Teaching U.S. History in the 21st Century – Rewriting the Craft

Teaching U.S. History is a lot like being a paramedic. You are constantly monitoring your patient to make sure they are alive. I have been teaching U.S. History to junior high students for a long time. In that time, the profession has seen a drastic shift in how U.S. History is taught. I think in the coming years, we will even see a drastic shift in what is taught.

Teaching U.S. History before the dawn of the Internet was just as challenging as today. Whether it was filmstrips, overhead projectors, ditto machines, reel-to-reel films, or carbon copies, some sort of technology has always existed for History teachers to try to engage their students. When I began teaching, I relied quite heavily on the textbook. It was my crutch. As those first weeks went by, I knew the textbook was not going to get me through the year. I had to come up with other strategies to engage students. There was the VCR, the map worksheet, the occasional simulation, or music of the time period. It did not matter what I did, I was not going to reach every student in the classroom. I had to think in those terms. Mind you, this was only my first month as a teacher, but that is how I thought. I brought in editorial cartoons from newspapers.  This began to reach them. The funny drawing began to connect with them. Soon, other strategies worked. Arguments, debates, and other strategies where students get to take a stand for something that mattered to them. Creativity mattered. Thus, I realized that after two months of teaching, the key for students to learn was that when they entered the classroom, they knew they would be engaged somehow, someway.

In 1996, everything changed. The school put a computer in my classroom. And that computer was hooked up to the Internet. The Internet changed how I accessed historical materials, how I tested, and even how I learned. When broadband came to town so did online video. Over the last 15 years, the computer has transformed how I plan, edit, write, and deliver curriculum. Sometimes, I think maybe it was better the old way. Just because you have the technology doesn’t mean you should use it all the time. It took me a few years to realize that. Today, I only have a few videos I show and most of them are digital. They exist on a flash drive or DVD.

The greatest gift of the Internet for students has been as a visual tool. It is much easier to go find an image of someone, or something, and show the students how things were. It even has added to the aura of developing suppositions about what happened before during and after. It makes no sense for students to go look up stuff on the Internet and spit it back at you. As a teacher, you need to find a way for students to use the information on the Internet to make an argument, not just to copy and paste information – because that is what they do if you don’t engage them.

But for me, the greatest gift as a teacher is that I am now able to access almost any primary document from a major historical event. To have my students read them, whether it is a battlefield map from Gettysburg or a letter from Jefferson to Lewis and Clark or a photograph from the Great Depression, the primary document allows me to place my students in history and teach them not only about history but also more importantly, making choices, how to think critically, and how to plan ahead. In addition, the document teaches context. Something always came before and something will happen after a choice is made. Consequences – what a concept for eighth graders!

One year ago, I spoke at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference in Denver about how I teach the Cuban Missile Crisis with primary documents. It is one of my favorite parts of the curriculum to teach. But as more and more history is being unearthed and uploaded, decisions are going to have to be made about what is taught and what is not taught. I remember in high school, my teacher made it to the Great Depression. That’s it. No World War II. No Vietnam. No Civil Rights Movement. No Cuban Missile Crisis. In the small rural school I currently teach at, I am the only History teacher in the 8th grade. I get to choose what I teach and how I teach. Many districts are not like that. Most districts in fact are not like that. Still, what History are we going to teach in the 21st Century? And is it going to be a textbook driven class?

Jackie Robinson steals home

I rarely use the textbook at all. I haven’t for years. It goes all the way back to my first year of teaching when I realized Jackie Robinson was not in the textbook. I knew then I could not rely on a book that did not have such a monumental event in it. There was not even a mention of the Negro Leagues nor sports in general except in passing. In my current design, I have several lessons throughout the year about baseball. One is on how it developed during the Civil War. Other lessons are on baseball in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. Each lesson is a microcosm for issues in society of the time period. Whether it is new inventions, electrification, race, steroids, and the use of technology, I think any teacher would be remiss if they didn’t teach how baseball shows how our nation has changed over the past 150 years. Any sport, whether it is the NBA, the NFL, or boxing, gives students a glimpse into how sports reflects society. It is an amazing sight to watch students faces light up when they see Muhammad Ali in his prime. But the bigger issues I see in his face are race, religion, and Vietnam – all in one man.

In the last few years, I have contemplated changing the Units which I teach. The main reason is that the eighth graders I have now will be taking US History through 1914 as sophomores. My class is US History 1865-present. There is some overlap between the two grade levels. But, that is not always a bad thing. The high school teacher spends more time on the Progressive Era and I spend more time on local and Illinois History in that era. It all works out.

What I have been struggling with most the past few months is how to quantify the current era of America History. It is easy to look back and to organize units based on historical periods. Most history teachers use the following
1. Colonial and Revolutionary Era
2. Early America
3. Westward Expansion
4. Civil War and Reconstruction
5. The Transformation of the US
6. The US as a World Power
7. The 20s and 30s
8. World War II
9. The Post War World 1945-1963
And that is where things begin to get murky. In my 1865-Present class, I use the following units after JFK:
10. Massive Change: The 1960s – Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Music, and Nixon
11. Conservative America – The shift in America to a more conservative philosophy is highlighted in this unit as it goes from Ford and Carter to Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton.

The trouble for me has been in looking ahead to this year. Do I put George W. Bush in the Conservative unit or do I start a new unit? And if I put Bush 43 in a new unit with Obama, what do I call it? I am tempted to call it “Catastrophic America” but I don’t know how history is going to be played out. Starting with September 11th and continuing with the 2007-2008 economic meltdown from which we have yet to recover, it is tempting to name it “Catastrophic” although some might find the title of the unit a bit harsh, but that is what it has been. From oil spills to hurricanes to political infighting, it has been an era defined by how differing views on how government should handle those two events.

I don’t know why I am spending a lot of time and energy thinking about this, but this is what I do. I think before I teach.



  1. Yes, you are a very thoughtful teacher! I like the idea of organizing units that are not even chronological, but instead thematic. Although it is non-traditional, I taught units called “Expanding Civil Rights” (that included multiple time periods from 1865- the present) and “Economic Upheavals” (that can include the Great Depression as well as the post-war expansion and even the most recent recession). Just some examples…

  2. Your students are blessed to have such a great teacher! That you work so hard to engage them and to exercise their critical teaching skills exemplifies why good teachers are so important to our country. Keep up your excellent work!……..Katie

  3. Duh — critical thinking skills, not critical teaching skills — although, with you as an example, maybe you’re developing great teachers for the future!

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