Textbooks. I’ve got a love hate relationship with them. They can be useful in certain situations yet they cannot be reliable in most. To me, textbooks are in some regards the Wikipedia to print sources. You can go to them to get information on a subject but you cannot always trust the material within them.
In two articles that James Loewen writes, he brings up the way that textbooks have been presenting the Confederacy and the grounds on which the Civil War was fought. In his article Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? he gives evidence as to why many people have false ideas about the Confederacy and it stems from what they are learning from textbooks. A second article, Time to De-Confederatize the Textbook, “The American Journey”: An Open Letter to James McPherson he writes to textbook author James McPherson about the conflicting stances that he has on the Civil War based on one of his books Battle Cry of Freedom. In his book that he writes, Loewen argues that he presents the main issue of the Civil War was slavery not states’ rights yet he contradicts that in the textbook that he authors.
With the coverage of important historical events being questioned in our textbooks, there is no way to avoid the questions that have to be answered. What role should textbooks play in history classrooms? During an NPR interview, Samantha Manchac a high school history teacher explains the way that she uses textbooks in her classroom. She says, “We’re going to have these textbooks. We’re going to utilize these textbooks to some extent, but I also want you to be critical of the textbooks and not take this as the be-all and end-all of American history.” I think she brings up a great solution for the use of textbooks. Use them as a way for students to gain a higher level of thinking by allowing the to critically analyze the material in them with other sources on the topic being discussed. They should not be the first and last source that students are viewing in the classroom but we cannot ignore that they are there, so lets use them as a research tool rather than the means in which we teach.
All of that being said, what else can teachers use to help assist students’ learning process? In an article by the American Historical Association Staff, they discuss a new website created to be a more reliable way for students to get information. It is a website called The American Yawp. This tool gives students a fun and unique way to use textbook-like resources during and outside of class. If teachers are going to resort from using the state given textbook, then it is up to us to find new ways to help support our teaching and this website is a great starting point.
Recently we watched the movie “The Conspirator” which is based on the retailing of the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination. Just like other events in history there are only aspects that “we” like to talk about, discuss, and teach. The assassination of President Lincoln is often left up to a textbook to cover within a few paragraphs but after watching this movie, there is a whole world of material that can be used to teach students. There has been some push back with the movie, as there is with every film, that challenges the historical weight of the movie as well as the focus. In an interview with NPR, film critic David Edelstein discusses the fact that this movie is simply one that fits right in with the other theatrical performing movies rather than a “great and timeless drama”. In his blog, “Historians and The Conspirator: Usingns Film to Ask Big Questio” by James Grossman, we read his take on the movie which focuses on whether or not the subject of slavery should have been part of the movie. He discusses his shifting opinion from being critical of the exclusion of the topic, to his understanding of the distraction it would have created from the original purpose.
As a class we have been reading the book, Teaching U.S. History as Mystery which is all about presenting historical events as a mystery to students. Both Edelstein and Grossman bring up great arguments about this movie. I understand Edelstein’s point of view but I think that depending on the context that the movie is used in during a lesson will determine the message sent to the students. If students are presented this event and are already in the process of thinking about it critically and at a higher level, then I think the movie, or parts of it are acceptable to show because it will bring a “real life” component to it. Grossman brings up an argument that I think can create issues within a lesson. His first argument about the subject of slavery not being included is reasonable but it is not the focus of this event. Yes the assassination happened in a time where slavery was a major focus point in the world but it was not the focus of the assassination and trial itself. I would agree more so with Grossman’s second argument about the distraction that it is on the actual issue at hand. Because the movie focused more on the aftermath of the events, it opens up the possibility for conversations and questions about the judicial system then.
Ultimately, I think that movies, whether completely accurate or not can be a great tool to use in the classroom. They should not be used as “teachers” in a class but after higher level thinking has taken place, I think it is acceptable to use and a great conversation piece. The movie itself brings a different perspective to an event in history that does not get covered like it should.
Some of the most popular television shows and movies are the ones that leave their audience anticipating what is going to happen next. When the writers create a story line that is intriguing and leaves the viewer curious, they have gotten their viewer invested in that story. Once they have an audience that is invested, they can rely on the fact that the viewer is going to engage every episode. Teaching history is a lot like creating suspenseful entertainment.
The book Teaching U.S. History as Mystery is focused on educating teachers on how to turn the monotonous way of teaching history into a story that captures their students attention. It goes without saying that history classes can be dull and boring when the majority of teaching is just trying to get students to remember dates and facts. There are so many moments throughout history that are still filled with questions and doubts rather than certainties and absolute truths. The moment that teachers begin to have students actually work in class is the moment that the doors open to presenting the story of history as a suspenseful, never certain, mind testing, deep, and complex mystery. One of the goals of teaching is to make sure that every student is successful and that they feel like they have accomplished something. In the book the authors write, “In the rush to cover everything in an inoffensive way, they never let students work at any of the little mysteries that can be so much fun to tackle, and so satisfying to solve”. By giving students these opportunities to take what is out there (sources, evidence, facts) and try and piece them together to come up with a conclusion, gives them an avenue to actually invest into something much more meaningful than passing a test.
Using examples that David Gerwin and Jack Zevin did in this book give us only a glimpse of the kinds of opportunities there are out there for teacher to incorporate a mystery into their classrooms. Rather than spoiling the ending for students from the beginning, allow them to use the imagination that we often suppress to come up with their own story. Lets face it, history is basically a bunch of stories put together to come up with a narrative that we teach so lets let our students become a part of the creation of that narrative.