On the Benefits of Similar Sources

The following post is the third in a series about Kyle Jenkins’ project to create curriculum around the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project that can be used in the high school classroom.

The success of the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed video game series, if nothing else, proves that history can’t be considered universally boring. Otherwise, why would someone bother spending their precious free time romping about 1940s Philippines or Renaissance-era Italy? And yes, an obvious answer would be, “because you get to shoot people and level up.” But there is definitely some other factor involved, something about the allure of forgotten time periods that make people want to explore them for all their worth. As a history teacher, the challenge not only becomes finding those time periods, but those nuggets of information that make a student’s eyes light up. Teaching the theory behind Andrew Jackson’s spoils system is always going to be a tough sell. However, talking about the President’s swearing parrot that had to be removed from his funeral service is not. Engaging students with unexpected sources and stories can be accomplished in many ways, two of which I will share from this week’s research.

In reading about how immigrant Catholics changed and adapted to their urban settings, a constant thread of “us and them” becomes increasingly apparent. During the labor unrest of the 1870-80s, the attempted religious revivals of Protestant and Catholic believers ran head first into the demands of socialist, irreligious city dwellers. Preachers saw a problem not with so much with the anarchistic element of these protestors, but rather their atheism. As noted in Bruce C. Nelson’s article “Revival and Upheaval: Religion, Irreligion, and Chicago’s Working Class in 1886,” sometimes the bishop’s sermons took a dark turn. One, in particular, told his congregation,

“’whenever you see an enemy of God, point right at him and shoot him on the spot, but don’t hit him in the knee; if you hit him anywhere but here (the heart) apologize to him and tell him you meant to send a side shot.” (page 244)

That alone would stir some level of interest among students. It’s not every day a leader of men, especially one from a major religion, openly advocates for violence. What’s more, you can’t mince words; this is drawn from a real speech, not another person’s summary of the events where artistic liberty can take over. To be honest an entire lesson could be based around this source alone, with proper context of course. But to really seal the one-two historical punch, you can then throw in this Pinkerton Flyer:

Pinkerton Picture Number 3

While the two sources don’t match word for word, their sentiments are frighteningly similar: deviate from what’s expected or break the rules, and you’re dead. Plain and simple. This isn’t just death, it’s officially sanctioned death. The difference is this isn’t someone’s Call of Duty, such speeches and posters could be found within Chicago’s city limits, not the Pacific Islands during wartime! And this is where you pose the discussion questions in class: in this environment would you feel concerned meeting a foreigner? discussing someone’s religious beliefs or weekend plans? even walking outside?

Opinions in class are a dime a dozen: ask any room what they think about certain facts, and there’s an 80% chance you’ll get a room full of blank stares. Though I find the comparison between these two sources extremely interesting, a run-of-the-mill history student may just be counting the minutes till class ends. Because the analytical piece is so essential to history, some historians have thought of a simple yet endlessly entertaining solution: put students directly in the past. No, we cannot physically go back to the future (or past), but we can use certain tactics to force students to consider what life would be like if they were in a particular time period, and how their actions and opinions would fit in with the social landscape. Outlined by Meg Gorzycki and Linda Elder, the concept of “historical thinking” can be as simple as asking students to write a diary entry from the point of view of an Irish immigrant who stumbles across a sermon like the one listed above, or as complex as asking students to develop a proposal to the city council about a new diversionary poster for the Pinkertons to use in their war on crime.

HT Number 3

From A Thinker’s Guide to Historical Thinking, p.19

It seems too easy to just say “think like they would think,” but this allows for a whole range of creative responses. Since it is all based in the facts, sources, and context of a particular time period, students can think rationally as opposed to strictly academically. They can respond organically, tackle new challenges, and consider alternatives better than a textbook can provide. What’s more, this can serve as a basis for projects, essays, or other products that the C3 Framework of last week calls for. Students are intimately involved, and are skillfully “communicating and critiquing conclusions.” It’s these kind of lessons I hope to have, that engage students beyond grades and get to true Assassin’s Creed levels of interest. And with the outlining done, it’s time to find more sources like the Pinkerton Flyer that are able to spark that interest. On to the next week of research!

Works referenced in this post:

Gorzycki, Meg and Linda Elder. A Thinker’s Guide to Historical Thinking: Bringing Critical Thinking Explicitly to the Heart of Historical Study. Tomales: The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2011

Nelson, Bruce C. “Revival and Upheaval: Religion, Irreligion, and Chicago’s Working Class in 1886.” Journal of Social History 25, no. 2 (1991): 233-249.


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