Teaching Clinton: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last summer, I redid how I would teach my US History class this school year. For all but one year of my teaching career, I taught US History chronologically. I did themes one year, but I did not like it. I probably did not pick the right themes. This year, I had one goal in mind…to spend more time teaching lessons about modern US History. The only way for me to do that was to alter what I teach and when. So, over a peanut Picture1butter and jelly sandwich, a banana, and a glass of milk, I sat down at my computer, opened up an Excel spreadsheet, and began to draft four or five different versions of how the class might look. I decided to give one a try this year and I can safely say the thematic approach has worked out well. In previous years, I rarely had time to teach about the Clinton era. Usually the lessons were about his presidency (in 1 lesson), Columbine, and technology. There was just not enough time to go into any detail. This year, the thematic approach created space for me to do more on less.

In planning out a unit that included the Clinton era, I set aside 4 weeks/20 days for the unit with 10 days/lessons dedicated to the Clinton era. Teaching Clinton is a challenging task. One reason is the era is fraught with change that has not played out yet. One time a history fair judge told me to “…wait 20 years to write or teach about history properly. That way you can see the effect of the event.” He was right…for the most part. It has been almost 20 years. And the events did reshape the country. Here’s the plan:

The Introductory Lesson – This lesson looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Clinton’s first term. After some brief background information on Clinton, students are given 13 terms (including his failed health care reform) that they must read about and then students determine whether to place the event in the good, bad, or ugly column. After students complete that task, the events are discussed and the Contract with America is examined more and the effect that the midterm elections had on how Clinton governed. Then the big discussion comes on the 1996 election.

Finding a Place in the World – This lesson takes two days. In keeping with the new role of the US in the world, three events in foreign affairs are discussed and examined. Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia are all given a little sample of what Clinton wants to do in each instance.


Students are then told to only pick one event to do. Then once the students have discussed their decisions, the class then discusses the impact of doing all three. Students individually investigate Bosnia and Haiti while the class as a whole looks at Somalia and Operation Restore Hope in detail including the use of an educational film on the real Black Hawk Down. The students finally examine the role of the US in the post Cold-War world and whether or not to be the policeman of the world.

The Scandal – Delicate planning is needed for two lessons on the Lewinsky Scandal. This one is going to be fun for the students to learn about while scary for me to teach. Day one involves setting up the roles for the students and presenting the evidence. This includes some documents, a PowerPoint on Who’s Who, some constitutional background, and an educational film from National Geographic’s series “The Final Report” that I downloaded from iTunes. (Here’s a preview)

The scary part as a teacher comes in discussing some of the salacious details which is why I have decided to only show certain portions of the educational film. The high point for the students is they get to act as the US Senate and sit in judgment of the evidence on day two of the lesson. Cartoons are brought in for openers, but the students  actively participating clearly is the key to them feeling as if they are part of history. I debated on whether to have them sift through the evidence on both sides and place evidence in certain categories, but I tend to like the mock trial better.

Grunge – Oh, how I loved the early 1990s for music! Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Mother Love Bone are still in daily rotation on my iPod for exercise. In this fantastic trip down memory lane, students examine the reasons for the Seattle music scene and how it reflected youth culture and was actually very anti-music industry in its attitudes. Students watch a short film, read a PowerPoint, read some lyrics, and make a paper grunge doll (those are hysterical) along with more information in a product. I will probably take two days to do this right. I will also include some choice bits from PJ 20 and an old VH1 documentary on grunge.

Mother Love Bone's classic LP - Apple
Mother Love Bone’s classic LP – Apple

Technology and Culture – This is a fun day as students use the Internet to find bits and pieces of 90s culture and create a product of how technology was then and how it has evolved into what the students use today. This is one of the few days which their textbook is the main source of information. I also provide a link to here.

Columbine – This one day lesson is the one that I find most disturbing. It is a web search that I hope does not glorify what those two young men did that day. Rather the search focuses on the reasons for their actions and what lessons can be learned and applied today.

Defining a Legacy – Similar to the Place in the World Lesson, this lesson examines Clinton’s and the US’s role in foreign affairs in his second term. I am not done planning it yet. I have the introduction to the lesson done and I have 2 scenarios/situations mapped out in my head (one involving Bin Laden), I just haven’t gotten to tying them all together with some activity yet. I do know Clinton’s legacy will be examined using parts of this PBS article from their wonderful Clinton series. I do believe it is important to teach the events in foreign affairs from his second term but I think the culminating activity of determining a legacy is even more important and how Kosovo, Desert Fox, terrorism, and Bin Laden fit within that legacy, if at all.

In the end, teaching Clinton is like walking a tightrope. You have to be balanced as you go across the rope. If you get too much to one side, you begin to fall. I think that is the key. Present the evidence, from multiple-viewpoints, and let the students decide for themselves. Whether it is the scandal, foreign affairs, culture, economics, trust the students to use the evidence to learn and craft responses to history. I think, without a doubt, there are multiple lessons to be learned. Whether the event was good, bad, or ugly, there is an inherent moral in each lesson that can be learned from this polarizing President. I think the best part might come when the unit is complete and Clinton’s actions are compared and contrasted to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Then, and only then, I think, one can begin to see the impact that Clinton had for the good, the bad, and the ugly as President.

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