Thursday, June 12, 2008
My appreciation for our history as a nation continues to increase. I mentioned it many times, but there is something truly special about walking in the footsteps of the past, to see the places that I have read, talked, and taught about, and look at the feats of the ordinary doing the extraordinary. I was able to see the highs and lows of our history. As I travel and talk to the people visiting the same sites, I am happy that I am not alone in this appreciation. Hopefully, I can continue to convey this enthusiasm to my students, colleagues, and friends.
My content knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement, the Western theater of the Civil War, and World War II grew by leaps and bounds in five short days. The historical sites are the best teachers. I can’t find a better book, video, or website to learn about what happened, why it happened, and why it’s important. Adding this additional understanding into my teaching is exciting. I hate to say it, but I am ready for December (Civil War), April (WWII), and May (Civil Rights) of next school year!
I think the most important visits of my trip dealt with the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did I learn much more about what happened in the South, in those well known venues of Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Atlanta, but I also saw how that part of our history is so important to our African American community. While that may seem obvious, it takes on a whole new light standing at an exhibit about segregation next to someone who experienced it, talking to her grandchildren and recalling her memories. I can never come close to putting myself or my students in that situation, but I can hopefully bring us closer to understanding that perspective. I also enjoyed documenting my trip with postings, images, audio, and video. It was exciting every night to post my experiences, and even more exciting to check in on who was able to read about the trip and make a comment on the blog. I can use this as an example of education communication when Matt Montagne and I present at the National Council of the Social Studies annual Conference in Houston in November.
Overall the trip gave some time to collect my thoughts after a challenging school year, see some places that I have always wanted to see, increase my knowledge and understating of our nation’s past, strengthen my passion for teaching American history, and be thankful to teach at a school that supports such a trip. When I told the various people I met what I was doing, they were amazed – first, that I would do it, and second, that my school would support and pay for it!
I also realized that I miss my family incredibly, and that I am glad to be going home.
My visit began with a discussion with Kenneth Hoffman, the Director of Education for the museum. He described some of the educational components offered by his staff, including videoconferencing on different topics of interest. This could become an exciting part of our study of WWII in the spring. Mr. Hoffman also discussed the importance of developing a sense of place in teaching history, something that is challenging but essential. I really enjoyed our conversation, as it reinforced why I was traveling in the first place and will hopefully lead to additional communication with him and the museum.
The museum itself is full of content, audio, video, and images dealing with World War II. The main exhibits are on Operation Overlord in Normandy and the various D-Days in the Pacific theater. The D-Day exhibit covered every possible aspect of the invasion. While I knew a fair amount, I walked away with a more complete understanding of D-Day, especially after listening to the various oral histories that are part of the exhibit. The best resource was Mr. Blakey, a guide who was a paratrooper on June 6, 1944. He is the true example of living history. The Pacific theater exhibit gave me some additional insight into the complicated military operations in that arena. I also learned much more about the racist propaganda used on both sides of the war (US and Japan). The exhibit ended with a very poignant display on the proposed attack on Japanese mainland and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The museum is currently undergoing a huge expansion project, and I am sure I will return in the future. They hopefully will have an educators’ conference either at the museum or in New Orleans. If not, it may be a trip for the Tafts – all five or just two.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
1300 monuments – and I think I saw everyone of them (and loved every minute of it). My visit to Vicksburg National Military Park was awesome. The weather even cooperated – it didn’t break 90 while I was touring. I started at the Visitor Center, checked out the exhibits, grabbed a CD and tour book, and hit the road. 4 hours later, I didn’t have enough!
The first thing I realized about Vicksburg was how different it was from Shiloh. Both are beautiful, but the topography is as different as night and day. There isn’t a single flat spot on the battlefield, which played into the battle tremendously. It’s interesting that Grant was the commander at both battles. I don’t think he gets much credit for being able to succeed on different types venues of war.
The park is gorgeous this time of year. It didn’t look as wooded back in 1863, but it was thick and lush. The driving tour takes you up and down, around winding roads, and near every essential spot on the battlefield.
One of my favorite spots on the battlefield was the Illinois monument (even though I am downright allergic to all things Illinois). My young historian Caroline B and her parents sent me there with a mission – to find the name of her great great great grandfather on the wall of 36,000+ Illinois men who served at Vicksburg. Finding the name was fun for the thrill of the chase, but it also gave me a disjointed link to the battle. I will have to begin some research on my own ancestors’ role in the Civil War … and then go follow in their footsteps.
While the vista of the battlefield is amazing from all of the open areas, my favorite aspect were the monuments from each state. I felt strangely at home touring the Wisconsin monument (yup, it’s official, I’m a Wisconsinite – but I still love my Detroit teams). The Kentucky monument is way too cool – Lincoln and Davis standing next to each other.
The museum and exhibit on the U.S. Cairo is something that I wasn’t expecting. I knew it was there, but I had no idea about how basically cool it would be to see the skeleton of a huge Union ironclad gunboat preserved and presented under an enormous canopy. It has to be seen to be appreciated.
Of course, I also was humbled by the numbers involved, especially at the National Cemetery. Only the Union soldiers are interred there, and there are 13,000 unknown men. Keeping in mind that the number only reflects probably half of the casualties … wow.
The museum covers the full spectrum of the movement, but there is only one reason for its location in Memphis – MLK’s assassination in the Lorraine Motel in 1968. To see the balcony that I have seen so many times before is one thing … but to see it from inside the hotel, and see his room as it was on April 4, and listen to the song he asked to be sung the next day, … again, walking in the footsteps of history. Across the street, the museum extends to examine the assassination itself. The video presentation on King’s final days and the timeline of his last hours is so detailed, you think you are there. Looking out the window of the supposed shooting site is downright eerie. The artifacts are amazing – the actual bullet? Come on! – and the conspiracy theories are discussed as well.
It’s pretty powerful to travel the South and see the Civil Rights Movement as part of a continuum. Starting at King’s birthplace and younger years, moving to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham ( a little out of order, but that’s all right), and ending in Memphis, I feel like I have a much better understanding of and appreciation for the movement and the individuals involved. Now, I need to spread the word – that’s what my friend from Birmingham, Mr. Sanders, told me I must do.
Monday, June 9, 2008
As I drove the battlefield with an audio tour and three maps, it was easy to understand the flow of the battle. The human stories within the battle are fascinating – Johnston’s tin cup, the valor of the Federals holding the Sunken Road, the horrible scene that must have taken place at Bloody Pond, and many more. For the first time, I focused on the specific role of the Wisconsin regiments engaged in the battle, making the experience more personal to myself (and hopefully my students). It was also fun to narrate some video tours of a few of the sites on the battlefield.
I’m not sure why I am so drawn to these battlefields and cemeteries. I keep pondering that as I walk around the hallowed ground, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the human stories, or the “ordinary doing the extraordinary”, or the historical significance. I always wonder what I would have done if I were in a soldier’s shoes (or brogans) …
If you ever get a chance, Shiloh is worth the effort. It’s only about two hours outside of Memphis, and with Corinth (3o minutes away), it is a full day of Civil War love.
The real highlight was the courtyard behind the center, which contains the sculpture fountain called "The Stream of American History". It's difficult to accurately describe with just words, so I tried to do a narrative video tour of the beautiful work of art and history.
Combined with the Shiloh National Military Park, this site is a must see for anyone with any level of interest in the war. I will definitely be back - hopefully sooner than later.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
I had an unsolicited by much appreciated tour from a local man named Mr. Sanders. He gave me additional insight that isn’t obvious to the casual tourist. He made two interesting observations as well. First, he stated a few times that the monuments and memorials deal with revolution and reconciliation, because you can’t have reconciliation without a revolution. Second, he pointed out the park is named for an Irish American sailor from Birmingham who was the first American sailor killed in WWI. The color of the skin doesn’t matter, he said – just what someone does for others.
- has a beautiful park (Vulcan Park) that overlooks the city. The massive statue to Vulcan, god of iron, towers over the city. The statue was built for the St. Louis World’s Fair and came home to Birmingham afterwards.
- is hot in June.
- doesn’t open on Sunday until 1:00 in the afternoon.
- has some great barbeque. Mike O – I didn’t get Ollie’s, but Jim and Nick's was tasty tasty.
is a place that I would like to see again ... in the fall.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
I retraced the march in reverse, from Montgomery to Selma. The first thing that struck me was the length - over 50 miles. I didn't realize the impact of arriving at the end point until I stepped on the state capitol grounds and got a small but indelible feel of what it would be like to address a crowd there. Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was pretty powerful as well. To walk in the footsteps of those activists that truly put their lives in the line in 1965, knowing what happened there, ... it's hard to explain. I don't know if I could muster the moral courage it took to be a part of the movement.
I also had no idea that black tenant farmers were kicked off their land and lived in tent cities for almost two and a half years in Lowndes County, the middle of the march. It's another great example of ordinary people doing the extraordinary, a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement.
Needless to say, I will be giving the march much more attention in class next year and beyond. The impact of the march - the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - cannot be ignored, and neither can the experiences and memories of the marchers.
The memorial itself has characteristics that I cherish in such works. It contains an essential quote, it teaches, it asks people to touch it, and it fosters and emotional response. I couldn't stop reading the timeline, touching the water, and thinking about the sacrifice of the people listed on the memorial. Maya Lin was the perfect choice for the design.
Friday, June 6, 2008
Friday, May 30, 2008
My Civil War Virginia trip two years ago was one of the greatest travel and professional development experiences in my educational career. The ability to see, think, discuss, and relive history in the historical locations with education experts is unbeatable. This trip will add immensely to my growth as a teacher, a student of history, and, as corny as it may sound, an American.
The Civil War stops on this trip will allow me to see an under discussed yet incredibly important aspect of the war – the Western Theater. Recent scholarship is increasingly arguing that the war was won in the West, and I hope to find out some of the impact of the Western campaigns firsthand. Visiting the actual battlefields not only allows me to get a closer sense of the struggles of the men in blue and gray, but also will increase my desire to become involved in battlefield preservation (and hopefully have some 8th graders share the interest). In addition, the Deep South is an area that I have never visited, and I am interested to hear the people’s perspective of the Civil War. I also plan on investigating the role of Wisconsin soldiers at Shiloh, bringing a local tie to the trip.
I have never been able to study about World War II as much as I want, and I can’t think of a better place to begin the National World War II Museum. The facility is the finest in the nation for the topic of the war, and I will improve my content knowledge as well as my appreciation for the men and women of the Greatest Generation. The museum has a partner schools program and a few more grandiose field trips that I would like to check out and possibly participate in the future. The museum also has a fantastic oral history program that I would like to use as a model for integration into the 8th grade curriculum.
The Civil Rights movement is an area of my instruction that I would really like to improve, both in content and pedagogy. I think the perspective I have on the movement is far removed from that of the people who participated in the great events in the South. Visits to the various Civil Rights museums and locations will help build my knowledge base and offer a broader perspective that I can translate to my students. I also have a personal interest in Martin Luther King, Jr., which will only be deepened by the trip.
I look forward to working with museum directors and educational specialists in order to develop the 8th grade curriculum. I am always looking for the great resources, especially primary sources and technology based materials. I also hope to glean some tips, lesson plans, and ideas for more engaging and interactive lessons for our 8th graders. The resources available at the various museums are greater than I can find locally or online. The increased content knowledge and teaching ideas and resources will enhance three very important areas of the 8th grade curriculum.
I also feel that the time alone will allow me to focus on historical content and teaching ideas. My drives will consist of listening to books on tape concerning the topics of the locations I will visit. I will also record my thoughts as I drive, walk, visit, and reflect. This worked very well on my previous trip.
I will also experiment with some of the 21st century learning tools that I have incorporated in my class while I am on the trip. I will blog about my visits, record podcasts both to chronicle the visit and to be used by others as travel guides, and hopefully set up some contacts for future video conferencing with my students and
myself. Sharing my experiences will be one of the most beneficial aspects of the trip. I will gladly present my travels to the middle school faculty, the middle school as a whole, and anyone in the other two divisions. I also think that a group of parents would enjoy hearing about my travels.