Middle School 2008 vs. Middle School 2018

Cell Phone

Brian Conlan, a public school teacher, has written an important piece about social media in schools.  It is part of a larger campaign to limit smartphone use among kids.  Here is a taste:

Let’s imagine a seventh grader. He’s a quiet kid, polite, with a few friends. Just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill twelve-year-old. We’ll call him Brian. Brian’s halfway through seventh grade and for the first time, he’s starting to wonder where he falls in the social hierarchy at school. He’s thinking about his clothes a little bit, his shoes too. He’s conscious of how others perceive him, but he’s not that conscious of it. 

He goes home each day and from the hours of 3 p.m. to 7 a.m., he has a break from the social pressures of middle school. Most evenings, he doesn’t have a care in the world. The year is 2008. 

Brian has a cell phone, but it’s off most of the time. After all, it doesn’t do much. If friends want to get in touch, they call the house. The only time large groups of seventh graders come together is at school dances. If Brian feels uncomfortable with that, he can skip the dance. He can talk to teachers about day-to-day problems. Teachers have pretty good control over what happens at school.

Now, let’s imagine Brian on a typical weekday. He goes downstairs and has breakfast with his family. His mom is already at work, but his dad and sisters are there. They talk to each other over bowls of cereal. The kids head off to school soon after. Brian has a fine morning in his seventh grade classroom and walks down to the lunchroom at precisely 12 p.m.

Read the rest here.

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

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Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

A Day at Boston Trinity Academy

BTA students

I don’t think there are many places in the country like Boston Trinity Academy (BTA).

Located in the Hyde Park section of Boston, BTA is:

  1. A very strong private school (grades 6-12) that consistently sends its graduates to some of the top colleges and universities in the country.
  2. A school with a faculty loaded with Ph.Ds and M.A.s who are deeply committed to excellence in the humanities and liberal arts.
  3. A school with a strong sense of mission rooted in a broad and generous evangelical Christian faith and the integration of faith and learning.
  4. A school with a diverse urban student population that is 34% white, 30% black, 19% Asian, and 10% Hispanic.

This blend of academic excellence, Christian commitment, and racial and ethnic diversity makes BTA unique.  More people need to know what is happening at this school!

In May 2014, I delivered the commencement address at BTA.  Yesterday, I was back in Boston to help the school launch its 2018 J-Term week.  Each January, BTA spends an entire week exploring a particular place in the world.  This year the theme was “Rural America.”  Students enrolled in special seminars with titles like:

“Jug Bands of the Early Southern United States”

“Poverty and Opportunity in Appalachia”

“Rust Belt Realities”

“Life at the Border”

“Black Odyssey: The Great Migration & African American Rural Narratives”

“Wampanoag and Eastern Woodlands Nations”

“Musical History of Appalachia: Roots and Rhythms”

“Race, Reconciliation, Awareness: The Rural Urban Divide”

“Environmental Issues Across the American Farmland.”

Students also spend time during J-Term working on projects related to rural America.  In my wanderings through the classrooms I saw students working on Amish quilts, playing Jazz music, studying literary narratives of rural America, and exploring rural America through popular culture.

From the moment I entered the building at 7:30am on Tuesday morning I felt the energy of students fully engaged in their education.  Frankly, I was a bit jealous that my own girls could not attend a school like this.

BTA

I was there to help BTA kick off its J-Term with a plenary chapel talk on rural America.  (I will post my 15-minute talk later today–stay tuned).  I also taught two seminars on the history of rural America.  Throughout the day, I participated in conversations about my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my 2011 book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

In Fall 2017, American history teacher Dr. Mike Milway assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to his senior students.  The students spent five or six class periods dissecting my argument and their Fall exam required them to write a 2-hour book review.  Needless to say, they knew the text very well and challenged me with a variety of questions and critiques.  I was flattered, exhilarated, humbled, and frankly in awe of the their level of engagement.

Thanks so much to Frank Guerra, Tim Belk, Judy Oulund, and especially Terri Elliott-Hart for bringing me to BTA!  (And it was also great to meet math teacher Shelby Haras, a member of the Messiah College class of 2013!).

AHA 2018 Dispatch: The K-16 Teaching Charrette

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Middle school history teacher Zach Cote checks in with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington D.C.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2018 posts here.  -JF

In my previous post, I noted that this year’s AHA sessions lean more heavily toward teaching.  In this post, I want to expand a bit more on this.

Teachers often live in bubbles–the classroom, the department, and even the school district’s social studies program.  On Friday morning, I attended the K-16 assignment charrette. My bubble was burst. In the charrette, about eight educators analyzed, critiqued, and questioned each other’s lesson plans. The participants came from diverse classroom contexts, ranging from the middle school level to the university.

I brought a DBQ (Document-Based Question) essay on the Civil War that I give to my students.  I was hoping to receive some minor feedback on how I could tweak it to make it stronger. Instead, I listened as a circle of people much smarter than I am asked dozens of questions related to my desired outcomes, my students’ prior knowledge of the subject, the assignment’s format, my reasoning for using certain sources and for focusing on certain standards, and many more. My pen, unfortunately, was moving slower than my brain, but I did the best that I could to write everything down for later reflection.

In the process, I realized that good historians ask good questions.  Each person listened to one another’s contextualization and explanation of their lessons.  They then built questions to help shape a conversation. The whole process showcased the art of historical thinking. They were trying to not simply understand what the assignment did, but what each teacher was trying to reveal to his or her students through it. Strong feedback did not start with a suggestion or an answer, but with a question.

I thus began to ask new questions about what I wanted my students to accomplish and achieve.  I thought more deeply about  how to situate the lesson as part of my broader course goals. I now expect to tweak the wording of the DBQ question to prompt my students to see more contention between the sources. I am going to rewrite the questions that accompany the documents so that they focus on what the documents reveal, rather than simply what they say.  I also hope to draft a new rubric that marries my district’s common core standards to the historical thinking skills that should be at the heart of our pedagogy.  These changes will give this assignment new life, something that I honestly was not expecting from the workshop.

With that in mind, treat this post as a call to action. I strongly encourage anyone who teaches history, regardless of grade or age, to participate in this workshop next year. You will be a better teacher for it, and most importantly, your students will be better learners.

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 1

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The Gilder-Lehrman 2017 Princeton Seminar on colonial America is underway!

Last night we held our opening dinner with the teachers.  A few teachers had some difficulties with flights, but everyone is now here and settled into their rooms on the Princeton University campus.  This year we have 35 history teachers representing 20 states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhoda Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

My partner-in-crime Nate McAlister (did I mention he was National History of the Year in 2010?) got the teachers started on a gargoyle scavenger hunt on the Princeton campus. We also took a brief tour of the eighteenth-century campus.  All of the attendees read The Way of Improvement Leads Home and seem eager to see sites related to Philip VIckers Fithian.

The teachers will be busy this week. In addition to morning lectures on colonial America and afternoon sessions on interpreting primary sources, we will be spending the entire day on Wednesday touring colonial Philadelphia with LaSalle University public historian and tour guide extraordinaire George Boudreau.

On Monday afternoon we will be teaming-up with the Historical Society of Princeton for a tour of early American Princeton. On Thursday afternoon we will spend a couple of hours with a rare book librarian from Princeton University’s Firestone Library.  I have asked the librarian to pull first editions of every book Fithian read during his short life and most of the books I will discuss in morning lectures.  This is always one the highlights of the week.  Finally, we are hoping to spend some time at the Princeton cemetery where the teachers will get a chance to visit the grace of Aaron Burr Jr., Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, and others.

It is going to be a great week!  Stay tuned for updates.  Check out pics at @princetonsemnr

It’s Not The “Teaching American History” Grants, But It Is Something

Here are the details from The National Coalition for History:

Federal Funding Opportunity for K-12 History and Civics Grants Announced

Federal Competitive Grant funding is now available for K-12 History and Civics Education professional development! The US Department of Education has published a Federal Register Notice announcing the grant competition for the National Activities grants we successfully advocated for in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Click here to read the Federal Register Notice.

NOTE: The timing on this is tight! For those wishing to apply for funding please note the following:

The deadline on notice to apply is August 10th (this entails you telling the US Department of Education you intend to apply).

The Department of Education will host a pre-application webinar to provide technical assistance to interested applicants on July 18, 2017-next Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. eastern time. To join the webinar please go to the event address: at https://educateevents.webex.com/educateevents/onstage/g.php?MTID=e0ff2dd5c36144d0f8e4ba71d69d03484.

The deadline to submit applications is August 21st.

For further information contact: Christine Miller, U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Avenue SW., Room 4W205, Washington, DC 20202–5960. Or by email: 

Christine.Miller@ed.govDetails about the K-12 History and Civics National Activities Grants Program (click here):

The new program is designed to promote innovative instruction, learning strategies, and professional development in American history, civics and government, and geography, with an emphasis on activities and programs that benefit low-income students and underserved populations.

This is the first year the new grants program received funding from Congress. It is expected the grants will be awarded in October 2017. The estimated amount of available funds for FY 17 is $1,700,000. Contingent upon the availability of funds and the quality of applications, the Department of Education may make additional awards in subsequent years from the list of unfunded applications from this competition. The estimated range of awards is $200,000–$700,000 per year and the estimated average size of awards is $500,000 per year. The estimated number of awards is 2–7. The project period is up to three years, with renewal of up two additional years if the grantee demonstrates to the Secretary that the grantee is effectively using funds.

 

What Does the Trump Budget Mean for Civics, History, Archives, and Education?

make-america-great-againThe National Coalition for History sums it up pretty well:

On May 23, President Trump sent his proposed fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request to Congress.  As expected, it includes devastating cuts to federal history and humanities funding including elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and K-12 history and civics grants and Title VI/Fulbright-Hays international education programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Click here for a link to a chart summarizing the proposed budget for these and other federal history-related programs. There will be an in-depth agency-by-agency analysis posted on the NCH website shortly.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Funded a Seminar for K-12 Teachers on the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama

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Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

In 2016 K-12 teachers from all over the country came to Birmingham for a week-long intensive course on the Civil Rights Movement.  The seminar was titled “Stony the Road We Trod: Alabama’s Role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement.”

Here is a taste of what the teachers experienced:

The “Stony . . .” Workshop offers a unique opportunity for educators to participate in an in-depth, one-week, interactive field study of the Modern Civil Rights Movement and the pivotal role that Alabama played in making the promises of the U.S Constitution a greater reality for more Americans.  Teachers will trace the role of protest in American history as a tool used to obtain civil liberties and civil rights by examining Alabama’s pivotal role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham will serve as the host city for this series of Workshops which include travel to Selma, Montgomery, and Tuskegee – all key “battleground” sites in the struggle for civil rights…

As the nation remembers the events that took place in Alabama during the 1960s, it is most fitting that school teachers come here to study the events of the Modern Civil Rights Movement and examine how events here changed the world. Landmarks of industry, faith, social and cultural clashes dot the landscape.  To fully understand the background and accomplishments of the civil rights movement one must examine the economic, social, political, cultural, and judicial institutions that crafted Jim Crow and set the nation on a course with destiny that erupted on a bus in Montgomery, climaxed in the streets of Birmingham, and set a course for the Alabama State Capitol via a bridge in Selma.

Participants will better understand the who, what, how, where, and why of the important events in Alabama that forced African American leaders to take their struggle for freedom and equality out of the church and social settings where they talked, planned, and strategized about how to “fix the broken systems” and into the streets so that the entire world could see what it meant to live life as a “second class citizen” in the land of justice, freedom, equality, and opportunity.

Learn more here.

Here is a video summarizing the program:

For other posts in this series click here.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Martin Luther and the Usable Past

lutherThe Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association ended yesterday afternoon, but reports from The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondents who covered conference continue to roll in.  We were pleased to have Zachary Cote write for us this weekend.  As a middle-school history teacher he has brought a unique perspective to this annual gathering of historians.  In his final post, Zach reports on a couple of sessions he attended on Martin Luther.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2017 posts here.–JF

One of the perks of attending the 2017 AHA annual meeting was being able to sit-in on a couple panels that were created with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in mind. As a Protestant, I have always been interested in Luther.  So I was eager to see how historians were going to commemorate the quincentenary of his 95 Theses. I attended two sessions, the first entitled “Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Reformation” and the second, “Luther and the ‘Second Reformation’. A common thread in both of these panels was how generations after Luther interpreted his work, impact, and theology.

In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region.  East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations.  He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.

Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification.  Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.

Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.

Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past.  Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.

With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.

History Education and Identity Politics: An Exchange with a K-12 History Teacher

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My recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics” seems to be resonating with some people.  I am especially happy that it is resonating with K-16 teachers.  Some good discussion seems to be happening.

One of the teachers who has engaged with the piece at my Facebook page is Leslie Smith, a history teacher in San Bernardino, California.  I met Leslie in October 2011 when I was in California to work with the teachers of the San Bernardino School District. My visit was part of the district’s Teaching American History grant programming.  As the curriculum coordinator for the district, Leslie was responsible for running the grant. If I remember correctly, I did presentations on Protestantism in America and the American Enlightenment. (I was there under the auspices of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History).  More importantly, I got to know Leslie and we have continued our friendship through social media.

Here is what Leslie wrote in response to my original post.  I should add that she is not only an outstanding history teacher, but she is also a practicing Catholic.

Leslie: I see the tension that you mention and want to celebrate it because before there was *no* tension, at least not in the narrative taught in k-12 classrooms. It was a national narrative of great men (read fairly-wealthy, white men) did great things and that’s why America is great. Beginning, middle, end of story. And now students are being taught a different narrative that may be increasing their narcissism. Although I wonder how much of this is caused by other factors, I do see the narcissism you speak of. I would think that what they need isn’t one narrative or another but a willingness, the ability, and the time to complicate history education with multiple narratives.

I would argue that it is in dealing with and maintaining balance with tension that is where the work lies (perhaps Opus Dei). Without tension, we are left with flaccid tools that neither fulfill their purpose nor serve any use. It is hard work to maintain a balance with this tension, but so much is at stake. We must seek the Spirit of God living within us and at the same time see His face in those we meet. We must see ourselves in history and encounter new/different people as they were in history. Peter was a betrayer *and* a fisher of men. Washington was a slave owner *and* a great leader. We are sinners *and* made in Imago Dei. The *or* is easier but not the truth and will essentially get us no where. The same is true with history education *and* identity politics.

In the end, I worry about any single story. I would soooo love to sit with you and discuss this at length. There has GOT to be more time and effort put in building useful bridges between k-12 and university education, especially in the humanities. We can’t afford not to.

And here is my response:

John: Leslie: Yes–I would love to come back out to California and have this conversation. Your point in the first paragraph on the great men narrative is on the mark, but I am not convinced that we need to abandon some type of national narrative in favor of a U.S. history course defined by identity politics. Even if the narrative deals heavily with the failures of Americans to live up to their ideals (as King reminds us in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail) it will still show kids that the promise of America has always been a contested and unfulfilled one and that there is a lot more work to do.

I will be the first to say that the teaching of historical thinking skills should be the primary goal of a K-12 history course. But the 2016 election has also convinced me that the study of history must play some kind of civic role as well.  As I have argued in Why Study History?, I don’t think the teaching of historical thinking skills and the “history as civics approach” are mutually exclusive. Good historical thinking skills produce good democratic citizens. But such civic lessons should also come through the kind of narrative I described above.  

As for the Holy Spirit–I could not agree more. Again, I touch on this in Why Study History?. The kind of empathy necessary for historical understanding to take place and for empathy to contribute to our life together in this country and beyond is for me connected to the spiritual disciplines. I was just listening to a Ted Talk in which a political commentator–a non-believer– was saying that empathy is a “meditative practice” for her when she deals with conservatives who do not like her liberal politics.  I am not entirely sure that we can muster the inner strength alone to practice and teach the kind of empathy I talk about in this piece and elsewhere.  I can get away with this kind of talk at Messiah College, where most of my students share my Christian faith. But just in case some of my critics out there are reading this, I would NOT advocate this kind of approach to empathy in a public K-16 history classroom, even if an approach to empathy informed by the spiritual disciplines might be the presuppositional base upon which the teacher operates.  

Thanks for the conversation.

 

#historyteacherchat

JulieAre you a K-16 history teacher?  Do you want to share ideas about teacher training, historical thinking, lesson plans, creative classroom ideas, interesting websites and links related to teaching history?

We have joined Julie Guthrie, a fourth-grade teacher in New Jersey, in establishing a new Twitter hashtag: #historyteacherchat  Yes the tag is a bit long, but I think it best captures what we are trying to create–a forum for history teachers to informally “chat” about how they do their work.

If you are a teacher and want to share something on Twitter don’t forget to include the hashtag so your idea can get to the right people.  And a special invitation to elementary and middle-school teachers.  We want to hear and celebrate your voices!

The “Caffeinated Teacher” on the Princeton Seminar

Class Pic

For the past three summers I have had the privilege of spending a week on the campus of Princeton University with a group of history teachers.  We call ourselves “The Princeton Seminar,” but it would be more accurate to identify our group as the Gilder-Lehrman Institute Summer Seminar on the “13 Colonies.”

Last week thirty-five teachers from around the country converged on Princeton to study the British mainland colonies.  Our Gilder-Lehrman-appointed leader is the indispensable Nate McAlister, the 2010 National History Teacher of the Year.  I spend about four hours a day with the teachers. Nate does everything else, from getting them settled in their dorm rooms to helping them prepare their required lessons plans and teaching them historical thinking skills.

In addition to our lectures, discussions, and Gilder-Lehrman historical thinking sessions, we take a day-long tour of colonial Philadelphia and an evening tour of early American Princeton.  We read Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, George Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia (to prepare them for their tour of Philadelphia), and my own The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

The Fithian book is particularly relevant to the week at Princeton.  As many of you know, Fithian was a 1772 graduate of the College of New Jersey and my book situates his life in the history of the college.  It is fun watching teachers see Nassau Hall after reading about it in the book.  One teacher was so excited about Fithian that she spent some of her free time in the Firestone Library looking at some of his papers and letters.

We also spend a couple of hours in the Firestone rare book room.  I have the curators pull out some seventeenth and eighteenth-century classics by Penn, Locke, Mather, Wheatley, Richardson, Sterne, Whitefield, Edwards, and Franklin along with many of the more obscure books Fithian read while he was a student at the college in the 1770s and a tutor on the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter III.

We also spend a couple of hours in the cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.  I usually give the teachers a short lecture at the gravestones of Aaron Burr Sr., Aaron Burr Jr,, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  The teachers also love seeing the burial place of Grover Cleveland and his daughter “Baby Ruth.”

And then there are the informal times of conversations–perhaps the highlight of the week.  These take place in the dining hall (on some nights we tend to linger over mugs of  of coffee until they kick us out), on walks through campus, and at the famous Yankee Doodle Tap Room in downtown Princeton.  I learn a lot from these informal conversations and always gain a greater appreciation for the front-line work  that these teachers do.  It is heroic work.  It is good work.  It is dignified work.  And, unfortunately, it is sometimes thankless work.  Let’s not forget that these teachers, and history teachers like them, are in the business of preparing the next generation of democratic citizens.

Nassau Inn 2

One of the participants in this summer’s Princeton Seminar is known online as the “Caffeinated Teacher.”  She has written a nice blog post on her experience.  Here is a taste:

The Gilder Lehrman sessions were run by the fabulous Nate, a master teacher with GLI. His task was to run the teachers in the group through how to set up the type of lessons we would be creating by the end of the week. They were really fun and informative and I’m glad to say I learned a couple of new teaching strategies as well. I loved seeing lessons that Nate had created for his own students and then learning how we could adapt even difficult primary sources down for the youngest of learners. I think sometimes our inclination is to say it will be too hard for kindergarten through second or third graders and these sessions really challenged that notion which I vastly appreciated (I am well known for pushing kids farther than they think they can go). 

Meal Times 
Seriously…despite all of the walking around I did, I’m sure I gained at least a few pounds (I didn’t check when I got home because I didn’t want to know!) from all of the yummy deliciousness offered in the cafeteria. All of our meals were provided and there were tons of choices every day. A lot of summer camps for elementary, middle and high school students were also ongoing so it wasn’t uncommon to see kiddos sneaking ice cream at the end of breakfast too 🙂 In all seriousness, however, the vast availability of choices was much appreciated. The best part of the meals was the opportunity to sit with different members of our group, including Dr. Fea and Nate, and learn about them and their teaching situations. We really became like a family during the six days we were together. 
Read the entire post here.

Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

A few days ago I was having dinner with a local history teacher who had just listened to Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Some of you may recall that this was our interview on K-12 education and historical thinking with Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. We have been getting a lot of response to this episode from history teachers. For example, yesterday I received this tweet from a history teacher.

During our dinner conversation, my teacher friend said how much he appreciated historical podcasts.  As is the case with most teachers, he was very busy and did not have much time during the school year to stay connected to things going on in the field. Podcasts were his lifeline to the discipline since he could listen to them on his daily commute to school.

Others get their dose of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast on their morning run or their daily workout at the gym or health club.  I know of one fan of the podcast who listens while he is washing dishes!

If you have yet to listen to the podcast perhaps Episode 8 might entice you to download, subscribe, or write a review at ITunes.  Our guests are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon Reed, and University of Virginia history professor and Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf.  They are the authors of the just-released Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

During the course of the episode I also share some thoughts about the complexity of the past and the uses of Jefferson’s legacy by Christian Right activist David Barton.

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Teaching "American Jesus"

Ed Carson in action at Brooks School

Edward Carson teaches history at Brooks School, an independent boarding and day school in North Andover, Massachusetts.  Last year he taught a short course at Brooks entitled “American Jesus” and I had a chance to participate. 

Carson’s students read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and I spent an hour Skyping with the students taking the class.

Brooks reflects on teaching this course in a recent piece at the Christian Century entitled, “Changing the Face of American Jesus.”  Here is a taste:

Teaching a course with Jesus in the title is risky here. New England, according to Stephen Prothero, is the least churched culture in the United States. Students who took “American Jesus” often lacked basic religious literacy, making conversations about American evangelical culture a greater challenge than anticipated. The term evangelical evoked suspicion. Often national religious figures such as T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Rick Warren were unfamiliar to students.
I created a syllabus in which the American construct of Jesus was on trial, allowing students to present their skepticism toward evangelical Christianity. I recognized the value of this personal exploration for students—and for me, as a southern African American navigating a traditional white world of privilege. My journey and the journey of this course had transitioned as I escaped an ideologically conservative institution: my previous school, which sought courses that expressed God’s grace in influencing America’s founding, rather than the free inquiry at the core of “American Jesus.”
Students were asked to discover their own points of view regarding the political nature of God and nation. They greeted John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? with a great degree of gratitude, finding it balanced in constructing a case for each side of this question. Students discussed Fea’s work and talked with him through Skype. He challenged their thinking about the historical forces that established Christianity as the dominant American thought. This also helped with later discussions regarding America’s ideological position in linking Uncle Sam to Jesus Christ. Topics such as printing “In God We Trust” on currency and naming God in the Pledge of Allegiance allowed discussions to shift from the Founding Fathers’ faith to the dawn of the cold war.