Like most of you, I’ve suddenly found myself teaching online social studies classes. Good thing there’s a whole library of free lessons at Openendedsocialstudies.org, just ready and waiting to support your middle and high school world and US history needs. Please browse and share widely in your social circles.
Here’s a look at some lessons my own home-bound students will see in the twilight days of this school year, preempted so abruptly by our national quarantine. We’re trying to keep it light, airy, and most of all relevant.
Most to the point, we’re trying to teach these kids something about how to be a good, well-rounded person. Wasn’t that why you got into this business in the first place?
So, get your kids away from the computer screen as much as possible – that is where they’re going to be for math and ELA.
Everything below is written to apply to the town where I teach, but can easily be adapted to your hometown.
Good luck and be good to each other.
Day 1 – Map Your World
Make a hand drawn map of your home and your yard (if you have one.) Use a measuring tape (or improvise one if you don’t have a measuring tape.)
Your map should be to scale – 1 inch equals 5 feet. Include and label all rooms, windows, doors, and major trees and landscaping. Also include a compass rose and a key, if necessary.
Scan/take a photo of your map.
Day 2 – Plant Life
Pick a tree or plant in your yard. If you’re in an apartment, that’s ok – pick a plant/tree around your building.
Figure out what it is and write a brief report (in your own words, approximately one paragraph). Address questions about: the conditions under which it thrives, its relationship to humans (do we use it or its fruit or leaves for anything, or is it just for decoration), whether it is native to our state, whether your family planted it or it was growing there when you moved in.
You’ve got to be a detective for this one – describe the plant in Google image search, ask an adult who might know what it is, or download a leaf identification app on your phone (there are lots of free ones).
Day 3 – Ask an Adult
Ask an adult to tell you about the neighborhood they lived in when they were your age. Think of at least two related follow up questions. Document the answers in interview format – like this:
Student: Mr. Kenning, what am I supposed to do again?
Mr. Kenning: Interview an adult?
Student: Wait, what?
Mr. Kenning: Ask an adult some questions about the neighborhood they lived in when they were your age!
Student: That’s all?
Mr. Kenning: That’s all!
Day 4 – Read This
Read the following quote and respond to it in a five to eight sentence paragraph:
“Adults, in their dealing with children, are insane, and children know it too. Adults lay down rules they would not think of following, speak truths they do not believe. And yet they expect children to obey the rules, believe the truths, and admire and respect their parents for this nonsense. Children must be very wise and secret to tolerate adults at all. And the greatest nonsense of all that adults expect children to believe is that people learn by experience. No greater lie was ever revered. And its falseness is immediately discerned by children since their parents obviously have not learned anything by experience. Far from learning, adults simply become set in a maze of prejudices and dreams and sets of rules whose origins they do not know and would not dare inspect for fear the whole structure might topple over on them. I think children instinctively know this. Intelligent children learn to conceal their knowledge and keep free of this howling mania.”
― John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
Day 5 – Dig a Hole
1.Find an out of the way space. Dig a hole at around a foot in depth. To provide a sense of scale, take a picture of your hole with a ruler or some other object in it.
2. Answer the following survey on your own sheet of paper:
Teacher Who Made Me Do This and Their Email Address:
What’s Going on in the World Right Now:
Advice to My Future Self:
3. Place you answers in a carefully sealed Ziploc bag, along with anything else you might want to bury in your time capsule.
4. Throw it in the hole, cover the hole, and dig it all up on April 1st in the year 2025 (or, before you move from your current house – whichever comes first). Write me a note when you do, and let me know how you’re doing!
Try to go easy on the grass – if you must dig through grass, you can usually cut a piece by getting your shovel up underneath it and levering it up. You can then replace it when you are done by dropping it back into place. If you are totally not allowed to dig, place this under a big rock, a paving stone, or somewhere else hidden.
Summarize the “Analysis” tab – what are your biggest impacts?
Were there any sources of carbon that you hadn’t considered before taking this survey?
Is there anything you could reasonably do to lessen your impact?
Day 7 – Eat a Piece of Fruit
Find a piece of fruit in your house. If you don’t have any, find something fruit flavored. Write a brief report on that piece of fruit, including information about its history and where it is cultivated.
3. How many sales are recorded for your home/when were they?
4. How has the value of your home changed over time?
Day 9 – Ask an Adult
Ask your adult to show you some photographs of his or her self when they were your age. Ask them three questions inspired by the photo. Record/document the answers in interview format.
Day 10 – Smoke Detectors
Find all the smoke detectors in your home. Get up on a chair and press the test button. They should make a loud noise. If they don’t, you need new batteries. You’re welcome. Send a photo of yourself up on the chair.
Day 11 – Record a Podcast
Using your phone or computer, record a short podcast (minimum two minutes) – on the theme “What is my life like while I’m stuck at home because of the Coronavirus?”
Day 12 – Make a Meal
Make or help to make breakfast, lunch, or dinner today for the members of your family. Submit a selfie of you in the kitchen/doing the work.
Day 13 – Native America
What Native American group occupied the land where you live now? Figure it out, give me a paragraph about them, and tell where I could can go to see some of their artifacts or the ruins of their towns.
Find something outside and sketch it. Your artwork doesn’t have to be “good” – but it must demonstrate effort. This shouldn’t take less than five minutes. Take a photo of yourself holding your sketch and upload it.
Day 16 – Your Officials
Who is your mayor? What is one thing he has done for the city? Who is your deputy mayor? Where is city hall?
Day 17 – In the Shade
Find a shady spot outside and read a book there for at least ten minutes. Take a selfie in your spot, with your book, and submit it.
Day 18 – Your Parks
Use Google Maps to help you pick a park or nature preserve. Write a one paragraph history of that place OR, if applicable, a one paragraph biography of the person it is named after.
Day 19 – Read This
Read the following quote and respond to it in a five to eight sentence paragraph:
‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’
Day 20 – Surprise
Surprise me with your own act of creativity or whimsy – a hobby, a piece of art, an act of kindness, etc. It can be anything. Tell me about it/share a photo of it here, and tell me why you are proud of this thing.
What happened at Lexington and Concord that was so different from what came before?
How was the Continental Army different from the minutemen?
How was the Olive Branch Petition received?
What was the main argument and significance of Common Sense?
What was the main argument and significance of the Declaration of Independence?
The Battle of Lexington and Concord
General Thomas Gage, an amiable English gentleman with an American-born wife, commanded the garrison at Boston, where political activity had almost wholly replaced trade. Gage’s main duty in the colonies had been to enforce the Coercive Acts. When news reached him that the Massachusetts colonists were collecting powder and military stores at the town of Concord, 32 kilometers away, Gage sent a strong detail to confiscate these munitions.
After a night of marching, the British troops reached the village of Lexington on April 19, 1775, and saw a grim band of 77 minutemen— self-trained militiamen charged with defending their hometowns, so named because they were said to be ready to fight in a minute—through the early morning mist. The Minutemen intended only a silent protest, but Marine Major John Pitcairn, the leader of the British troops, yelled, “Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!” The leader of the Minutemen, Captain John Parker, told his troops not to fire unless fired at first. The Americans were withdrawing when someone fired a shot, which led the British troops to fire at the Minutemen. The British then charged with bayonets, leaving eight dead and 10 wounded. In the often-quoted phrase of 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, this was “the shot heard round the world” – the moment at which colonial protest crossed the line into outright armed rebellion.
The British pushed on to Concord. The Americans had taken away most of the munitions, but they destroyed whatever was left. In the meantime, American forces in the countryside had mobilized to harass the British on their long return to Boston. All along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses, militiamen from “every Middlesex village and farm” made targets of the bright red coats of the British soldiers. By the time Gage’s weary detachment stumbled into Boston, it had suffered more than 250 killed and wounded. The Americans lost 93 men.
The Battle of Bunker Hill
On the morning following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the British woke up to find Boston surrounded by 20,000 armed colonists, occupying the neck of land extending to the peninsula on which the city stood.
The colonist’s action had changed from a battle to a siege, where one army bottles up another in a town or a city. (Though in traditional terms, the British were not besieged, since the Royal Navy controlled the harbor and supplies came in by ship.) The 6,000 to 8,000 rebels faced some 4,000 British regulars under General Thomas Gage. Boston and little else was controlled by British troops.
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 10. The Congress voted to go to war, inducting the colonial militias into continental service. It appointed Colonel George Washington of Virginia as their commander-in-chief on June 15, promoting to him to rank of General in the Continental Army, the United States’s first national military force.
General Gage countered the siege of Boston on June 17 by attacking the colonists on Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. Although the British suffered tremendous casualties compared to the colonial losses, the British were eventually able to dislodge the American forces from their entrenched positions. The colonists were forced to retreat when many colonial soldiers ran out of ammunition. Soon after, the area surrounding Boston fell to the British.
Despite this early defeat for the colonists, the battle proved that they had the potential to counter British forces, which were at that time considered the best in the world.
The Last Chance For Peace
Despite the outbreak of armed conflict, the idea of complete separation from England was still repugnant to many members of the Continental Congress. In July, it adopted the Olive Branch Petition, in which it the Congress affirmed its allegiance to the Crown and asked the king for peace talks. It was received in London at the same time as news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The King refused to read the petition or to meet with its ambassadors. King George rejected it; instead, on August 23, 1775, he issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.
Britain had expected the Southern colonies to remain loyal, in part because of their reliance on slavery. Many in the Southern colonies feared that a rebellion against the mother country would also trigger a slave uprising. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, tried to capitalize on that fear by offering freedom to all slaves who would fight for the British. Instead, his proclamation drove to the rebel side many Virginians who would otherwise have remained Loyalist.
The Battle for Boston
The British continued to occupy Boston, and despite British control of the harbor, the town and the army were on short rations. Salt pork was the order of the day, and prices escalated rapidly. While the American forces had some information about what was happening in the city, General Gage had no effective intelligence of rebel activities.
On July 3, 1775, George Washington arrived to take charge of the new Continental Army. Forces and supplies came in from as far away as Maryland. Trenches were built at Dorchester Neck, extending toward Boston. Washington reoccupied Bunker Hill and Breeds Hill without opposition. However, these activities had little effect on the British occupation.
In the winter of 1775– 1776, Henry Knox and his engineers, under order from George Washington, used sledges to retrieve sixty tons of heavy artillery that had been captured in surprise attack on the British Fort Ticonderoga, hundreds of miles away in upstate New York. Knox, who had come up with the idea to use sledges, believed that he would have the artillery there in eighteen days. It took six weeks to bring them across the frozen Connecticut River, and they arrived back at Cambridge on January 24, 1776. Weeks later, in an amazing feat of deception and mobility, Washington moved artillery and several thousand men overnight to take Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston. The British fleet had become a liability, anchored in a shallow harbor with limited maneuverability, and under the American guns on Dorchester Heights.
When British General Howe saw the cannons, he knew he could not hold the city. He asked that George Washington let them evacuate the city in peace. In return, they would not burn the city to the ground. Washington agreed: he had no choice. He had artillery guns, but did not have the gunpowder. The whole plan had been a masterful bluff. The siege ended when the British set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776. The militia went home, and in April Washington took most of the Continental Army forces to fortify New York City.
As men continued to fight and die, though, the question became all the more pressing – just what were the colonies trying to achieve? Just what were men fighting and dying for?
Common Sense and Independence
In January 1776, Thomas Paine, a radical political theorist and writer who had come to America from England in 1774, published a 50-page pamphlet, Common Sense. Within three months, it sold 100,000 copies. Paine attacked the idea of a hereditary monarchy, declaring that one honest man was worth more to society than “all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” He presented the alternatives—continued submission to a tyrannical king and an outworn government, or liberty and happiness as a self-sufficient, independent republic. Circulated throughout the colonies, Common Sense helped to crystallize a decision for separation.
There still remained the task, however, of gaining each colony’s approval of a formal declaration. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress, declaring, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. …” Immediately, a committee of five, headed by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was appointed to draft a document for a vote.
Largely Jefferson’s work, the Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, not only announced the birth of a new nation, but also set forth a philosophy of human freedom that would become a dynamic force throughout the entire world. The Declaration drew upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, but one influence in particular stands out: John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke took conceptions of the traditional rights of Englishmen and universalized them into the natural rights of all humankind. The Declaration’s familiar opening passage echoes Locke’s social-contract theory of government:
We hold these truths to be self‑evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Jefferson linked Locke’s principles directly to the situation in the colonies. To fight for American independence was to fight for a government based on popular consent in place of a government by a king who had “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws. …” Only a government based on popular consent could secure natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, to fight for American independence was to fight on behalf of one’s own natural rights.
At the signing, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as having replied to a comment by President of the Continental Congress John Hancock that they must all hang together: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” a play on words indicating that failure to stay united and succeed would lead to being tried and executed, individually, for treason.