Education

National History Day 2017 – Taking a Stand in History

I have put off getting my students started on their projects this year. I did this for two reasons. One, I did not want to burn them out. Two, I did not want to burn myself out, either. Together, starting October 3, it begins. This year’s theme, “Taking a Stand in History,” is my favorite of all the rotating themes put on by National History Day. Whether it is Civil Rights, Communist Witch Hunts, or an airing of grievances, I enjoy reading about those topics and helping my students find and analyze the information.

Here are some topics found on this site that could possibly interest you, especially when it relates to Illinois history.

Diane Nash – She helped organize the Civil Rights Movement

The Corn Belt Liberty League – Farmers rebel against the New Deal

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movement – Trying to stop segregated housing in Chicago

detailComic Books in World War II – They were ahead of their time when speaking out against Hiter

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers – A war’s truth is exposed

The Blackhawk War – Sometimes taking a stand doesn’t always work out.

Curt Flood and Free Agency – Although he lost his case, future generations did not.

The Mormons in Illinois – This is another that did not pay off here, but it did in Utah.

The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County – Interesting tales of religion and politics.

The Haymarket Affair – One of my students wrote this one.

Jennie Hodgers – A local cult hero who gained the respect of her fellow soldiers

Herb Block – The master cartoonist was one of the first to speak out against McCarthyism

I am sure you can find more topics that you can make apply to the theme this year. But for me, I like these.

Going forward it should be interesting to see which topics my students pick this year. I have limited the topics to less than 20 in hopes that they pick a topic they can be successful in showing how an event changed history.

 

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Web Site of the Day

I was doing some research on the sinking of the Rouse Simmons Christmas Tree Ship when I found a cool web site that contains hundreds of articles in PDF from the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine. These are great sources for any student doing a National History Day project and for teachers supplementing their curriculum with great sources!

http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/

prologue magazine

 

Using Baseball as a History Fair Topic – Instilling Changes

Baseball and history tend to go together. This blog is no different. As a practicing teacher whose students participate in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Student Historian Program (aka History Fair) and National History Day, I steer some reluctant kids towards baseball topics. It has worked and has changed lives. One of my most successful students did three baseball exhibits, two research papers, and one hockey exhibit over six years in route to six superior ribbons at the state history fair. He is now a sophomore in the honors program at Northern Illinois University and his work as a junior in high school can be read here. SAM_0643He spoke at a conference with me last fall and talked about how doing these projects made him a better student.

Choosing a baseball topic for a history fair project has many advantages. First, the use of newspapers and interviews as primary sources are great tools for any historian. Learning how to find information through these early accounts are exactly what historians do in researching any topic. Second, it teaches verb usage. Most of these accounts use verbs in the active tense. This creates a text that is more exciting, easy to read, and most importantly, makes the subject and writing come alive.

A third reason for using baseball as a history fair topic is that it teaches structure. Students learn how to organize information. They can organize their paper, board, website, or document chronologically, thematically, and statistically. With the plethora of sports statistic sites like Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac, and Fan Graphs, it is easy for the student to acquire information and data to help prove their thesis. Whether it is numeric data, hitting charts, or hitting zones, the images can be  to cover a year, career, and any significant data stream the user requires or inputs.

The fourth, and maybe the most important, reason for choosing a baseball related topic is that the player or event showcases a change in American society that is reflected on the diamond. From the use of defense and pitching with Tinkers to Evers to Chance to the cheating and gambling industry of the White Sox Scandal to the creation of the Negro Leagues by Rube Foster, the history of baseball in Illinois shows the history of change in Illinois. One of the key aspects of grading any history fair project is can the student(s) show how their topic changed history. A baseball topic clearly does that using evidence over time.

Fifth, and most importantly for the student, it is fun. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I saw a student get excited about learning history by doing their history fair project about a baseball topic. Once that happens, the student is hooked and puts all their efforts into creating a product of which they are proud.

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1937 Construction of the Wrigley Field Scoreboard

As a teacher who is retiring in the next 5-8 years, when I look back at all the successful baseball projects my students created, I get a little misty because the topics were monumental events or personalities in the game. Students assembled projects on Mordecai Three Finger Brown, Albert Spalding, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the 1906 World Series, Rube Foster, Baseball in Rockford in the 1800s, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ron Santo, Bill Veeck, Margaret Donahue, 1937 Wrigley Field Changes, the 1907 – 1908 Cubs, The Rockford Peaches, The Chicago American Giants, Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, and the first All-Star Game put together by Arch Ward.

With this year’s topics already selected, several students chose baseball topics for their websites or papers with Margaret Donahue being the most popular. The regional history fair is not until February 28, 2015. However, I have already started to cull some new topics and information for 2016 and will introduce a couple of new baseball topics.

First will be how baseball stadiums influence their teams. The focus will be on the old West Side Grounds and its mammoth 500 feet to center field design, the 1937 Wrigley Field changes, the old Comiskey Park, the Cell, and the new changes to Wrigley Field. It will be interesting to see if any student picks the topic or even just focuses in on one stadium (I would recommend the West Side Grounds). In fact, I might prefer they pick just one stadium so they can  go more in detail.

Old Hoss Radbourn

Old Hoss Radbourn

The second topic is a little more adult. Charles Radbourn was a pitcher for the Providence Grays in the 1880s. In 1884, he won 59 games as a starting pitcher. His prodigious events and life are chronicled in the spectacular book Fifty-Nine in ‘84 – Old Hoss Radbourn and Bare-Handed Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. I was also able to find some newspaper articles supplied by the Bloomington Pentagraph, Radbourn’s hometown in central Illinois. Combined with some PDF journal articles and the afore-mentioned websites, a student will not have any trouble finding information.

Here is your warning – Doing “Old Hoss” as a topic is reserved for the more mature student as “Old Hoss” lead quite a saucy life, and that is putting it mildly. I first became aware of the topic because I love baseball and I love Twitter. There is a Twitter account named @OldHossRadbourn, which I find hysterical at times. The account looks at modern day baseball through the eyes of “Old Hoss.” Needless to say, he does find their commitment and achievements lacking and paling in comparison to his. He was baseball’s first Ironman and his endurance, be it out of greed, stupidity, or pure genius, set one baseball record that will most likely never be broken. In reflecting on modern day baseball, Twitter’s @OldHossRadbourn does pinpoint the changes in the game and the changes in American society over the past 130 years. Those changes are essential to what a history fair project can do; it is just seen through the eyes of baseball.

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.

The Future of This Blog

I am awaiting the future of the blog. Look for a new design shortly too.

I am awaiting the future of the blog. Look for a new design shortly too.

In the past year, I have pretty much become semi-retired from writing about history as you can probably tell from the lack of posts. Although I still love teaching and learning about history, right now I don’t see myself continuing to write about it much online. From time to time I will post and I will enjoy that when it happens, and it will happen.

So, that leaves me with a dilemma. Do I just leave the blog as it is? Do I delete the contents? Do I let someone else take it over? Or, do I take it in a different direction? Or do I delete a bunch of posts and go with a different theme? Do I go with a picture of the day, artifact of the week, or document of the day? Or do I do most of these suggestions?

I have put a lot of thought in to what is going to happen. And to be honest, I still don’t know where it will go. But I do know The History Rat will continue. It will contain posts about teaching history. It will be focused more on Illinois history (So, I will be deleting some old posts). I will write the occasional post about an event in history. For the most part, though, I will occasionally seek out writers to detail the past. And those writers will have a unique perspective. They will be kids. They will not just be any kids. These kids will be some of the best projects, websites, papers, and exhibits I read that are participating in the National History Day competition. It is really quite invigorating to read the enthusiasm with which they write!

I almost have two posts by two young authors lined up. If they are published, you will be pleased to see the depth of their writing and analysis! I hope to have those up by November.

I, myself, will be posting this fall about the Presidential Election of 1864, and I might be convinced to write another post about the craft of teaching history by having students do history. I am currently thinking about how to best teach the War of 1812. Whether that post comes to fruition remains to be seen, but I can see something coming around in some format.

I also think it would be great to post something weekly like a picture, document, or artifact that teachers can use in their classrooms. I sometimes build lessons entirely around one object, and to be honest, those are the lessons the students remember most because you keep going back to the document 3 or 4 times in the lesson. I really do enjoy writing about how that works and collaborating with other teachers who have actually tried out my lesson designs!

Now that I began to write about some ideas that I can do, my brain is now on overload on what I want do.

Thanks for following and continuing to follow The History Rat!

Onwards!

R.T. Johnson

Becoming an Historian: A Weird and Wacky Path

The other day in class, a student asked me why I became an historian. It was hard to answer. In fact, all I could come up with was, “I don’t think it was any one thing, but a series of events pushing me to becoming an historian.” And I think that it is different for every historian. Looking back at my life, five things influenced me into loving history: the context of my life, television, some wonderful professors, my family, and some great books and authors.

shellshock

Shell Shocked Soldier by Don McCullin

The Context of My Life
Being born in 1963, some of first memories are of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Beatles. Every day, my family would gather round the television at 5:30 p.m. to watch Walter Conkrite do the CBS Evening News. The images I saw still impact me today. I am a very visual teacher in that students examine a lot of images like political cartoons and images. For me, the images of Vietnam have been seared into my brain. They do not haunt me, but I will always remember the images I saw like “Napalm Girl,” “Shell Shocked-Soldier,” and Eddie Adams’ “The Assassination.” I introduce them to my students along with other images from that era including the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Bull Connor, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. The era is ripe with stark images of the events.

Add in my own personal fascination with the Beatles, and everything about them. When older, I began researching them and finding out information about them. They were my favorite band up until I was a junior in high school. That fascination would continue when I began listening to Led Zeppelin, The Police, Rush, and Pearl Jam – my other favorite bands. I always researched every artist. I still do today. I dig into their past and find out who influenced them, why they picked up an instrument, and how they got in the record business. It is always interesting to me.

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The favorite band of my youth

Television
You wouldn’t think that TV as a medium would influence an historian in the pre-cable days, but the show I would always watch when I came home from school was “Hogan’s Heroes.” I know it sounds corny, but the truth of the matter is that I wanted to learn more about what was happening on each episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” I would always use an encyclopedia to find out about something mentioned on Hogan’s Heroes whether it was the Gestapo or the city of Hamburg or some member of the Nazi hierarchy. It really piqued my interest in World War II. I remember there was a kid in my class named Larry Weaver whose dad served in World War II. His dad had brought back/mailed stuff from his service and I always thought those artifacts, including a Luger and a Nazi flag, were the coolest things!

Hogan's Heroes got me interested in World War II

Hogan’s Heroes got me interested in World War II

College Professors
When I went to college in 1982 to Western Illinois University, I had the great honor of learning under Larry Balsamo and the late Darrel Dykstra. Both were quite different in their teaching styles and I think I liked that about them. Larry Balsamo was very energetic, always had a story to tell, and he loved the little details he found interesting that no one else did. His Civil War and Reconstruction class is my all-time favorite class. It was hard if you had Larry not to love history because he did so much.

Darrel Dykstra was the opposite of Larry Balsamo. He was quiet, reserved, and meticulous when I learned about Middle East History. His attention to detail and material were some of my favorite of college including a book we had to read called “Guests of the Sheik.”

Fifteen years later, I had the pleasure of taking a class in grad school at NIU with the late Jordan Schwarz. Dr. Schwarz was a huge Cubs fan, but he taught me a lot about writing history. After the class ended, I played golf with him several times and all we talked about was the Cubs…nothing else. I have enough Andy Pafko stories to last me a lifetime.

Another professor who had a huge impact on my career was Bruce Field, now at South Carolina. Bruce engaged me to write the proper lesson plan (he would later speak at my wedding as he was friends with my wife before I met my wife). Later, Carla Shaw of NIU tapped into my creative side to get me to create my own teaching models/style for history. She had a huge influence on how I teach. Later, she would be my initial doctoral adviser before her retirement. She Skyped into my oral defense. I was really touched.

The Family
My older brother Mark had some influence on me when it comes to being an historian. He is five and half years older but he always used to have models he constructed of the space program. There used to be models of a Saturn V rocket, the lunar lander and the capsules on his shelf. I found them so interesting. I tended to build model battleships/aircraft carriers. But when he left for college in 1976, I had the bedroom to myself and one of the first things I did was to research the space program including each astronaut and Apollo mission.

My parents probably had the biggest role in me becoming an historian. In the early 1970s, they bought a set of encyclopedias and a set of World Book Year Books. They would keep adding the Year Books until I graduated. I found them fascinating and even read them throughout college. Having moved several times in my youth and young adulthood, the yearbooks were like my best friends as I read them constantly to find out what happened before I had memories, and to gather more data about what events I did remember from my youth. As I sit here and watch some football, I also remember using the yearbooks to look back at who won sports championships in those years.

The 1968 World Book Year Book - a classic and huge influence!

The 1968 World Book Year Book – a classic and huge influence!

Books on History
Beginning when I was in 5th grade and through my late 40s, I read a lot. It was not until 8th grade that I read my first historically tinged book. It was in 8th grade history class with Kent Crear at Polo Junior High School that I read “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren and it was stunning! Today, it is still one of my favorite books of all time ( I never did see the Sean Penn movie as I thought there was no way it could match the book). I think the book that got me hooked on history was “Ordeal By Fire (1st Edition)” by James McPherson. I read it when I was junior in college (1984) and I found it totally fascinating. Up to that point in my life, I loved short stories, science fiction, and 19th century literature. From that point on, it was all history for the next few years (along with Science Fiction). Today, I like Doris Kearns Goodwin and her writing style, Michael Beschloss is good, too, along with John Eisenhower, and I can read about the New Deal by Jordan Schwarz anytime.

AlltheKing_0

A great tale and a great warning about political power

Thinking about it, I could add baseball cards, being a Cubs and Bears fan, but whatever I get interested in, I learn the history about it. I know these things are what made made me an historian, but what keeps me an historian are the students that I teach. I still enjoy learning about history and sharing it with them. I don’t really consider it teaching, just sharing what I enjoy about the past and how I found it and experience it. In the present, my wife and I rarely plan a vacation unless it involves a historical site or two. In fact, that is my plan for this summer. I plan on going down to Nauvoo to see some Mormon history, over to Hannibal for Mark Twain, and then on to Kansas City for some Negro League Museum stuff. It is who I am. It is what I do. It is what I enjoy.

Primary Source Paradise: Trends in Teaching History

For about 18 years, I have relied on using primary sources to teach history. The Internet made it possible. It is, after all, the information super highway. But for teachers, the Internet is a portal to another world, a wormhole if you, please. Before the Internet, access to primary sources was rare unless you bought a book, traveled to a museum, historical site, or an educational institution. In fact, those sources were only accessed by historians and were often closed to the public.  One could only see a document behind a glass cover/shield.

Beginning in the late 1990s, companies like Jackdaws and Discovery Enterprises, Ltd. began producing collections of primary source materials for teachers to use. Now, any Social Studies catalog is filled with primary source collections from events as far back as Ancient Greek. For US history, however, these collections can change how one teaches and how students learn.

Digressing back to the effect of the Internet, in recent years, libraries and other educational institutions are now putting these primary documents online for the public to peruse and use. The John F. Kennedy Library put an amazing amount of sources from the Cuban Missile Crisis online a few years ago. I have found collections from the McCarthy era, the Civil War, the Black Hawk War, the rise of Barbed Wire in DeKalb, Illinois, and a ton of sites with documents about Lincoln and the Civil War.

More recently, the John F. Kennedy Library has added a collection of materials regarding the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. This seminal event almost galvanized the nation and inspired thousands of young African-Americans to attend traditionally white southern schools like the University of Alabama.

jfkmicrosite 2

The collection contains amazing documents from Meredith, the Kennedy administration, the courts, and the Mississippi establishment. It is quite expansive and quite in-depth. As a teacher, these documents can provide a plethora of activities and teachable moments through decision making and analysis. Using these documents makes history come alive. As a teacher, you could create a series of dilemmas to face from many different viewpoints – and that’s what teaching history is about is to understand that there often 3 or more sides to every story – not just two.

I am in the process of using the Meredith microsite to create a 3-4 day simulation lesson. It will be filled with decisions, cartoons, video, letters, court cases, and most importantly, critical thinking.

I also found several space race exhibits and documents online. Educational institutions across the country are creating the digital portals. Whether it is Eastern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University, or presidential libraries like George W. Bush or Dwight Eisenhower, digital primary source access is changing how history is taught, but more importantly, how history is actively learned.