Territorial ambitions and visions of empire were limited to westward expansion across the American continent. But in the 1890s, as the nation emerged as the world’s leading economic power, America took an increasingly aggressive role in international affairs. By 1910 America had become an imperial power, controlling territories around the globe such as the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Cuba, not to mention the Panama Canal. While many Americans welcomed these events as confirmation of the nation’s status as a world power, others were troubled by the seeming incompatibility of imperial conquest and republican government. (See soucres list below for the source of this summary.)

The two competing perspectives regarding American expansionism and subsequent imperialism are best analyzed using primary sources.  I have used political cartoons in the past to get these perspectives across.

This one shows the American view, rooted in manifest destiny, that it was the duty of the more advanced, Christian, democratic society to carry others and show them the way to true civilization and happiness.

This one mocks the American celebration of imperialism and superiority which is in stark contrast to American ideals of equality and participatory government.

Both of these cartoons are, of course, a play on the words of Kipling in ‘The White Man’s Burden’ in 1889.  Although the poem is written about British empire building, it is relevent to the American situation.  Perhaps my favorite excerpt from that poem mocks imperialists’ self-important attitude when it comes to “helping” the seemingly hopeless peoples they colonize and control.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Note that Kipling sarcastically emphasizes that the imperialist mission will fail.  And, of course, the imperialists will blame the laziness and stupidity of the "heathens" for the failure.

In combination with these sources, the Central Filipino Committee (CFC) ‘To the American People’, a pamphlet from 1900, shows not just the conflicting American perspectives, but gives the people of the Philippines a voice.  What is most fascinating is how the CFC uses American arguments FOR imperialism as a mechanism to convince Americans to HALT their dominance of the Philippines.

For example, American imperialists argued that they would bring freedom to the Filipinos.  As long as the Filipinos obeyed American authorities, they would reform the government of the Philippines and bring them freedom.  The CFC turned that argument on its head since they did not  see how freedom can come from a war of domination.

Why, forgetful of all your history and the noble precepts of your illustrious forefathers, are you fighting against the cause of Independence, of Progress and of Justice, which is our cause? What has come to pass between you and us that should cause you to permit this incredible and monstrous war to be waged against us?

A second, even more emotional, plea conjures up the memories of idealized American founders in order to show American imperialists that their actions conflict with their long-standing American values.

Choose, then, sons of Washington, of Jefferson and of Lincoln, between these two alternatives: Freedom for the hapless peoples who are in your power, and thus, under God's just laws, the recompense to you of a larger freedom for yourselves, or, tyranny and destruction for your struggling but helpless victims, whose wrongs the Great Ruler of all will in due time avenge by the mournful destruction of your own liberties. Shall it be generosity, or colonial greed? Shall it be right, or wrong? Give ear to your own conscience, and we are sure you will incline yourselves toward mercy… because our resolution is fixed: Liberty or death; independence or annihilation.
The last line is quite striking because the CFC uses an infamous line, “Liberty or Death” from the lips of Patrick Henry on the eve of the American Revolution.

Taken in combination, primary images, poetry, and pamphlets can tell a much more powerful story than any history teacher standing and speaking at the front of the room.  American pride and patriotism is something we should instill in our students.  At the same time, we need to teach them about the darker parts of our past so that they may learn to be better leaders in the future.

Please Note: This reflection was completed as part of the author's participation in the History Connected program. Please see the History Connected Wiki or the History Connected Official Website for information on the federal grant that provided the opportunity.

The White Man’s Burden, Rudyard Kipling (1889) -
‘Give me Liberty, or give me Death’, Patrick Henry (1775)  -