Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Black Friday: Teaching About Consumerism



Consumerism: n. the belief that it is good for people to spend money on goods and services; a preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.

In the United States, the day after Thanksgiving has been dubbed by the media as "Black Friday." It is a time when stores (usually large chain and "big box" stores) run sales to attract people to begin Christmas shopping. This results in crowded shopping malls across the country (see the above picture). It has even become a consumer tradition to wait out of stores the night before in hopes of getting that "hot-ticket" item. In the recent decades, "Black Friday" has also been marked by stampeding herds of people running into stores after opening. Often the ensuing fights and injuries among shoppers are then covered by the same media sources that promoted Black Friday.

Consumerism developed in the United States in the late 19th century and has increasingly become a component of modern American life. The first major boom in consumerism occurred during the 1920s (see the below picture of billboards outside New York City during this time) and a second major boom after World War II (see the below picture of a California shopping mall in the 1950s). The cost of this consumerism has been a dramatically inequitable allocation of wealth, increased global pollution, and negative psychological effects on individuals. Moreover, almost everything in western society is being commoditized. Services that were once for the public good are becoming privatized (an idea rooted in Milton Friedman's work on privatizing education and supported by current day wealthy philanthropists). The term "consumer" is problematically used to describe people who seek education, housing, or health care. There are underlying assumptions that consumers can make the best choices in the market place and capitalism creates fair and equalizing conditions.

Yet, students are rarely taught in their social studies classrooms to be critical of consumerism and capitalism. While there are many economics curricula and lesson plans that promote an uncritical view of capitalism, there are also numerous resources that highlight the problems caused by it. By challenging students to think about consumerism, they learn to question a system that has potentially negative effects on communities and nations. If students gain a better understanding of the economic system and the problems that arise from it, they develop important critical thinking skills necessary to be democratic citizens.



Here are some websites for helping students better understand consumerism:

Ad Busters: Buy Nothing Day Campaign
A grassroots movement to create an international day of protest against consumerism celebrated annually just after Thanksgiving. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students.

Social Justice Economics Lesson
A lesson plan that I created for teaching key economic concepts through a social justice lens. Highlights that not everyone starts with the same resources and that the system has certain advantages and disadvantages. More appropriate for elementary students.

Media Smarts
A Canadian Center for digital and media literacy. Has many lesson plans related to consumerism. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students.

Oakland Unified School District: Critical Consumerism Unit
A unit plan developed by J. Flaningam of the Oakland Unified School District to teach his students to critically read the world of consumerism.

The Story of Stuff
A popular 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students. 

TED Talks on Consumerism
Short talks on consumerism from the TED Conference. Some frame it in positive terms and others question it. More appropriate for secondary students. 

Film: PBS Frontline: The Persuaders
Examines the world of marketing, from products to politics and its impact on the American social structure.

Film: The Corporation
A 2003 Canadian documentary film that examined the modern-day corporation. More appropriate for secondary students.

Film: PBS American Experience: Tupperware
Looks at 1950s consumerism through the development of the Tupperware product line. More appropriate for secondary students.

Resources for the History of Thanksgiving


In the United States, it is a common fall tradition in elementary classrooms to teach about the "first" Thanksgiving. Recently, I was talking with a colleague at BU about her daughter's "Pilgrims and Indians" project. Troubled by the inaccurate portrayal of the Separatists (Pilgrims) and Wampanoag people, we worked together on helping her daughter get quality resources to build her historically accurate project. My colleagues' daughter now has a much more accurate understanding of the Wampanoag way of life and a healthy obsession with learning more about the Wampanoag people.

Elementary and secondary students should know the whole history of Thanksgiving, which extends beyond the 1620s. It is true that there was a harvest celebration at Plymouth in 1621. It is true that Squanto (who had been previously kidnapped by English fisherman) and Massasoit helped the Separatists survive their first winter. It is true that the two groups lived in relative peace for many years. It is true that eventually, conflicts grew between the two groups and the Whites demanded that the Wampanoag eventually give up their guns. It is true that the Whites did not respect the Indians' way of life and issues of the Whites' cattle rampaging Indian villages were common. It is true that the English attempted to Christianize the Indians and "praying towns" were formed for this purpose. It is true that war would break out and Metacom/King Philip, the Wamponoag chief, would be killed. His head would later be placed on a pike at the entrance of Plymouth and remained for over two decades. It is true that in 1970, Wamsutta James was act to speak and then had his speech suppressed by the local officials holding the 350th anniversary celebration of Pilgrim's landing. This coincided with the first National Day of Mourning, where a group of American Indians protested their oppression by pouring red paint on Plymouth Rock and taking over the Mayflower II.


Below are a list of links that can help elementary and secondary teachers teach the whole story of Thanksgiving:

Adult Books

New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of America

The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of America



Children's Books

1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic)

Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving


Web Resources: National Day of Mourning

First National Day of Mourning

The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag (1970)

2013 National Day of Mourning: United American Indians of New England

PBS American Experience: We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower


Web Resources: Thanksgiving

Top Ten Myths About Thanksgiving

National Archives: Thanksgiving as a National Holiday

Smithsonian: Thanksgiving

History Channel: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving During World War II

Plimoth Plantation: Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Teaching About Gay Marriage: 10 Years After Massachusetts

Today marks the 10th Anniversary of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision legalizing gay marriage and making it the first state in the U.S. to allow gay marriage. Since 2003, U.S. public opinion appears to be rapidly changing in favor of marriage equality and a recent Washington Post/ABC News polls shows 58% of Americans support the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry. Yet, gay marriage is viewed negatively in many religious and conservative communities and 29 states prohibit same-sex marriage in their constitutions. Like any social movement, students should grapple with the impact of change related to the civil definition of marriage. Here are some excellent resources to help social studies teach about the marriage equality movement:

The Massachusetts SJC Ruling and Related Law: http://www.lawlib.state.ma.us/subject/about/gaymarriage.html

The History of Gay Marriage (Boston Globe): http://www.boston.com/news/specials/gay_marriage/ and http://www.bostonglobe.com/2013/11/12/same-sex-marriage-over-time/mbVFMQPyxZCpM2eSQMUsZK/story.html

A Personal Retrospective of Gay Marriage in Massachusetts (TIME Magazine): http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/18/why-massachusetts-was-so-important-to-marriage-equality/

Different Stratgies to Marriage Equality (Teaching Tolerance): http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/marriage-equality-different-strategies-attaining-equal-right

A Contentious Debate: Same-Sex Marriage in the U.S. (Pew Religion and Public Life Project): http://www.pewforum.org/2009/07/09/a-contentious-debate-same-sex-marriage-in-the-us/

The Gay Marriage Debate (PBS NewsHour): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/gaymarriage/


150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address


Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, given at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Former Senator Edward Everett of Massachusetts delivered a two-hour speech before Lincoln gave his approximately 2 minute address. Lincoln's words became one of the most widely-known speeches in U.S. history. Here is the full text:

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Teaching the JFK Assassination


This Friday will mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Although there is significant evidence to support the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, there is also a healthy amount of disconfirming evidence. This has led to doubt among the American public of the government's official findings. In a recent Gallup poll, 61% of Americans believed that Oswald did not act alone. When I was a classroom teacher, students would routinely ask me about the various conspiracy theories related to Kennedy's assassination. Social studies teachers should embrace American's skepticism and instead use the Kennedy assassination as an exercise in historical inquiry. It offers an excellent case study in historical thinking and can help students understanding the important role that science plays in understanding history.

I would suggest the following as the inquiry question for students to explore: Was Lee Harvey Oswald the sole person responsible for John F. Kennedy's assassination?

Teachers can start with an introduction of the incident. Most students have not had a chance to see the actual historical footage. There are some decent archives of the original CBS broadcast interruption and Walter Cronkite's report of Kennedy's death. Teachers may also consider using the Zapruder film, which is the only known film record of the assassination. This can be followed by one of the recent documentaries on the JFK presidency or assassination and an overview of conspiracy theories or NPR's recent story on why the conspiracy theories persist, as well as Oliver Stone's recent USA Today editorial that criticizes mainstream media coverage of the assassination.

Here is a list of websites where teachers can then seek primary sources to help students answer this inquiry question. I would recommend using shorter excerpts (300-400 words) for high schools students:

1. The National Archives website includes the full Warren Commission Report and images of evidence collected from the crime scenes.

2. The JFK Presidential Library has an in-depth discussion of the day's events, while PBS has the first speech Lyndon Baines Johnson gave after becoming president and the New York Times has the front page of their newspaper from the next day.

3. Digital History, Spartacus Educational, Mary Ferrell Foundation, the Assassination Archives and Research Center, and John McAdams at Marquette University all have extensive catalogues of primary source documents on the assassination.

4. There are several studies that support the "single-bullet theory," including Dale Myers (and a related ABC News Special), Michael and Luke Haag (and a Washington Post story summarizing their study), and Arlen Specter's work on the Warren Commission.

5. There are several studies that put into question the "single-bullet theory," including Cliff Spiegelman (and NBC News coverage of his study) and G. Paul Chamber, and the 1992 Congressional Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board.

By using the Kennedy assassination controversy, social studies teachers can engage students in a historical inquiry involving an incomplete record and no clear answer, which allows students created and recreated history themselves.