11 Replies Latest reply: Dec 14, 2011 3:03 PM by joe_phelan RSS

Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History

ekorling New User
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How do you engage your students with history to elicit some good old critical thinking?  I would appreciate your thoughts on the video America as Security and Stability 2 Revised that I have posted on my Youtube site for how you would make use of it in your classroom.  I have my own ideas for using it, but would like to get some other possibilities, too.

 

Thanks!

 

Erik

  • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
    Khorn Novice
    Currently Being Moderated

    Erik:

    After watching the U-Tube video that you suggested, I would initially say that to elicit critical thinking from our students we need to make sure they first have a clear sense of history.  The video takes world events and flashes sequential images out of historical context.  That's not necessarily a bad thing if the students actually know the context.  The video certainly portrays the United States as an imperialistic country, and the message provided will not evoke balanced thought, but rather tainted views concerning our democratic values.   I have to disagree in part with the last comment in the video that the U.S. is looking for resources and economic advantages by engaging in militaristic maneuvers in the name of globalization.  Perhaps a better place to begin for developing critical thinking at the high school history level in the context of globaization would be to show them all 3 portions of Commanding Heights.  PBS has it in their Online video library and it is free. 

     

    Another source of critical thinking for your history students which combines history with economics would be Milton Friedman's Free To Choose. Personally, I do not see a video like the one you referenced as a positive force in teaching about our United States history.  And, please do not misinterpret my statement.  I'm not here to state that our students shouldn't know the good, bad and ugly about American History, but I am here to say that it should be balanced or it just becomes yet another form of brainwashing.

    • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
      ekorling New User
      Currently Being Moderated

      Karen,

       

      Thanks for your thoughts!  I feel I need to explain some things based on them, so please let me.

       

      Historical Context, of course, is of critical importance, but one must first engage the students in an historical dialogue, I feel, and one means of accomplishing that is to present them with words, images, and concepts that are challenging or arresting up front.  The context, at least as I go about it, comes over time with our discussions and more indepth studies of events.  Of course, as you note, the sequencing of events is important, but I do not feel that sequence is something to be strictly adhered to especially if one is trying to explore themes or big ideas in history instead of the continuity of events.

       

      The segment of the video from World War I through to Iraq today is a continuum, but also one that is far from complete and by definition incapable of providing the full context.  Rather, it serves as a sequence of images that highlight both the worst of human interaction (warfare and the crimes attendant to it) and the bitter lesson of history itself, that we are seemingly doomed to do the same things over and over again (there is also the attendant concept of "the long defeat," that is, the struggle against evil or darkness despite the odds and the inevitability of evil or darkness always arising somewhere, somehow).  History, it seems to me, needs to be approached with these two points, though not, as you imply, only by these two points.  So, the segment from World War I through to Iraq today is an historical sequence, all the dates in the right order, but also far from a complete history.  There is a story there that I am trying to work out with the students, a story that will have multiple interpretations because it is, ultimately, a story rather than a catalogue of dates.  You see, I am drawn toward Tolstoy's criticisms of historical practice in the culminating essays to War and Peace (these are sometimes brilliant, sometimes annoying, but always thought-provoking).  Tolstoy had very little that was positive to say about the practice of history up to his time, and understandably so.  Henry Adams made many of the same arguments against historical practice himself, seeing, with Tolstoy, the absence of scientific discipline, of historians simply latching things together from some arbitrary point and then moving forward as if that is exactly how things were.  History needs to be more than sequential stories, else it is little more than literature, where fact and fiction can and often do find little relative distinction from one another.  But in an important way, the very fact that history is a story or series of stories is what I love about it.  Let the Political Scientists turn it into mathematics, for me, the vitality of history is to be found in the limitless stories that comprise it and arise from it.

       

      I am a little surprised that you felt the video shows the United States "clearly as an imperialistic country."  I felt that I had set up enough contrasting elements that the question of American Imperialism was itself brought into question, hence my prompt about critical thinking.  The opening clip from President Johnson, I feel, clearly shows the American mythos of "the better angels," that is, an American President describing the better impulses of our sense of destiny in the world to make things better, more Stable ("a world to be helped").  However, this clip promptly moves on to challenge the "better angels" mythos by raising the spectre of American Security, and the militant stride that so often accompanies American "self defense."  The next clip, of two Iraqis debating the presence of American troops and thereby American influence in their country, is the projection of what Johnson was talking about forward in time.  What struck me about this debate is the contrast between the woman going off on how bad America is and therefore how bad Iraq will be as a consequence (clearly, the argument of someone who does not have a substantial appreciation of history and historical context), and the man who draws her back into history and what America has proven time and again, that unlike the Romans at Carthage, we rebuild those whom we "conquer" (now, as an English teacher, too, that word "conquer" is heavily loaded and, to the History teacher part of me, easy to say but hard to defend).  Beyond this element, there is the deflating realization that no matter the evidence, you just won't convince certain people who do not want to be confused by the facts (the woman states that Imperial Japan was a civil society, implying that America was the barbarian who crashed the party - that she is NOT a student of history is manifest in this final remark).

       

      The final clip, of the American soldier explaining the rationale for American military involvement in Iraq and ultimately around the world, is a clear and essential (that is, it concerns itself with the essential points) laying out of the "American Empire" argument which is fundamentally economic in nature (this is why I have a hard time myself readily calling the United States at any point an "imperial" country because we do not fit the mold defined by the European and Asian empires of previous centuries leading up to and disintegrating in the 20th century).

       

      The "American Empire" argument relies heavily on allusions to Roman History (which are invariably also very much taken out of historical context, like those pundits who claimed and some who still claim that Iraq and Vietnam are "essentially" the same kind of war), urging a sense of purpose and import for Americans to equate themselves with the Roman citizenry and the struggles they endured to build and maintain the Roman Empire.  Of course, this is fatuous, but it is also very useful in getting students to wrestle with history itself or to get certain elements of the American electorate to support certain policies (the "American Empire" people seem to forget or neglect to reference the early American Republican period in which the "founding fathers" - and let us not forget some of those "founding mothers" and "founding others" - deliberately drew upon the symbolism of the Roman Republic to engender patriotism and civic duty in the larger purpose of building the newly forged nation).  To me, these two images of the Roman past, the Roman Republic so dear to Washington, Jefferson, et al, and the Roman Empire so dear to the neo-conservatives of the Post-Vietnam Era and old-school nation builders of the TR Era and the Cold War Era, are merely two means of bringing students into an historical discussion of American History, World History, and Government/Economics.

       

      This last clip, then, serves the role of stating the "American Empire" argument simply and straightforwardly, with images of the daily grind for those in Iraq to just make a living, to get through the day in a shattered country, and to live as best they can given the circumstances they find themselves in.  For me, I would want to know from the students what they felt, and possibly believed the merits to be for such an argument contextualized in such circumstances.  From here, a larger context, perhaps faciliated by images of Iraqis voting for the first time in decades, of town meetings of local leaders wrestling with the practical concerns of water, sewage, and electricity for their community, of reports on reconstruction efforts, etc., can be developed to provide the students with a much richer and more useful set of relationships and facts to reflect on something like "American International Diplomacy" or "American Foreign Aid" (two issues that they will be expected to have something to say about as they become active citizens themselves).

       

      Lastly, it is important for the students to come to grips with the song that overlays the images from World War I through to Iraq today.  I chose the song for a purpose, the lyrics are important, and as students have an affinity for music, it is for me a wonderfully useful tool with which to engage their interest and their opinions.  This is also where a journal write or blog post comes into play, having the students build a conceptual framework around the images by using the lyrics as scaffolding.  In this way, they are forced to focus on specific words and phrases contextualized with certain images or dates, thereby forcing them to make relationships and share them for open discussion and debate.  If you look at some of the historical music videos that I have on my Youtube channel, you will see how the combination of lyrics and historical images can be arresting and engaging, making it that much easier to draw students into the particular "story" that you are teaching.

       

      I have the Commanding Heights on DVD, and used parts of it for the first version of this video I prompted you with, which is also on my Youtube channel.  However, I would never devote so much of my class time to watching hours of information when we could be actively engaging with one another over selected items that we could really get our hands dirty with.  I like to incorporate video clips into my lessons and activities, but only very rarely whole films (I even shy away from the ubiquitous "here's a film for the substitute" lesson plan when I am not going to be in my classroom).  For me, Commanding Heights (the book and the video) is a tool for me to generate lessons and discussions from, not for students to sit and watch for days on end.  I just can't bring myself to do that.

       

      I am a bit boggled by the brainwashing comment, which is ultimately what prompted me to do this reply to your post.  I hope you can see now that I am not the kind of teacher you may have surmised based simply on a video.  I would hate to think that anyone would, once they knew me, think that I was a "brainwasher" out to form my own little community of mindless drones to further my own ego.  I do believe that America is unique in world history, that we are an ongoing experiment in social relations that has much to share with the rest of the world, a world that does not have the benefit that America has had, of actually getting away from the "context" within which all of the problems that have historical plagued it remain close at hand and therefore change comes grindingly and painfully slow, if at all (of course, the irony is that we cannot escape from our own "context" except in so far as we continue to work things out in accordance with the Constitution and Bill of Rights).  But change does come, as I can attest having lived and taught overseas and having seen a post-communist country rebuild itself, with American aid, into a growing and respectable democracy.

       

      So, I hope that I have not "gone off" on you with this reply, I certainly do not want it to appear as such, and I hope that you will not think that I am some political pundit whose ethics are defined by his ratings.  History is far too important to me for that!

       

      Thanks!

       

      Erik

      • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
        Khorn Novice
        Currently Being Moderated

        Erik:

        Thank you for such a beautifully written explanation.  I can see your influence from Tolstoy.  Your in-depth understanding of history is a delight to behold.  I do understand your focus and your purpose for using the 9 minute clip with your students.  I envy you with the quality of students you, no doubt, are working with.  In my years (too many to state here) I have yet to find students who come to class with the kind of background you are expecting them to exhibit.  My hat goes off to you and to your higher critical thinking pursuit. I also agree with you on raising the bar of expectation and understanding. There was a time about 20 years ago when I actually had students like you are referring to in my senior government/economics class.  However, now that I am teaching at the college level, I have found little or no sense of history background and certainly no background in literature.

         

        You are certainly correct in your historical walk-through, and I could not agree more that history will repeat itself especially if we have an unintelligent electorate.   I was not disagreeing with your ideas or concepts, but did think that the video portrayed a little different front than you perceived.  Leading with President Johnson's speech and ending with the globalization idea seemed a bit incongruous to me only because you have mixed politics with economics. That is something you and I understand, but conventional wisdom leaves it in question.   Now, please understand, many of my publications have been on political economy so I am a firm believer that the two cannot be separated, but trust me, the concept is a difficult one for most Americans (and probably foreigners) not to mention high school students. Just let me also throw out to you that my perception of the video and the interpretation I would envision from most students without all your interactions as an instructor are based on the fact that I am getting more students each semester who are advocates of the command economy.  When the images are so clearly questioning the United States involvement, students will find re-enforcement for anti-American views and will not engage in the critical thought that you and I would like them to. 

         

        My best to you and it is obvious you are a very intelligent, well-versed, and passionate teachers.  Keep up the good work.

        • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
          ekorling New User
          Currently Being Moderated

          Karen,

           

          Thanks for the kind words and I am glad you find me quite different than you at first seemed to.  I know of the disconnect you speak about, the lack of any substantial historical knowledge as the students move from high school into college.  The same can be said for literature, to say nothing of basic reading and writing skills.  However, I do not give up hope that I, at least, can do my part in reaching some of them.

           

          I do not teach any special class of students, they are your pretty typical group, infatuated with gossip and gizmos, attention-slaves to video games and cable t.v. programming, and largely clueless about a great many things.  Compared with the students I had overseas, and I have to admit that in Bulgaria, my students were the cream of the cream because they had to pass an entrance exam that only allowed 50 boys and 50 girls per year into this prestigious American high school (the oldest American high school outside of the continental United States, by the way), the general level students that I have had here in California are so far below the mark set by those Bulgarian kids, well, there just is no fair comparison.  However, some of my best Honors and AP students are of a kind with their peers from Bulgaria and would give them a run for their money!  So, in short, there is nothing remarkable about the vast majority of my students.  Whether they are in remedial, college prep, or Honors/AP, though, there is one thing that they do all share: a desire to be engaged.  And that is what I capitalize on!  Even my college level students long for real engagement, real, down and dirty thinking and learning.  As I see it, it is not necessarily their fault that they are so unprepared, but it will be my fault if I don't do everything that I reasonably can to move them even a little bit further ahead.  My high school, save for my AP Biology teacher, Mr. McGhee, did not in any way shape or form really prepare me for college.  I spent the first year and a half of college learning how to learn, relearning things that I should have learned back in high school.  It was tough, but I think I turned out alright...and THAT was over twenty years ago!

           

          There has been a growing disconnect among students nationwide for the past few decades, much of it from the fact that we are keeping everyone in school now.  Before the 1970s, a kid could drop out and pick up a good blue collar career, and so the kids who remained in high school were largely more motivated to be there and more receptive to doing things like studying and having their homework ready the next day.  It's just not like that anymore.  Everyone is "supposed" to go to college, and despite how edifying that sounds, it just is not practical or realistic.  My brother did not graduate from high school, but he completed his GED a few years later and with the Navy and some personal prodding, he got trained in computers, which has served him pretty well since.  This idea that we can simply "test test test" education into students is going to destroy the biggest and most successful public education system in history, because not everyone "should" be expected to go to college in a specified timeframe.  My brother got around to what the system is today demanding that kids do in their 4 years of high school.  My brother would be ruined by the system today.  My students need to understand things like this, historical things like this, because they are going to have children, and they will have to grapple with civic responsibility and taxes for public education and realistic policies as opposed to fantastic-sounding ones primed for the next election cycle.

           

          But I digress!

           

          The anti-American stuff that you are running into with your college students, it is just a fad for them for this time in their lives.  I remember getting all hot and bothered about all the CIA stuff during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, then the "really" bad stuff with Reagan and the Contras and everything.  I never, however, bought a Che Guevara t-shirt or poster, and I never wore dredlocks or smoked dope while listening to Bob Marley!  I knew guys who did, but I don't know that they ever graduated.  Even though I did get caught up with all of the post-Vietnam angst and the reciprocal "Morning in America" neo-conservative revisionism taking place in the late 80s and 90s, I never embraced the whole anti-establishment argument as a state of being.  As I grew up and had more and newer experiences, I just could not buy into any extreme point of view on anything.  So, in my teaching, I play to everything because I want the students to get something from it, knowing that whatever they get will transform over the course of their lives.  Indeed, it is funny that the whole anti-American thing is still so potent on campus, which just leaves me more convinced that it is nothing but a transition, a phase young minds must go through.  And it is finally okay, because everyone likes taking a dig at the USA, but no one seriously wants the world to be without us.  Everyone recognizes that we and the Canadians have about the best game going, so they will talk trash about us as they grudgingly admit that were it not for the North Americans, and in particular, the USA, their particular society would be far worse off for a variety of reasons.

           

          Make sure they really get Animal Farm and The Road to Serfdom.  Command economy...give me a break!  They're just afraid, they're looking for Big Daddy (so don't neglect 1984) to tell them that everything is going to be alright.  They're living off of student loans and funds from home, and one or two part-time jobs, so things really suck for them financially.  In time, though, they will see that John Hancock signed his name really big for a reason, to tell Big Daddy George to...well, it can be left unsaid.  And Samuel Clemens, when he went broke?  He didn't turn to a Big Daddy, he contrived a laborious way to repay his debts and restore his family's wealth...just as he had helped U.S. Grant in composing and publishing his Memoirs to save his family from penury.  They are just afraid, as I was, too.  But they learn that they will make out alright when they give up on looking for Big Daddy to take care of them.

           

          Chin up!  Keep plugging away and keep reaching out for those few who will get it, because those few will make all the difference in the world (as they always have).

           

          Erik

  • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
    NaomiAtAmericanHistory Novice
    Currently Being Moderated

    I wanted to thank you for sharing the teaching resources you’re working on and the issues you’re wrestling with in your classroom.  When we established this group, we hoped that teachers would use this space for exactly this--requests for input and discussions about how to teach tough issues, in addition to sharing resources and teaching strategies.  So thank you again.

     

    To answer your original question, my first thoughts on this are, do you tell your students you made the video?  If I were to show a video I created to students, I wouldn't tell them I made in the hope that this would enable them to take a more critical eye to it.  You might ask what assumptions they think the video makes—Karen’s perspective and response would be one way of looking at it and no doubt you’ll have others.   Other critical questions may be: is military force really the only way to promote regime change? What other options are there, and have been employed by American and other governments to make change?  What other forces (perhaps NATO, UN peacekeepers—who seemed to be featured here without identification) exist that could do similar work? What assumptions do the featured speakers make about American interests and goals? Where have they oversimplified or where do you agree/disagree?  How would you describe the story arc of the video? Is there another way to tell this story or another message you would send with similar footage? This might also be a jumping off point for a student documentary project--have you used this as part of a larger effort?

     

    Also, if the song lyrics are important, do you give those to students to examine before watching the video? Or to read as they watch? I would think that would be an important layer to unpack with them.

     

    As a technical issue, our team wondered about credits for all of these images.  And, would other teachers feel comfortable showing some of the more graphic images included here? I tend to think that by high school this may be appropriate, and I do think we need to be more honest about the realities of war with young people.  But, it was something that we discussed on our team and wondered about. 

     

    Thanks again for sharing your work,

    Naomi

    • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
      ekorling New User
      Currently Being Moderated

      Naomi,

       

      Thanks for your response!  We seem to be of a kind as I read through your observations and questions.  I have used historical music videos (much simpler than this more discursive one) for some time now, both to teach with and to have students generate themselves.  Both have been very rewarding and especially engaging for the students.  When I demonstrate their creation and use to other teachers, they are surprised at how easy it is to make them, and then how intuitively they can contextualize them into a lesson or unit.  Parents have also been very impressed by the use of these smaller, more focused videos, because they do not want to see or hear that their kids are just burning time in school watching movies all of the time.  Have a look at some of my other video samples on my Youtube site, and also let me know what you think of the Gore Vidal sample video essay on George Washington.

       

      Thanks!

       

      Erik

       

      p.s., as far as citations, I do have the students create a Videography and Audiography section in the credits of their videos as part of the whole research skills element of responsible learning.  I don't include them in my own, except when I am providing an explicit example of what I want the students to produce.

      • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
        NaomiAtAmericanHistory Novice
        Currently Being Moderated

        Erik,

         

        I'm sorry it's taken me so very long to get back to you about the Gore Vidal video essay--I took a look and it's interesting...I'm wondering, was your plan, then, to have students collect images to go along with existing essays on historical figures? What activities do you build around this?

         

        As for the other videos, I love that you have the WWII bombing segment of the Fog of War--I definitely think it's the most powerful part of that very powerful film.  I've shown it to both high school and college students and they have all been really blown away, especially by the city comparisons.  I was surprised to see, though,  that you stopped the video before McNamara comes to this:

         

        "LeMay said, 'If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals.' And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

         

        Why is that not included? Have you used that part at all with students? I find that quote particularly fascinating.  Some students have been a bit put off by being asked to think about that, especially in the context of WWII, but it's definitely worth the conversation.

         

        Naomi

  • Re: Prompting Critical Thinking in American/World History
    cslobodnik New User
    Currently Being Moderated

    The four C's of 21st century learning skills, are creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.  It is urgent we teach our students critical thinking skills.  They are already exposed, through everyday media, to bias, misinterpretation, etc.  As educators in the 21st c.  we must teach our students skills and strategies to interpret all of the messages. 

    If you do a search on Thinkfinity for Critical Thinking, you will find 238 resources.  If you narrow it down to grades 6-8, you will find 98.  I chose this age, because by grade 8 students should already have know how to recognize bias.  If not, I agree that when they arrive in high school, teachers have to reteach the skill. For grades 9-12 there are 165 links.  One link, for grades 9-12 is http://justthink.org/.  Here students can read, and post, ideas about events around the world. Another link I found is http://www.epistemelinks.com/Main/Classroom.aspx?TopiCode=Reas&LinkType=All.

     

    If you type Context in the search field, there are over 1000 resources.  Teaching Historical Context is always a challenge.  I think that using an interdisciplinary method, such as teaching poetry or literature of a particular period is a great method: http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/understanding-context-modernist-poetry.  A website that teaches historicl investigation, http://web.wm.edu/hsi/index.html, is also useful.

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