Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Teach US History with the Pledge of Allegiance

Through years of teaching US History to 8th graders, I found that kids would forget in spring what they'd studied in fall - or, worse, they reverted to what they'd understood in second grade, involving happy Pilgrims, a cherry tree, and Abe Lincoln freeing all the slaves. 

My solution was to tie American history the Pledge of Allegiance.  Though we'd repeat the whole history four times, each time we would pick up a different strand suggested by the Pledge's last words: (1) One nation, (2) under God, (3) indivisible, (4) with liberty and justice for all.  The strand for each successive quarter emphasised an event later in the time line.  That students would have already memorized the phrases from the Pledge in order, that these phrases suggest the themes, and that these are tied to key events, should make remembering it all easy. I would be sure to convey the material through engagement with art, primary sources, and personal stories.

I started each quarter with an examination of current events and opinions about them, hoping to excite the students' curiosity.  We then reached back centuries to see how the USA got to be this way.  Here's how it worked:

First Quarter:  One Nation?
500 years, emphasis on early 1600s
In what way(s) are we truly one nation?  Related to native and nationality, the word nation suggests that we are in some way one people.   But a quick survey of current census data shows how many peoples, languages, religions, ancestries, and independent tribal nations rub shoulders within our borders.  Is this diversity something new?  We look at current attitudes towards immigration and nativism.

We jump backwards to pre-Columbian times simply to see what other nations occupied this same continent before there was a USA:  native American tribes, empires, leagues; Renaissance European colonizers from Spain, Portugal, France, and Holland; the forced importation of Africans.  We examine maps, discuss what artifacts tell us, view Renaissance art, read primary source accounts of international encounters.

We pause to look in-depth when we reach the English at Jamestown in 1607 and their countrymen who followed them to this continent, because their language and peculiar national traditions shape the eventual USA.

Then we proceed through waves of immigration and reaction back to the present day.   At the end of the quarter, we try again to reach a consensus on the way(s) in which we are "one nation," and ways we are not.

Second Quarter:  Under God?
emphasis on late 1600s to 1700s
In what way(s) are we truly under God?  The phrase was added late to the Pledge of Allegiance to draw contrast to "godless Communism" during the Cold War, and was borrowed from a phrase that Abe Lincoln added to his neat handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address on the day after he had delivered it.  The phrase might suggest that we are "under" God the way we're "under" the sky; it might suggest that we all follow the same faith.  Again, we make a survey of current attitudes and issues regarding faith in the USA today before we recycle through the centuries.

This time, we look more closely at how the European colonizers came from a world divided by the Protestant Reformation.  We look at the close connection between Church and State in all European cultures involved on this continent up to that point: most thinkers could not conceive a government not authorized by religious authority.

We focus more this time on the consequences of the Mayflower's accidental landing in Massachusetts instead of their target Virginia.  The Puritans who came with John Winthrop intentionally set themselves apart to create what Winthrop called "a city on a hill" to show the world a Protestant Christian government.  Instantly, their unity splintered, each offshoot becoming a new colony; through conflict and the witch debacle, official clergy lost credibility.   By the time we get to Thomas Jefferson's line about "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence,  the Enlightenment had reduced God's role in political life, if not in family life.  The Constitution enshrines the idea that reason and mutual agreement are the source of authority in the USA, not the church.

We look at revivals and the role of faith in the Abolition movement, and note periods of revival that swept the nation, and the development of a quasi-civic religion -- in "Manifest Destiny" and the Pledge itself.   At the end, we try to reach a consensus on what it means to be Under God.


Third Quarter:  Indivisible?
emphasis on the 1800s
In what way(s) are we truly Indivisible?  The obvious area of focus must be the division of states during the Civil War, but we begin, as before, with a survey of current events, looking for signs of division, and of unity in spite of division.  

A survey back to colonial times reveals regional animosities, civil conflict, and threats of secession going back to the 1780s.  The fear of a nation within the nation (Native Americans, African Americans held in bondage) would be part of this.

Of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction will take up a lot of the quarter's time.  After we review the cultural divisions exposed by the Depression, the Vietnam War, and perhaps "the war on terror," we might be in a better position to evaluate whether we've still got what it takes to keep us indivisible.

Fourth Quarter:  Liberty and Justice for All?
emphasis on the 1900s

What different ways do Americans today define liberty and justice?  Then, who is meant by all - "all men [who] are created equal?" All people living in America?  Only American citizens? 

By this time in the year, the kids should be able to survey the centuries pretty rapidly.   They'll see a gradual widening of the definition of "all."  In the 20th and 21st centuries, they'll see expansion and contraction, as we reach out to spread liberty and justice to other lands, and then retreat.


Looking Back: How Did it Work?
I didn't notice any particular difference in the way the kids perceived history.   From my point of view, we were seeing the Big Picture four ways, combing through history four times with deeper and broader perspectives.  

From their point of view, it was just the next reading, the next essay, the next discussion, the next map.  I was the only one connecting the dots.  

I tried this one time before I moved on to another position in another school.   If you want to try it yourself, I'd be glad to help.  I still think the idea is a good one.

See my blogpost of related interest: Does God Bless America?

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