The Teaching American History (TAH) Project

The EASTCONN Teaching American History Project, headed by Dan Coughlin, was the best professional development I have participated in as a teacher.  Through workshops, seminars, field trips, and a summer institute, I expanded my knowledge of history and I learned interesting new teaching strategies.  Best of all, I was able to work with a dedicated group of teachers intent on improving their craft.  I highly recommend that teachers get involved in a Teaching American History Project, and teachers in Northeastern Connecticut need look no further than the EASTCONN region TAHP.

Here are three of the lessons I wrote for the TAHP.

The Media and the Spanish American War

In this lesson, students examine various Connecticut newspapers to determine why the US went to war against Spain, and to evaluate the role of the media in the US entering into war with Spain.  Just how “yellow” were Connecticut newspapers?  The lesson and materials can be found at:

The 7 “Hats” of the President

Using the inquiry process, students define the jobs of the president and find current examples.

Hitler’s Rise to Power

Students work in groups to analyze primary and secondary sources and draw conclusions about why Hitler was able to come to power.

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To Kill a Mockingbird Character Sketch

After we finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, my students did character sketches, which served a dual purpose. First, they delved more deeply into the character that they were assigned, but they also collectively reviewed key points in the novel. I began by demonstrating presentation skills for the students by modeling the PowerPoint I created on the character of Braxton Bragg Underwood. Then, I gave students time to work in pairs to complete their own PowerPoint and present them to the class.

This assignment worked well for To Kill a Mockingbird, but could certainly be adapted to any piece of literature.

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Vocabulary Cartoons

Ms. Green, one of my Woodstock Academy colleagues, showed me how to use vocabulary cartoons to make vocabulary acquisition fun and memorable for students. My students and I had a blast with these! While we read To Kill a Mockingbird, each student was assigned a word and each day, we did 1-3 words before they came up in that day’s reading. I gave students a chart on which they could keep track of each word and its definition.

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Making Shakespeare Accessible

I was terrified that I would turn students off of Shakespeare, but was gratified when Romeo and Juliet turned out to be their favorite text of the year! I attribute this success to the groundwork I laid in helping students understand the Bard’s language. To begin, I had students write Elizabethan-style skits. Then I asked them to guess whether Shakespeare wrote in Old, Middle, or Modern English. Of course, they guessed Old English, so I did a lesson on the changing English language. By the end of that, they were just relieved that we weren’t reading Old or Middle English! Finally, before starting the play, we looked at Shakespeare’s sonnets (see lesson, handout, and accompanying PowerPoint slides). I also did this lesson because I had them write a paper on a sonnet while we were reading Romeo and Juliet in class. By the way, this lesson was mostly taken from .

Before starting the play, I laid out Romeo & Juliet’s family trees. Then, once we got into Shakespeare a bit, I got students to appreciate Shakespeare’s use of puns, and had students play “Dear Abby.” (The family tree and the Abby assignment must be credited to my former colleague Cassie Green, who was a HUGE help in my first foray into teaching English!).

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The Bill of Rights: What’s REALLY Important?

To help students learn what is in the Bill of Rights and why it’s important, I have students work in groups and I tell them that they can only keep 5 of the 10 amendments.  In the left column of this worksheet, they must paraphrase what is in each amendment.  Then, they must discuss with their group and come to a consensus about which 5 they can keep and use the right column for their rationale.  Once groups have finished, I usually make a chart on the board with one column for each group and check off which amendments each group would keep.  Then, I lead a discussion about why each group made the choices they did.  It usually leads to some interesting debates.  In the end, the students come to the conclusion that I of course wanted them to all along—that they’re ALL important!

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Making Civics Interactive

We do not learn to drive by reading about it alone, and “citizenship, like driving, is not a spectator sport” (The American Promise, 1998).  I follow this model when teaching Civics, giving students the opportunity to practice participation in government, in addition to learning about it in class.

Therefore, all of my students must write a letter to an elected official or a letter to the editor about an issue of their choice (and we mail them!).  They must also choose from a menu of interactive activities and complete one of them.  These include: visiting a government agency, attending a town meeting, completing a government-related job shadow, or conducting a government-related interview.

Feel free to adapt these documents for your purposes.  I’m sure I did at some point, and I don’t even remember from where I got the original ideas and materials, so thank you to anyone from whom I have borrowed.

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Try a “Walking Debate”

I heard about the “walking debate” from the luncheon speaker at the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies 2009 conference, and I tried it out soon after.  In a walking debate, students must gauge the persuasiveness of each other’s arguments and move accordingly.   First, students choose sides on an issue by going to one side of the classroom.  Then, each side has to make its case.  If, at any point, someone is persuaded by an argument made by the other side, they are free to move over to the other side.  It’s a great way to get kids listening to each other and moving around the classroom!

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Jeopardy! with accountability.

After years of having students play Jeopardy as a review game, and seeing a few students dominate each game, I went in search of another way to play.  Based on some reading I did online, I finally came to a solution.  I have students line up three vertical rows of desks and divide the class into thirds.  The front seat of each row is considered the “hot seat.”  The person in the hot seat may consult with the person immediately behind them to provide the answer to a question.  After each question, however, the person in the hot seat moves to the back of the row and the rest of the row moves forward.  Therefore, no one person can continually answer questions for a team, and everyone has the chance to answer questions.

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The Progressive Era

An In-Depth Look at the Progressives

The Progressive Era lasted from roughly the 1890s to 1920. The Progressives were not a cohesive group with one strategy or even a single agenda. They simply wanted to improve society. However, their legacy and contributions are much debated. Read more »

Conducting an Oral History Project

The Oral History Project is a semester-long project that I do with an advanced college-prep 20th Century History Class. Students research a major event of the 20th Century, find an interview subject, write questions, conduct an interview, and transcribe the interview.

The project allows students to gain practice in a number of social studies skills and life skills. Students become “experts” in a particular area of history, and they serve a very important function of documenting someone’s history, which might not have been done otherwise. They write for a variety of audiences in a variety of modes including: letters to their subjects, annotated bibliographies, and a reflective journal. Perhaps even more importantly, they work on interpersonal skills and make a connection with an older person in the community.

The project can be used in its entirety, or individual pieces may be useful to different teachers. It can also be modified to suit many grade levels. For example, teachers of younger students might bring interview subjects into the classroom or students might interview family members. Please click to download the complete Word Document.

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