This week’s post comes from Thomas Fulbright:
“I have been teaching history at Hope Street Academy, a public charter school, in Topeka since 2008. My wife and I have three daughters, Claire, Nora, and Meredith. I intend to spend my entire life convincing them how exciting and important history is! My bio picture is of Claire and I meeting President Lincoln!”
During the summer of 2016, I was lucky enough to attend the Gilder Lehrman teacher seminar American Foreign Policy since 1898, led by Dr. Jeremi Suri from the University of Texas. The seminar was going very well – until in an offhand comment, Dr. Suri implied that the way I teach history is bad for our democracy.
At that time, I was teaching my class using Structured Academic Controversies, following the model of Stanford History Education Group. His basic argument was I focus too much on having students judge the decisions made in the past rather than try to understand why those decisions were made. He told us that we need to see the decisions made in the past as the actions of logical decision makers and though we may not always like the logic those decision makers used, they still made those decisions for specific reasons.
Dr. Suri believes if we have students work to understand the reasons those decisions were made, they can make better connections to the policy and to the present.
I had been teaching students about a policy decision in the past, such as Chinese Immigration, and then asking them to generate ideas for what would make good policy on a topic. It turns out asking students to generate policy ideas from a blank slate was a stretch.
I changed the process and now, following a discussion on what was going on during a certain time, I present them with a bill such as H.R. 5804:
To execute certain treaty stipulations related to the Chinese” (what became the Chinese Exclusion Act).
Students are then asked to study a series of primary documents to help them understand why the bill was created and why people both supported or opposed the bill. They then have to “cast” a vote on the bill. The next activity is to write a paragraph explaining – using documents as evidence – why they are voting the way they are.
(Get the materials including context, the bill, and the primary documents for this lesson here. Note that the documents are all modified to make them more accessible to my students but links to the original document are often included)
Next, students use their understanding of past decisions to reflect on current policy decisions. I give students an article from NPR covering a contemporary example of a policy debate over a similar topic as the historic bill they just cast a votes for. The students analyze the contemporary policy debate, offer their advice for the policymakers, and then they make a comparison between their opinion on the past policy and their opinion on the contemporary policy.
For the provided example lesson, students were given a choice on which contemporary policy debate to connect to Chinese Exclusion including: the debate over DACA, the debate over the travel ban, or the debate over building a wall on the US / Mexico border.
The cumulation of all of this work for the students is their class final. Rather than have students complete a History Day project, a term paper, a final exam, or similar traditional writing exercise, I have decided that the largest project I have them do for my class should reflect my philosophy of teaching. Mainly that social studies teachers should focus on students developing skills to help them become functioning citizens.
For my class final, students were tasked with writing a letter to a policy maker offering advice based on what they had learned during the semester. They chose one of the policy debates they had voted on and were asked to do more in-depth research on the policy debate. In their letter, students provide quotes to help the policy maker understand the debate over the past policy. They sent these letters in December and a few weeks ago we received a few responses from the White House.
As of today, none of the other elected officials have responded. While the White House’s responses were form letters, I told the students that even if their letter did not make it to the President’s desk, they did still take civic action and it is better to have written the letter and it not have been read by the President than to not have tried.