The Second Day of My Class
Second Introductory Lesson:
Social History, American Culture,
Historiography and the Map
by Jeff Schneider
This is the second class I taught for American history. It looks very long because I included background for teachers and my thoughts that they could use some of, but certainly not all. It is important that teachers feel comfortable with the content of a lesson. Not everyone is into the blues or Jazz or has seen all the images in the video which comes last in this lesson. If a teacher finds it necessary she can do the map section, which is the second part another day. The video trails off and is best at the end of the class. It is less than 10 minutes long. This first section should only last about 15 or 20 minutes at a maximum.
Note: Elsewhere on this site you will find the article: “The First Day of My Class” and another called “On Teaching All Men Are Created Equal.”
Who built the seven towers of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?...
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished,
Where did the masons go?...
From Berthold Brecht Questions from a Worker Who Reads, 1935
To begin the class, I projected these six lines of the poem above on the screen in front of the room.
After a volunteer read the excerpt. I asked, “Who has a comment or a question about the poem?” The answers the students offered were “Where is Thebes? What were the seven towers? What is a mason?
Someone might know that Thebes was in ancient Greece or that the towers were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Who is the author, Berthold Brecht? He was a German playwright who came to the US in 1941 and left in 1947. A mason works with stone or bricks. Others would comment that the poem is about how workers are ignored and how the kings took credit for the work. It is about history books and what is usually written in them. Good so far. I would ask about the cornerstones in modern buildings or what do the signs say about who built the Thruway in New York State? The students would answer that the governor of New York's name was on the signs of the Thruway or that the building cornerstone always cited a mayor or a governor, never the construction unions. Who attends a ground breaking ceremony? All the guys are in suits workers are never invited.
What kind of history is it that discusses only governors, presidents and mayors? The answer is that it is called political history. When we talk about workers, what kind of history is that? We soon understand that we are talking about society when we discuss workers. So if it is not political history, what do we call it? Then the answer has to be social history.
Now it is time for the last lines. What is the answer to the question, “where do the masons go?” The students ask what a mason is. Someone might know that they are stone workers or bricklayers or people who sculpt the gargoyles or figures in the walls and parapets of buildings. What is the answer the last question in the poem, I usually have to repeat. Where do they go when the work is finished for the day or when it is completely done? It usually takes a while because it is so obvious they miss it. I encourage the students to answer and usually after a few minutes they guess: home. What is at home? A bed. What do they do at home? They see their wives and kids. What do they do besides sleep? They eat, they get dressed, they sing songs, they write to their relatives and friends. They have parties. So what do we call all that? Culture of food, clothing, music, dance, and education or religion... Those are all part of the study of history. Those are kinds of social history along with work. Or does the mother work or do the kids? Finally why did Brecht say “who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?” Why haul? Why craggy blocks? It is heavy and dangerous work. Now we have unpacked it thoroughly.
One of the goals of this part of the lesson is to demonstrate that the meaning of a document is contained in nearly every word. Each word matters. Not all documents are poems, but all useful documents contain meanings deeper than appear on the surface. Reading is more than getting the main idea. One meaning of a document might be obvious when you first look, but when you read carefully, you learn so much more. I always avoided giving students written introductions to documents that are printed in most books.We discussed them in the context of the facts and ideas we were learning at the time. They needed no introduction. It is conventional wisdom that kids cannot read. I disagree. It is my practice to have the kids try to understand their reading by themselves and then discuss the ideas in order to expand their grasp or correct their misimpressions. That is what the class is for. I do not lecture, as a rule. I try to draw out the understanding and ideas of the students. That is educere the more intersting root of the word, education, as opposed to educare which means to mold.
The poem above is used as the epigraph for the Preface to Who Built America? This textbook written by the American Social History Project. I have found that one of the great tragedies for teachers during the last ten years or so is that it has gone out of print. It is one of the few textbooks by professional historians that students are eager to read.
Next is a quick look at the map of the United States. In my AP classes I included a map question on every multiple choice test which I gave on two chapters in our text every other week. I did that because most students in New York City are quite ignorant of geography. The most egregious example was The response when I asked the students to put an X on the map where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific Ocean. They would usually make the error of putting an X on the Gulf Coast in Louisiana. I assume the reason was that they knew that Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase. But the Pacific was labeled on the map!!! Students have to develop a sense of the geography of the country to understand the history. The more context, the better the understanding; the more referents to associate with facts and people, the better. At the beginning of this part of the lesson I suggest that the students get a child's jigsaw puzzle of the United States. They should spend the time putting it together until they can do it easily. It is a failure of the lower schools that I found the high schools students so ignorant of geography. This is also a good time to interject that when they study or do their homework, they should do it without any distractions. No music, no TV, just quiet. It is a scary thing to do at first, but they will learn much more and more quickly. They should try it. Perhaps they will like it.
The map I used in all my classes was the same roll-down map that I learned from in the early 1960s: “Westward Ho!” It was still available in 1995 when I began teaching in Midwood High School in Brooklyn. I graduated from high school in 1963. In fact, the first time I taught at Midwood in 1995 I used a textbook that was published in 1963. When I gave the book to my students they told me that John F. Kennedy was alive in this book! Amazing.
I say all that to explain that the old map has it's value as an historiographic artifact. There was a teacher in our department who used to compare textbooks with his classes as an excersise in historiography. Not throwing out old textbooks has its uses, but students should not be forced to use books that are so old. I remember that that book said that the Germans were hard working immigrants, but the Irish were lazy. Ah, and they say that those were the good old days!
I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a good map on line. The one above was the best I could get. If the teachers reading this have a better map, which I strongly suspect you do, you should use that map.
Let us examine the map. The first question I asked was What do you see in the map? The students would come up with trails, states and territories. I would ask them to be more specific: what do you notice about the states and territories? They are not all the same shape as they are now. Some of the states are missing, of course. Someone would point out that the 13 original colonies are on the map. I ask the students to name them. The purple states are not all original and Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820.
What else is missing? The answers were rivers, mountains, and railroads. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad began in 1863, while the Civil War was still being fought. It was Abraham Lincoln's stimulus program to connect the country from coast to coast. Can anyone show us where the main rivers and mountains are? We can follow the borders of the states to find the Mississippi River and the Ohio River and the Lewis and Clark Trail to trace the Missouri River. I always point out the Old Northwest, which was north of the Ohio River, because in the first few months we will be coming back to this again and again. It is important to trace the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans. At this point I tell them that Bob Dylan was born in Minnesosta and Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans. Then I say: “Now you know all there is to know about American history.” Whereupon I used to walk out the door.
They know the Hudson River in their state, New York, and perhaps the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington. The Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers are the most important for us in the first half of the course. We will also discuss the Hudson, since it is the main New York river and the connection from New York City to the Erie Canal, which goes from Albany to Buffalo. The Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains fill out the rest of the major physical landmarks we need on this map.
What do we call the land in between the Appalachians and the Rockies? Students say the Midwest. In Canada, they call it the prairie. Now we have wildfires and floods. Where have they been taking place? We can talk about the hurricanes in New York and New Orleans or tornadoes in Missouri or Tennesee.
The last part of this section is taken up with the historiography, as I discussed at the beginning of Part II. When I was in high school, from 1960 to 1963 I say, a map similar to this was called Westward Ho! What do you think about that? The students say they are reminded of Conestoga Wagons and the trails that are on this particular map. Is there anything else that is missing from the map especially, if it had the title Westward Ho! ? Finally we come to the Native Americans. There are all those people all over the country who were called Native Americans. What happened to them? We discuss wars and disease along with the French, the English and the Spanish who conquered them. The US pushed them west as they destroyed their homelands and lives from 1607 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1892.
If you look at these maps the indigenous peoples did not appear on them nor are there
acknowledgements of the history of slavery at all until you get to the maps made in the 1970s. Where are the cotton belt, the routes for the slaves driven to the South from Washington DC, and the underground railroad routes, Indian Wars, slave revolts, the Trail of Tears.....? You can now find such maps, but they were not in existence until the movements of the 1960s changed the sensibility of the country at least to the extent that we began to talk about all the discrimination and oppression in public and in the predominantly white schools in the North in the US. In Black schools in the South the students learned much more about slavery and the history of protest than in the white schools.
The last part of this lesson is a 10 minute video movie which I made to introduce social history to the class in pictures and music. It includes Dorothea Lange the depression era photographer; George Curtis the great photographer of Native Americans; Albert Bierstadt, the Hudson River School painter; bluegrass music: the blues musicians Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt; and the Jazz musicians Miles Davis and Les Paul and Mary Ford.
The first picture is the “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange. She took this in California in 1936 when she was working for the Farm Security Administration. The woman is a migrant worker who escaped the dustbowl. I ask the students to say something about the picture. They answer that she is staring into the space in front of her with uncertainty, determination and anxiety all at once. Her 2 boys are hiding and there is one more in her lap. The music is a bluegrass tune called the “Weary Hobo” by the Pine Mountain Boys.
The second picture is a dramatic photograph by William P. Gottlieb from his book The Golden Age of Jazz. It was taken in 1947 just before Miles Davis became famous as a sideman with Charlie Parker. Gottlieb was actually taking the picture of Howard McGhee who was playing the trumpet. Miles just happened to be there. I ask the what they can say about this picture and they usually identify Miles. He is concentrating they say. He was only 20 years old at the time. This music is called BeBop.
The next photo is of the runaway slave, Gordon, taken behind Union lines in New Orleans in 1863. I ask the students what they see in the picture. They reply that the man has scars on his back, and that his life must have been very troubled. The textbook Who Built America? called it “The Map of Servitude.” What do you think that means? I ask. The students eventually say that the picture is a story of his oppression. Then I ask what does his posture in the picture say to you. Soon the students see that he is a very strong and proud man: you can see his muscles and his defiant posture. Slavery was not the end of pride for this man. He was beaten, but not bowed. The music is blues song by Blind Willie Johnson on a National steel guitar, which he is playing with a slide.
After the freedman, Gordon, we see Harriet Jacobs, a woman who hid for seven years in her grandmother's attic to escape slavery and escape the attempts of a white man who claimed her as a slave. She subsequently wrote a book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which was published in 1861. Her friend and fellow abolitionist, Lucretia Mott, is next in the pictures. She helped Jacobs publish her book and fought along side her to gain recognition for Jacobs as the true author of her extraordinary story and its highly perceptive discussion of slavery as an institution of oppression.
Jacobs is followed by a painting of the abolitionist, John Brown. The students remark that he looks crazy and that he is screaming. He has a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other. The next image is a photograph of John Brown. How do you react to this? I ask. The students have to account for the stark difference between these two images. Eventually they realize that pictures can have points of view, like maps and essays. Was the photogapher an abolitionist? The music is a blues called “Spike Driver's Moan” by Mississippi John Hurt. He recorded in the 1920s and then again in the 1960s. Hurt is comparing himself to the hero of the tall tale, John Henry, who supposedly died trying to race a steam drill putting spikes in the ground for railroad tracks. The words say “Take this hammer and carry to the captain. Tell him I'm gone.” How do you interpret that? It is a song of defiance not submission to overwork. A protest song from 1928!
The freedmen in the next picture were called contraband of war. It was Lincoln's way of using his war powers to free slaves after 1861. He took the illegal “property” of the Confederates. What do you see in this picture? I ask. The students reply, The people are relaxed and happy. One of them has his hands on his hip standing like a someone hanging out on the corner! John Hurt's song continues into this slide.
In the next image we see a drawing of Abe Lincoln entering the Confederate Capitol of Richmond, Virginia right near the end of the War. The whites had run away and burned the city down, but the Blacks came out to greet him. He spoke to them telling them to take the “sword and the bayonet” and “prove” to your former masters, if they doubt “that you are free....For all men were born free with the same rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” See W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction, p. 112.
The poster is titled “Heros of the Colored Race.” I ask, Do you recognize anyone depicted here? Frederick Douglass is in the center, flanked by the two Black Senators, Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels. Lincoln is at the top and John Brown at the bottom. The poster was from the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War. Blacks had won their freedom and were participating politically, including voting in the South until Jim Crow shut it all down by the end of the 19th century.
The luminous Hudson River School painting by Albert Bierstadt in 1870 is of a sunrise in Yosemite Park, California, and the song is by Les Paul and Mary Ford who were the first to use multiple track recording. She is singing on all the tracks and he is also playing the guitar on all the tracks. “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” is the name of the song. It is from the early 1950s.
The painting of Osceola is by Robert Curtis is next. Osceola was a leader of the Seminoles in their war with the US to stay in their homeland in the Southeast. The Seminoles fought along with other Native Americans and Blacks for seven years. The Sioux cradle from circa 1835 in the next image was probably photographed by Edward Curtis in the early 20th century. It is a beautiful example of Sioux art.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton up next wrote the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration, first feminist manifesto with Lucretia Mott. Stanton was an abolitionist and a fierce advocate for women's rights. We read the Seneca Falls Declaration later in the year.
The revolutionary leader Thomas Paine, who wrote the famous pamphlet “Common Sense” in January 1776 now appears. It was the first best seller in US history.
The last picture is Daniel Webster He was a hero of the North, leading the fight against nullification in 1830 and '32. However, he lost his reputation in the antislavery movement and in the North generally when he supported the Compromise of 1850, which included the infamous Fugitive Slave Law. Like the recently passed Texas anti-abortion law, it deputized ordinary citizens to enforce it. They were supposed to catch runaway slaves or free blacks to bring them before magistrates. The common people of the North could aid in sending them back into slavery or enslave them even if they were free. All without a trial by jury.
We have come to the end of the video and the lesson. My comments are discursive and designed to present you with topics and interpretations to choose from as you watch the movie with your students. I may have gone on much too long, but the art, the photographs and the music are so evocative for me that I could not resist commenting broadly. I was able to complete this whole lesson in around 45 minutes. Once you get the timing it is fairly easy to edit yourself and go along with the pictures. Introducing the students to a flexible format of thought and historical method encourages them to relax and think along with you. That is the goal, of course. I have a number of classes in which I play the blues and Jazz, depression music, a set of songs that show the musical and social progression from the 1950s to the 60s, and songs for peace. These took a whole period each. There is more to come.
Additional Information for the Video
Here is an addendum of background information for parts of the video. It can be useful to give a teacher confidence in answering questions about the music and the pictures.
The Migrant Mother
The CD lacks a specific year. I found it in an Early Bluegrass collection by JSP Records in the UK. I usually ask the students to identify the instruments. This has a prominent mandolin and a guitar. The “high lonesome sound” of the vocal is typical of this music.
Miles Davis and Howard McGhee
Gotllieb found the picture 32 years later in his files and was shocked and delighted that he had taken it. The tune is “Oleo” by Sonny Rollins who plays the tenor and Miles is the trumpet player in the music you hear. There are also a piano, bass and drums on this recording. It requires extraordinary technique and is most often played at a tempo close to this.
The Freedman, Gordon
Blind Willie Johnson was a street singer in Beaumont, Texas. The students remark about his voice and perhaps the high voice in the recording also. It is his wife singing along with him. The name of the song is “Dark Was the Night.”