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Friday, August 27, 2010

Don't Just Put a Movie On: Back to School Edition 2

Here is a list of some great introductory readings for any class that you teach.  I like to use them because it helps engage conversation about the different courses that I teach and set up a classroom environment that is safe to share and discuss:

A friend of mine uses Plato's Allegory of the Cave as a way to introduce students to thinking about themselves and the role knowledge plays in their lives.  I have made use of it the last few years of teaching and have found it successful.  I generally ask students to read it and then create an illustrated version of the story for the next day of class.  As one of the founders of our school says, "When in doubt, teach the classics."

When I was student-teaching/interning, my cooperating teacher handed me the introduction to Howard Zinn's You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times titled "The Question Period in Kalamazoo."  I use Howard Zinn all the time in my class (so much that when he died last year, my students got into my classroom in the morning and put up RIP H.Zinn signs), but especially this introductory reading.  It allows you to engage your students in the following questions:

  • What is history?
  • How and why is perspective important to understanding and learning about history?
  • What role does our personal bias, and a teacher's personal bias, play in their teaching?
  • Who are heroes?
  • and many more
Also while student-teaching/interning (I had a truly master teacher as my cooperating teacher) she introduced me to a great text to use with students who are studying sociology.  The reading is "Eating Your Friends is the Hardest" and while gruesome, helps to put in perspective the different agents that are involved in socialization.

What are your first week readings?  Post a comment and let me know!
Good luck with the first week of school!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Don't Just Put a Movie On-- Back to School Edition

In eight days I am going to have students sitting in front of me, expecting me to be prepared, rested, exciting, firm, strict, fun, easy going, and most importantly care about them.  Of course all those listed come from a list my students have generated in the past about their expectations of their teachers.  As we enter the beginning of the school year, I wanted to share some of the first day activities for you to either steal or borrow from if you would like.

First Day Name Games--
There are too many to count but I always like to ask students to share their name and an adjective that they feel represents them, but it has to begin with the same letter their names does.  For example, I am "jabbering John."

Another one to test different classes is a name game where everyone stands in a circle and you have to throw the ball to someone.  I would take the ball and shout across to Jenny "Here Jenny" and I would throw the ball to her.  She would catch it and say "Thanks John, here you go Allison," and so on.  Once you get through everyone you can add balls to the list and have a competition between the teams.

First Day Activities-- 
Get everyone to talk.  Not just their name, but something else.  I start class off with a question each day for students to share before we get to talking about anything.  I start this on day one, so before I even introduce myself, I do the Question of the Day.

Also, talk about what students know or can talk about on the first day.  I have a questionnaire that I have students fill out that has anything from what they want to be when they grow up to what expectations do they have for me.  These questions are topics that most anyone can talk about on day one.

First Week Games: Communication Games--
Since so much of my class is discussion based and centered around the idea that we all need to listen and communicate with one another, I spend a lot of time in the first week playing communication games.  Whenever you say "game" you almost always get buy in from your students instead of "let's have a discussion about how we communicate."  There is a great collection of games that you can find online.  I have my favorite ones that I like to use  (Schmidt and Schmoo).

 More Back to School Edition posts to come as we get back!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lessons from Secretary of Defense-- Fog of War

Any class that discusses the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis would be greatly enhanced by using the film The Fog of War - Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara about the life of the late former Secretary of Defense.  The film is based on eleven lessons that McNamara has taken away with him throughout his years both in the public and private sector about war and the responsibility that comes with being a superpower.

Not only can you make use of this film to talk about Vietnam and CMC, you can also use the earlier parts of the film to talk about World War II and the post-war military industrial complex.  There is one part of the film that I like to show where McNamara makes the argument that proportionality should be a guideline for war.  I make use of this section when I discuss the Atomic Bomb and its use on Japan during World War II with my students.  This section of the film talks about the various bombings that took place in Japanese cities throughout the war.  It then takes the city and couples it with a U.S. city of roughly the same size.  When students see big cities that they know, it becomes even more powerful.

If you haven't seen this film, you need to!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Crips and Bloods: Made in America

On the advice of a friend and colleague of mine (check out his blog about technology and education at, I bumped up Crips and Bloods: Made in America to the top of my list of films to watch before returning back to school.  I am glad that I did, because I am planning to start the year off with a unit on race in America at reconstruction and then jumping to the Rodney King Race Riots in L.A.  I will likely make use of sections of this film in my classroom to cover some of the racial issues in L.A. in the 1960s- present day.

The film starts off with a brief history about race in America, but specifically about race in L.A.  When I finished watching the film, it raised the following issues or questions that I would use with my students:

  • racial profiling
  • Why join a gang?
  • Watts Riots vs. Civil Disobedience
  • drugs/violence
  • wealth and poverty
  • the rise of unequal distribution of wealth
  • Rodney King
  • Police vs. Citizens 

The film is a good one to show students about these issues and many others.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Teaching Reconstruction

In selecting a name for this blog, I was thinking about one of my teachers I had in high school who would put a movie on as a way to teach something, and not discuss the film at all.  Actually, our discussion would come in the form of writing a paper, which is not the best way to go about discussing a film.  Discussing the film first is important, and then have students write a formal paper if you so decide.

However, that is not the point of the post today.  I was worried that people would think this blog is solely about how to use films in the classroom.  While this is part of this blog, another goal of mine is to share resources that can improve our practice as teachers of the social sciences.  I recently was on vacation and shopping with my mother when I came across a book by Philip Dray called Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen.  I had decided days prior that I was going to start the year off teaching reconstruction in my eleventh grade humanities class and this book just about fell into my arms.

I would not recommend reading the entire book with your students as many of them will get lost in the complexities of the people involved, laws passed, court struggles, etc.  It does give a different perspective to reconstruction that I have never studied before, that of the black congressmen elected during the years following the end of the Civil War.  I would recommend the following chapters for use with your students:

Chapter 2 "A New Kind of Nation"-- This chapter provides a good overview of the early days of reconstruction.  I would first have students take a look at Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and complete a simulation about what the north, south and the newly freed blacks would want from reconstruction.  After doing that, I would then have students read this chapter as it would provide them with some background and a better understanding of the goals of Johnson and the radical Republicans.

Chapter 5 "Kukluxery"-- This chapter addresses the early influence the Ku Klux Klan had in the south during the early days of reconstruction.  It helps put into context the response by the federal government with the KKK Act and other responses by Congress to this terrorist group.  In teaching about this, I would also include portions from Birth of a Nation (1915) [Remastered Edition] and discuss the power film can have over shaping the ideas and history of people.  This film was a "recruitment" film for the KKK if you look at the number of people who joined after this film was released.  While you might be jumping around a bit, it is important for students to understand the power this group had not only in the south, but in the north as well.

Chapter 8-- There is a scene here in this chapter (beginning on page 168 in my edition) that focuses on and explains the "show down" between the former vice-president of the Confederacy (serving as a congressman from Georgia) Alexander H. Stephens and Robert Brown Elliot, the black congressman from South Carolina over a Civil Rights law.  The speeches these two men gave are a great source for students to begin to understand the deeply entrenched ideas of racism that existed in the time.  I am looking forward to using this chapter in my class this coming fall.

I have not fully completed the book yet, jet lag and unpacking has since been in the way, but I will add on to the post if any other chapters seem helpful.

If you have any other tools you use for teaching reconstruction, please share them with me by posting a comment here.  When I return to school, I will make available some other resources I have for teaching reconstruction, which will be posted on my resources page.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Got Credit? Got Debt? Got recession?

I came across the film Maxed Out  on Netflix and loved it!  The film does a great job of raising awareness of the credit industry and how they market and select people for credit cards, loans, etc.  It is not something I would use in my American History classroom, but it is something I may use in my Sociology class when I talk about rites of passage with adolescents.  Since (according to the film) high school graduates do not get as many offers as their counterparts who attend college do, it is important for students to be aware of what is "coming their way" in the very near future.  More to follow if and when I incorporate it into that class.

If I wanted to use this film in my history class, I might find a way to connect it to the Gilded Age, and then also use it to talk about the Great Depression and the recession of the last few years.  A goal of mine, whenever I select topics to study with my students, is to make sure that I can find a way to connect it to their lives and to current events.  If I can't do it, then I don't talk about the topic with my students.

A great way to bring the most recent events of the recession to life would be to use selections from Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story or for a less "controversial" producer/director, Frontline's Inside the Meltdown.  I have found success using both of them in class and both do a great job at simplifying (as much as possible) the "meltdown" that took place a few years ago.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Teaching The Jungle and Food Today

As I said in an earlier post, I do not like to teach a topic that I cannot connect to events today for my students.  One of the important units I like to do, because it is very relevant, is a look at Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  You can find an online version of the text, but you can go to my resources section and find a copy of the chapters I use with my class.

The novel is quite long, and I do not use the entire text.  I select chapters from the novel (special thanks to Meg Guanci and Brian Deveney for helping me select) and use it to teach students about:

  • the time period--1900s
  • the disadvantages the working class had
  • the way immigrants were treated
  • the "American Dream" and what really happened
  • food at the time
  • industrialization and the ideas of scientific management
We get through the early chapters and I ask students to create their own discussion questions.  You can see example student generated discussion questions on my resource page and then I like to show them the film from California KPBS called Food: A Project Envision Documentary.  I know that there are other films, like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation but this documentary covers a great deal of material in 27 minutes and it connects to my students in the San Diego area.  

You can spend anywhere from three class periods on this topic to a project that could take four weeks.  Notice this-- no textbook readings! 


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Vacation Surprise! Top Ten Blogs

I am on vacation spending some time with my family on the east coast and logged in today to see that I have made it on the Top Ten Blogs for History Teachers.  Thank you for the honor!

As the school year begins, I will be including more details about various films and activities I include in my classroom.  This blog will not solely be about using films in class, but will begin to include some of the strategies I use in my project-based learning classroom.

Thanks again to Milestone Documents for the selection!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Teaching about various viewpoints of America

I just came across this movie called The Listening Project which is available for live stream on Netflix.  The film selects a group of Americans to travel the world and do something that all too often we forget to do, listen to others.  The movie is focused on asking foreigners in countries outside the United States how they view the U.S.  It is a bit hard to bring the perspective of "average" or every day non-Americans into the classroom (much of the written work is done by journalists or scholars with at times differing viewpoints), but this film makes it easily accessible.  I am planning to show this film to my students at the end of the first week of my American Humanities class when we talk about "What does it mean to be an American?"  More news to follow!