Pushing discussion

As the lead historian for a Teaching American History grant in its last year, I thought I would add a few comments throughout 2013-2014 about the program in general and this specific grant project.  Memorializing Promise and Conflict is the theme for this project which began in the fall of 2010 by taking history/social studies teachers (and others from a variety of specialties) on a journey through recent American history, 1950-the 2000s.  When the Teaching American History grant program was sponsored over a decade ago by the late Senator Robert Byrd, the goal was to raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge, understandings, and appreciation of American history.  Could knowledge be sufficient for raising student achievement?  Not necessarily, argues long time social studies educator and University of Michigan professor of American history Bob Bain.

Knowledge, in the hands of teachers, is a part of the equation, but effective instructors also need to figure out methods for getting students to understand a little bit more about an historical era, while also learning how to help their students focus attention on historical arguments, problems, the use of evidence, etc.  The grants have, over the years, afforded teachers the chance to expand their knowledge base.  Our program, over the past three years, has also attempted to get teachers thinking differently about how they engage with information.  In each year of Memorializing Promise and Conflict grant, the organizers have moved the study of American history backwards in time at least fifty years – last year, participants focused on 1850-1900 with special attention paid to the American Civil War and Reconstruction era.

For the improving knowledge portion of our program, this particular grant combined book discussions with content and methodology workshops and travel to historic sites.  Over the last year, participants traveled to Boston examining the city of African American citizens and construction conducted in the Civil War and Gilded Age era, as well as visits to the Springfield Armory and Civil War battlefields in Virginia and Pennsylvania.  We had workshops on visual culture of the nineteenth century and writing book reviews, as well as a fantastic seminar from Ohio’s “Creative Learning Factory” (Molly Uline-Olmstead).  In addition we read a wide array of books (novels and history monographs) that grappled with topics ranging from reconsiderations of the Chinese Exclusion Act to changes in how Americans faced death.

The readings, the travel, and the workshops certainly extended teachers’ knowledge of the time period under question and our pre/post assessments indicate this fact clearly.  As to improving the student achievement, I would suggest the jury is still out on the Teaching American History grant program as a whole and certainly is a question for our group too.  I confess to not having an understanding as to how we might guarantee increased student achievement in history as student achievement and knowledge is at least two steps removed from our programs.  I am hoping to use these pages and reflections on the experience this year in an attempt to establish some methodology for determining that possibility.

In year four, Memorializing Promise and Conflict examines the years 1750-1850ish in American history.  Central to our intent, we hope to continue asking questions about how Americans remember the past – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  We have tried to plan a year that explores how Americans create memorials to both promising change and, at times devastating conflict.  As in past years, we will combine workshops with travel and book discussion in our efforts to, in the words of Bob Bain, extend, support, and challenge our teaching of this era in American history.

In the early going this year, participants have journeyed to the Noble Cooley drum factory in nearby Granville, MA and learned about the nature of manufacturing in a rural environment, met with the aforementioned Bob Bain to workshop history as literacy, and we have started our first examination of a discreet topic in the reading of  Ronald Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860, the revised edition.  This coming Tuesday, participants will focus on the era of nineteenth century American reform, partially to help set the stage for our trip to Eastern State Penitentiary (itself a product of this era of reform).  We’ll be discussing Walter’s work in general but also with the aid of some of these questions:

  • Describe how this text presents its information.  Does Walters’ structure help emphasize key points?
  • What problems does Walters believe existed in earlier discussions of histories of American reform?
  • How might authors’ differing points of view on reform be evaluated?
  • As is the case with many books of this nature, Walters is providing synthesis more than primary source analysis.  Why are such works necessary and helpful for students of history?
  • Why does Walters believe that some reformers were ambivalent about politics?  What claims or evidence does Walters include to support this assertion?
  • Describe some of the reasons identified by Walters which explain the diverse outburst of reform energy in the nineteenth century.
  • Cite specific textual evidence that support the main points of Walters’ analysis.
  • American reformers seemed to believe that individuals could “fix” the United States.  Was this belief “radical?” Why or why not?
  • Was the United States, as some reformers believed, “ailing?” Why or why not?
  • Identify some of the major transformations in antebellum society as described by Walters.
  • Where (geographically) were most efforts to reform and improve society taking place?
  • What role did women play in these efforts and what did women accomplish in the way of changing society?

After our discussion on Tuesday, I’ll add a postscript to see how we’re moving towards our goals of improving teachers’ knowledge and the possibility of increasing student achievement as a corollary.

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