Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Building a History Curriculum

In the spirit of helping history teachers become more self-aware I present these questions for building a history curriculum. They are questions that every history teacher must eventually confront, questions that help history teachers evaluate themselves and create better lessons for students. 

1.  Why are students taking your class?
Is it a required class? Is it an elective? Are students taking the class because they are interested in the subject? Are they taking the class because they have heard you are a good teacher?

2.  What are your curriculum priorities?
Are you primarily concerned with following administrative standards and covering the content? Are you primarily concerned with providing historical knowledge or helping students develop academic skills? Are you hoping that students simply “enjoy” the class and learn to love history?

3.  How will you decide what information to cover?
Will the textbook dictate content? Will state or district mandates decide what you teach? Will you be following an academic consensus about what students should learn in a history class?

4.  What approach will you take in covering historical information?
Will you take a traditional chronological approach? Will you take a topical or thematic approach? Have you thought about teaching history backwards and following historical strands that begin with the present?

5.  Which historical theme(s) will your curriculum emphasize?
Will your presentation of themes fall primarily under the category of political, economic, social, cultural, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or some other significant theme.

6.  How will you decide which topics are studied in depth?
Is political history more important than social and cultural history? Is early history more important than current history? Can you skip some topics? 

7.  What textbook(s) will you use?

8.  What supplemental sources will you use?

9.  What primary sources will you use?

10. Will you incorporate literature, film, art, or music into the curriculum? If so, what will you use?

11. How will you deliver basic historical information?
Will students obtain information primarily from the textbook, lectures, PowerPoint presentations, or some other source?

12. What teaching strategies will you use to motivate and engage students?

13. What academic skills will you emphasize?
Will your class focus primarily on developing reading, writing, or thinking skills? Are there other skills you want to help students develop, such as computer skills or social skills? 

14. Will you incorporate technology into the curriculum? If so, how?

15. How will you handle controversial issues?

16. How will you evaluate students?
Will you evaluate students primarily through the products they create (written or constructed), their performances (role playing, oral reports, simulations), exams (multiple choice or constructed responses), or some other means of evaluation.

17. How will you keep learning and growing as a history teacher?

18. How will you keep yourself motivated as a history teacher?

19. What is the higher purpose of what you will try to achieve as a history teacher? What is the value of teaching and studying history?

20. What is your personal mission statement as a history teacher?

Friday, July 13, 2018

John Adams: An American Treasure

In 1987, John Adams composed Nixon in China, a work that has been called the greatest American opera since George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In 2003, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for On the Transmigration of Souls, a piece composed as a tribute to the victims of September 11. In 2009, Adams was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. In short, John Adams is a national treasure.

Music critics often use the word “minimalist” to describe Adams' music, grouping him with two other minimalist composers: Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

If minimalism is defined by its few musical ideas and repetitive, sometimes monotonous, forward motion, I suppose Adams' music could, in some cases, be labeled “minimalist.” However, his music contains much more. According to such writers as H. Wiley Hitchcock and Michael Walsh, Adams bridges the gap between minimalism and more traditional styles of music.
Adams’ music represents less of a conscious break with the past than either Reich’s or Glass’s; instead [he] draws inspiration from composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius and Stravinsky. His works have a lushness and emotional depth largely absent in the ascetic though fundamentally cheerful sounds of Reich or the giddy, explosive rhythms of Glass.... Adams has forged a big, strong style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists.   
– Michael Walsh, “The Heart is Back in the Game,” Time, September 20, 1982 (as quoted by H. Wiley Hitchcock in Music in the United States, p. 338)
In my class for lifelong learners titled “American Classical Music,” my students listened to Adams' music and seemed to most enjoy Short Ride in a Fast Machine, an energetic piece that features a hypnotic amplified woodblock. I have embedded that piece below, as well as videos from Nixon in China and On the Transmigration of Souls.

John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Marin Alsop conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra

John Adams, Nixon in China, "News, James Maddalena, Houston Grand Opera (1987) 

John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls, Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic


While I'm in the midst of writing a blog about a composer named John Adams, I might as well provide a quote about the arts from John Adams, the second president of the United States.
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain. 
– John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, 1780


Characteristics of a Good History Teacher

A Good History Teacher ...
  1. Is knowledgeable about history and loves learning history.
  2. Is able to explain the importance of studying history. 
  3. Provides an in-depth study of selected topics and avoids teaching history as a laundry list of information.
  4. Explains the relationship between fact and conjecture.
  5. Carries significant historical themes and questions from early history to the present day.
  6. Is able to deal with controversial issues.
  7. Offers students opportunities for active learning and questioning.
  8. Uses primary source materials including diaries, letters, newspapers, photos, music, clothing, works of art, and other historical artifacts.
  9. Engages students with literature, art, music, and biography.
  10. Covers course content in the time available. 
  11. Explains what has been left out of the history course and why.
  12. Helps students develop basic academic skills.
  13. Asks questions that require analytical thinking and problem solving.
  14. Uses diverse strategies for teaching history.
  15. Presents a study of people from diverse backgrounds and conditions, as well as an understanding of what binds all of us together as human beings.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Creating a Personal Mission Statement for Teaching History

A personal mission statement can serve as a manifesto that adds focus, direction, and a sense of purpose to our daily decisions.

An example of an effective personal mission statement can be found by examining the one that guided Mahatma Gandhi.

Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:
– I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
– I shall fear only God.
– I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
– I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
– I shall conquer untruth by truth. In resisting untruth, I shall endure all suffering.

Several years ago, after reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, I created my own mission statement and found it quite useful in my teaching career. My mission statement clarified what I hoped to achieve as a history teacher and guided me toward understanding how I might improve my teaching. The mission statement served me so well that I asked the prospective history teachers in a class I was teaching at a local university to create their own statements.

Students were asked to craft a mission statement that described what they wanted to accomplish as history teachers. I asked that their mission statements declare the general principles they wanted to bring into their teaching, statements that would explain their higher purpose for teaching history. Students were asked to think of their mission statements as personal constitutions, documents that would govern their actions as history teachers.

Students were told their mission statements might be one sentence or several pages. Their mission statements might take the form of a drawing, a cartoon, or a piece of music. It didn't matter. They were personal mission statements.

I learned from reading the statements that the university students I taught possessed genuine idealism about teaching. Most seemed to be entering the teaching profession for reasons of the heart. I asked them never to lose sight of their idealism. After all, idealism is essential to staying motivated in almost any profession.

I also advised students to look at their mission statements often during their teaching careers. Although a mission statement might be revised, it should always serve as a reminder of the reasons for being a teacher.

For the record here's my personal mission statement for teaching history:

I will never abandon the belief that all students can learn.

I will encourage my students to succeed and never be made to think they cannot conquer challenging tasks. Like a coach who motivates players by telling them to “hold on to the ball” rather than “don’t fumble,” I will plant positive thoughts in the minds of my students. Student success is built on a foundation of affirmative thinking and a sense of self-worth. I must therefore do whatever I can to nurture these attributes in my students.

In pursuit of being a good teacher I will never cease to be a good student. I will continue to develop my own knowledge and skills. I will stay open to change and new ideas, especially the ideas of my students.

I will be a missionary for my subject. I will keep in mind that history can be the most humanizing of all subjects.

As a history teacher, I will commit myself to passing on humane ideas from the past, as well as the stories of inspiring achievements that show the best in human beings. I will use history to help students better understand the goodness in humanity and the unlimited potential of what they might achieve for themselves and their world.

I will use history to empower young people by encouraging them to think about important issues, to develop their own ideas, to present information in defense of their own ideas, and to use their ideas to make our world better.

I will avoid planting the seeds of negativity and cynicism in my students. In doing my part to help students grow into virtuous adults, I must keep in mind that negativity and cynicism are not virtues.

I will never forget the main reason I became a teacher — I wanted to make a difference. For me, success has always been defined by how much a person does to make the world a better place. I hope someday to say that, as a teacher, I was a success.

© 2009 James L. Smith

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Why Teach History?

Let's hope that every professional can identify a higher purpose to their work, a purpose that goes beyond simply making a living. Attorneys, for example, might be motivated by a sense of justice. Scientists might view their research as a way to improve people’s lives. Law enforcement officers might feel a sense of duty to serve and protect. 

History teachers should also sense a higher purpose to what they are doing, not just as teachers, but as history teachers. When trying to identify that higher purpose history teachers should focus on the needs of all students, and they should make sure they are motivated by humane objectives. They should keep the needs of their students and the health of their society in mind.

With these goals in mind I present my personal list of ten reason for teaching history. This is not a definitive list and teachers are encouraged to use the list only as a starting point for clarifying their own reasons for teaching history. 

Ten Reasons to Teach History

1. History provides students an opportunity to develop basic academic skills (reading, writing, and analytical thinking).
In the “real” world we may rarely need to know the details of how George Washington persuaded the Senate to ratify the Jay Treaty or how Andrew Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States. However, we will always need to know how to read, write, and think. Regardless of what our students decide to do with their lives, developing basic academic skills is vital to their success.

2. History helps students better understand the world in which they live.
We live in a diverse and complex world, and all of us need to understand that world in order to survive. One of the best ways to understand our world is to understand its history, an understanding that is vital not only to our personal happiness, but also the health our society.

3. History helps students understand human beings and, in the process, understand themselves as individuals.
In many ways history is a study of human nature and can help us identify human failures and successes. Since all of us must live with both the vulgarity and the nobility of human existence, we should understand that studying people from the past is one of the best ways to prepare ourselves to live with other human beings, at both their best and their worst.
"In history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see, and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things rotten through and through to avoid." – Livy
4. History helps students understand people who are different.
Learning to think historically requires that we learn to avoid presentism. That is, we learn to study the past by minimizing the biases of the present. To understand people from the eighteenth century we must be able to put ourselves in their world, knowing only what they knew. If we develop this skill successfully we will then be able to understand people from five hundred years ago or two thousand years ago. We will be able to understand people in modern times who live in different nations or grow up in different cultures. 

5. History allows students to gain perspective and learn to see a bigger picture.
History allows us to leave the confines of our own environment and see ourselves as a product of thousands of years of history. As the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero stated, “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.”

6. History can inspire students.
Most people, at one time or another, need a little inspiration, and what better place to look for inspiration than to dig into the past? History is full of heroic individuals who found something within themselves that helped them overcome tremendous obstacles. We therefore study history, in part, to learn about inspirational people and their triumphs. We can use history to guide us and help us find the strength and wisdom to deal with life’s hardships.

7. History can provide students with a reason for being — it can give meaning to their lives.
All of us need a reason for living, a higher purpose to our lives. Are we here primarily to help others or explore new frontiers? Are we here to create and bring beauty into the world? To what extent should we define our lives by our emotional and spiritual development? Is it enough to define our lives by hedonistic desires? All these questions have been dealt with by people who came before us and will help us in modern times find our own answers.

8. History can help students feel a sense of connection.
If we consider that an average life span is seventy-five years, it was only two lifetimes ago that it was 1864, and Abraham Lincoln was fighting the Civil War. Only three lifetimes ago it was 1789 and George Washington had just become president. History helps us understand how closely we are connected to the past.

9. History is entertaining and fun.
History is full of drama, suspense, mystery, romance, tragedy, and comedy. If we let the facts speak for themselves, students will likely find great entertainment in stories from the past.

10. History provides students time to wonder and dream — it gives them an opportunity to imagine a better future for themselves.
History leads us to a place where we better understand each other and the world we live in. This understanding can help us then imagine a better way to live and give us the ability to pursue our dreams while staying grounded in our knowledge of the past.
"To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is." – David McCullough
© 2007, 2014 James L. Smith

Friday, July 6, 2018

Mahler’s First Symphony: Victory and Paradise

Gustav Mahler’s symphonies rank among the most challenging and rewarding pieces of music ever composed. If you listen to them often enough and gain the familiarity that comes with repeated hearings, you should gain a deeper understanding of the unique emotional power of Mahler’s music. Mahler, quite simply, composed some of the most inspirational and spiritual satisfying music you will find.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
I especially enjoy the accessibility of Mahler's First Symphony (1888) and its easy-to-follow musical narrative. It has always served me well as an introductory work for humanities students before progressing to more difficult pieces of music, whether those pieces are written by Mahler or other composers.

The "Story" within Mahler's First Symphony

Mahler’s First begins with an awakening of Nature and the anticipation of a new day. This awakening is followed by a section in which we meet the symphony's hero, a wayfarer who finds much beauty in the world. We learn in the third movement, however, that the hero must confront the darkness. We also learn in the third movement how the hero gains wisdom and peace of mind sitting under a linden tree next to a grave. During the fourth and final movement, the hero is thrust into the Inferno. Life is not easy and the struggles that life brings might easily crush the hero's spirit. We learn through the Victory Motif in the trumpets and the Paradise Motif in the French horns that the hero's spirit (a metaphor for the human spirit) will endure. Even in death, the hero finds victory. 

What to Listen for in Mahler’s First

1. Mahler quotes himself liberally. Understanding Mahler’s First requires us to know other pieces of music Mahler has composed. In the First Symphony, for example, the main theme of the first movement (4:18 on the video below) comes from a song Mahler wrote titled "Over the Fields I Went This Morning.” The theme represents the joy of being alive, especially when living in harmony with Nature. ("I love this world so much," sings the Wayfarer.) In the third movement Mahler quotes a song he composed titled "The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved” (30:37-32:08 on the video below). The song is about the tranquility that a tired traveler finds under a linden tree. (This section of music serves as a great example of how Mahler can break your heart.)

2. Anticipation of music to come. Mahler often uses themes and motifs to foreshadow what will come later in a symphony. An astute listener of his First Symphony should therefore not be surprised by the sudden and shocking trip into the Inferno that begins the fourth movement. Mahler foreshadowed this trip during the first movement (13:21-14:30 on the video below).

3. The Undertow. No matter how much joy or peace of mind Mahler provides with his music, we are often reminded of the "undertow" that threatens all of us. In the midst of an idyllic awakening of Nature at the beginning of the First Symphony, Mahler uses a terrifying chromatic bass motif (3:30 on the video below) to remind us of the pain that life can bring. (Mahler certainly understood life's pain – eight of his siblings died in infancy, two more died as young adults, and his daughter died at age four.)

4. The Breakthroughs! Mahler is a master at providing extended sections of stress and tension followed by musical "breakthroughs." In short, Mahler provides many goose bump moments that will thrill and inspire his audiences. (Start at 44:00 on the video below. Listen for the breakthrough at 44:47 followed by the Victory Motif in the trumpets at 45:04 and the Paradise Motif in the French horns at 45:17.)

Enjoy!

Movement 1 – 00:44
Movement 2 – 16:20
Movement 3 – 25:07
Movement 4 – 35:40

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra


To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911, Deutsche Grammophon conducted an internet poll to select the greatest recordings of Mahler’s Symphonies. The results of the poll led to a 13-disk collection of Mahler's nine symphonies gathered together in a set titled Mahler: The People’s Edition. Buy the set and listen to legendary recordings at a reasonable price. The recording selected for Symphony No. 1 is performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

What is History?

"Imagination is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses. With imagination you can revisit the past. Indeed you have a past. It is the root of historical study. What history teaches is that the past is not settled. It’s not a closed account. It’s a vibrant, fertile place that’s open to constant reinterpretation. With imagination you can visit other people’s point of view. You can empathize with their life. You can empathize with how they see and feel things."  
– Sir Kenneth Robinson

Before history students open a textbook, memorize a date, or write a thesis statement, they should understand what they will be learning and why they will be learning it. Students don’t necessarily come to school looking forward to learning history, and unless they understand the importance of what they will be studying, they will likely put little effort into learning it.

I have listed seven questions below that I hope will lead students toward a better understanding of the historical process and why it matters to learn that process. I make no claims to having profound answers to the questions. I only ask that history teachers use this information to spark their own thinking and develop their own answers, possibly even adding new questions.

1. What is history?
History is a story created from an examination of the recorded past.

2. Why is history defined as a “story"?
When we study history we don’t necessarily learn what happened — we learn a “story” about what happened. History might not always move forward in a linear fashion with clear beginnings and endings that can be divided into distinct chapters. Even so, historians often explain the past with stories divided into chapters so that it makes sense. The historical process requires historians to compartmentalize and categorize information into a variety of topics (or chapters). Otherwise, the past might appear chaotic.

It might help to think of historians as detectives. They gather evidence about something that happened and then hope they can recreate the past in a way that persuades people to accept their version beyond a reasonable doubt.

Like detectives, historians might never know for certain whether they have accurately recreated what happened. The best they can do is create a narrative that conforms to the evidence available to them. They also understand that different detectives/historians might provide different narratives, even when they have examined the same evidence.

If several people witness a crime, for example, investigators might hear several versions of what happened. Even if they have a film of the crime, they might interpret what they see in the film in different ways. Over time, investigators might even gather evidence that discredits eyewitness accounts, leading to entirely new versions of the story.

In short, the job of historians, like crime investigators, is to reach rational conclusions based on the evidence available to them and then create a narrative from that evidence. For the narrative to make sense, historians must compartmentalize and categorize information, and whenever new evidence emerges, they must be willing to reevaluate their conclusions and change their narrative.

And that’s the historical process. Students should understand that history requires them to tolerate uncertainty. They can never really know what happened. They can only examine the “stories” created from available evidence.
Everybody likes a bit of gossip to some point, as long as it’s gossip with some point to it. That’s why I like history. History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true. – Gore Vidal
3. What is meant by describing history as the "recorded" past?
If we have no records from the past, we quite simply have no way of knowing what happened. 

Historians look at a variety of artifacts and documents to create their stories of the past. They study letters, diaries, paintings, photographs, music, old clothes, cooking utensils, weapons, garbage, and much more. They might even study natural phenomena, looking at the geographical features of where people lived or the significant natural events that might have affected their lives.

All told, trying to tell a story about what happened in the past requires historians to assemble a puzzle from many different pieces of evidence. Even when the picture is seemingly complete, a new piece of the puzzle can cause the historian to see an entirely new picture and revise the story they had always told. Some pieces of the puzzle might be lost forever, and the historian might never know the entire story about something that happened.

Like detectives, historians have problems to solve. They ask questions about the past and then look at artifacts to create a narrative to answer those questions and describe what life was like for people living in a bygone era.

4. Why do we wonder about a world that no longer exists?
We wonder about the past because we cannot help ourselves. We read an old letter and wonder about the person who wrote it. We look at an old stove and wonder what type of food people cooked on that stove. We look at our system of government and wonder how it developed. We see our friends and colleagues on Monday and ask them what they did over the weekend. Questions about the past are ever present in our lives.

History might also help us understand what is eternally true about being human. It might help us understand ourselves as individuals and the world in which we live. History helps us see a bigger picture of how human beings once lived and how our lives fit into that picture. It’s only natural to wonder how much our world is the same as the world of the past, as well as how much it is different.

5. How does history help us understand today’s world?
All of us are products of the world in which we live. If we had been born in a different time and place, we might speak different languages, eat different types of food, wear different types of clothes, adhere to different social customs, and follow different religions. Much of who we are and what we think is a product of our time and place in history, and the distinct character of our time is a product of thousands of years of history.

Even the things we wonder about are a product of the time in which we live. The questions we ask about the past reflect the circumstances of our lives, and we can’t force ourselves to wonder about the things we just don’t wonder about. (I hope that makes sense!)

Americans in today’s world, for example, ask different questions about the past than Americans of the 1890s, 1930s, or 1960s. Additionally, the questions that Americans ask about the past are probably much different from the questions people in China or Russia ask about their past. 

In short, history is a dynamic, ever-changing, and often contentious subject. 
The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false. – Paul Johnson
6. How does the dynamic nature of history affect the stories we tell about the past?
Our stories about the past are always changing. The story of the American Civil War that people heard in the 1930s is different from the story told today, and the story that is told 80 years from now will be different from the story we tell today. History is not necessarily what happened, it is a story about what happened, and the way we tell the story keeps changing to accommodate the time in which we live.

Not only does the time in which we live shape the story, the place we live also affects the way history is told. Americans tell a much different story of the American Revolution than the British. The Vietnamese tell a much different story of the Vietnam War than Americans. 

The challenge for all of us is to become bigger than the time in which we live.

7. What does it mean to become “bigger” that the time in which we live?
Studying history provides us with the bigger picture of our lives. We are able to see how our lives compare to the lives of the billions of people who came before us. The more we understand about the people of the past, the more we can understand ourselves. History gives us a much greater perspective on our world and our place in it.

And there is no reason we must remain prisoners of the modern world. We can learn to think beyond our lives and imagine a better world. Like Americans who knew slavery was wrong while living in a world that accepted slavery, we can put ourselves on the right side of history. We can imagine a better and more humane world to come. We can be “bigger” than the time in which we live.


© 2013 James L. Smith