This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This summer trip to Philadelphia, D.C., and the surrounding area was an amazing trip where I had the opportunity to learn, get a true feel for the area, and get reenergized for the classroom.  As an 8th grade history teacher this trip is amazing because I can incorporate almost everything into the classroom.  The new Colorado State Standards call for 8th grade to teach Revolution through the Reconstruction.  Because 7th grade has asked us to cover Colonialism our Boston trip last year was great, but this trip incorporated our entire school curriculum.  Of the entire curriculum that I teach, the Revolutionary War and U.S. Government are my favorite topics to teach because of my passion for the topic.  On this trip we got to experience and see so much of what I teach.  From the Revolutionary War to U.S. Government to the Civil War and the homes of the greatest leaders in our country, it was amazing to walk in the steps of our countries Founding Fathers. 

Some of the best parts of the trip were to see, feel, and touch the historical past.  It was amazing to see the Pennsylvania State House where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and created.  At Valley Forge I got to see the strategic position that Washington placed his army and the large area where his soldiers camped.  It was also great to see where Washington crossed the Delaware River and where the battle of Princeton, and the major fighting where Germantown happened.  Gettysburg was another battlefield where you could get a sense of the scale of the battle and see areas like the Peach Orchard, the Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, and Cemetery Ridge.  At these battlefields you could get a sense of the horrific loss that happened in those places and the sacrifice for freedom that took place on those battlefields.  As a teacher I can now explain parts of the battle from a better informed position and show personal pictures so that I can make it more personal for the students.  Probably one of the most exciting experiences was at the Franklin Institute where we got a behind the scene tour and got to hold and touch valuable possessions of Benjamin Franklin.  At the Philadelphia Philosophical Society we got to hold an original copy of Common Sense, and see one of Meriwether Lewis’s journals.  It was a real treat to see these treasures of America and made us understand the importance of preserving these treasures for future generations. 

One of the biggest surprises that I saw on the trip was the influence of Masonic organizations on the founding of our country.  Some of the most impressive buildings that I saw in both Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were huge and architecturally impressive Masonic Temples.  On the trip we saw one temple located right across the street from Philadelphia’s City Hall, one right across from Old Barracks Museum, and the George Washington Temple in Alexandria VA.  The layout of Washington D.C. was designed by a Mason and was inspirational and powerful.  All were impressive architectural structures and located in areas that showed their influence and power.  There are Masonic members in Colorado, but their buildings that I have seen are small and look more like a bar than anything of significance, but the Masonic Temples I saw on this trip were huge architectural masterpieces with tons of space.  What do they need all that space for?  How much money did they spend on these impressive structures and what is their purpose that must attract so many men?  I am a big fan of Dan Brown and other authors who exaggerate Masonic power and influence for entertainment, but the size of those buildings in such prominent places speaks for its power and influence itself.  It definitely makes me more curious to look into this organization more and wonder why its influence has not spread west. 

The best part about these trips is the curiosity it inspires in me to learn more.  It seems like the more I know the more I realize how little I actually do know.  Germantown was a great example.  The glossed over textbook that my students read might mention Germantown in one sentence along with the American defeat at Brandywine as an example of American naivety in military experience, but the lack of details and need to summarize information can skew the true story.  Germantown was a well planned attack that could very well have been successful except for foggy conditions, and a few minor mistakes.  The Americans clearly had an advantage, but did not execute the plan as well as they should have.  These details which I learned from the curator at Germantown made me realize that there was much more to these battles and how important these details are when trying to explain the war.  The best thing that this trip does is that it inspires me to read and question more.  One of my previous blogs was about what the “Turning Point” of the Revolutionary War really was?  Was it Trenton, Saratoga, Valley Forge, Princeton, Germantown, or was it the influence of men like Benjamin Franklin or John Adams or was it something else?  While looking at the many book stores and souvenir stores I came across another book called, Unlikely Allies by Joel Richard Paul that describes how three unlikely individuals played a blackmailing role in getting French assistance.  Just that one question, what was the turning point in the Revolutionary War, can be extremely complex.  I have also checked out books on Fredrick Von Steuben, Valley Forge, The Whiskey Rebellion, The Masons, Hamilton and Burr, Zebulon Pike, and Gettysburg.  The more I learn, the more I realize there is so much more that I don’t know.  This is something I want to instill in my students as well.

As I return to the classroom in the fall I will have a lot of new information and resources to share with my students.  At the National Constitution Center I found several websites that I plan on using in the classroom that will hopefully be very useful with the upcoming election.  I also received a great CD with some great curriculum ideas from both Mount Vernon and Monticello that I plan on using in the upcoming year.  I am looking forward to our curriculum week so that I can steal some great ideas from my colleagues that were on this trip.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

George Washington’s legacy can be seen everywhere.  From statues and buildings, to streets and advertising, the name Washington is a name of strength, pride, and authority.  Known affectionately as the father of our country, we often see him more like a god then we do as a human with passion, character, and imperfections.  Despite the plethora of Washington statues, the most significant statue I discovered on the trip was a small little statue at Valley Forge by Franklin Simmons in 1905 called Valley Forge that captured the humanity of Washington.

Washington is a remarkable figure who cannot be easily molded into a stereotypical character type.  Walking into the Smithsonian’s National History Museum one of the first impressive statues that you see is a large marble statue with Washington looking like a Greek god. The Washington Monument in the center of the National Mall also testifies to his strength as the great uniter in our government. Washington’s painted picture was displayed prominently in both Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier, and the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art had probably the most beautiful sculpture of Washington on his horse surrounded by majestic animals and half naked muscular demigods.   Even Mount Vernon prominently displays pictures of current Presidents, heads of state, and other notable people who have visited Mount Vernon as if it were the Mecca that great leaders must visit once their life. But do these depictions of Washington paint a true picture of who he was?  Do we do a disservice to him by overlooking his humanity and unfairly put him on a pedestal so high that we lose touch of his life which was filled with both great highs and incredible lows.

Before leaving on our trip to Philadelphia I read two books on George Washington called His Excellency George Washington by Joseph Ellis and Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge by Thomas Fleming.  These great biographies of Washington gave me a much better understanding of the man and all the luck, pains, successes, political savvy, heartbreak, frustrations, and other character traits that he embodied during his long productive life.  From his losses in New York to the death of his step daughter who died in Washington’s arms, Washington understood loss.  He also had a deep personal religious faith that he carried with him and helped to carry him through those difficult times he suffered through.  Washington would likely be honored by how he is more prominently displayed because he definitely stove for greatness but it is not an accurate picture that captures his human side. 

The only sculpture that I saw on the trip that touched his human frailty was a small bronze sculpture of Washington in the Valley Forge Chapel.  The sculpture is of Washington sitting down on a chair with a look the weight of the world on his shoulders.  His face is somber to a point of depression and his clothes are slightly disheveled as his cloak has fallen off one of his shoulders. His sword lies across his lap as if its weight is now a burden and his body begs for some rest.  It is so captivating because it is not what you might expect from Washington, and it allows me to relate more closely with the human Washington that I read about but is not always seen through other statues.  One sees a frustrated and tired Washington who looks like he had just walked through the valley of the shadow of death.  The pressure looks like it has almost broken him.

It’s location in the Valley Forge Chapel is obviously significant.  Despite the winter not being as harsh as the following winter at Morristown, there were severe supply shortages and difficult living conditions.  Washington had failed to stop the British from invading Philadelphia and also failed to capture Germantown. There were grumblings from some Congressmen to replace Washington with General Gates, pressure from French officers for them to take a more central role, and grumblings from men and officers about their lack of supplies and pay.  Valley Forge was a true test for Washington, his men, and for the Revolution.  Through perseverance, “Providence”, and added discipline, the army was able to survive and carry on the fight the following year.  It was during the Valley Forge encampment when word finally came that the French would join the American cause, and an important turning point was reached.  What got Washington and the American Army through this difficult time?  The sculpture by Franklin Simmons located in the Chapel of Valley Forge suggests that it was Washington’s reliance and faith in God that got the army through this difficult situation.  When Washington was at his lowest, it was God that brought him out of the darkness and despair.  At his weakest, he could take rest in God, just as the statue took rest in the Chapel of Valley Forge. But is this sculpture an accurate portrayal of Washington’s human frailty in the presence of God or is it, like so many other depictions of Washington, a projection of popular religious culture on Washington’s character?

How religious was Washington?  Did he really pray a Valley Forge?  What were Washington’s religious beliefs?  According to author Peter Henriques in his book, Realistic Visionary, “No group is more eager to claim George Washington as his own than Evangelical Christians” (p. 167).  But it is also very difficult for any historian to accurately define Washington’s religious beliefs because he did not express his personal doctrinal beliefs openly.  In fact, Henriques notes that Washington almost never used the word’s Jesus or Christ in his numerous letters and refused to take communion.  Henriques notes that despite both the Parson Weems and Isaac Potts story about Washington praying at Valley Forge are historically unproven, those stories have been vehemently embraced by Christians today.  Even at Mount Vernon, Arnold Friberg’s masterpiece 1975 painting, The Prayer at Valley Forge is prominently placed in the visitor’s center and available at the bookshop in various forms (we purchased a Christmas Ornament of it).  The portrayal of Washington humbly praying on one knee in the snows of Valley Forge also shows Washington in a role familiar to Christian’s beliefs today;  that of human frailty and humility in the presence of God. 

Franklin Simmons interpretation of Washington at Valley Forge does not overtly project Christian faith, but does similarly show Washington’s human side.  It is comforting to know that Washington, the “Father of our Country”, was not a god but instead a man with great passions, foibles, highs, and lows who persevered to learn from his mistakes and continually sought improvement and greatness.  He is a great example for my middle school students that despite obstacles, bad luck, and failure, goals can be completed and your character can continually improve.  It is often through our weaknesses where we can understand our strengths and work to improve our situation.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What was the turning point of the revolutionary war? This is always a major topic and test question for my middle school students during our unit on the Revolutionary War. I have always taught what the textbooks generally mention as the turning point, the battle of Saratoga. Saratoga was so important because it was that victory and subsequent capture of an entire British army that convinced the French to join the American cause. But at almost every stop we have been at each proud lecturer has proclaimed their spot as the “true turning point of the war”. When we were at Washington’s Crossing the park ranger and the wonderful book, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fisher, make a compelling argument for the Battle of Trenton, as the turning point of the war because it was Washington’s first victory solidifying Washington as commander and rallying Americans to the cause. That same day we traveled to the Princeton battlefield where the docent explained that because Princeton was Washington’s first open field command where he took personal charge of the offensive that Princeton was a crucial turning point.  Princeton was also Washington’s “first” victory against the British soldiers.  When at Germantown, we were told that despite the defeat, Germantown, which coincided with the Battle of Saratoga helped convince the French to join because of the “complexity and planning” of the attack.  Before leaving for our trip to Philadelphia I read, Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge by Thomas Fleming which claimed that Valley Forge was the turning point because it was a great political victory against ambitious generals and a corrupt Congressional Congress that was ineffectual at getting supplies to the troops. Although the rangers did not claim it was a turning point, the training by Fredrick Von Steuben and reorganization of the commissary department by Nathaniel Green at Valley Forge were critical turning points and would help lead to an impressive draw the following summer at Monmouth Court House.  Benjamin Franklin historians might point to his complicated diplomacy in France that secured success.  So what is the true turning point and why is there such disagreement?

In many ways this is very similar to the fight that we saw last summer between Lexington, Concord, and Boston about when the Revolutionary War began.  Much of the argument is based on local pride in their communities and the competition for local significance. But it is also an exercise in what we value in a closer study of cause/effect events.  Is it the actual battles and American actions that convinced the French to join the American cause?  Was it the political maneuvering of its leaders?  Or was it great leadership that kept the army together in its darkest times?

The question of what the true Turning Point of the war was might be a great exercise for students too.  One great exercise might be a writing assignment where students argue which event was the true turning point of the war. To make the exercise more relevant you could make it a group competition where students similarly have to stand up for their community and defend their community’s significance as the turning point in the war. It could also be a great debate that could engage students.  This would also reinforce writing skills in developing argument and using specific events as their evidence. By adding competition I would expect expressive language usage and more buy in from the students.  It was also engage students in those higher level leaning experiences which have such great rewards academically.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania for religious tolerance and “freedom of conscience” which attracted many cultural groups from all over Europe to make Philadelphia Pennsylvania their home.  Philadelphia’s moniker as the “City of Brotherly Love” made Philadelphia a truly cosmopolitan city and this great experiment can still be seen today when walking the streets.  When waking down to Penn’s Landing we found a plethora of monuments, statues, placards celebrating the struggles and perseverance of different ethnic groups. There was a beautiful Irish monument depicting the Irish potato famine and their hopeful immigration to America. There was also a proud Scottish family disembarking and walking proudly into the land of opportunity. Never to be outdone, the Italian community had erected a huge obelisk dedicated to the great “Philadelphian” explorer (?) Christopher Columbus.  Of course no trip would be complete unless you run the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa statue.  Next to the Columbus obelisk there were some smaller fountains in honor of the people of Costa Rica and something that looked like it was from Asia.  At one point we walked through Philadelphia’s China town.  While hiking to the Philadelphia art museum. I passed a prominent Revolutionary War Polish Officer named Thaddeus Kosciuszko from the Revolution and the Prussian Officer Fredrick Von Steuben.  Reading Terminal was an amazing area where someone could eat something from just about any cultural area in the world.  While walking the streets of Philadelphia there almost seems to be a competition for cultural recognition and appreciation. 

                For some reason you just don’t see that kind cultural expressions in Colorado and it put me on the lookout for any Dutch cultural expressions and was disappointed not to see any.  Most students that I meet have little cultural identity and I thought that giving an assignment to find and research their culture history and to find a relevant marker statue that might represent their cultural history.  One of the things that can really connect students to history is if they can see and relate to their own history.  I could also assign a project to create or sketch an idea for their cultural statue.  I think the more we can make history personal the more we get hooked into learning more history.

Frank Van Someren my Grandfather at Princeton 1943

The thing I was looking forward to the most when I saw the itinerary for our trip to Philadelphia was the opportunity to see Princeton because my Grandfather had the opportunity to study there during World War II. As we got closer to the date I received some pictures of my Grandfather as a student and some pictures of my grandfather from my grandmother. Leading up to the trip my father decided to sell his house and began a grueling process of getting rid of a life to me of “junk” and personal treasures. He gave me some items from my Grandfather and other personal items that I don’t know what to do with, but I treasure the items because they connect me with the men in my life that I have loved, appreciated, and learned so much from. I have been blessed to have great male role models in my life that I was to emulate and make proud.

 As we walked around Philadelphia on Saturday we had a chance to walk in our Founding Father’s footsteps and see and touch items that the Founding Fathers saw and touched. At the Philadelphia Philosophical we got to see some rare treasures like William Penn’s charter for Pennsylvania, a copy of an early draft of the Declaration, and some of the journals of Lewis and Clark. As a group we were all giddy over these rare treasures. We also got to hold an old, but not extremely rare copy of Thomas Paine’s “common sense”. It was fun seeing the teachers wanting our pictures with the copy and seeing our excitement for rare treasures.  We also got to see Independence Hall, The Betsy Ross House, the Liberty Bell, a Quaker Meeting House, and Christ Church. On Monday we traveled to Valley Forge and saw George Washington’s House where we were told the banister was the original used by George Washington in 1778.  It was hilarious to see teachers lining up to get there picture with the banister.  Jess even hooked her leg around it (picture). In each place we relished the opportunity touch and sit in the places where our forefathers sat because in a small way we feel connected to them.

Why do we feel comfort and pleasure in seeing these places and objects?  What is it about the Founding Fathers that we feel we need to have a connection to them?  Why do we revel in their presence?  Why is it that cable news commentators will still turn to the Founding Fathers and speculate about what they might have thought about our current events?  Do the British ask about what Queen Elizabeth or Henry VIII might handle current economic concerns in Britain?  After addressing these questions to Dr. Harris he believes that because of the age of our Constitution and its success that that lasted through a civil war, great depression, and two world wars.  But is it more than that?  Is it our fascination with the famous?  Is it a spiritual reverence for America’s collection of demigods?  What makes us so giddy over this connection? 

Thinking back to my family and my recent acquisitions from my father and grandfather, I know those objects that have connected me with men in my life who I share a history, whom I have learned from, and whose lives have given me hope, guidance, and love.  As we drove into Princeton on a rainy day (my favorite weather) I couldn’t wait to jump out of the bus with my loving friends and find the spot where my grandfather once stood.  Luckily we found the spot I got the opportunity to take some pictures where my Grandfather once stood during WWII.  My only regret was actually not just staying there a little longer.  I loved and respected my grandfather so very much being able to find that spot at Princeton and walk in his footsteps meant a lot to me.  I want him to know how much I loved him and hope that my life would make him proud.  I want him to know how much he meant to me and how he has shaped my life.  Perhaps in some way we do that today with our Founding Fathers as well.  We want them to know how much they mean to us and hope that they too would be proud of this country that they shaped. 

Classroom Connection Ideas:  Have students bring in an item from their house that is special to them because of its family history and have them write about its significance and why they are so connected to it.  Write a blog about a place they would like to visit because of their personal histoical connection to it. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


National Constitution Center

On our first day, we traveled to the National Constitution Center only a short block away to see a modern museum on the Constitution. Our first day was spent with Dr. Carol Berkin whom I know well through many documentary videos like PBS’s Liberty, and many History Channel shows. It was great to meet her, have her sign our book, and hear her lecture on the Constitution and the fascinating characters that attended the Constitutional Convention. She was incredibly entertaining and the one thing that really stuck out in her lecture was that the most revolutionary aspect of the Constitution was the idea of Federalism. Checks and Balances, Separation of Powers, and the Living Document aspect were aspects of government that had already been apart British Colonial tradition, but the idea of Federalism, which divides and shares power between state and federal governments was the truly revolutionary idea. In fact, much of the arguments we have today in our political world today revolves around this idea. For example, the “Affordable Health Care” initiative signed into law by the Democrats and Barack Obama is highly criticized by Republicans who have ironically selected Mitt Romney whose passage of similar legislation in Massachusetts helped to frame the legislation he now opposes. The major difference between the two parties is Federalism and who is making that law. The fight between state and federal power is a continuing revolutionary idea that seems to continually erupt. From abortion to gay marriage to health care, the big question the pops up is where that power should be held; in the state of federal government.

Wykstra’s with Carol Berkin famous Historian

This continued Constitutional revolution, which revolves around federalism, is also symbolic in the architectural structure of the National Constitution Center. Its main hall is circular with three interconnected rings. The rings represent Civic Knowledge, Public Action, and Democratic Deliberation, which are three aspects of Civics that we must explain to our students. It also connects the whole family from young to old with classic museums items, fascinating artistic representations of the Constitutions principles, and great interactive technological gadgets for kids. The building itself was a revolving revolution touching young and old showing the Constitution’s evolving relevance form the past to today.

 A great way to engage students in this civic understanding was through the creative art that they had at the Constitution Center. Asking students how they might create an innovative museum artwork that symbolized the Constitutions principles would get students thinking creatively and critically would get students into those higher level thinking categories. Also having student think about how they might design a museum around a different topic would be a great exercise for critical thinking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spencer Wykstra, Lesson Plan for the TAH Grant, Colorado Cohort

We just got finished up with a great week of curriculum building.  One of the things I will take away this week is our lessons on sourcing.  Although I have reminded students to look at the source and naturally look at the source myself, it is not what I usually begin with.  During this week of learning about how to use primary and secondary sources using the historical thinking framework, students begin with the historical inquiry question, then source the document (questioning and asking background questions), before close reading, and analyzing the information.  Sourcing is something I have not taught in the past as something to do first, but after this week have seen that historians always source their information first, questioning bias, motivation, timing, and setting.  This will also be very beneficial when using Document Based Questions (DBQ) in the future. If students do not source the primary and secondary sources in the DBQ they will miss a vital step in understanding the importance of that source.  I will be correcting this next year.

It was again great meeting with everyone and learning from everyone.  We have an
awesome discipline and it is obvious that all the truly cool people teaching history!  Thanks for an awesome week everyone!