Teachers of social studies are in a critical position, and are in need of progressive tools. Learning cannot happen without a solid background from which to formulate new thought.
Letters to an Unborn Patriot
is a tool for classroom teachers to use when trying to elicit progressive thought in their students.
It seems unlikely in our information rich culture that many of our students arrive at early adolescense with a limited sense of the world around them, but sadly this is the case for many American middle school students. Learners present themselves to their social studies teachers with such a narrow background of ideas that teachers are often forced to compromise the integrity of the lesson material in order to make it understood. As this trend continues throughout elementary and middle school, and then on through high school, a scenario develops which finds college professors faced with a classroom of students unable to grasp the complex topics presented in higher education.
In addition, American History teachers need to develop an atmosphere in their classrooms which encourages consistent reading and rigorous debate about the ideas which formed the basis for our country, and the issues which continue to shape our nation. It is imperative for us to utilize unique approaches, to engage our young learners, and motivate them to think in new ways. We want to see growth in our children and we need them to challenge and sometimes change their own opinions. The letter writing format in this unit provides a “safe” and risk free environment in which this change may take place. Whether students are writing personally, or are acting in a “character persona,” they are afforded the opportunity to explore unique viewpoints within an approachable format.
Because of this dilemma, teachers of social studies are in need of a lesson plan that engages students; to the point where they are willing to expend the effort required to learn complex topics. In an attempt to satisfy this need, I have developed an American History teaching unit that requires students to respond to the events in developing America by writing to their unborn child, or to a real or created character living at the time of the events being studied. Sometimes the student will be asked to adopt the persona of a famous figure in history, other times, the student will act on his own behalf; an onlooker to the action. The student will study each event along a timeline that begins with early Spanish explorers and continues chronologically forward. As each event is discovered, the student must think empathetically, putting himself into the event and becoming part of the action. At this point, the student should be thinking about the decisions that people made, doing so from several viewpoints. After thinking critically about the event and its’ components, the student will then choose a place for himself within that part of history. As a demonstration and an evaluation of the process, the student will then become a historical character and document his role, thoughts, and ideas in the form of a letter written to a future progeny or to a pertinent figure living at that time. Doing this accomplishes several tasks. First, it forces the student to become emotionally involved with the event. This is a critical factor in emotional development. Secondly, this process forces the learner to see the event from several angles. The ability to consider a variety of ideas is also critical to the developmental process. Finally, the writing of the letter and the developing portfolio of work serves as both an assessment tool for the teacher and becomes a wonderful momento of accomplishment, which will hopefully, motivate the student to do well.
This unit is designed for an eighth grade class studying American History, and model lesson plans will be provided within that area. The ideas and plans though, are easily adaptable for students in grades six through high school, and can be changed to address other historic and social concepts. Extension ideas will be provided which take the lessons a step further, allowing for the inclusion of the community in the project.
To insure successful learning, it is important to provide students with an overview of what they will be studying. One very effective tool is the timeline. There is a very good resource entitled “Timelines of the United States” which is available in almost any teacher store or teacher materials catalog. This publication contains a twenty page “American History Timeline” that can be photocopied and put together by the students at the beginning of the school year. Students can use markers to color the timeline, and ambitious learners might want a timeline of their own to put on the wall of their bedroom and decorate. One trip to the copy machine makes this easy to accomplish.
When teaching a unit such as this, the textbook becomes more of a secondary resource to the classroom. The object is to fill your classroom with a variety of materials, such as readings about separate events or individuals, an atlas or two, and to make use of the many resources available on the Internet for research. I would like to recommend that each of my students purchase a copy of the study reference guide called Handy Homework Helper-U.S. History to keep at home. There are many videos available for rental and purchase, but a word of caution-I find that students often do not focus very well while watching educational videos unless they are given a set of questions to answer.