"This sucks. Why do we have to learn about history in English class?"

August 27, 2009 at 7:46 pm 2 comments

MLK anachronism

I’m teaching one section of American Lit (junior English) which, in my district, takes place after two solid years of U.S. History. Taking my cue from a veteran teacher at this school and in this subject, today I gave my kids a diagnostic test to see what they remembered or knew about their nation’s past.

I gave them a list of ten time frames, ten events, and ten historical people (authors and history-makers) and asked them to match them all together. If you’d like to try your hand at it, here they are:

1618-1776 Civil Rights Movement Rev. John Edwards
1776-1800 Civil War F. Scott Fitzgerald
1812-1880 Cold War Ernest Hemingway
1861-1865 Colonization Thomas Jefferson
1918-1921 Fight for Independence Martin Luther King Jr.
1921-1929 Great Depression Ronald Reagan
1929-1942 Prohibition Franklin D. Roosevelt
1941-1945 Westward Expansion John Steinbeck
1962-1970 World War I Harriet Beecher Stowe
1945-1989 World War II Mark Twain

(My history-minor husband and I agree that some of these aren’t as clear-cut or accurate as they might ought to be, but the spirit of the thing – particularly as it pertains to a literature survey class – is okay.)

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t do well. I was a little surprised at HOW poorly they did, though. I had three boys who seemed to know most of the answers, and I eventually stopped letting them answer while we were correcting. The rest of the class was clueless, to the degree that the class average on the assignment (were I to give a grade on it) was a 2%.

There’s no typo there. TWO percent. And given that I had several high Bs, you can estimate just how many zeroes I had.

And oh, the complaining! How indignant they all were, that I dared blur the lines between history class and English class! My arguments that they weren’t learning history but rather recalling what they’d already learned, all on deaf ears. And don’t even fool yourself that they listened to my explanation as to how literature gains meaning from its historical context.

I’m sharing, not because I blame our history teachers (I don’t… entirely) but because it gave me, in addition to gray hairs, a few good chuckles. For your viewing pleasure, I present A HISTORICAL TIMELINE ACCORDING TO ELEVENTH GRADERS.

From 1618 to 1776, during Mark Twain’s colonization of North America, Martin Luther King Jr. led us in our fight for independence. This span of over 150 years was also marked by World War I, which had no real leader. The passage time brought no peace; in 1776, Thomas Jefferson launched the Civil War at approximately the same time that Mark Twain dragged us into the Cold War. Both wars were ongoing until 1800.

The Cold War restarted in 1918 under the leadership of “that Harriet dude” (actual classroom comment), Harriet Beecher Stowe. This was particularly hard to take, since Ronald Reagan had enacted Prohibition in 1918 and maintained it until 1921. This may have contributed to the Great Depression, which Thomas Jefferson chronicled from 1921 until its conclusion in 1929.

Jefferson – who was a busy guy at mid-century – then led our nation into World War II from 1929 until 1942. Not content with his contributions in this area during the 1600s, Martin Luther King returned for part deux of his Fight for Independence. This led to Ronald Reagan’s Civil Rights Movement from 1941 through 1945.

At the end of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1945, John Steinbeck led us into World War II. Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan, perhaps in protest, re-enacted Prohibition for the duration of the war. This apparently caused a second Great Depression, again closely associated with Ronald Reagan, which lasted from 1945 until 1989.

World War II was waged from 1945 until 1989. Somewhere in the middle of the war (according to the one students whose answers led to this paragraph) we apparently became bored with that skirmish, and decided to start World War III. WWIII lasted from 1962 until 1970, at which point it appears we decided to go back to finish WWII.

Dude, kids. Apparently you NEED to learn about history in English class….

The best part of all of this is one of the students, who I’ll call Yvette. She didn’t do great on the diagnostic – got about half of them right – but knew about the events and was able to make smart connections between the events and the people who may have been associated with them. The mistakes she made make a certain kind of sense – it follows, in a way, that the Civil Rights Movement would come immediately after the Civil War, doesn’t it? She had by far the highest score of any girl, and was the most confident and forthcoming during our class discussion.

Yvette is a foreign exchange student. From Kazakhstan. She’s been in the U.S. for two weeks.

This may be a very long year….



Note to Self: SRSLY OMG

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Clix  |  August 28, 2009 at 4:41 am

    Go Yvette! Tangent: I’d love to know if any of your little darlings have the faintest idea where Kazakhstan is…

  • 2. Julie  |  August 29, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    oh my god, this is HILARIOUS! also quite tragic. and i thought it was bad when 6th graders thought WWII was in the 1980s.


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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

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