James Madison’s Death

I’m more than fortunate to be at the James Madison Seminar in Teaching American History at Princeton University. In the second of a three year program, several teachers from my school and many others from northern New Jersey schools enjoy the Hogwarts ambiance of Princeton and immerse ourselves in the thick content of our discipline. This history teacher’s geektopia is made possible by a federal grant designed to “raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge and understanding of and appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” The James Madison Seminar’s program seems well-tuned to meet the goals of “traditional”, through a foot-and-a-half high stack of readings, and an assembly of wicked-smart professors providing mornings of lecture and afternoons of discussion.

Last year’s emphasis on the early American republic focused on Constitutional history, yet was also leavened by a cultural emphasis on period music and architecture, complete with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and colonial mansions along the Schuylkill river. This year we are digging through antebellum politics, the system of slavery and the philosophic foundations of the secession crisis. Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document, or did the founders (as Lincoln insisted) mark the institution for eventual extinction with an anti-slavery Constitution? Were Republicans returning to the original intent of the Constitution in 1860 or were they revolutionaries that brought on the Civil War? Sifting through each of the nine opinions written by justices in the Dred Scott case and dissecting South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes against Lincoln’s first inaugural is not for the timid. It’s not easy to wrap one’s mind around the idea that there is a logical argument to be made for the spreading of slavery into the west in an effort to end slavery. (Look at the dates of state abolition of slavery in the north and you will find that the states with the lowest percentage of slaves ended slavery first. The math is simple, the less slaves in a state, the easier it was to end slavery so it makes sense to diffuse slaves across the continent by allowing slavery in the west).

The participants in this program assiduously complete the readings and are focused in the lectures and discussions, exploding the content knowledge behind the instruction provided to thousands of students. Yet, as good as this sounds, the James Madison Seminar was not approved to continue on the grant beyond our class’s final session next year. Although the directors seem bewildered that such a well-respected program was discontinued, I would bet that they were not approved because of the word “lecture”. If they threw words like “collaboration” and “emergent technologies” on their grant application they would have made it. We were told that the Department of Education would want to test our students to assess the success of this program. Translated, this means, “we are going to give your students multiple choice questions to see if they know and have appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” Do you catch just a hint of personality disorder in this? The DOE doesn’t want lecture because that old school rote memorization is out of vogue, but they will test based on just the type of knowledge lecture promotes.

I’m fairly certain that most students would be ill-served if they were expected to process history at this content level. Some could perhaps handle the factual retention necessary, but the complexity of relationships and amorphous, gray areas between one idea and the next are quite beyond their ability. This content knowledge improves our teaching by reinforcing the foundation of our curriculum design, but we should not simply project that content onto our students. In fact, we should use our expanded content knowledge to better judge what to cut. The reading comprehension skills built by comparing South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes and Lincoln’s First Inaugural will serve our students better than the memorization of the British Acts of Parliament preceding the Revolution.

James Madison’s demise is indeed unfortunate, but not for obvious reasons.

That’s Entertainment?

“We have to cut through that cloud of information around them, cut through that media, and capture their attention.”

I’m hardly the only teacher playing music and videos as students come into class, but here are some examples and my rationale for doing so.

As students leave their previous classes and come to yours, they have to transition into the working atmosphere of your room. You need to get Spanish, math, science, and the sweat from gym class out of their heads to start clean in history. It doesn’t matter if you are a “meet and great” teacher standing at the door and trading banter with kids in the hall, or distributing homework and answering questions, it only takes a click to introduce students to the time period they are studying and subject of the lesson. Try this…..

YouTube Video – The Lego French Revolution (3:18)

Gimmick: Lego animation played with the music to Allen Sherman’s “You’ve Gone the Wrong Way Old King Louie”

Education Value: Not really, its just funny. We laugh at king Louie getting shortened “a little bit” and a guillotine made out of Legos.

Payoff: Every student is in their seat, they’ve forgotten all the gossip they just learned in the hall and they know they have to start dealing with the French Revolution.

TeacherTube Video – Cow Model Of Economics (4:17)

Gimmick: Just white text on black background set to the Beatles, “Hey Jude”. Each slide a variation of analogy of the dairy farmer’s cows to explain different economic systems.

Education Value: Not much, but some. You can make the link to the idea of “scarcity” which makes economic systems necessary.

Payoff: Music always sets a tone, and you may be adding to their cultural literacy by playing the Beatles. Keep in mind, we are not taking any class time to do this.

YouTube Video – opening credits “The Kingdom” (3:49)

Gimmick: High-def video in a torrent of outrageous graphics and historical footage, set against music and snippets of news reports.

Education Value: Students do not know about the little-acknowledged intimacy between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Now they will. They will also get ideas of how to use images to communicate, which they are required to do in an upcoming authentic assessment.

Payoff: Universal Pictures had to explain 80 years of middle eastern history in four minutes while keeping a modern American audience in their seats. Your students will be in theirs at the sound of the bell, guaranteed. Just as guaranteed are several questions about the middle east. How many times have you started a history class with the students asking questions that they wanted to know the answers to?

YouTube Video – Wizard of Oz/Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of The Rainbow

Gimmick: Capitalizing on the spooky convergence of Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon” and the 1939 film “Wizard of Oz”.

Education Value: This only works for a US History lesson using the American Quarterly’s 1964 article by Henry M. Littlefield “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism“. The gist is that Frank Baum used the children’s story as a metaphor to explain the political, social and economic conditions of the Gilded Age. So students are given selected quotes from the original book and asked to identify who in the book was William Jennings Bryan, the farmers, the eastern city factory workers, etc.

Payoff: Compare the odds that Pink Floyd’s 1973 music was designed to synch with the 1939 movie against the odds that the 1900 book was designed to synch with 1890s America.

Teacher made slide show of Industrial Age/Information Age Quotes (7:11)

Gimmick: Series of quotes from Bill Gates’ famous “640k ought to be enough for anybody” to Ken Olson’s There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” played with Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine”.

Education Value: This leads to single question to start a class introducing the Industrial Revolution unit, “What do these quotes teach us?”

Payoff: You are stealing students’ class changing time and they don’t even know it. The prompts are the quotes, and the music and mood are just part of the teaser.

Teacher made slide show of 1920s pictures(7:11)

Gimmick: Slide show of images including Houdini, Ruth, Lindbergh, Clara Bow along with Model T’s, gangsters, flappers and radios set against a recording of “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic” by Clarence Williams and His Jazz Kings. You can get this music from Dismuke’s Virtual Talking Machine.

Education Value: Not much more than setting the mood, but you may find more than a couple students talking about the 1920s before the bell rings.

Payoff: The Twenties were the first decade with an identifiable “mood”. What makes this period “The Roaring Twenties”? Again – another class discussion based on prompts the students received before class started.

There are many things to play just for cultural literacy’s sake. Will this generation ever see Gene Kelly singing in the rain or Fred Astaire dance with a hat rack? Can they figure out how Busby Berkley helped some people forget about the Great Depression for just a little while?

Can they appreciate how Lyndon Johnson felt when he lost Walter Conkite? Can they appreciate how Archie Bunker felt when he was kissed by Sammy Davis Junior?

I hope that many of you can add to this list, there must be a ton of these out there.