Engaging with Content in United States History
Even though the United States is only 242 years old, its history is very rich. It is impossible for any teacher to expose students to every aspect of American History in a one-year course. In order to give students an opportunity to explore some aspects of our nation’s history more closely, students in my U.S. History course complete four projects to focus on some of the major events more closely.
The research skills students gain are invaluable – assessing the validity of online sources, properly citing those sources, and taking information from several sources to create a project or paper that is their own work. Students are walked through each of these steps in the early weeks of the class.
The first research project is a wiki on a patriot in the American Revolution. The personalities of this time are so rich, and there just isn’t time to explore all of them. A wiki project is like a web page that students create. They can add visuals, video clips, and music in addition to text. What I love about the wiki projects is that after they are graded, students can view and comment on their classmates’ projects. (I assign a scavenger hunt activity with the answers found in class wikis.) The assignment is shown below:
The example below is on Billy Lee, one of George Washington’s slaves who played a role in the Revolution. The life of Billy Lee often doesn’t make the cut when choosing what information to cover when teaching the American Revolution, but through this project, all the students in the class get to learn about the life and impact of this man. This student made sure that he had all the required elements in his project.
By clicking on the image on the above page, a slideshow allows the viewer to see several images.
The American Civil War is another key period of American History. There were 10,500 battles, campaigns, and military engagements in the American Civil War. Of these, 50 are considered major, and another 100 of major significance. I get to cover less than 10 during our time together. Students get an opportunity to research another one of the major battles in this conflict and learn about the battles that their classmates choose to research as well. Here is the assignment:
Students choose from a list of battles, not including the ones covered in class. If a student lives near or has plans to visit a battle site not listed, he/she can get approval for that battle as a topic. Here is an example of a completed project:
Again, by clicking on the images in the class pages, the viewer can view more pictures. Captions can be added to give the viewer context, or to identify the subject of the pictures. Students view all the projects of their classmates, expanding their knowledge of this part of American History.
These smaller research projects build up to the research paper project. Students choose a topic related to World War II. Not only do they research their topic and write a formal, historic research paper, they also present this research to the class. Each student prepares a three- to five-minute presentation and in class shares what they have learned with their classmates. This year’s topics included the role of Walt Disney in the war effort, changes in medical practices during the war, and love letters from the war.
All these projects not only help prepare students for college level history study, but also allow them to dig deeper into topics in American History and explore some of their personal interests in a historical context.
We have some smaller fun assignments in U.S. History as well. Students are encouraged to try writing with a quill pen, make hard tack, and visit local historic sites. These activities are optional, but really enrich the study of the content. Here is one student’s attempt with a quill pen:
Also, when learning about the impact of the automobile on American life, we learn about Burma Shave signs. This advertising campaign shared an ad or a public service announcement in verse, one line at a time, so motorists could read the text as they traveled the road. Students put on their creative hats and write their own Burma Shave poems. Like the original Burma Shave signs, some are advertisements:
Others are public service announcements, like this one:
These projects are just some examples of what we do in U.S. History. We also write newspaper articles from the War of 1812, evaluate maps, and examine primary source documents. If you would like more information, check out my U.S. History class and other classes at https://excelsiorclasses.com/becky-frank/.
About the Author
Becky Frank has been steeped in American History from her early days growing up on the family farm in Northeastern North Carolina. Although Barrow Creek farm has been in her family since the 1680s, her parents were the first to live on it in three generations. On the farm she learned to milk cows, shear sheep, and drive a tractor.
After an internship at historic Edenton, she received a B.S. in Public History from Appalachian State University in 1992. Answering God’s call to teach in a classroom setting, she added teacher certification from East Carolina University to her degree in 1998. Becky then taught social studies in Gates County, North Carolina where her classes included U.S. History, World History, Economics, Government, and Humanities. After she moved to Northern Wake County with her new husband and began a family in 2004, she taught American History online for six years.