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.
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 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?
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.
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, force my interpretations down their throats, or advance any predetermined narrative or agenda. 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 the present.
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. “I bore much for the sake of peace and the public good. My conscience tells me I acted rightly in these transactions, and should they ever come to the knowledge of the world I trust I shall stand acquitted by it.” – General George Washington, Letter to General Nathaniel Greene, October, 1781
- December 2, 1823, when President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, forever closing the North American continent to European colonization. “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are not to be considered subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” – President James Monroe, December 1823
- January 24, 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill marking the beginning of the Gold Rush, American westward expansion, and the significance of these events to America. “Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success and thousands will leave their bones here. Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have to beg their way home, and probably one half that come here will never make enough to carry them back. But this does not alter the fact about the gold being plenty here, but shows what a poor frail being man is, how liable to disappointments, disease and death.” – S. Shufelt, in a letter to his cousin in 1850, from California.
- 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. “In the time that I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.” – Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, USA, Commander, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, September, 1862
- 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 (roughly 32-cents today). “Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the department, and we can enter upon the treaty.” [Senator Charles] Seward replied, “Why wait until tomorrow, Mr. ]Edouard de] Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty tonight.” – Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick Seward, the Senator’s son, later recalling the conversation of March 29, 1867.
- December 17, 1902, when Orville and Wilber Wright successfully took their first flight at Kitty Hawke, North Carolina. “After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.” – from the diary of Orville Wright, December 17, 1902
- 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. “In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarce breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast.” – General Leslie R. Groves, Head of the Manhattan Project, July, 1945
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. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Morehouse College Speech, 1948
They were there when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down. “Everything was out of control. Police on horses watched. There was nothing they could do. The crowd had swollen. People were blowing long alpine horns which made a huge noise. There were fireworks, kites, flags and flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. The cranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. To get a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on the West German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped each other; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people poured up the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people had climbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. A stream of East Germans began to pour through. People applauded and slapped their backs. A woman handed me a giant bottle of wine, which I opened and she and I began to pour cups of wine and hand them to the East Germans.” – Andreas Ramos, from his written personal account of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, November, 1989
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.
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 tools they could use throughout their lives, 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 dangerous and destructive riots that encourage division and hatred, to anti-American rhetoric spray-painted across our cities, toppled monuments and burning flags, — and most destructively of all, this sweeping narrative that demands we view everything through the lens of racism; 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 willingness 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?”