HOW CAN THEY DEFEND WHAT THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND?

Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher, author, In the Eye of the Storm


American History is our worst subject. Our students do not know who they are as Americans.

Dr. William Bennett, author, America: The Last Best Hope

Why do I have to learn history? What’s it got to do with me?

As an American History teacher, I was often asked these questions by my students. They got bored digging around in the past and more often than not, failed to make the vital connections between history and the present.

I knew I had to change that or lose them.


Through the magic of technology, history teachers today have at their fingertips a vast array of primary sources that allow them to take their students out of the classroom on a journey into the past. | Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Teaching history in the millennial generation was a challenge to say the least. These kids were used to technology and fast-paced entertainment. They were used to internet research and answers at their fingertips.

They lived on social media and unless they had a family member or members serving in the military, their only experience with war and conflict were those presented on their iPad screens or engaged in on their X-Boxes and PlayStations.

Teaching them to value American History was a challenge.

This country is the greatest political story ever told. We are uniquely blessed and we have taken unique advantage of those blessings. And although it’s the greatest political story ever told, our children have not been told that story.

– Dr. William Bennett

Undeterred, rather than beating them over the head with history, I decided to use the tools and technology they understood to my advantage, and to theirs. After all, it wasn’t the memorization of names and dates they needed, it was understanding. And what better way to help them understand history than by living it?


Each year my students embarked on a historical journey to Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, Yorktown, and Jamestown where the history they’d been learning came to life before their eyes. | Image by JN Fenwick

From American colonization to the modern age, I set about doing just that. And along the way, I realized there were other important skills, like critical thinking, reading comprehension, debate, and writing they would learn along the way.

History does not exist in a vacuum, and the teaching of it should not either.

Jennifer N. Fenwick

As a teacher, my first responsibility was to my students and to their parents who had entrusted them to me. My podium was not a pulpit from which to preach my ideals or interpretations. It was a platform from which to engage in research and debate, in learning to distinguish fact from opinion, in presenting all sides of an argument, and most importantly, in allowing my students to form their own opinions.

I knew the only way they would come to understand history was by taking ownership of their learning of it. And the only way they would do that, was by making the past relevant to them in this moment.

My students became archeologists, explorers, settlers, revolutionaries, founding fathers, framers, activists, and more.

By assuming the role of delegates, they debated at the Constitutional Convention, put forth their arguments for or against ratification, and engaged in compromise for the greater good.

Through diaries and first-person narratives, they traveled the agonizing journey from Africa on a slave ship to a foreign land where they were considered property and nothing more.

Through diaries, letters, and historical documents, they assumed the role of drummers, infantrymen, soldiers, and nurses marching alongside the Union and Confederate armies. Along the way, they encountered both victory and defeat. They witnessed President Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address, how the Emancipation Proclamation turned the tide, and the ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Through documentaries, on-line archives, virtual tours, first-hand accounts, and classroom re-enactments, they became part of some of the most significant events shaping our country. Some of the events we studied, listed below, are often merely footnotes in our history books, while others take center stage. To me, it was all significant and worth exploring.

  • October 19, 1781, when General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown marking the end of the Revolutionary War and the birth of a new nation.
  • December 2, 1823, when President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, forever closing the North American continent to European colonization.
  • January 24, 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill marking the beginning of the Gold Rush and American westward expansion, and the significance of these events to the growing divide in America.
  • September 2, 1862, when the deadliest one-day battle in American history was fought at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and how the outcome of the Battle of Antietam turned the tide of the Civil War.
  • March 30, 1867 when one of the largest land purchases was finalized and the United States, acquired Alaska from Russia for approximately two-cents an acre (roughy 32-cents today).
  • December 17, 1902, when Orville and Wilber Wright successfully took their first flight at Kitty Hawke, North Carolina.
  • July 16, 1945 when The Trinity Test successfully detonated the first atomic bomb, establishing the United States as the most powerful nation on earth and ushering in the atomic age. A month later, two bombs were dropped on Japan ending World War II, but revealing the true horrors of nuclear war to the world.
  • July 29, 1956, when Congress created the Interstate Highway System. Thirty-five years later, this system had altered the physical landscape of America in ways few things have done since.

They became part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, marching alongside the thousands upon thousands of activists seeking to break through the barriers and extend civil, voting, and human rights to all.

They were there when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down.


The Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, marked the end of the Cold War and the division of communist East Berlin from the West. | Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Their seats weren’t at the end of a history book or in front of the screen of some long-forgotten projection. No, thanks to technology and the primary resources it offered, they had no seats at all. Instead, they were moving, seeking, learning, and growing right in the middle of it all.

And still I went further. Reaching out to other educators, individuals within my community with historical ties to some of these events, and even to my own husband who researched and collected Florida pre-historic artifacts, I invited them to my classroom. And with them they brought tangible pieces of history my students could feel and touch and learn from.

Like the pieces of a Spanish moss-woven Confederate soldier’s blanket, Civil War-era ammunition, and a soldier’s pipe. The hand-written diaries and letters of a local businessman’s ancestor who fought in the Civil War. The first-person videotaped interviews of World War II veterans living in our area. And my husband brought them pieces of his collection of ancient pottery, projectiles, tools, and fossils. I think every classes favorite was the mammoth molar (tooth) as big as some of their heads. That sure put the size of the beast in perspective for them!

And perspective was, after all the point.

Their seats weren’t at the end of a history book or in front of the screen of some long-forgotten projection. No, thanks to technology and the primary resources it offered, they had no seats at all. Instead, they were moving, seeking, learning, and growing right in the middle of it all.

For me, teaching history was never about names and dates. It was always colorful and alive, relevant and real. That’s how I‘d been lucky enough to learn and receive it, and that’s how I wanted my students to experience it.

I viewed being a teacher as my vocation and I was passionate about fulfilling my responsibility as a mentor and a guide. My goal was to give my students the tools, to encourage them on their journey, but to ultimately step back and allow them to take the helm.

And Civics was no exception. Even though it is no longer taught as a subject in our schools, I believe it to be one of the most vital pieces of education, and for me, an essential part of teaching American History.

To that end, my school participated in mock elections, hosted local and state leaders in our classrooms, participated in letter-writing campaigns to our Congressmen and women, and perhaps more importantly participated in community service activities like food drives and raising money for victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters across the globe.

One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.

– Amanda Litvinov in a 2017 article, Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools

Through the years I learned that just as history cannot afford to be viewed as a static entity, neither can the teaching of it.

That’s why to me, this current trend of using history as a means to a political end-game; of actively seeking its destruction through tendentious and divisive narratives determined to rewrite it, are lethal to all that unites us and makes us American.

The evidence of that is being seen now more than ever. Just turn on the television —from pro-socialist millennials engaging in riots, anti-American rhetoric spray-painted across our cities, toppled monuments and burning flags, — this lack of patriotism is destroying more than our culture, it’s threatening our way of life and our very existence.

The only weapon we really have against this tide is knowledge and our will to continually defend our right to seek it, especially in this age of intentional misinformation, misdirection, and rhetoric presented as fact.

When it comes to the history of our country this is most vital. As Dr. Bennett so eloquently stated, “If they [students] do not know what they came from, what their legacy is, what their inheritance is, how will they support or defend it?”


Through the years I learned that just as history cannot afford to be viewed as a static entity, neither can the teaching of it. How can we expect our children to value our Nation’s past if we do not value the teaching of it? | Image courtesy of Shutterstock