Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Historical Triage

If you are a history teacher then you probably already know what I mean by historical triage. The history of America, the history of the world, the history of Georgia, and even the history of a button can be a very vast area to cover. We simply can’t do it all in the amount of time we are given. Sometimes, however, I wish I had more time to share everything I would like to with students.

That is often impossible, however, because as the teacher I’m given a set of standards with the directive of making sure those items are taught. If I deviate from “the plan” then students aren’t prepared for the next set of standards for higher grade levels, and they aren’t prepared for the state assessment. However, as a passionate history teacher I know that more information can help students see a bigger picture, more information can help students connect to information already learned, and more information can help motivate students to dig further. It is quite a conundrum though. Out of all of the possible tibits of “extra” history, which ones do I attempt to include and which ones do I sacrifice for another day, another time, or even for another teacher to cover? It’s all a matter of triage.

For example, in the fifth grade one teaching standard states, the student will describe the importance of key people, events, and developments between 1950-1975. Now that standard covers twenty-five years of history jam packed with people, events, and developments. How do I know what Georgia considers important?

Luckily elements are given with each standard to serve as a guidebook when planning lessons, so that I know how specific I should get. Element (a.) states the student should be able to discuss the importance of the Vietnam War, and (b.) the student should know something about Justice Thurgood Marshall. This leads me to the conclusion that President Johnson will need to be introduced to students along with his two-front war….the war in Vietnam and the domestic war against racial inequality, poverty, and many other social ills more commonly known as The Great Society simply because President Johnson greatly increased our involvement in Vietnam and he also appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court.

Sadly, this could mean much of the interesting life of LBJ could be triaged and left on my planning room floor. I believe sharing President Johnson’s social programs with students is key to understanding the entire decade of the sixties and on towards present day. A look at the Great Society also ties in with previous studies such as the War Between the States, Reconstruction, the resurrgence of the Ku Klux Klan, etc., but I have to be reasonable. I cannot cover everything.

One way I attempt to share more of LBJ with my students is with a discovery activity I have devised. After a few days spent in the jungles of Vietnam I turn students’ attention to the Johnson’s domestic programs and his wish to improve American society. We discuss how the Great Society was an effort to eliminate poverty, reverse racial injustice, improve education, clean up urban blight, and protect the environment. We discuss how Johnson had an incredible amount of money flooding into Asia as well as gushing into Great Society programs.

One morning students arrive to see a question I’ve written on the board in large letters, “What would make President Johnson so passionate about improving American society?”

With that question in mind, students move into groups armed with copies of one particular resource covering President Johnson’s early life. The resources stop at the point he became a politician. Every group member has their own copy, but each group has a different source. Students are instructed to keep the question on the board in mind, and I ask them to read and analyze the source. Their job is to pull out facts about Johnson that might possible answer the question on the board. For some class groups we might spend a moment or two breaking down the question to make sure students are clear regarding what they are looking for.

I love activities like this because I am allowing the student to discover the information. They love to tell me something I might not know, and as the year progresses they become very competitive with one another in an attempt to learn something new. After a few minutes we gather again, and I ask each group to share one thing they learned. As they share I begin to make a master list on the board underneath our focus question.

One group tells me the Johnson family lived in a very small home with no electricity and no plumbing. Many are amazed by this and I tell them that even as close as fifty years ago there were homes in our own community that still had outhouses. Another group shares that the Johnson’s father was a state legislator, but the family was poor as the father tried to make a living as a farmer and a cattle speculator. Someone on the other side of the room begins to wave their arm frantically. I call on Mr. Wavy Hand and he excitedly shares, “It wasn’t just his father who was a lawmaker. His grandfather was too!”

I say, “Hmmmm…..” as I begin to write that fact on the board and call on the next group. In a rush one young lady advises President Johnson was born in 1908 and his father’s name was Sam Ealy Johnson. His mother’s name was Rebekah Baines Johnson.”

Several students emit a chorus of “Ohhhhhhh!” as they now know where the “Baines” came from in President Johnson’s name. I notice one group seems to be about ready to bust with their tidbit from Johnson’s early life. I go ahead and call on them to show us how intelligent they are. Very Loud Young Man lets out a sigh of relief and states, “I thought someone else would tell you before we could.”

I say, “What? What it is?”

A girl in the group says, “Oh, EHT. This is just soooooo good. You’re going to like this.”

I put my hand on my hip and sigh as I say, “Well……..”

Very Loud Young Man finally explodes by saying, “Johnson grew up near Johnson City, Texas. Johnson City was named for his ancestors who helped settle the area. One of them was named James Polk Johnson. He went to Texas after the War Between the States and….HE WAS FROM GEORGIA!.”

There are several “ohs” and “ahs” around the room including my own, “Really? That’s so neat. Let’s put a star by that fact because if you are like me we will want to know more about Mr. Johnson from Georgia.”

A voice from the back of the room mimics what I often say during class, “Yes, let’s save that for further research.” I smile. I don’t repeat things over and over merely because I like to hear my voice.

We continue on with the facts. As a group we discover President Johnson was talkative in school and was described as awkward. Several students related to this while others related to the fact that even though he probably lived very simply his classmates elected him as president of his eleventh grade class. Another group found a quotation of President Johnson’s where he said, “Poverty was so common we didn’t know it had a name.” We discuss the meaning of the President’s remark and moved on to more facts.

He had four siblings. Someone remarked his house was probably crowded. Another quipped, “Well, he didn’t have his own room. That’s for sure.”

Another group discovered Johnson’s mother’s grandfather had been George Washington Baines. He was a Baptist clergyman and was President of Baylor University. I let student groups discuss this for a minute after wondering outloud why the Johnson family was so poor if they have a university president in their background. Students arrive at all sorts of reasons such as crop failures. and maybe the rest of the family never had the same amount of education for some reason. Someone else remarked that perhaps President Johnson’s mother’s family was better off than his father’s.

We also discover Johnson worked his way through college at Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College. The next group, however, correct my factoid on the board by stating their resource said the college is known as Texas State University---San Marcos today.

Finally, we discovered that for one year before he left for Washington, President Johnson taught school. Oh my, he was a school teacher! He taught at the Welhausen School. His students were almost entirely Mexican and were from very simple circumstances.

Through this activity students learn that politicians are often passionate regarding certain issues because of their past experiences. Now that students understand President Johnson’s zeal in wanting Great Society programs, they are ready to examine and analyze the various components of the various social programs proposed during the late 60s.

This post also appears at American Presidents.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know most of those facts. Very interesting activity and discussion. I wish I had you as a History teacher.

Anonymous said...

First, I absolutely agree that it is almost impossible to know what to teach and what to leave out. In Florida History is not part of our standardized test and so anytime students need to be pulled out or 'test' classes need extra time it is SS that gets dropped. This makes it even harder to get everything in...and people wonder why I get grumpy about having to teach everything from prehistory to 20th century American History all in one year :o) Somehow I think you'd understand.
Second, that is a fantastic lesson plan. I agree with the other comment, I want you as MY teacher :)

Mr. Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Amazing! I'm a history lover myself, but pale in comparison to you! I'm a newbie teacher and trying to improve, so I'm hoping you can answer a few questions.

Where do you end up getting your sources, especially primary sources?

How much do you use the textbook? And how do you incorporate it into your lessons?

EHT said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words.

Anonymous, I get primary sources in any manner I can. The National Archives Digital Vault is a great place, and just through online searches.

My students are 9 and 10 years old. They are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn. I use the textbook, but not exclusively. It's important for kids to learn how to use the text, but it is also important that they realize it is not the only source for learning history.

My lessons take the content presented in two to three text lessons and combine them into a larger lesson. I might present the info in an informal discussion using a powerpoint rich with images, maps I draw on the board...generally I simply tell the story. This might be followed by activities where students record some notes and manipulate the content with various activities. Once we look at the text lesson students already have prior knowledge and know the basic "story". They are motivated to read as they discover new information about something they have already been introduced to.

The text should be a prop for teaching....not the only source.