Tuesday, November 6, 2012

College? Election? What the *#^&?

The Electoral College: a mystery to all children and most adults.

Image Credit: Jeff Jacoby
In the past there have been protests staged and editorials fired off in opposition to it. Despite all the hullabaloo, the system has been around since the ratification of the United States Constitution and does not appear to be going anywhere. So, if many ADULTS don't understand it, how could the average middle school history teacher explain it to a classroom full of 28 of the average American adolescent?

Here's my attempt.

I started class by explaining that the presidential election is special and is decided differently than all other elections.  I explained that it would be almost impossible for my students to avoid election night coverage tonight since all major news outlets will be covering and almost all regular programming will take a back seat.

Political pundits will start making statements like, "Obama has won Massachusetts," and, "Romney has won Texas."  What could they mean?  Don't candidates win votes from individual citizen voters?  How could they win votes from states?

To help with the explanation, we watched a Common Craft video together.


Then, I took a few questions and ensuring that students understood the formula.

2 U.S. Senators + # of U.S. Representative = Total # of Electoral College votes per state

We took a look at an electoral college map from ABC News that will slowly be filled in tonight as the results are reported from the states.  This helped them understand what they will see online and on TV this evening.

Finally, I explained the extra credit assignment for Election Night.

Tonight, as they watch the coverage on TV and scan around online they will have the opportunity to track the results and record them on this sheet.  Of course it is their choice since it is an extra credit assignment, but based on the level of interest during class and the number of questions I received, I'm hoping that most of them choose to participate in this way.  They can't vote, but they can learn about the process so they are ready to vote when they turn 18.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Frequent Scenes of Misery"

One of the standout workshops from the History Connected  program this past year included a lecture from Professor Brooke Blower of Boston University.  She spoke about transnational migration, and explained that she purposely uses the word "migration" rather than "immigration" because it allows for the possibility that a person's move from one place to another is not permanent. Often, migrants leave their homeland to seek opportunity or change, but then return to their homeland or choose to move on to another place rather than stay permanently.

Our students are taught from a young age to be proud of being American.  They are taught that ours is the best nation on the planet.  There is nothing wrong with these lessons.  However, it is also important for them to realize that for other people, a different nation might feel like the best one.  This alternative perspective is just as important for children to learn so that they can interact from people from all over the world in a positive way.  Our students also experience America as a secure place full of promise.  Migrants who are entering America for the first time might not feel the same way.

As part of a 4 day lesson I created based on that workshop, called Transnational Migration in the Era of Big Business, students looked at photographs that help them see America as a migrant may have for the first time at Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Some of the photos are difficult.  In fact, Colonel John Weber, commissioner of Ellis Island at the time, described the migrants as "hapless pathetic creatures" who were part of "frequent scenes of misery."

This one shows the long crowded lines they had to wait in upon arrival.  Perhaps the large American flag on display was supposed to inspire them to be patient, but after a long journey across the Atlantic, I'm sure these slow lines were daunting.  I can't imagine what it might have been like to stand in these lines with young children after an endless cramped journey across the ocean.

This one shows some of the embarassing physical exams migrants had to endure.  While the health of those entering the country seemed like a legitimate concern for American immigration officials, the public examinations were invasive and dehumanizing.

After analyzing these and other photos, students read accounts of real migrants' experiences.  These are excerpts from a book by Vincent Cannato. 

Some ended happily and some were tragic.  One who had a happy ending was Bartolomeo Stallone from Italy.
Sixteen-year-old Bartolomeo Stallone also faced exclusion. Arriving from Italy in September 1911, Stallone was headed for his brother’s home in St. Louis, where he would work as a barber. At Ellis Island, Dr. E. H. Mullan certified the young man as “afflicted with flat deformed chest, lack of muscular development (poor physique), which affected ability to earn a living.” Stallone appealed his case, but August Sherman, acting in place of William Williams, reaffirmed the deportation order, noting that Stallone was “quite frail in appearance.”

When Stallone’s case landed on the desk of Secretary Nagel, he ordered that the immigrant be admitted on a $500 bond, most likely posted by his brother. After three weeks in detention at Ellis Island, Stallone was released. Two years later, Bartolomeo requested that the bond be cancelled. He had to report to officials in St. Louis, who found that the young man was making $12 a week as a barber. Though he had no savings, he told officials: “I live well, dress well, and send money home to my father and mother in Italy, so I haven’t anything saved up.” Impressed by the now-eighteen-year-old, officials canceled the bond and declared him: “Physically fit for admission and that there is little or no likelihood that he will become a public charge.” pg 209-210
A much sadder story came from the Mermer family of Russia:

February 1892

Russian Jewish immigrants …[experienced an] obvious lack of concern here at an American port. …steamship officials had forced these sickly passengers to cross the harbor to Ellis Island in an open barge in frigid weather.

Among those worn refugees… was the Mermer family: Fayer, her husband Isaac, and their five young children. The Mermers had managed to survive both the trip to Ellis Island and the inspection process and would soon begin their lives in America at a temporary lodging house at 5 Essex Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, provided for them by the United Hebrew Charities.

Twelve days after their arrival, the Mermers’ world was thrown into even greater turmoil. City health officials forcibly entered their Essex Street tenement, dragging Fayer, already sick with fever, out of the building kicking and screaming. Along with her son Pincus and daughter Clara, Fayer was forced into quarantine as city officials moved quickly and brusquely to deal with a highly contagious typhus fever outbreak. One week later, Fayer would be dead, though her children would recover. pg 70-71
At the end of the lesson, students demonstrated what they learned about the migrant experience by sketching. They had 3 options and could choose to draw:
  • the emotions and feelings of the migrant,
  • the scene a migrant had witnessed based on the information from one of the excerpts, or
  • a side-by-side representation of what the migrant expected America to be and the reality.
Now I wish I'd saved some of the drawings I received when I implemented this lesson last spring.  Many of the students took it quite seriously and their images were compelling.  Primary source images and accounts are always a more powerful way to tell the story of history than a lecture or text book reading.  Thanks to Professor Blower's lecture, I was inspired to do more digging into this topic and put together a lesson that was more meaningful for my students.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How Would YOU Have Felt at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair?

I was fortunate enough to be among a group of teacher scholars this summer who are interested in studying American imperialism and the social beliefs that go along with it.  They included Caroline Allison, Amy Fedele, and Chris Selvaggio.  Although we are taught to think of the late 19th century as an era of booming business, life-changing inventions, and great social change as students... it was also a time when Americans bought wholly into Social Darwinism.  In fact, many believed that a person's value was linked to his race and ethnicity.  Studying how America chose to represent itself and other peoples from around the world at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair is a great way to help students understand this mindset.

Our group came up with 1893 Chicago World's Fair: Who Holds the Power?.



Students start by watching the video below.  While the narrator's voice is a little high pitched, the information presented captures the main ideas behind imperialism and gives students a brief explanation of what occurred at the fair.


For a more thorough look at the fair, students can tour maps and images of the exposition, including the video tour below.  It was created by an Harvard University Graduate School of Design student.


Then students choose to take on an identity.  They will try to see the fair from the perspective of their chosen role.  Each role has its own page on the website describing the identity in more detail .  There are also recommeded exhibits for the student to visit.  Roles include:
  • German Immigrant
  • Native American
  • African American
  • Japanese Diplomat
  • Female Mill Worker
  • Captain of Industry
  • Inventor
The culminating project is a scrapbook or photo book in which student annotates a few photographs explaining how the sights and exhibits pictured made them feel, from the perspective of their chosen role.  Our hope was for students to try to experience the dominating racist ideologies of Americans in the late 19th century from the perspective of one the minorities who had to struggle through this time.

Soft Power: Then and Now

After attending this summer's Primary Source institute in July, I was in a bit of a conundrum.  I wanted to introduce the idea of soft power to ALL of my students, but my freshmen do not study the era that we focused on in the institute, which was after 1898.  So, after much thought, some research, and one proposal submission, I managed to come up with a way to integrate soft power into the discussion of the United States government's first attempts at foreign relations in the late 18th century.

The entire lesson can be found at Soft Power in the Early Republic: The U.S. and France.


First of all, what is soft power?  Since most adults have not heard of the term, it is even less likely that the average teenager in my classroom is familiar with it.  It was coined by Joseph Nye in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  Rather than ask the students to read  the book, I plan to show them a clip of the beginning of this interview in which Nye explains the theory.



Then, I will challenge students to come up with a definition of the term in their own words.  To further prove that they understand the concept, I plan to ask them to find current event examples of the attempted use of soft power within the past 6 months.

Now for the historical application.  When I think of soft power in the early United States, I think of a few situations: 

First, I think the the intense efforts to form an alliance with France out of fear that the British would out-muscle the inexperienced and new American military.  So, I chose to have students read and analyze the Treaty of Alliance with France, February 6, 1778.

Next, when I think of soft power I think about President Washington's strong desire to stay out of the European conflict and allow his new nation to get up on its own two feet.  So, the obvious choice was the Proclamation of Neutrality, April 22, 1793.

Of course, when discussing soft power around this time period of revolutions, one cannot ignore the great debate among Americans about whether the U.S. government should officially support the French Revolution.  One either side of this debate were Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Therefore, I chose to have students analyze the Letter to William Short, Thomas Jefferson on the French Revolution, January 3, 1793 and the Memorandum on the French Revolution, Alexander Hamilton, 1794.

Finally, as he retired after two four year terms as President of the United States, Washington warned Americans against forming strong alliances with other nations that could force the young country into war.  In his Farewell Address, September 17, 1796 Washington was trying to convince Americans to avoid using hard power and to use soft power whenever possible.

The culminating activity is for students to stage their own interview, much like the one they watched of Joseph Nye at the beginning of the lesson.  The interview subject will instead be the author of their document.  They will ask about the author's intent and how he used soft power to accomplish his goals.

My hope is that students will gain an understanding of how goals can be reached on the international stage without threats and bribes.  I also hope they learn that these soft power tactics may have recently been renamed, but they have been used my leaders for a long long time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and Louis Kossuth in 1852... an example of an integrated history lesson

I am fortunate enough to be a participant in the final year of the History Connected program.  This year is called American Encounters: U.S. History in a Global Context.  Since our first school day seminar way back in October, there has been a lot of talk and interest in the integrated U.S. and world history curriculum here at Reading Memorial High School. We were even fortunate enough to have colleagues from Wilmington visit us a few weeks ago and sit in on some of our classes to observe the curriculum in action. It was refreshing to have the faces of enthusiastic professionals in our classes while we taught. As I look back to that October workshop and consider some of the documents that were discussed, a new great connection between world and U.S. history comes to mind.


Specifically, as we read through the Lincoln documents in an effort to get to know the man behind the myth, there were two that mentioned Louis Kossuth and the Hungarian Nationalist movement. In 1852, Lincoln was part of a call for a "Kossuth Meeting" and then helped run it and draft the resolutions from the actual meeting. These documents can help students understand what Americans at the time thought of the intense nationalism and fervor that was fueling the revolutions in Europe in 1848.

Some of the information presented to our sophomore students looks like this:


I added one element to make the connection between Kossuth and the U.S. (referenced in the 6th bullet) more clear. Under the image of Kossuth on the left, students are instructed to read the primary source documents that are attached. I have included a few excerpts within this post to illustrate what kind of information I would want students to notice in order to integrate U.S. and world history in this lesson.

The first excerpt is from January 5, 1852:
It is proposed that a Kossuth meeting be held by the citizens and others now visiting the seat of government, on the 8th of January inst., at 7 o'clock P. M., at the court house in Springfield. All are invited to attend, and to express their views freely.


A. Lincoln, et. al.
Some questions for students to research and consider:
  • Why would Lincoln be one of the organizers of such a meeting?
  • Did he hold any public office at the time?
  • What does it say about his opinions of the revolutions of 1848?
Another excerpt from the resolutions of the meeting on January 8, 1852:
7. That we recognize in Governor Kossuth of Hungary the most worthy and distinguished representative of the cause of civil and religious liberty on the continent of Europe. A cause for which he and his nation struggled until they were overwhelmed by the armed intervention of a foreign despot, in violation of the more sacred principles of the laws of nature and of nations---principles held dear by the friends of freedom everywhere, and more especially by the people of these United States.
And then in the annotations, it is noted:
[1] Illinois Journal, January 12, 1852. Lincoln spoke to the meeting on the 8th in favor of sympathy but non-intervention.
More questions for students to discuss:
  • What principles does Lincoln seem to be emphasizing in his support of the Hungarians based on the resolution?
  • Why would Lincoln stress non-intervention?
While students are learning about the concepts of nationalism, conservatism, and liberalism in the context of the European Revolutions of 1848, it is also valuable for them to understand what Americans thought of these political ideologies at the same time. Americans were not operating in a totally isolated environment. While the Atlantic Ocean provided them with a great natural barrier that protected them from the conflict, they were certainly aware of the strife and had their own views of who was right and who was wrong.

This is a very simple lesson tweak that can really help students understand how the world was interacting long before the Internet made it easy.  Sometimes, these short additional documents and small lesson adjustments are all it takes to make an integrated curriculum work.