Saturday, July 7, 2018

A Few Good Ideas (I Think) for American History; Part II

I THOUGHT A FEW TEACHERS might be able to use these pictures, all from my personal collection. I’m retired, myself. Copy them if you like.

I pedaled a bicycle across the USA in 2007 and again in 2011. Imagine trying to cross this kind of terrain in a wagon.

Above: a view of Tioga Pass, leading into Yosemite National Park. For perspective, there is a large RV (a white speck) above the handle bars of my bicycle on the road you see.

A view a Mountain Man might see; lake near the top of Tioga Pass.

Another view a Mountain Man might see. Morning near Deadville, Colorado, elevation just over 10,000 feet above sea level. (This is my view from my tent, camping near a mountain stream.)

I never thought of this when I was teaching, it might be fun to ask students what last words people spoke when their loved ones drove away, heading west in 1844 or 1849.

I liked to start a discussion of the gold rush by noting a story of the Brazilian gold rush of the 1980's. The big strike began when a tree was uprooted in a storm. Gold nuggets were revealed in the roots.

The rush was on; eventually one miner found a gold nugget the size of a briefcase. (I always went to my desk and pulled my briefcase out and plunked it down. Gold, being dense, is quite heavy, of course. A gold bar the size of a house brick would weigh about fifty pounds. I liked to note that gold was selling for X dollars per ounce. A pound of gold is 14 troy ounces. When I checked today, gold was $1,255.70 per ounce, making a pound of gold worth $17,579.80. Or: a gold brick would be worth $878,990.

If you are not familiar with the story of the S.S. Central America, which sank in 1857, after picking up a load of gold in California, my students were fascinated by that tale. Tommy Thompson, an Ohioan interested in underwater recovery technology, heard about the wreck (off the Atlantic Coast of the United States, located it, and brought up hundreds of millions in gold, gold coins, gold bars, even gold dust.

Fifty million dollars went on display earlier this year. I dont own the picture below; but it might capture student attention.

Many a miner (and there were a few women) headed west to make their fortunes but came home busted or broke.

Miners had a limited menu, one man joked, pretty much bacon and flapjacks, with coffee to wash a meal down. It was said that one miner got so good at flipping his pancakes he could flip one up the chimney of his cabin, run outside, and catch it on the way down.

We used to do a skit on miners in my class. It was always fun to have a few pancakes or frozen waffles and ask one of the students in the skit to demonstrate his flipping skill, behind the back, etc.

Bouncing a frozen waffle off the classroom ceiling was always kind of fun.

You may know Crockett’s story. Running for re-election to Congress, he told the voters, if they didn’t vote for him, they could go to hell and he’d go to Texas.

They didn’t and he went to his doom at the Alamo. I always tried to make it clear to students that they should remember the Alamo, themselves. It stands as an example of a total wipe out, if nothing else.

In the movie, Black Hawk Down, for example, a young soldier, surrounded with his buddies, says, “I feel like we’re at the Alamo.”

Custers Last Stand and Thermopylae also work.

Few of my Ohio students had ever driven across the United States. They had no idea how flat Kansas was. I found on a bicycle that I could see grain towers in towns twelve miles away. Met these two young riders heading east, as I was pedaling west.

The sunflower represents Kansas, of course. And that reminds me of poor Alf Landon, absolutely creamed in the 1936 election, with the electoral vote going 523-8 in favor of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Only Vermont and Maine went for the Republican.

Roosevelt ran with John Nance Garner as his vice presidential candidate; I always liked to tell students Garner’s response when offered the second spot on the ticket. The position, he said, “was not worth bucket of warm spit.”

Some say other bodily fluids were mentioned. 

A good question to start a discussion in class was always to ask students to name the three greatest American presidents (according to a survey of American historians). My students usually got Washington and Lincoln right; but FDR usually escaped them. Kennedy was often a response, or Reagan, or Teddy Roosevelt.

I usually explained that historians rated Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman as near greats.

Too soon to tell about Trump, although this blogger has his own opinion. According to a recent survey of 170 historians, the current occupant of the Oval Office has some room to go up in the polls.

If you are ever talking about trade, I found it ironic that even at Mt. Rushmore, almost everything for sale in the gift shop was made in China or other foreign lands. It was the same with Christmas ornaments in the gift shop at Yosemite National Park, and with the Bobblehead Presidents at Andrew Jacksons home, The Hermitage.

Yes, indeed. Made in China!

If a modern American tried to argue that he or she practiced the same religion as the Aztecs, would that be covered under the First Amendment?

Okay, stupid joke.

By comparison the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Native Americans can use peyote in their religious ceremonies.

Animal sacrifice? Yes, for some groups thats also allowed.

Freedom of religion cases can be tricky. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision earlier this year, a Colorado baker won his legal battle after claiming his religion taught him gay marriage was sinful. So he shouldnt have to bake a cake for two gays who wanted to marry. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, following the teachings of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, practiced polygamy for almost fifty years; but lost the right in 1890. On what grounds? 

If a Muslim-American claimed his religion gave him the right to have four wives, and the Quran does, how would courts rule? The Quran predates the U.S. Constitution by more than 1,100 years.

Id bring these examples up, but I wouldnt give my opinions at all. Id only want to get students thinking about how the courts work.

One great rule of thumb, in deciding cases involving the Bill of Rights, was set down by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He explained, basically: “Your right ends where the other fellow’s nose begins.”

One Native American compared the hunting done by pioneers on lands his people had long claimed to what Boone would think if the Native Americans came to his farm and shot all his cows.

In later years, Boone was often accompanied on hunting trips by his slave, Derry Coburn, both men going armed. That’s an image of slavery that doesn’t quite fit. On one occasion, Boone caught his hand in a big bear trap and couldn’t get loose himself. He staggered back to camp, Coburn helped free his hand, and then went back to cooking dinner, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

On the other hand, an escaped slave named Pompey took part in the attack on Boonseboro 

I don’t own this picture; but Caleb Bingham’s paintings from the 1840s capture a great deal of American life.

What might students notice about this election day in Missouri, c. 1844?

My students (I taught in Loveland, Ohio, a suburb near Cincinnati) were interested in the story of the first professional sports team in U.S. history, the 1869 Red Stockings. These ladies could have watched a game.

That year, the Red Stockings finished the season 65-0. They started strong again in 1870, winning another nineteen games to start the season. In one eight-game stretch the Cincinnati club scored 58, 66, 54, 76, 65, 56, 51 and 63 runs. One unlucky opposing squad was buried 103-8.

Finally, their streak of 84 wins ended with an 11-inning, 8-7 defeat to the Brooklyn Atlantics. That defeat came in part after a fan jumped on the back of a Red’s outfielder as he tried to pick up a ground ball. (Fans in the outfield were often standing just back of the playing field.

I thought this story worked well to force students to think and examine different points of view. John Brown (above) once led a raid on a farm in Missouri, where eleven slaves were held. In the dark of night, the farmer heard commotion and came out on his porch, armed. Browns men shot and killed him, loaded the slaves into a wagon and escaped.

Was this murder? What would the farmers wife say? What would the slaves say? What might John Brown himself say?

My students never seemed to know what “artillery,” “cavalry” and “infantry” were. I tried to help them figure it out.

(I was a “heroic” desk jockey during my stint in the Marines.)

My students never seemed to know what “artillery,” “cavalry” and “infantry” were. I tried to help them figure it out.

(I was a “heroic” desk jockey during my stint in the Marines.)

A draft wheel used during the Civil War to select the names of men bound for service. My students rarely knew how the draft worked.

A good question for discussion: Should all young Americans, at age 18, have to serve two years in the military?

Certainly, the Civil War rule, allowing a rich man to pay for a substitute struck most students as wrong.

I don’t own this painting by Winslow Homer, but loved to use it to humanize the people who fought in the Civil War. Titled “Playing Old Soldier,” I asked students what they thought the man seated was doing.

Faking sick, I believe. Not that any of our students ever fake it to get out of coming to our class.

Compare the technological advance—ironclad warships in 1862—to advances in modern times: drone warfare, robots to enter buildings, night-vision goggles and many more. I used to explain that the United States had battleships that could fire 16-inch shells weighing more than a ton from the Ohio River (assuming you could get a battleship up the river, of course) and hit Loveland.

The range of 24 miles was just about right.

This barn, just off I-71, north of Cincinnati, reflects the owner’s sentiments. Even many of my African Americans students did not know what this symbol could mean.

Immigrants have always rallied to the U.S. flag in time of war. Recruiting Germans after the firing on Ft. Sumter.

Crossing the barren stretches of Nevada by wagon had to be hard. Ask the Donner Party about that. Even today, the main road across the middle of the state is known as “The Loneliest Highway in America.”

From the spot where I took this picture you could turn in all directions and see the same basic scene. Sagebrush and…more sagebrush.

Scenes from Salt Lake City: Monument to the Mormon handcart pioneers, who traveled thousands of miles, pulling all their own possessions.

Model of the main temple (middle), the main temple (above).

Students rarely know there were multiple gold and silver rushes in the West. A gold strike in 1859 led to the founding of a town called Bodie, California (below). Eventually, Bodie could boast of a population of 10,000.

Bodie sits at 8,379 feet above sea level. In winter the snows fall heavily and weather can be brutally cold.

Once the gold ran out, the town slowly lost population. Today it’s a ghost town.

While the town thrived, it is said there was an average of one murder per day. The school teacher was said to carry several pistols and knives to work. The school appears in the picture directly above.

I had good success, after covering the gold rush asking students to write stories about some miner or some other participant, now a ghost.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A Few Good Ideas (I Think) for American History

HERE ARE A FEW IDEAS I found useful in my class to stimulate student interest in American history.

Students were naturally interested in the Salem Witch Trials. I happen to own a compilation of documents on various colonial witchcraft cases. Some incidents, to modern eyes, were clearly the work of pranksters. One egregious attack involved an evil “witch” who threw frozen cow poop through the window of a poor farmer at night. I mean, what evil demon would dare stoop so low!!!


I tried to humanize the people we studied at every chance. Samuel Sewall, a judge during the Salem trials, kept a diary for more than fifty years (1654-1728). My students could relate to Sewalls son Joseph, age four:

November 6, 1692  Joseph threw a knob of Brass and hit his Sister Betty on the forehead so as to make it bleed and swell...I whipp’d him pretty smartly.  When I first went in...he tried to shadow and hide himself from me behind the head of the Cradle.

You could always get a discussion going, if you asked students if they had ever thrown anything at their siblings, or friends.

One student told me his brother got even after an argument by filling his deodorant dispenser with cream cheese.

That response made me laugh so hard it was a minute or so before I could continue.

WARNING: If you value class time, I can say, students will talk about sibling-related mayhem the rest of the period if you allow.


In discussing pioneers, I liked to emphasize the wide open spaces that existed in our nation’s early history. I often compared conditions in the 1780s to the State of Wyoming today. Wyoming is two-and-a-half times the size of Ohio.

But there are only six people per square mile.

I bicycled across the USA in 2007 and again in 2011. I liked to show this picture, taken from atop a hill not far from Jeffrey City, Wyoming (pop. 58, according to the 2010 census).

Looking south, in the direction from which I came.


Women who traveled West by wagon train often kept diaries. On July 5, 1847, Rachel Fisher described an Indian raid on her train. (Students might wonder about her poor spelling.) 

After breakfast one morning, several men headed off across the prairie to do a little hunting. Not long after, the camp was surprised by a party of “about 40 Indians runing past the campt trying to take the horses  all the men that was in in campt took after them.”

The raiders soon surprised two of the hunters but rather than kill them “took guns and all their clothing except boots and hats….We have not seen any pawnee Indians since.”

Naturally, family strains showed on the trail just as they do for families today. Keturah Belknap, heading West in 1848, remembered hearing trouble one night in a wagon nearby. Until I read her account it had never dawned on me that in a circle of canvas-topped wagons, privacy might be at a premium.

She notes:

While I’m writing I have an exciting experience. George [her husband] is out on guard and in the next wagon behind ours a man and woman are quarreling. She wants to turn back and he wont go so she says she will go and leave him with the children and he will have a good time with that crying baby, then he used some very bad words and said he would put it out of the way. Just then I heard a muffled cry and a heavy thud as tho something was thrown against the wagon box and she said “Oh you’ve killed it” and he swore some more and told her to keep her mouth shut or he would give her some of the same. Just then the word came in, change guards. George came in and Mr. Kitridge [the angry neighbor] went out so he and his wife were parted for the night. The baby was not killed. I write this to show how easy we can be deceived.

It might be interesting to ask students what the two hunters robbed of their clothes were thinking as they trudged back to camp in their hats and boots. Or: What did students think ever became of Mr. and Mrs. Kitridge and their child?


When we did a unit on Native Americans every year, I started with a discussion of names because I noticed  that my students would consistently laugh at the different sounding names in other cultures. “How many of you might make fun of a new kid who came to class and said his name was ‘Big Tree?’” You could use a variety of names for this example: Wolf Robe, She-Who-Bathes-Her-Knees, Sitting Bull, etc.

I tried to show students that other cultures had naming practices similar to our own. A student named Dan Maple stuck up his hand, for example, when I asked the question about Big Tree. We had fun with that. Students usually wanted to know what their own family names might mean. I discovered that many of my seventh and eighth graders, named Bradford or Tedford did not realize what the “ford” in their name signified. Students named Cleaver or Coulter or Croft had no idea where their family names originated.

I had a list of meanings of first and last names we used for this lesson, “Kevin,” for example, meaning, “handsome.” Using Kevin Bacon as an example, I liked to ask, “What does his name really mean?”

The best answer a student ever gave: “Handsome Greasy Pig Fat.” After we established that, Native American names no longer seemed odd.

She-Who-Bathes-Her-Knees by George Catlin.
(I had a friend in college named Steve Kneebone.)

I liked to ask students to interpret this cartoon.
The image comes from a humorous history of our country, written by Bill Nye in 1893.


I had a good picture to start a lesson on John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and early efforts to protect the environment. This photo shows a portion of a sequoia tree branch that broke off and shattered on the ground. A park ranger told me the branch was originally almost 150 feet long.

I liked to ask my Ohio students, “How many of you think that’s a big tree?” Then I’d tell them, “That’s a tree branch.”

Author's collection; photo from 1978.


Talking about Japan and World War II, I pointed out that Japan (a little less than 146,000 square miles) is almost exactly the size of Montana (147,040 square miles). Japan today supports a population of 127,000,000.

Montana is home to just over a million.


Jim Crow Laws: If you asked a class to list all the ways African Americans were once separated from whites you almost always got the same handful of responses. I used to write the four listed below on the chalkboard before class (geez, Im old), pull down a map, and tell students I could “predict” their answers.

A typical class could give you:

Separate schools
Separate bathrooms
Drinking fountains
Seats on a bus

I had prepared a more detailed reading for my classes that listed almost seventy examples. Several caught the attention of students because they were so petty. It was illegal, for example, for blacks and whites to play checkers together in one city. Blood banks kept donations separated by race, and many more. There were separate homes for the blind. I used to “mime” the blind idea, and wander around class, saying, “Are you white or black? Because if you’re black, I don’t like you.”


Women fight for equality: As the years passed, I found that the young ladies in class realized less and less, how poorly women had been treated in the past. There are a thousand examples, but one that worked was to mention rules for airline stewardesses in the 1960s. A stewardess could be terminated for three reasons, where pilots or mechanics could not. I liked to have students try to guess.

Those three reasons: gaining ten pounds; “aging out” at 35, or getting married. The latter reason had to do, in part, with the reaction of the mostly male business travelers of the era, who preferred to flirt with unmarried stewardesses.

(Of course, they were hired based on their looks.)

I could also get the girls in any class stirred up by asking, “Do you know why ships are referred to as ‘she,’ for example, ‘The Titanic struck the iceberg and two hours later she went to the bottom?”

Almost no one ever knew that inanimate objects, controlled by men, were tagged with the feminine pronoun. That realization would make for spirited conversation. I always liked to use humor as much as possible and liked to throw this idea out. I said there were feminists at one point who began to argue that a new word was needed—so that women weren’t being labeled like a second-class version of “men.” The argument was that the word should be changed to “womyn.”

I liked to throw up my arms to form a “Y” and shout, “Womyn with a Y! Come on ladies!” The girls would laugh and throw up their arms and you usually had a couple of boys throw up their arms in support. I’d say to the girls, “Okay, Javon, there,” who had his arms up, “Javon is the guy you want to marry!” 

I’d see Claire or Sidney or Natalia in the hall later that day and throw up my arms and make the “Y” sign.

I don’t know. It worked for me.

"The Good Old Days" when women knew their place.
When I started teaching in 1975, the rule requiring pregnant teachers to quit once they started to show. had only recently been eliminated.


I NEVER CARED MUCH for history textbooks and usually wrote my own material. If you’re interested the following blog posts, among others, might be of some use.

If you’re interested in an excellent first-hand account on the Civil War, try: “A Rebel Soldier’s War,” the story of Sam Watkins, who served for four years with the First Tennessee Infantry.

On Jim Crow laws: “In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today: 100 Examples of Jim Crow Laws.”

On the fight for women’s rights: “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Feminine Mystique.”

On the story of 9/11: “Who Were Those People Who Died on 9/11?”
I do have many of my classroom readings for sale on TpT.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

History Shows: Kids Never Change

I THINK I GOT SOME OF THE BEST RESULTS in my class by emphasizing at the start of every year that history was the study of people.

My first lesson every year focused on that concept, that nothing human is alien to our own experiences.  (Here, I was quoting the Roman poet Terrence.) The excitement of the 49er striking gold would be recognizable to anyone winning a Super Bowl bet today. A pioneer woman wrote about overhearing an argument coming through the canvas of another wagon in the circle after a long day crossing the prairie. The youthful soldier facing combat at Bull Run could identify with the fears of the youthful soldier, often female today, driving down a dusty road in Iraq looking for IEDs. Young people fell in love in 1720 the same as they do three hundred years later. 

Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were spurned.

I’m retired now, but still interested in education—and some of these examples might be of use to young teachers. In my class, for example, when we talked about the Puritans we looked at entries from the diary of Samuel Sewall. This one always touched off an interesting discussion. Sewall is talking about his young son, Joseph:

November 6, 1692:  Joseph threw a knob of Brass and hit his Sister Betty on the forehead so as to make it bleed and swell...I whipp’d him pretty smartly.  When I first went in...he tried to shadow and hide himself from me behind the head of the Cradle.

If you wanted to spend a little time, you could ask students if they’d ever thrown anything at their brothers or sisters. Almost everyone wanted to join that discussion. I still remember the young man who informed us that after an argument his brother got even with him by filling his deodorant dispenser with cream cheese.

That one made me laugh so hard, I couldn’t continue for a moment.

In any case, I’m convinced young people have never really changed (or old people), even if society changes around them. Even the ancient Greeks complained about “kids today.” Aristophanes wrote in jest:

Come listen now to the good old days when the children,
               strange to tell
          Were seen not heard, led a simple life, in short were brought
               up well.                                                      

The following pictures from Cosmopolitan magazine, Volume XLII, in 1906, might serve to start a discussion with students:

Even the great political thinker, John Locke, was baffled by the behavior of young people in his day. In setting down his ideas on education for a friend to consider, Locke noted the great need parents had for guidance:

THE TOUCHSTONE OF MY CLASS, every year, was this. We can feel what others feel if we grasp the true meaning of history. We can cultivate empathy, if you will. 

We can understand the human race. 

Terrence said it best and I always made sure, as best I could, that my students understood what he meant two thousand years ago, when he said: