“Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past” is the second middle school history plan I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I have to repeat that I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I do have a degree in history, I have been studying American history for a long time, and have grandchildren, children, and personal experience in middle school. I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can.
I was really impressed with the first book but this one is a disappointment. First, and this is not a problem with just this book, trying to covering over 500 years worth of history in one class, less than 160 contact hours, is silly. Packing that much content into one course guarantees information overload, nothing will be learned. This is how they taught history when I was in school, I don’t even remember the class. Each chapter in this book could, and have, filled hundreds volumes of scholarly history. Why not narrow the range, of focus on a topic that can be covered in a year and allow the students to learn some skills that will serve them in whatever they study? But that is an issue with the system, the book is not at fault it is merely trying to achieve the impossible goal regulators have set.
That is not to say this book does not have problems. Many of the lessons ask the students to draw a picture to illustrate their understanding. Seriously? This is not second grade. These students have basic communication skills. They need practice writing. One or two “art” assignments that connect well to the subject matter would be acceptable, but as someone who can not even trace a straight line, by middle school I was ready to put away childish things. One of my favorite authors when I was these students age. Robert Heinlein, explained that when he wrote his “juveniles” he never talked down to the readers. It is my feeling that this lesson plan, most of the time, does talk down to the students.
One of the book’s strong points is its use of the Library of Congress’ Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool for investigating contemporary engravings and political cartoons. “Reading” pictures was not something I was introduced to until college and it is an important skill for developing critical thinking skills and your attention to detail. Unfortunately early in the book, lesson one of chapter two, the url leading to the sources did not work. I was able to find them but any teacher using this book needs to be forewarned. Two of the questions the students were asked to answer from the engravings were about gender roles. Is that an idea we want to promote in middle school in the 21st century? Instead of asking them to identify men’s work and women’s work how about just identifying the work being done? Instead of separating the work into male / female roles why not ask about the technology, the tools being used?
Slavery is the most divisive subject in U.S. history and I was ready to blast the authors for this untrue, illogical, statement, “For Whites in the slave states, the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, to the presidency, signaled and immediate threat. Compromise, an essential feature of American politics, proved impossible and several Southern states immediately drew up declarations of secession modeled after the Declaration of Independence.” That sounds like an attempt at compromise was made which is untrue. Southern states were attacking U.S. military installations and issuing declarations of secession before Lincoln even reached Washington City. Just how did compromise prove impossible? At first I thought this was the author’s bias coming through but it is more an indication of how completely the South’s “Lost Cause” revision of history has sunk into our culture. When I read the assignment for that lesson I realized that Southern mythology could not survive this textbook. Students are given the Secession Declarations from South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas, all name slavery as the primary reason for attempting to leave the Union.
The original texts used in the book are important documents and are sure to challenge readers at this grade level. I suspect that there will be push-back on some of the choices from both the left and right, they strike a good balance sure to offend many. They only used two pages from Paine’s “Common Sense”. The book is only 46 pages long, I would have liked to have seen more if not the entire text, but, like I said many people will be second guessing some of the author’s choices. Only in the lesson covering Jackson and the removal of the Eastern Indian Nations did I feel the sources were lacking. There were excerpts from Jackson and Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation as well as excerpts of pro and con speeches to Congress. Why repeat Jackson and Ross’ arguments and leave out the Supreme Court’s decision?
As I said, covering the entire history of the United States in one class is a silly, irresponsible requirement that schools, and texts like this, must follow. It guarantees information overload, unless you choose to edit out a lot of information. The closest the text comes to mentioning the labor movement is in one sentence, “One group, the Lowell Mill Girls, became world famous for their independence and culture.” What does that even mean and how does it deserve mention when the “Bread and Roses” Strike is overlooked? Later in the text the Civil Rights Movement follows the Great Depression which followed World War One propaganda. Where are Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam?
As a history text this book does the best it can with the unreasonable expectations that one class cover over 400 years of North American / US history. However, the lessons are uneven. Some seemed so simple and childish that I can’t imagine a middle schooler not being bored with them. Others were exceptional, I can see the discussion on Washington’s Farewell Address working in an adult class. Maybe a second edition will improve the weaker lessons and correct the bad links. Only legislatures can fix the unreasonable requirement to squeeze everything in U.S. history into one school year.