Teaching in the 21st century is quite different from when I first taught college in 1986. For one thing, students then were remotely aware of some of the topics I discussed in class because they had occurred during their lifetime (for instance, in January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded, which made the lecture on the space program a bit different than I had initially intended). Back then, too, I mostly lectured and seldom showed films in class, mainly because showing a film involved ordering the 16mm film from the main campus of Penn State, waiting for it to be delivered, and hoping that the film did not break (and, if it did, praying that I remembered what I had learned in the instructional technology portion of the secondary teaching methods class I took as an undergraduate). Plus, back then I did not show what has become a staple when teaching about the civil rights movement, The Long Walk Home (and not just because the film was not distributed until 1991).
If you haven’t seen this movie, you really should. It’s the best portrayal of the civil rights movement in a feature film, and it’s reasonably historically accurate. Strong performances by two Academy Award winners (Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg, who won the Oscar that year for Ghost but had a far better performance in this film) and a riveting story keep the students engrossed in watching the movie. This past week, I showed this film in the U.S. history since 1877 class on Monday and Wednesday, and one student (who is older than me and lived through the turmoil of the civil rights movement in Philadelphia) told me at the end of class each day how impressed he was at the film’s attention to detail; he even noted that he had ridden in the same type of buses when going to school in Philadelphia in the early 1960s (and had experienced black-on-white intimidation, the opposite of one of the scenes in the movie). Historical accuracy and a powerful story are only two of the pluses of the film, as one of the actors (the girl who plays the younger daughter/narrator) had been in my mother’s Sunday School class a couple of years earlier–so there is a more “personal” connection in that I knew one of the actors in the film.
This year, in the American Revolution class, we watched 1776. When I referenced the movie in one of my lectures, I was met with blank stares–as only one or two had ever seen it (or heard of it). I remember seeing it in high school, and that movie inspired me to be an early American historian (I already knew I wanted to major in history in college, but that steered me to which time period I wanted to study). So we watched it, and they have been tested on it (a bonus quiz, since I didn’t warn them in advance about it), and most of the students were able to grasp the basic concepts and major characters in the debates about declaring independence.
For History of Pennsylvania, we have watched two films: The Courageous Mr. Penn (also known as Penn of Pennsylvania), a 1941 British production that clearly was made as propaganda to encourage the United States to enter World War II on the side of the Allies, and Allegheny Uprising, a 1939 John Wayne movie that focuses on colonial/British relations during the latter stages of the French and Indian War (and provides justification for why the colonies rebel). Typically I show The Molly Maguires when discussing labor/management relations, but this year I opted for a documentary from the History Channel. The documentary wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t nearly as good as seeing Sean Connery and Richard Harris (plus, the football/rugby scene in the movie is worth it, just to see how rival ethnic groups took out their hostilities on each other). In other words, just like teaching courses is an evolutionary process, I am always looking for ways to convey the information better–and, when something doesn’t work, I’ll remember that for the future.
This week I get back to lecturing and take a break from student teacher observations (first set for the second placement were finished this week, and I don’t see them again until the end of the month). No papers will cross my desk for grading until Thursday, so I actually get a breather this week (well, at least on the teaching side, as I do have to slightly modify a report that must be submitted for distribution by Wednesday and have to continue working on the assessments for accreditation). Monday I will get to play photographer at the Academic Honors Reception, taking pictures for the department’s webpage and Facebook pages. Wednesday morning I get to spend at “Assessment Day” with the Education faculty, working with data I will need for the accreditation report I’ll be writing this summer. Our social studies education program is nationally recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies, and I want to keep it that way. In the meantime, I get to start figuring out (again) how I can make the ancient history I teach in the U.S. history class relevant; I’m still adjusting to the fact that not only do my students not know about Watergate, but their parents might not remember it, either.
And now the photo of the week, from Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, New York (where I got my first taste of life on a movie set, observing the filming of a documentary on Benedict Arnold that someday will be distributed):