As the school year draws to a close, most teachers look forward to that great American tradition of the summer vacation. For some, the summer means going to family cottages or reunions. For others, it brings anticipation of special vacations to unique places: Disney World, Europe, Mexico, and the Canadian Rockies are but a few. For others still, vacations mean annual returns to favorite places at the beach or in the mountains. Who among us does not remember childhood experiences of reciting for a first or second grade class what we did on vacation? If presenting these experiences were a written assignment, it also might represent an early venture into our own personal literacy development.
I believe teachers' travels, and summer travel in particular, can be of great use in the classroom. As social studies teachers, we often overlook the everyday possibilities that our own travel affords us in making interesting and fun lessons from which students can and will learn. I have found that my journeys bring a great deal to bear on many of my lessons for my high school students.
Social studies teachers always make good use of visits to cities such as Philadelphia, Charleston, or Boston. We learn from visits to historic places like Colonial Williamsburg, Gettysburg, and the Alamo. Much of what we learn at these sites is included in our lessons for the following year. Those of us who have traveled around the world bring back pictures or videotapes to show our students in an effort to make the study of China, Africa, and Greece more relevant. Yet there are other ways to make our vacations a meaningful part of our classroom experience. In this article I will illustrate three ways in which the summer vacation of a social studies teacher, or any travel for that matter, can become an active ingredient in student learning.
John Dewey urged educators to make use of students' experiences in their learning (1938). He also spoke to the role of the teacher in shaping that experience. The teacher "must be aware of the potentialities for leading students into new fields which belong to experiences already had, and must use this knowledge as his criterion for selection and arrangement of the conditions that influence their present experience" (1938, 76). Each of the activities I describe here has that effect. Even though my experience is with juniors and seniors, these lessons would need only a little modification to be well suited to middle and elementary audiences as well.
What in the World Is That?
My wife and I have been long-time enthusiasts of Colonial Williamsburg. We visit there as often as possible. In our many visits, we have brought home several souvenirs and items of personal interest. Some of these became the nucleus for an activity I do with my American History classes. Basically, it is a variation of the classic school activity called "Show and Tell." The difference is that I show but do not tell.
The day before I teach this lesson, I announce that the following day I will be bringing in some items for "Show and Tell." I even threaten to show some home videos. The atmosphere the next day is usually quite relaxed, as the students expect that there is "no work" today, only a "blow off" activity that they can enjoy. On entering the room, they see a table with six or seven different items. Some, like a hat or a quill, are easily identified from a distance. Others, like a bird bottle or a pin holder, are not so easily recognized. I then divide the class into small groups of two to four students each. Each group receives a sheet with blank spaces next to each appropriately numbered item. For example, the sheet might look something like this:
Item 1 ___________________
Item 2 ___________________
Item 3 ___________________
I make sure there is a blank line for each item presented.
Each group is then given a second sheet on which group members are to try to identify what we can learn about the people of colonial Virginia and the way they lived from each item. For example, I often use a replica of a British half-penny dated 1773. From examining this coin, students might identify that the people had a currency system, knew Latin, and had a numeric system. In examining a hat with a fancy feather, they might surmise that class differences existed. Pottery mugs can provide evidence of the level of technology of the people. Difficult items, like the bird bottle, offer a chance for amusing discussion as well. Time is left at the end of the class to debrief the groups and to review their findings. Competition among the groups can offer an additional motivation. The promise of a reward of extra points on the next assignment or a snack always adds excitement.
This activity is useful for a couple of reasons. First, it allows the students a chance to do some "hands on" work with their classmates. It is an attempt to approximate a little bit of what archaeologists do in examining artifacts. Second, it encourages students in a way that is not academically structured to think and analyze what the items are and the purpose for which they were used. There are no set written questions and no set correct answers. Finally, the lesson gives students a glimpse of what life in the eighteenth century might have been like, especially as it relates to some of the more common aspects of manner of dress, utensils, etc. The resulting discussion is usually dominated by excellent questions as to how some things were done and why other things were not done. Frequently, students will later tell me of visits to Colonial Williamsburg or of visits to places like Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and compare what they saw with what we did in class that one day. The lesson seems to have staying power and it is fun.
I Read It in Black and White
Another possibility that vacation travel affords is the reading of local newspapers. The role of the fourth estate in history is well documented, and the impact of the press today can be brought into the classroom for students. Local newspapers offer unique points of view on historical events, current affairs, and even school issues. I find this option to be especially helpful in my teaching of Participation in Government, one of New York State's two required courses for seniors.
One of the outcomes of this course is to develop a student's sense of civic mindedness. Part of the understanding of that term is keeping abreast of current issues and being able to evaluate different points of view (New York State Department of Education 1986, 22-23). Using out-of-town newspapers can often help students develop skills in evaluating sources and in detecting bias. For example, I visited Philadelphia in late May of 1995, when the first two games of the Eastern Conference National Hockey League semi-finals were being played. The teams were the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers. As Ranger fans, some of my students found it interesting to read the Philadelphia newspaper accounts of the games. In both games, the Flyers came back to beat the Rangers. There was a definite slant offered in the Philadelphia papers that differed from that of our New York papers. My students thought the Philadelphia accounts exaggerated the talents of the Flyers and the weaknesses of the Rangers. Undoubtedly, Philadelphia students would find the reverse to be true in reading New York papers. Using these papers was a fun way to point out the issue of bias and different reporting of the same event. A similar approach could be used in a history class as students evaluate the accuracy of sources upon which history is written.
Another way to use newspapers is to have students read and interpret the different headlines. What events are included on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer as compared to The New York Times? What events are stressed in the Binghamton Press-Sun Bulletin versus the Cape Cod Times? These differences can yield interesting discussions as to local interests and perceptions. Furthermore, local editorials provide an interesting look at regional differences in attitudes and issue orientation. Even a national newspaper like USA Today can be useful in these discussions. For example, in Broome and Tioga Counties of New York State, a local murder trial received a great deal of attention. It was even included in one segment on a national news magazine television program. Yet when the verdict was delivered, it only made the little New York State news in the "Across the USA: News From Every State" page. This led to an interesting discussion of how newspapers prioritize issues and of parochial outlooks.
Often newspapers from the places where we vacation can help frame issues for students to study. For example, a few summers ago I came across an article dealing with a school that was using Saturday detention as part of its discipline procedure. I brought it back and used it in my Participation in Government classes as part of my "Citizen in the Schooquot; unit. We read it, analyzed its strengths and weaknesses, and evaluated whether such an option could be effective in our school setting. By the way, even though most of my students found this strategy unattractive, during the 1994-95 school year our school adopted Saturday detention as one of the options for dealing with student discipline problems. Articles on longer school calendars, dress codes, and other related topics can easily become part of an issues-oriented curriculum.
Sometimes local newspapers can help in U.S. history classes as well. For example, I have used local articles dealing with a wide range of regional or local interests. In my American History classes, I used a piece on the Wampanoag Indians and their recreational activities. In both my American History and my Participation in Government classes, I used an article explaining the beliefs of the old order Amish. In my American History classes, I also used an article describing seventeenth century holiday customs among the early English settlers. Not only do such lessons lend themselves to discussions of diversity, they also help to move the curriculum away from the focus on wars, leaders, and events that some students find boring. I found each of the above articles while traveling. For example, in the Cape Cod Summerscape in June 1993, Jack Sheedy wrote an article titled "Games of Native Cape Codders" on games played by Native Americans living on Cape Cod in the seventeenth century. Apart from double ball, a game that is very similar to lacrosse, some of these activities included canoe racing, swimming, wrestling, dart throwing, and rolling the dice (1993, 9). This type of article sheds local insight on Native American customs that is useful in attacking commonly held stereotypes, including the one that gambling was a vice introduced to the Indians by white Europeans. It also provides a particular example of customs in a different region that might afford a comparison with those of the area in which your own school is located.
The economics pages of other newspapers and the crime columns also provide interesting data for students to compare. Unemployment data, jobs programs, and crime statistics can all be used in the context of evaluating those issues and providing possible solutions at home. Even the comics can be used. In what section can "Doonesbury" be found? The editorial or the funnies? Why is this so? What comics are different from those in your own paper? So the next time you are on vacation, read more than just the weather, the front page, and the sports. There might be a lesson for your classes just waiting to be discovered in the other sections of the local newspaper.
Seeing Is Believing
As a history teacher, I can't pass up the book stores and gift shops I find when I travel. I love to buy more books than I will probably ever be able to read. I also like to pick up prints, maps, and cassettes of period music.
In teaching early American history, prints can be invaluable, especially portraits. Marvin Kitman, with tongue in cheek, poses the question, "What did George Washington really look like?" (1989, 241). He then uses more than twelve paintings to illustrate the variations in different artists' depictions of Washington's likeness. This idea prompted me to consider that in all probability, most high school students do not know what many of our famous early leaders looked like. Therefore, when discussing Washington, I have five different prints of the first president pinned to the bulletin board. When I ask the students to identify the person, I often get two or three different names along with Washington's. In dealing with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and with the ratification debates, I find it useful to have pictures of Madison, Jay, Hamilton, Gerry, Mason, and others to put a face with the name. When discussing the early growth of parties in the United States, I alternate the portraits of Jefferson and Hamilton on a screen as we discuss their differences over funding and the national bank of the United States. It helps to see the two major antagonists as we review their arguments. From these portraits, students can suggest personality characteristics that might be ascribed to each of them. A portrait, a little historical trivia, and you've got a well-baited hook to reel students into understanding the important issues of the founding of our country.
Reproductions of early maps are also useful. I like to have students try to find our community on colonial maps of New York, especially those printed in the other colonies. Students must use some geographic knowledge and a little guessing to figure out where to place modern communities. Additionally, early maps contain frequent references to Native Americans, and we can integrate themes of diversity and expansion at the same time. Students are also amused by early spellings of well-known physical landmarks as well as by some of the inaccuracies present on these early maps. Comparisons to modern maps provided by AAA or by conservation groups offer good points of departure for discussion.
Also useful to purchase are cassette tapes of music. When doing a role play for compromising on the Constitution, I play eighteenth century tavern songs while my students sit in a simulated tavern eating snacks, drinking cider, and discussing the points of view of some of the delegates at the Philadelphia convention. In discussing the early national period, I sometimes have some of Jefferson's favorite music playing quietly in the background. Music of the Civil War era adds to that unit, as do songs from World War I for that time period. Obviously, this use of music can continue right up to songs from the Vietnam era or even later. Often, the political and social comment in this music is quite revealing as to the times from which they originated.
Why do I think the approach that these techniques represent is so important? I think it works on a number of different levels. In the first place, it allows students to see their teachers as people who have lives outside the classroom and school year. This approach also enables our students to understand that a vacation is more than just hanging out at the beach or finding the nearest water park. More importantly, Eisner writes of the complexity of teaching and of the ability of "the educational connoisseur" to choose the appropriate activity to meet the student's curricular need (1991, 75). This approach to teaching helps bring our lessons alive with a personal touch that most students find interesting. Talking about colonial life is one thing; having students "touch" it is something else. Students get a taste of what some of the social sciences entail: archaeology, sociology, history, and geography.
Finally, this approach is one way to bridge our experiences to the curriculum and often to those of the students as well. Selwyn argues that "teaching is, among other things, the art of connecting students with course content in personal, relevant, and exciting ways" (1995, 7). This approach forges a link that enables students to see why it is that they are required to study social studies. It also allows us to bring other disciplines into our classrooms, thus showing students the interconnectedness of learning. Science, language arts, math, music, and art are but a few of the disciplines that might be included in this approach.
And the biggest advantage of all is that it is easy. It only requires us to be alert while we travel, looking for bits and pieces that might fit into our curriculum. We are not looking for whole units, only enough to enrich a lesson. The fruits will be well worth the time you invest. So, on your next vacation, keep an extra sharp eye out. You might just find something that will help you jazz up that one topic you always dread teaching.
Dewey, John. Experience and Education. New York: Collier, 1938.
Eisner, Elliot W. The Enlightened Eye: Qualitative Inquiry and the Enhancement of Educational Practice. New York: Macmillan, 1991.
Kitman, Marvin. The Making of the President, 1789. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
New York State Department of Education. Participation in Government Syllabus. Albany, N.Y.: 1986.
Selwyn, Douglas. Arts and Humanities in the Social Studies. Bulletin no. 90. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1995.
James J. Carpenter teaches social studies at Union Endicott High School, Vestal, New York. He is also a doctoral candidate in Education at Binghamton University.