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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Letters Home From Vietnam

One of the struggles with teaching the Vietnam War is perspective.  How can we look back as historians and history teachers and support the decision of the United States to enter a country that was asking for its independence from foreign colonial powers for years?  When I have time to spend to look solely at Vietnam, I like to start off by looking at Ho Chi Minh's Declaration of Independence and discuss with students the ideas of the Enlightenment and why Ho Chi Minh would select, copy, downright plagiarize Jefferson.  We usually lead to a discussion about what freedom and liberty are and then discuss the events that lead up to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Once students have a general background about Vietnam, the film Dear America does a good job of showing what the fighting was like in Vietnam.  The film uses actual footage shot by the military and other civilians, with voice overs from many prominent stars reading letters that were sent home to America from the soldiers in the war.  It even includes songs, both pro-war and anti-war from the time period.  You could spend a great deal of time analyzing the different songs, letters, and footage seen.

I generally pose a set of questions for students to think about and respond to while they are watching the film.  I often change the questions for different sections I may be teaching in order to focus on the interests of the students in the class.  Recently, I had a group of 20 boys (in my class of 25) and a majority of them played the game Modern Warfare.  Before watching the film, we brainstormed, using the game, what many of them knew about war, the Vietnam War, weapons, the enemy, military slang, etc.  I then crafted a set of questions that had them focus on the reality of war.  This allowed them to analyze the Vietnam War as a time period in history, but also allowed them to make a connection to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We were able to have a very thoughtful discussion not only about the Vietnam War, but about how video games are designed, marketed, and create a false reality of war.  I was only able to do this because I had a great understanding of the interests of my students and knew their interests in studying history.  Make sure you set up an environment in your class that allows you to do the same.

I also like to read selections from:
an American history textbook and then compare it to the chapter from Lies My Teacher Told Me
Dear America has a text that you can purchase that has many of the letters in it too.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Discussing Mental Health and Prisons

Words like psycho, loony, madhouse, crazy, retarded and phrases that demean individuals with psychological disorders are prevalent in adolescent vernacular.  Even in classes like psychology, where students are supposed to study and begin to understand these diseases and disorders, I found these words used many times.  When I asked my students to rephrase or to change the words they used, I often received comments like, "stop being so PC" or "that's how my parents talk about them."

Just when I was preparing to teach my abnormal psychology unit, I came across the Frontline episode The Released.   You can find this episode on the Frontline website and live stream it for free and it is also available for live stream on Netflix.  This episode follows a number of individuals in the Ohio State Correctional Facilities who are living with psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (to name a few).

After watching this film, my students (seniors who were graduating in three weeks) shared how it changed their perspective of people with these different disorders.  Many were able to now recognize why the words they used could be offensive, especially to people who know others with these various diseases.   My apologies for not having a detailed set of questions and other information about the film, but I had planned on showing only parts of it in class, but my students were so interested in it that I decided to show all of it.  Even with very little preparation and guiding questions, based on the unit we had already completed, students had enough prior knowledge to become actively involved in our discussion.  Many of them even went to the PBS Frontline website to learn more.

I am planning to use this film in my Sociology class this year and will be developing more curriculum and materials for this film.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teaching about Hate Crimes: The Laramie Project

A film that I have found success with in talking about hate crimes and stereotypes that exist in the United States is HBO's adaptation of The Laramie Project.  The play by Moises Kaufman was transformed into a film that is available on Netflix along with some materials, put together by Time Magazine's Time Classroom, for use by teachers.  The film The Laramie Project includes some famous actors as well.

I have taught this unit in a psychology course when we studied Social Psychology, but it can easily be adapted to a Sociology course, English course, Philosophy, really anything.  I have uploaded some documents that I used to prepare for teaching the unit, as well as some materials that I created.  A great amount of preparation came from reading the material available on the Time Classroom website and Kaufman's website.  Another way that I prepared for discussing this topic and this material was having discussions with my mentor teachers and others who have taught topics like this one before.  I spent many hours thinking about, and practicing in front of the mirror, how I would present the information and respond to uncomfortable questions from students.

Individual Accountability
I asked students to keep a graded notebook during this film.  I provided them with the final assessment sheet and told them that instead of an essay or a test for this unit, they would be responsible for a graded discussion.  I found that students who are unwilling to share in class, especially about a topic like this one, were able to show their thought and understanding using their graded notebooks.  Many of my students who often were uncomfortable participating in class, found ways to include their ideas in the discussion.

The discussion was based on the following essential questions for the unit:
  • What is hate?
  • Where does hate come from and how does the mind impact that development?
  • How can one personally overcome hatred?
  •  How can one help others to overcome their hatred?
  •  How do words or thoughts of hate impact the mind?
I also asked students to be prepared to discuss the questions they were required to keep notes about. I never really had to say to students, "Now let's talk about question five" and instead, they were able to guide the discussion on their own, without me.

I also invited guest speakers to talk about their experiences, either with this type of hatred, or with the film/play.  I taught at a school that a few years prior, had done its own production of The Laramie Project, so I asked the director to talk with my students about the experience.  I also had colleagues that worked on a documentary about the First Amendment and had interviewed various people about religion and gay rights.  They provided me with an interview that I was able to listen to and watch clips from with my students.  You should check out films by Scott Strainge and Josh Silveria who both run Blind Squirrel Productions.

I will be posting soon about their documentary titled What a Piece of Work Man Is and sharing some strategies a colleague of mine used in her biology classroom to talk about evolution.

Before showing this film, I made sure that I had fostered an environment in my classroom that allowed for students to share their personal thoughts and ideas about any given topic.  I have to work hard at the beginning of every course to make sure that students are able to challenge the ideas of each other and also my ideas in a respectful way.  

Depending on your school's policy about "controversial topics" (which I have a problem calling topics this, but I will post a response about that in the future) you may need to get permission from administration and/or parents/guardians.  If you need to do that, I usually send out a letter at the beginning of the semester saying all of the "controversial topics" I am going to cover (this letter I learned, borrowed, and adapted while interning).   The list is usually long, but for an example, you can see one here.   You can also get by with including a statement in your course syllabus, given the age of the students and the course you are teaching. 


Monday, July 19, 2010

Teaching the Impact of the Atomic Bomb

As a teacher of United States or World History, we must at some point discuss the impact the Atomic Bomb had on shaping the world and shaping the foreign policy of the United States.  I have seen some teachers talk about the bomb in the abstract, focusing on the options that President Truman had and the difficulty he had in making the decision.  However, I like to present students with the information, let them make a decision, and then let them see the power this bomb truly has.

A film that I use in my classroom to discuss how the bomb impacted the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is Steven Okazaki's White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This film is broken into four parts, each with interviews of people who survived the bomb, Americans who dropped the bomb, and Japanese youth and citizens living in the rebuilt cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This film is one that you should watch before showing it in class and make a decision, based on the comfort level of you and your students, if you need to contact parents/guardians to watch the film.  

The Lesson--
I usually first ask students to look at the various options that were available to the United States and the decision makers at the time.  I make use of the "Choices: Truman, Hirohito, and the Atomic Bomb"   resources and ask student to write a one-page position paper that discusses the options and then provide advice to President Truman on what they believe the best option would be to bring the war in the Pacific to a close.  The day the assignment is due, I have a brief discussion with them about the options and take a tally of the number of students who advised the president on the various options.  I have also completed this activity as an alternative if I have more time and can go more in-depth.  I like to make sure to focus on the time constraints due to the negotiations at Potsdam the U.S. had before the Soviets entered the war.  It adds an interesting perspective that I don't think is touched on in the post-war build up to the Cold War in regular high school classes.

I am usually not one to require worksheets during films, but when I was preparing to teach this film, I came across a guide to teaching the film and made a worksheet for my students to follow along.  I like to tell students that this worksheet is not one that you can listen for key words and fill in the blank, but instead is one that requires them to think and ponder the important critical thinking questions.  You may want to stop the film throughout the time watching it in order to allow students to think and respond to the questions.  I like to stop it after each section and discuss the questions students are unable to create a response to immediately.  Be careful not to discuss them too much as you want to make sure you can have a thorough discussion at the end of the film.

At the end of the film, I provide a set of guiding questions for students to think about as homework and come back to discuss the following day.  I require them to journal their responses to the film and then ask them, at the conclusion of our discussion, to reflect on their advice to the president earlier.  There are many different ways you can go with this discussion, and each individual teacher, using his/her own style, structure, and course goals, can personalize this section as they please.

Have more time?
I also include readings from different perspectives of World War II to make sure that students get a more balanced approach to their study of this war.  Many call it a just war and I like to include readings about what a just war is.  One that I have recently found is from a San Diego State University Philosophy course reader taught by Tom Weston which provides a brief overview of "Just War" theory.

I also like to include readings about the events leading up to the United States' involvement in the war:
Four Freedoms
Atlantic Charter
Lend Lease
FDR's Speech to Congress

Prior to learning about the Atomic Bomb, I like to include readings from Studs Terkel's The Good War and E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, especially chapters three and five, (those two chapters are available on Google books)


don't just put a movie on: What is this blog about?

This blog has been designed because all too often when teachers put a movie on in class, parents, administrators and our colleagues question our use of movies and this material.  With the advent of places like YouTube and the Netflix service, teachers have access to a wealth of material, either for free or at a low-cost.  I recently "gave in" to Netflix and have found a wealth of amazing material available either for rental or to live-stream into your classroom.  The goal of this blog is for me to share information with you about films I have used, or plan to use, in class with resources I have found, "borrowed from colleagues" or developed.

I have taught World Cultures, English, U.S. History, Psychology, Sociology, American Humanities, and Film Studies.  I  have worked to develop curriculum in all of those classes, that is inquiry and project based. Resources:
If you have any feedback or you have resources you would like to share with others, please do not hesitate to comment and contact me.  If you use any of the materials listed here, all I ask is that you provide me with any feedback you have on the material and resources you used.