Tag Archives: Children’s books

Summer Reading for Teachers: The Unknown American Revolution

The last thing teachers want to do during the summer is plan for next year. 

Yet if you’re like me, stuck in a massive heat wave with no motivation to brave the rain forest-like conditions, then maybe some planning in the AC could help—especially when you have a resource like today’s selection.

I just got back from a conference at UCLA on the American Revolution.  Yes, I’ve heard all the stories: what does California have to do with the American Revolution?  Well, between UCLA and the Huntington Library, there is a massive concentration of primary source material on the subject. 

Secondly, the main lecturer of the conference helped tie all that material together.  UCLA’s Gary Nash is a true master of the subject, particularly in areas that get little attention.  Professor Nash teaches history at UCLA and is the director of the National Center for History in the Schools, an organization devoted to making meaningful connections between classroom teachers and university academics.  Witty, soft-spoken, and incredibly approachable, Nash makes a wonderful guide through an increasing thorny subject—the “other” stories of the American Revolution that often get buried in textbooks.

Nash’s 2005 work The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America serves as a worthy guidebook through this material.  In it, he details many of the conflicts, struggles, debates and battles that have received little attention, making the Revolution a far more complex subject—and far more real experience—than is often depicted.

According to Professor Nash, the American Revolution is not simply a war of independence between the colonies and Great Britain, but a large, unwieldy, often conflicting web of movements and struggles that affect our national character even today. 

As the battles raged, radicals, conservatives and moderates were jostling to create a new nation and offer voices to new groups of people: immigrants, women, blacks, poor whites, etc.  State constitutions were the first real experiments in representative democracy, scoring victories and defeats in the advancement of freedom and suffrage.  Shortages would see a struggle for economic power as bread riots would rage in northern cities.

The Revolution also set the stage for what Nash argues is the largest black rebellion in American history, as thousands of enslaved Africans made a flight for freedom—mostly heading for the British lines.  The need to control the black population also caused a drain on recruitment in the south, as white landowners worked to keep control of their property.

It would also be a turning point in the Native American struggle to maintain independence and sovereignty in the face of encroaching white development, creating unforeseen tensions, alliances and rivalries.  The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, would split up forever over the Revolution, and tribes in the Ohio valley and the southeast would fight as independent actors in a stage largely seen as two-sided.

Finally, the Revolution really began the era of westward expansion, as the population explosion of the 18th century would force settlers farther into the American hinterland.  Conflicts arise, with native populations, eastern colonial elites, and the British military. 

The need for a “popular history” of the American Revolution is expressed by Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park and quoted by Nash in his introduction:

“Men of literary taste…are always apt to overlook the working classes, and to confine the records they make of their own times, in a great degree to the habits and fortunes of their own associates or to those people of superior rank to themselves. The dumb masses have often been so lost in this shadow of egotism, that, in later days, it has been impossible to discern the very real influence their character and condition has had on the fortune and fate of nations.”

History is about telling the whole story, and according to Olmstead, half the story is usually hidden by those at the top of society.  Their narrative, the one that has prevailed so many centuries, has filled our textbooks and the addled minds of so many schoolchildren—children like mine, who look nothing like the Founding Fathers.

So how can The Unknown American Revolution be used in the classroom?

Obviously, this work is much too complicated for most students, even high schoolers.  We’ve covered popular histories of the Revolution before here in the Neighborhood, and Thomas Fleming’s work Everybody’s Revolution is still a great book for elementary and middle-school children in covering much of Nash’s premise.  Fleming’s book is best for any classroom assignments.

Where Nash’s book really excels is both as a resource for high school students in research and as a reference for student questions.  High schoolers, who so often cut corners in research papers, can use Nash’s book as a valuable tool in rounding out any topic about the Revolution, giving a nuance scarcely found in the shelves of typical high school libraries.

For younger students, The Unknown American Revolution provides some explanation to questions many children have about the time period.  In the South Bronx, few children can feel a tangible connection to the Revolution.  In looking at women, the poor, Africans—people that they can relate to—my students can see the Revolution as an event that affected everyone, and that mattered to everyone.   

Finally, I’ll end with a warning Professor Nash gave all of us at the beginning of our week together.  He told us that the most dangerous word in history is “inevitable.”  In our textbooks, we often think that the events that happen were inevitable and could not be stopped.  In doing so, the actions of human beings are conveniently marginalized. 

I always tell my students that history is the story of how humans solve problems, and the consequences of these solutions.  People, all sorts of people, have an active role in not only creating problems, but also in finding meaningful solutions.  The guys on the money were not perfect; and it’s important that kids understand that sooner rather than later. 

It is up to us as teachers to take the premises presented by professors like Gary Nash and make them real and meaningful to our children.

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The “Matrix” of History-The problem with “America: The Story of Us”

Every basic cable channel in America can be summed up in one sentence. 

They consist of hours of reality programming punctuated by hours of reruns of popular programs that have little, if anything, to do with the stated theme of the channel.

I’ve just described Arts & Entertainment (A&E), Bravo, Music Television (MTV), VH1, The Food Network, The Travel Channel, Fine Living Channel, Discovery, Lifetime, TLC, Home and Garden Television (HGTV), and finally The History Channel.

Oh, I’m sorry, it’s now called simply History—as its original glorious programming is relegated to the ash heap of said place.

To understand how far this warhorse of a channel has fallen, look at its most popular programs: Ice Road Truckers, Modern Marvels, and Pawn Stars.  They are, in point of fact, pretty good shows.  Yet with the exception of the last one, how in the hell does any history fit into them?  Did the ice road truckers find fossils to substantiate the Land Bridge theory of Native migration some 10,000 years ago?  How exactly does American civilization benefit from knowing how a Pop-Tart is made?

Finally, how the hell is there so much 17th-19th century ordinance in Nevada?  Those guys on Pawn Stars collect enough antique guns to field a squad of minutemen against the pit bosses at the Flamingo.

The old-school history-heads like myself, who loved to watch Luftwaffe dogfights ad nauseum on the old A&E before the advent of the History Channel, felt cast off and abandoned.  Which is why we were so excited at the beginning of History’s new miniseries America: The Story of Us.

Yet even here, it seems that the whiz-bang pace of reality shows and video games have infiltrated American history.

I won’t go into detail about the number one offense of this show: the relentless parade of celebrities that have absolutely nothing to do with American history.  Let’s show the battle of Saratoga and “poof!” out comes Michael Douglas with some platitude about the American spirit.  Last night’s use of former NY Giant Michael Strahan in the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight was particularly dreadful: the only German Strahan ever pummeled was maybe Ben Roethlisberger on a good day.

Instead, I feel the great injustice of this series is but one: the Matrix-like bullet shot.

We all are at least somewhat familiar with the Matrix series of films: a sci-fi (sort of) trilogy of films long on special effects and short on any believable plot.  The defining moment of the series is a scene where the main character, Neo (played by “cough” master thespian Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets in slow motion through an acrobatic arc of his body—probably computer generated.

Ever since, the bullet shot has become a staple in action films, either missing or hitting their targets.  America, to my chagrin, also decided that to lure the young, high-testosterone set required not one, but multiple shots of the Matrix-variety at a couple of points in our history.

At Lexington and Concord, for example, the low-velocity, non-spinning, handmade, misshapen musket ball is seen from the barrel, hurtling towards its target—the shoulder of a Massachusetts minuteman.  Fast forward to Saratoga, and a Continental sniper fires three shots, two misses and a hit, at British general Simon Fraser.  The framing, slow musket ball shots, and stop-motion zoom seem right out of a video game.  Believe me, a musket ball to the chest is not as fun.

Even more insidious is the bullet shot during the Civil War scenes.  Before the Minie ball flies out of the Model 1861 Springfield musket towards an unsuspecting Reb, there’s a shot of a Union soldier sighting his target as if he were using a fucking Norden bombsight.  Yankee soldiers on the attack rarely had the time to scope their targets with such accuracy, especially with the crappy stick sights on the muskets.

The one point of honesty in the whole process is the computer-generated X-ray footage of what a soft lead low-velocity bullet does to the human body.  The Minie ball was a little bulldozer, obliterating bone, sinew and muscle, making any real recovery impossible.  To put it in comparison, a single round from a modern M16 rifle has a steel jacket at a high speed, which slices through you like a scissor.  Neither of these are very pleasant, but chances are better you’ll recover from the latter.

(Modern sanitation, oodles of anesthesia and a pharmaceutical industry that doesn’t double as a distillery certainly help, too.)

Let’s face it, America: The Story of Us was an ambitious project attempting to show individual important events in the 400 years of American history.  It’s a big mess.  The writers can’t decide to go in depth or with a broad brush—if that brush happened to be a roller.  Even as a survey of our history, it falls flat.  Jamestown, then a quick 170 years later we’re in New York defending a British invasion, then we’re on the frontier with wagon trains, then the rails, then the skyscrapers: this was a dog that bit off more than it could chew. 

Why the celebrities, for Chrissakes?  We loved those tweedy, slightly awkward professors and historians in previous shows because not only did they provide more context, but in an interesting, fun way.  Who doesn’t love Kenneth Jackson’s Tennessee drawl on the Erie Canal, or Thomas Fleming’s Jersey wharf accent as he describes the “beautiful box” that is the siege of Yorktown.

Yet above all, America fails because it attempts to get to a younger students’ level with time, visual effects and violence.  Through use of “wicked cool” kill shots, America takes the long, often tedious process of 18th-19th Century warfare and accelerates fast enough so that you can collect enough lives to reach the next level before Mom sends you to bed.  You may think this helps kids get a better understanding of history.

In fact, it gives them the wrong impression that historical events were lightning quick, slickly edited and awesome.  There was little awesome in real history: just lots of everyday life broken up by moments of terror.

I know there’s a trend to making every subject “kid friendly” by making interactive games that move in 15-minute intervals to match the little shit’s TV-addled brain, but I’m holding the line in history.  A student has to understand what time meant to early people, and thus realize how they responded to everyday life.  That’s why we have so many brats that ask if George Washington is still alive (yes, I still get that question.)

Besides, if students are to become good historians (or good college students, for that matter), they have to interact with primary documents on their terms.  That means put down the controller, boys and girls, and actually SIT for a period of time and READ something. 

Human existence isn’t designed with a reset button and free lives.  It’s a series of one-shot chances that create a long, slow, complex narrative that must be interpreted as it is—not accelerated for quicker consumption.

History is digested slowly.  Let Mario and Luigi handle the easier stuff.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 6: Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?

A persistent problem in history instruction is the demonization of the “losers” of history.

The British were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The Germans were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The 1974-1976 Philadelphia Flyers were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction. (That last one may be true.)

It’s a common trap for educators.  Because of our emphasis on literacy, especially elements of fiction, we tend to view historical events through the prism of the fiction story: plot, setting, protagonists and especially antagonists.  Kids might not grasp the nuance of British soldiers assisting native tribes from encroachment by American colonists.  They do get, however, a pack of British redcoats unloading their muskets on a group of 70 minutemen “peaceably” gathering on Lexington common. 

Good guys and bad guys make a natural narrative that’s clear, convenient and memorable.  It also makes for bad history.

This has been especially true of the American Revolution, one of my favorite subjects.  I’ll be studying the revolution at UCLA at a Gilder Lehrman Summer Seminar in July, and the old “bad British” mentality does not fly in academia.  Scholars of late have attempted to rectify the prevailing narrative with research on the Iroquois campaigns of 1778-1779, the gruesome guerrilla wars between Patriot and Tory gangs in the Carolinas, and the fate of Loyalists after the war was over.

In classrooms, we are slowly coming into contact with such material.  For example, George Vs. George attempts to give a balanced account of the revolution from the two most famous “Georges”, George Washington and King George III. 

Yet my favorite of these works is an old warhorse by Jean Fritz, a master of historical narrative for children.  Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? is an entertaining, balanced account of the trials of the British monarch from boyhood through the end of the revolution.

As in other books about Franklin, Columbus, Sam Adams, etc., Fritz uses historical facts and the events of the period to provide a very human, and surprising linear, portrait of complicated people.  George III is shown as an awkward, troublesome boy who accidentally ends up heir to the British throne.  Once in power, George endeavors to be a good king: in manners, in style, in government, and especially with his rambunctious subjects in America.

The conflict in the colonies is shown as a distant affair, a master stroke by Fritz to add realism.  Remember that the revolution was occurring 3,000 miles across the ocean.  Unless your family had someone in the army serving in America, most British subjects had the revolution in the distant background.  Fritz shows how George fit the American war in the context of his numerous duties: very important, yet not always at the forefront of his mind.  

Although a disservice to true aficionados of the period, George’s “madness” is rarely mentioned.  The audience of Fritz’ work would probably not understand George’s porphyria, his well-documented mental illness.  Thus, George is shown becoming more eccentric as the revolution progresses, when in reality those nervous tics were always part of his persona.

Older students should definitely couple this book with Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, as well as its excellent screen adaptation, The Madness of King George.

Finally, the book debunks the myth created by our Founding Fathers that George III was a hardhearted monster.  On the contrary, George was in fact an incredibly involved monarch who was careful to look after the needs of his people.  Yet for any government, let alone a king, ruling a vast overseas empire is incredibly hard work, and involves leaving decisions to subordinates that may not be in the best interests of everyone.  And boy, did George have some doozies of subalterns: Lord North, Charles Townshend, Lord Grenville, William Pitt the Elder (and Younger), Lord Rockingham, Lord Bute, Charles Edward Fox, and so on.

Fritz goes a long way in showing just how difficult it is to lead the British Empire. Challenge your students to see what they would do if they were in King George’s shoes.  You may be surprised at the answers.

As for me, I’ll cut George III some slack. 

Bobby Clarke, on the other hand, has a special place in hell reserved for him.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 5: Rabble Rousers: 20 Women who Made a Difference

“In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” — Abigail Adams, 1776

Ever since the founding of our nation, the voices of women were important in building our society. 

Like so many of their male counterparts, many important female Americans were not willing to play nice to make a difference.  Anne Hutchinson braved Puritan aggression and a raging Indian war in New York in order to advance her beliefs.  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul endured constant opposition, both nonviolent and otherwise, in their quest to gain voting rights for women.   Harriet Tubman dodged very real dangers in leading enslaved Africans to freedom.

March is Womens’ History Month, and teachers will be hungry for good books for their students to use about these important women.  There are quite a few different books about many different women.  Yet if a student needs to do a biography, and hasn’t a clue about who (aside from the usual suspects mentioned earlier), then Rabble Rousers: 20 Women who Made a Difference by Cheryl Harness is a great start.

Harness took 200 years of womens’ activism and created a lively, engaging primer on many of the important women who changed our world.  20 women are documented in 2-page illustrated biographies covered with sidebars, photos and artwork detailing the lives, worldview and important events that these women lived through.

Many of the women documented here are well-known to students today.  Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Eleanor Roosevelt sould be familiar.  Yet there were others who may not be so well-known.  Mary Edwards Walker, for example, was an abolitionist and nurse who spied for the Union during the Civil War, becoming the only female to ever receive the Medal of Honor.  Frances Wright was an early 19th Century social reformer whose ideas about social issues made here at least a century ahead of her time.

One selection, however, puzzles me.  Ann Lee, the English mystic who founded the Shaker sect, or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, is one of Harness’ revolutionary women.  I’m not really sure that the founder of a sect that is almost extinct today really warrants such a coverage. 

In spite of this, Harness excels in this work in both her detail and her focus.  Unlike other books on American women, she does not present a massive volume with hundreds of women in little detail.  Instead, her main thrust is to include 20 women who made active efforts to create positive change in their society, and to present them to the fullest extent possible.  Students who use the book in reports may only need one or two more sources to form a complete assignment.

Furthermore, girls can really use Rabble Rousers as a source of inspiration and encouragement.  By choosing women who led from the front, rather than behind, Harness is providing role models for women to become modern-day leaders.  She even provides detailed bibliographies, places to visit and suggestions for community action in the spirit of her revolutionary subjects.  Modern girls owe a debt to Cheryl Harness in providing such role models.

As we begin Womens’ History Month, make sure Rabble Rousers is necessary reading in your classroom.

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The Battle for the Textbook: Texas rewrites its social studies

I get a lot of use from my textbook. 

Whenever my LCD projector’s a bit too low, two or three Grade 4 texts oughta do the trick.

That is the extent to which I use these relics. 

The Information Age of the 21st Century has effectively rendered a textbook obsolete.  As soon as established theories and truths are set in paper before yawning students (who sign the inside cover along with drawings of the male member) alternate discoveries and revisions make them outdated even before they come to press. 

In spite of this, many districts across America continue with the hard-bound behemoths of our youth, and with good reason.  At least in math and science, they provide solid resources that can be preserved year after year.  On paper, this means saving on mountains of copying worksheets and more time copying useless memos.

Yet the composition of textbooks is a thorny issue, especially when it comes to social studies.  Deven Black recently sent me an article from the Texas Tribune entitled “Hijacking History.”  It details the sausage-like process of establishing standards, solidifying content and even copyediting of a state textbook for social studies. 

Texas’ education system is fairly unified in that the entire state uses the same set of textbooks.  It’s a huge state, so the publishers kill their own young to get the contract.  What goes into the textbooks, however, can often become a political tug-of-war between conservatives and liberals, as evidenced in the article.  This has tremendous implications for the classroom, as the struggle at the board level affects what is read in on the page.

Essentially, “Hijacking History” is about this left-right struggle, and how it affect s the whole process.  Take Joe McCarthy, for example.  Bill Ames, a conservative activist and member of one of the State Board of Education’s curriculum-writing committees, fights to “rectify” McCarthy’s legacy by including information about actual Communist infiltration in the US government. 

When it comes to including minority acheivements, the infighting can get downright petty.  Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez, for example, were supposed to allow space equally to Barry Goldwater and Billy Graham.  So Justice Marshall, who argued before the Supreme Court in 1954 to end segregation in public schools, has to share his shelf with a southern preacher who claims “voices” speak to him.

Look, even as a conservative, I don’t buy these arguments.  Yes, I know about the Communist infiltration.  McCarthy’s paranoia was somewhat justified–somewhat.  However, if in laying down wood a few planks must fall, then McCarthy let some real two-by-fours fly.  In the grand scheme of things, he did a lot of harm along with his good intentions. 

Don’t get me started on Billy Graham, it’s a no-brainer: Thurgood Marshall wins by a mile.

What amazes me, however, is the push for “American Exceptionalism.”  We’re going to tell students not only that the United States is the greatest, but also that it is immune to the heaves and throes of world history.  According to some really out-there right wing wierdos, the US, by divine design, cannot topple like the  empires of old.  A thousand year “reich”, perhaps? 

America will endure forever–Jesus said so.  And I know because he spoke to me in Dixie-accented English, just like he did in the Bible. 

What a crime.  What’s a bigger crime is that these inane arguments will somehow end up in a textbook that will be taken as gospel by thousands of educators too lazy to offer a dissenting viewpoint.

The lesson is clear: building a textbook, or a curriculum, is never easy.  You always end up pissing off somebody–believe me, I know.  The balance of ideas and viewpoints is important.  It is also important to include the voices of those Americans who have long been silent, either by force or by neglect.

  Be careful, though…there is such a thing as TOO fair.  Don’t let the facts get buried in the need for political compromise. 

 If you insist on using a textbook, please PLEASE understand that it isn’t Biblical truth.  Even the Bible isn’t biblical truth, for that matter, but I’ve pissed off the evangelicals enough for one night.  Always try to stress alternative viewpoints, especially if they do not necessarily mesh with your own.

If all else fails, use a textbook for what they’re best at–as a  paperweight.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 4: New York’s Bravest

New York City is not known for its folk heroes.  There are few Paul Bunyans and Peco Bills in the local vernacular. 

Yet we still had one, and it is fitting that New York’s tall tale hero happened to be a firefighter.

Mose Humphrey was a name bandied about in the early 1800s.  The original person was a printer for the New York Sun, as well as a member of a local fire company.  Stories circulated of Mose as a fire fighter who was especially heroic and strong, though it is not certain if they are true.  Furthermore, He also was quite a Bowery Boy, a form of local tough guy that had an unsavory reputation. 

Over time, the Bowery Boy aspect of Mose’s story diminished, and Mose himself grew bigger and more fanciful, reaching eight feet tall with “hands as big as Virginia hams.”  The stories about Mose focused more on bravery and his selflessness to help others in need. 

Mary Pope Osbourne, in a tribute to the firefighters who died on September 11, 2001, decided to rework the Mose legend for younger children.  The result is New York’s Bravest, a book that students young and old will find thrilling, heartbreaking, and packed with moments for study, research and discussion.

Osbourne gears the book for younger readers, from 1st to 3rd grade, and her writing is beautifully clear and direct.  Mose is shown at his heroic best, fighting fires and saving babies, even when facing his inevitable demise.  His “death” is probably the best scene in the book, and Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’s illustrations add a wonderful exclamation point to the drama.  This book is read every year in my classrooms, and many students have cried and cheered at the end.

Yet despite its reading level, New York’s Bravest can be used on any age in any classroom.  Younger children will grasp the moral aspect of Mose’s good deeds and good heart.  Children of an older age can note the illustrations of 19th Century New York, contrasting them with the look of the city today.

For high schoolers, though, this book can take students in an altogether different direction.  Mose’s story is a great way to discuss the often wide disconnect between mythology and reality.  Firefighters are among the most celebrated and respected professions today.  Yet it wasn’t always this way, especially during Mose’s time.

New York City did not have a professional fire department until 1865.  Volunteer fire companies dotted the city, where local boys and men would join up, drink and carouse, and occasionally fight fires.  Each of the companies had territories they protected from rivals, especially through violence.  Often, fire companies attracted the lowest criminals, and were no better than gangs of thugs who were manipulated by corrupt politicians to fix elections and beat up opponents.

Case in point: William Tweed, the famous boss of Tammany Hall in the late 1860s, got his start with his own fire company, the Americus Fire Company.  Its symbol was a Bengal tiger, which became the symbol of Tammany Hall as a whole.  The scene in Gangs of New York where the two fire companies brawled in the street while a fire raged is quite close to reality–one of the few scenes Martin Scorsese got right.

However you use it, New York’s Bravest is a fantastic read, and a fitting tribute to the firefighters of New York–from the brawling 1800s to our professional companies of today.   Please let us know your thoughts on this or any book reviewed here at the Neighborhood.

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