[NOTE: In a previous post, I introduced the “Lecture-Discussion” conundrum, the pedagogical approach favored by the prep school history department that had hired me. What did “Lecture-Discussion” mean, as a way to impart information to adolescents? I firmly believed, as I told my classes every year, that “History was a subject for thinking people,” so “discussion” must encourage my students to develop the skill of historical reflection, not simply privilege the facility to provide rote answers to leading questions.]
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One “invitation to reflection” I began using was a “History Journal.” At first, I required journals in all my classes, but eventually I only used them regularly with my seniors. [I’ll discuss efforts to encourage reflection in younger students in another post.] About once a week, I put a topic—titled, numbered, and dated—on the board. The question could be directly related to the assigned reading; use the material as a springboard for something more imaginative; or perhaps trace a “current event” over several months.
The seniors in Advanced Placement United States History proved capable of writing a pretty thoughtful page or so on most occasions, and our discussions as a result could be quite interesting. I even discovered that they did not mind doing more than one journal entry a week, if the topics were provocative. I kept a record of the topics assigned and noted any that worked particularly well. I allowed between 15 and 20 minutes to write, wrote along with my APUSH students, and then we discussed the topic. Once every five weeks or so, I had them select what they thought were their best three entries (i.e., the most complete, most reflective, or, in some cases, admittedly, the only ones they had), and turn them in for a grade. Besides affording the obvious opportunity to hone writing skills, these assignments also served to build more time into our courses for reflection. Here are a few examples:
AP U.S. History (Grade 12)
1. “Bias”—what biases do you bring to the study of American History?
2. “A Sin of Omission?”—our text’s only reference to the Salem witchcraft trials is in the chapter-ending chronology (p.146). Why do you suppose the authors chose to give only minimal attention to the events at Salem, while the authors of our supplementary text [Davidson and Lytle, After the Fact] devoted a long chapter to them?
3. “Photo Op”—according to After the Fact, photographs “must be read by historians as they do all evidence—appreciating the messages that may be simple and obvious or complex and elusive.” Keeping this in mind, “read” the photo on the cover of Volume II of our main text [Bernard Bailyn, et al., The Great Republic]. HINT: the picture was selected for the cover of a book treating American History from the end of the Civil War through the 1980s.
4. “Imperialism—Dewey or Don’t We?”— discuss the nature and sources of American imperialism, using the excerpts from Sen. Albert Beveridge’s speech, “The March of the Flag.”
5. “Picturing 1950s Culture”—using one of the pictures on pp.482, 483, 484, 488 of our main text, reflect in your journal on what the photo shows or suggests about the culture of the 1950s.
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When I revamped a one-semester senior elective course, The History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement, I assigned, not a journal, but a series of “reflection” assignments based on reading, videos, or current events. These, too, proved to be quite useful in stimulating the habit of historical reflections in my students. Consider the following examples:
Selected Civil Rights Reflections (Grades 11-12)
1. “Jim Crow Blues”—according to Leon Litwack [in an article, “Jim Crow Blues,” published in The Organization of American Historians Magazine of History], what were the “rules” of Jim Crow, and how were those rules enforced by whites?
2. “What’s in a Name?”—read Leon Litwack’s analysis of the debate among African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries over what to call themselves [in Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, pp.457-463], then reflect on why that issue seemed so important at the time.
3. “Betty Jo”—on p.65, Melton McLaurin [in Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South] refers to interracial sex as “both the ultimate temptation and the ultimate taboo, a symbol of both the reality and the futility of segregation.” How does this chapter support that description?
4. “Exiles”—read “Exiles from a city and from a nation” [an op-ed]. In Cornell West’s opinion, what has Hurricane Katrina revealed about the current state of civil rights in the U.S.? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
5. “Going to Chicago”—when African Americans began leaving Mississippi during and after World War I, why did they go in such large numbers to Chicago?
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Another technique I trotted out, and used only with seniors, was one I observed a colleague use several times during my years as department head. I called it a “Quaker meeting discussion,” because students were encouraged to speak only “when the spirit moved them,” at least in theory. I wrote a question on the board related to the day’s reading; then I told the class that I wanted them to discuss it, without any help from me—and contribute only when and if they felt they had anything to say. I generally gave each class 10-15 minutes to review the reading and think about how they might respond to the question.
Once the discussion began, my only task was to listen—hard!—taking notes all along. (Not surprisingly, this was the most difficult part for me—why couldn’t I simply be the “Sage on the Stage”?) After the kids had their say and things began to flag, or if the discussion either went nowhere or headed off in the “wrong” direction, I called time. Next, I commented on what I’d heard, tried to point out any egregious errors of fact, and attempted either to bring closure or come up with a segue that got us back into the “normal” discussion mode.
The seniors seemed to take to this approach readily, and the discussions they conducted were fun to watch and to critique. The topic was key here, but so, too, were the ground rules I insisted upon: civility; the need for as many people as possible to contribute (I told them I hoped everyone would feel moved to participate at least once during each discussion); and, especially, the importance of having someone who was willing to intervene, to pull a meandering discussion back on track or if one student seemed to be dominating the proceedings. This last rule caused far less trouble than I had expected; in fact, in each of my classes it produced an ad hoc discussion “leader/guide” who usually was a surprise to me, based on that person’s theretofore minimal contributions to our more run-of-the-mill discussions. I kept a record of the topics selected for these discussions and noted in some detail how things went in each class. Here are some of the questions I used:
Selected “Quaker Meeting Discussion Topics” (AP U.S. History, Grade 12)
1. According to After the Fact, “To live in society means to exist under the domination of society’s logic.” 1) What does this mean? 2) How does it apply to: a) the study of History in general; and b) the study of the history of colonial Virginia in particular?
2. To what extent does the following dictionary definition accurately describe the Declaration of Independence? “Propaganda—any systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of particular ideas, doctrines, practices, etc., to further one’s own cause or to damage an opposing one.”
3. “If [Benjamin] Franklin had never existed, it would have been necessary for the philosophers of the Enlightenment to invent him.” (Great Republic, I, p.204) Comment.
4. To what extent did the “search for order” affect American politics (local, state, national) in the late 19th century?
5. “Reel Life v. Real Life”—according to After the Fact, p.427, the “myth of American exceptionalism” is the idea that “Americans are more virtuous, thanks to their special circumstances.” How—and how well—do the authors link this myth to a) films about the Vietnam War; and b) to the real-life events at My Lai?
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In addition to these methods for stimulating student reflection and class discussion, I listed on the board key names, dates, and events important in the assigned reading. This was a daily practice in APUSH (which, of course, ended in a standardized exam supposedly modeled on the sort of comprehensive test used in college courses). I also tried to make videos a more interactive teaching tool, linking them to journal or “Quaker Meeting” discussion topics or perhaps asking a class to look for, and take notes on, what they were viewing, then be prepared to discuss specific things at the end of the video.
I still did some “lecturing” in my senior classes, but these sops to the “Sage on the Stage” mentality were infrequent. In APUSH, for instance, I held forth on the concept of “republicanism” in the first semester. Moreover, no year was complete without talks on the “Birth of the Blues,” as a manifestation of African American culture during the “Age of Jim Crow,” and “Growing Up With Vietnam” as a way to tie together several important threads in post-World War II America. I also employed the “Birth of the Blues” and “Age of Jim Crow” talks in the Civil Rights course, along with an analysis of “The New South Creed” [Paul Gaston]; a broad treatment of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of “Jim Crow”; and an interpretation of the modern Civil Rights Movement as “The Second Reconstruction.”
Not only did this emphasis on discussion and reflection, supported when necessary by some form of “lecture,” buttress the History Department’s insistence that discussion should be central to all of our courses, but it also required students to take a more active part in class by listening, taking notes, answering (and asking) questions, and making comments. Once the students realized that I meant what I said, they adjusted, and I believe they derived more benefit from both written reflection and active participation in class discussions than from the passive approach many of them might initially have expected.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: