Making American History relevant for today’s students
For any baby boomer who hated history class because it was “boring” when they were in junior or senior high school, rest assured your children and grandchildren are not learning it the same way, at least if they have a teacher like Erin Moore at Washington Junior High School. Moore is an eighth grade American history teacher who takes the stories older generations learned from textbooks and reel-to-reel movies, and brings history to life for her students today.
Moore explained her history-teaching philosophy to get students hooked on history. “I start with the ‘idea’ of our country, where people would inevitably hold the power over their government. The new concept that a government should prioritize the people is the basis of the idea. I take that concept and I try to weave a story for students that includes the flaws and horrors that existed throughout the period we study. A running theme is that we are progressing toward the more perfect version of that idea by making government more inclusive. I teach that human beings are not all good or all bad, and can do great things for the development of the country while participating in practices that are unthinkable to a modern American. I constantly remind students that peoples’ beliefs are a product of their personal experiences and perceptions, and that you have to learn about people’s experiences and norms of the time to understand them.”
Each new class does a “physical survey.” Each area of the classroom is how a political party feels about typical “hot button” issues. The student chooses the area that best represents his or her own personal beliefs and moves to that area of the classroom. Moore explained that her purpose in doing this activity is to get to know the students and to understand where they stand. “Typically, they find out that even if they identified with a particular party, they still have a ton of overlapping beliefs. We are more alike than different in most cases.
Moore’s classes watch videos from a DNA study done where people talk about their prejudices and biases and then had their DNA tested. The people in the video often find out that they have the very ethnicities they are prejudiced against in their own backgrounds. Yale University baby studies show how babies perceive the world and differences. Students learn that “we are born to prefer people who are like us and it helps explain a lot of prejudice in the world today.”
With those basics of human understanding, Moore’s 8th grade history classes then get into the nation’s Founding Fathers. The musical “Hamilton” has been a powerful teaching tool to get the students relating to the “characters” in our nation’s history. Through the use of music, power point presentations, and online animations of the musical, the students gain knowledge about early American history. Many movies and productions take some leeway with facts to be more dramatic, but Mrs. Moore makes sure the discrepancies in “Hamilton” are discussed and the “truth be told.”
She described one session as follows: “I use tone, mood, and theatrics to teach my lessons. For example, I present all of the songs from Phillip Hamilton’s death to the final song in one song set. Basically, everyone dies in one day. I write quotes from the songs all over the board, put tissues out on the tables, I turn out the lights and put lanterns out all over the room. I tell the students as they enter the room that there is no talking on this solemn occasion. I often have students that weep during this lesson, but it just reinforces to me that they are emotionally attached to the characters.”
Moore continues to spark student interest by creating interactive lessons that are simulation, including a Gold Rush activity, escape rooms, Artifact investigations, and radio theater in partnership with the Bricolage Theater in Pittsburgh to provide unique experiences for students. The 8th grade field trip to Gettysburg adds to the overall understanding of one of our nation’s most trying times – the Civil War.
When dealing with the issue of slavery, Moore said she has open and honest discussions with her students. “I hide nothing. I tell of the horrors. I expose the side of our revered founding fathers that is quite ugly, and I compel students to understand that many great leaders are fallible characters. These circumstances often do not change their contributions, but it is ok if they (students) do not like them as people. They can still appreciate what they have done for our ever-changing and growing democracy. Jefferson, Washington, Jackson….all have made contributions, but have also made horrible errors of judgment in a time and culture that was very different from our own time.
“My overall goal in history class is to show my students how they can achieve anything if they put their minds to it. I came from an extremely poor family and was the first person to attend a college. I believe they can take advantage of the available educational and life opportunities if they stay on the right path.”
Attached photo: Teacher Erin Moore looks at a puzzle with several students working on the Escape Room, using history clues to unlock the final riddle to escape.