Teaching US History

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.

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.

Teaching Reagan: Constructing a Unit Based on Argument

For the last 20 years, I have never been a big fan of the textbook. They serve a small purpose to a very small point. For me, the small point of the textbook is to have it be the basis for an argument. As a teacher of US History, I try to have my students make arguments and analysis based on facts. An opinion usually sneaks in here or there, but that is fine once in a while. The past week has found me ending a unit in my history classes. The foundation for the unit is the shift from a moderate populace to a more conservative one in the 1980s. At the center of this shift is none other than Ronald Reagan.

I have blogged about Reagan before. He is an enigma, a wildly popular president and for the life of I have a hard time understanding why sometimes as I look at the record. However, as a teacher, I have to make my own students make their own choices.

Whether it was SDI, the conservative movement, cartoons, supply side economics, or one of many other events, I have been slowly accumulating lessons about the Gipper. 20 years ago, he took up one day. Now, he takes up six. The reason for the change has been the effect Reagan still has on the Republican party and on middle America. I grew in Reagan country and still live here as an adult. I have not always agreed with his policies and I have not agreed with his legacy. For the students, the enigma of how Reagan became so influential is perplexing.

The Unit Begins
1. The Malaise
The Fallout of Watergate and Vietnam are examined in this introductory lesson. Topics include the Halloween Massacre, the continuing energy crisis, the election of 1976, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the continuing malaise during the Carter presidency.

2. Culture of the 1970s
Students learn about the fabulous and the dangerous late 1970s culture through my eyes. I talk about my days of nerd heaven between Star Wars and beginning to play Dungeons and Dragons. I also take about the scourge of Disco and the coming of Punk. New technologies are also discussed like the Microwave and cable TV.

3. Reagan and his first term
In the third lesson, I finally get to Reagan. We discuss his background of growing up in nearby Tampico and Dixon and his early career. We reminisce about HUAC and discuss his time as Governor of California. Finally, we get to the election of 1980. After a short PPT presentation, the students read about his first term and discuss things that went well and things that didn’t. Students discuss the merits of his presidency and do a cartoon worksheet which.

4. The Great Communicator
Five speeches are examined as students make a product about Reagan’s speaking ability. A Time for Choosing, the Challenger Speech, Tear Down this Wall, Evil Empire Speech, and the Iran Contra Speech. The goal is to break down the elements of what made Reagan and effective speaker. Here are two of the speeches…

5. Reaganomics
Students review Reagan’s first term. Then a discussion is held about why people are certain denominations of money. Bills are discussed and not coins. Then in small groups, they read a balanced account of economic indicators about Reaganomics. Students make a t-chart and place the items in either good or bad.

With the advice from former president Richard Nixon, Reagan concentrated on economic issues his first six months in office. Reaganomics was the name given to the supply-side economic theory which Reagan based his economic plans. It operated on the belief that the economy was struggling in large part because of excessive taxation. With more money going to taxes, individuals and corporations were unable to invest capital to stimulate growth. The plan called for massive tax cuts in order to stimulate investments. The economic growth would then `trickle down` to the workers. Supply side economics also called for budget cuts to counteract the loss of revenue from the tax cuts. Reagan followed this model in creating his budget plan in 1981. Reagan put together legislation that cut government expenditures by $40 billion and created a three-year tax cut plan for individual and corporate income taxes. The tax cut was the largest in history and was expected to jump-start the economy. However, after the bills passed in the summer of 1981, the country fell into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Inflation averaged 12.5 percent when Reagan entered office, was reduced to 4.4 percent when he left.

Interest rates fell six points.

Eight million new jobs were created as unemployment fell.

An eight percent growth in private wealth.

According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1996, the number of people (white, black, and Hispanic) below the poverty level increased in almost every year between 1981 (31.8 million) and 1992 (39.3 million).

We were $994 billion in debt in fiscal 1981, when Carter left off, and $2,867 billion when Reagan leaves office in fiscal 1989. The rough number is 2.85 times as much in 1989 as in 1981.

The primary reason the deficit grew during the Reagan years was the Cold War military buildup.

Tax cuts did revenues increased in fact in almost a straight progression from pre-Reagan years.

The trade deficit quadrupled.

The 1986 Tax Reform Act is widely considered to be the best piece of American tax legislation since the adoption of the income tax. It is the opposite of Reaganomics. Over its first five years, it closed more than $500 billion in loopholes and tax shelters. As a result:
•Major U.S. corporations that previously had paid little or nothing in income taxes due to loopholes were put back on the tax rolls, and corporate taxes were increased overall by a net of more $100 billion over five years.
•A huge wasteful tax-shelter industry for high-income individuals was shut down.
• Tax rates on capital gains income were raised to the same level as on other income.
• Millions of moderate-income working families got tax relief through a major expansion of the earned-income tax credit.
• Taxes on most families (on average, all but the best-off tenth) were reduced. (The table shows the tax changes by income group.)
• The income tax was substantially simplified for most filers.
The average annual growth rate of real gross domestic product (GDP) from 1981 to 1989 was 3.2 percent per year, compared with 2.8 percent from 1974 to 1981 and 2.1 percent from 1989 to 1995.

During the economic expansion alone, the economy grew by a robust annual rate of 3.8 percent. By the end of the Reagan years, the American economy was almost one-third larger than it was when they began.

When Reagan took office in 1981, the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent. In the recession of 1981-82, that rate peaked at 9.7 percent, but it fell continuously for the next seven years. When Reagan left office, the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent.

Real median family income grew by $4,000 during the Reagan period after experiencing no growth in the pre-Reagan years; it experienced a loss of almost $1,500 in the post-Reagan years.

The savings rate did not rise in the 1980s, as supply side advocates had predicted. In fact, in the 1980s the personal savings rate fell from 8 percent to 6.5 percent. If the median family was better off why did their savings go down?

In 1993 Clinton raised the taxes on the rich, the opposite of Reaganomics, opponents argued that this would stop the growing economy. That did not happen.

Not surprisingly, students understand most of the economic discussion held. As a class we discuss which fact goes on which side. Most of the time it is clear cut, but there are some facts up for debate. Students look at a graph and answer some questions about the chart and conservative thought. Then, using the t-chart, the students determine whether Reagan should be put on the $10 bill replacing Alexander Hamilton.

6. Foreign Affairs
Students review what they already know about Reagan and foreign affairs from his speeches. Then a cartoon is analyzed. Students get a blank map and using text boxes and arrows, they read their textbook and fill out where the hot spots that Reagan had to deal with. Reagan’s dealing with Central America are discussed as well as Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Reagan Doctrine. Students then get a worksheet to analyze the Iran-Contra affair. In the worksheet are what other options did Reagan have and other solutions to the problem.

7. SDI
Students go to the computer lab and read a PPT a student did for National History Day about Reagan and SDI. At the end of the PowerPoint are a series of questions about how SDI influenced foreign affairs in the summits with Gorbachev and the functionality of SDI today.

8. Reagan in Cartoons
Students go to the computer lab and analyze a selection of about 30 cartoons about Reagan. Students pick out ten and explain how the cartoons reflect the presidency of Reagan – both good and bad. Using what they have learned in previous lessons as evidence, the students put it altogether.


While the Reagan Lessons are over, the unit continues for another week and a half as students examine George H.W. Bush, Desert Storm, the Clinton Legacy, Columbine and 1990s culture.

Altogether, the unit lasts about 4 weeks. It is a unit that is always evolving. As more and more information is released and more and more documents are released from the Reagan era, then lessons can be built around investigation and argument. I think that next year, I would like to add some video which discusses the presidency as a whole and add some polling data about his popularity. In addition, I would like to add a scenario or a simulation for the students to investigate Iran-Contra or dealing with the Soviets.

At its core, the lessons are about using the evidence to make arguments for both sides as the students form their own opinions and learn multiple points of view.