Wonderfully Horrible

Here’s why teaching history is so wonderfully horrible.

First thing in the morning at work and you’re doing a quick 2 minute scroll through Twitter to catch comments on the latest news and read what history writers, scholars and teachers are talking about and sharing.  You see a teacher has shared a NY Times book review about a just-published book on the song “My Old Kentucky Home” which reads beautifully, describing the way the book explores the history of a split-personality song that exposes our difficulty compromising the reality of slavery with the heartfelt nostalgia of a southern past that ignores it.  

Perfect timing, the Wednesday before the first Saturday in May, when the Kentucky Derby will bring the song beloved by many Kentuckians to the rest of America again.  

This is just some of what you read….

As the beautiful racehorses stomp and shy toward the starting gate, a marching band sounds across the storied turf of Churchill Downs and 150,000 rise to sing a song about a slave torn from his wife and children and sold downriver to Louisiana, into an even deeper hell. And they begin to weep, a lot of them, not because of the evils of chattel slavery, but because that old song, its lyrics and very meaning altered and whitewashed over time, is such a part of their sense of place, of home, that they hear something else. People who love the song say there is, in that moment, a kind of serenity, a sweet longing for something lost over the passing years, even if they cannot put into words what that something is.

Adding the book to your reading list is easy.  Done.  Resisting the urge to search for more about the author?  Nope, not possible, so that’s done also.  

Now your two minute scroll through Twitter is complimented by ten minutes reading through a transcript of the book’s author interviewed on a podcast while listening to her interviewed on a local Louisville TV station.  You see that she has many materials on her website, including a dozen different versions of the lyrics of the song, one of which was “officially” adopted by the Kentucky State Assembly in 1986.  And of course this ends with watching and listening to the song performed at the 2016 Derby, complete with beautiful horses, big hats and tears – and total disregard for the evil the song both described and ignored itself.

This is the seed of a perfect US History lesson because it starts with something seemingly innocuous – just a song.  Most of your students have never heard of it and only a few have ever seen the Kentucky Derby. That doesn’t hurt the lesson, it helps it.  You can craft a quick two minute introduction to the race, rattling off highlights from over a hundred years of viewing, wagering and partying.  Make sure to include a couple dozen social media pics of outrageous outfits, references to the storied past of the Kentucky Derby, and of course the greatest athlete of all time, Secretariat. Ending the intro with the two minute video of the song being played before the race caps the introduction. They’ll all be hooked. Perfect.

Then of course the planning gets messy.  Do you have students listen to the author’s interview by the local TV station or the longer podcast?  Do you set them loose on the dozen different versions of lyrics as a “free-range” primary document exercise for ten minutes, then develop a short set of questions to fuel a 15 minute round of research to end the lesson with a whole-class discussion of what everyone has found?  Do you search for an article of the right length that balances scholarly value with reading level accessible language that explores slavery, the song and the reverance for southern nostalgia in the history of the song?  Do you do all the research yourself to get information, stories and asides to then slap together a perfect set of slides for direct instruction to be followed by whole-class discussion?

What do we have to know about this one song and its history to make sense of our country today?

So much potential and so little time.  Wonderfully horrible.


If you want to go through this yourself

The book is My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song

The author is Emily Bingham

This was the Tweet

This is the NY Times Review 

This is the podcast (38 minutes)

This is the TV interview (8 minutes)

These are different adaptations of the lyrics

There are many versions of the song being played at the Derby, this is one for class

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Choosing Primary Documents on Purpose

I was introduced to E. H. Carr’s What is History in graduate school in the early 90s and have read through it at least four times since then. Carr’s assertion that “the facts speak on when the historian calls on them” applies to teachers as well. We decide who make the cut and who doesn’t.

Our summer planning, deliberate and comprehensive with the luxury of time, allows us to make thoughtful choices among Crispus Attucks, Christopher Seider or Andrew Oliver in the Revolutionary War unit, or between Claudette Colvin or Rosa Parks when teaching about Civil Rights. Summer planning fades by October when these decisions are made on Sunday afternoons and the luxury of contemplation is gone. It’s all but evaporated by December when we hope to get to school early enough to decide between Zachary Taylor and the Donnor Party. Anyone who thinks you can do all of these has never had to complete a US History course in just one year, hoping to free the slaves by winter break so you can land on the moon by spring break.

All of these instructional choices will shape our students’ understanding of that period of history. But the vast majority of the history people’s lives remain hidden in the past, silent and unknown. If we gave the implications of our decisions the full weight of their responsibility, we’d be paralyzed.

It’s too easy to use last year’s lesson, or the great idea you picked up at a conference. You only have so much time, you have to keep up with the course schedule and you can’t totally ignore state standards. Most instructional choices are made of necessity. The vast majority of the documents, stories, lessons and history that make the cut into public school history classrooms have been there before. In fact, they’ve been their forever.

Take the Mayflower Compact for example. It is in dozens of state standards, textbooks and curriculum guides. It’s on pinterest, teacherspayteachers and every Social Studies department’s shared Google Drive. Most often it appears in a primary document analysis lesson that hopes students will be able to draw conclusions about colonial society in New England or at least genuflect for the first written declaration of self-government in the colonies. But what does the Compact really teach about the colonial society of New England?

Imagine how different colonial society looks when viewed through the lens of the Records of the governor and company of the Massachusetts bay in New England?

The signatories of the Mayflower Compact committed themselves to frame “just and equal laws”, yet just a few years later they were whipping people and cutting their ears off for what they said. Phillip Ratliffe was closed to history, one of Carr’s uncalled-upon facts. But with a couple clicks he can be brought into the classroom and put in front of students to reconsider their understanding of colonial society in New England.

The question is – does he make the cut?