I just completed teaching a unit on the Gilded Age. Information wise, the Gilded Age can be soporific—railroads, oil, Stalwarts, Mugwumps, and Half-breeds. Who cares, especially if you are 16 and have just gotten your learner’s permit? Instead of teaching content, therefore, I decided to teach concepts. I took a risk, and, as a result, a classroom experiment that could have gone horribly awry not only intrigued students, but also forced them to reflect on their roles as citizens and to face their own sense of morality.
At the heart of the Gilded Age was the question of wealth. What, if anything, do the rich owe society? I began one class by having students choose a card from a prearranged deck stacked with twos, threes, and fours and four kings. I then gave each student the number of Hershey kisses on their card. The kings, however, got “King Size” Kit Kats. There was outrage. I immediately had the students write and reflect. How did it feel to have the wealth of the classroom concentrated in the hands of a few? Their answers included discussions of fairness, chance, and justice. These were the themes discussed and debated during the Gilded Age by the Populists, millions of immigrants, the wealthy, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Homework assignments forced students to reflect on deep philosophical questions: make them squirm and think. Here is one example :
Is it just that you live in a house, apartment, or condominium while another lives in a refugee camp? Is it just that you have food in excess while others are starving? If there is indeed injustice in the world, who is responsible for its rectification?
One can use Jacob Riis to teach empathy, Michael Moore to teach muckraking, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to teach happiness, and the abuse and personal strength of Julia Ward Howe to hook students as to why history really, really, really matters. In the end, all of the content humanized history.
These assignments and classroom topics were unlike anything students had experienced before. Their reflections of the unit and its content were overwhelmingly positive—they liked concepts versus facts and dates. For the students, this approach was far more useful. Here is what one of them wrote:
“I feel it is only this year that I’ve realized the importance of our past in connection to our future. Though I have been attending public school for eleven years now, Mr. Cromack is the first teacher to start dissecting terms such as: injustice, fairness, citizen, and responsibility. The discussions are rigorous, the class engaging, and the material is suddenly compelling.”