US History

Using Historical Images to Teach 21st Century Critical Thinking


The longer I teach, the more and more I keep changing how I teach history. Since I graduated college in 1986, a lot of changes have taken place in how history is taught and how history is learned. I have gone from crank copy machines to overheads to the Internet and much, much more. 

Here’s the thing, though. The changes are accelerating for both the students and myself. The basic outline of a lesson has not changed in the past 30 years. It always begins with an anticipatory set or hook, followed by 2-4 activities that are connected with beginning activity. What has changed is what those activities are.

I’ve gone from newspaper activities to guided reading to primary document analysis to research using encyclopedias and Yearbooks to Googling information. Educational films have gone from filmstrips and reel-to-reel to VHS and DVDs and now digital .mp4 files and YouTube. It’s been a staggering development when I look back at how I used to teach.

However, the biggest change in teaching that I am seeing in my current students is how much they are dependent on the visual image for learning. Part of it is basic neurology as their brains make multiple connections between the oral, auditory, and visual parts of the mind and in the lesson.

When the Internet took off in the mid 1990s, it changed how I taught history, found resources, and collected from the past. These include images, political cartoons, maps, and other historical documents. Over the past 24 years, the photograph or visual image has become my most effective strategy for teaching. Whether it is for review, putting pictures in a test, or for analysis, it is how the modern student learns. It is images that jump start their brains into thinking about an event and sometimes lead to empathy. They can connect dozens of facts to a single photograph if the context of the image is taught correctly.

I have written before about using images for analysis of D-Day. I have also done it with a lesson the Cuban Missile Crisis. My favorite, still, is using images of the Vietnam War. That could be changing soon as I figure out more and more ways for students to access and assess still and moving images.

Today, I wanted to share a few other examples of using images as a critical thinking tool.

The Birmingham Bus Boycott
I love teaching about the Civil Rights Movement! The images from this time in history are just so powerful. Most kids love examining them! For this lesson, I begin with a picture of MLK on a bus that is revisited several times throughout the lesson. Each time, I ask what they are talking about. The responses from the students change from brief summations of the previous day’s lesson into a full blown descriptions of the bus boycott. Rosa Parks and Emmett Till come in at some points along with a couple of cartoons as student piece together the events, basically creating their own timeline. When the lesson is over, I hand them this document. The students then use the pictures to create their own animated timeline of what happened. It provides for an interesting thought process as they try to supplant the timeline they just created with real images from the event.

Selma
After learning about the March at Selma, students look through this folder and pick ten pictures and/or cartoons. Then they rank them from 1-10 as the most important pictures of the events. It can be a very interesting discourse as they attach certain emotions to certain images. Most students tend to focus on the events on the bridge while others focus in on certain individuals like Diane Nash, MLK, or John Lewis. It can be fascinating to see not only what they learn, but who or what they attach themselves to in the process.

1970s Culture
This is probably the most fun lesson for me. After learning about 70s mainstream culture, I break things down from a national level to a personal one. Students get access to this folder to try and piece together what this person’s culture and childhood was like just based on these pictures. They use 8-10 pics to basically make a biography of that person. It almost becomes like a photo album as they have to explain what the image is and what it might represent to the owner.  When they have that done, then they compare and contrast to their own childhood/teenage years.

When it comes to these 70s pictures, it is probably the hardest one for the students to wrap their brains around until they make that personal connection.

The issue is context. Students may know mainstream culture from the readings they covered the day before, but there is no real emotion attached to anything so personal. Trying to attach meaning to something without meaning is eye opening at times. Somehow, a connection has to be made for them between their own lives and the images. A lot of lightbulb moments take place in this lesson. Teachers can adjust it for their own lives, depending on your own childhood. There are over 90 pics in this folder, plenty to get several different variations in a biography.

McCarthyism
There is no cartoonist more associated with the McCarthy era than Herb Block of the Washington Post. Better known as Herblock, the cartoonist stood up against Senator Joseph McCarthy and his tactics in a way that many Americans easily understood. By using this Google search, students analyze the ills of that era through political cartoons. The first day of the lesson actual looks at how Edward R. Murrow and President Truman stood up to McCarthy. This webquest continues the lesson by examining the objects, words, actions and point of each cartoon as the students relate these images to what they learned the day before.

There are dozens of other ways that images can be used to instigate critical thinking. The key is for the student to somehow make connections between the image and the events of the lesson. One image can truly be worth a thousand words if the image has context and some emotional connection. Most of these lessons aren’t one-off lessons, either. They take place over multiple days as part of a bigger unit. Just like the D-Day and Cuban Missile Crisis lessons, they are a lot of fun for both learning and teaching.

 

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The Moline Decision – John Deere’s Big Gambit

John Deere is one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world. Centered in Moline, Illinois, the company is known all over the world for its quality machines and products. However, one fateful decision made by John Deere in 1847 changed the company’s fortunes. That decision, simply put, was to move the company from Grand Detour, Illinois, its original location along the Rock River, to Moline, Illinois, along the Mississippi River. That one choice changed Deere, Inc. from a local blacksmith into a nationally known company and, eventually, a world renowned corporation.

The late 1830s and early 1840s saw rapid change in Illinois. The railroad made its way into the northern part of the state, the Illinois and Michigan Canal began construction, and Chicago was established as a city. However, the biggest change was the continued movement of the United States west. At the end of the 1830s, Illinois was still on the western edge of the formal United States. Settlers kept moving farther and farther west. By the end of the 1840s, the Mississippi River was no longer the western edge of the US, it was the jumping off point to new lands like Kansas, Nebraska, and the rest of the plains who would become states in the 1850s. If John Deere was to continue to grow as a company, it had to take advantage of that westward movement. Staying in Grand Detour would ensure that Deere would remain a local company that serviced just local farmers. Moving west, well, that was the thing to do. And, it was also a huge risk.

John Deere had a way with steel. In 1837, Deere invented a steel plow that could clean itself. This self scouring plow could rip through the thick black soil of northern Illinois prairies and not stick to the plow. The effect of that one invention changed farming in the 1830s and 1840s. Word of Deere’s magical “plough” soon spread across the northern part of the state, into central Illinois, and later Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa.

What began with one plow in 1837 soon grew to over 100 plows a year by 1843.

Deere did not have to do much advertising initially as his best source of spreading information about the qualities of his product was the word of farmers who transformed their land with his invention.

Named after a big bend in the Rock River, Grand Detour, Illinois was a nice place for John Deere to start his business. Local farmers could easily access the town and his shop was only a short walk from the river. If one were to start an implement company, there were not many better places to begin during an era dominated by river travel.

However, the 1840s saw America and transportation changing. Trains soon could move Deere’s “ploughs” faster than any river boat could. By the middle of the decade, Deere could send a plow anywhere there were tracks. However, when it came to the future of the US and farming, it was moving westward.

If John Deere was going to grow as a company, how long could Grand Detour continue to be his base?

Deere knew that he could make more money with his plows if he had access to more water, was closer to his resources, and he was more centrally located to ship his product to farmers in more states rather than Ogle, Lee, La Salle, Winnebago, and DeKalb counties.

After having moved from Vermont and rid himself of debt in less than 10 years, John Deere the man, was ready for the next challenge. But where would it be?

John Deere could have taken his plow works anywhere.

Chicago would have been a good choice with its access to railroads, the Great Lakes, and the eastern part of the country. However, Chicago lacked immediate access to the interior states in the 1840s, even with the I & M Canal in operation.

Another excellent choice, St. Louis was the gateway to the western part of the country. The city where Lewis and Clark began a journey some 40 years before had access to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. However, Missouri did not have the need for the plow as its soil was not as thick.

As for Moline, on the surface it did not immediately stand out. But once Deere started digging deeper it soon became evident that Moline was the perfect place for his burgeoning business.
1. It had a huge water supply in the Mississippi River. This water supply would give Deere the energy he needed to run his new plant and production facilities.
2. The Mississippi River also provided access to the entirety of country from north to south.
3. Demographics played a role in the decision as well. The plow itself was designed to cut through thick black soil. That type of the soil could only be found in the prairie states. Within 20 years, Deere, Inc. would make a variety of plows to cut through many types of soil, the initial plows were all about prairie soil found in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Indiana. Moline is centrally located to all of those states.
4. Last, and maybe most importantly, it would make it easier for Deere to get his own supplies. There’s just no easy way to get to Grand Detour in 1847. Locally, yes, one could get there fine. But if steel is being shipped in, it takes a while to get to Grand Detour thus driving up the price. Being on the Mississippi in Moline is much quicker, easier, and cheaper.

So, in essence, it was a major financial decisions with several factors.​

Hindsight is always 20/20. In 1847, not many understood Deere’s decision at first. It took a while to sink in.

When John Deere began the move, Moline was actually smaller than Grand Detour. The town began in 1843 and had a whopping 13 buildings when John Deere made the move. However, it had what John Deere wanted most, the MIssissippi River.

In 1848, Deere and his 16 employees made over 2,000 plows. In 1852, Deere bought out all his investors to take sole ownership of the company.

As John Deere grew, so did Moline. The town and the company soon became synonymous and even now, it is hard to separate the two. One cannot think of Moline without John Deere and John Deere without Moline. Deere’s son Charles would take over the company and expand it across the country and use advertising and branch dealerships to sell their products to the farmers all over the country.

Like John, Charles adapted to the changing times of the nation and business to keep the company moving forward.

Sources
Primary Documents
Historical Site Artifacts and Advertisements
John Deere Historical Site. Grand Detour, Illinois
John Deere Pavilion.
John Deere World Headquarters.

Secondary Sources
Journal Articles
Sutton, Robert M. “Illinois’ Year of Decision, 1837.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1965), pp. 34-53

Books:
Bogue, Allan G. (1994). From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the nineteenth century. Iowa State University Press.

Earnest E. (1937, reprint, 1989). They Broke the Prairie: Being some account of the settlement of the upper Mississippi valley by religious and education pioneers, told in terms of Galesburg. University of Illinois Press.

Dahlstrom, Neil and Jeremy Dahlstrom. (2005) The John Deere Story: A Biography Of Plowmakers John & Charles Deere. Northern Illinois University Press; illustrated edition.

Wayne G. Broehl Jr (1984). John Deere’s Company: A History of Deere and Company and Its Times. Doubleday.

Newspapers
Nikolai, Geri. “Rock River Valley Insider: John Deere forged a new career in Illinois“ Rockford Register Star. July 21, 2013. Accessed online at: https://www.rrstar.com/x853690615/Rock-River-Valley-Insider-John-Deere-forged-a-new-career-in-Illinois.

Magazines
“Digging John Deere.” (Spring 2009). The Plowshare News for John Deere Collectors.. Issue 15, P. 1-2.
“175 Years of John Deere.” (Spring 2012). The Plowshare News for John Deere Collectors. Issue 26, P. 1-7.

National History Day 2016: Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange – Personal Topics

Yesterday, I checked out National History Day’s website.  I got to see the logo for this coming year’s theme. And, I like it.

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The 2016 theme is “Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange in History.” I like the theme because, in my opinion, it focuses on how two things interact and react to form something new or change. Sometimes, that can be a good thing; other times, not so much.

Normally, just based on a  literal interpretation of the theme, most topics would be about the 1600s-1800s exploration of Illinois. However, I think wherever you find change, you can find a topic. Wherever you find something new, you can find a topic. Exploration does not have to be a literal geographic term used to explore the earth’s surface. Exploration can take place in the mind, in the heart, and in the soul. The change resulting from that encounter can change history and how things are done. The theme can be just as personal as it is geographic.

On this site, here are some topics written about that could qualify as good topics for a project for National History Day.

1. Ernie Banks

2. Diane Nash

3. Steppenwolf Theatre

4. Edwin C. Rae – Monuments Man

5. Miles Davis and Bitches Brew

6. Civil War Medicine

7. Lincoln and the Telegraph

8. Dungeons and Dragons

9. Philip K. Dick

10. The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County

11. The Prairie Bandits

12. The Mormons in Illinois

13. The ABA-NBA Merger

14. Howlin’ Wolf 

15. Marquette and Jolliet

16. Ray Bradbury

17. Baseball and the Civil War

18. Charles Turzak

I think you can take almost any topic, research it on a personal level, and you would be able to show change between your topic and what it encounters.

It should be fun to see how this works this year.

 

 

 

Cataloging a Museum: Day One

Today, my summer of being an archival historian began. The goal: Catalog a farm museum.

I really wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. I showed up at the barn at 8:55 a.m. In my bag I had my computer, tape measure, notebook, notepad, pencil, pen, iPhone, and iPod. I talked with the owner of the barn for about ten minutes and I began what I thought was going to be several days of taking pictures.

I was quite pleased when noon came around. I had pictures of about 3/4 of the items in the museum: It is a treasure trove of agricultural Americana. I honestly don’t know how historians did things like this in the past. It must have taken them forever to take pictures, wind the film, reload film, hope the pictures were in focus, and then they had to write everything down by hand on a card/tag. Today’s technology allowed me to grab the phone and go.

Today, I took 1331 pictures in three hours and downloaded them from my phone onto my laptop. The download only took ten minutes. When I got home, I backed up the files on my external hard drive. I still have to make a card for each picture, but that shouldn’t take too long for each picture.

Here are some of today’s top pictures.

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I love the first picture because it is a milk bottle holder. We had one when I was a kid and I used to love getting up every morning and going out and getting the milk. It was a great way to start the day. The second picture is a seed sign. It is about ten feet tall. And the last picture is from a seed store.

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These two pictures are of two toys – a tractor and a sled.

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Here is a milk sign and hay picks. I love those!

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If the farmer has anything in abundance, it is corn shellers and signs – lots and lots of signs.

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I just loved this painting.

Doing the cards will take the longest time. I know about what half of the items are. The other half will take some time. It will be interesting to learn what they are and for what they were used.

When I eventually finish the cards, I will have a great appreciation of how farmers used to grow and prepare the food. I still have a lot of work to do. And to me, I find this a lot of fun so far.

Part two on Thursday will find me finishing the toy and book section of the museum.

Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War

actionnewstand
Total war is a concept foreign to most Americans. The idea that war so consumes our every thought, our every action is beyond comprehension. Yet, in World War II, Americans did expend every last bit of energy to do what they could to help win the war.

To ensure the American public never forgot the concept of total war, propaganda was unleashed in many forms. Most adults saw this in the forms of posters in shops or in short films before a movie. But for children, the rise of a new form of literature that became popular in the 1930s became the gateway for propaganda to be conveyed to a younger generation. The comic book embodied the virtues of what it was to fight evil during World War II. In fact, the comic book still embodies those same virtues today.

In 1977, Author Michael Uslan stated the following about the nature of comic books:

From the 1930’s through today comic books have expressed the trends, conventions, and concerns of American life…Comics have been a showcase for national views, slang, morals, customs, traditions, racial attitudes, fads, heroes of the day, and everything else that makes up our lifestyles.

And in World War II, this is what comic books would do but about war.

At the Time
In one form or another, comic books have been around since the 1500s. However, in the United States, the comic book as we know it today arrived in the late 1930s. In June of 1938, ACTION COMICS #1 was released and children would never be the same. Superman, the character who encapsulated all that was good about America and humanity, became a star as a result of the issue. Other characters soon followed including the Human Torch, Batman, the Sub-Mariner, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Shield, and Captain America. 19500-004-0F2CD3D7

Superman became popular for many reasons. Like many Americans, Superman was an immigrant – albeit an alien world. You could argue Superman was the ultimate immigrant being away from his parents. Secondly, Superman espoused the virtues of hard work, justice, and truth.

Comic books also became popular for other virtues in the Great Depression. Scott A. Cord claims:

Even as a form of escape, the comic book allowed readers to fantasize about punishing real life wrongdoers. Since the Depression was the overriding concern of Americans during the 1930s, readers enjoyed seeing superheroes fight against those who exploited the bad times for their own financial benefit. For example, early characters such as the Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman often took on corrupt businessmen who mistreated poor and desperate workers in the late 1930s.

But the depression would not be the overriding issue of the day for very much longer.

Comic Go to War before the War
In 1940 and 1941, many comic books had storylines about the events of the wars in Europe and Asia. These stances before the US entered the war quite controversial. At a time when most Americans wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe, the characters in the comic books did. Many of the writers of the comic book heroes were actually Jewish and felt it their duty to influence the American public of the dangers of what was taking place overseas.

In fact, a full nine months before the war, Captain America is seen punching Hitler in the face. Writers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby received hate mail about the goals and actions of Captain America. Many were opposed to such storylines. Captain America stood out in his patriotic red, white, and blue uniform while espousing the ideals of American nationalism. Within a year after Pearl Harbor, Captain America’s views and actions about evil and what to do became the norm.

detailWhen the war began, 15 million comic books were being published a month. Two and a half years later, 25 million copies were sold a month. Superman and Captain each sold over 1 million editions a month. And the largest single customer in the period was the United States Army. Originally, the Army was buying comic books as diversions, but soon many of the soldiers became hooked on the story lines, character development, and the virtuous fight against evil and oppression.

Throughout the war, the comic book super heroes were involved in doing things to help the war effort compared to fighting the war. They did things like deliver supplies, stop spies at home, and do whatever they could do to help the soldier while in the US. The depictions of the character’s action were simplistic and good always triumphed over evil. The characters always illustrated war aims and how children could help win the war.

Superman never fought the war. You would think that he could have ended the war by himself, but the authors of the comic did not want that to happen. Instead, Clark Kent’s anxiousness to pass his physical that he accidentally uses his X-Ray Vision to read the chart in the next room. He is declared 4-F and has to do what he can (along with Superman) in Metropolis.

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II. Notice the red, white, and blue themed uniform.

Captain America was the exception. With his sidekick 12 year old Bucky Barnes, Captain America took a first–hand role in fighting the forces of evil. What made Captain America comics different was that they were violent, in fact, shockingly violent for the time period. Characters were shot between the eyes, left beaten and bloodied, and tortured.

Another aspect that endeared Captain America to many Americans was that he always fought by the “rules” of war and won. His antagonists always “cheated” and lost.

Soon other comics followed. Individual stories of bravery and courage ended with the American soldier overcoming fear and saving the day. Meant at first to inspire those at home, the characters wound up inspiring those abroad actually doing the fighting.

Many writers of the books actually were part of the Office of War Information and the War Writer’s Board. These organizations supposedly were interested in given accurate information about what was happening overseas. The comic book became a vessel to do so.

Even the advertisements in the comic books were war related.

“Junior air raid warden kits, aircraft recognition flash cards, paper drives, money for war bonds and scrap metal drives were all supposed to help children feel like they were doing their part for the war effort.”

In addition to the superheroes, ordinary people, women, and children characters had their own comics. Boy Commandos was a group of 12 year olds out to save the world. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, served as a nurse doing her part. In addition, comics portraying real people like Eleanor Roosevelt were made showing her contributions to the war.

ww2 comic warning

As the war wound down, so did many of the characters. Superman and Lois got hitched and had super babies, Batman went back to fighting the master villains of Gotham and in 1956, Captain America was cancelled.

Many soldiers who had read comics overseas found them to be a comfort item on their return. Maybe it was escapism, maybe it was a habit, but either way they were a solace to many of the soldiers who would later introduce the comics to their children. By 1947, comic books sold 60 million issues a month.

By the early 1950s, the so called “Golden Age of Comics” characters had transitioned to mundane activities. With no evil left to fight, comics like Archie, Veronica, Jughead, and Richie Rich became the mainstream from the middle 1950s through the middle 1960s.

Importance
Comic books in World War II played a significant role in education a young populace before, during and after the war. From Captain America punching Hitler in the face 9 months before Pearl Harbor to encouraging the war effort on the home front through actions and advertisements, these pieces of art helped educate a country in a total war.

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The most surprising influence the comics had was on those who actually participated in combat. The books were seen as something to take their mind off what was to come and what had taken place. They were cheap, easy to carry, and the comic itself didn’t require a college education to read. It was part entertainment, part instructional manual, and part psychologist for the solider.

While the comic books did display propaganda, it was also commercialism at its finest. Comic books were big money and portended the youth culture to come in the 1950s. The comic book actually became a part of the war itself. It showed what children and young men could do to help the effort through the character’s actions and through advertisements in the comic itself. Children used the comic to keep up to date on what was happening even though most comics took months to develop and illustrate.

The comic books published during the war laid the foundation for later comic books of the 1960s and film and TV today. Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, my favorite comics and characters all had their roots in World War II. Captain America, Nick Fury, and the X-Men were the comics that I read as a boy and teenager and are based on, and influenced by, those comics and events from the era. Even looking at what movies to see this summer, or TV shows that I watch, they all come from comic books. For me, there is some morality I can agree with in their actions. There’s a goodness there, a sacrifice, first envisioned some 75 years ago that still resonates today.

Sources Used – Mostly PDF Files: Click Here

A Glimpse into the Summer of 2015

010I have been teaching for over 20+ years but this summer I get to do something few historians get to do – I get to catalog a farm museum. Located south of Belvidere, Illinois, the museum actually started out as a hobby of a local farmer. It began with a few pieces 20 years ago and now has morphed into three buildings of agricultural lore. From seed bags to seed corn signs to toys and even wagons, over one hundred and fifty years of American agriculture is told through the machines used to grow and make the food we eat. I estimate there are between 2000-3000 pieces in the museum.

Yesterday, the farmer had an open house, which he does once or twice a year in addition to hosting school groups. I strolled around the grounds, took some pictures, and talked to some members of the community where I teach. It was a good day, but I also got an idea of the enormity of the task which awaits me.

My tools for the summer will be a tape measure, a camera, and a laptop. When I am done, there will be over a thousand slides that look something like this:

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It’s a big task. It might even be overwhelming. But it will be a fun task as I get to hear the stories behind each piece. Some people may make fun of the show American Pickers, but the people on the show truly do protect forgotten pieces of American history. And this museum, its owner, and its collection are pretty close to the people and places Mike and Frank see each week.

007To me, it is all about the stories behind the piece. That is what I look forward to most. I don’t know how long it will take me to catalog the three buildings. I really don’t care. It could be weeks, months, or even a couple of summers, but it something I think is important. My father, my maternal grandfather, and my uncle were all involved in agricultural. It is something that I think reminds me of them.

The blog this summer will post weekly updates with some items highlighted for their uniqueness or importance. The summer may go fast, but for this historian, it will be something few historians get to do.

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