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 is the podcast (38 minutes)
This is the TV interview (8 minutes)
There are many versions of the song being played at the Derby, this is one for class