The Art of Getting Bogged Down – Every History Teacher’s Nightmare and Pleasure

Here is the cartoon that starting it all this morning. It is from the magazine Puck and is about John D. Rockefeller's control of the economy in the late 1800s.

Here is the cartoon that starting it all this morning. It is from the magazine Puck and is about John D. Rockefeller’s control of the economy in the late 1800s.

I am a tactile teacher. I like my students to do things with their hands, mostly by recreating and analyzing history. I like them to create products which analyze the past, compare it to the present, and signify its importance to the development of our political, economic, and social constructs. As with every teacher, I always run into problems. And it is the same problem I run into all the time. I can easily get “bogged down” in a unit. By bogged down I mean I extend the unit and the tactile learning too much. What is supposed to be a three to four week unit ends up six, or even seven. Projects and products filled with pictures, cartoons, graphs, artifacts, and charts fill up my table in the back of my classroom. Added lessons are made up at the drop of a hat – it is a vicious cycle of lesson planning. But it is always a pleasurable one.

I know teachers who spend an entire quarter on the Progressive Era. I, myself, taught an Early America Unit for six weeks because I got stuck in the 1830s and 1840s teaching about Illinois’ role in westward expansion and the problems it faced. “I have to teach about the Black Hawk War for a week” or “These kids have to know about Mormon persecution in Missouri at Hahn’s Mill and at Nauvoo, Illinois” are the kinds of thoughts that run through my mind.

Other teachers I know spend an entire week on Tammany Hall or the cartoons of Puck vs. Nast. Last year, my student teacher took six weeks to do the Civil War. She did an excellent job actually making the kids hard tack, learning the roles of several women, teaching how culture spread across country because of the war, making exhibit boards, and digging into the Emancipation Proclamation in addition to normal things teachers go into detail about the time period. She expressed a concern at one point that she was never going to get out of the Civil War. She did. And, she did a great job teaching the unit!!! But when it came time to plan the next unit, the next unit got shortchanged. And thus is the dilemma of being a history teacher.

Currently I am at the crossroad as I type. At some point in the next week, I have to get into the twentieth century in class. As I sat down this morning, my main goal was immediately sidetracked by Puck cartoons. That’s right, cartoons. I love cartoons because of their tactile and visual nature. Almost immediately, I began scheming lessons about using them as web searches, products, and tools for analysis. I was supposed to teach about Immigration in the late 1800s to start the week and then get into 3 day Teddy Roosevelt extravaganza of the Progressive Era. I still will, but it is unreal how close I came to veering out of control.

I think for every history teacher, it is a guilty pleasure to get bogged down. It is how you become a better teacher. It is how you learn how to teach history. This year, I took five days to do the Battle of Gettysburg. And you know what, I enjoyed it, the kids enjoyed it, and we both learned a lot. However, here’s the thing…I planned to get bogged down!!! At times, getting bogged down is a necessity. That is how you teach detail. “More on less” is the best motto. The issue is that I teach a survey course and I have to cover all of US History in the time frame imposed. It is just not possible in one year to cover EVERYTHING.

I spent an entire lesson about Gettysburg by examining the decisions by Lee and Meade on whether to fight on that third day.

I spent an entire lesson about Gettysburg by examining the decisions by Lee and Meade on whether to fight on that third day. It was all about strategy and high ground. Students had a great time examining documents, the terrain, morale, and the state of their armies.

So, I pick and choose what I get bogged down in. This year, it will be Civil Rights in the 1950s and the Clinton era 1990s. I have no shame in admitting that. But some things do get shortchanged. I know this year it has been Reconstruction, the Wild West (an all-time favorite era of mine to get bogged down in), the Spanish-American War, and the early 1800s (1812-1837) that take the hit for detail’s sake.

I think it is important that if you are going to teach something and have students produce products of their learning, the teacher best enjoy the topic and transmit that joy to the students about the topic. Last year, I never had so much fun teaching about World War II than spending an entire week doing D-Day. Another teacher who read this blog emailed me for the materials and we both had a blast doing the lesson 300 miles apart with me in 8th grade and she in high school. It’s OK to get bogged down, if you do it for the right reasons!!!

So, when I get back to lesson planning here in a few minutes, I will try to avoid the pitfalls of the Progressive Era planning and yearn for the time when I do get to spend extra time teaching the 1930s, D-Day, the 1950s Civil Rights Movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 1990s changes in society. It will be worth getting bogged down. I just have to stick to my plan.

Advertisements