All posts by Vivian Mitchell

Teaching Inspo: Fieldwork and In-Person Testimonies

Hi all,

I recently came across this segment from PBS News Hour about Polaris Charter Academy, a largely low-income charter school committed to social justice. If you’re looking for examples of innovative social studies lesson plans, this video is definitely worth a watch. The way the school’s teachers tie together fieldwork, primary source document analysis, and first-person testimonies in a unit about the Civil Rights Movement is really inspiring. I loved that the project culminated with an actual trip to Birmingham for fieldwork, and I was also struck by how, before that trip, the teachers arranged for people who lived through Jim Crow segregation to come into the classroom and give their first-hand accounts. Inviting people who experienced the era first-hand to speak about their lives is not something I had ever really thought about doing, but listening to the students’ reactions, I can’t help but think this kind of an interaction would be an incredibly powerful teaching tool.

After watching the video, I also began to reflect on my own experience with field trips and guest speakers. To be honest, I couldn’t think of a single experience that left a lasting impression on me. We did make the requisite trip to Jamestown in 4th grade, but I don’t really remember much about it — it was certainly not an educational experience like the one described in the PBS News Hour segment. How about you? Did you take social studies field trips or do field work as a K-12 student? Did you hear a speaker that made a lasting impact? How do you feel about making use of fieldwork and/or classroom speakers in your social studies teaching today?

Teaching Columbus: Mythbusting

Hi all,

During our last class I was chatting with Bethany and Emily about the challenge of teaching  problematic historical figures to the younger grades. Bethany pointed out that the SOL for grade 2 specifically asks teachers to “describe the contributions” of Christopher Columbus. The first time I encountered the Columbus section of the The People’s History of the United States, I had to literally put the book down and walk away. It was that upsetting. Knowing what I know about Columbus, I was more than surprised to see him included on the agenda for second grade.

So how do you teach terrible history to young children? Do we sugarcoat figures like Columbus and hope to bust the myth later, when they’re old enough to learn about slavery, genocide, and caging women and children in pens? Or do we give them the tools to think critically about the towering historical figures that our country still celebrates?

In search of an answer, I went to Google and found some great resources that might help us begin to bust the myth of Columbus at an early age. Teaching History has a great post on different approaches to teaching Columbus from K-12. I especially liked the recommendation for the book Discovering Christopher Columbus: How History is Invented. The book includes primary source documents appropriate for young learners (as early as second grade, I would say); I firmly believe that primary source work can help teach students to think critically about original documentation, to consider multiple and differing perspectives (including colonized cultures), and moreover, to understand that history is itself constructed. I think books that work with primary sources are a good, age-appropriate start to teaching students how to think critically about the past (the lesson that history is a construct is huge, I think) and are a good way to start grappling with problematic figures like Columbus.

Anyhow, this is all just my two cents. How would you teach Columbus or other figures like him, especially to young children (K-2)? Should we remove Columbus from the SOLs, or should we be forced to reckon with a fuller account of our history?

Teaching Primary Sources: The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University

Protestors, July, 1963

Hi all,

As I’ve been working on my bibliography for this week’s digital toolbox assignment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenge of working with primary sources in the K-6 classroom — where to find them, how to adapt them, and how to teach them. I’m particularly interested in figuring out how to pull together a collection of documents that will sustain a class through an entire unit.

The topic I chose for my bibliography is racial segregation and the rise of Jim Crow laws (USII.4c), typically taught around 6th grade (I think), and I came across a resource that speaks to many of the above questions. The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University is home to a large collection of lesson plans and teaching materials, as well as artifacts and primary source documents, that not only cover the Jim Crow era, but slavery and the Civil Rights movement as well.

What I particularly love about this resource is that the museum’s collection goes in-depth into both the history of Jim Crow racism (the section on origins is fantastic in terms of the range of documents — though you, of course, want to choose your documents with awareness and sensitivity and adapt them for the classroom accordingly), and the history of resistance to Jim Crow. The Battling Jim Crow section contains work by artists who respond to, critique, and re-contextualize the images of the Jim Crow era, and I can imagine any number of creative lesson plans that could be developed using the art highlighted there. There’s also a very thoughtful post on how the museum’s staff feel about working with objects that are hateful; the post brings into view the work of curators and museum educators, and I think it could be really cool to talk about that kind of thing in the classroom.

Anyhow, this is just what I’ve been reading this week. I’d love to hear about any primary source resources you’ve found while working on your bibliographies. What topics have you chosen and where have you found the best teaching materials?