Teaching American History Amidst the 2016 Presidential Election

I no longer teach American government, and given the current presidential election cycle, I am incredibly grateful for that. When you teach government during a major election year, you end up talking about the election nearly every day for obvious reasons. When you teach American history, like I do now, while you can’t and shouldn’t just ignore an election, it doesn’t take front and center as it does in a government or current events course. If I had to talk about this election every single day from August to November, and look happy while I did so, I think it might send me screaming from the classroom. I’m joking but just barely.

Nevertheless, kids are kids. I know my students will ask questions and (attempt to) make provocative comments about this election throughout the fall, and I’ve been trying to figure out the best response that will allow me to both keep my sanity and prove fruitful for my students. It is not my place as a teacher to tell students what to think about the current election and the candidates but to teach students how to critically examine information, the sources of that information, evidence in support of an argument, etc. Given that none of my students are of voting age and will thus not actually be casting a vote for any candidate in this election, I think the best thing I can do for my students in this instance is to redirect their questions and comments away from this single election to something even more important, something that may help them when they do finally have the privilege to vote.

For example, it is inevitable that some student, probably more than one, will ask, “For whom are you voting?” I never answer this question because (a) I don’t want to unduly influence my students, (b) I don’t want students to automatically tune me out because I’m voting for the “enemy,” and (c) it’s none of their business. But instead of saying any of this, this year when a student asks this question, my response will be, “That’s not the important question. The more important question is What am I voting for and why?” I know my students will think I’m talking about “the issues” when I say this, but I’m hoping I can steer the conversation in a different direction than even the specific issues of 2016. What would it be like to get students thinking about questions like the following? • What is the role of government?

  • What did the Founders think about this? What about subsequent generations of Americans?
  • What is the role of a president? Has this always been the case? What’s changed over time? •
  • What is the relationship between the president and Congress, between the President and citizens, etc.?

I’d like to contend to my students that only after they’ve thought through these things and made some tentative conclusions should they begin to examine the specific issues and the individual candidates. Every candidate makes promise after promise; every candidate says he or she will fix everything from the economy to education to healthcare. If you do not believe, however, that something is in the purview of the president, then these promises do not matter a whole lot. In fact, these promises, even those that sound lovely, may mean voting for someone else, someone who aligns better with your understanding of what a president should and should not do. If I can get students to think about the role of government first, specific issues second, and candidates last, I’d feel like I’d accomplished something.

The nice thing with a conversation like this, as opposed to a shouting match about Clinton v. Trump, is the fact that it does dovetail perfectly with the history of the United States. Americans throughout history have been debating what government should and should not do. Getting students to examine this election, or any election, in light of these historical arguments serves dual purposes. They learn something about the history of their country, and they learn how to enter into this longstanding dialogue over the role of government in society. They can begin to see connections between the past and the present.

After being asked about my own personal voting, the second most often heard comment in my classroom during major elections is along the following lines: If you don’t vote, you are not being a good citizen. With this particular election, I imagine I will hear something along the lines of this: If you don’t vote for Trump, that’s as if you voted for Clinton. Or vice versa. I think the best way to deal with these types of comments is for a little lesson on civic virtue. My students will know about civic virtue from our lessons on the American Revolution and the Early Republic, but they may need reminding. Civic virtue may include exercising one’s right to vote, but voting alone does not automatically confer on one civic virtue. A few questions for my students: •

  • What is a citizen versus a subject? What is a republic, and how is it different from a democracy?
  • What is civic virtue? How has it changed since the days of the Founding Fathers?
  • Does voting alone make someone a good citizen?
  • Does not voting in a given election or elections automatically make someone less virtuous in terms of civic virtue?
  • What happens when one’s principles conflict with the realities of a given election? Is it okay for one person to vote on principles without compromising and one to compromise? Is one of these people smarter or morally superior to the other?
  • Should someone be asked to vote against her conscience to help a candidate or party win an election?

I know what will happen when we start delving into these questions. Some student will invariably invoke the “Yes, but” argument. Yes, but this is a really, really important election. This election matters. Everyone has to vote. (This student almost invariably means that everyone has to vote so long as they are going to vote for the right candidate.) Yes, elections are important, and yes, this one seems particularly important…now. Only history will tell us how important. Speaking of history, here are some questions for my students to consider:

  • Which particular presidential elections have served as turning points in American history and how so?
  • Which elections seemed like they would be incredibly important at the time but actually changed very little?
  • What might have been different if Jefferson, Lincoln, LBJ, etc. had not been elected?
  • What might have been different if Stevenson, Willkie, Goldwater, etc, had been elected?

So there it is. My imperfect plan on how to teach amidst the 2016 presidential election. How many days until the election again?

Slowing Down to Win the Race

I’ve been doing preparation for this coming school year, and as I planned my first units, I started to fall into the trap I always fall into at the start of a new school year: starting the year off too fast.  Every single year since I’ve been in the classroom I rush through the first unit for some reason.  In my college prep courses, I rush through the unit on Reconstruction because it’s review from the 8th grade, or so I tell myself.  In my AP classes, I rush through the pre-1607 period because it’s not the focus of the AP exam, or so I tell myself.  I blaze through those first units to get to the “good” or “real” stuff of the course. By the time I get to my destination, however, I’ve set a tone for the course that I think is actually harming my classes more than helping them.

Putting myself in my students’ shoes, I think the message they receive in those first two weeks or so is that getting stuff done is more important than the process, answers are more important than questions, and content and facts are more important than skills and thinking.  This is definitely not what I believe, but I think it’s the message I’ve sent to my students at the start of every single school year.  Admitting that to myself makes me feel guilty and ashamed.  Is it any wonder that I and my students get frustrated one month into the school year as I try to change directions and essentially un-send all those previous messages?

I wrote in my last post about my students’ difficulties with paraphrasing and vocabulary development, and since writing that post, I’ve been looking about for various exercises to help my students with these two essential skills.  As I read through various articles and lesson plans, my initial reaction was to always worry about the time required.  I had to stop myself repeatedly from rejecting a lesson idea simply based on the time required. Everything in me wanted to figure out a way to cut the lessons in half; everything in me wanted to go, go, go. Somehow I made myself hit the pause button in my planning, which was a significant achievement in and of itself, I must say.  I stopped to consider what would happen if I tried to rush through teaching paraphrasing to my students, if I cut a legitimately effective lesson in half to save a class period or so.  I imagined what the work my students’ handed in would look like if I rushed the process.  I imagined having to either re-teach or (worse) move on without having met the standard.  It wasn’t what I wanted for them or for me.

I’ve gone back to the drawing board, and as I’ve done so, each day that I sit down to work on my first units of the new school year I remind myself to slow down.  As a result my unit on Reconstruction has grown from a mere 10 days to closer to 16 or so.  When I look at the quality of the unit, it’s grown as well.  The unit is a more accurate reflection of what I actually care about in terms of what I want my students to learn, in terms of the messages I want them to receive in those first few weeks of school that will carry us through the year.

All this planning will matter little, however, if I rush the actual experience come August.  I have to figure out a way to remind myself on a daily (hourly?) basis once the school year begins to slow down.  I’m considering actually taping up signs around my classroom that say, “Slow Down.”  I figure if I place them within my line of sight as I’m teaching it may help me to take my foot off the pedal.  Anyone have any other ideas?  I’m all ears.


Green Turtle Stencil with Sign Reading Just Slow Down Thomas Hawk Photo URL : http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/7884404756/





They Have No Words, Or What I Learned from This Year’s AP Reading

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and while I’d love to think that this post may be the start of regular ones to come, I’m not going to make any promises.  We’ll see how it goes.

During the first two weeks of June, I participated in the scoring of the short answer portion of the AP U.S. exam.  Luckily, I was able to do this from the comfort of my favorite armchair as ETS is moving towards scoring student responses online.  Being the homebody and introvert that I am, I mostly loved the convenience of this, although there were a few technical glitches on both ends.  Still, I much prefer online grading with the occasional slow Internet connection to flying to Louisville and staying in a hotel with someone I don’t know.

Anyway, the powers that be assigned me the short answer wherein students must read two passages by different historians interpreting the same historical events or people or ideas, etc. This year, the students read differing interpretations of the industrial giants of the late 19th century.  One historian interpreted these tycoons as robber barons and the other historian saw them as captains of industry.  All in all, it was pretty straightforward.  In parts (b) and (c) of the question, students had to use historical information to support the authors’ points of view, which was easy for the students who understood what the two passages were saying about the business leaders provided they had some knowledge of the period in their brains for the picking.  The problem for many students, however, started before parts (b) and (c) with part (a).  Here, even if students understood the passages, they had to prove this to the scorer by contrasting the two passages, explaining how the two historians’ interpretations differed.  Herein lies the problem because apparently (and I include my students in this) many, many students do not know how to paraphrase.

As we practiced these kinds of short answer prompts throughout the year, I noticed that my students wanted to simply quote key words or phrases from the passages without clear explanation, leaving it up to me to infer that they truly did understand the difference between the two passages simply from the words or phrases they chose to quote.  So a typical response might be along these lines:  Historian Joe Smith says industrial giants were “X” and “Y,” while historian Jane Smith says the industrial giants were “A” and “B.”  That’s it. That’s all they would write.  They would often then go on to provide excellent responses to (b) and (c), illustrating to me that they did indeed understand the differences between the two interpretations.  The fact remained, however, that they had not actually explained the differences in the two passages as required in part (a); instead, they’d strategically quoted hoping I’d meet them halfway, I guess.

So of course, my response to this was to disallow my students to quote from the documents and to require them to write a response “in your own words.”  Classic teacher response, I imagine.  And this helped…some of the time.  Still, the problem remained, and the problem seemed to be one for both my strongest and weakest students alike.  They could intuit the basic meaning of the two passages given the context and given the topic, but they struggled to fully explain the major differences in their own words.

After reading nearly 1,500 student responses over the course of 5 days, I can now safely say this is not a problem for just my students.  Explaining or paraphrasing what they have read appears to be a problem across the board even for those students who comprehend what they have read.  I think that last part is the most important part for me.  We tend to think that if a student understands what they have read they will be able to put the main ideas into their own words; if they can’t do this, then they must not have understood or not understood enough.  But this is not what I’ve found with my own students, and it’s not what my experience with the AP Reading suggests.  Plenty of students were able to get credit for parts (b) and (c) but not (a).  This should tell us something.  The deficiency in part seems to be the result of a weak vocabulary.  The students have no words.

Earlier this year I worked with a committee at my school dealing with vocabulary development, and one of the English teachers on the committee confirmed this very thing.  She related how when she helps students write papers the main problem is one of vocabulary.  They have to write a given amount, but because they’ve already used all the words they know by the end of page 2, they struggle to write enough or provide enough explanation.  They end up with highly repetitive papers with little explanation, and at the heart of the matter, according to this teacher, is the fact that the students have no words with which to write.

I really do not know what the answer is to this problem, but I suspect the truest answer is both the simplest and the most difficult: more reading and more writing.  In the meantime, while I try to work in more of these two staples, I am going to go one step further this year.  When we practice these kinds of short answer prompts this year, not only will I require students to write in their own words, but to make sure they do so, I will be underlining all the key words in the passages that they absolutely may not use in their response.  In theory, this will force their hand and make them dig deep for synonyms. Hopefully, they will finally find the words.