Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day and My 800th Post....

I find it appropriate that this post is my 800th posting for History Is Elementary.

Memorial Day is one of my favorite holidays, so it makes sense I’m writing about it again for post number 800. I knew the milestone post was coming up. I had thought about what I would write. I had even asked friends on Facebook what I should write about, and they came up with several interesting ideas. Then I realized Memorial Day was rapidly approaching…..and I couldn’t go without saying something.

What does Memorial Day mean to you? Cookouts, picnics, trips to the beach, perhaps a sale at the mall, time off from work, a cold beer or two, the Indianapolis 500, a slab of ribs on the grill……

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with any of those things, but I wouldn’t be the ElementaryHistoryTeacher that I am if I didn’t point out what the original intent behind Memorial Day is.

Yes! These sweet young ladies, two of which I have the pleasure of knowing, have the right idea. Hannah and Claire are the daughters of a couple who are great friends of mine.  Paula and Scott felt it was important to teach their daughters the true meaning and intent of Memorial Day. Their family along with several other people decorated the graves at Marietta National Cemetery where there will be a ceremony today at noon.

I applaud them heartily!

Yes, Memorial Day is the official day to recognize men and women who have died while serving our country in the military.

Originally, Memorial Day morphed from a day that became popular soon after the end of the Civil War that was known as Decoration Day. Not only was it a day of remembrance, but it also served as a day for reconciliation as the North and South tried to heal.

The war dead was remembered by decorating their graves with flowers. On the very first Decoration Day, General James Garfield, future President of the United States, made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery where 5,000 people had gathered to decorate more than 20,000 Union and Confederate graves.

As there are with most things there are a few cities and/or groups who vie for the credit regarding who began the custom of decorating the graves of soldiers… the end it only matters that it’s done, right?

Over the years Decoration Day began to include soldiers from other wars and officially the day become Memorial Day when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the last Monday in May as an official holiday in 1966.

Here are a few more pictures depicting Decoration Day events.

And of course looking back on other Memorial Day postings here at History Is Elementary…..This post is from 2009 and discusses heroes and this post is from 2008 when I was fortunate enough to spend Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery.

Whatever you do today......take a few minutes to remember those brave men and women who answered the call gave their lives in the cause of freedom.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Signs of the Times

I found out this morning in a roundabout way the high school I graduated from will be hiring an art teacher for grades 4, 5, and 6 for the fall. The teacher will be employed full-time and will teach darkroom photography and printmaking to elementary classes.
Yes, you read that right.

Students in upper elementary grades will be learning darkroom photography and printmaking.

First of all, I don’t have to tell you the economic climate of the United States over the last couple of years hasn’t exactly been agreeable to many in the teaching profession. Education has experienced delays with contracts, budge cutbacks, and programs have been pared down or cut out all together. Teachers have been required to take furlough days and in many instances positions have been deleted totally.

Art and music have been hit especially hard in public school systems. Unfortunately, they always seem to be the first programs to go when there are money issues.

I doubt there are very few public schools today teaching darkroom photography and printmaking to any class let alone a class of young children, and of course, one of the main reasons Woodward Academy can afford this “extra” for students is Woodward is one of the top private schools in the Atlanta area.


What a terrific opportunity to teach what may be a dying art. Bob Smith, a local photographer in my neck of the woods states, “This is interesting …I guess it’s great to expose them to the way [photography] used to be done, but in ten years, they may have to buy the chemicals themselves to do the developing. I wonder what types of film will still be sold in ten years. You have to go to professional photography shops……just to buy old 120 film that went in every camera since World War II…and they have to wait on the manufacturer to produce the next allotment.”

Think about the implications for teaching history by having a darkroom photography and printmaking class. Even our youngest students are familiar with digital cameras. Many are very savvy with the Internet, camera phones and Photoshop. They know modern photography, but by teaching older methods students can learn about the methods of Mathew Brady whose Civil War images still get history students involved directly in the war.

Students can view this image….a street scene by Nicephore Niepce, one of the earliest photographic images from 1826. The method used for this print is called Heliogrgraphy, which means ‘sun writing’. The process took eight hours of exposure time…..notice the light is on BOTH sides of the street.

This image is an iconic one showing the damage from the San Francisco Earthquake in April, 1906 by Arnold Genthe. 

Young students can relate to this image since the age of these young boys is close to their own.  The title of the photo is “Breaker Boys”.   Lewis Hine used his photograph to change life for children all across the United States in 1910.   Breaker boys were employed in coal mines to separate the coal from slate.   Hine travelled the country taking images of child laborers.   Soonafter, a law was passed outlawing child labor.

The next image is the most famous of the four I’m featuring here.   Who hasn’t seen this haunting image of Florence Owens Thompson taken by Dorethea Lange in Oklahoma during the Great Depression in 1936?  It's called "Migrant Mother."

Photography is a powerful way to study history. Images of the past are signs of the particular times we are viewing. We can see how things looked, how people dressed, and how they wished to portray their present for future generations to see.

Historical images are great hooks to draw students in, and what better way to draw them in further than by teaching photography methods that seem to have gone by the wayside in many circles.

In today’s digital world anyone can snap an image and manipulate any way they wish and in doing so they can call themselves a photographer. Mr. Smith states, “I have a pro version of Photoshop CS4 now, and I can take a DSLR color photo and make and make it look like an old fine art black and white print from 60s. I can burn and dodge the photo just like Ansel Adams except it is digital and not like taking your hands to block out the light when the print is being exposed to the negative like Adams did.”

I have to agree.

Where is the knowledge….the craft, and does it suffer at the hands of technology?

Signs of the time, indeed.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Change in an Instant!

Without a question…..without a doubt history and time are inexplicably intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. During my 49 years riding around on this planet there have been events that serve as turning points in my life – meetings, births, marriages, deaths, reunions, actions that show strength and truthfulness and those that scream weakness and betrayal. Yes, we all have those moments in life….during our time here……embedded in each of our personal histories.

Collectively, historical events have their impact as well. We all have those, “Where were you?” moments such as JFK’s assassination, the Apollo Moon Landing, the Challenger Explosion, the Oklahoma Bombing, and of course…….the tragedy of September 11th, a date that needs no year to identify it because it was that terrible, that horrible, that defining in the psyche of each and every American who experienced it.

Last night was another one of those defining moments in our collective history. While it can be argued the death of Osama bin Laden is actually the closing act to the tragedy of September 11th it is yet another of those events which define our lives.

September 11th changed our lives in so many ways all in an instant just as last night changed it as well. Some of the changes are short term such as the elation, the relief, and the renewed anger as we remember what his policies and philosophy led others to do in the name of religion….of all things. Other changes will be long term. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall fifty or even one hundred years from now to see how September 11th and the death of bin Laden is treated in history classrooms.

Will the whole series of events be taught in a entire instructional unit lasting several days? Then again, it might just become a mere mention before launching into an even more important event….though now we can’t even fathom that. The worse thing that could happen is if future historians and educators decide the whole thing was much ado about nothing.

I doubt that will happen since these events did occur during the age of technology and instant news, and not just news of the collective kind but personal news. We all have Facebook pages, blogs, pictures on line, the ability to interact with newspapers and other columns leaving our comments to express our thoughts and feelings.

Yes, within the last decade our lives have been changed in an instant. Last night’s news made of all of us recall those events of September 11th – where we were, what we were doing and how we came to be where we were last night.

Over the last few years I’ve re-posted my September 11th story because it’s that important personally for me to remember. I’m re-posting it again below, and I ask you to remember and reflect how you came to where you were at when you heard the news last night……

However, this time I will use the young’s man real first name because he finally got the chance to read my recollection of that tragic day not too long ago, and gave me permission to use it.

September 11, 2001 began like any other September school day; however, it was abnormally quiet since Tyler’s seat was uncharacteristically empty. He had not missed a day of school since we had started around the first of August.

Tyler was my assigned rambunctious, outspoken, almost uncontrollable young man for the year. There is always at least one. He was a handsome ten year old who adored baseball, adored going to church, and was very in touch with his feelings. While his brain usually moved ahead of his feet by about ten steps he never intentionally meant to interrupt me for the five thousandth time in one class period, never meant to cause me frustration, and he never meant to get on my nerves. Tyler simply had no clue that a one-to-one ongoing conversation between a teacher and himself was not the proper procedure in a classroom with 24 other students.

He blurted out constantly attempting to finish my sentences, anticipate my questions, and interrupted his classmates every time the notion slapped him in the head. He also had a problem many young men do…..he couldn’t sit still. His parents had long since solved the energy problem by making sure Tyler was signed up for every sport that came along. Unfortunately we don’t run bases in my classroom.

After the second week of getting used to Tyler’s energy level he and I conferenced and we worked out a management plan for mysanity. He and I developed hand signals so that he would know when I had had my limit of interruptions. He honestly didn’t realize what he was doing. Sometimes kids have to be taught social limits regarding space and conversation limits. We worked out a plan where Tyler could stand at his seat every so often to ease any discomfort as he sat. I arranged for his seat to be towards the back of the group so he wouldn’t interfere with another student. Tyler seemed grateful for the strategies as he commented, “Gee, maybe this will work. Lord knows you were ready to strangle me yesterday.”

Tyler was right. So on that September morning his seat screamed at me in the quiet as the class proceeded through their morning work.

We were about to transition into Social Studies when Tyler suddenly burst through the door out of breath speaking as fast and as loud as he possibly could. “Oh my gosh, Mrs. Cooper, a plane crashed in New York City and the whole place is on fire.”

It was very confusing to say the least. I mean where had he suddenly come from? The classroom had gone from very orderly and quiet to some town crier bursting through the door screaming New York City was on fire. My mind was attempting to process all of this. Where had Tyler been? Why was he just now coming to me? What had he been doing? What is this about a plane?


I grabbed Tyler by the shoulders. “Darlin’, what are you talking about?”

Tyler was still trying to speak between deep breaths. “I don’t…..know. The man…..said a plane……had crashed…….in New York.”

“What man?” I quizzed.

“The man…..on the radio,” Tyler gulped.

The room was totally disrupted by now with students watching my question and answer session with Tyler their heads bobbing back and forth like they were watching a tennis match.

“Back up, Tyler,” I lobbed, “Where have you been?”

Tyler fired back, “The dentist. By the way, Dr. C. says hello.” Dr. C. is a local dentist and I had taught his son a couple of years before. He was always sending my students back to school with a “Hey, how ya’ doing?” message.

I countered impatiently with, “Yes, yes, hey to Dr. C.” I waved my hand to the air. “Tyler, tell me what’s going on?”

I was getting exasperated. The rhythm of my class had been disrupted, precious instructional minutes were being lost, and I still didn’t know what was going on.

Finally, Tyler served up, “On the way over here from Dr. C’s office the guy on the radio said the World Tower or something has been hit by a plane.”

“The World Trade Center, is that what you mean?” I struck back.

“Yeah, I think so.”

I walked over to the television, hit the on button and switched the channel to CNN……the only twenty-four hour news channel our school could get at the time. The image hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Oh my gosh, Tyler. You’re right.” I said as I backed up from the screen. The room got very still and we listened to the announcer. It was still early enough that both towers were still standing. The announcer was still getting information in his earpiece so he could explain what was going on.

I offhandedly began telling students that many years before a small plane had hit the Empire State Building and the same thing had probably happened again. I told them that, but I wasn’t so sure.

I stepped into the hallway and got the attention of my teaching partner. I lovely woman who was still trying to figure this Southern gal out considering she grew up in New York. Her eyes immediately filled up with tears as she pulled her door behind her and mouthed the words, “Those bastards!” to me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I guarantee you this is the same group who tried to take the towers down before.” We exchanged a few more words before she stepped back in her room to turn on her television as Tyler came to my classroom door.

“Mrs. Cooper,” he said. “The tower just fell.”

“Don’t be silly,” I told him as I reentered my room. A few of the girls had heard me and were agreeing with Tyler.

I looked at the screen and there was nothing there but one tower and smoke. It simply did not register with me the building were gone. The announcer was speaking about planes, large planes had done this. My mind screamed. Jetliners, how could two jetliners hit the towers on the same day?

Another student asked, “Mrs. Cooper, what’s the pentagram?”

A bossy little girl shot back at him, “Pentagon, pentagon.”

I didn’t take my eyes from the television as I said, “Ummm, it’s a building in Washington D.C. where all the branches of the armed forces have their offices including the Secretary of Defense. Why?”

“The guy on television said a plane crashed into it. It’s on fire too.”

I closed my eyes. I could not deny something was going on. We had to be under attack, but from who? I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. I wanted to get my purse and go get my kids. I wanted my husband. I wanted my mother and father. I couldn’t. I was the teacher. I was the adult in charge. I couldn’t let them see me upset. I had to turn off the television and get on with our day.

I walked over to the set at the same time my vice principal came into my room. She smiled and motioned to the television and said, “Turn it off.”

“I know,” I said. “I was about to.” We both knew this wasn’t the same thing as our first walk on the Moon or MLK’s funeral. Our students didn’t need to see anymore unfolding events. Luckily they didn’t see any bodies falling from the sky and they had not yet begun to show footage of the plane flying into the tower and the resulting explosion. It was bad enough they witnessed the fall of the building.

Some of the children, being children, went right back to what they were doing. Tyler walked over to me and said, “Mrs. Cooper, we need to pray for those people. There are people who died this morning. It’s so sad.”

“Yes, Tyler. It’s so sad. Tyler, you know I can’t ask you to pray.”

“I know, but I don’t think you’ll stop me. Will you?”

“No, I won’t. Do what you need to do.”

Tyler walked around the room to every student saying, “C’mon guys. We need to pray for those people. Let’s hold hands and get in a circle.”

Every boy and girl stood up, formed a circle and grabbed each other’s hands. No one argued about holding a girls hand or a boy’s hand. Boys didn’t balk at holding each other’s hands. They just did it. Once they were all were in place each one turned and looked my way as if to say, “C’mon!” I was sitting alone at a student’s desk confused and needing information so terribly. At this point all I knew was someone had an undetermined number of American planes, some were missing, some had crashed horribly, and my husband who works in the air freight industry had his office very near the Atlanta airport.

As the kids looked at me two students broke ranks and opened up a place for me. They just stood there looking at me. I just sat there looking at them. Finally, I got up and joined them in their prayer circle. I looked across the circle to Tyler and nodded at him. He began his very heartfelt, innocent prayer for the people in the buildings, the people in the planes, the people on the ground, our president and other government leaders and as he ended each child went around the circle and said something squeezing the next person’s hand as they were through. Finally, the prayers ended up at Tyler again and he finalized the prayer.

I don’t remember what we did that day. I don’t remember what I taught, or if I taught. An hour later the exodus started. Child after child was called for check-out until I only had three or four left.

Finally, the last student was on a bus and I was on my way home. Hubby had contacted me earlier in the afternoon to tell me he was ok and had gone to get both our kids. They were all at home waiting for me.

The ride home was so eerie. The message boards over the normally backed-up Atlanta interstates flashed the words NATIONAL EMERGENCY. The most surreal thing was there was no traffic on the streets or in the sky. The skies around Atlanta’s busy airport are always filled with planes. You can always look up and find at least one in any direction you gaze. Not that afternoon. It was so quiet. It was four p.m. before I really knew what had happened and saw the same footage that everyone else had seen over and over all afternoon.

I learned many things that day. I learned that my country was as vulnerable as any other. I learned that your life can change direction in one single instant. I learned that citizens can put politics aside and come together in one voice when they realize they have a common enemy. I learned the frantic fear of wondering where your family is and realized we would need an emergency game plan. I learned that people hate me just because I was born an American.

The most important thing I learned, however, was from a ten year old young man and his fellow classmates who did what they felt in their hearts and lived up to their convictions no matter the consequence.