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.


The 600 Home Run Club – Who Cares?

Today, Alex Rodriguez became the seventh player in the history of Major League Baseball to hit 600 home runs. No one outside of New York cared. It is a shame really that this legendary feat became so meaningless. But will it be meaningful again?

The 600 Home Run Club only had one member for over 30 years and that was Babe Ruth. Then Willie Mays and Hank Aaron joined him in the pantheon. For another 30 years no one entered. Then in a matter of 10 years, this millennium has seen the arrival of Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Sammy Sosa, and now Alex Rodriguez into the club. The biggest shame however will be that only one of the four newest members will make into the Hall of Fame – Ken Griffey, Jr.

Even though MLB has been testing for steroids for over five years, the scandal still continues to rock the league. When I was a kid, 500 home runs was the ticket to Cooperstown. So was 300 wins. Now what will happen in the next few years is those players who were implicated in the scandal via either the Mitchell Report, Jose Canseco, or the Clemens Scandal, will never see Cooperstown unless they buy a ticket.

Think about this – Since 1990, 11 players joined the 500 Home Run Club. So, from 1929 to 1990, only 14 players hit 500 dingers. Then in 20 years, 11 joined. That is an amazing statistic! However, not every one of the new 11 members of the 500 Home Run Club were involved with steroids.

Jim Thome – could be the next to 600. He has always been as we say in Illinois, “Country Strong”.
Frank Thomas – We used to call him F-cubed (Fat “expletive” Frank) back in the early 90s during strat–o-matic games.

Sheffield, Sosa, Palmiero, Bonds, McGwire, ARod, Manny – they are not getting in.

As for other active players – Albert Pujols has not even hit his 400th and he just turned 30. Ryan Howard has been a machine the last five years. He only has 245. The game has changed. And Maybe that’s a good thing. As this summer has gone on, I have enjoyed watching a team like Tampa Bay actually use speed and timely hitting to win games rather than wait for the three run homer ala Earl Weaver.

It is ironic that when MLB promoted “Chicks Dig the Long Ball”, little did they know it would be their undoing. And where will Maddux and Glavine be in five years? Cooperstown, that’s where.

Baseball and the Civil War

As I watched the Yankees C.C. Sabathia dominate the Los Angeles Angels last night, it got me thinking how the great game of baseball spread itself coast to coast and beyond. One war that caused the deaths of over 600,00 Americans also changed the fortunes of our modern world. Amidst the carnage, devastation and doldrums of the marches, one little game emerged that would spread across the country as soldiers took it back home and it became America’s past time. What you had in the Civil War was people from all different parts of America coming into contact with each other. Things were passed along and taken back home. What TV, movies, and radio would do for American Culture in the 20th century, the Civil War did the same in the 19th century.

Baseball has always been, and will always be, the great American game.Walt Whitman stated long before the Civil War:

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses and be a blessing to us.”

Just as WP Kinsella so eloquently stated in Shoeless Joe, baseball has been, and always will be, an important part of America. It is a barometer of our times; past, present and future. But it was the Civil War which brought baseball across the continent. Expansion of the US started when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Jefferson envisioned an America stretching from coast to coast. Over the next fifty years, Americans slowly moved westward leaving behind their loved ones and the game that would soon be born in the East. Baseball too, moved slowly with Manifest Destiny in the years before the war. As Americans moved towards war in the 1850s, baseball moved with it.

Author Michael Aubrecht states:

Although early forms of baseball had already become High Society’s pastime years before the first shots of the Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter, it was the mass participation of everyday soldiers that helped spread the game’s popularity across the nation. During the War Between the States, countless baseball games, originally known as “townball”, were organized in Army Camps and prisons on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. Very little documentation exists on these games and most information has been derived from letters written by both officers and enlisted men to their families on the home front.

Baseball played during the war was very different than the game we know today. Some rules included: The Striker (batter) gets to choose where he wants the pitch. The Pitcher must throw underhand. No leading off the bag. No base stealing. No foul lines. All balls are fair.
Other key facts:

  • The name of the game itself varied from community to community – some teams played “round ball,” while others played “town ball,” “goal ball,” “baste ball,” “old cat,” and “barn ball.” Early versions of the sport required the pitcher to throw underhanded.
  • Outfielders or “scouts” did not use gloves and the baseball itself was softer.
  • Batters were called “strikers” who eagerly wished to hit “aces” or home runs.
  • Outs were called “hands out.”
  • A pitcher stood on the “pitcher’s point” and threw toward the “striker’s point” where the striker (or batter) stood poised above the “plate” or what is now referred to as home plate.
  • The plate itself was a white iron disk, tin plate turned upside down, or whatever could be found as a substitute.
  • Fielders could retire batters by either catching the ball in the air or on one bounce.
  • The more controversial practice of actually aiming the ball at runners to get them out was eventually banned.

Although the rules have changed, the things that make baseball great have not – a sweet single, a great catch, a well thrown ball, a ball hit in the gaps. These elements have been there since the beginning. It was the war that spread it across the nation which now spread from coast to coast. Just as America sped up after the Civil War, so too did baseball. The National League was formed in 1876 with 8 teams. The coming industrialization of America created more leisure time for a growing nation and baseball seamlessly fit into the new day. But it all got going near a battlefield far, far away…

For Further Reading:

Taft and the Traditions of Baseball

As opening day nears on Monday, I have begun to salivate for the sounds and sights of spring. My fantasy teams are picked, my tickets for my two games are bought, and the chair is nice and warm. I expect President Obama to throw out the first pitch on the South Side while I will be watching the north side. But when we look at what President has had the most impact on the traditions of baseball, it is none other than William Howard Taft.

Although not a particularly well-liked President in the annals of history, Taft was befriended my many in baseball – both players and owners.

“I’ll never forget the first time President Taft appeared at our ball park. In the season of 1909 and our players got so excited that we booted the game away to the Red Sox.” – Walter Johnson

But despite Taft’s policies in the office, his appearance at Washington Senators’ games set forth two traditions, one being historical fact and the other being urban legend. Taft is known to have thrown the first pitch at the opening of the 1910 season. It was well documented in many newspapers at the time. What has not been substantiated is whether or not, Taft started the tradition of the seventh inning stretch. Legend states:

According to reports, as the game continued to drag on, the six-foot-two president grew increasingly uncomfortable in the small wooden chair that was no doubt weaning under the weight of its presidential patron. By the middle of the seventh-inning, Taft was unable to bear the pain any longer and stood up to stretch his aching legs. In those days, the leader of the free world commanded a tremendous amount of reverence and as his fellow spectators noticed him rising, they followed his lead as a sign of respect. A few minutes later, Taft returned to his seat and the game resumed.

However one wants to look at it, the girth of the man is only overshadowed by the legacy he has left on baseball. The sad thing he is he did not leave the same mark in the White House.

Ed. Note – Quotes are from

Baseball’s Golden Age – The Bud Selig Steroid Era

This is easily the most arguable of eras to stake the claim of Baseball’s Golden Age. This era is replete with mistakes: Steroids, dwindling World Series ratings, The All-Star Game mess, the Mitchell Report, the Expos debacle, and even more steroids. But in the end, look at the game! It is now more popular than ever. More fans file through the turnstiles than any other sport in America. For the past 16 years, Bud Selig has several points he can put forth to prove his era as Baseball’s Golden Age.

1. Attendance
Albeit with 30 teams, just remember that 30 years ago, very few teams drew 1 million fans to their ballpark in one season. Now if a team cannot draw between 2-3 million, the team is not financially viable and relies on revenue sharing to get by.

2. New Stadiums
All across the country, stadiums have been built that are reminiscent of an earlier age before AstroTurf. These fan friendly environs helped to fuel an attendance boom the likes of which have never been seen before.

3. World Baseball
If Selig is known for anything, it is this. He has turned America’s game into a worldly game. From regular season games in Mexico and Japan to the World Baseball Classic to the expansion deep into the Caribbean, Selig has overseen a Latin and Asian explosion of talent which has infused the game with a wealth of talent the last 15 years.

4. Cable TV and New Revenues
Many franchises now value Cable TV revenues more than the gate receipts. Merchandise sales have also propped up many franchise and can generate as much as twenty million in sales each year. Cable TV also has spawned the new MLB Network and has been a staple of ESPN programming for the past 20 years.

5. Franchise Values
During Selig’s Tenure, the value of many teams have skyrocketed to over $200 million and the Cubs were put on the block for a cool billion.

6. “Chicks Dig the Long Ball”
While McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and ARoid reinvigorated the game, it also made for some of the best drama seen on television in the last 15 years.

7. Fantasy Baseball
No sport embraced the fantasy sports craze as baseball did. Statistics are seen as essential way to analyze the game and its players. By bringing together the fantasy providers, Baseball has unified the process and it is another way for many fans to enjoy the game.

8. The Internet
MLB easily foresaw the advantages of the computer at home. By providing content, tickets and merchandise, each teams website has become one stop shopping for all things baseball. It truly is a fan friendly way to sell your sport.

Knocks against Selig
1. Steroids – I don’t think I need to say anything here

2. World Series – ratings are down. Ratings are way down. It is hard to reconcile the ratings and attendance, but baseball is a regional game and 7 games may be a fine way to find a champion, but it is one that wears on the viewers.

3. The All-Star Game – A tie? Really? What were you thinking?

4. Expos Mess – Let’s collude with an owner to move a franchise and then get sued and settle out of court.

5. Yankes-Red Sox – Outside of New York and Boston, nobody wants to hear about this rivalry. The Midwest would much rather hear about Cubs-Cardinals or Brewer-Cubs.

6. The Mitchell Report – The Cheating Era – The list of cheaters is a who’s who of the 1990s: Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Palmiero, and Pettite. There are also missing names like Sosa, but maybe there are more in the 2003 report to include Sosa and a bulked up Pedro and Manny.

To sum up the Era of Bud Selig, it is easy to see the growth of the game. All the expansion teams of the 1990s all have made the World Series with Arizona winning once and Florida twice. But despite the management of Selig, or in spite of his mismanagement, the game thrived during his stewardship. It is the great American game. Whether or not Selig himself guided the renaissance of the game is up for debate, but one can not debate that the game is stronger than it ever has been and it happened on Selig’s watch.

For Further Reading
Golden Age of Baseball: The 1920s

Golden Age of Baseball: The 1930s

Golden Age of Baseball: The Post War World

Golden Age of Baseball: The 1960s

Golden Age of Baseball: The 1970s

Golden Age of Baseball: The Steroids Era

The Golden Age of Chicago Baseball

Baseball’s Golden Age – 1970s

For me personally, the 1970s saw some of the greatest baseball this country has ever seen. Two teams will go down in the pantheon of teams as some of the greatest of all-time. A rivalry born in the Bronx and Brooklyn is reborn in LA. Free agency began, Astro-Turf ruled, and some of the greatest October nights ever seen were witnessed by the world. For after this decade, baseball began to fade from the nation’s conscience. It would no longer be the same as it ever was in a world with more than three TV channels. It’s as if baseball reached its peak in this decade.

Being born in the 1960s gives you a unique perspective on a lot of things. You are old enough to remember the Beatles, a black and white TV world, and a much simpler life. When 1970 started, the Beatles were breaking up, Nixon was President, we had just put a man on the moon, and I still dreamed of playing second base for either the Baltimore Orioles or the Chicago Cubs. Ten years later the world was a much different place. The US was in a funk, John Lennon would be assassinated, cable TV was being installed everywhere, President Carter had scolded the American public on TV for being in a “malaise” and cynical, and baseball players now were free to go to the highest bidder…but Astro-Turf was still there – in fact, it was almost everywhere.

As for the 1970s making a case to be “The Golden Age of Baseball”, it all starts with stars. In the 1980s, David Stern and the NBA began marketing the league around its stars: Magic, Larry, and Michael (notice I had only had to say one name). Baseball had stars out the wazoo in the 1970s: Pete Rose, Vida Blue, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell, and the star of all stars – Reggie Jackson. People forget before Michael Jordan won 6 titles in 8 years that Reggie Jackson won 5 World Series in 7 years.

What 1970s baseball also had were some great teams. The Baltimore Orioles began the decade by winning with pitching and defense. As a kid I wanted to play for either the Cubs or the Orioles. No one could play defense like Brooks Robinson and the Orioles would be the last team to have four twenty game winners on one staff in a season – let alone in the entire league for a season. The four man rotation was nearing its end. The A’s would win three championships in a row. The Reds and Yankees both would win back to back while the Pirates would bookend their series victories in ’71 and ’79.

Rollie Fingers and writer Jerome Holtzman reshaped the game with the save. Rollie did so on the mound for the A’s while Jerome did so with his typewriter by creating the save statistic (which in my mind is the most over-rated stat in all of sports) . Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all time career home run mark and then soon called it a day a couple years later. I got to see Willie Mays in his last season play on a hot summer night in Busch Stadium.

If baseball was anything in the 1970s, it was a sport of extremes. A team’s offense depended on either speed or power. There was little in between. The playing surface dictated it. Astro-Turf began in the 60s in Houston and by the end of the 70s, half the teams in the National League had it.

Free agency had its roots with Curt Flood in the 1960s and it was fully born with Andy Messersmith in the 1970s. And in 1976, he became the first true free agent. The game would never be the same. Players would no longer play their entire careers for one team. They were now independent commodities in the business that had become baseball. In fact, having won three rings, A’s owner Charlie Finley began selling his players for money – some successfully, some not.

An argument can be made that what made the 1970s a “golden age” in the seventies would destroy it in the 1980s. The DH created two different brands of baseball. Astro-Turf created careers for the speedy and ground ball hitters while destroying the knees of so many others including the freak of an athlete, Andre Dawson.

In the end, the decade that had created such excitement destroyed the game. But what is undeniable were its stars and its teams. The 72-74 A’s were the greatest team I have ever seen. They had it all – the pitching of Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter, Reggie, the wizardry of Bert Campeneris, Joe Rudi, the man from nowhere, Gene Tenace, and former and future Cubs, Ken Holtzman and Manny Trillo. One could make the case for the Big Red Machine of 1975 and 1976, but I would probably rank them third behind the 27 Yankees and the 1972 A’s. The Reds’ pitching was just not that great. Don’t get me wrong – I loved Johnny Bench (the greatest catcher of all time), Tony Perez (somebody had to drive Joe and Pete in), and a man who should be in the hall despite all of Joe Morgan’s objections – Dave Concepcion.

Here’s the kicker for why this decade is the golden age. Despite Astro-Turf, cookie cooker stadiums, the DH, and free agency, its all about the players and the product on the field. Despte when, what on, and where it was it played, the players and teams of the 1970s were some of the greatest of all time.

For Further Reading
Golden Age of Baseball: The 1920s

Golden Age of Baseball: The 1930s

Golden Age of Baseball: The Post War World

Golden Age of Baseball: The 1960s

Golden Age of Baseball: The 1970s

Golden Age of Baseball: The Steroids Era

The Golden Age of Chicago Baseball